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.

2016: Last Stop on Market Street (a busy city bus ride)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

Matt de la Pena’s Last Stop on Market Street takes a simple plot of a boy riding a bus with his grandma and molds it into a beautiful story about how we should be grateful for the things we have and embrace a more optimistic spirit as we go about our daily lives.

More of an illustrated book than a middle school novel, Last Stop on Market Street’s colorful pages showcase a variety of scenes and characters in a vibrant cityscape as the main character takes a bus ride through the streets and meets a bunch of people, including a man who is blind, a guitar player and a spotted dog. The grandmother, of course, points out the things a small child might miss on the bus ride and shows him a new way to see the world.

While Christian Robinson’s illustrations are the main showstopper, this children’s book has a great, inspiring message. This book is really about finding and enjoying the small things in life, even if you don’t have many worldly possessions. Through the perspective of a child, the reader can see the world through the lens of someone in wonder and awe at seeing and understanding things for the first time in their life.

Overall, Last Stop on Market Street presents an uplifting message, but the short page count makes it a forgettable Newbery Medal winner.

 

1984 Honor: The Sign of the Beaver

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

Elizabeth George Speare’s The Sign of the Beaver is a story of survival and friendship among two vastly different cultures. When his father leaves one day on family business, twelve-year-old Matt is suddenly left alone to guard their cabin in the wilderness with no weapons and having no way to hunt for food. With his father gone for longer than expected, Matt begins to develop a friendship with Attean, a boy from the local Beaver clan, and begins to learn about the Native American way of life in exchange for teaching Attean how to read.

The growing friendship between the two young boys lends this children’s book some gravitas that takes it beyond a simple survival tale. Despite coming from two completely different cultures, they bond over their enjoyment of a Robinson Crusoe book and their misconceptions of each other begin to be challenged.

The harshness of the settler lifestyle is intriguing to read about, as Matt is put into dangerous situations like trying to figure out if he can trust a stranger who wants to stay the night in his cabin or finding ways to deal with the constant fear of wild animals potentially getting into his food stores or attacking him.

The only really negative thing about the book was that I felt the Indian tribe was written in a very stereotypical way and may not be as historically accurate or nuanced as it could have been. Despite this, it was nice to see a Newbery Honor book paint Native American interactions with white settlers in a positive light, unlike The Matchlock Gun and Daniel Boone, as well as the author’s melancholic foreshadowing of the continual takeover of Indian land and how that affected Indian tribes. The ending highlights these ideas to great effect as it ends on a bittersweet note with Matt forced to choose one life over the other.

Overall, this is a decent survival story with characters that are easy to sympathize with. Young readers will be able to identify with Matt’s struggles while also introducing them to how settlers and Native Americans interacted and lived in the 18th century.

 

2011 Honor: Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

Joyce Sidman’s Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night is a collection of poetry that details the lives of the animals, plants and insects that thrive in the forest during the nighttime.

Each poem follows a different nighttime creature – owls, trees, moths, mushrooms, bats and crickets, just to name a few. The poetry is also accompanied by colorful illustrations drawn by illustrator Rick Allen and a small blurb that introduces readers to some scientific facts.

My favorite poems were both cute and wielded some fun word play. In “Welcome to the Night,” nighttime creatures are slowly awakening from the daytime nap. “Dark Emperor” deftly details the terror of a mouse that is hoping to get away sight unseen from a great horned owl. My favorite, though, was “I Am a Baby Porcupette,” where the nocturnal animal baby can still deal with any threat despite being small and cute.

This book was a quick read with some simplistic and lyrical poetry. While I didn’t find the poems to be great works of art, Dark Emperor is a fun way to introduce children to the creepy crawlies of the night and enhance their knowledge of animal and botany trivia.

1941 Honor: Blue Willow

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

Blue Willow by Doris Gates, the 1941 Newbery Medal Honor book, is a realistic children’s tale about a young girl in the Great Depression who faces problems fitting in after moving to a new town, the tough task of making and keeping friends, and a life of poverty. Despite all of her difficulties, she has a family that loves her, as well as her most prized possession – a Blue Willow plate that had once belonged to her great-great-grandmother. But when Janey’s stepmother falls sick, her family begins having problems keeping up with the rent, and Janey may have to give up the one thing she values most to save them.

Janey is an admirable heroine with a loyal heart. Her growing friendship with Lupe is well written, as there are a couple instances of misunderstandings in the beginning, but they end up finding common ground regardless. Janey’s adventurous inclinations lead her to a day at the county fair, learning to read at the local school, and rooting for her family in the county cotton picking contest. For children interested in learning about rural life in the early decades, this book paints a pretty enough picture of the best and worst aspects of the migrant lifestyle.

Blue Willow is an enjoyable enough read for the realistic fiction genre, especially for those interested in the Great Depression era in California.

1968 Honor: The Egypt Game

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder is an entertaining read that plays to a child’s overactive imagination and taps into an adult reader’s nostalgia for simpler times.

If you obsessed over Egyptian mythology as a child, this is the book for you. When April comes to live with her grandmother, she makes an unlikely friendship with her neighbor Melanie, and they begin to bond over their love of ancient Egypt. They  unintentionally recruit a group of kids to play in the backyard of an antique shop where they create their own Egyptian names, construct altars to gods for sacred ceremonies, and play around with hieroglyphics. But things begin to get mysterious when a murder happens nearby and the make-believe oracle they ask questions to begins to answer them back.

I found this to be a decent read. Children with active imaginations can easily relate to the main characters in this book and their adventures while adult readers will be nostalgic for their younger days when they could easily play pretend games all day.

Despite the fun plot, the book has an older style of language that may put off younger readers. The main characters converse in a more sophisticated way than how modern children their age would speak now. But, I will say that the book did a good job with having a very diverse cast of characters.

With an amusing story line and a varied cast of characters, The Egypt Game is for readers who enjoy Egyptian mythology and its ancient pantheon of captivating gods, but more likely the ones who will love it are those who once upon a time played make-believe games with the other kids in their neighborhoods who are looking for a way to reminisce.

1959 Honor: The Family Under the Bridge

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

The Family Under the Bridge by Natalie Savage Carlson is a sugary Christmas tale about a grumpy old hobo and the homeless children who warm his cold and bitter heart.

This is an optimistic story about finding the best in yourself and others. Armand is a homeless man who lives under a bridge in Paris. One day, he finds three little kids playing there, after being abandoned by their mother who had to work during the day. Armand is initially irritated with the kids and only sees them as a way to help him with panhandling, but he eventually is won over by their resilience and becomes part of their family by helping them find a home.

The setting takes place in Paris, which gives the story a bit of a fairy tale-esque vibe. The children themselves are selfless, and only want a home for the holidays. Their hope and optimism really shines throughout the book despite the horrible situation they’ve grown up with.

The book does a great job of tackling the idea of why someone would want to live a life of homelessness. Armand happily lives his life and sleeps under a bridge each night because he enjoys the freedom that being a hobo brings to him. As he develops a friendship with the children, he slowly becomes torn between his desire for a solitary life and his feeling of responsibility towards the children.

I’d definitely recommend this book as a family reading activity for parents and children who want to get into the Christmas mood.