1922 Honor: The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles

VERDICT: Meh

Sally’s Rating: 2.5/5

Padraic Colum’s The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles, the runner up to the 1922 Newbery Medal, tells the epic tale of Jason and the Argonauts as they venture out on a quest to find and retrieve the mythic Golden Fleece.

The book is divided into three distinct, varying-in-quality sections. The first part covers the introduction of the heroes and the gods, the second part narrates the finding of the Golden Fleece, and the last segment meanders along with random tales of what happened to the heroes after their voyage. The main quest was entertaining enough to read with a prominent cast of legendary characters made up of Jason, Heracles, Atalanta, and Orpheus, but the final section questionably breaks away from the main quest to focus on random stories featuring the secondary characters who are not as interesting to read about when they are off on their own.

The writing style is very similar to what I’d call textbook-style mythology: it’s a straight up narrative with little character introspection. The language might be a little archaic for modern readers, but its very simplistic plot makes it accessible to those who may struggle with the style. It reads like a young person’s version of the mythology textbook that would be read in college, and its long page count makes it a chore to get through.

I’d only recommend this Newbery Honor for those who love epic quests and bigger-than-life characters. Lovers of Greek mythology will find some merit in this book as the tale is one for all ages.

1985 Honor: One-Eyed Cat (and a guilty conscience)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

One-Eyed Cat, the 1985 Newbery Honor winner, explores how the feelings of guilt and anxiety can overtake a young child’s life. In Paula Fox’s novel, young Ned secretly plays with a gun in the middle of night, intent on having fun with his new birthday present that his father confiscated from him. Things don’t go as planned, though, and he shoots at a moving shadow. When a one-eyed cat shows up at his barn the next week, Ned knows that he has done something terrible that he will have to live with for the rest of his life.

While the plot never really moves along at a quick pace, the internal dialogue in Ned’s head provides some interesting insight into what it means to have to keep a constant secret of one of your worst mistakes from your own family. The novel internalizes his struggle and the feelings associated with the traumatic event he went through the night he shot the cat, and shows how his past actions influence the relationships he has with others.

Because of the subject matter, I found this book to be a depressing read. While, ultimately, the family ends up uniting at the end and Ned owns up to his terrible deed, don’t go into this book looking for a lighthearted read and cute animal bonding. The main character’s angst consumes the entirety of the book, making it rather hard to keep turning the pages when you know things will continually get worse for the main character in such a realistic  fashion. Other topics are tackled, as well, including Ned’s mother who is suffering from arthritis and the death of a family friend.

I’d recommend One-Eyed Cat to anyone who loves stories about animals bonding with humans over traumatic events and to those who are looking for a novel that focuses on the psychological effects of a guilty conscience.

1977 Honor: Abel’s Island (of solitude)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 4.5/5

In William Steig’s Abel’s Island, a mouse is whisked away from his wife in a raging flood and stuck on an island for months on end, trying to find a way to get back home. Isolated from everything he knows, Abel is forced to be creative in order to try to get across the river that is keeping him trapped while avoiding a pesky owl, befriending a forgetful frog, and surviving a harsh winter. This book is similar to the movie Cast Away, but with mice!

The plot situates Abel in an isolated position – an island where he has no contact with any of his friends. As a result, Abel’s Island is an introspective novel that lets readers ponder how loneliness can physically and mentally affect a person. Absence definitely makes the heart grow fonder for Abel as he continuously has to come up with more creative ways to get himself across the river as he becomes more and more desperate to get home. He deals with his loneliness in an admirable way, and his steadfastness and loyalty make for strong traits in a main character.

Abel’s Island is a story driven more by thoughtful characters than all-out action. This is an ideal feel good story with a happy ending that parents can read aloud with their third or fourth grade readers. The soothing writing style and short page count make this a good read for a rainy day.

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 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.

 

2014 Honor: One Came Home

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

One Came Home is a Western adventure story about a tenacious teenage girl who takes off on her own to solve a deadly mystery. Taking place in Wisconsin during 1871, an unidentifiable body shows up a few days after Georgie’s sister ran away from home. Everyone believes the body to be Agatha’s, except for Georgie, who decides to leave town to find out the truth of what happened to her sister. On her journey, she runs into some unwanted friends and some unsavory criminals, but ultimately has to find the inner strength to deal with her family’s tragedy.

Death plays a central role in the novel as Georgie goes through the grieving process while trying to figure out what happened to her sister. Her relationship with her sister’s former suitor, Billy, builds up nicely as they both have secrets they’ve kept from each other about her missing sister. Georgie is a strong heroine for young readers. She’s skilled with a rifle and doesn’t hesitate to use it to save her friend’s life. It’s fun to read about a girl who is placed in a masculine-heavy frontier setting and how she has adapted to this type of worldview.

The world building is interesting as well. A portion of the Georgie’s numerous flashbacks and interactions with her sister focuses on the skill of pigeoning as vast swarms of pigeons begin nesting in hordes in the rural Wisconsin landscape. The author weaves the history of this hunting sport into the overall mystery, adding to the ruggedness of the setting that Georgie finds herself in.

I found this book to be very enjoyable and would have given it a higher rating had the ending not let me down. While kid readers will not complain about the happily-ever-after resolution, the narrative felt like it was leading to a different place than where it actually ended up. While I enjoyed the adventure, the ending left me feeling unsatisfied.

Overall, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to junior high students as a starting point into the Western genre. Though the beginning is a bit slow, Amy Timberlake’s One Came Home picks up when Georgie sets out on her own. The main character is a likable heroine, and her relationships with her family and townsfolk feel authentic and true to the time period, making for an entertaining adventure.