Across the Rolling River by Celia Wilkins

Across the Rolling River, by Celia Wilkins, was published in 2001 by HarperCollins. It is the sequel to On Top of Concord Hill.

Rating: 3/5

Perhaps it’s because I read them too far apart, or the author tried very hard to make a smooth transition, but I couldn’t really tell that a different author had written Across the Rolling River. There were a few things that felt slightly off, but not enough for me to really be jarred by the change in style.

Across the Rolling River introduces Charles Ingalls and his family to the series, and young Charlie is just as boisterous and expressive as Pa Ingalls from the Little House books. It also shows us his family, who end up so close to the Quiner family (there are three Quiner/Ingalls marriages in total: Caroline, Henry, and Eliza marry Charles, Polly, and Peter respectively). Also appearing in this book are Mr. Carpenter and his son Charlie (who marries Martha eventually), who haven’t appeared since the third book, Little Clearing in the Woods.

This book really is starting to accelerate Caroline’s development and love of learning. We see her desire to be a schoolteacher, with the influence of her teacher, Miss May, as well as her budding attraction to Charles Ingalls (though she’s only 12 in this book). We also see the pearl-handled pen of the Little House books, as this book details how Caroline came to get it.

I didn’t feel this book was as exciting or interesting as On Top of Concord Hill, but I liked the introduction of the Ingalls family as well as the exploration of Caroline’s desires and wishes. The author switch seemed smooth, which can be hard to accomplish even for a children’s book. All in all, not my favorite Caroline book, but one that sets up a lot of things for the next two books.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2KAIv8d

1989 Newbery Medal: Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices by Paul Fleischman

Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, by Paul Fleischman, was published in 1988 by HarperCollins.

Rating: 4/5

This review will be short, as befitting an incredibly short book. Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices is—as the title suggests—a book of poetry specifically formatted for two people to read out loud. The poetry is in two columns, designed for one reader to read the left and the other to read the right. Sometimes the lines overlap, sometimes not. This makes for some interesting poetry, such as “Honeybees” where the two columns say opposite things about the queen bee, or to sort of emulate the hopping of grasshoppers or the whirring of cicadas by having separate, overlapping lines like a round in a song.

I don’t really have much to say about the book, however. I thought the format was clever, though the effect is a little loss as a single reader, and the poems, all about different insects, communicated different aspects of those insects well (also thanks to the format). I’m not overly fond of poetry, so I didn’t spend a lot of time reflecting on the poems beyond “Hm, cool,” and then moving on.  I am glad that a book of poetry won the Newbery Medal, however.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2YCEx7v

A Coal Miner’s Bride by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

A Coal Miner’s Bride: The Diary of Anetka Kaminska, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, was published in 2000 by Scholastic.

Rating: 4/5

A Coal Miner’s Bride has a terrible title, but the book is definitely one of the more relevant Dear America books, describing “mail-order brides,” immigration, mining, strikes, and labor unions, as well as taking place leading up to and during the events of the Lattimer massacre, where workers on strike were shot and killed by sheriffs.

“Mail-order brides” is perhaps not the best term to use for this particular marriage arrangement described in the book. Bartoletti describes how many immigrant coal miners would marry off their daughters to fellow workers—when their daughters weren’t even in America. Anetka is in Poland, with its culture steeped in Judaism and arranged marriages, when her father promises her hand to another worker in Pennsylvania.

Besides being one of the more interesting historically, A Coal Miner’s Bride also has one of the better protagonists with a good development throughout. I loved Anetka and her determination, her courage, and her desire to love and be loved. Her attempts to make her marriage to Stanley be a happy one despite the lack of love are poignant, and all of her feelings that come about before, during, and after the major events of the novel are relatable and realistic. I have a soft spot for protagonists who want to love and want to be loved in return, yet who doubt that they will ever truly find joy.

I do wish that some of the things that happened at the end had been delivered a bit better. The book’s last quarter is very quick, with strikes and unions and retaliations happening one right after the other. The author also spends a lot of time in the historical notes talking about an event that didn’t even show up in the book, as if that was the real story she wanted to write and she was stuck writing this one instead. However, after a few disappointing Dear Americas, A Coal Miner’s Bride shone, with its relevant and interesting look at immigrants and coal mining and its delightful protagonist, Anetka.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Anetka is married, but manages to wave away certain particulars of married life by claiming privacy. 

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2GRZ6lt

1995 Newbery Medal: Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech, was published in 1994 by HarperCollins.

Rating: 4/5

Walk Two Moons is an interesting coming-of-age (coming-to-terms?) story about Salamanca Hiddle, her cross-country trip with her grandparents, and a flashback story about her friend Phoebe. The premise revolves around the trip to Idaho because Salamanca is desperate to bring her mother (who left and never came back) home, but a central part of the story is also Phoebe’s experience with her own mother. In fact, the two stories serve as foils/mirrors of each other.

I say “interesting” for several reasons. One is because of the voice. There’s a distinctive tone to the whole novel, helped by words like “jing bang,” “wing-dinging,” “thumpingly,” and the like. Phoebe’s voice is the perfect melodramatic pre-teen’s, complete with italics and mood swings. The voice is really what got me to start really enjoying the novel because it help me get past a few other things that I found puzzling.

Another reason the novel is interesting (and this one is used in more of the “in-teresting…” way, like people say when they either don’t care about what the person is saying or find the whole thing very suspicious) is the Indian slant Creech gives it. She includes multiple references to Salamanca’s Indian heritage and commentary on Indian folklore and culture. Yet most of it smacks of Creech’s ideas, and what Creech wants to communicate, rather than of the real thing. Really, it just seems like Creech was in love with Indian culture and so added it to her book. It’s completely useless and adds nothing at all.

I did really enjoy the book, but one thing that puzzled me was if Creech really wanted the mystery of Salamanca’s mother to remain so for the whole book, or if the reader was supposed to figure it out very quickly. To support the latter theory, it states very early on, incredibly specifically, what happened to Salamanca’s mother. Yet Creech spends the whole rest of the book using vague terms and mystery language until the moment Salamanca reaches Idaho, and then everything is explained. Perhaps Creech wanted the reader to know the result, but not the why? I don’t know. I just thought it was confusing that she kept dancing around the issue as if she hadn’t revealed it in the second chapter.

Walk Two Moons falters a bit because of its random and useless inclusion of Native American culture, as well as the baffling “Wait, don’t we already know about Salamanca’s mother?” question. However, the story itself is great, especially Phoebe’s, and the way Creech deals with themes like death and change is well done.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2YLa3zg

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

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