2012 Newbery Medal: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos, was published in 2011 by Farrar Straus Giroux.

Rating: 4/5

Dead End in Norvelt is a really quaint story about a boy growing up in a dying town that was founded by Eleanor Roosevelt. While many of the townspeople are convinced that it’s time to move on from the town, Jack, through his friendship with the town historian/medical examiner, learns about the history surrounding the town and its inhabitants.

The book is funny, from Jack’s attempts to stay on the good side of his parents, to his nose bleeding at the slightest provocation, to the strange Miss Volker who lives next door and has to put her hands in wax constantly. The history is great, too, from the “This Day in History” to the obituaries to Jack’s books to his thoughts on events. It’s part historical, part humor, even part murder mystery.

It’s a small-town narrative, but one with a great deal of character and charm. And, apparently, it’s based off of a true story—Jack Gantos is the author, as well as the name of the main character. Maybe that’s why this book is so vibrant and full of life. It’s a great story, and I especially loved the history bits, the obituaries, and Jack’s internal monologues. And it’s interesting how a book that’s so full of death can be as entertaining as it is. “Gothic comedy” is the way one person put it on one of those promotional quotes on the back of the book, and that’s a good way to describe Dead End in Norvelt.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

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

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2009 Newbery Medal: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman, was published in 2008 by HarperCollins.

Rating: 4/5

I’m not sure why it took me so long to read The Graveyard Book. I’ve read a bit of Neil Gaiman and like him, though not as much as I like other fantasy writers. The book was delightful; I loved how each chapter told a different story in the life of Bod, and I loved the rich world of the graveyard, with its ghosts, ghouls, and the not-living, but not-dead Silas. Most of all I loved Bod, who went from a young boy struggling to understand and use his powers, to a quiet, confident young man who suffers from a lot of heartache, but still manages to move forward.

I’m perhaps most displeased with what happens to Scarlett, though I suppose what happens with her fit the story. A quiet part of me, probably the romantic part of me, wanted a different ending, but the ending with Bod striking out on his own to see the world is quite fitting.

The villain, Jack, starts out being mysterious and foreboding, and I’m not quite sure how I feel about his appearance at the end of the book. What happens to him is something I guessed almost from the beginning, but there were other revelations that had me scratching my head a little. In addition, the incentive for killing Bod’s family seemed thin, though I suppose, with the way Gaiman built the world, it made sense.

I enjoyed The Graveyard Book, with its lengthy, story-building chapters, rich ghost world, and likeable protagonist. I’m not sure if it compelled me enough to pick up some of Gaiman’s other works for children, but I know now where I can turn if I want a good fantasy.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Supernatural

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2KHhA8U

The Hollow Kingdom by Clare B. Dunkle

The Hollow Kingdom, by Clare B. Dunkle, was published in 2003 by Henry Holt.

Rating: 4/5

At first, The Hollow Kingdom seemed like a “Beauty and the Beast” type tale, and it does share a few similarities, but the more I read the more there was to the book than just some sort of retelling. I thought the book had a fascinating premise, and though I could tell from a mile away what the end result would be, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride.

I definitely think this is a book that may lead to a lot of similar complaints that stories like “Beauty and the Beast” get, since it deals with a woman being imprisoned by, in this case, a goblin king, with a romance subplot. But I do think Dunkle frames this much more like an arranged marriage. In addition, Kate isn’t technically forced into marriage—you could argue about Marak’s actions and merits, but she does willingly choose to marry him. So while the idea of a woman being coerced into marriage because there’s no other option for her—and then falling in love with the person responsible—may be dissatisfying to some (if not something stronger), I actually thought it rang true to both the setting Dunkle has established and to real life. Arranged marriages still happen, and people who reluctantly marry (or who are forced to marry) can end up falling in love with each other later on. I’m not saying this happens all the time; it’s just a plausible scenario that I thought fit in the book.

Kate was a great protagonist, exactly the sort of female character I like. While the book does involve a goblin king, he really takes second stage. The entire story revolves around Kate. And, though this may be a little spoiler-y if you’re really picky about spoilers, it’s Kate who saves the day. In fact, we get a reverse Snow White moment at the end (minus a few things) that cements the idea that Kate is the star of the book, even when she’s in a different land.

This book reminded me a little of The Safe-Keeper’s Secret, a book that I wasn’t expecting to like and then was hooked by it the more I read. I loved this book. I can’t say it was fantastically written, but there was some sort of quality to it that grabbed me from the beginning. And that’s one of the most important qualities a book can have.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2T27yD9

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein, was published in 2012 by Hyperion.

Rating: 4/5

I really enjoyed Wein’s Black Dove White Raven, and I’ve heard good things about Code Name Verity, so I was hoping for a good story. And the book delivered by giving me a twisty, complex plot all wrapped into a World War II setting (one of my favorites).

I was expecting a straightforward novel, but straightforward is not the word to describe this book. It starts out simple enough, but by the last half of the book Wein has completely turned the tables on the reader, upending everything he thought he knew. There’s spy intrigue, acute danger, friendship, and, of course, lots of piloting, something that shows up again in the other Wein book I’ve read. It completely upended my expectations and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. And it has plenty of girl power, but not in that obvious, in-your-face sort of way that annoys me so much in other novels. This is girl power solidly set in history, which makes it great.

I was rooting for a happy ending the entire novel, but Wein follows through on the historical accuracy and delivers a gutwrenching finale, displaying how sometimes there are no easy choices to make and that the best decision doesn’t mean everyone gets what they want. It’s a solid reminder that moral decisions can be hard to make and that in wartime, sometimes the best thing to do is the last thing you ever wished would happen.

Code Name Verity navigates friendship in wartime, how bonds are made and broken, and courage in the face of danger and death. I could have done without some of the swearing, but it did authenticate the voices of the characters. And the complexity of the plot will always stand out in my mind as an extremely pleasant surprise and a stand-out of the book.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Swearing, violence, death.

Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction

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

Down to the Bonny Glen by Melissa Wiley

Down to the Bonny Glen, by Melissa Wiley, was published in 2001 by HarperCollins. It is the sequel to The Far Side of the Loch.

Rating: 4/5

Down to the Bonny Glen has always been my favorite of the Martha books. It’s longer than the others and is mostly concerned with the character development and growth of Martha. Martha is more than just a spirited young girl in this book—she’s now finally starting to realize that she’s the daughter of a laird, and in that sense she’s quite different from other children around her.

This conflict is sown all throughout the book—Martha’s awkwardness around her friends, her brother and his friends’ hesitation at seeing one another after Duncan comes back from school, Martha’s realization that as a laird’s daughter she has different expectations. And yet we also see her determination to not let things like that bother her, to push past barriers and boundaries and do what she wants to do. We see that in her eagerness to cook and her parent’s appall at the thought of her cooking for a living, we see that in her desire to go to America, to have adventure, to play outside instead of sit in and sew. And we see that in the hints and subtle indication that connect Martha and the blacksmith’s son, Lewis Tucker.

Other than the character development, Martha also gets some personal growth in terms of her rashness and thoughtlessness. Her new governess helps by channeling Martha’s energy into suitable tasks and by the end of the book, Martha is much more careful without having lost any of her spiritedness.

The Martha Years will never be as memorable or long-lasting as the Little House books, but Down to the Bonny Glen is the highlight of the series, chock-full of thoughtless Martha, interesting events (my favorite is Martha and Grisie cooking for the house), and lots of character development.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2SvOqx7

2007 Newbery Medal: The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron

The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron, was published in 2006 by Atheneum.

Rating: 4/5

The Higher Power of Lucky is about Lucky, a young girl in a small town who likes to study naturalism and eavesdrop on help groups, where she hears about the mysterious “Higher Power” and is curious to know what it is and how to find it herself.

I was a bit startled when I first started the book since on the very first page is a story about a rattlesnake who bit a dog in a very sensitive area. Patron actually gives the word rather than a tamer substitute like “groin,” and Lucky ponders the word and wonders what it is. The word is explained to her later on. It startled me because I’m not used to children’s books saying words like “scrotum” and having the main character wondering what one looks like. From that beginning, I was worried I wouldn’t like the book.

However, the book as a whole is quite sweet. This idea of a “Higher Power” permeates the entire book, and though Patron never follows it to a religious conclusion (or any concrete conclusion at all, not that I could tell), it’s used to show how Lucky is searching for something that she feels is missing. This is also accomplished through her relationship with Brigitte and Lucky’s worries that Brigitte will abandon her.

As an adult, it was interesting to read this book because Patron is very good at portraying a child’s view of things. Lucky acts like a child, but not in an extremely irritating way, or an arrogant way, but a normal, child way. She makes mountains out of molehills, oversimplifies things, and is mean at times and stubborn at others. Her voice felt real.

The Higher Power of Lucky startled me at the beginning, but then won me over with a realistic protagonist, whose outgoing nature and stubbornness actually won me over rather than pushed me away. I feel like the actual “Higher Power” part was lost in translation at the end, but it’s a delightful, heartwarming book all the same.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: It says the word “scrotum” at the beginning and then explains it at the end. Not crudely or anything, but not normally what you would find in a children’s book.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2yBDZ2w

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

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

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

I’d Rather Be Reading by Anne Bogel

Disclaimer: I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life, by Anne Bogel, was provided by Baker Books. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

My rating: 4/5

I’d Rather Be Reading is, as Annie Spence on the back of the book puts it, “a book lover’s delight.” Bogel cheekily describes a book-lover’s best and worst moments in this short book; hints of tongue-in-cheek humor are interspersed among more serious chapters of imagination, growth, and friendship. The beautiful cover is emblematic of the charm of the book, and a few illustrations are also scattered inside the pages, as well.

The mix of humor and seriousness is a good one, as Bogel lightly talks about her own problems as a bookworm, then highlights the foibles of any bookworm. The switch between “fun” and “let’s get serious” is a little bit jarring, but bookworms are probably more willing to bear with a book that describes them so perfectly. And, despite the fact that many of the books Bogel lists in this novel I was unfamiliar with, I was still able to resonate with the majority of Bogel’s words, her recollections and her confessions, her gentle admonitions and her strong declarations.

This was a fun book for me to read, and though I didn’t necessarily learn much, I’d Rather Be Reading resonated with me for nothing more than the fact that the author is a bookworm, writing for an audience of bookworms, and Bogel showed me that there are people, after all, who know what it’s like to be a voracious reader.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Nonfiction

You can buy this here: https://amzn.to/2pp9NCL