2015: El Deafo

VERDICT: Treasure!

Laurinda’s Rating: 5/5

El Deafo, a 2015 Newbery Honor recipient authored by Cece Bell, is an absolutely fantastic, loosely autobiographical graphic novel about the daily life of a girl. Cece (the main character) contracted meningitis when she was 4, which lead to substantial hearing loss. At first, no one realizes what has happened. When Cece’s parents finally do discover the hearing loss, a number of specialist visits culminate in hearing aids.

Cece heads off to kindergarten with a large hearing aid called a Phonic Ear. Because they live in a big city at that point, she is able to attend class exclusively for kids like her. However, the next year the family moves to a smaller town and Cece is the only deaf kid in her class. She feels very conspicuous and is afraid that no one will be friends with her.

Over time, Cece does indeed make friends with a number of other kids. However, she is still frequently lonely, as friendships ebb and flow. After realizing that her Phonic Ear hearing aid lets her hear the teacher no matter where in the building the teacher is, Cece begins to imagine herself as El Deafo, a superhero.

Eventually, Cece shares her super hearing with her class at school, so that everyone can “party” while the class is left alone to work silently on math. This forges a friendship with one of Cece’s neighbors, who helps her test the range of the hearing aid and becomes a true friend.

El Deafo is great because the characters are so realistic. No friendship/interaction is perfect – I suspect we all have friends who have at least one trait that bugs us. Cece is creative, keeps trucking even when friendship break, and finds the good in her differences, a real talent. I highly recommend this for mid-to-late elementary school readers and beyond. As I said, I enjoyed this Newbery selection greatly.

Below, the author talks a bit about her book:

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.

2016 Honor: Roller Girl (they see me rollin, they hatin)

VERDICT: Treasure!

Laurinda’s Rating: 5/5

Roller Girl is the story of a girl who decides to sign up for roller derby camp. Astrid sees a flyer and decides to go for it. Her friend Nicole opts for dance class instead, though Astrid tells her mom that Nicole is doing roller derby with her. Classes are hard; Astrid is the only total beginner. However, she keeps with it, encouraged by anonymous correspondence with one of the women from the local roller derby team. Astrid gains in skills and confidence.

Along the way, Astrid makes new friends, but is also forced to realize that sometimes old friends grow apart. There is an incident with a soda and Nicole’s new friend. Astrid’s hard work on both roller derby and her friendships culminates in her playing in her first roller derby bout.

The illustrations are gorgeous and the main character extremely charming. Every person who has felt odd or different will relate to this book. This is one of my favorite Newbery books ever. Astrid isn’t perfect, but she makes some tough choices; the relationships presented in the book, similarly, aren’t perfect, but ring true because of that.

1987 Honor: On My Honor

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4.5/5

WARNING: On My Honor talks about the loss of a child in an accident.

On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer, one of the 1987 Newbery Honor awardees, is a dark but very touching story. Joel and his best friend Tony ride their bikes towards Starved Rock park. Tony, a daredevil, wants to climb the bluffs. Joel is more cautious. On the way to the park, Tony decides to go swimming in the Vermillion River, despite the dangers it poses (strong current, quicksand, etc and the fact that he can’t really swim. Joel joins him and dares Tony to swim to a sandbar. When Joel makes it there, he is shocked that Tony isn’t behind him. When Joel leaves the sandbar, his feet hit a much deeper whirlpool; he’s fairly sure Tony encountered the same. Joel unsuccessfully searches for Tony, and flags down a passerby to help search.

However, when he’s making his way home, Joel is overcome and can’t find the words to tell anyone what happened. Eventually, he tells a partial story to his dad, then tells the full story to the police when they come by to talk to Tony’s parents.

The author does an AMAZING job getting inside Joel’s head. She helps us understand why Joel decides not to tell his parents and/or the police immediately. She also tells the story of Joel’s emotional struggle with his friends loss, including both blaming himself and blaming his dad (who gave him permission to go on the bike ride).

I HIGHLY recommend this book. It’d be especially poignant for children who have lost a friend, but could also be a great book to kick off discussion of making choices and living with the consequences.

 

1931 Honor: Meggy MacIntosh

VERDICT: Trash

Laurinda’s Rating: 2.5/5

Meggy MacIntosh, one of the 1931 Newbery Honor titles, is a historical fiction novel featuring the title character. After the death of her father, a Scottish Highland lord, Meggy moves in with her relatives in Edinburgh. She always feels superfluous. Although she adores her slightly older and infinitely more glamorous cousin, Meggy doesn’t fit. In a bold move, Meggy decides to follow her heroine, Flora MacDonald, to America.

Although some ruckus ensues when Meggy fools her cousin’s beau Ewan into taking Meggy instead of Veronica, Meggy makes many friends on her sea voyage. When she lands in Wilmington, North Carolina, she quickly finds a place with a local merchant family. Meggy is discouraged that Flora MacDonald has moved to the backcountry, and has a long wait to find her.

The tensions that would eventually erupt into the American Revolution are already simmering when Meggy arrives. Years are rarely/never mentioned, but the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge, mentioned close to the end of the book, took place in February 1776. Meggy herself is torn in loyalty. Her heroine, Flora MacDonald, is busy gathering an army of Scots to support the Crown; many of the Scots in North Carolina had survived the disastrous Battle of Culloden and vowed to be on the winning side of this conflict. However, as Meggy spends more time in America, she falls in love with the opportunities it represents.

Meggy splits her time between Wilmington and a plantation, where she is a companion to Miss Cameron and helps instruct the younger child in Latin. Miss Cameron sends Meggy to carry a travel authorization to a local Tory couple who are fleeing back to England. While there, Meggy buys the indenture of Tibbie, a strong Scottish girl Meggy met on the sea voyage, to prevent Tibbie from being sold to an awful man. She also gets a horse and a riding habit out of the deal. Eventually, David Malcolm, a cousin of the Wilmington family with whom Meggy mostly stayed, sends word that Flora’s son-in-law will be in Wilmington. Another harrowing journey ensues, with Meggy taking ill with a fever about when they reach Cross Creek. Meggy stays with the Malcolm family there, fitting in perfectly and feeling useful for one of the first times in her life. She does join Flora MacDonald for a time, but returns to the Malcolms when Mrs. Malcolm is injured. A visit from Ewan, who has fallen for Meggy and wants to take her back to Scotland where he has inherited the family fortune, crystallizes her attachment to America and to the Revolution. Both the MacDonalds and Malcolms march off to battle, on opposite sides; the Whigs win and none of the Malcolm clan is injured.

The Good: Meggy is a proactive heroine. She doesn’t wait for things to happen to her but makes opportunities for herself. Although she mostly works within her gender role (lots of the activities are nursing people, mending clothes for the men, supervising slaves, etc.), Meggy doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind and make her own decisions.

The Bad: This reads like a fairly standard “plucky girl” historical fiction book, though at least Meggy isn’t married off in the end. Every risky decision Meggy takes turns out perfectly for her, which…yeah. Unlikely.

The Ugly: Holy racism, Batman. Just about every derogatory or negative word that could be applied to the African and African-American slave population is. The language is enough to pop me out of the story. Besides words like the n word, darkie, kink-haired, etc., the descriptors are also incredibly negative. The slaves are lazy, stupid, can’t be left unsupervised, etc. I suspect this is an amalgamation of what attitudes actually were in the 1770’s and what they were when this was written in the 1930’s.

It’s not a terrible read – the pacing is pretty good and the character development adequate. I’d tentatively recommend it for about grades 4-6, to those who are interested in historical fiction set near the American Revolution. However, there are better titles available for general reading.

 

1984 Honor: A Solitary Blue (Heron, or Boy)

VERDICT: Meh

Laurinda’s Rating: 3/5

A Solitary Blue, one of the 1984 Newbery Honor selections, is set in the same universe as Voigt’s Dicey’s Song, the 1983 Newbery Medal Winner, reviewed by Sally and I. It follows Jeffrey from roughly ages 6-17. A Solitary Blue focuses heavily on relationships and emotions. When Jeff is in early elementary school, his vivacious mother Melody, always involved superficially in a cause, walks out for the final time, leaving Jeff with his very reserved father. Jeff always calls his father The Professor. Jeff decides that homeostasis is the way to go, so as he grows up, he increasingly takes on the task of keeping everything neat and orderly for The Professor.

When Jeff is in middle school, he comes down with a bad case of pneumonia. His father doesn’t initially realise he is sick; it takes the intervention of kind family freed Brother Brian to knock The Professor out of his shell. The illness also leads to renewed contact between Melody and the family she left behind, including an invitation for Jeff to spend the summer with her in Charleston.

The first summer Jeff spends in Charleston is freeing. His emotional mother helps him express himself fully. Jeff is immersed in the luxury which his extended family’s income affords them, while still having the freedom to go exploring the city. The transition back to life with his reserved father is challenging. With the memory of the first summer, Jeff has high hopes for another one. However, things are much different. His mother is dismissive of him or away with her boyfriend much of the time, his older relatives are hateful, and the experience is unpleasant. On one of the last nights Jeff has there, he has a knockdown fight in which his mother verbally destroys him, to which he responds somewhat in kind. Jeff is overwrought and takes the boat he purchased earlier in the summer out to an island he had been exploring. He finally finds a bit of solace in a solitary blue heron.

Life isn’t much better when he gets home, as he feels incredibly betrayed by his mother; he takes to skipping school. This actually provides an opening for a growing relationship with his father once The Professor discovers what’s going on; the two bond over mutual hurt. At his dad’s suggestion, the two look for a new house and find a lovely cabin, sealed with the presence of a blue heron.

Although not always easy – his mother claims she’s going to sue for custody when his parent’s divorce is finalized, for example – Jeff makes friends in his new home, including with the Tillerman family from Dicey’s Song. It comes as a surprise to Jeff when his great grandmother leaves him the estate. He chooses to keep her engagement ring but pass the rest along to the former household staff. His final interaction with his capricious and manipulative mother is when she arrives asking about the ring. To be quits of her, he trades rings with her, keeping the one that is tied to family history while allowing her the monetarily valuable one.

This is not an easy book to read. I basically alternated which parent I wanted to scream at initially. My heart broke for Jeff at times, particularly when his mother deliberately attempted to manipulate him. It deals a lot with emotions and relationships and less so with action. The author’s character development keeps it from being a complete snore, but it’s still a pretty angsty book. I went through a phase when I was in middle school when this over-the-top angst might have appealed. As an adult, it was a bit much. However, I appreciated the book for dealing with some of the hard parts of both severing and establishing relationships, as well as the author’s lovely description of the natural beauty which soothed Jeff’s soul. It’s not bad, but neither do I recommend it highly.

2006 Honor: Show Way

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.75/5

Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson is a children’s book which tells the history of Woodson’s family; it situates members in their historical context and does a great job of showing how individuals make history.

The story begins before the Civil War, with a great grandmother’s great grandmother. She made quilts to help escaping slaves follow the Underground Railroad. They called these Show Ways, because they showed the way to a particular destination. If you’d like to learn more about this, National Geographic has an interesting article on it. Through generations, the women in the family continued to find inspiration in quilting. Quilt squares helped calm and reassure two aunts who participated in the 1960’s struggles for Civil Rights. Despite how much the author’s life has changed from that of her predecessors, quilting, together with the drive to read and write shared by more recent generations, helps tie together the past and present.

Honestly, the pictures are the real star of this book. I’ve posted a number of them, like this to our Tumblr. The history heavy panels use a lovely collage/mural of pictures and newspaper articles talking about the event, with illustrations of the relevant character standing in front of the mural. The quilts included are very colorful; I particularly love an illustration towards the end that integrates the text of the entire book into a quilt square.

This Newbery Honor winner is aimed at younger children, probably about kindergarten age. For me, this was worth picking up primarily for the pictures. The story is fine and absolutely one that should be told; it just didn’t grab me as strongly as the images.