Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls, was published in 1961 by Delacorte.

Rating: 4/5

Starting out right from the gate with spoilers, so be warned! I always knew Where the Red Fern Grows as “the one where the kid falls on an axe and dies.” I didn’t know it was a dog book, since I never actually read the book. But I’ve heard it compared to Old Yeller, so perhaps that should have been my first clue.

My fourth-graders read Old Yeller, and I have to say, I think Where the Red Fern Grows is far superior—so it baffles me that it doesn’t have any kind of award. The book is poignant and sweet, with a determined, likable protagonist and a gritty realism that is only lightly coated in nice things.

It also presents an attitude that is far underrepresented in children’s literature today, which is, of course, the prominence of religion and its role in someone’s life. Billy prays a lot, and his family talks about God a lot, and while there are a couple of inaccuracies (“God helps those who help themselves” is not in the Bible), it helps give a realistic tone to an area and a time that would have said and done those things. And it combines the religious aspect with a more superstitious, “legends of the hills” aspect, which also makes sense for the area and the time.

Since this is a dog book, yes, it is sad, and yes, the dogs do die, but this is a story about love, first and foremost, and even the death of the dogs shows that. This book has a lot to say about purpose and meaning and why things happen and love and sacrifice, which is why I think it’s superior to Old Yeller, which doesn’t have much of that. Where the Red Fern Grows is poignant and powerful and I’m sad that I never read it sooner.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Little Ann, one of the dogs, is called a “bitch” at one point, which is, of course, the word for a female dog.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Wfs08a

2001 Newbery Medal: A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck

A Year Down Yonder, by Richard Peck, was published in 2000 by Dial.

Rating: 4/5

A Year Down Yonder is technically a sequel, but luckily it’s not at all necessary to have read the book that comes before it—which is good because I didn’t. The book is about Mary Alice, who goes to live with her grandmother for a year during the Great Depression, due to the financial situation of her family. It’s pretty much a “city girl goes to the country” type of a book, except with less school drama. Instead, Mary Alice learns the ins and outs of the town, including all the small-town shenanigans you might expect. There’s secret family histories, women’s committee drama, and, all right, a small amount of school drama.

But the star of the show is, of course, Grandma Dowdel, who is a fierce and formidable woman. She manipulates the people around her so that she gets the results she wants, but she also shows a soft side when it comes to her family and friends. The story revolves more around her than Mary Alice, for better or for worse.

Peck manages to expertly capture the oddities and charms of small-town, country life. Though the scenarios are often outrageous, there’s an undercurrent of believability underneath them that makes them that much more appealing. Grandma Dowdel steals the show with her boots and her shotgun, though Mary Alice has her moments, too. A Year Down Yonder is a charming read, and what it lacks in memorability and depth, it more than makes up for in good, plain fun.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2LSgT0T

My Face to the Wind by Jim Murphy

My Face to the Wind: The Diary of Sarah Jane Price, a Prairie Teacher, by Jim Murphy, was published in 2001 by Scholastic.

Rating: 2/5

Dear America picks some odd topics to focus on. My Face to the Wind is about teaching school in the West. And it’s about as interesting as it sounds.

I’m sure that topic could be made interesting—Laura Ingalls Wilder’s story in These Happy Golden Years comes to mind—but the book takes way too long to get  to the actual teaching part, and there isn’t enough conflict or tension to keep things interesting. Oh, sure, Sarah Jane has some problems with her pupils, but not that much, and there’s very little of the novel actually focused on teaching. Most of the time Sarah Jane is only briefly describing what she does, while expounding on the tension at her boarding house or on brief clashes with the students.

There’s also such a strange inclusion here of a Reverend character. In the Historical Note, Murphy talks about religion, so it’s not strange to have a Reverend. What’s strange is that the Reverend’s actions are contrasted with that of the boarding house owner, Miss Kizer, and there’s an odd scene where Sarah Jane observes Miss Kizer reading her Bible and thinking and smiling, and Sarah Jane thinks, “Hmm, I wonder what she’s thinking about.” Then it never comes up again. So whatever comparison Murphy was trying to make falls a bit flat amidst all the other preachiness.

A lack of conflict in My Face to the Wind, coupled with a lack of focus on the actual teaching and weak student confrontations, makes it very boring. What saves it from a 1/5 rating is some interesting revelations about state law, hiring teachers, and other historical details. Yet, it’s still another random topic, uncompelling Dear America book to throw on the pile.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2WcDdWK

Summers at Castle Auburn by Sharon Shinn

Summers at Castle Auburn, by Sharon Shinn, was published in 2001 by Ace.

Rating: 5/5

Summers at Castle Auburn has been on my reading list for quite a while—since the first Sharon Shinn book I’ve read (The Safe-Keeper’s Secret), I think. The title, plus the rating on Goodreads, plus my love for 2000s fantasy, all contributed to my desire to read the book. It took me a while to actually get it, though.

But, boy, did it not disappoint.

Now, I’ve read other books that are more immediately gripping—The King of Attolia, for one—and it’s not the type of book that I feel I could read over and over again. But I enjoyed it the way I enjoyed Juliet Marillier and Kate Constable—and Shinn’s other works. It’s slow, and meandering, but there’s so much to think about and to see develop.

The book is pretty slow up until about the middle, but once you get to the middle, you see why the first part was important. There’s a bit of odd stuff scattered around, but it all contributes to the world and to the characters. The most prominent is the aliora, which seem like a pretty useless addition—take them out of the story and everything stays the same—but they do contribute to the world in a way that perhaps wouldn’t be as effective if they had been left out.

There’s a lot of court intrigue, which I loved, but the best part is that its intrigue interpreted through the eyes of someone who isn’t really involved in all the intrigue. So we see parts of it, and only get hints at the rest. The best part of this intrigue is, of course, the slow reveal of the character Bryan’s personality and tendencies, as he goes from flirtatious, energetic teenager to smiling monster. And, of course, my favorite part of the book was the ending, where intrigue collides with tension, and there are several big character moments for all of the main characters.

Shinn does make a small error towards the end—basically, Corie tells her sister something, and then later on wonders how her sister knows about that thing—but everything is so well paced and revealed that I could ignore it. And what I mostly cared about was the romance, which was maybe not as romantic as some people might like, but it was very well-developed, and I loved what it had to say about love and about how sometimes loving someone means doing something you normally wouldn’t do.

I’m not sure Summers at Castle Auburn will be on my “Could Read Again” list, but I thoroughly enjoyed almost every page of it—even the slow beginning. Shinn and 2000s fantasy prove their worth again!

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Dark themes (murder is the most prominent, subtle hints at rape)

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Vp8qBy

1963 Newbery Medal: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle, was published in 1962 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Rating: 3/5 (2/5??)

A Wrinkle in Time has always been That Book for me. Not That Book that you really enjoy, or That Book that knocked you off your feet, but That Book that everyone talked about and referenced as a fantastic book, that you grew up hearing about, that you read a long time ago, that your friends all mention, that is always upheld as a great example of x genre. And with such a towering reputation, it’s always difficult to admit that you don’t actually like That Book.

I left my rating the way I typed it when first thinking about how to review this book because it really illustrates my conflict here. On the one hand, I didn’t like it: hence, the 2/5. On the other hand, I acknowledge its significance and reputation: hence, the 3/5. But 3/5 has turned into my lazy rating, my “it was average, but not terrible, but not great” rating, so I want to be bold and say 2/5. Yet, I think my dislike of it has to do with my personal taste in books, so I want to be fair and say 3/5.

So, I kept both ratings there because I couldn’t decide.

I always feared going into reading this book that I wouldn’t like it. See, the thing is, I simply don’t like science fiction. I struggle to enjoy even children’s books of that genre. So I knew that my thoughts about A Wrinkle in Time might be negative simply from that standpoint.

But I also didn’t think the book was that great…

I mean, the theme is great. Love wins over evil—fantastic. But the way everything is delivered, the way everything happens, is clunky, and not developed enough, and way too quickly paced. The explanation in this book is scant; we’re swept along just like Meg and Charles Wallace and Calvin are, except there’s the feeling that the characters know more than the reader. There’s two kids who are special—somehow, with no explanation as to how or why they’re like that—and their father is missing, then BOOM! they get taken away by these three strange angel ladies to rescues their father, then BOOM! they go to the planet where their father is and one special kid gets overtaken by the evil, then BOOM! stuff happens, they rescue their father, one kid goes back to rescue the other, she stares at him and thinks about love, then BOOM! he’s back, they’re back, everyone’s back, and everyone’s happy.

But how is Charles Wallace different, and why is he different? Why do Meg and Charles Wallace and Calvin seem to instinctively know how to combat IT, despite never knowing about him before? How does staring at Charles Wallace and thinking about love break ITs hold on him? Why do these kids just go with the flow and not freak out? Why is everything so pat and quick and why do the kids seem to know what to do despite also not knowing what to do?

Maybe I’m missing the point? Like this is supposed to be one giant allegory, even more than the one that’s abundantly obvious already, and that’s why everything is the way it is. I like the good/evil allegory/symbolism, but I didn’t think it was written all that well, to be honest!

So, those are my thoughts on A Wrinkle in Time. I’m now a pariah among my friends, I know, but I just found the whole book strange and poorly explained.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Science Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2LELu1G

1980 Newbery Medal: A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl’s Journal, 1830-1832 by Joan W. Blos

A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl’s Journal, 1830-1832, by Joan W. Blos, was published in 1979 by Atheneum.

Rating: 4/5

A Gathering of Days reminded me quite a lot of Dear America, if Dear America dedicated itself a bit more to accurate writing style and language. It’s a collection of journal entries detailing Catherine’s life at school and home, and while it’s a simple book at its heart, there’s a lot of charm and character hidden in each entry.

The book doesn’t have too much action in it; the action is developed through character rather than through plot. There’s a runaway slave, along with some abolitionist talk, a new mother and brother, and lots of school and home activities. Through it all, Catherine shares poems, little bits of her thoughts, and other things that help her shine as a character. The novel does a great job of showing how hard life was in those days and how much work everyone had to do, and it also does a great job of giving the appropriate amount of balance between religion and daily life that was in those times.

To be honest, I think I only would have given this book a 3 rating if it hadn’t been for one line towards the end of the book: “Trust, and not submission, defines obedience.” What a great theme to end the book with, and such an important one to discuss even today. While I wouldn’t say A Gathering of Days was as interesting as some of the better Dear America books I’ve read, some of the themes that Blos develops are far more profound and important.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2JdSQq8

April 2019 Books

Around the beginning of each month, I’ll take a look back at the books I read from last month. Since most of the book reviews I post on this blog are from books I read months ago, this gives all my readers a good opportunity to see what I’ve been recently reading, as well as how my reading goals are going!

As a side note, you can see every book I am currently reading on both the Goodreads sidebar on this blog as well as on my Goodreads profile.

Books read in April: 20

I’ve only got three books left in my Newbery Medal goal!

Reading Goals:

                             

Newbery Medal Winners: 8 (84/97 total)

  

Dear America: 2

Other Reading Stats:

*These stats are separate from goals (so, for example, even though Newbery Medal winners count as children’s books, I do not include them in my children’s stats) and from each category (rereads will not count in their respective genres)

Non-fiction: 2

Adult fantasy: 1

Adult fiction: 2

Rereads: 0

Children’s: 0

Middle Grade: 1

Young Adult: 3

Publisher Copies (or Christian fiction): 1

Favorites:

      

 

Beastly Bones by William Ritter

Beastly Bones, by William Ritter, was published in 2015 by Algonquin. It is the sequel to Jackaby.

Rating: 4/5

Beastly Bones continues the oddball, eclectic fun that I loved so much about the first novel. Central to that fun is, of course, Jackaby, who’s basically a nicer Sherlock Holmes (at least in the Sherlock iteration), but various side characters also contribute. Abigail Rook, though portrayed as the serious, “let’s bring this back down to earth” type of partner, also has her moments, especially in her awkward moments with Charlie Barker.

This book has a much better mystery than Jackaby did, though once the revelation came, I realized that I probably should have figured it out sooner. I didn’t, though, so I was delightfully surprised. And I liked the introduction of a Shadowy Figure, as it gives a united goal and an arc for the books, though I honestly wouldn’t mind if each book was separate and only united in characters and other minor details (like Jenny’s backstory).

These books have been really fun so far, and I’m hoping the quality of mystery improves without ruining the fun of the characters and the quirky nature in general. I like mysteries just a little more detailed and involved, but that might mean not having as much fun in general. And these books were clearly written to be fun.

Also, the covers of these books! To be honest, if it was just the silhouette and the title, it would be perfection. The picture in the middle kind of ruins it a little, but they’re still very pretty. I don’t gush about pretty cover art enough, in my opinion.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Urban Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2GPCr8s

1954 Newbery Medal: …And Now Miguel by Joseph Krumgold

…and now Miguel, by Joseph Krumgold, was published in 1953 by Harper.

Rating: 3/5

…and now Miguel is a bit of a ponderous, slow read, due to Miguel’s long inner monologues and descriptions,  but ultimately the book is a heartwarming tale of a boy trying to show his family that he is grown up. There’s a bit more to it than that, especially at the end, but mostly the book is about Miguel’s journey, both literally and figuratively, to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

The book is also about sheep, as Miguel’s family are sheep farmers, and boy, did I learn a lot more about sheep than I ever thought I wanted to know. Miguel explains a lot about sheep and the raising and tending of them, but of course it’s filtered through his desire to be useful to his family and to be seen as capable and grown in their eyes. There’s a great humor underlying some of the dialogue and the descriptions that might be a little hard to catch, but helped make some of the ponderous scenes a little more bearable.

I think I would have liked …and now Miguel better if it hadn’t been so unevenly balanced in tone and pace. There’s some parts at the end that are perfect, but spoiled by being dwelt on for far too long. There’s some great stuff having to do with wishes, and change, and why things work out the way they do. Miguel is left both pleased that he gets to go to the mountains at last, but also sad that it is at the expense of his brother being sent off to war. There are some great lessons to learn from this book, but it might take a while to get to them. I didn’t really enjoy reading the book due to the length and the way everything felt it was taking forever to get to the point, but I enjoyed the message behind the story and the way it communicated change in the end.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Vq7rFy

My Family for the War by Anne C. Voorhoeve

My Family for the War, by Anne C. Voorhoeve, was published in 2012 by Dial.

Rating: 3/5

World War II remains my absolute favorite setting for historical fiction. There’s so much courage and heroism and patriotism present, even among the terrible things happenings, that’s really uplifting. I mean, it’s “The Greatest Generation” for a reason.

My Family for the War is about Ziska, a Protestant with Jewish ancestry, who leaves Germany on a kindertransport right before the outbreak of WWII and stays with a Jewish family in London, who quickly become her family. The novel chronicles the entire length of the war, separated into three sections. It’s definitely a story about family, but it’s also a story about being adrift in the world, separated from your family, your culture, and your religion, and the things people do that help you reconcile all that change.

Since this is a translated book (it was originally published in German in 2007), some of the writing is a bit clunky, a bit more like reading a report or an essay on someone’s life than an immersive novel. I am blaming the translation for this, since I have nothing else to go on. Besides the writing, my one other complaint is that the book is way too long. It starts off really interesting, but towards the middle, things start dragging on and on, and it doesn’t start picking up again until towards the end of the novel. To be honest, both the writing and the length combine to make this book 3/5 rather than 4/5, as the strength of the story was not enough to overcome those.

However, this really is a great book, and it’s an especially good WWII children’s book. It pulls no punches in the German treatment of Jews—even people who do not even claim Judaism as their religion—and Ziska’s exploration of her heritage while staying with the Shepard family is well done. I really just wish the writing had been a bit more fluid, and that things hadn’t started dragging in the middle. It would have caused My Family for the War to be more cohesive and more powerful, and less like reading a report.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2XO1Kij