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.

2014 Honor: One Came Home

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

One Came Home is a Western adventure story about a tenacious teenage girl who takes off on her own to solve a deadly mystery. Taking place in Wisconsin during 1871, an unidentifiable body shows up a few days after Georgie’s sister ran away from home. Everyone believes the body to be Agatha’s, except for Georgie, who decides to leave town to find out the truth of what happened to her sister. On her journey, she runs into some unwanted friends and some unsavory criminals, but ultimately has to find the inner strength to deal with her family’s tragedy.

Death plays a central role in the novel as Georgie goes through the grieving process while trying to figure out what happened to her sister. Her relationship with her sister’s former suitor, Billy, builds up nicely as they both have secrets they’ve kept from each other about her missing sister. Georgie is a strong heroine for young readers. She’s skilled with a rifle and doesn’t hesitate to use it to save her friend’s life. It’s fun to read about a girl who is placed in a masculine-heavy frontier setting and how she has adapted to this type of worldview.

The world building is interesting as well. A portion of the Georgie’s numerous flashbacks and interactions with her sister focuses on the skill of pigeoning as vast swarms of pigeons begin nesting in hordes in the rural Wisconsin landscape. The author weaves the history of this hunting sport into the overall mystery, adding to the ruggedness of the setting that Georgie finds herself in.

I found this book to be very enjoyable and would have given it a higher rating had the ending not let me down. While kid readers will not complain about the happily-ever-after resolution, the narrative felt like it was leading to a different place than where it actually ended up. While I enjoyed the adventure, the ending left me feeling unsatisfied.

Overall, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to junior high students as a starting point into the Western genre. Though the beginning is a bit slow, Amy Timberlake’s One Came Home picks up when Georgie sets out on her own. The main character is a likable heroine, and her relationships with her family and townsfolk feel authentic and true to the time period, making for an entertaining adventure.

 

1981 Honor: The Fledgling

VERDICT: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 2/5

Jane Langton’s The Fledgling is about a young girl’s obsession with flying, but it fails to meet the same great heights of other magical realism stories that focus on human and animal friendships. In this Newbery Honor winner, Georgie becomes obsessed with the idea that she can fly and befriends a Canadian goose who takes her on flights during the night. Her family doesn’t understand her innocent yearning to fly and her interfering neighbor’s deadly vendetta against the harmless, old goose leads to inevitable tragedy.

This was an odd book. The magical realism aspect of the story was a bit too much for me, and the ending left me a bit confused and wondering what the point of the novel was. The main character is very sympathetic, as she feels truly alone as no one else truly understands her, but the family supports her in the best way they can, nonetheless. The flying scenes encompass the best parts of the book since the writing style really allows for the reader to feel the freedom and wonderment that Georgie feels.

The setting at Walden Pond is well integrated in the novel, with one of the characters researching the works of Henry David Thoreau, and the themes of transcendentalism are embedded within the narrative allowing for an easy way to introduce young readers to this type of literature.

This book has a lot of potential, and the writing style is very beautiful, infusing the story with a dream-like quality. Despite this, I would not recommend the book, unless you are a big fan of flying geese or transcendentalism.