1997 Honor: A Girl Named Disaster

VERDICT: Treasure?

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer was one of the 1997 Newbery Honor selections. It tells the story of Nhamo, a girl from Mozambique who ends up on many adventures. Nhamo lives in a traditional village; she is responsible for many onerous chores, like grinding grain and hauling water. After the village comes down with a plague, they visit a witch doctor. He opines that insufficient reparations for the murder committed by Nhamo’s father is the cause. In recompense, 11-year-old Nhamo is to marry a repulsive man.

Nhamo’s kind grandmother gives her a stash of gold nuggets, information about her father’s last location, and directions to Zimbabwe. Nhamo sets off in a boat, on a journey that should only take days. She gets lost and ends up having to survive in first one isolated location, then the next. Eventually, Nhamo makes it across the mined border. She lands at a research station, sick with many different illnesses. They locate her father’s family, although, because her father was both dead and a jerk, it’s not the joyous reunion Nhamo hoped for. She goes to live with them, learns to read,  which she loves, and learns much, but finds that her real family is in the research station.

I have mixed feelings about this book. It is HIGHLY descriptive, which is both a strength and a weakness. After a while, I just wanted the author to get on with the plot, rather than meticulously running us through all the actions Nhamo takes to survive when isolated. However, the description did a strong job of painting the scene. I also appreciated that the author described Nhamo’s inner life along with her external one. So, we got to see when Nhamo was achingly lonely, scared, etc.

As someone with a background in anthropology, I found the mix of cultures interesting, too. Nhamo depends on many traditional skills and beliefs to survive after she leaves her village, but it is that very culture that forces her departure. Similarly, we see some of the evils of modern civilization, like areas that have a ton of land mines and foreigners who set dogs on Nhamo just for looking through their window. But, the research station epitomizes the search for the new, and those are the skills and people Nhamo comes to treasure most.

I’d recommend this for late elementary or middle school children looking for a book with a strong female main character. It might especially appeal to those who like adventures and a level of detail often found in narrative non-fiction. In some ways, it reads like a modern Swiss Family Robinson, in that it’s a tale of survival in the wild.

 

 

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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.

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!

 

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.