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.

2016: Last Stop on Market Street (a busy city bus ride)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

Matt de la Pena’s Last Stop on Market Street takes a simple plot of a boy riding a bus with his grandma and molds it into a beautiful story about how we should be grateful for the things we have and embrace a more optimistic spirit as we go about our daily lives.

More of an illustrated book than a middle school novel, Last Stop on Market Street’s colorful pages showcase a variety of scenes and characters in a vibrant cityscape as the main character takes a bus ride through the streets and meets a bunch of people, including a man who is blind, a guitar player and a spotted dog. The grandmother, of course, points out the things a small child might miss on the bus ride and shows him a new way to see the world.

While Christian Robinson’s illustrations are the main showstopper, this children’s book has a great, inspiring message. This book is really about finding and enjoying the small things in life, even if you don’t have many worldly possessions. Through the perspective of a child, the reader can see the world through the lens of someone in wonder and awe at seeing and understanding things for the first time in their life.

Overall, Last Stop on Market Street presents an uplifting message, but the short page count makes it a forgettable Newbery Medal winner.

 

2016: Last Stop on Market Street

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5

Last Stop on Market Street, the highly acclaimed winner of the 2016 Newbery Medal as well as numerous other awards, is aimed at early elementary school children. As such, it’s a bit hard to judge against other Newbery Medal winners because it’s written at a completely different level.

The story told is that of a young boy and his grandmother, who have an entertaining bus ride to the final stop of the Market Street bus route. Along the way, the grandmother gently instructs the kid on how to interact with people. Everything is infused with her optimism and unique worldview. At the end of the bus ride, the duo arrive at a soup kitchen, where they help serve a meal.

The story is very simple; what really sells it are the beautiful illustrations, depicting a diverse community going about its daily life. The optimism is contagious and touching. I highly recommend this for younger kids; the language is simple enough that it’d likely work as a read-together book for those first learning to read.

1981 Honor: The Fledgling

VERDICT: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 2/5

Jane Langton’s The Fledgling is about a young girl’s obsession with flying, but it fails to meet the same great heights of other magical realism stories that focus on human and animal friendships. In this Newbery Honor winner, Georgie becomes obsessed with the idea that she can fly and befriends a Canadian goose who takes her on flights during the night. Her family doesn’t understand her innocent yearning to fly and her interfering neighbor’s deadly vendetta against the harmless, old goose leads to inevitable tragedy.

This was an odd book. The magical realism aspect of the story was a bit too much for me, and the ending left me a bit confused and wondering what the point of the novel was. The main character is very sympathetic, as she feels truly alone as no one else truly understands her, but the family supports her in the best way they can, nonetheless. The flying scenes encompass the best parts of the book since the writing style really allows for the reader to feel the freedom and wonderment that Georgie feels.

The setting at Walden Pond is well integrated in the novel, with one of the characters researching the works of Henry David Thoreau, and the themes of transcendentalism are embedded within the narrative allowing for an easy way to introduce young readers to this type of literature.

This book has a lot of potential, and the writing style is very beautiful, infusing the story with a dream-like quality. Despite this, I would not recommend the book, unless you are a big fan of flying geese or transcendentalism.

2006 Honor: Whittington (a cat tale)

VERDICT: 2.5/5

Sally’s Rating: Trash

Whittington by Alan Armstrong is a classic cat tale – full of warmth, humor and history.

This Newbery Honor winning tale follows Whittington, a scruffy tomcat who arrives one day at a barn full of rescued animals and asks for a place to stay. To earn his keep, he narrates the story of his 16th century ancestor, the nameless cat of a boyish Dick Whittington – the man who would eventually become a wealthy merchant and Lord Mayor of London.

A secondary subplot follows the two grandchildren of the landowner. Abby’s brother Ben struggles with dyslexia and has been warned by the school principal that if his reading skills do not improve, he cannot pass his current grade. Through Whittington’s influence, everyone finds ways to try to encourage Ben to become a better reader.

Overall, I found this book to be a bit of a disappointment. Most of the story takes place in the past through the cat’s narration of the events surrounding the true-to-life Dick Whittington, and when juxtaposed with the dyslexia storyline, makes for an all-over-the-place thematic narrative. The best parts of the book follow the cat’s humorous attempts to cull the rat problem in the barn and his honest discussions with the duck that is in charge. Otherwise, it’s a slow muddle through a book that has no enticing plot to grab the reader’s attention.

If looking for a book with talking animal characters, take a pass on this one. No doubt there are more engaging stories out there that feature cats, rats and geese for readers to indulge in.

 

 

1959 Honor: The Family Under the Bridge

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

The Family Under the Bridge by Natalie Savage Carlson is a sugary Christmas tale about a grumpy old hobo and the homeless children who warm his cold and bitter heart.

This is an optimistic story about finding the best in yourself and others. Armand is a homeless man who lives under a bridge in Paris. One day, he finds three little kids playing there, after being abandoned by their mother who had to work during the day. Armand is initially irritated with the kids and only sees them as a way to help him with panhandling, but he eventually is won over by their resilience and becomes part of their family by helping them find a home.

The setting takes place in Paris, which gives the story a bit of a fairy tale-esque vibe. The children themselves are selfless, and only want a home for the holidays. Their hope and optimism really shines throughout the book despite the horrible situation they’ve grown up with.

The book does a great job of tackling the idea of why someone would want to live a life of homelessness. Armand happily lives his life and sleeps under a bridge each night because he enjoys the freedom that being a hobo brings to him. As he develops a friendship with the children, he slowly becomes torn between his desire for a solitary life and his feeling of responsibility towards the children.

I’d definitely recommend this book as a family reading activity for parents and children who want to get into the Christmas mood.