2014 Honor – Doll Bones

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4.5/5

Doll Bones by Holly Black, a 2014 Newbery Honor winner, is a story about stories, about growing up, and about one creepy doll. Alice, Poppy, and Zach have been playing together for a long time. Using a variety of action figures and dolls, they create their own stories. On the brink of adolescence, Zach’s dad feels that dolls aren’t manly, and throws out all of Zach’s figures. This precipitates changes in the friends’ relationship. It also causes Poppy to pull The Queen, an antique bone china doll, out of the case in which it is typically displayed.

And then, The Queen appears in Poppy’s dreams, telling her that the doll is made of a young woman’s bones, bones that must be laid to rest. Poppy talks Alice and Zach into undertaking a real life quest. Without parental permission, they buy bus tickets to the city in which the doll was made, and set off on a quest of their own. Like any good heroes, they face various obstacles along the way. They don’t always meet them with grace, but they do overcome them eventually. They succeed in their quest, and in hashing out a way forward in lives that dawning adolescence was making unfamiliar.

I listened to this as an audio book and really enjoyed it. There aren’t any jump scares, just some of the usual creepiness of dolls – eyes open when they shouldn’t be, clearly cremains inside the doll body, adults around them thinking they were a party of 4 when only 3 actual children existed, etc. The author balances adventure with the hard work of preteens negotiating relationships between each other in a way that children don’t do as self-consciously. She also integrates the store of Eleanor (the girl whose bones were used in the making of the doll), revealing that story piece by piece, with information integrated as a method for moving the plot along.

As a librarian,  I was also amused, and appreciative, of the author making the librarian VERY non-stereotypical. She also showed some of the realities of dying towns – kids were upset that the library was closed on the weekend, librarian found them because she was coming in to do selection and ordering when the library was closed, etc.

Late elementary school and middle school is the target audience, with some complexities to the relationship stuff that might skew it more towards the middle school side, just because kids a bit older have started to deal with those issues in their own lives.

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Non-Newbery: A Monster Calls

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 5/5

This is an absolutely heart breaking, beautiful book. It was written by Patrick Ness from ideas left by Siobhan Dowd, when she died of cancer.

A “monster” – The Green Man, Lugh, it has gone by many names over time – appears one night in Conor’s backyard. His mother is sick, and he can’t accept that. The monster tells the boy stories, which are woven into the narrative, alternating with the boy’s life. Bullying, and the monster’s stories, are the only times when Conor feels “seen” by those around him. The adults around him, in their haste to be sympathetic, let Conor get away with anything, making him feel invisible. This, in turn, leads to actions to force them to deal with him.

Conor is also plagued by a nightmare in which his mother is falling over a cliff, and he can’t hold on. The monster helps him figure out why the nightmare happens and forces it to its conclusion – Conor letting go of his mom. The monster also sits with Conor while his mother dies in real life.

There were ugly tears, and a lot of them, while I was reading the book. The narration style is fairly simple, but the message profound. The monster’s tales aren’t simple, moralizing passages, but present fairly complex truths. Their integration with Conor’s life is well handled and heightens both. I highly recommend this for everyone. I’d say middle school and up will get the most out of it. It’d be fine for younger readers that don’t get scared very easily – no gore or objectionable language, some bullying, and, of course, death.

2017: The Girl Who Drank the Moon

VERDICT: Meh. Treasure….ish?

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

I read this book about six months ago. I was so meh about it that the review has sat half finished since then. The Good: The plot is original and plays with some of the common tropes of fairytales, like “wicked” witches and monsters in the woods. It features strong, multi-faceted female characters, who do their own rescuing. There are Magic and Monsters and Good vs. Evil. The Bad: The style is awkward. It speaks pseudo fairytalese, but doesn’t quite commit. It also shifts between characters a bit to frequently. I found myself skimming the last hundred or so pages, hoping desperately that the book would FINALLY end.

Overall, give this is a try if you like fantasy or fairytales. Just because I didn’t love it, doesn’t mean you won’t!

 

1966 Honor: The Animal Family (Lynxes, and Mermaids, and Bears, Oh My!)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating 3.5/5

The Animal Family, written by Randall Jarrell and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, is a small-format story written in a classic fairy tale style. A hunter, who has lived alone in the woods since his parents died, woos a mermaid by singing to her. She decides to move to land and live with him. The hunter eventually yearns for a child; rather than a human, he ends up with first a bear cub, then a lynx. Those two engage in many entertaining antics. Their best one, however, is rescuing a human baby whose mother died in a boat wreck. Everyone lives happily as a family.

This story was simple but surprisingly entertaining. The whimsy kept everything fresh. After the gross sexism of The Great Wheel, I particularly appreciated that the hunter never tried to change the mermaid. It didn’t matter how much one of her behaviours irritated him or vice versa.  In one case, the author writes,”Why should he want her to keep house? If you had a seal that could talk, would you want it to sweep the floor?” The Animal Family does have a happily-ever-after ending, with a slight twist. The very ending of the book is framed as a story told to the human boy, one he’s not sure he believes. His disbelief tilts the story such that readers are unsure whether the story really happened as told or not.

I highly recommend this as a read-together book for early elementary school readers. The format mirrors fairy tales, giving them a basis of familiarity. Slightly older children might enjoy reading this by themselves.

1997 Honor: Ella Enchanted

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5

Ella Enchanted was one of the 1997 Newbery Honor books. Written by Gail Carson Levine, it is a riff on the familiar Cinderella story. Ella is “blessed” with obedience by a fairy who attended her christening. She is forced to follow any command given to her. While her mother is alive, this is a mildly annoying burden; Ella develops a strong will and a quick wit to escape through loopholes. However, after her mother dies, her father sends Ella off to finishing school with the daughters of a woman who will be Ella’s stepmother.

Hattie, one of the wicked stepdaughters, figures out Ella’s curse and uses it to torment her. After Ella is ordered to break a friendship with the only other girl at school who understands her, Ella runs away. Adventures ensue. Ella is captured by ogres and uses her knowledge of their language to turn their powers against them; refreshingly, Ella’s friend Prince Char and his knights arrive only after Ella has the situation well in hand. Ella proceeds to a giant’s wedding in the hopes of convincing Lucinda, the fairy who set the curse, to remove it. She is unsuccessful, but meets up with her father. Shortly thereafter, he remarries and Ella is forced into servitude.

Ella understands that the kingdom would be unsafe if she gave in to Prince Char’s wish that she marry him, so she fabricates a letter from Hattie saying that Ella ran away to marry a rich man. However, Ella can’t resist attending Prince Char’s homecoming balls; they fall in love all over again. The strain of her stepsister’s commands warring with Char’s love eventually allows Ella to break the spell, whereupon she marries Char.

This book was one of my all time favorites as a child. I read it over and over and over (what? I’m an obsessive rereader of my favorite books). It’s still entertaining as an adult. I know it will never happen, but I would love to see the author rewrite this as a more fully realized YA novel rather than a kid’s book. Both the world building and the character development fit the scope quite well, but leave me wondering about other details of the world and of the characters.

I highly recommend this to mid elementary school to early middle school readers who enjoy a story where the princess rescues herself. The blend of action and well developed characters, both primary and secondary, keep the reader’s attention and make this a fast read.

1949 Honor: My Father’s Dragon

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

In this amusing tale from 1949, a boy retells the story of how his father, when he himself was young, traveled to a far away island to rescue a baby dragon.

When his (used henceforth to refer to the father) mother ejects the alley cat which he has been feeding, the boy sets off to Wild Island to rescue an imprisoned baby dragon. Using his wits and the items he brought in his bag, he outsmarts a wide variety of hostile animals. Tigers are fond of chewing gum, the rhinoceros clearly wanted for a toothbrush and toothpaste with which to clean his horn, and the lion desperately needed a comb for his mane. In a final stroke of brilliance, the boy ties lollipops to the crocodiles’ tails to get them to form a bridge across the river.

The boy successfully frees the chained up baby dragon, and the two fly away together.

This is a simple children’s book, but the wittiness of the boy and the fabulous illustrations make this worth reading. It took maybe – maybe – half a lunch period to read, so it’s a quick and entertaining entry in the Newbery cannon.

2006 Honor: Princess Academy

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy is about a fourteen-year-old girl who attends the princess academy and by the end of her lessons will have the chance of the lifetime to be picked by the prince to be his bride.

This book very much reads like a fairy tale. Miri lives up in the mountain lands of Eskel, where working in a quarry is the main way of life. When a soothsayer predicts that the next queen will come from her village, all the town’s teen girls are rounded up and sent to the academy to learn the manners, etiquette, and skills that a future princess will need to know. The sharp contrast between her former easy-going life and the strictness of the new academy brings out her boldness and desire to learn all she can. Miri’s a fun heroine to follow as she is a natural-born leader, and her relationships with her crush Peder and best friend Britta are fun to watch develop.

I was pleasantly surprised that this book didn’t focus much on the competition between the girls to win the title of Academy Princess; instead, it focuses on their growing friendships with each other. The girls’ education is a major focus of the novel, and it provides a viewpoint in how knowledge and learning are perceived by different social classes. While the girls begin the book uneducated, they are able to bring knowledge of economics and reading back to their hometown to help build a better community.

Princess Academy was not particularly memorable. The main portion of the book – where the girls attend the academy – is a bit slow going, and it felt like scene after scene featured their strict headmistress, Olanna, yelling at them and making them feel inferior. I found the quarry singing to be an interesting concept and wish it had been featured a bit more prominently as Miri slowly figures out the mystery of this magical communication system. The magic aspect is very low key throughout the novel and hardly feels present at all.

Overall, this was a middle-of-the-road fantasy novel that features some courageous female characters and some “boarding school” plot material. If you want magical kingdoms and princesses, you’d be better off reading any series by Gail Carson Levine, Tamora Pierce, or Patricia C. Wrede – all of whom feature more colorful “princess” characters and more intriguing world building. Despite this, the book was a satisfying read; don’t be put off by the title alone.