2007: The Higher Power of Lucky (A Runaway’s Plan Gone Awry)

VERDICT: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 2.5/5

The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron was a book that slowly plodded along with irritating characters, awkward plotting and a lack of enthralling adventure.

The protagonist is Lucky, a ten-year-old girl who lost her mother and is currently living in a small town in California. She lives with her guardian, who she believes is planning to return to France and intending to send Lucky to another orphanage. Lucky decides to do what she can to avoid this fate and sets out to run away from her family and friends, which ultimately ends up on the day a huge dust storm strikes through town.

The themes of abandonment, loss and family are featured prominently in the book, but I had such a hard time caring about the main character and her friends that the overall message was kind of lost on me. Lucky is a fairly irritating character, and despite the fact that she is written as book smart, she always leaps to the wrong conclusions and whines constantly about her situation.

At times, I struggled to keep reading The Higher Power of Lucky. Despite being only 130 pages, it was about 50 pages too long as nothing exciting happens until about 2/3rds of the way through. It’s hard to say why this won the Newbery Award for this year; while its exploration of her abandonment issues was set up interestingly enough at the beginning, it failed to live up to the somewhat interesting premise of one girl’s struggle to make it through life with her confidence of knowing what she wants out of life and her willingness to do whatever is necessary to achieve her goals.

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2005: Kira-kira (a tale of two sisters)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

Kira-kira was an average story. Cynthia Kadohata’s book focuses on the changing relationship between two sisters when one begins suffering from a fatal disease.

The dialogue between Katie and Lynn is central to the book’s overall message. As the younger sister, Katie looks up to her older sister while also feeling bouts of angst and jealousy towards her success in making friends and her ease at schoolwork. Their rocky relationship is very believable, and both characters are saddled with both good and bad qualities that are true to life. As Lynn gets sick, their sisterly love is tested as they both find different ways to cope with the illness.

Despite the fact that it takes place in the 1950s, the book fails to recreate that era in a memorable and vivid way. While it begins in Iowa in the mid-1950s, Katie’s parents decide to move to Georgia for financial reasons and to be closer to her uncle’s family, but they must deal with racism against the Japanese American community in the Deep South.

The author does a good job at presenting the awful work conditions of the time. While Katie’s father works in a chicken hatchery and her mother works in a chicken processing plant, the harshness of factory life capitalizes on the already overbearing depression and angst that is already hanging over this book like a cloud. Despite the realness of the situation, I found myself hard-pressed to become invested in Katie’s family’s work troubles. The little subplot with the factory workers trying to unionize was hard to get invested in because Katie herself is not aware of the social issues that are happening in this time period and don’t seem to emotionally affect her.

Overall, Kira-kira was a weak read. While the two sisters were realistically drawn, the backdrop for the novel failed to come to life in a way that spoke to me. Recommended for those who enjoy reading about sisterly angst and drama no matter what not-so-fun historical era they are living in.

1989: Joyful Noise (intersecting insects in verse)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

Paul Fleischman’s Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices is comprised of several playful poems that mimic the harmonious sounds of the insect world while giving insight into each bug’s life cycle.

This book does not particularly lend itself to being read by one person, unless you have double vision and can read two columns at the same time. To fully enjoy the verses, Joyful Noise should be read out loud with a friend, where they can appreciate how the two harmonies recreate the sounds of insects in the wild. Without a partner, the poems lose their unique sound as it becomes slightly difficult to line up the two verses in your head.

The two poems that stood out the most were the ones that told a humorous story about relationships in the bug world – Book Lice and Honeybees. Most of the other poems talked more about what insects do every day, but the way these two got across their tale was both funny and fully utilized that fact that some lines are spoken by the readers simultaneously while others are read alternately by the readers. Book Lice is about two lice that live in books and how they have different favorite authors while Honeybees compares the life of a queen bee to that of a worker bee with the lines intersecting very frequently despite the fact that they have very different outlooks on life.

Overall, Joyful Noise’s experimental style is a fun way to get children interested in poetry, as well as insects and science. Recommended for lovers of poetry and admirers of insects.

1988: Lincoln A Photobiography (Lincoln: the quotable parts)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5

Lincoln A Photobiography, the 1988 Newbery Medal Winner, is one of the few nonfiction Newbery books. The nonfiction to this point has been an unqualified disaster, either horrifically racist or incredibly tedious. This was a surprisingly decent exploration of Abraham Lincoln; it provides context on external events for those new to the topic but employs enough interesting primary source material to retain the attention of those who do have some background in history.

Freeman balances the time he spends on each segment of Lincoln’s life, putting a slight emphasis on the presidential years but also discussing Lincoln’s early life, his entry into politics, and his family life. Lincoln’s changing view of and approach to slavery is one of the themes highlighted by Freeman. In Freeman’s account, Lincoln always disliked slavery but originally believed that, as long as its spread to the newly opened western territories was prohibited, it would die a natural death. As late as the first years of the Civil War, Lincoln favored reparations for slaveholders. Only later in the war did he champion abolition as a military necessity, coupling that with a hard-line view of slavery as a moral evil. I appreciate Freeman’s even-handed approach to his subject; he cautions the reader about the dangers of turning a historical figure into a hero and avoids that temptation himself. He also discusses the sources which he used for each section of the book. As an archivist and a historian, citations are my favorite 😉

I’d highly recommend this for late elementary or early middle school readers interested in history. It’d also be great for time-pressed adults who want to brush up on their U.S. history. I found the book quite readable and accurate within its scope.

 

 

1983: Dicey’s Song (where shopping is the best therapy)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 4/5

In Dicey’s Song by Cynthia Voigt, one family learns what it means to hold onto the past while simultaneously letting go and looking to the future. When Dicey and her three siblings are abandoned, they move in with their grandmother and have trouble adapting to living in a new home.

Dicey Tillerman is only thirteen, but she has the weight of the world on her shoulders. Unsure of whether she can trust her grandmother to look after her siblings, Dicey takes on the responsibility of a part time job in order to take care of her family. Her maturity was refreshing to read about and while she was a fairly adult character, she still learns some lessons throughout the book as she grows up. More akin to a tomboy than a proper girl of the time, she doesn’t stress over how she looks and doesn’t care for manners; her strength of character shines through in her actions and mood swings. She learns through trial and error, though, that there is more than one way to contribute to a good life – whether it’s through helping build a boat, planning the family meals, or learning to sew an apron.

The secondary characters were comprised of some interesting personalities, as well. Dicey befriends Mina, a smart and thoughtful African American girl who goes to school with her, and Mr. Lingerle, the elementary school music teacher who begins to teach her younger sister how to play the piano. Her younger sister struggles with learning to read, and there’s an interesting chapter in which several character’s debate how to help her. Much of the story is about how the family must reach out to others for help, even though Dicey would prefer to be self-sufficient and keep to herself.

While this novel is a follow up to Homecoming, it’s not necessary to read the prequel. Things from the past are alluded to, but the climax of the book, which deals with Dicey’s absent mother who is in a psychiatric hospital, still hits all the relevant points to give it a strong ending (which features an emotional shopping trip) even without really knowing what happened before.

As coming of age novels go, Dicey’s Song featured a cast of strong main characters and a well-thought out story while bringing up some interesting themes that are not always covered in young adult literature. Its only downfall was that it was a bit slow at times, but every moment gracefully builds up to a moving finale. I would definitely recommend this for people who are looking for a meaningful and emotional read.

1982: A Visit to William Blake’s Inn (trippin’ it poet style)

VERDICT: Toss-up

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

Nancy Willard’s A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers is a collection of poems written in the styling of British poet William Blake that also doubles as a picture book with illustrations by Alice and Martin Provensen.

Definitely one of the odder books that was awarded a Newbery Medal, the short and sweet poems are framed by the premise of a boy staying at an imaginary inn that is run by William Blake himself. The inn is staffed by dragons, angels and rabbits while the many guests include the Man in the Marmalade Hat, the King of Cats and two sunflowers who want a room with a view.

The poems themselves were pretty mediocre. They didn’t particularly move me, though I had a few favorites.The Wise Cow Enjoys a Cloud tells the charming story of a cow who slept in the clouds and then buttered his morning bread with the clouds he had slept on. In Blake Leads a Walk on the Milky Way, Blake takes a rabbit, cat, tiger, rat and child on a walk through the galaxy and finds the perfect present to give each of them.

While the poems are okay, the real showstoppers are the illustrations. The pictures are quite quaint and capture that cutesy English vibe that the poems are trying to convey. In a way, they tell the story better than the poetry that accompanies them through their intricate detailings of the inn’s architecture and all its odd guest’s charming personalities. It’s definitely worth picking up the book just to browse through the illustrations.

Overall, A Visit to William Blake’s Inn was a bit of a disappointment. I don’t think its targeted age range would appreciate this book as much as younger children who read books to look at pictures or older adults who enjoy reading poetry.

1979: The Westing Game (murderers, bombers, and stock brokers, oh my!)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 4/5

A delight for lovers of mysteries and riddles, Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game is a clever and fast-paced book that promises to both entertain and solve a murder mystery at the same time.

The Westing Game begins with sixteen people seemingly at random moving into the same apartment complex, but things are not nearly as much of a coincidence as the reader might think. Things get complicated when a murder occurs at an old house of the street, and they are forced to play a game wherein they must solve the clues to find the murderer. As the mystery plays out, their connections to the dead victim are revealed, and they find out that some people have a deeper and darker history with Sam Westing than what was originally let on.

Having read this book before as a child, there was not much that could surprise me. Luckily, The Westing Game lends itself to being reread as you can catch all the red herrings and clues that were missed the first time. It’s fun to see how all the clues come together and how the author pieced the book together in order to come to a certain ending.

While there is a varied cast of characters, some individuals get a bit more depth than others. Turtle starts the novel as a bratty child who constantly feels upstaged by her older, more beautiful, sister, but quickly ends up an expert at running the stock market. Her sister, Angela, also gets a nice arc about not settling for what her family wants and instead going after her dreams. The characters of Otis, Crow, Sandy, and Judge Ford also have some surprises up their sleeves, but many of the other characters fall flat despite having eccentric personalities.

The one thing that dragged the book down was the writing style. The sudden changes in point of views were rather jarring as each paragraph would jump to a different character’s perspective. With sixteen main characters, the constant jumping around left me feeling that many of the characters could have been better served with more time spent with them.

As a child, this was one of my favorite books that I could read over and over again. I would still definitely recommend it for those who enjoy solving puzzles and riddles, as there are plenty of mysteries to figure out in The Westing Game.