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.

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2015: The Crossover (Basketball Love)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5

The Crossover is a love song to basketball and family. Written entirely in verse, the 2015 Newbery Medal Winner is narrated by Josh, a 12-year-old who is obsessed with basketball. He goes through major upheavals during one school year, as his twin JB begins dating a new girl, spending less time with Josh, and his father develops health problems. The book deals with Josh’s thoughts and feelings around these events, as he tries to cope with big changes.

This book was a fresh addition to the Newbery canon. The form was unique and  the subject ordinary, yet surprisingly touching. The author successfully captures the voice of a child sitting on the brink of adolescence. I honestly went in to this book with a slightly negative attitude, as I’m not a huge fan either of basketball or verse. However, The Crossover shook my preconceptions thoroughly; I enjoyed the book much more than I initially thought I would.

I highly recommend this book for middle-schoolers, particularly those who are sports fans. This would also be a great book for reluctant readers, as the verse form means that each page and chapter is fairly short. The language use is also very modern, with some of the more challenging words described through the trope of Josh’s vocabulary homework.

 

 

2014: Flora & Ulysses, the Illuminated Adventures (featuring poetry slammin’ squirrels)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo is a humorous story of a girl and her escapades with her superhero companion – a squirrel.

Flora Belle Buckman is a natural born cynic and reader of comic books, a hobby that does not impress her mother. After a questionable incident with a vacuum cleaner, Flora finds a squirrel in her backyard and discovers that he has superpowers – he can now write poetry on the typewriter and fly through the air. Unfortunately, her mother only sees the squirrel as a pest and spends the rest of the novel trying to get rid of it.

This novel was a delightful read with its quirky characters and fluffy plot. Flora’s cynicism works well with the squirrel’s simple animalistic thoughts. The characters are both colorful and likeable. Most of the conflict centers around Flora’s insecurities with her mother and how she feels like she doesn’t really understand her. Centering the novel around family gives the characters’ interactions a bit more substance and background, since most of the characters lack seriousness and depth.

The best part of the novel was the author’s inclusion of comic strip illustrations in each chapter. If anything, I wish these would have been utilized more as they give the novel a comic book-like feeling since, after all, the book is about a flying superhero squirrel.

Flora & Ulysses is a light read that focuses on what it means to be family. Kid readers would most likely enjoy Flora’s exploits and her cute interactions with her heroic pet squirrel.

2014: The Illuminated Adventures of Flora and Ulysses (Squirrel Superhero Saves the Day)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

The 2014 Newbery Medal Winner, The Illuminated Adventures of Flora & Ulysses by Kate diCamillo, is an entertaining romp with a quirky main character and a highly unconventional superhero. Flora Belle is a slightly misanthropic 12-year-old who is obsessed with comic books. One day, an unlikely accident occurs: the neighbour woman vacuums up a squirrel. That squirrel survives and, Flora is convinced, gains superpowers. She names him Ulysses. The two become partners on many further adventures.

Flora’s mother becomes the villain in the story when she instructs her ex-husband to kill Ulysses. Instead, he helps Flora keep Ulysses safe, as does Flora’s next door neighbour and her great-nephew. Eventually, a detente is reached in which everyone acknowledges Ulysses’s superpowers (how many other squirrels can type poetry, after all?) and Flora reconciles with her mother.

Although the titular adventures are silly things like Ulysses flying in the doughnut shop, the narrative includes a more serious layer in which it confronts common adolescent issues like finding friends, coping with divorced parents at an age when parents are inherently annoying, and having your interests invalidated. It addresses all in a fresh, non-cliched manner.

While this book didn’t have the “Wow!” factor for me that some of the other recent entries did, it’s a solid Newbery entry featuring a unique narrative and amusing illustrations. I particularly recommend it for middle grade readers who struggle with any of the issues discussed above, as well as those who love animals.

 

2012: Dead End in Norvelt (Writing for the Dead)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos is a semi-autobiographical tale about a young boy who helps his elderly neighbor write obituaries for the town newspaper.

Dead End in Norvelt will definitely appeal more to lovers of small town humor and the coming of age struggles that plague boyhood. I felt like half the book was about Jack’s battle with constant nosebleeds, obsession with Japanese sniper rifles, and love for airplanes – which is not exactly compelling stuff to read about. I found it hard to relate to Jack and the trouble he brought upon himself and only really enjoyed his visits with Miss Volker – the resident obituary writer.

The strongest scenes were when Jack was learning about the town’s history and realizing how history is often lost when people die. The main character’s obsession with world history is a fun trait for a protagonist, and it’s great to see how he continues to gain a greater appreciation for it as he learns other people’s stories.

The writing was quite humorous at times, especially when depicting his struggle to appease both his mother and father when the two disagreed on how things should proceed. Their trite family problems felt true to life and easily capture the sentiment of a boy growing up in the rural countryside.

This Newbery winner was definitely more of a miss than a hit for me. The plot is stretched a bit too thin, but its humorous, easy-going style may appeal to readers who love quirky small town stories.

2015: The Crossover (Love & Basketball)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 4/5

Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover mixes poetry and basketball in a tale about twin brothers who begin to drift apart when one falls in love with a girl and the other puts basketball above everything else.

The author’s clever use of language and spacing on the page made this into an enjoyable read. There is a upbeat hip-hop rhythm to the prose that helps move the plot along at a quick pace. The cadence of the poetry is easily suited to the sounds of a dribbling basketball and the swoosh of the net.

Much of the plot focuses more on familial issues than the tension of individual basketball games. For a sports book, I found this refreshing as I didn’t have any personal stakes in the games being played and much prefer character driven drama. Much of the book follows the two twins when they have a falling out over their priorities changing while also addressing their father’s health problems that keep cropping up.

The plots and subplots, though, are very predictable and bring nothing new to the table. The teen angst that sets the tone of the book has been done in countless young adult books that have preceded this. The ending is a bit over-the-top, but its acknowledgment of real world issues may appeal to younger readers that may sympathize with the main character’s drama.

Overall, The Crossover brought a fun twist to the typical sports story through its utilization of poetry and interesting dynamic character relationships. It only misses the mark with its emphasis on coming of age angst and predictable ending.

2013: The One and Only Ivan (Art Activism)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5

The 2013 Newbery Medal Winner, The One and Only Ivan, is the touching story of Ivan, a gorilla held in a tawdry “circus”. The entire narrative is from Ivan’s perspective. Ivan was born in the wild but grew up in captivity; only the stories Stella the elephant told and the art which Julia (human) helped him produce kept him sane. Once Ivan is fully grown, he stops attracting circus visitors. Mack, the owner, decides to bring in Ruby, a baby elephant. Shortly thereafter, Stella dies from an untreated foot infection. Ivan promises Stella that he won’t let Ruby grow up in their circus.

To that end, he uses the paint and paper Julia bring him to create a message which she convinces her dad to put on the billboard. This eventually leads to inspections and the seizure of Ivan, Ruby, and all the other animals. They are moved to a proper zoo, where Ivan relearns how to be an ape and Ruby has the company of other elephants.

The words are pretty simple, but the message is profound. Every animal has feelings and small actions can make a big difference. Creativity matters. Ivan, for example, frets over how to keep his promise to Stella before figuring out how to “write” on multiple sheets of paper, creating a message for the billboard. Julia understands Ivan’s message, and her father George puts it up on the billboard, despite knowing that it will likely cost him his job. The One and Only Ivan is a moving story of inter-species cooperation.

This would be perfect for people who enjoy animal stories. It is designed for kids from 3rd through 7th grade, but there is much for adults to appreciate.