2017: The Girl Who Drank the Moon

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

The 2017 Newbery Medal winner, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, tells a story with a magical cast of characters, including an ancient witch, a friendly swamp monster, a tiny dragon, and a girl who has consumed the power of moonlight.

The premise is great. The book cleverly turns some fairy tale tropes on their head – the wicked witch is actually a loving grandmother figure, the special child is the one causing havoc with her immense powers, and the typical hero becomes a bitter man out to get misguided justice.

The first hundred pages were really strong, focusing on the witch, Xan, and her dilemma of dealing with her mistake of putting the powerful magic of moonlight into Luna, a child she saved from being sacrificed. Her interactions with Glerk and Fyrian were great to read about, but the plot loses steam halfway through once Luna loses her memories of magic. By this point, the book became a chore to get through as the scope of the narrative expands to some plot points that didn’t really interest me. The ending, however, satisfyingly ties up all the emotional character beats.

The writing style is where I took issue with this book. With the constant point of view hopping, the narrative seemed to frantically shift whenever I just started to get into the plot of a certain character, resulting in many of the characters lacking depth. The narration makes the reader feel like an observer rather than a participant in the action – which I guess imitates the storytelling style of fairy tales.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. I liked that the author was experimenting with different story components that you don’t often see in children’s books, but it failed to come together in an engaging way.

Recommended for lovers of fairy tales and magical beings.

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1968 Honor: Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

E. L. Konigsburg’s Newbery Honor winning book follows the ups and downs of a new friendship between two lonely girls who have overly vivid imaginations.

When Elizabeth moves to town, she has no friends until she meets a classmate who claims to be a witch. Elizabeth is taken on as an apprentice where she must go through a series of tasks to prove herself – eating raw eggs for a week, creating an ointment that will let them fly, and casting small spells (just using their imaginations). As their friendship grows, one final task threatens to tear the girls apart when Elizabeth is ordered to throw their pet toad into a boiling potion.

In my opinion, the two main characters set this book apart from other contemporary fiction books. Elizabeth is a lonely girl who just wants a friend and blindly follows Jennifer’s instructions no matter how strange they sound. Jennifer, on the other hand, is a character who doesn’t care what other people think about the way she talks, the way she acts, or the way she dresses. Both characters complement the other, making it easy to understand why their friendship develops since both of them are outsiders. You can feel their desperation for a friend in every conversation they have, even if the girls don’t have much in common at first.

This book was not exactly what I was expecting; however, the nostalgia factor made this book more enjoyable than it should of been. If you ever enjoyed playing make believe as a kid, this book will probably bring back some of those memories. Its downside was the slow pace, outdated feel of ’60s day-to-day life, and the fact that nothing exciting happened in the plot – it was basically just Elizabeth doing a lot of random things to become a witch.

Overall, I found this to be a good excuse for a walk down memory lane. Konigsburg also wrote the Newbery winner for this year as well – From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler – which I thought was far superior to this one.

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.

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.

 

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.

1955 Honor: The Courage of Sarah Noble

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

The Courage of Sarah Noble by Alice Dalgliesh is a pleasantly surprising children’s book that emphasizes the positives of the newly budding relationship between white settlers and Native Americans in the early 1700s. Eight-year-old Sarah travels with her father into the Connecticut wilderness to help build a house. When her father leaves to get her mother and sister, Sarah musters up her courage and stays with the nearby Indians, waiting for her family to return.

This was a very simplistic and charming book based on the true story of the first settlers of the town of New Milford, Connecticut who were friendly with the Indians in their region. While this book is definitely targeted towards younger readers, Sarah is an admirable heroine for readers of all ages who braves the wilderness by herself and learns a completely new culture. Her adaptability in a foreign situation can get children thinking about how they would do in a different culture and makes for a heroine who also has to stick up for her newfound friends when her family doesn’t quite approve of them.

This novel’s simplicity is its greatest strength as well as its greatest weakness. There’s not much conflict, and the plot is pretty lacking despite having a strong main character. Despite this, The Courage of Sarah Noble could easily be a great discussion starter to get children interested in American history in colonial times. While it does have some stereotypical American Indian characters in supporting roles, it definitely beats other early year Newbery winners such as Daniel Boone and The Matchlock Gun in its portrayal of Indians as more than just savages, but this book lacks the subtlety and thematic weight of later Newbery Honor winner The Sign of the Beaver.