2018 Honor: Long Way Down

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 4/5

Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down is the type of book I wish I had been assigned to read in freshmen year of high school. It has everything you need for a great teen school novel – a trending and impactful theme, inherent symbolism and an unconventional narrative device.

The plot is simple: 15-year-old Will, who is currently in an elevator descending to the bottom floor of his building, has to decide whether he’ll follow the unspoken rules of the community and avenge his brother’s murder – or walk away and break the cycle of violence.

Told in verse, the story delves into the emotions and mindset of someone who has lost many friends and family members to murders and random shootings throughout his life, and Will’s 60 second elevator ride brings him to the tipping point. The verse is less poetry and more like a script which makes his inner dialogues more interesting to read. This book really stands out from the countless other young adult novels that are currently being published due to its narrative structure.

The only reason this didn’t get a 5/5 from me was because I’m not the biggest fan of verse and the ending is super abrupt.

This 2018 Newbery Honor was a very quick and thought-provoking read. Its themes make it more suitable for a teen audience than a middle school one in my opinion, but it explores a heavy topic in an accessible and unique way.

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2017 Honor: Wolf Hollow (Only Fake Wolves Here….)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4.5/5

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk was one of the 2017 Newbery Honor recipients. It is a historical fiction book set during World War II, but its focus is on the relationships between people in the small town of Wolf Hollow. It shows how the actions of one can have dire consequences for many.

Annabelle is a pretty normal 12-year-old. She meets up with friends and helps on the farm. Her parents and many of the neighbours help Toby, a local World War I veteran who doesn’t interact much with people, but loves taking photographs. When Betty moves to town, everything changes. She immediately starts causing trouble. She threatens, then physically assaults Annabelle and her siblings. In cahoots with a local farmboy, she throws a rock at a local farmer who is German, instead hitting a classmate in the eye; they intimate that it was the veteran who threw the rock. Little (and not so little) incidents like this mount, creating tension in town.

Then, Betty disappears. Suspicion falls on Toby. Annabelle refuses to believe he was involved, so when she runs into him on the road, she hides him in her parent’s barn. Things get complicated for her when state police with tracker dogs get involved. Betty is eventually located, with a disguised Toby aiding in the rescue. However, state police still believe Toby was involved. He decides to run rather than talk to them. It ends badly.

I’d recommend this for middle school (MAYBE late elementary school) and up. There is bullying and the deaths of several major characters. However, I think it’s a GREAT book, which allows you to discuss issues such as prejudice, when/how to involve adults in difficult situations, and how to stand up for your beliefs. It’s probably a tougher read for adults, who are more likely to see how the book is going to end, so read with a sense of dread (or maybe that was just me…).

2018 Honor: Piecing Me Together

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 5/5

The 2018 Newbery Honor Piecing Me Together is a thoughtful novel about race, privilege and relationships.

Jade’s character growth is what makes this novel great to read. As the one of the few black girls at the private high school she attends, the aspiring artist starts the novel with no confidence to voice her own desires – feeling like she has no friends, struggling with body image issues, and strong armed into joining a Woman to Woman mentorship program that will allow her the chance to go to college. But the mentorship program ends up being not what she expected, and Jade struggles to connect with her new mentor since they have very different backgrounds and interests despite having gone to the same high school.

I really enjoyed seeing things happen from Jade’s perspective. She encounters a variety of problems throughout the novel like daily microaggressions happening in her school, being seen as a charity case by her mentor, and hearing about police brutality in the news but she steps up to become a great role model to those around her as she realizes that the only person who can make a positive difference in her life is herself – by speaking out through her art and voicing her opinions to the people she feels aren’t understanding her point of view.

The book really immersed me into Jade’s world, and I finished the book wanting to read more about Jade’s future endeavors. It was great to see a variety of supporting characters that didn’t fit the normal YA stereotypes, and each character felt like they had a compelling motivation for whatever they said or did. There were no easy answers to Jade’s problems.

This is a slow and subdued read with coming of age themes that are very relevant to the world today. I’d recommend Renee Watson’s book for anyone looking for a young adult novel with themes of empowerment, friendship and identity.

2001 Honor: Hope was Here (Diner Dash with a side of politics)

VERDICT: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 2/5

When Hope moves to a small town in Wisconsin with her aunt to work at a diner, she unexpectedly gets caught up in local politics when she begins campaigning for the good-hearted leukemia-stricken cook who is running against a corrupt mayor.

I really struggled to finish Joan Bauer’s Newbery Honor Hope was Here and had to force myself to finish the book. The book never presents any complex issues throughout the campaign, and there was only so much I could take of reading about the ins and outs of waitressing. The characters were flat and filled their stereotypical small town roles to a tee. There was the obvious hero and the obvious villain, and the book seemingly ignores and childproofs the murky waters of politics. It was just a bit too sugary for me.

I will give this book credit for the fact that is does promote activism in a high school setting which makes it very relevant to modern day readers and may encourage children to take an interest in what is happening in their own town. As Hope gets more involved in politics, she has to rally her classmates to help with the campaign and lead by example. She is a great role model in this sense. I can see this appealing for those to want to read a simple, optimistic story about how activism can change things for the better.

However, this just wasn’t my type of book. I appreciate the story the author was trying to tell, but the sweet tone and bland characters quickly made me lose interest in the narrative.

1979 Honor: The Great Gilly Hopkins

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 4/5

The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson follows an 11 year-old girl who moves into a new foster home and has no intention of making friends with her new family. All she wants is to find her real mother. Throughout the novel she pushes back against her foster family in every way possible, but eventually her hostility wears out as she comes to realize the Trotters love her – just as she finally makes contact with her mother and has a secret plan in motion to reunite with her.

This is a very character driven book, and it immerses the reader into the life of a foster child and all the challenges and issues that come with having no control over your life. Gilly herself is not a likable protagonist – she is abrasive, racist, and lashes out any time someone tries to help her. Yet it is very easy to see where she comes from as she has had no stability in her life with multiple foster homes and abandonment by a mother who couldn’t take care of her. Gilly’s transformation in this novel is interesting to follow as every action she makes has far-reaching – and mostly negative – consequences.

While The Great Gilly Hopkins is not a fun read (because of the tough subject matter), it’s a very enlightening one. The characters feel real, and the ending is bittersweet as it drives home the lesson that life isn’t always fair.

2016 Honor: Roller Girl (let the good times roll)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 5/5

The main character in Victoria Jamieson’s Roller Girl deals with the ups and downs of best friend drama in a fun and slightly crazy way – signing up for the local roller derby summer camp.

Roller Girl is a graphic novel about two girls who are growing apart. Astrid signs up for roller derby camp thinking her best friend will sign up as well. But when Nicole signs up for ballet camp with another friend, Astrid is left alone with feelings of anger, jealousy and confusion. She throws herself into her new hobby and tries to figure out who she is and where she belongs as she aims to be good enough to be a part of a halftime show at the next roller derby bout.

My heart goes out to Astrid. It’s easy to root for her throughout her struggles, and I think everyone can relate to the themes of this novel – feeling abandoned by friends who have found new interests, finding the strength to try out something new by yourself, and just accepting that life is all about change. These universal problems make this a very accessible book for middle school students and are true to the struggles of growing up.

Overall, Roller Girl is a great way to introduce girls to the graphic novel genre and learn more about roller derby culture.

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.