1983 Newbery Medal: Dicey’s Song by Cynthia Voigt

Dicey’s Song, by Cynthia Voigt, was published in 1982 by Simon & Schuster.

Rating: 4/5        

Dicey’s Song is the second in a series, and while reading the first book, Homecoming, will certainly help with knowing the characters and the backstory, enough is explained that it’s not necessary. The story is about Dicey and her younger brothers and sister as they navigate a new home, a new school, and all the troubles and pain that their situation (absent father, sick mother) warrants. While the main focus is on Dicey’s internal conflict as well as her relationship with her grandmother, there is also focus on her relationship with her classmates, her teachers, and her siblings. Oh, and there’s a bit of mother-daughter relationship/conflict as well.

Voigt does a good job of dealing with all the various emotions and conflicts present in the book. There’s a lot of characters, but most of them are complex and interesting. The relationship between Dicey and Gram, with its give-and-take, learning aspect, is great. She’s a bit heavy-handed with her theme, but for a children’s book it’s appropriate, especially one dealing with such heavy topics as this one does (depression, dyslexia, death, and grief). My only raised eyebrow was when James was so adamant that he knew the right way to teach Maybelle. I don’t think Voigt was intending it as a “this is what you should do,” but it came across that way a bit.

This is the penultimate Newbery Medal book I read. It’s a little bittersweet, but also immensely satisfying. I don’t think Dicey’s Song will reach my list of top favorites, but I think it was more emotionally satisfying than many other Newbery Medals, as well as more interesting and memorable.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2LV78f9

2008 Newbery Medal: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, by Laura Amy Schlitz, was published in 2007 by Candlewick.

Rating: 4/5

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! is a book of poems about the medieval time period, and Schlitz does an excellent job of capturing the voice and style. She also crams a whole lot of information into each of the “voices.” Each poem is from the point of view of a different person of the village, ranging from the lord to his villein. Sometimes the poems are connected, sometimes not.

I read a book a few months ago that described just how brutal the medieval life was, and this book captures that in a way that’s still suitable for children. Schlitz includes footnotes and other things for some of her references, but mostly the information is communicated directly through the poem, whether it’s the glassblower’s apprentice trying to blow glass, the glassblower’s daughters wondering whether they will marry said apprentice, a runaway villein, the miller, a knight…Schlitz expertly shows the hierarchy and class conflict that existed in the medieval days. Even religious tension is shown.

The book does do a great job of communicating lots of things about the medieval period, which means it’s full of dirt, dung, babies and mentions of birthing, the feudal system, and other things that may not be suitable for younger children. Schlitz also includes brief “essays” about various things in the medieval period, such as Jewish/Christian relations and the Crusades (which is unfortunately one of the worst takes on the Crusades I’ve read). Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! is a good way to get an overview of the medieval period, and a much more interesting book of poetry than some others I’ve read.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: See last paragraph.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

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

The Crow by Alison Croggon

The Crow, by Alison Croggon, was published in 2006 by Candlewick. It is the sequel to The Riddle.

Rating: 4/5        

I anticipated that The Crow would be my favorite of the Books of Pellinor so far, and I turned out to be correct. The absence of Maerad and pages of pages of her and Cadvan doing absolutely nothing helped make The Crow more interesting, though still just as massively long. This time, though, the book is cram-jam full of action, from the siege of Turbansk to Hem infiltrating the child army of Den Raven.

That’s not to say the book was perfect. It was still way too long, and this time there was so much crammed in that there was almost no time to pause before being slapped in the face with tension and action all over again. I also really didn’t like the plot convenience behind Hem getting his hands on the second half of the Treesong, and the fact that his trek across the country to rescue Zelika was a complete waste of time (except for that previously mentioned plot convenience—or should I say incredibly obvious plot machination??).

Speaking of Zelika, she was a bit annoying, and I’m sure many people probably don’t like where her character goes and how her character is used in the book, though it didn’t bother me as it was realistic. I just am not fond of brash, headstrong characters who do stupid things. Hem was better, though he got a bit annoying at times, too. I liked him more than Maerad, as he seemed more normal and acted in a more understandable fashion than Maerad’s odd weak/strong, passive/assertive ping-pong personality. He also used more magic in one book than Maerad seemed to use in two, so Hem definitely seems the more Bardic of the two and also seems to understand more about many things than Maerad does, though perhaps my memory of the first two books is simply failing me.

Despite the problems with the book, I still enjoyed The Crow for being much more fast-paced and action-y than the first two books, as well as less clumsy in delivery. The characters were more interesting and realistic, though I wasn’t fond of Zelika and Hem had his bad moments, too. The worst part of the book is the obvious plot manipulation in the last third, which made all the other manipulation stand out even more.

The last book promises to bring together Hem and Maerad in one last attempt to free the Treesong and defeat the Bad Guy before he destroys everything. I remember not liking the ending, so we’ll see how it goes!

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2ZxY84d

The King’s Fifth by Scott O’Dell

The King’s Fifth, by Scott O’Dell, was published in 1966 by Houghton Mifflin.

Rating: 4/5

Despite the fact that I barely remember the first half of The King’s Fifth—due to distraction plus lack of memorability—I thought the latter half was quite good, which is why I gave it such a high rating. O’Dell has crafted a relatively even-handed story of the conquistador era, and how gold and greed led to trickery, violence, and even murder.
Esteban de Sandoval, a mapmaker, follows Captain Mendoza and his cohorts in the latter’s search for Cίbola and gold. Along the way, he is caught between the greed of the Spaniards and the peace of Zia, their Indian guide, and Father Francisco, a monk.

O’Dell shows very well the lengths men will go to for gold, as well as the terrible things that happen as a result. Coronado invades the city of Hawikuh, Mendoza steals from and kills several Indians, and the party starts to splinter from within because of greed. Even Esteban is not immune to it, as he starts acting more callous and selfish the more gold is available.

I didn’t remember much of the set-up of The King’s Fifth, beyond the trial sections, which were more interesting, but the last half of the book I thought was pretty good. It’s a good look at the way gold shaped the exploration of Mexico/the current Southern US, as well as how it shaped the treatment of the natives (and of people in general). The hint of romance between Esteban and Zia is, perhaps, a bit too sentimental and predictable, but that is a core part of what led him to resist greed at the end, so I suppose I can see why it was there (otherwise, there is only one other cause for Esteban to hide the gold, which I don’t think would have been enough to make it believable).

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Hl8H4x

Wolf Queen by Tanith Lee

Wolf Queen, by Tanith Lee, was published in 2001 by Dutton. It is the sequel to Wolf Star.

Rating: 4/5

Wolf Queen solves lots of the mysteries that were set up over Wolf Tower and Wolf Star and sends Claidi and Argul off on a happy ending, finishing up the Claidi Journals on a sweet, sentimental note—or, at least, that’s what the book wants me to think.

See, this isn’t actually the last Claidi book, though it’s the last one I read. Lee wrote one more, though apparently wasn’t planning to, based on the blurb for this book. I’m excited to read it to see what happens, as that one will truly be a “blind” read for me. This book, Wolf Queen, wasn’t quite as jaw-dropping as it should have been, since I’ve read it before and knew the big twist already. However, it was nice to read it to see all the hints Lee dropped beforehand.

Claidi’s voice is as delightful and unique as always, and even though this book introduces some truly outrageous (in a good way, I think) fantasy/sci-fi elements, her voice made everything somehow more plausible and realistic. I wish it was explained more as to how, exactly, a lot of the magic/technology works—we’ve got clockwork people, which I understand, but then all there are also powerful items that operate on a “don’t pay too much attention to the mechanics” level. Ustareth’s ring is one of those, of course, and it did bother me a bit that there was no explanation as to how it can do half of the things it did.

I wish each book didn’t hinge quite so much on “Claidi gets taken places,” but, again, Claidi’s voice is so delightful that she could probably stay in one room the whole book and it would still be interesting. These books lack a bit of something that I can’t really explain—they’re interesting, and I like them a lot, but they don’t grip me like some books do. However, Claidi and Argul are adorable, and the draw of the books is Claidi’s voice, not complexity of plot or stellar worldbuilding. I can deal with that—and I’m looking forward to exploring Wolf Wing, the book I never read, and seeing if Lee can surprise me.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2HhAtP8

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

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

Rating: 4/5

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

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

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s

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

A Coal Miner’s Bride by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

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

Rating: 4/5

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

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

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

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

Recommended Age Range: 8+

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

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

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

1995 Newbery Medal: Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

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

Rating: 4/5

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

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

Wolf Star by Tanith Lee

Wolf Star, by Tanith Lee, was published in 2000 by Dutton. It is the sequel to Wolf Tower.

Rating: 4/5

The thing that stands out the most to me in The Claidi Journals is Claidi’s voice. The parentheses, the random asides, the subtle sarcasm and wit, all combine to make Claidi distinctive, unique, and memorable as a protagonist. And Lee is so good at following old tropes, and yet somehow making them new.

For example, in Wolf Star, Claidi is kidnapped and taken to the mysterious Rise and must figure out a way to escape. Although she never actively tries to run, her reasons for why she doesn’t are relatable and make her more realistic as a protagonist. Then, as she gets to know Venn and is intrigued by the mysteries of the moving rooms and the clockwork servants, her curiosity is what makes her stay. And I love the contrasts set up in this book: the contrast between Venn and Argul, between Ustareth and Zeera, between Wolf Tower and the Rise, and even between Claidi-before and Claidi-after.

Wolf Star is strange, and not much happens—it’s much more of a character-focused novel, intent on exploring a particular backstory, than an action-packed novel. There’s less excitement and movement than the first book, yet this one has excellent pacing and worldbuilding to make up for it. The one thing that jarred me was the revelation of Argul’s age—he doesn’t seem, and has never seemed, like an eighteen-year-old. A strange thing to complain about, but it caused a disconnect for me.

I can see not everyone liking these books. Wolf Star in particular seems framed for a very specific audience; it’s a strange book in its flow and in its story. I loved it, but I enjoy books where the protagonist is witty, but not ridiculous; brave, but not aggressive; faltering, but not bemoaning. Claidi is all of that and more.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

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

The Middle Moffat by Eleanor Estes

The Middle Moffat, by Eleanor Estes, was published in 1942 by Harcourt. It is the sequel to The Moffats.

Rating: 4/5

The Middle Moffat focuses on Jane Moffat, as opposed to the all-encompassing Moffat family viewpoint of the first book, and her thoughts, struggles, and opinions over a year-ish of time. I don’t remember this book nearly as much as The Moffats, so it was almost entirely new to me. And it was a delight to read.

I think the thing I enjoyed the most about this book was Jane’s thoughts, her rambling, sometimes odd, but exactly on point in terms of age, thoughts that cover at least half of most of the chapters. As she explores playing the organ, taking care of the oldest inhabitant, dealing with Wally Bangs, and participating in the basketball game and the parade, her thoughts perfectly encompass the sorts of things a child doing those things might think about. It really is so delightful and fun to read her wondering about shooting baskets in a basketball game, and all the running and chaos that incurs, and all the things she doesn’t want to do beyond shooting baskets.

For younger readers, the book might be a little hard to understand because of all the outdated language, especially in terms of describing clothing, but Jane is inviting and endearing as a character, so I don’t think the setting will inhibit too much.

The Moffats was a good book, but The Middle Moffat made me fall in love with Estes and the Moffat family, especially Jane. I’m really looking forward to seeing what charm and delight the next books might bring.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2LRWKX1