1993 Newbery Medal: Missing May by Cynthia Rylant

Missing May, by Cynthia Rylant, was published in 1992 by Scholastic.

Rating: 2/5

Missing May is 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 single paragraph.

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 development!

Missing May will 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.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Yswm93

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, by Kate Douglas Wiggin, was first published in 1903.

Rating: 3/5

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.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/32VTwaX

West to a Land of Plenty by Jim Murphy

West to a Land of Plenty: The Diary of Teresa Angelino Viscardi, by Jim Murphy, was published in 1998 by Scholastic.

Rating: 2/5

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 Sky than 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.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Y90JRv

1962 Newbery Medal: The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare

The Bronze Bow, by Elizabeth George Speare, was published in 1961 by Houghton Mifflin.

Rating: 3/5

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.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

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

Wolf Star by Tanith Lee

Wolf Star, by Tanith Lee, was published in 2000 by Dutton. It is the sequel to Wolf Tower.

Rating: 4/5

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.

Wolf 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 and more.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

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

On Top of Concord Hill by Maria D. Wilkes

On Top of Concord Hill, by Maria D. Wilkes, was published in 2000 by HarperCollins. It is the sequel to Little Clearing in the Woods.

Rating: 3/5

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 good way!).

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2XNxIQ0

1973 Newbery Medal: Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George

Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George, was published in 1972 by Harper Collins.

Rating: 3/5

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.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

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

The Middle Moffat by Eleanor Estes

The Middle Moffat, by Eleanor Estes, was published in 1942 by Harcourt. It is the sequel to The Moffats.

Rating: 4/5

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.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2LRWKX1

Little Clearing in the Woods by Maria D. Wilkes

Little Clearing in the Woods, by Maria D. Wilkes, was published in 1998 by HarperCollins. It is the sequel to Little Town at the Crossroads.

Rating: 3/5

Little 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.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2XCa2ZV

2018 Newbery Medal: Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

Hello, Universe, by Erin Entrada Kelly, was published in 2017 by Greenwillow.

Rating: 1/5

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 Andes beating Charlotte’s Web, or Daniel Boone winning the Medal over By the Shores of Silver Lake.

Hello, 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 life. 

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.”

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

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