The Capture by Kathryn Lasky

The Capture, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2003 by Scholastic.

Pushed from his family’s nest by his older brother, barn owl Soren is rescued from certain death on the forest floor by agents from a mysterious school for orphaned owls, St. Aggie’s. With new friend, clever and scrappy Gylfie, he uncovers is a training camp for the leader’s own nefarious goal.

Rating: 3/5

Guardians of Ga’Hoole was one of my favorite book series growing up. I don’t remember how I discovered them (maybe the first few were given as a Christmas gift?), but I ended up getting every single one that came out. My favorite part about them (at least, the first six) is the gorgeous illustrations that adorn the inside front and back covers.

It’s been a while since I’ve read them and a lot of details have escaped me, so it was almost as if I was reading The Capture for the first time (almost).  From the beginning, Lasky develops the “owl culture” of the Ga’Hoole series, complete with slang, profanity, and detailed information about owls themselves (such as species, flying, eating habits, etc.). The world is a post-human world, populated entirely by animals and it seems the only “sentient” ones are owls (to be honest, I’m not sure it’s revealed to be post-human until later in the series…this book reads as straight up “fantasy animal world”).

The series, as far as I can remember, is divided up into multiple arcs, so The Capture sets the stage for the first arc. St. Aggie’s is introduced, with its penchant for brainwashing (“moonblinking”) and desire to obtain the mysterious flecks, more valuable than gold (it’s not obvious, but there are several clues in this book that the flecks are iron). The mysterious, mythical Ga’Hoole Tree and the legendary Guardians of Ga’Hoole are the hopeful destination and the incentive of the characters. And of course, our intrepid band of heroes are introduced: Soren and Gylfie, the main two characters for the majority of the book, and then Twilight and Digger, who join up with them at the end of the book.

The Capture is a good start to the series, introducing a lot, setting up the world, and leaving enough mystery to carry on to the next book. The world is a little odd to get used to, at first, and the characters are sometimes a little bit stilted in dialogue (perhaps due to the oddity of the world). The villains are straight-up cartoonish and melodramatic, and they’re not present enough in the book in order to really seem as a legitimate threat (although, granted, the biggest enemy in this book is moonblinking). However, a lot of good groundwork is sown here—The Capture is, at its heart, merely a set-up story for the world Lasky is going to develop throughout the series.

I’m excited to reread this series again because in my memory, I thought the series should have ended at book eight (possibly six, even), but Lasky continued, (presumably) due to popularity. I’m looking forward to rereading everything to see if, yes, I still think that way, or if there is some merit in the last half of the series. And, of course, I’m eager to see if I will still enjoy the series as much as I did when I was younger.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Violence

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2lux0S8

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Seeds of Hope by Kristiana Gregory

Seeds of Hope: The Gold Rush Diary of Susanna Fairchild, by Kristiana Gregory, was published in 2001 by Scholastic.

Susanna Fairchild and her family are on board a ship sailing from New York to the West, where they plan to start a new life in Oregon. But tragedy strikes when Susanna’s mother is lost to the sea. Hearing stories of great wealth, Susanna’s physician father decides he wants to join the hordes of men rushing to California to mine for gold.

Rating: 4/5

While I wouldn’t call Seeds of Hope a sequel to Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie, Gregory does connect the two books together by having the Fairchilds be related to the Campbells. It isn’t necessary to have read Prairie, of course. The inclusion of the Campbells is more of a bonus to readers who have read Gregory’s Oregon Trail entry first.

This is another of my favorite Dear America books (I really am a fan of Gregory), partly because of the purple cover, partly because it’s well-written and goes into a lot of historical detail. I learned more about the Gold Rush in this book then I did in Rae Carson’s Walk on Earth a Stranger, which is also about the Gold Rush. The book definitely doesn’t pull any punches; it opens with a death, and includes amputation, hangings, betrayal, and theft, as well as veiled clues about prostitution. What I like most about the Dear America series is that it does not sugar-coat or hide anything that could have happened in that time period, it merely mentions it in ways that are appropriate for children.

The novel also conveys how atypical and dangerous it was for two young women to be on their own during the Gold Rush, yet also takes the time to describe not only the kindness of strangers, but also the steps Susanna and Clara took to protect themselves. And there’s never any underlying threat that makes one worry about their safety throughout the book; again, this is a book for children, so while it’s mentioned what Susanna and Clara do to protect themselves from prowlers and thieves, there’s never anything too dark that is hinted at.

I have a feeling that Gregory’s Dear America books will be the stand-outs for me in this series; she seems to have achieved the knack of writing memorable characters and conveying the historical time period accurately and interestingly. Seeds of Hope is another great addition to Dear America, one I remember fondly.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2ywNYc3

The Penderwicks At Last by Jeanne Birdsall

The Penderwicks at Last, by Jeanne Birdsall, was published in 2018 by Knopf. It is the sequel to The Penderwicks in Spring.

Five older siblings, a few beloved dogs, an endless array of adventures. These are the things that have shaped Lydia’s first eleven years as a Penderwick. And now she’s dancing at the bus stop, waiting for big sister Batty to come home from college. This is a very important dance and a very important wait—the sisters are about to find out that the entire Penderwick family will soon be returning to Arundel, the place where it all began. And better still is the occasion: a good old-fashioned, homemade-by-Penderwicks wedding. Honorary Penderwick Jeffrey is flying in from Germany. Jane is bringing her sewing machine. A dog or two is planning a trot down the aisle. And Lydia is making sure everything comes together—this is Rosalind’s destiny, after all.

Rating: 3/5

The prediction I made in my review of The Penderwicks in Spring that, if there were a last Penderwick novel it would star Lydia, came true. I was super excited when I found out there would be one final Penderwick novel (as a reminder, The Penderwicks series are some of my favorite children’s novels) and reread the first four one right after the other in order to remember everything. And I’m glad I did, as it caused me to be much more prepared for this novel.

The big thing about this novel is that it upset all the Skye/Jeffrey fans. I found this out via Goodreads reviews, but once I read the first four Penderwick novels again (notably, The Penderwicks at Point Mouette and The Penderwicks in Spring), it became much more obvious to me what Birdsall had planned for Jeffrey (and Batty). And, having reread the novels, I am much less a Skye/Jeffrey fan myself than I was initially. And I’m never sure why fans get so rabid when authors don’t put their favorites together (Louisa May Alcott, cough). It’s clear that Skye loved Jeffrey only as a brother. Let’s respect this fictional character’s decision and move on.

Anyway, moving on, The Penderwicks at Last isn’t nearly as good as The Penderwicks in Spring. It’s fun, yes, and wraps up the storyline, and has the same amount of Penderwick shenanigans as there can be with almost all of them grown up. And I loved the bookending of this book with The Penderwicks—the return to Arundel, Cagney, Mrs. Tifton, and Lydia running into Jack in the tunnel just as Skye ran into Jeffrey. Lydia’s outrage at being a good influence and at being the nice Penderwick was great, but it also makes sense seeing as Iantha is her mother.

But Spring had so much depth and heart and emotion and humor in it that is lacking in At Last. Spring may even have wrapped up the series in a better way, but perhaps I’m biased. The Penderwicks at Last is a good finale, but not a great one.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Mvr87v

1994 Newbery Medal: The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Giver, by Lois Lowry, was published in 1993 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Life in the community where Jonas lives is idyllic. Designated birthmothers produce newchildren, who are assigned to appropriate family units: one male, one female, to each. Citizens are assigned their partners and their jobs. No one thinks to ask questions. Everyone obeys. The community is a precisely choreographed world without conflict, inequality, divorce, unemployment, injustice…or choice. Everyone is the same. Except Jonas. At the Ceremony of Twelve, the community’s twelve-year-olds eagerly accept their predetermined Life Assignments. But Jonas is chosen for something special. He begins instruction in his life’s work with a mysterious old man known only as The Giver. Gradually Jonas learns that power lies in feelings .But when his own power is put to the test—when he must try to save someone he loves—he may not be ready. Is it too soon? Or too late?

Rating: 4/5

Confession time: I’ve never read The Giver before. Even after years of hearing people tell me how great it was, even after the hype surrounding the movie and the renewed interest in the book it brought, I never read it. So, this was my first time reading The Giver, and I got to see firsthand whether or not I thought it was as good as people told me.

And the verdict is…mostly. It’s mostly as good.

The message behind The Giver is excellent. Lowry shows the importance of feelings, memories, and choice through the chilling world of the community, where everything is predetermined and feelings are suppressed. While this sort of utopia sounds good on paper (a place where there’s no animosity, injustice, inequality, etc.), the reality Lowry shows makes it clear that the utopia is actually a dystopia, and that in the effort to make things peaceful, the community has dehumanized life and people and sucked out all the color and diversity and humanity that emotions and choice bring to people. The message is clear and easy to understand, making this an ideal book to talk about the importance of freedom with children.

The one blip on the radar for me is that the world, plot, and ideas are simplistic, and, at times, confusing. Vague, hand-wavy “science” has accomplished the colorless, emotionless life of the community. However, the Giver and, in turn, Jonas, have powers of memory that border on the magical, not the scientific, and Jonas’s ability to “see beyond” also seems more magical than not, making the world a strange blend of science fiction and fantasy, but not really selling either genre. In addition, the structure behind the idea of a Receiver/Giver of Memory is hazy at times, and it’s not clear why, once Jonas has left the boundaries of the community, the memories return rather than stay with him.

Lowry builds the chilling world of The Giver well; by the end, the people seem like robots, or maybe just unfeeling, emotionless shells. However, occasionally her world is less than airtight in development, especially regarding the whole foundation of memory, and it fluctuates between science fiction and fantasy with no clear line or explanation. It’s a book ripe for discussion, and even if it is simplistic, at least it’s a profound simplistic.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Children’s

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

1984 Newbery Medal: Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary

Dear Mr. Henshaw, by Beverly Cleary, was published in 1983 by Morrow.

Leigh has been Boyd Henshaw’s Number One fan ever since his second grade teacher read aloud Ways to Amuse a Dog. Now in the sixth grade, Leigh lives with his mother and is “the new kid” in school. Troubled by the absence of his father, a cross-country trucker, and angry because a mysterious lunchbag thief steals all the “good stuff” from his lunch, Leigh feels his only friend is Mr. Fridley, the school custodian. Then Leigh’s teacher assigns a project that requires writing letters asking questions of authors. Naturally Leigh chooses to write to Mr. Henshaw, whose surprising answer changes Leigh’s life.

Rating: 2/5

Dear Mr. Henshaw is the story of Leigh Botts, who, through letters to the author Boyd Henshaw and later in diary entries, describes his troubles with writing, his plans to catch a lunchbox thief, and his feelings over his absentee father. It touches on divorce and poverty in the subtle, but noticeable, way of a children’s book, and Cleary does a good job of describing the sort of complicated feelings that can arise in a child when dealing with an absent father.

I liked Dear Mr. Henshaw, but it lacked the depth and memorability that I enjoy in children’s books. It’s the sort of book that I enjoy in the moment, but after I put it down I forget about it. It didn’t grip me or move me in a profound way; it’s not a book that I will look back at with delight. I think it is a book that is, in the moment, good for adults and good for children, but struggles to have much of a lasting impact.

I do think Dear Mr. Henshaw’s portrayal of divorce is one of the better portrayals out there, which is probably why it won a Newbery Medal. Also, the “letters to an author” motif was well done. However, the rest of it was forgettable and in a broad sea of medal winners, Cleary’s book gets lost under the waves.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2xKVD5V

All the Stars in the Sky by Megan McDonald

All the Stars in the Sky: The Santa Fe Trail Diary of Florrie Mack Ryder, by Megan McDonald, was published in 2003 by Scholastic.

Florrie finds the adventure of a lifetime along the Santa Fe Trail, meeting new challenges and dangers, after her mother decides to move her family from Missouri to New Mexico. Starting their journey from their home in Missouri, Florrie Ryder and her family are headed towards the promise of a new life in Santa Fe. As they cross the Great Plains of the Midwestern prairie, fording rivers and climbing mountains, the Ryders encounter endless hardship as they undertake this great adventure.

Rating: 2/5

Dear America loves its Western Expansion stories, and All the Stars in the Sky takes us to New Mexico on the Santa Fe Trail. This book is slightly unique in that it’s the first (of what I’ve read) that features a stepfather, and McDonald actually demonstrates the tension and confusion that can result from having a new father rather well. It also has some good historical details and the mixing of Mexican, Native American, and American is done well enough that it gives a good picture of the mixing of cultures.

Unfortunately, for the most part, the book reads a lot like a copy of Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie—except not nearly as memorable or as well-written. It’s another “on the trail” story, one that’s not really necessary. I think it would have been better to have something much more similar to Seeds of Hope (a review to come),which has a minimum amount of traveling and describes more of what happens at the destination. I think that format also would have emphasized more of the culture and the environment at the time. I do like that McDonald featured what she did, but I think it could have been more successful in a different fashion.

Because of its similarities—and inferiority—to Wide and Lonesome Prairie, and its lack of truly memorable or stand-out events, All the Stars in the Sky is, sadly, forgettable. I liked the different depiction of the family unit, and I felt McDonald was mildly successful in imbuing her story with cultural aspects and historical details, but I just felt as if it could have been even more successful if McDonald had chosen to emphasize more of Santa Fe and less of “trail life.” However, I did really like the font used for the title and for the diary entries. I am a sucker for appealing, sharp font.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

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

1945 Newbery Medal: Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson

Rabbit Hill, by Robert Lawson, was published in 1944 by Viking.

“New Folks coming, Mother—Father, new Folks coming into the Big House!” shouted Little Georgie the Rabbit. All the animals of the Hill were very excited about the news and wondered how things would change. Would the new Folks bring dogs, traps, and guns? Or would they be planting Folks who would care for the land and grow rich crops? It had been years since there had been a garden at the House.

Rating: 2/5

I feel slightly guilty rating Rabbit Hill this low, as I really didn’t dislike it at all. But the 3/5 rating has become my default, go-to rating, which I’ve realized is making distinctions between books harder to figure out. And I don’t think Rabbit Hill is on par with some of the other 3/5 books, Newbery or otherwise, that I’ve reviewed—plus I kinda thought the book was a little ridiculous once I finished it.

Basically, Rabbit Hill is a really nice, feel-good story about field animals wondering if the “Folks” moving into the farm will be good or bad for them. They discover, eventually, that the Folks are the best sort of Folks there are—lovers of animals, determined to let no trace of poison or traps or dogs cross their paths, with a communal idea of living.

Yet, I read the book, and immediately I thought, “Come on! This could never happen in real life!” Now, I know talking animals means that the books is already straying away from reality. But at the heart of the book, Lawson seems to be saying that the best way to farm is live alongside the animals surrounding your farm—more than that, he’s saying that you should go out of your way to protect and feed the animals. So, at the end of the book, the skunk and the fox are fed every night with the scraps the cook leaves out for them, there’s a statue where food is laid out for the rest of the animals so they never go hungry (and never take from the garden), the moles are free to burrow wherever they like, etc. It sounds good in a book about talking animals who can think and have a semblance of a governing body, but the wonder of the book is really lost when you’re an adult thinking how dumb the whole idea of a communal living like that is, and how fast it would fail in reality.

It’s probably a good thing the book is marketed for children, huh?

I still finds lots of wonder in many children’s books, but Rabbit Hill is one where adult sense gets in the way of the imagination. The whole concept Lawson is going for is simply ridiculous to me. It’s a great little farm story, but the concept falls apart as soon as the Folks move in. I would have much preferred to read a story where the animals team up to survive a more cruel type of person, rather than the utopia they ended up getting. Not a particularly enjoyable read for me—Rabbit Hill is definitely one of the weaker Newbery Medals.

However, the illustrations were quite excellent.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2xnR0yF

1938 Newbery Medal: The White Stag by Kate Seredy

The White Stag, by Kate Seredy, was published in 1937 by Viking.

For generations the tribes of Huns and Magyars had moved relentlessly westward, obeying the voices of their pagan gods, which compelled them to follow the elusive white stag to their promised homeland. They swept Europe, all the while pursuing their vision of the stag. Their leader was called Attila, and the land Hungary. Here is the epic story of their tribal migration and their fierce leader—known to us even today.

Rating: 2/5

The White Stag is a fairy-tale-esque narrative of the Huns’ migration from Asia to Europe. Seredy states from the beginning that she is more concerned with story than fact, and the narrative she unfolds rings very much like a mythic tale. The imagery of the book is quite striking, and the story flows well and has beautiful description.

 The story focuses on three leaders of the Huns, though I believe only Attila has been historically confirmed. The first leader is Nimrod, of biblical fame, who has twin sons, Hunor and Magyar. Hunor’s son, Bendeguz, is the second leader, and the third is Attila. Seredy weaves mythological elements into the narrative in order to emphasize the importance of Attila—fiery portents, the White Stag, Moonmaidens, prophesy, sacrifices, a flaming sword, and eagles.

However, despite the beauty of the writing and the whole mythological aspect, I did find it hard to relate to the book. Seredy’s grand overtures in her heralding of the coming of Attila was a bit hard to take. I get that Attila was an important historical figure, but the godlike way he’s described in this book is too much. Seredy is trying to portray it from the Hun’s history, of course, but a downside of that is that it does make the book seem wildly over-the-top and grandiose. It also makes it seem as if Seredy is extolling Attila beyond what he deserves.

I ended The White Stag a little disgruntled, since the way Seredy portrayed Attila sat wrong with me. There was too much hero and not enough reality, not to mention the fact that none of the book is historically grounded beyond brief sketches. And I do understand that Seredy wanted to get away from fact and go back to the mythological, imaginative way of telling history, but I feel as if she took it too far in that direction. A good balance between the two would have been much better.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2rZS7zl

1988 Newbery Medal: Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman

Lincoln: A Photobiography, by Russell Freedman, was published in 1987 by Clarion.

Abraham Lincoln stood out in a crowd as much for his wit and rollicking humor as for his height. Here is a warm, appealing biography of our Civil War president, illustrated with dozens of carefully chosen photographs and prints. Russel Freedman begins with a lively account of Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood, his career as a country lawyer, and his courtship and marriage to Mary Todd. Then the author focuses on the presidential years (1861 to 1865), skillfully explaining the many complex issues Lincoln grappled with as he led a deeply divided nation through the Civil War. The book’s final chapter is a moving account of that tragic evening in Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.

Rating: 5/5

A truly deserving Newbery Medal winner, Lincoln: A Photobiography takes us through the life of Abraham Lincoln from childhood to death, complete with photographs and prints of written documents. I learned a lot about Lincoln I hadn’t before, as well as much about the Civil War period that I hadn’t known.

Freedman neither idolizes nor demonizes Lincoln, instead taking a refreshing, objective viewpoint as he recounts Lincoln’s ideas, motivations, and political aspirations. I had never before known that Lincoln started out quite lukewarm about slavery—convinced it was bad, but unsure about what, exactly, he could do about something so deeply grounded in culture. It was only the pressure and tension from the Civil War that gave him both the will and the power to accomplish emancipation, when he was in a position where he could no longer be so easily browbeaten by opposing forces.

I also appreciated how Freedman lists his research and additional resources in the back of the book. Sometimes many biographies aimed for children can leave out this information, assumingly because they think children will have no need or interest for such things. I, however, appreciate seeing both the effort the author made in creating the work and making it accurate, and the additional information that I can utilize for myself if I am so inclined.

Lincoln: A Photobiography is a wonderful read, highlighting the life of one of America’s most famous presidents, a man whose legacy lives on today. The research Freedman put into this book is exhaustive and well explained, and the photos add another layer of depth and interest. There’s also much about the culture and the thought of the time that I found enlightening. A fantastic book, and great to use for reports or the like for school assignments.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s

Lincoln is best known as the Great Emancipator, the man who freed the slaves. Yet he did not enter the war with that idea in mind. “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union,” he said in 1862, “and is not either to save or destroy slavery.” As the war continued, Lincoln’s attitude changed. Eventually he came to regard the conflict as a moral crusade to wipe out the sin of slavery.

No black leader was more critical of Lincoln than the fiery abolitionist writer and editor Frederick Douglass….Later, Douglass changed his mind and came to admire Lincoln. Several years after the war, he said this about the sixteenth president:

“His greatest mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery….taking him for all in all, measuring the tremendous magnitude of the work before him, considered the necessary means to ends, and surveying the end from the beginning, infinite wisdom has seldom sent any man into the world better fitted for his mission than Abraham Lincoln.”

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2rHdqG0

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl, was published in 1964 by Knopf.

Willy Wonka’s famous chocolate factory is opening at last! But only five lucky children will be allowed inside. And the winners are: Augustus Gloop, an enormously fat boy whose hobby is eating; Veruca Salt, a spoiled-rotten brat whose parents are wrapped around her little finger; Violet Beauregarde, a dim-witted gum-chewer with the fastest jaws around; Mike Teavee, a toy pistol-toting gangster-in-training who is obsessed with television; and Charlie Bucket, Our Hero, a boy who is honest and kind, brave and true, and good and ready for the wildest time of his life!

Rating: 5/5

To be honest, I really don’t know what to say about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It’s a well-known, beloved children’s book for many people. There have been two films based on it—the less accurate, but much-loved Gene Wilder version, and the more accurate, but weird Johnny Depp version. Nestlé once had (or perhaps still has) a whole Wonka candy line. It’s hard to add to all of what has already been said about it.

I never realized, growing up, how moralizing this book is. Each child in the story represents something: Augustus—gluttony, Violet—obnoxiousness (or something like that; Violet seems the most sympathetic of the bunch, at least according to the Oompa Loompas), Veruca—selfishness, Mike—TV addiction. These negative traits are expounded in each Oompa Loompa song. There’s also digs at the parents, too, especially in Veruca’s case (her parents get a mention in her song). Each child is presented with an obstacle that exactly highlights their negative trait, which they then get punished for, until in the end, there’s only Charlie, the best boy of them all, left. It’s all wrapped up in cute chocolate factory candy land with adorable, silly Oompa Loompas, but Dahl really packs a punch with those songs.

At its heart, it’s an incredibly fun book, and you can tell Dahl had a great time thinking up all of Wonka’s inventions. The moral of the story is quite obvious, but Dahl delivers it with a lot of fun and style, and perhaps because it’s so familiar of a story it’s not so terrible when the Oompa Loompas sing the lesson of the chapter. There’s also some great things Dahl says about family, and Charlie Bucket is as unselfish and lovely a boy as you could ever imagine—yet still manages to avoid being too perfect (though, again, that might be familiarity talking. I expect Charlie to be that way because he’s a foil to the other characters). In any other book, this sort of thing wouldn’t work. But since it’s Dahl, and it’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it works perfectly.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2I6snLR