yet another Newbery Medal winner that baffles me. It’s a book about grief, and
learning to move past grief, but there’s nothing overwhelming special about it
and the book is so short that it’s hard to get a firm grasp of the characters
or even their development. The entire book hinges on a trip to some
Spiritualist Church so that Summer, Cletus, and Ob can summon the ghost of Ob’s
wife May (or something). And then everything is resolved in the space of a
Okay, so there’s a little bit more going on than that.
There’s the relationship between Cletus and Summer, Cletus and Ob, and Cletus,
Summer, and Ob. There’s Summer realizing that Cletus isn’t the person he
appears, and that other people don’t view him the way she does. And there’s a
bit of a peek into Summer and Ob’s relationship, though most of the book is
focused on May and Summer. But, again, the book is so short that there’s not
enough time for all of these dimensions to be fully explored. Rylant does a
fairly good job, but it mostly relies on cramming development into single
sentences (like with the resolution of the novel).
Plus, the whole premise is strange. Ob “sense” the
“ghost” of May, then is determined to go call up her ghost because he misses
her so much, so they plan a trip to make a séance. The exploration of grief is
interesting and needed, but the ghost stuff skews the focus, in my opinion.
And, again, the book is too short to achieve any sense of fulfillment or
go on the “How did this win?” list, as well as the “I won’t remember this in
two days” list. The theme of the story—grief and overcoming grief—is important,
but the spiritualism makes the whole book strange, and the character
development, like the plot, is rushed and poorly resolved.
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is like Anne of Green Gables, except with less charm and less fun shenanigans. Rebecca is imaginative, spunky, lively, and bright; everyone seems to love or admire her. She daydreams, speaks (and writes) poetry, has a forceful personality, wins people over with her charm, and is all together dazzling. Wiggin attempts to give her flaws, but those are quickly brushed aside in order to emphasize all of her good qualities.
I speak as if I didn’t like the book, though I did. I
simply think Anne of Green Gables came
along a few years later and accomplished what I think Wiggin meant to
accomplish with this book. Despite the fact that Rebecca is practically perfect
in every way, I found the book charming and sweet. I especially adored Adam
Ladd, and Rebecca and Aunt Miranda’s relationship.
Speaking of Adam Ladd, I thought for quite a long time
that the book would end with some sort of romance. The book is old and dated,
so for many people the age gap and the circumstances might be bothersome.
However, I’ve read too much Jane Austen—and I know that Wiggin is representing
reality back then (girls got married young, and sometimes they got married to
men far older than they). So, I wasn’t sure whether to be disappointed or
pleased that the book ends with almost a destruction of the Adam/Rebecca
relationship: not through a fight or anything like that, but simply through
Adam’s realization that Rebecca was still a child (though there is a hint that
in the future something could happen).
I read Rebecca
of Sunnybrook Farm and almost immediately thought of Anne of Green Gables, which perhaps wasn’t quite fair to Wiggin
because I expected wit and charm along with my dreamy protagonist (though
Rebecca isn’t quite as dreamy as Anne), and got a little bit of charm with no
wit or comedy. The book takes itself very seriously, and though I enjoyed the
story, it did start to grate towards the end and I started wishing for
something fun to happen.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Warnings: Adam Ladd is 34 at the end of the novel, and Rebecca is 17, but the romance is presented in such a way that it will probably fly right over younger readers’ heads.
West to a Land of Plenty: The Diary of Teresa Angelino Viscardi, by Jim Murphy, was published in 1998 by Scholastic.
West to a Land of Plenty is the third or fourth Western expansion Dear America novel, this time telling the story of an Italian family going to Idaho Territory. It’s more like All the Stars in the Skythan like Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie (the best of all of them): less memorable, more boring, with too much emphasis on travel rather than on community and settlement (Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie did both).
However, West to
a Land of Plenty does do at least one groundbreaking thing: having more
than one person write in the “diary.” Teresa is joined by her sister, Netta,
and they both end up recording the journey. It’s a new thing for the Dear
America books, and it makes this novel stand out just a little bit more. Also
different is the fact that the family is Italian, so emigration and culture
play a small role, as well.
To be honest, I think I would have enjoyed this book
more if I hadn’t been reading the series in chronological order and hadn’t read
three other wagon-train books before this one. It’s really not that bad, and
the joint writers make the novel more interesting than some others. But in the
order I read them, I was already tired of wagon-trains and traveling books, so
unfortunately that affected my opinion of the novel and that’s why I gave it
such a low rating. I’m ready to read about a new topic in these Dear America
Books written in the time of Jesus (a.k.a the early ADs and the Roman occupation of Israel) are hard for me to read. It always feels strange to have someone put words into Jesus’s mouth that aren’t the ones given in the Bible by people who were actually there. A part of me is always like, “Okay, well, it sounds good, but…” So, I’m basically the least well-suited person to thoroughly enjoy The Bronze Bow.
However, I did enjoy it, mostly. I mean, the plot is
blindingly obvious, but Speare does a great job of showing how the Jews hated
the Romans, and how they longed for someone to come and free them from Roman
control. Daniel and Joel both show different sides, with the outright hatred of
Daniel and the more reserved, religious dissent of Joel. And there are numerous
other facets of that time involved, too, like Leah, Daniel’s sister, and her
fear that is attributed to demonic possession, and all the Jewish laws and
customs as well.
And yes, Speare’s portrayal of Jesus did make me
uncomfortable, though I do think she did a fairly good job. And her description
of him did show me that she seemed to be writing from the Christian perspective
of him (the Son of God) rather than a more secular view of him (merely a
prophet/teacher), though she may have simply been borrowing from the Christian
tradition as opposed to being a Christian herself.
Mostly I really enjoyed Daniel’s transformation, which
I think was the most accurate representation in the book. There is, perhaps,
not quite enough build-up or resolution, but as a children’s book Speare
perhaps felt that a more abrupt change would work best. It is certainly
effective, and it shows even beyond the words Speare puts in Jesus’s mouth the
heart of his mission and of Christianity.
The thing that stands out the most to me in The Claidi Journals is Claidi’s voice. The parentheses, the random asides, the subtle sarcasm and wit, all combine to make Claidi distinctive, unique, and memorable as a protagonist. And Lee is so good at following old tropes, and yet somehow making them new.
For example, in Wolf
Star, Claidi is kidnapped and taken to the mysterious Rise and must figure
out a way to escape. Although she never actively tries to run, her reasons for
why she doesn’t are relatable and make her more realistic as a protagonist.
Then, as she gets to know Venn and is intrigued by the mysteries of the moving
rooms and the clockwork servants, her curiosity is what makes her stay. And I
love the contrasts set up in this book: the contrast between Venn and Argul,
between Ustareth and Zeera, between Wolf Tower and the Rise, and even between
Claidi-before and Claidi-after.
Star is strange, and not much happens—it’s much more of a
character-focused novel, intent on exploring a particular backstory, than an
action-packed novel. There’s less excitement and movement than the first book,
yet this one has excellent pacing and worldbuilding to make up for it. The one
thing that jarred me was the revelation of Argul’s age—he doesn’t seem, and has
never seemed, like an eighteen-year-old. A strange thing to complain about, but
it caused a disconnect for me.
I can see not everyone liking these books. Wolf Star in particular seems framed for
a very specific audience; it’s a strange book in its flow and in its story. I
loved it, but I enjoy books where the protagonist is witty, but not ridiculous;
brave, but not aggressive; faltering, but not bemoaning. Claidi is all of that
As I hoped, once the Quiner family moved to Concord,
the books started to get more interesting and memorable. In On Top of Concord Hill, the last book
Wilkes will write of this series, a stepfather, the Gold Rush, cholera, and
early frost all combine to create perhaps the most tension-filled book in the
series so far. Of course, it’s still very tame tension, but it’s much better
than what has been in the first three books.
This is also the first book that was written after the start of the Martha Years, which might explain why suddenly Caroline’s grandparents are mentioned more and why the cover has changed more and more to express similarity between the sets of books.
The thing I most enjoyed about this book was the
subtle, lovely hints we got at the Charlotte/Frederick Holbrook relationship. I’m
not sure whether in real life Charlotte married him for stability or love, but
in this book, it’s very sweet to see the way they interact with each other. I
am a huge fan of shy/quiet guy-marries-girl tropes, so perhaps that’s why this
book so far is my favorite of all the Caroline books (though there wasn’t much
competition, to be honest).
With an author change and the introduction of the
Ingalls family in the next book, it will be interesting to see if the Caroline
books will continue to improve or if the changes will be too jarring. I
remember quite liking the last book in the series, so I’m hopeful that the
change won’t shake things up too badly (or perhaps they will shake them up in a
Julie of the Wolves is one of the wilder, out-there children’s books I’ve read. George clearly loves survival novels, as she also wrote My Side of the Mountain. Julie of the Wolves, however, has the titular character surviving in the wilds of Alaska while also being accepted into a wolf pack. (!?)
The book’s premise is bonkers, and I honestly have no idea if any of the things that Miyax does to ingratiate herself into the wolf pack would actually work, especially since I know that wolf packs work differently than what was thought back when the book was written. But it does make the book incredibly interesting, so there’s that positive going for it.
I enjoyed the way George used Miyax’s name to
highlight important moments. She’s Miyax in the wilderness, Julie in
civilization, and then Julie again at the end of the book when she realizes
that she can’t live the way she wants. It’s interesting to see her struggle
with the realization that her father, the great Eskimo hunter, has succumbed to
the dominant ideas, and the way that his killing of Amaroq is almost akin to
the death of a lasting Eskimo culture. And her shedding of her name, Miyax, and
taking up the English name, Julie, is the last signal in the book that
everything has changed.
George is playing around with and showing a lot of
interesting and important ideas in Julie
of the Wolves, but it’s ruined slightly by the sheer “But would it work!?”
surreal angle of the basic plot. I’m also not sure how well explaining being
married at thirteen to the readers of this book would go, as well as the scary
scene in the middle where Daniel attacks Julie. And, to be honest, I think a
lot of the nuance in the book would fly over a younger reader’s head (you’d be
amazed at the sorts of things my high school students miss in books).
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Warnings: Some slight, brief indication of domestic abuse/attempted rape.
The Middle Moffat focuses on Jane Moffat, as opposed to the all-encompassing Moffat family viewpoint of the first book, and her thoughts, struggles, and opinions over a year-ish of time. I don’t remember this book nearly as much as The Moffats, so it was almost entirely new to me. And it was a delight to read.
I think the thing I enjoyed the most about this book
was Jane’s thoughts, her rambling, sometimes odd, but exactly on point in terms
of age, thoughts that cover at least half of most of the chapters. As she
explores playing the organ, taking care of the oldest inhabitant, dealing with
Wally Bangs, and participating in the basketball game and the parade, her
thoughts perfectly encompass the sorts of things a child doing those things
might think about. It really is so delightful and fun to read her wondering
about shooting baskets in a basketball game, and all the running and chaos that
incurs, and all the things she doesn’t want to do beyond shooting baskets.
For younger readers, the book might be a little hard
to understand because of all the outdated language, especially in terms of
describing clothing, but Jane is inviting and endearing as a character, so I
don’t think the setting will inhibit too much.
The Moffats was a good book, but The Middle Moffat made me fall in love with Estes and the Moffat family, especially Jane. I’m really looking forward to seeing what charm and delight the next books might bring.
Clearing in the Woods finally starts to lift the Caroline
books out of the pit of mediocrity they were sinking into. The family moving,
the hardships they face on the new land, the new people they meet—all combine
to form, if not a particularly dramatic book, at least enough tension to
generate some excitement and interest.
The first half of the book has some overly dramatic
conflict with wolves, delivered a bit clunkily, but once the family reaches
their new home, it settles down to a more realistic conflict as the family
struggles to get used to new surroundings. Caroline and Martha have a few
spats, and I wish Martha was more developed of a character so that the fights
would have more meaning instead of feeling so wooden.
The second half of the book is better than the first,
with the introduction of Mr. Holbrook. Despite my problems with Wilkes’
writing, I will say that she paints a very good picture of the financial
situation of the family. It is very clear that they struggle to put food on the
table, and so the kindness of Mr. Holbrook and the generosity of Mr. Kellogg
shine through even more.
It’s a shame that the Caroline Years don’t start out
quite as strong or interesting as the previous two series, but at last the
series seems to be improving. Little
Clearing in the Woods still shares some of the problems of the first two
books, but the second half promises better things to come.
Sometimes I really wonder what is going through the minds of those who pick the Newbery Medal books. There are those Newbery Medals that are really wow! books, and there are those that are more eh, shrug, move on. Then there are the books that I’ve really questioned, like Secret of the Andesbeating Charlotte’s Web, or Daniel Boonewinning the Medal over By the Shores of Silver Lake.
Universe is a book that I question.
For one thing, the plot of this book is glacially
slow. There are 311 pages, and 231 of those pages cover the same day. The entire plot of the book is based around a couple
of hours in the lives of four kids, and there’s simply not enough excitement to
make the pace feel fast at all. In addition, the plot itself is simplistic and
bare-bones. The characters stand around and talk most of the time. And Chet,
the bully, is stereotypical and overexaggerated. At least Kelly gave some
insight into his behavior by giving him chapters that explored his home
For another, Kelly utilizes the most irritating trend of contemporary literature: the third person/first person point of view switch. I have never understood this. It’s more annoying than first person present tense. Of the four kids, three of them get 3rd person treatment. Valencia gets 1st person. Why? What is the point? Also, why are her chapters only ever titled “Valencia”? Everyone else gets titled chapters as per the content. Valencia’s chapters are only ever given her name. Why? What is the point?
This book does, though, offer fascinating insight into the minds of readers today. They seem to value diversity over everything else, even story, and they expect their diverse characters to act appropriately diversely by following quite rigid patterns and speaking and acting only in ways that are deemed appropriate. This book celebrates diversity, with Virgil (Filipino), Kaori (Japanese), and Valencia (deaf), and then showcases that diversity everywhere. “Look at this book! It’s diverse!” is shouted from every page. This is a good thing, and Kelly avoids old stereotypes in all of her portrayals, though her attempts at bullying were a little excessive, in my opinion.
Yet, in my opinion, Kelly sacrifices a good story at the altar of diversity. What good is highlighting diversity if you can’t also create a compelling, interesting story? It is possible to create fantastic stories with diverse characters, so why are people seemingly settling for less? All Hello, Universe shows is that Kelly capitalized on the diversity trend without bothering with what makes a book actually memorable and long-lasting, which is the story. In my opinion, it cheapens diversity to a selling point.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Warnings: Psychics, astrology, way too many uses of the word “retard.”