The Siege by Kathryn Lasky

The Siege, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2004 by Scholastic. It is the sequel to The Rescue.

Rating: 3/5

Lasky continuously finds new ways to amplify the threat of the Pure Ones in each successive book of the series. They start out as a mysterious rumor, to a dreadful shadow, to a fully realized evil. In The Siege, if the author’s note didn’t make it clear enough, the Pure Ones are basically the Nazis. As the title suggests, they lay siege to the Ga’Hoole tree and the Guardians have to fight them off.

The first half of the book, though, deals with the infiltration of St. Aggie’s to weed out the Pure One spies. That’s right—Soren and Co. become spies in order to catch other spies. It’s a great little callback to the first book, and also shows just how far the characters have come in terms of strength and courage. And there’s a great reveal in this book—let’s just say a character in the first book returns in a surprising, amazing way.

Lasky has simplistic views of morality and good and evil laced throughout the book, so while it’s perfect for children, I found it a trifle tedious and boring at times. The long bits of dialogue are especially hard to read. And in this book, Lasky herself stated she “modeled” Ezylryb’s speechs after Winston Churchill’s, and it shows. Ezylryb’s speeches have a ring of familiarity to them, and one strong enough that I had to wonder if Lasky was phoning it in, relying on someone else’s material to make her point rather than try and create speeches of her own. It fits the stark lines she has drawn, but I do prefer a little bit more nuance. Adult tastes opposing the target audience of the book, I know.

I found some confusion at the end in regards to Dewlap’s role, as it is never clearly explained, but overall the book is well balanced, with lots of setup at the beginning, a decent action-filled scene at the end, and lots of setup for the next two books in the series. I’m not a fan of certain aspects of the writing style, but I’m still drawn to this series and what it can teach its audience about good versus evil.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Violence

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2S5ecYU

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The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, was published in 2015 by Dial.

Rating: 4/5

The War That Saved My Life is about Ada and her brother, Jamie, who are sent to the country to escape the threat of Hitler (well, Jamie is sent—Ada sneaks along). Ada has a clubfoot and a terrible mother, and knows almost nothing about human interaction or the outside world. The book is basically a coming-of-age story for Ada, who learns many things while staying with Susan, the woman who took her and Jamie in, as well as a story of strength and survival.

There’s a lot going on in this book to unpack. There’s the background of World War II at the beginning, leading to its outright interference towards the end, so we get stories of heroes and spies at the same time as Ada is finding her own inner strength. We have Ada’s journey, from abused to hero, and her growing reconciliation with the fact that her clubfoot doesn’t make her worthy of less love. We have Susan’s journey, from depressed lonely woman to someone who grows to care fiercely for the children. And Jamie gets a mini-journey as well, though he never felt a believable six-year-old to me.

It’s a Newbery Honor book, and deservedly so. It’s a heartwrenching, heartwarming story of love and family. The inclusion of World War II isn’t toned down; it’s brutal and scary and shows just the sort of atmosphere that must have existed at the time.  Of course, the best part of the book is Ada, though Susan’s own journey is almost as important. However, there’s a scene at the end where Ada confronts her mother that is supposed to be the strongest part of the book, but I found to be a little confusing and a little too cut-and-dry. Despite that, though, The War That Saved My Life is powerful and memorable, and one of the better stories that handles abuse and disability.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2CR9sl5

1942 Newbery Medal: The Matchlock Gun by Walter D. Edmonds

The Matchlock Gun, by Walter D. Edmonds, was published in 1941 by Dodd.

Even Father had never used the matchlock gun. In 1756, New York State was still a British colony, and the French and the Indians were constant threats to Edward and his family. When his father was called away to watch for a raid from the north, only Edward was left to protect Mama and little Trudy. His father had shown him how to use the huge matchlock gun, an old Spanish gun that was twice as long as he was, but would Edward be able to handle it if trouble actually came?

Rating: 1/5

Much like The Whipping Boy, I’m puzzled as to why The Matchlock Gun won the Newbery medal, though it’s at least slightly understandable as this was published in the 1940s and there may not have been as much competition. It just seems so much different (and shorter) than other Newbery winners, even those from the same time period.

The book takes place during the French and Indian War and tells the story of how Edward saved his mother from an Indian raid (and is apparently based off a true story) by using his father’s matchlock gun. It’s very short; I read it in maybe ten or fifteen minutes. It does very little to actually explain the background of the French and Indian War, and there’s no explanation given as to why the Indians are raiding in the first place, nor how they slip past all the armed men, nor why they attack Edward’s mother (or why she even baits them in the first place). The ending is also very strange, as Edward’s father seems very unconcerned that his wife is unconscious and bleeding. I also had some questions as to how Edward managed to kill three Indians at once, until I remembered that Edward’s mother had stuffed what was essentially grape shot into the gun.

I’m sure other people who have read this book have expressed concern about the Indian portrayal and Edward’s use of the gun, but to be honest, that wasn’t my problem with the book at all. Edward was defending his mother, and I wouldn’t expect a book for children this short even try to address the politics. If you want a child to learn more about Indian culture, don’t give them this book, end of story. The main reason for rating The Matchlock Gun this low is that I really don’t understand why this book deserved an award. It’s too forgettable, too…average. I struggled to even come up with this much to talk about, to be honest.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2pYZ0PX

When Will This Cruel War Be Over? by Barry Denenberg

When Will This Cruel War Be Over?: The Civil War Diary of Emma Simpson, by Barry Denenberg, was published in 1996 by Scholastic.

Rating: 2/5

After the Native American books, I think When Will This Cruel War Be Over? is the next most notorious Dear America book. This one, though, is notorious for reasons that I don’t quite agree with. The main reason people seem to be up in arms about this book is the narrator’s, Emma’s, treatment of her family’s slaves. See, Emma actually treats the slaves well and even teaches the children to read and write. However, there’s still a chilling underlying inferiority applied to them, stated quite matter-of-factly and spouting “Christian” reasons for it. The main outcry against this portrayal is that people are upset that the author portrayed Emma as educating her slaves and being “nice” to them, which implies that the author is saying that slavery really wasn’t all that bad.

However, that interpretation is pretty nonsensical if you think about it. This is a Civil War diary of a Confederate girl. If Denenberg chose not to have the family abuse their slaves (presumably because of the audience), that does nothing to undermine the fact that Emma’s opinions about slavery are wrong. It does nothing to hide the way Emma talks about the slaves around her as if they were worth less than her, or how she thinks about them as if they were an alien species.

And if people are upset that children reading this book would absorb Emma’s thoughts and think slavery is fine or that the South was justified, then again I point out the words “Civil War” on the front. If the child doesn’t know about the Civil War and the different sides that were fighting, and that Emma is wrong, then that’s not the book’s fault.

And if people are upset that children reading this book might feel sympathetic for what happened to the South and to Southern families during the Civil War, then those people are unfeeling and heartless. Just because the Confederates were wrong does not mean they did not suffer during the war, and that does not mean we can’t feel sympathy for the people whose lives were upended and who lost family members.

I’m getting off my soap box now and moving on to the actual mechanics of the book.

So, When Will This Cruel War Be Over? is plagued by similar problems that plagued Denenberg’s other Dear America book, So Far From Home. The protagonist is whiny, too verbose, and does almost nothing except mope for the entire book. There is very little action in the book—all Emma does is react to the things happening around her. In addition, Denenberg’s choice to make the Simpson family religious is irritating, as he doesn’t explain the topic with nearly enough nuance or information and merely perpetuates stereotypes. I’ve already talked about Emma’s attitude and the portrayal of slavery as a whole, so I won’t address that, but that was by far the least irritating thing of the book in comparison to the pacing and the plot.

It’s a shame that both Civil War entries in the Dear America series are terrible. It’s like both authors were too nervous to actually delve into some good material. And now I’m scared that Denenberg’s One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping isn’t as good as I remember it being, based on his track record so far.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Confederate view of slavery and of the Civil War.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2CdV31a

1987 Newbery Medal: The Whipping Boy

The Whipping Boy, by Sid Fleischman, was published in 1986 by Penguin.

Jemmy, once a poor boy living on the streets, now lives in a castle. As the whipping boy, he bears the punishment when Prince Brat misbehaves, for it is forbidden to spank, thrash, or whack the heir to the throne. The two boys have nothing in common and even less reason to like one another. But when they find themselves taken hostage after running away, they are left with no choice but to trust each other.

Rating: 2/5

I am legitimately confused as to how The Whipping Boy won the Newbery Medal. It’s not a bad book, but it’s so unremarkable that I can’t imagine why, out of all the books nominated (or however the process goes), this one won.

The book is short—not a point against it, just an observation—and thus an extremely quick read. There’s Jemmy, the whipping boy, the prince, who from the pictures seems to be French royalty (but who knows?), and various other characters. Basically, what happens is some sort of strange version of The Prince and the Pauper, but with bears and bandits and lots of exclamations of “Gaw!” Then it wraps up nicely with some character development for both Jemmy and the prince.

And that’s pretty much all I have to say about it.

Okay, so, I can see that a lot of children probably would really enjoy it, as there are lots of escapades and some amusing scenes and dialogue. And the message, while delivered far too quickly due to the length of the book, is a good one about friendship and treating others right. But there wasn’t a whole lot of meat there for me, which is why I’m puzzling over why this was given a Newbery Medal. But I suppose not all children’s books can appeal to all adults.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

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

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan, was published in 1989 by Penguin.

In 1948 four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, begin meeting to eat dim sum, play mahjong, and talk. United in shared loss and hope, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. With wit and sensitivity, Amy Tan examines the sometimes painful, often tender, and always deep connection between these four women and their Ameican-born daughters. As each reveals her secrets, trying to unravel the truth about her life, the strings become more tangled, more entwined….

Rating: 4/5

The Joy Luck Club was one of the choices for my high school summer reading back in the day. It’s the one I picked, and I vaguely remember liking it. A couple of years later, I stumbled across “The Rules of the Game,” a chapter of the book, presented as a short story. This book had stayed with me throughout the years, though I’m not sure why—I didn’t remember much about it and I don’t remember being enthused about it when I read it in high school. But I decided to read it again since I’ve always said I like the book, though couldn’t remember much about it beyond the one chapter about Waverly and chess.

I could probably say a lot about Tan’s presentation of immigration, of children born into America whose parents came from a different country and the clash of cultures that occurs within their own family as a result. There is so much disconnect between the mothers and their daughters simply because their daughters were born in America, and the mothers were born in China, and the completely different lives they lived and what they experienced. The four mothers’ stories are all equal parts horrifying and heartbreaking, while in comparison, the problems of the four daughters seem a bit whiny and shallow—at least in my opinion. To be honest, The Joy Luck Club mostly seems to focus on the strength of the mothers, and all the ways their daughters fail to see that strength.

The book is separated into four sections; each character narrates twice, except for Jing Mei/June, whose mother has died and thus she narrates four times. Because of the back-and-forth and switching, it’s difficult to remember which story belongs to whom. I had to keep going back to refresh my memory. Each daughter narrates something about her childhood, then something about her adult life, while the mothers narrate about events in China. I can’t really say that I had a “favorite story” or a “favorite character;” I didn’t like any of the daughters and the mothers’ stories were interesting, but too disjointed for me to have a strong attachment.

I do think “The Rules of the Game” is an excellent short story, though, which is why it’s treated as one in anthologies, I think. That has always been the one thing I remember most about the book.

The Joy Luck Club is not a book that really sticks with me, nor is it a book that I could read again and again. It’s more like a book that I come back to in ten years’ time, reading it, saying, “Oh, right, that’s what this is about,” and then putting it down for another ten years. It’s a great perspective on cultural differences and the generational “gap,” as it were, which is probably why it’s on high school curriculum, but I think its strengths lie more in taking a chapter separately as opposed to the whole thing. However, there’s a reason it’s still read and talked about today, which is why I’m giving it such a high rating. I admire it for those qualities, but it’s not really a book I want to come back to.

Recommended Age Range: 15+

Warnings: Some mentions of sex, violence, death.

Genre: Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2QDH6O2

The Far Side of the Loch by Melissa Wiley

The Far Side of the Loch, by Melissa Wiley, was published in 2000 by HarperCollins. It is the sequel to Little House in the Highlands.

In The Far Side of Loch seven-year-old Martha is lonely and restless. The Stone House was filled with people during the holidays, but now the cousins have gone home, Martha’s father is traveling, her brothers are at school, and her older sister, Grisie, is too busy brooding over her embroidery to pay any attention to Martha. Her new pet hedgehog makes things a bit more fun, and then Father comes home with some thrilling news and suddenly Martha’s house is bustling with excitement!

Rating: 3/5

The prequels to the Little House books can tend to be devoid of the charm that made Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books so popular. Unfortunately, that’s true of the Martha Years in general. While Little House in the Highlands was interesting in its look into Scottish life, it didn’t have a whole lot of appeal to carry over to this next book, The Far Side of the Loch.

Wiley continues to give insight into Scotland with this book, but the simplistic writing and basic emotional insights let it down. I mean, I didn’t hate the book, but I didn’t love it, either (my favorite of the Martha Years is actually the next book, Down to the Bonny Glen, which has lots of character growth for Martha in it). The most interesting part of the book was seeing the contrast between city and country life and the exploration of homesickness and family.

I did find it very clever, or perhaps cheeky, of Wiley to include the tale of “The Laird’s Lass and the Smith’s Son.” Wiley delves into this slightly in later books, before Harper sadly cut off the prequels before she could get to the actual romance, but Martha Tucker in real life married the son of a blacksmith. The tale told in this book has a slightly happier ending in terms of family than does Martha’s, though—since Martha married significantly beneath her, her family basically cut her off. I think there’s a mention of her brother in the sequel to this series (about Martha’s daughter and Laura’s grandmother, Charlotte), but other than that, she pretty much leaves Scotland and never sees her family again (that is–if this book is historically accurate). That’s part of the reason why I found the focus on family in this book to be so interesting.

If you liked the first book in the Martha Years, The Far Side of the Loch is more of the same. It doesn’t build a whole lot on the first book, nor does it have particularly complex themes or insights. It does play on the idea of “home is where the heart is,” as well as the conflict between city and country life and other things that are interesting in light of what happens to the real Martha Tucker. Children will probably like this book if they enjoyed the first one, but it lacks a little something for an older audience.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2zVHS3v

1977 Newbery Medal: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor, was published in 1976 by Dial.

Why is the land so important to Cassie’s family? It takes the events of one turbulent year—the year of the night riders and the burnings, the year a white girl humiliates Cassie in public simply because she is black—to show Cassie that having a place of their own is the Logan family’s lifeblood. It is the land that gives the Logans their courage and pride, for no matter how others may degrade them, the Logans possess something no one can take away.

Rating: 5/5

I haven’t read this book in years, but I still vividly remember the last sentence. That tends to be a good omen in terms of how much I now like the books I had read as a child, but I was still a little hesitant going in. I didn’t remember all that much of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, beyond the last sentence, but I had a vague sense of “good” attached to it. My students read this book and I remember seeing it and saying, “Oh, that’s a great book!” without having any solid feeling to back it up.

Now, having read it, I can honestly say “Oh, that’s a great book!” when I see my sophomores with it because this is a great book.

It’s fantastic, actually…like To Kill a Mockingbird fantastic. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is sad, enraging, bittersweet, yet it possesses in its characters and in the land that they own an almost triumphant sense of undefeatedness. Taylor pulls absolutely no punches in her depictions of Southern life during segregation. In Cassie, Taylor has created a perfect vehicle for all readers to learn. Injustice and sorrow are center to this book, and are something that the book never resolves, only abates, as befitting the historical time period.

Roll of Thunder is one of the best vehicles for explaining segregation and the racism prevalent in the time before Civil Rights to children. To be honest, I found this book more shocking than Huckleberry Finn and more educational as well. While Twain is excellent at crafting just how much the culture has affected Huck in his attitudes towards Jim, Taylor has given us a book that shows us how that sort of mindset affects those it’s directed towards. It is shocking in its blatant honesty, and it’s not a book where you set it down and are satisfied.

Basically, I want to gush about Roll of Thunder till the cows come home. This is one of the best children’s books I’ve ever read. Highly deserving of that Newbery Medal and of all the rewards, both now and forever.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Violence.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2O8Wcyk

The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow by Ann Turner

The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow: The Diary of Sarah Nita, a Navajo Girl, by Ann Turner, was published in 1999 by Scholastic.

The narrator describes her experiences as her Navajo tribe is forced to relocate by the U.S. Army in 1864 New Mexico.

Rating: 1/5

The Dear America series is fairly historically accurate at times, but I know there are a few entries that are panned widely for their inaccuracies. The most notorious is My Heart is on the Ground, which I’ll be covering when we get there, but I’ve also heard that The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow has its problems. And there are certainly others besides those that have been criticized for their portrayals of history (such as When Will This Cruel War be Over?, which, again, I’ll be covering when we get there).

I won’t really go into the cultural or portrayal problems with this book; that has been done far more extensively in other places by Native Americans. From my perspective, Turner does a fair job portraying some cultural aspects of Navajo life (in comparison to books that have perpetuated bad stereotypes), but there are others where even I can tell she either glosses over them or twists them entirely. It’s interesting because the notes in the back indicated she did research, and even consulted a Navajo artist about the book. I’m wondering if the audience of the book put some sort of limit on what Turner thought she could and should portray, which is a shame if true.

My main problem with this book—and most people’s, I would argue—is that it is simply a poor depiction of The Long Walk. I know this is a children’s series, but Turner was far too nice in her portrayal. The inclusion of a kindly soldier, while perhaps true to history (though anyone that kind who is in that position needs to explain why he’s even taking part at all), softens the atrocities that happened on the trail, such as leaving the elderly, the ill, and the pregnant behind (if not downright shooting them, as is portrayed—“off page”—in the book). Sarah Nita’s “grin and bear it” attitude (more like “tell a story and bear it” attitude), which may actually work for some instances, only serves to make it seem as if the Navajo eventually became content with their situation. It seems to me as if Turner completely changed the entire tone of the Long Walk.

That’s really the problem—the tone seems off. The Long Walk was something terrible, but Turner’s approach makes it seem as if it really wasn’t all that bad. Even when she portrays things like pregnant women being shot, and the vague “the men can be cruel to our women” comments, there’s too much kindness, too much happiness, too much softening of events. Stories hold a lot of power, and can help in troubled times, but using that idea makes it seem as if Turner is proverbially patting people on the head and saying, “There, there. It wasn’t all that bad.” The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow is simply an unrealistic presentation of the Long Walk, one that is inaccurate, far too happy, and, yes, disrespectful to the people who had to go through it.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Violence.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2OZd2fw

2015 Newbery Medal: The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander, was published in 2014 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

“A bolt of lightning on my kicks…/ The court is sizzling. / My sweat is drizzling. / Stop all that quivering. / Cuz tonight I’m delivering,” raps basketball phenom Josh Bell. Thanks to his dad, he and his twin brother, Jordan, are kings on the court, with crossovers that make even the toughest ballers cry. But Josh has more than hoops in his blood. He’s got a river of rhymes flowing through him—a sick flow that helps him find his rhythm when everything’s on the line. As their winning season unfolds, things begin to change. When Jordan meets the new girl in school, the twins’ tight-knight bond unravels. In this heartfelt novel, basketball and brotherhood intertwine to show Josh and Jordan that life doesn’t come with a playbook and, sometimes, it’s not about winning.

Rating: 4/5

I’m not a huge fan of novels written in verse, but The Crossover won me over. Alexander made the format actually fit in a way that made sense; there was a reason that’s important to the story why it was written this way, and it really would not have been the same book at all if it had been written in prose. Not many novels-in-verse are like that.

This book is remarkably sad, as befitting a Newbery Medal (I kid, but seriously, Newbery Medal winners often have some poignancy attached), and the worst part is that what makes it so sad is the unnecessariness of it all. You can see the sadness coming from a mile away, and all you want to do is scream at the characters and get them to prevent what’s coming, but of course, that’s not how books work.

Despite the sadness, The Crossover is quite funny, and there’s even a happy ending of sorts. More bittersweet than happy, perhaps. And Alexander does a great job of conveying all the various emotions of everyone, not just Josh, so that really helps give the characters more depth.

The one thing that I found confusing was simply the basketball terminology. Even after having a crossover explained to me, I still had no idea what the point of it was or why it seemed to be so important in basketball. It would have been nice to have someone explain why it’s important to have a good crossover, but perhaps that would have broken up the flow of the book.

The Crossover actually reminded me quite a bit of some my students, who I think might really enjoy this book—even if it is written in verse! It’s sad and funny and heartwarming and bittersweet in all the right places in all the right times. I’m still not a fan of novels in verse, but The Crossover is one of my favorites of the style.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2DB5zBY