2003 Newbery Medal: Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi

Crispin: The Cross of Lead, by Avi, was published in 2002 by Hyperion.

“Asta’s Son” is all he’s ever been called. The lack of a name is appropriate, because he and his mother are but poor peasants in 14th century medieval England. But this thirteen-year-old boy who thought he had little to lose soon finds himself with even less – no home, no family, or possessions. Accused of a crime he did not commit, he may be killed on sight, by anyone. If he wishes to remain alive, he must flee his tiny village. All the boy takes with him is a newly revealed name – Crispin – and his mother’s cross of lead.

Rating: 2/5

I wasn’t all that impressed by Crispin: The Cross of Lead. It has a rich historical background, which lends itself well to the Newbery, but Crispin himself is an annoying protagonist and the plot is incredibly obvious. Bear was also a confusing character, in that the first moment we meet him he seems kind, then devolves into some sort of cruel master the next moment, then turns into a gruff man with a soft heart.

Avi clearly did his research with the setting, depicting the Middle Ages with particular emphasis on the influence of the Church as well as the feudal system and the call for reform. Perhaps that’s why I’m so disappointed at the plot, which seems clumsy and even a little obtuse. It’s a fine fit for the setting, I suppose, but the mechanics themselves are obvious, to the point where fifty pages in I already knew what was going to happen.

I also didn’t much like Crispin, especially towards the end of the book where he consistently refuses to listen to the adults around him and goes sneaking off three times in succession. The third time actually had me speaking out loud to my book, which is almost never a good sign (“Stop it, Crispin!”). I really don’t like rash protagonists. I suppose he’s a teenage boy, so of course he would do rash things, but that doesn’t make me like him any better.

Crispin: The Cross of Lead has that historical background that seems to attract Newbery Medals, but I wasn’t impressed with the plot or the main character.  I actually didn’t mind Crispin at first, but once things started getting moving and he started doing really stupid things, I started getting annoyed. I also very quickly figured out the entire plot, due to the limited possibilities and obvious clues. Unlike another one of Avi’s books, I’m not fond of this one.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“Asta’s son,” came Aycliffe’s voice, “in the name of Lord Furnival, you’re herewith charged with theft. Give way.”

I was too stunned to move.

“The boy’s a wolf’s head!” the steward shouted. “Slay him if you can.”

From either side, men ran forward.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2xRThND

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1934 Newbery Medal: Invincible Louisa by Cornelia Meigs

Invincible Louisa, by Cornelia Meigs, was published in 1933 by Little, Brown.

Biography tracing the fascinating life of Louisa May Alcott from her happy childhood in Pennsylvania and Boston to her success as a writer of such classics as Little Women.

Rating: 4/5

I’m glad that a biography won the Newbery Medal, since I think it’s important for children to read biographies as well as fiction books. And Invincible Louisa is written in such a way that it lacks the stuffiness and dryness (and all the footnotes) of many biographies written for adults, making it perfect for children to learn more about Louisa May Alcott.

I knew that Little Women was heavily inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s real life, but it wasn’t until I read Invincible Louisa that I realized how inspired it was. I knew that Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth were modeled after Louisa and her sisters, though I didn’t realize that almost every other character was also modeled after someone she knew, as well. Little Women is one of my favorite books (I am one of the rare people who agrees with Alcott not putting Jo and Laurie together; I laughed at her tenacious statement, “I won’t put Jo with Laurie to please anybody”) and, having now read this biography, it’s easy to see how many details Alcott included of her own life. It’s certainly not all there—Jo was never a nurse, nor do any of the March girls go near the fighting—but there is definitely more than just a casual influence.

I also didn’t know that Alcott’s family were on such close terms with authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The mention of Transcendentalism got me excited, since one of the things I teach my students is Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and the philosophy of Transcendentalism. Now I have some extra material to throw at them!

Invincible Louisa, as a biography, is certainly a different sort of book than has won the Newbery in the past. It’s hard to review biographies, but I enjoyed learning more about Alcott’s life and how it influenced Little Women. I also enjoyed learning more about Alcott than I ever knew before, including all the things her father did and the people that influenced her family along the way.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2z3BOCL

1935 Newbery Medal: Dobry by Monica Shannon

Dobry, by Monica Shannon, was first published in 1934 by Viking.

A Bulgarian peasant boy must convince his mother that he is destined to be a sculptor, not a farmer.

Rating: 3/5

Dobry is the story of a young boy growing up in a Bulgarian village. His grandfather tells him stories and teaches him the ways of the Bulgarian life; his mother shows him farming and the qualities of a hospitable adult. As the tiny blurb suggests, Dobry faces the tension of leaving the “family job” of farming to become a sculptor, though that aspect of the book does not come into play into nearly two-thirds of the way through.

Dobry, like Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze, is mainly a cultural piece. The Bulgarian culture is brought to life in this book, a fine example of how reading takes you to different places and times and allows you to experience people and cultures that you may otherwise never experience. Dobry is fascinating not because of the strength of its plot, but because of the richness of the setting, the glimpse into another country and the things they emphasize and celebrate.

It’s not my favorite book or my favorite Newbery Medal so far, but Dobry highlights the aspects of these award-winning books that I love: the cultural and historical. I suppose I wasn’t expecting so much variety as I started the challenge to read all the Newbery Medal winners. And I especially wasn’t expecting it in the earlier winners. But the glimpses into other countries, other cultures, other ways of life, other worldviews, that this journey is giving me is wonderful and beautiful and so much of what I love about reading.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

The grandfather leaned over and announced to the mayor, “Michaelacky, I am going to serve up a little of the wine made the October our Dobry was born. We must drink to the good harvest—nothing frozen.”

The mayor stood up and instead of using his everyday voice used the deeper, ringing tones he kept only for state occasions:

“Let us drink to Now, this very moment!” he called out. “Now! The harvest is in, the storm is over!”

“Na lay! Na lay!” everyone laughed, shouted, and got on his feet to sing the old gypsy melody. And once the music got into their blood, nothing in this world could have kept these peasants from singing.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2yscKt0

1948 Newbery Medal: The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois

The Twenty-One Balloons, by William Pène du Bois, was published in 1947 by Viking.

When Professor William Waterman Sherman leaves San Francisco in a hot-air balloon, he intends to fly across the Pacific Ocean. Instead, through a twist of fate, he lands on Krakatoa, a legendary island of unimaginable wealth, eccentric inhabitants, and fantastic balloon inventions. Once Professor Sherman learns the secrets of Krakatoa, he must remain there forever—unless he can find a means of escape.

Rating: 4/5

The Twenty-One Balloons reminds me a great deal of the Dolittle books, or the Oz books, or The Pushcart War or any number of inventive, imaginative novels that describe a lot of things that somehow manage to keep being interesting despite the wealth of information. This book is a fond memory from my childhood and I enjoyed rereading it and remembering all the little bits and moments that stood out to me back then.

I wish the beginning of the novel was quicker-paced; it’s a little tedious and takes a long time to get into the meat of the story, which is William Waterman Sherman’s trip. It’s hard, especially with a book as descriptive as this, to start in media res without being boring. I mean, the beginning is interesting, but not nearly as interesting as Sherman’s journey.

I like that du Bois took a real event (the volcanic eruption on Krakatoa) and expounded a fictional story on that, as far-fetched as it is. I really do like “shipwrecked on an island” stories (aka The Black Stallion, The Swiss Family Robinson, etc.), or survival stories in general, and I feel like this was an especially common trope in the mid-20th century, for some reason (perhaps inspired by Robinson Crusoe or by shows such as Gilligan’s Island). Du Bois’s story, though unrealistic as I said, is fascinating, fun, and quite worthy of a children’s book.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“Wake up, wake up; you’ve got to get in the shade!”

I shook my head and opened my eyes again. There was a man kneeling over me. He wasn’t a native, and didn’t suggest an explorer or a traveler. He was wearing a correctly tailored white morning suit, with pin-stripe pants, white ascot tie, and a white cork bowler.

“Am I dead?” I asked. “Is this Heaven?”

“No, my good man,” he answered, “this isn’t Heaven. This is the Pacific Island of Krakatoa.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2jIuZnm

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, by Betty MacDonald, was published in 1947 by Harper.

Meet Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle! She’s the kind of grown-up you would like to have for a friend—and all her friends are children. She is a little lady with brown sparkly eyes. She lives in an upside-down house, with a kitchen that is always full of freshly baked cookies. Her husband was a pirate, and she likes to have her friends dig in the back yard for the pirate treasure he buried there. Best of all, she knows everything there is to know about children. When a distraught parent calls her because Mary has turned into an Answer-Backer or Dick has become Selfish or Allen has decided to be as Slow-Eater-Tiny-Bite-Taker, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle has the answer. And her solutions always work, with plenty of laughs along the way. So join the crowd at Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s hose—and enjoy the comical, common-sense cures that have won her so many friends.

Rating: 4/5

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is one of the most beloved series of my childhood. I read those books over and over again (my favorite being Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Magic) and, rereading them however many years later, it’s like I never left. I still remember almost every word of the book and reading it brought me back to all the times I would read it growing up.

There’s bound to be a little bit of a culture gap with children who read Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle today. The book was published in 1947 and so, while many aspects are the same or similar, the attitude is certainly different. This was especially apparent to me when reading the Selfish Cure and the Slow-Eater-Tiny-Bite-Taker Cure. While Dick is certainly a menace, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s cure is something that certainly would not fly today, especially considering it was basically encouraging bullying as a way to get kids to share things. I do think shame or embarrassment, which is so often today considered something negative, can do wonders for character development (there have been many times when it has been shame over something I have done that has forced me to seek to better myself), but MacDonald exaggerates it to the point of cringe-worthiness, in my opinion.

In addition, the Slow-Eater cure was basically to let Allen not eat for a couple of days. I know today that certainly wouldn’t fly, considering how many arguments I’ve seen erupt over not giving children food (not in the extreme sense, as in truly neglecting them, but in the sense of “If you don’t eat your dinner, you will go to bed hungry”).

Now, of course Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is clearly exaggerated, but it still highlights the culture gap from 70 years ago. I enjoyed the book and I think kids today would enjoy it, too, but a lot of interesting questions would probably arise because of reading it—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Recommended Age Range: 6+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s

“That’s what I called about,” said Mrs. Prentiss. “Can you suggest a way to make Hubert want to pick up his toys? His room looks like a toy store after an earthquake.”

“Why don’t you call this Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle? I have heard she is perfectly wonderful. All the children in town adore her and she has a cure for everything.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2x95JeT

1950 Newbery Medal: The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli

The Door in the Wall, by Marguerite de Angeli, was published in 1949 by Doubleday.

Ever since he can remember, Robin, child of Sir John de Bureford, has been told what is expected of him as the son of a nobleman. He must learn the ways of knighthood. But Robin’s destiny is changed suddenly when he falls ill and loses the use of his legs. Fearing a plague, his servants abandon him, and Robin is left alone. A monk named Brother Luke rescues Robin and takes him to the hospice of St. Mark’s, where is taught woodcarving and patience and strength. Says Brother Luke, “Thou hast only to follow the wall far enough and there will be a door in it.” Robin learns soon enough what Brother Luke means. When the great castle of Lindsay is in danger, Robin discovers that there is more than one way to serve his king.

Rating: 3/5

I’m really not sure what’s going on in the 2005 cover of The Door in the Wall. It makes it seem as if the novel is some sort of roadtrip comedy or something along the lines of The Court Jester. On the contrary, The Door in the Wall is a fairly serious historical fiction set in medieval times, describing the various political, military, and physical dangers that were present at the time.

The book is, perhaps, a bit more bright and sparkling than the historical background warrants, but this is a book for children, and Robin’s personal journey as he undergoes illness and becomes a hero despite of his physical weakness is heartwarming. De Angeli also portrays the weight the culture at the time placed on knighthood, familial duty and inheritance, and independence in general through Robin’s misgivings and anxieties over not fulfilling these roles. There’s also much in this book about how central monasteries and monasticism were to medieval society.

The Door in the Wall is a short book, but its historicity is surprisingly deep and immersive. The story is not particularly exciting, but it is uplifting. I must give some mention of the illustrations, which were wonderful (I read the Yearling edition, but I couldn’t find an illustrator listed). The language of the writing may make it hard for younger readers to get involved, but even that lends itself to the historicity of the novel as a whole. I’m not sure why the cover is so slapstick, but don’t let the inevitable jarring that will result as the cover and the contents clash deter you from reading the book.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

“Will I go back home soon?” asked Robin fearfully, for the gate had clanged shut behind them as if it had been closed forever. “Will a message be sent to my father? Or to my mother?”

“Be comforted, my child,” Brother Luke answered. “As soon as the plague is somewhat quieted in London, a messenger will be sent to thy father. Meanwhile, we shall care for thee.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2eTETgV

1932 Newbery Medal: Waterless Mountain by Laura Adams Armer

Waterless Mountain, by Laura Adams Armer, was published in 1931 by Knopf.

Younger Brother is only eight years old, but already he knows he will be a Navaho medicine man. He has seen signs and has had a vision. It will take many years of hard work for Younger Brother to learn how to use his gifts. As he grows, he must also master skills for survival, such as how to read a trail, train a horse, and find water in the desert….This deeply moving and authentic account of young Navaho’s childhood and spiritual journey is filled with wonder and respect for the natural world.

Rating: 3/5

Newbery Medal winners have always been cultural and historical in scope, but I feel as if the earlier ones tend to be so without focusing so much on the darker side of life (self-esteem problems, bullying, loss, etc.) Waterless Mountain is a celebration of life and of the Navajo people, told through the eyes of a poetic, deeply-thinking boy.

I wish I could have appreciated this book more, but I read it at a time when I was working long hours and I would always be falling asleep while reading it. I don’t really think that has anything to do with the quality of the book, although perhaps a more exciting book, or a book I was more excited to read, would have helped me stay awake. In any case, the book blurred together for me, although I do know that I thought Younger Brother’s trip across the country was a little strange. Not that he would go on it, but that it made the book have a kind of Western movie feel to it, complete with bandits.

If you don’t really know much about the Navajo culture, this book will certainly teach you a lot—and it shows, also, how separated the culture was, at least back then in the 1930s, from the Western country it lived in. I’m not sure how integrated Native culture is today (presumably more so now), but seeing that the Navajos managed to keep their culture and their way of life years after all the big forces that moved them around and took away their land is heartwarming.

Waterless Mountain maybe isn’t the most interesting Newbery I’ve read, but it’s definitely one of the most informative and one of the most culturally imbued. I’m not sure if it’s a “pick up and read again and again” book but I do think it’s a book that needs to be read.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“Uncle, where does the Turquoise Woman live?”

“On an island in the wide water of the west. There she waits every day in her turquoise house for her husband, who carries the sun.”

“And when the Sun Bearer reaches his home in the west, what does he do with the sun, Uncle?”

“He hangs it up on a turquoise peg on the turquoise wall of the turquoise house of the Turquoise Woman.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2gEGzLt

1931 Newbery Medal: The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth

The Cat Who Went to Heaven, by Elizabeth Coatsworth, was published in 1930 by Simon & Schuster.

This is the story of a little cat who came to the home of a poor Japanese artist and, by humility and devotion, brought him good fortune. Commissioned to paint the death of the lord Buddha for the village temple, the artist lovingly entered on his scroll of silk the animals who came to receive the blessing of the dying Buddha. The little cat sat patiently by, seeming to implore that she too be included. At least, the compassionate artist—knowing well that the cat alone of all the animals had refused to accept the teachings of Buddha—took up his brush and drew a cat, and thus brought about a Buddhist miracle.

Rating: 4/5

The Cat Who Went to Heaven is a very short, but very sweet, book. It’s the story of an artist and his cat, but’s it’s also a story about Buddha and what he did. Basically, before the artist paints each animal, he imagines himself as that animal and how it relates to Buddha, so there’s a lot of information about the story of Buddha. The drawings (by Lynd Ward) are excellent and really capture the spirit of the book.

The book is short, so I can’t really say too much about it. I do think the title is Coatsworth trying to make the book more appealing to a Western audience, since heaven in Buddhism is much different than what an American in the 1930s would think it was, but the concept does get across even if the only thing you know about Buddhism is what you learn from this book.

The Cat Who Went to Heaven is definitely the Newbery book that most fits the traditional “children’s book” vibe so far. A lot of the Newbery’s I’ve read fit more in a Middle Grade spectrum, at least in my opinion (then again, that division of genres didn’t exist back then, so maybe that explains it), but this book has a read-aloud feel to it with the length to match. Of course, reading this book might require a discussion of Buddhism, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If there’s one thing I’ve liked about all the Newbery Medal winners so far, it’s that they represent a wide-range of cultural and historical areas. The Cat Who Went to Heaven merely touches on a whole concept and culture, but it’s respectful and beautiful while it does so.

Recommended Age Range: 7+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“But where is the cat?” thought the artist to himself, for even in his vision he remembered that in none of the paintings he had ever seen of the death of Buddha, was a cat represented among the other animals.

“Ah, the cat refused homage to Buddha,” he remembered, “and so by her own independent act, only the cat has the doors of Paradise closed in her face.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2vHfiNW

1998 Newbery Medal: Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse

Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse, was published in 1997 by Scholastic.

A terrible accident has transformed Billie Jo’s life, scarring her inside and out. Her mother is gone. Her father can’t talk about it. And the one thing that might make her feel better—playing the piano—is impossible with her wounded hands. To make matters worse, dust storms are devastating the family farm and all the farms nearby. While others flee from the dust bowl, Billie Jo is left to find peace in the bleak landscape of Oklahoma—and in the surprising landscape of her own heart.

Rating: 4/5

I didn’t know going into Out of the Dust that it was written entirely in verse rather than prose, and I’m actually glad I didn’t know because I don’t particularly enjoy free-verse novels. However, Hesse does a really good job—I never thought the descriptions or details were sparse or vague and all of Billie Jo’s emotions and the things that happen to her come across in just the right way. And even though, towards the end of the novel, the culmination of Billie Jo’s emotions and decisions is a little abrupt, it’s still understandable why she does what she does.

My main complaint of free-verse novels is that they always feel so jarring and choppy. There never seems to be good enough transitions between the poems themselves so I feel like I’m constantly starting and stopping, starting and stopping. However, Hesse manages to mostly avoid this jerkiness, somehow. There are still poems that feel a little out of place, but for the most part they all function as a cohesive unit.

Out of the Dust is a unique novel, but its heartbreaking depiction of the Dust Bowl is in no way lessened because of its format.  This is one of the more gut-wrenching Newbery’s I’ve read, and not just because of what happens to Billie Jo’s mother. I found it a little choppy in places but overall the book is engaging and, despite its sad content, also manages to end somewhat on a happy note. Definitely a book for more mature readers, but it does teach a lot about the Dust Bowl.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Gruesome death.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2vWgIri

1933 Newbery Medal: Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze

Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze, by Elizabeth Foreman Lewis, was published in 1932 by Henry Holt.

When Young Fu arrives with his mother in bustling 1920s Chungking, all he has seen of the world is the rural farming village where he has grown up. He knows nothing of city life. But the city, with its wonders and dangers, fascinates the thirteen-year-old boy, and he sets out to make the best of what it has to offer him.

Rating: 3/5

Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze read much more like a modern novel than I was expecting. I suppose I was so used to the style of the 20s and 30s literature I’ve read that I thought Lewis’s writing would follow the same pattern. However, Young Fu was engaging, informative, and reminded me of more recent books such as The Golden Goblet and A Single Shard.

Perhaps the biggest flaw of the book is that it seems long, especially in the middle. Young Fu is basically a series of events in Young Fu’s life and it starts to drag about halfway through. Part of the reason for the slow pace may be that Fu is not the most interesting of characters. He also is not a particularly relatable one, at least to me—I found him a little too smug and thought he conquered things a little too easily. His condescending air, though accurate for a teenager, is very hard to take and I found it hard to feel sorry for him or root for him during the times Lewis wants us to do so.

However, historically I liked the look at the turmoil in China right before the time of WWI and the rise of the Nationalist Party and Mao. It’s not a perspective prevalent in literature and the edition of the book I read (the 75th anniversary edition) included lots of information in the back about the time period and how China was transforming as a nation in terms of technology and politics. Lewis did a good job of weaving the politic tension in and showing the conflict between the “old ways” and the “new ways.”

Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze is slow-going in the middle and I thought that Fu himself was not a particularly relatable character, but I liked the historical aspect of the novel and the way Lewis incorporated it in the novel. The writing style was evocative of a modern novel and lacked a lot of the language and stylistic choices and accompanying problems that I discovered in the earlier Newbery books. Overall, Young Fu is a deserving Newbery Medal winner—though it’s not my favorite so far.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

That night on Chair-Maker’s Way, Young Fu told his mother,” Today a foreign man bought a tray in our store.”

“He did not see you, I hope!”

“He did. Tang told me to carry brasses into his presence. Also, he spoke to me.” At his mother’s exclamation of fright, he reassured her, “Do not fear! He was ugly, but harmless.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2w8BtkX