When Great-granny Brown packed up and moved to the Women’s City Club in Boston, Miss Hickory was faced with the problem of spending a severe New Hampshire winter alone. This might not have been so bad if Miss Hickory had not been a country woman whose body was an apple-wood twig and whose head was a hickory nut. Also, if her house had been built of stronger material than corncobs, however neatly notched and glued together. This is the story of how she survived those trying months, in the company of neighbors like Crow, who was tough, wise, and kindly; Bull Frog, who lost his winter clothes; Ground Hog, a surly man afraid of his own shadow, and a host of others. It is a fantasy full of the peculiar charm of the New Hampshire countryside, seen from an angle which most of us, city-bound in the winter, know little about.
I’ve mostly liked and enjoyed all the Newbery Medal books so far, with a few notable exceptions (The Dark Frigate, *shudder*). Miss Hickory, unfortunately, falls on the side of the ones I didn’t like so much. It’s not that the quality is low or the messages are poor. I actually thought the message was quite good; there was a delightful little scene in the middle where Miss Hickory realizes the cost of hardheadedness.
My main problem with Miss Hickory is that the premise is strange (a living wooden doll existing alongside animals, with no explanation as to how she got there or as to why there isn’t any creature like her) and there is nothing that reconciles that strangeness, and the ending is downright creepy. Seriously, I read the end and almost couldn’t believe what was happening; there is also a rather frightening picture to go along with the event. If, as an adult, I feel creeped out by a book, how much more so would a child be frightened? I don’t think Bailey meant it to be frightening, of course, and the story does end happily, if strangely, but nevertheless, it was the wrong tone to end the book on.
Miss Hickory should have been like Hitty, Her First Hundred Years or similar, but the premise was too strange and unexplained (why does Miss Hickory even exist? Why aren’t there others like her?) and the ending was frightening. I enjoyed the book, I suppose, but it’s definitely not a standout nor is it a book I would recommend to anyone anytime soon. Not every Newbery can be perfect, but it’s still a little disappointing.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Warnings: None, unless you count the end where Miss Hickory loses her head and then her headless body walks around.
Genre: Fantasy, Realistic, Children’s
“You have seen through Great-granny Brown’s kitchen window how deep the snowdrifts are in New Hampshire. I’ll wager that there were days when you could not see through the windows. The winters are long and hard here, Miss Hickory. “
“What could one do?” she begged. She would not believe him yet.
“Don’t feel too badly, as if they had forgotten you,” he said kindly. “Ann has other matters than dolls to fill her mind now. Great-granny Brown was born and bred in New Hampshire. She expects you to be equal to any weather. You’ll have to move, Miss Hickory.”
Disclaimer: Things I Never Told You, by Beth K. Vogt, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
It’s been ten years since Payton Thatcher’s twin sister died in an accident, forcing the entire family to cope in whatever ways they could. Now a lone twin, Payton reinvents herself as a partner in a successful part-planning business and is doing just fine—as long as she manages to hold her memories and her family at arm’s length. But with the announcement of her middle sister Jillian’s engagement, Payton’s party-planning skills are called into action. Which means working alongside Johann, her opinionated oldest sister, who always seems ready for a fight. They can only hope a wedding might be just the occasion to heal the resentment and jealousy that divides them…until a frightening diagnosis threatens Jillian’s plans for the future. As old wounds reopen and the family faces the possibility of yet another tragedy, the Thatchers must decide if they will pull together or be driven apart for good.
Maybe I’ve read too many young adult suspense novels, but when I read the summary of Things I Never Told You, I expected something much darker than what I actually got. The title, so reminiscent of popular YA titles, didn’t help. In fact, since I went into the book expecting deep, dark secrets to be revealed, the actual revelation of the “things I never told” seemed cheapened. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
The story is told from multiple points of view: Payton, the focus character, in first person, and Jillian and Zach in third person. I got used to the switching from first to third after a while, but initially it was really jarring. I also wondered why Vogt even bothered with first person if she wanted to use multiple viewpoints; the first person didn’t contribute much to Payton’s character and it seems pointless to utilize if you’re just going to switch to third when you want to convey other characters’ thoughts. The point of first person is that you don’tget the other character’s thoughts.
The story mainly focuses on Payton and the “things she’s never told” regarding the death of her sister (which, contrary to my thoughts, aren’t dark at all, merely the sort of thing you might expect after a traumatic event), though focus is also spent on her relationship with her family, especially her sisters, and her sister’s battle with breast cancer. The characters are all right—perhaps too pointedly flawed, or maybe too pointedly focused on their own inadequacies. If reading this book was supposed to make me feel as if I could relate to the characters and overcome similar thoughts, then Vogt didn’t really succeed. Eventually, all I wanted was for the self-pity and self-deprecation to stop.
I did like how Vogt handled the Thatcher’s lack of faith, and I liked that she didn’t create any sort of conversion scene that are usually so cheesy and overdone. I did think she dropped the ball in terms of Jillian, though. Jillian, I felt, needed the comfort that Payton received from thinking about God just as much, if not more, than Payton. She spends the whole book focusing on happy, positive thoughts that I thought for sure Vogt would connect it to the joy of Christianity. Unfortunately, that never happens, and instead Jillian’s happiness is tied to material things. A missed opportunity, and one that may have proved more powerful than Payton’s story.
Though I expected a dark, thriller-like reveal to the story, and the reveal of what Payton was actually hiding seem cheap in comparison, I did like a few aspects of Things I Never Told You. The family dynamic was interesting, and though I felt there were lots of missed opportunities, the way the book ended was realistic. The take on breast cancer was respectful, but just as shocking and sad as it would be in real life. However, the viewpoint was jarring and poorly executed, the title is too reminiscent of YA novels (and thus juvenile for an adult book), the characters spent too long wallowing in their own perceived flaws, and a beautiful opportunity for Jillian to see where true joy lies is completely set aside in favor of furthering a romantic plotline. It’s an average take on sorrow, buried secrets, and guilt, but is nowhere close to memorable or inspiring.
Valley of the Moon: The Diary of María Rosalia de Milagros, by Sherry Garland, was published in 2001 by Scholastic.
María Rosalía is a Mestizo servant in a Spanish home. Orphaned years ago, she and her brother Domingo work on a ranch run by the stern Señor Medina. María’s writing captures the intense tradition and culture of the Spanish as she observes the war that Alta California ultimately loses to the Americans.
I love the time period of Western Expansion and the pioneering age, but I’ve rarely gotten to read about what it was like in those territories before people from the East started moving there. Valley of the Moon fills in some of that missing information. I knew from my American Girl doll books growing up (Josephina) about the strong Mexican/Spanish culture that stretched from Texas to California, but it’s not really something I consider when I read books about the Gold Rush or whatever. This Dear America book fills in all those gaps, and also addresses the plight of the Native Americans to an extent.
María is half-Indian and half-Spanish, and although most of the book depicts the Spanish culture, some aspects of it address the declining Indian population. The book is vibrantly, unapologetically Spanish (what today we would call Mexican, but that term is never used in the book—Spanish is the word used to describe the californios). That may seem like an exaggeration, and maybe it is, but I haven’t read many books set in that time period that really describe the Mexican culture of the time, especially not for this age group.
This is a long Dear America book, but for the most part I didn’t notice the length. Garland does a good job of interspersing tension, historical information, and continuation of plot so that the pace is even throughout. While most of the book is dedicated to everyday activities (a combination of cultural and religious events and María’s own development), a bit of it is dedicated to the moment when California, briefly, became a republic and then was claimed by the United States. That part may be the weakest part of the book, actually, although the revelation of María’s father is also pretty weak, in my opinion, if only because of how convenient it is.
I’m not sure if Valley of the Moon is the best book for describing how California became part of the United States, or even if it’s a good book for describing the Mexican-American War. However, it’s a great book for describing the way the Mexican way of life infused the culture of California at the time, how the Indian population dwindled because of the settlers, and is a great starting point for a discussion on what aspects of the Mexican culture we can still see today, and what has been lost over time.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction
Lupita does not trust the norteamericanos. She says they are supposed to become loyal Mexican citizens, learn to speak Spanish, and become Catholics in exchange for land. But not all of them do as they agreed. She especially dislikes the foreigner Johann Sutter, who encourages other foreigners to come to California illegally without permission from the Mexican government. There are already squatters on Señor Median’s lands. Lupita thinks they will take over Alta California before long.
The Goldfish Boy, by Lisa Thompson, was published in 2017 by Scholastic.
Matthew Corbin hasn’t been to school in weeks. He refuses to leave the safety of his bedroom. His hands are cracked and bleeding from cleaning. He knows something isn’t right, but he just wants to be left alone. So he watches from his upstairs window as life goes on without him. Matthew’s hopes for solitude are shattered, however, when a young child staying next door goes missing. Suddenly the neighborhood is swarming with police and reporters—and everyone is concerned with what Matthew might have seen from his window. He might just hold the key to solving the mystery before it’s too late. But does he even want to try, if it means exposing his own secrets in the process?
The Goldfish Boy reminded me a little bit of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, though only at the beginning. The premise of the book is that Matthew, suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder since the death of his baby brother, decides to solve the mystery of who kidnapped his next-door neighbor’s grandson. Along the way, he learns more about his neighbors as well as himself, his parents, and his disorder.
It’s the type of angsty, yet still heartwarming, read that I used to gobble up in college. Now reading these sorts of books, I get a mildly sick feeling. Luckily, The Goldfish Boy didn’t pile on too much angst, and countered the amount it had with lots of therapy and hope. As a book about what might trigger OCD, as well as what it’s like and how to deal with it, it’s very good. It also has a good message about friendship and family.
The mystery at the heart of the plot, however, is not so great. Thompson leaves all the appropriate clues and red herrings, so it’s not that the quality is bad. I just found the motive of the responsible person to be rather weak. It made no sense to me why Teddy was kidnapped at all; the ending was anticlimactic and rushed and I didn’t buy the reason the kidnapper gave. A fault of the exposition, I believe, in not developing all the characters enough so that their motivations and actions make sense.
The Goldfish Boy contains enough angst to make me uncomfortable, but enough hope and heartwarming scenes to alleviate that feeling slightly. I liked the look into a condition that the average person doesn’t really understand or know about, but the mystery itself fell apart a little bit in terms of motivation and behavior. A good book, but not necessarily one I would recommend immediately.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Realistic, Middle Grade
“I’ll tell you what, let’s make a deal. I’ll move if you promise to come and see Dr. Kerr tomorrow morning. How does that sound?”
She’d have been in the conservatory this morning, her bare feet padding around the cold tiles where Nigel chucks up fur balls and mouse guts. She must be riddled with germs—germs that were now escaping in their millions into my room. I gripped the edge of the door and thought about slamming it against her toes, but if I did that I might end up with blood on my carpet, and that made me feel dizzy. I didn’t look up.
Beyond the Bright Sea, by Lauren Wolk, was published in 2017 by Dutton.
Twelve-year-old Crow has lived her entire life on a tiny, isolated piece of the starkly beautiful Elizabeth Islands in Massachusetts. Abandoned and set adrift in a small boat when she was just hours old, Crow’s only companions are Osh, the man who rescued and raised her, and Miss Maggie, their fierce and affectionate neighbor across the sandbar. Crow has always been curious about the world around her, but it isn’t until the night a mysterious fire appears across the water that the unspoken question of her own history forms in her heart. Soon, an unstoppable chain of events is triggered, leading Crow down a path of discovery and danger.
Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow was one of my favorite books of 2016, so I was excited to jump into her new book, Beyond the Bright Sea. And it’s as memorable and powerful as her first book, combining a tough, yet still child-like protagonist (whose moments of “Would a child really say or do that?” are mitigated by the time period and the circumstances) with a gripping plot and an interesting historical context.
Crow learns important lessons about family, bravery, and identity throughout the book, lessons that are subtly done and are interwoven well with the plot. I do have issues with Osh’s statement of “What you do is who you are” because it too closely intertwines behavior with self, leading to the belief that if one hates a behavior, they must therefore hate the person doing that behavior, which isn’t true in the slightest. Luckily, it isn’t dwelt on very much in the book, nor does that statement seem to be Wolk’s main focus, so I was able to put aside my disgruntlement.
For people who love diversity in books, this one checks off all the boxes: both Osh and Crow are non-white; Osh is presumably a Native American (or possibly Inuit? It was very vague), while Crow is (again, vague) described as “dark,” presumably with African heritage. There’s an interesting conversation between Osh and Miss Maggie about Osh’s origins, which in comparison to, say, the extreme heavy-handedness in Rae Carson’s Walk On Earth a Stranger, was lightly critical without getting preachy. There’s also a fun scene where Crow sees someone of her own race and is both shocked and delighted.
Beyond the Bright Sea’s plot doesn’t have particularly unique or new twists and turns, but it is compelling; the story is powerful and gripping, the messages are good and executed well, and the characters are interesting. Wolk blends talking points with natural flow very well, making things less preachy, and at the end of the book her message about family stands strong.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Historical Fiction, Middle Grade
I pulled up on the twine and found a ring nestled in the fold of cloth. I held it up in the light and was surprised to see the gleam of a red gemstone.
It was too big, even for my biggest finger.
“Do you think I’m from Newport, then?” I whispered. “From a rich family?”
Cusi, a modern Inca boy, leaves his home high in the Andes mountains to learn the mysterious secret of his ancient ancestors. Accompanied by his pet llama, Misti, he slowly discovers the truth about his birth and his people’s ancient glory—now he must prove himself worthy to be entrusted with the fabulous secret from the past.
Secret of the Andes tells the story of an Inca boy, Cusi, and the adventure he goes on to learn the history of his people. It’s a gorgeously detailed book, describing the majesty and beauty of the Andes, the way of life and culture of the Incas, and the history of the Incan Empire and their conquest by the Spanish. The main plot is loosely based on history, and though Clark does take some liberties, she does a fantastic job of conveying her main message: the preservation of one’s culture.
The one thing that stood askance to me, amidst all the descriptions of Incan/Andean ways of life, was the continual reference to the Inca as “Indians.” Cusi calls himself and other Incas “Indians,” though there’s no reason for him to be using that name at all. Clark is clearly using that name as one that would be familiar with her audience, but it’s still jarring to hear Cusi, who given his circumstances would probably never have heard the word “Indian” in his life, call himself one.
Fun fact about this book: it beat out Charlotte’s Web for the Newbery Medal. Apparently one of the judges picked this book over E. B White’s because she hadn’t seen any good books about South America, a case where uniqueness, rather than quality (Charlotte’s Web is much more memorable and lasting than this book, and, arguably, a better book), won the day.
Secret of the Andes reveals the secret of the title slowly, and isn’t all together clear, either, about it, though the ending did a much better job of explaining things than I initially thought. The book itself has a quality that I can only describe as “majestic” and Clark does a great job of briefly, but clearly, explaining the way the Spanish conquest of the Incas has left them as a people. It’s a rich book, though its lasting power and memorability is not as strong as some others.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s
Cusi was left to entertain the visitor. “Our mother llamas never carry loads,” he told the minstrel importantly.
“I know,” the man answered. “You keep them for shearing.”
“And to have their babies,” Cusi added.
The minstrel nodded. “That Misti fellow of yours is a good one,” he said. “Did you know that in the days of the Inca Kings a black llama like yours was always the first to be sacrificed to the Sun?”
A Line in the Sand: The Alamo Diary of Lucinda Lawrence, by Sherry Garland, was published in 1998 by Scholastic.
In the journal she receives for her twelfth birthday in 1835, Lucinda Lawrence describes the hardships her family and other residents of the “Texas colonies” endure when they decide to face the Mexicans in a fight for their freedom.
Having lived in Texas for the past 4 ½ years, I’ve come to a better appreciation of the history of Texas, especially the Alamo. And it was nice to read A Line in the Sand and be able to identify the landmarks and visualize the basic area in which the story takes place.
As the topic might suggest, this is not, at its heart, a happy story. It’s a retelling of a time when families struggled to live off the Texas land, struggled to reconcile their Tejano neighbor with their Mexican enemies (which Garland conveys superbly, by the way, by detailing how intermingled the cultures were and how Mexicans fought alongside “Anglos” to repel their own leader, whom they feared), and struggled to hold back the Mexican forces at the Alamo—a fight they failed at, with devastating loss of life.
The end of the book cannot be described as happy. It does depict the final victory of the Texans over Santa Anna at San Jacinto, but the news comes after the horrifying details of the Texans’ flight across Texas in front of the advancing Mexican army. If anything, the ending of the book is a bittersweet resolution as the Texans realize the fight is over, but realize how much they’ve lost. It’s a survivor’s ending, basically.
A Line in the Sand does a great job of depicting the culture of the time as well as the various tensions and opinions of the people. The buildup is slow, and the ending is quick, but it matches the bewilderment that the settlers must have faced when they heard the news of the Alamo and had to flee for their lives—a flight which cost many more lives. It’s not a happy story, but it’s sorrow is countered by the hopeful note sounding at the end in the determination and relief of the Texans. This is one of the Dear America books I had never read growing up, and I’m glad that I got to finally read it now, especially as someone living in Texas now.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s
This evening, about one hundred and fifty Texians crossed the river by ferry. They decided they would not wait for Mexican soldiers to attack Gonzales, but would find them and attack first. With heavy hearts we said farewell to Willis and Uncle Henry. I think every woman was silently weeping, though we cheered and tried to show courage and act like ladies. It is eerily quiet now. After she fed Papa, I saw Mama go behind the smokehouse to Baby Mary’s grave. That is where she always goes to be alone with her thoughts and to have a good cry.
The Disappearance of Emily H., by Barrie Summy, was published in 2015 by Delacorte.
Emily Huvar vanished without a trace. And the clues are right beneath Raine’s fingertips. Literally, Raine isn’t like other eighth graders. One touch of a glittering sparkle that only Raine can see, and she’s swept into a memory from the past. If she touches enough sparkles, she can piece together what happened to Emily. When Raine realizes that the cliquey group of girls making her life miserable know more than they’re letting on about Emily’s disappearance, she has to do something. She’ll use her supernatural gift for good…to fight evil. But is it too late to save Emily?
The Disappearance of Emily H. takes a potentially interesting premise and then immediately drags it through the mud, combining teenage drama that’s just a tad too over-the-top (I feel like the author simply watched a bunch of teenage movies about high school and then based her book off of that) with a weak, unnecessary supernatural aspect. I nearly didn’t finish the book.
The protagonist, Raine, has this supernatural ability: she can sense people’s memories when she touches “sparkles.” It’s mentioned briefly at the beginning of the book that this ability of hers has been muted lately. Yet there is no explanation given as to why, nor is this problem addressed or solved later on. Anyway, she uses this ability to help unravel the mystery surrounding a local girl’s disappearance, as well as spy on the people around her and bring down a bully by resorting to bullying.
The one redeemable aspect of this book was that Summy didn’t have the final mystery behind Emily’s disappearance be the dumb reason I thought it was initially. If it had been, I would have ended the book extremely angry. As it was, I ended the book mildly disgusted instead (my exact words were, after closing the novel, “What a dumb book.”).
There’s literally no reason for Raine to have the ability to sense people’s memories; all it does is serve to alienate her so that the Mean Girl Jessica (*Jennifer) can be even more Mean. The mystery could have been solved with just a little bit of extra detective work and if Raine had paid more attention to what people were telling her. I especially didn’t like that Raine and Shirlee dealt with Jessica (*Jennifer) by being bullies themselves, basically blackmailing her into submission. That’s a great way to teach kids about how to overcome their problems.
The Disappearance of Emily H. has an unnecessary premise, a mystery that completely falls flat once motives are figured out (though it’s much more reasonable than what I initially thought it to be), boring characters, and over-the-top melodrama that is poorly described and poorly resolved. I probably would not have had the patience to finish this novel if I hadn’t read most of it on a plane without much else to do.
It’s 1936, in Flint, Michigan. Times may be hard, and ten-year-old Bud may be a motherless boy on the run, but Bud’s got a few things going for him: He has his own suitcase full of special things. He’s the author of Bud Caldwell’s Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself. His momma never told him who his father was, but she left a clue: flyers advertising Herman E. Calloway and his famous band, the Dusky Devastators of the Depression!!!!!! Bud’s got an idea that those flyers will lead him to his father. Once he decides to hit the road and find this mystery man, nothing can stop him–not hunger, not fear, not vampires, not even Herman E. Calloway himself.
While watching the film Coco, about ten minutes into the movie I thought, “Wow, this movie is a little bit like Bud, Not Buddy.” Don’t worry, I won’t spoil Coco, or this novel, but both function around the same premise: boy searches for lost family member tied to music.
Basically, Bud runs away from an abusive foster home to search for his lost father, who he believes is connected to the posters his mother had of a jazz band. Along the way, he runs across a “redcap” who is trying to help spread unionization, and gets involved in the world of jazz. There’s also references to Hoovervilles, as well as racial tension at the time.
It’s a book I read as a child, and one I remember quite well. Bud is a plucky, courageous protagonist, whose politeness is a breath of fresh air after reading books with rude main characters. The story is heartwarming, but also very bittersweet, especially the ending, or at least I thought so. I really don’t want to spoil anything, but this book has the capability of hitting readers very hard with Bud’s circumstances as well as what he finds out about his family. It’s a happy book, or at least it has a happy ending, but there’s still a note of poignancy that makes it far more reminiscent of reality than a stereotypical happy ending.
Bud, Not Buddy, is bittersweet, with an ending that’s almost too sudden, yet somehow fits perfectly with the overall mood of the book. Bud is a great protagonist, and he reads more like a real person than most protagonists do, in my opinion. The message is powerful and poignant and the best part about the book. It’s a memorable Newbery, one that stuck in my mind for years after I first read it.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction
“Where’s your momma and daddy?”
“My mother died four years ago.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“It’s OK, she didn’t suffer or nothing.”
“So where’s your daddy?”
“I think he lives in Grand Rapids, I never met him.”
“Sorry to hear that.” Shucks, she held right on to my hand when she said that. I squirmed my hand a-loose and said, “That’s OK too.”
Deza said, “No it’s not, and you should quit pretending that it is.”
“Who said I’m pretending anything?”
“I know you are, my daddy says families are the most important thing there is.”
Alcatraz Smedry has successfully defeated the army of Evil Librarians and saved the kingdom of Mokia. Too bad he managed to break the Smedry Talents in the process. Even worse, his father is trying to enact a scheme that could ruin the world, and his friend, Bastille, is in a coma. To revive her, Alcatraz must infiltrate the Highbrary–known as The Library of Congress to Hushlanders–the seat of Evil Librarian power. Without his Talent to draw upon, can Alcatraz figure out a way to save Bastille and defeat the Evil Librarians once and for all?
It was a little bit strange starting off this book because the format of it was so different. Tor completely revamped the series, giving them much better cover art as well as illustrations, and the style fits the books really well—but the change was still jarring to me.
However, once I got used to it, I was able to enjoy all the usual Alcatraz nonsense. The footnotes were hilarious, especially the detailed list of deaths he never wants to die, and the book itself takes a drastic swing towards the dark as Alcatraz recounts his final tale. The change in atmosphere is abrupt, as the book is much more of a downer story than the first four, but I thought the bleak nature of it balanced well with the humor.
It’s actually quite hard to fully talk about this book, as the ending is quite surprising and saying too much would be a spoiler. It might be the best Alcatraz book in terms of mechanics (meaning it’s less formulaic), and Sanderson really upends and even makes fun of the prior books and what goes on in them. I appreciate authors who deviate from formulas, especially those who are willing to poke fun at what they wrote. And the illustrations really help the overall “serious-but-not-so-serious” nature of the books themselves—they are a great addition to the series.
The Dark Talent takes the series into a darker, bleaker place, but is almost arguably the better for it. The new look to the series adds to the overall atmosphere, and this novel in particular is the perfect balance of funny and serious. Sanderson is particularly devious in his plot mechanics in this book, though saying more would be spoiler-ific. This may be my favorite book in the Alcatraz series.