1949 Newbery Medal: King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry

King of the Wind, by Marguerite Henry, was published in 1948 by Simon & Schuster.

When Agba, a simple horse boy in the royal stables of the Moroccan court, is selected to accompany his stallion to France he is beside himself with pride. Sham, along with five other horses, is the golden bay named for the Arabian sun, and meant to sire a stronger race of horses throughout Europe. But when Sham and Agba arrive, the king sees them as nothing more than a carthorse and his charge and sends them away. Bound by the orders of the Sultan, Agba knows he must protect the pedigree of Sham at all costs. A duty that will change the history of thoroughbred horses—forever.

Rating: 4/5

I think I’ve found the book that inspired The Black Stallion, or at least, the book most likely to have influenced it. King of the Wind reads far too similarly to Farley’s series for it to be a coincidence (unless I’m crazy and making things up, which is also possible).

King of the Wind traces the lineage of the great racehorse Man O’ War back to “The Godolphin Arabian,” the horse from Morocco that traveled all the way to England through various methods and sired swift racehorses. Besides The Black Stallion, the book also read like Black Beauty, especially in terms of all the predicaments Sham found himself in (though the book isn’t told from his perspective as in Black Beauty). It’s basically a story about how Agba, Sham’s groom, never gives up on believing that his horse will accomplish great things despite all the terrible things that happen.

It’s a beautiful book, especially with the illustrations, even though it does a lot of hand-waving some times. For example, I completely missed when Agba and Sham got to England from France, and things definitely progressed at an unrealistic rate and setting. But the book is, at its heart, a horse book, and so it can more easily get away with things like that, in my opinion.

I’m also impressed that Henry seemed to do a lot of research on this book, judging by the lists of books she gave at the end. It’s obvious that the majority of it she made up, but knowing that there’s a seed of truth in it somewhere helps make the whole book seem more meaningful somehow.

My one disgruntlement is that the marvelous horse race that’s beautifully illustrated inside the cover never happens. In fact, Sham never races at all. It’s actually a little harder to sell the title, in my opinion, if Sham never actually runs, but I mean, I suppose he lives on through his super-fast children.

King of the Wind is so reminiscent of mid-twentieth century horse stories, combining danger and adventure in the basic story of the love between a boy and his horse. It’s a great starting point to talk about differences in culture and in religion, and the frequent dismissals of Sham as being too weak/little/etc. to be a good breeding horse can certainly be related to present day topics. I just wish that horse race that was so gorgeously illustrated on the front and endplates had actually taken place because it would have been awesome.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Bcb1Kv

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Series Week IX (The Great Brain): The Great Brain Reforms

The Great Brain Reforms, by John D. Fitzgerald, was published in 1973 by Dial.

The year is 1898, and the best con man in Adenville, Utah, is the infamous twelve-year-old Tom Fitzgerald, “The Great Brain.” A year at the Catholic Academy for Boys certainly hasn’t dulled Tom’s love for money—he’s no sooner off the train than he begins scamming his own brother! By the end of his summer break, Tom has tricked all his friends out of everything they own. He even outwits three professional crooks who come to swindle the whole town. Tom thinks he should be the most popular kid around: He has all the good toys, and he’s saved his townspeople. Tom really begins to rake in the dough when he sets up business as a raftsman. But when he endears the lives of two friends, his brother J.D. decides it’s time for the Great Brain to reform. And that’s how the case of The Kids of Adenvillev s. The Great Brain is tried in the Fitzgeralds’ barn one summer day.

Rating: 4/5

My favorite Great Brain books are the ones where Tom gets a little slap of reality. It’s good fun to see the way he tricks and connives his brothers and friends out of their belongings, but there’s a sort of bittersweet feeling that comes along with it, too. There’s lots of good fun in The Great Brain Reforms, and lots of that bittersweet/aggravated feeling when J.D. continuously falls for his brother’s shenanigans, or Tom sweettalks his way out of trouble. But, as the title promises, there’s also moments where Tom realizes that he’s taken things too far.

The Great Brain has had times in previous books where his schemes have failed him. There’s the moment in More Adventures of the Great Brain where Tom insults the town through his newspaper, and later cries alone in the barn. In The Great Brain at the Academy, Tom is put in his place several times by the priests at school. In The Great Brain Reforms, two whole chapters are dedicated to Tom’s downfall.

Fitzgerald illustrates in this book, to an extent that he never reaches in the previous books, the cost of Tom’s greed, and once again shows the difference between Tom using his brain to help others and Tom using his brain to fill his wallet. Tom is faced with what his actions have cost him—the loss of his friends, the disappointment of his family, and a terrible reputation.

There’s a lot of nuance in this book, and a lot of buildup—Tom slowly gets more and more reckless and greedy in his endeavors. He’s at his most outrageous in this book—and yet, there are moments when normal, brotherly Tom shines through. The ending is inevitable, and there’s a sense of satisfaction to it, even as J.D. reminds us that Tom is the Great Brain, after all, and he’s not likely to reform for long.

The Great Brain Reforms has many aggravating Tom moments, but Fitzgerald is much harsher on Tom in this book than in previous books, as fits the results of his conniving. Tom at last comes face-to-face with the results of his own greed, and it’s satisfying even as the reader feels slightly sorry for Tom. I’d say this is one of the best Great Brain books in terms of displaying consequences, and also in terms of showcasing the difference between when Tom helps people and when he’s just being greedy.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None. 

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

You can buy this here: https://www.amazon.com/Great-Brain-Reforms-John-Fitzgerald/dp/0440448417

Series Week IX (The Great Brain): Me and My Little Brain

Me and my Little Brain, by John D. Fitzgerald, was published in 1971 by Puffin.

Tom, a.k.a. The Great Brain, has gone off to attend boarding school in Salt Lake City, leaving little brother J. D. to follow in his ingenious and conniving footsteps. Since all of J. D.’s attempts at profitable endeavors fail miserably, he soon realizes that he just doesn’t have that crafty Great Brain knack. But when his young adopted brother is kidnapped by a desperate outlaw, J. D. finds that his little brain may not be so ordinary after all.

Rating: 4/5

Me and My Little Brain (which drives me crazy since it should be My Little Brain and I) is a much-needed addition to the Great Brain series. It dials back on Tom, since he’s off to boarding school, and focuses on the narrator, J.D., as he tries to figure out who he is apart from his brother.

The first couple of chapters deal with J.D. as he tries to follow in his brother’s footsteps—and soon finds out that trying to be like someone else doesn’t work out the way you want it to. The rest of the book deals with J.D. figuring out who he is and coming to terms with the fact that he only has a “little” brain.

The plot mainly revolves around Frankie, a young boy who the Fitzgeralds ultimately adopt, and his relationship with J.D. Then, of course, there’s a part at the end where J.D. really gets to show off all his “little brain” can do—and also give himself confidence in his own abilities, and make him realize that he can be his own person and that he doesn’t revolve around Tom and Tom’s escapades.

It’s a very refreshing entry in the Great Brain series, especially if you find Tom’s cons in the first two books tiring or annoying. There’s very little “Great Brain” exploits in this book, and it deals much more with character development than the first two books as well. It’s far-fetched at times, but the whole series is that way, and it fits with the nature of the books as a whole.

Me and My Little Brain focuses the spotlight on J.D. and is all the better for it. J.D. really comes into his own, and his journey is realistic—his struggle to be like Tom, his disappointment when he finds out he can’t be, and then his realization at the end when he understands that even though he may just have a “little brain,” he can still accomplish great things and reap priceless benefits for doing so. It’s a good break from the cons of Tom, and a defining character moment for J.D. It may not be as fun as reading a book about Tom’s tricks, but it has much more substance to it.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None. 

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

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

A Daring Venture by Elizabeth Camden

Disclaimer: A Daring Venture, by Elizabeth Camden, was provided by Bethany House. 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 really like Elizabeth Camden. She has a knack for making compelling stories with characters that don’t fit the same old outline of the majority of other Christian historical romances. She also tends to have strong stories that aren’t pushed to the side for the romance. This story is about the battle to chlorinate water—a true story—and deliver clean water so that water-borne diseases, such as cholera, aren’t as frequent. The two main characters, Rosalind and Nick, do have a sort of insta-love, which I never really like, but Camden made it super cute and emphasized aspects of it that made me actually like it this time.

I also liked that the romance was void of a lot of tired tropes. That may also have contributed to my liking of it, since it seemed so new in comparison to the past books I’ve read. And I liked that Rosalind and Nick got to shine as characters, rather than as vehicles for romance. The characterization was really good, though Nick’s turn-around in terms of his view of chlorination was abrupt. And I liked all the court intrigue and the drama that revolved around the plot, though some of it was a little too over-the-top, such as pretty much everything that went on with Aunt Margaret.

This book is the second in a series, but luckily it’s not necessary to have read the first (I didn’t). It would have led to much greater insight into two of the characters, as well as Nick’s background, but overall it wasn’t too bad to fill in the blanks with what Camden gave.

A Daring Venture had a compelling plot, a romance that was sweet (and not annoying, so it gets bonus points from me), and solid characterization. A few elements were a miss for me, such as some of the more dramatic moments and Nick’s abrupt change of mind, but overall, I really enjoyed this book.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Christian, Historical Fiction

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

Series Week IX (The Great Brain): More Adventures of the Great Brain

More Adventures of the Great Brain, by John D. Fitzgerald, was published in 1969 by Puffin.

Has Tom Fitzgerald, a.k.a. the Great Brain, given up his con-artist ways for a bicycle? Not for long. Soon the Great Brain is back to his old tricks, swindling and trading, even convicing the whole town there’s a prehistoric monster on the loose. The citizens of Adenville, Utah, can count on the Great Brain’s genius, from finding the ghost of Silverlode to helping Britches Dotty act like a lady. Then someone robs the bank, and even the police are stumped. Can the Great Brain solve the crime and put the crooks behind bars?

Rating: 4/5

More Adventures of the Great Brain brings back the outrageous schemes of Tom, narrated by the ever-innocent, completely gullible JD. While the first book dwelt more on Tom’s swindling of kids, as well as some of his stunts that involved adults, this second book focuses a little more on the times when Tom falters.

It’s good that Fitzgerald knocks his hero down a peg or two at times, because otherwise Tom’s antics would be unbearable. Someone who gets away with everything and is always outsmarting everybody else makes for not only a boring hero, but also an unrealistic story. However, Fitzgerald includes enough humble pie for Tom to eat that it makes his true successes stand out even more. His underhanded negotiation to get money out of doing a good thing for Dotty is followed by his selfless devotion to his father. The devastation Tom feels after “scooping” his father’s newspaper is followed by his heartwarming funeral arrangement of a beloved dog. Tom is more flawed, and thus more human, in this book, yet he also accomplishes some of his best moments.

I am looking forward to the book where JD comes into his own, because at the moment he is so gullible it is difficult to feel sorry for him when he falls for Tom’s tricks. He has a tendency to make things worse for himself by opening his mouth. The end of this book sets up the next, by sending Tom off to school (the book which covers that, by the way, is probably my favorite), and leaving JD feeling like he can step into his brother’s shoes easily, and you can already tell that things aren’t going to work out that way.

More Adventures of the Great Brain brings back Tom’s swindling antics, but humanizes him more than the first book, giving him failures to remind both the reader and himself that he’s still just a kid, but also heartwarming successes to show that even swindlers can do good things. In this book, Fitzgerald seems to be saying that a great brain, put to a good use, is a good thing to have, but a great brain put to bad use is damaging to everyone. It’s a theme he will repeat later on in the series, and it’s a great message to include.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None. 

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

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

1979 Newbery Medal: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, was published in 1978 by Dutton.

This highly inventive mystery involved sixteen people (including a dressmaker, a secretary, an inventor, a doctor, a judge, a bookie, a burglar, and a bomber) who are invited to the reading of the very strange will of the very rich Samuel W. Westing. They could become millionaires, depending on how they play the game. All they have to do is find the answer—but the answer to what? The Westing game is tricky and generous, but the heirs play on—through blizzards, burglaries, and bombings. Ellen Raskin has entangled a remarkable cast of characters in a puzzle-knotted, word-twisting plot filled with humor, intrigue, and suspense.

Rating: 4/5

The Westing Game is a fun mystery/puzzle story, with a diverse and quirky cast of characters and a twisty-and-turny plot that, according to the introduction, the author made up as she went along. I’ve had this book recommended to me by a couple of people, so I knew when I started this Newbery Medal read that I would finally get a chance to see what it was all about.

At first, the characters can be hard to differentiate between, and none of their voices (or their interactions) seem quite accurate. However, as they start to get fleshed out and you become used to each character’s particular quirk, it becomes easier to tell them apart. Raskin was clearly aiming for humor/distinction rather than realism with these characters (and with her plot as a whole), so there’s still a little bit of separation there, but once the mystery really gets going, the odd absurd factor to the novel becomes less apparent.

Speaking of the mystery, it’s really quite fun. While I figured out the first half of it relatively quickly (almost as soon as the clues appeared), the rest was a surprise for me—especially the last part, which was almost too obscure (but not quite, making it rather brilliant). I wish there had been more to it, though—more clues, more steps, something. There was slightly too much in the middle that didn’t have to do with the clues and instead had to do with random revelations about each character (some of which didn’t really fit, like what we learn about Angela). It helped us get to know the characters more, but made that part of the mystery drag.

The multiple characters in The Westing Game are hard to get accustomed to at first, but once they get fleshed out it’s easier to tell them apart. The mystery is great—lots of twists and turns, obscure hints, red herrings, and a pretty cool reveal. However, there was almost too much going on in some parts, and the ending wasn’t as satisfying as I would have liked (why does Angela marry the intern after a whole book of her lamenting mournfully about marrying him??). It’s not quite on level with an Agatha Christie mystery (I have a bad habit of comparing all mysteries with hers), but it’s still great fun.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Realistic, Mystery, Children’s.

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2uXaeY7

The City of Gold and Lead by John Christopher

The City of Gold and Lead, by John Christopher, was published in 1967 by Aladdin. It is the sequel to The White Mountains.

When Will and his friends arrived at the White Mountains, they thought everything would be okay. They’d found a safe haven where the mechanical monsters called Tripods could not find them. But once there, they wonder about the world around them and how everyone else is faring against the machines. In order to save everyone else, Will and his friends want to take down the Tripods once and for all. That means journeying to the capital of the Tripods: the City of Gold and Lead. Although the journey will be difficult, the real danger comes once Will is inside, where Tripods roam freely and humans are even more enslaved than they are on the outside. Without anyone to help him, Will must learn the secrets of the Tripods—and how to take them down—before they figure out that he’s a spy…and he can only pretend to be brainwashed for so long.

Rating: 4/5

The City of Gold and Lead delves further into the world of the Tripods, revealing the main threat of the trilogy and showing some standard science fiction fare. The question I had while reading The White Mountains of whether the Tripods themselves are the enemies or if there are aliens piloting them is answered, as Will and his friends infiltrate one of their cities. The first book was more “science fiction integrated into our world” while this one cranks it up and has the familiar replaced with the unfamiliar in the Tripod city.

I’m not sure how believable Christopher’s science is in the world he has created, but it almost doesn’t matter. The threat is real enough that the reader is swept up into the same race against time that Will and his friends are in. There’s a recurring motif of time limits in this book, from the journey that they must make in a particular time, to the strict schedule and timing inside the city, to the ultimate time limit set in the battle against the Tripods that Will discovers while in the city.

Speaking of Will, I really like him as a protagonist. He does enough stupid things to keep him from being too perfect, but he also takes initiative when he needs to. He’s brash, but can act fairly shrewdly when necessary. He makes some excuses for his lapses in action or judgment, but then acknowledges them and strives to make up for it. The development of his relationship with Fritz is done very well, too. I like that Christopher set up this trio of Will, Henry, and Beanpole in the first book, and then in this book tears it apart and gives us Fritz instead. It’s realistic, as it’s unlikely all three boys would always get picked for everything, and it gives Will more ways to develop.

The City of Gold and Lead is more interesting than The White Mountains, as it develops much more of the world and gives more incentive for the heroes, has some good character development, and, despite a long beginning, moves along quite well in terms of pace. There’s not a lot of action, but Christopher’s descriptions pull you into the book regardless. I’m eager to pick up the next book and see how everything ends.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Science Fiction, Middle Grade.

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

Dark Water Rising by Marian Hale

Dark Water Rising, by Marian Hale, was published in 2006 by Henry Holt.

You’d think every person from Lampasa to Houston wanted to go to Galveston this hot August day. Everyone but Seth. Galveston, Texas, may be the booming city of the brand-new twentieth century, filled with opportunities for all, but to Seth it is the end of a dream. He longs to be a carpenter like his father, yet Pap has moved the family to Galveston so that Seth can become a doctor. Still, the last few weeks of summer might not be so bad. Seth has landed his first real job as a builder, and there’s that girl across the street, the one with the sun-bright hair. Things seem to be looking up…until a storm warning is raised one sweltering afternoon. They say a north wind always brings change, but one could ever have imagined this. Set during the Galveston Storm of 1900, this is an unforgettable story of survival in the face of natural disaster.

Rating: 4/5

About a month or so before reading Dark Water Rising, I was in Galveston and learned all about the storm of 1900, so it was interesting to see how this book described it. And, though it’s not as suspenseful or nerve-wracking as, say, Gordon Korman’s survival books, Hale does a fantastic job of conveying the shock and horror felt by the residents of Galveston when fifteen feet of water and waves tear apart the island, literally.

With so much available in terms of resources on the storm, Hale’s description is incredibly accurate (as far as I’m aware, of course). Individual stories from people who lived through the storm are woven into the tale, and her description both of the storm itself and the aftermath are chilling. The cover art contributes to Seth’s descriptions of a debris-strewn island (including a debris pile twenty feet high), and, just like Seth, the reader has a hard time visualizing the sheer immensity of the body count (official count is 8,000, though many people say something closer to 12,000 is more accurate).

The descriptions of and details given about the Galveston Storm of 1900 are the true take-aways of Dark Water Rising. Hale weaves in some family tension, especially between Seth and his father, but it’s not particularly memorable or exciting. In fact, it’s fairly predictable. She also throws in some racial tension with her two characters of Josiah and Ezra, and a mediocre budding romance. These elements are largely forgettable, especially in the face of what the book is actually about (the storm), but it’s nice to have some sort of narrative to bind everything together.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Death, natural disasters.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Kw3DtD

Seeds of Hope by Kristiana Gregory

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

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

Rating: 4/5

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

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

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

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

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

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

The Penderwicks At Last by Jeanne Birdsall

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

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

Rating: 3/5

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

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

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

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

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

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