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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2018: Hello, Universe (it’s a small, small world)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello, Universe is an adventure tale about a group of children who band together despite not knowing each other to find a boy who fell down a well trying to rescue his pet guinea pig.

What I liked:

  • A diverse cast of characters who aren’t always prominently featured in children’s books. Each characterization was very distinct, despite all characters being children, and the point of view changes between each chapter were seamless.
  • Valencia Somerset’s point of view – an interesting mesh of religiosity, her experiences being deaf, and her curiosity and naievete about the world.
  • The plot was quick-paced with a good build up to the central conflict.
  • Animals (including a guinea pig, squirrel, dog and snake) are all featured in the main adventure and will make animal lovers feel warm and fuzzy.

What I didn’t like:

  • This is definitely a children’s book. As an adult reader, I didn’t find much substance in its themes, and the narrative style is written more for a fifth and sixth grade audience. For children this is definitely a plus, but I didn’t get a whole lot out of the book.
  • Kaori. I’m not the biggest fan of faux fortune teller fictional characters that believe fully in their powers. I found her enthusiasm slightly grating.

Overall, Hello, Universe provides some mindless, adventurous fun featuring a diverse cast of characters.

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.

2002 Honor: Everything on a Waffle

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

Polly Horvath’s Everything on a Waffle follows the quirky adventures of a small town girl who moves in with her uncle when her parents are lost at sea. Everyone in the Canadian town of Coal Harbor thinks they are dead, but Primrose unwavering believes that they are alive and will return to her one day. As Primrose gets to better know the locals, she gains a greater appreciation for the town she lives in and begins to understand her place in the world.

This was a very sweet book. Primrose’s genuine interest in the peculiar townfolk leads to some thoughtful conversations on hope, faith and family. Despite some heavy subjects involving child custody battles, a family friend starting to lose her memory, and even accidents involving Primrose cutting off her toe, the story is very optimistic and heartwarming.

Since the book tended to focus on isolated events in each chapter, it was somewhat hard to feel connected to the story and the characters. Most of the townspeople were characters with an odd quirk that defined their entire personality, which meant there wasn’t a whole lot of substance to sink your teeth into.

Every chapter includes a recipe that Primrose mentions throughout the book, which adds some fun activities for younger readers and makes this an ideal read for the whole family. Overall, it was an enjoyable story, but not particularly memorable.