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

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

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

Rating: 4/5

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

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

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

Recommended Age Range: 7+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

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

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

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

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1998 Newbery Medal: Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse

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

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

Rating: 4/5

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

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

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

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Gruesome death.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

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

Son of the Shadows by Juliet Marillier

Son of the Shadows, by Juliet Marillier, was published in 2001 by Tor. It is the sequel to Daughter of the Forest.

It is from [Sorcha’s] sacrifice that her brothers were brought home to Sevenwaters, and since then her life has known much joy. But not all the brothers were able to escape the spell that transformed them into swans, and even those who did were all more—and less—than they were before the change. It is left to Sorcha’s daughter, Liadan, to take up the task that the Sevenwaters clan is destined to fulfill. Beloved child, dutiful daughter, she embarks on a journey that opens her eyes to the wonders of the world around her…and shows her just how hard-won was the peace that she has known all her life. Liadan will need all her courage to help save her family, for there are forces far darker than anyone could have guessed and ancient powers conspiring to destroy this family’s peace and their world. And she will need all her strength to stand up to those she loves best, for in the finding of her own true love, Liadan’s course may doom them all…or be their salvation.

Rating: 4/5

Son of the Shadows is almost as enthralling as Daughter of the Forest, marred only by the amount of plot convenience Marillier puts in. The story is gripping, the characters, especially Liadan and Bran, are memorable and well-developed, and the world is mystical and beautiful.

Son of the Shadows is not a fairy-tale adaptation, but rather a continuation of Marillier’s original world from the first book, expanding on the plot threads and conflicts and characters. I like the idea of setting up a world through a fairy-tale adaptation and then expanding on it with an original story later on. Though the plot is self-contained, there are definitely some more threads that will be picked up, presumably, in the third book, as Marillier has been setting up some sort of confrontation between all the different forces at work since the first book (though it’s much more prominent in this one).

I do think the title is a little misleading or misnamed. The person it seems to be referring to only shows up twice, and while the second time is rather a big reveal, I’m not sure if it warrants naming a whole book after him. Then again, there could possibly be multiple “sons of the shadows,” so maybe that’s what Marillier was going for.

The Sevenwaters books have been gripping and wonderful so far. I thought that Son of the Shadows had a few too many plot conveniences, but at the same time, Marillier did make them all work, somehow, though it’s still a little eyebrow-raising. Adult fantasy is always a hard genre for me to just pick up and start reading, so I’m glad that Marillier’s works have been a stand-out in that regard. I’m looking forward to reading the next book!

Recommended Age Range: 16+

Warnings: Violence, death, sexual situations, rape.

Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tale

“You are strong, Liadan. I cannot tell you if and when you may be called to use this gift. Perhaps never. It’s best you know, at least. He would be able to tell you more.”

“He? You mean—Finbar?” Now we were on fragile ground indeed.

Mother turned to look out of the window. “It grew again so beautifully,” she said. “The little oak Red planted for me that will one day be tall and noble, the lilac, the healing herbs. The Sorceress could not destroy us. Together, we were too strong for her.” She looked back at me. “The magic is powerful in you, Liadan.”

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

1958 Newbery Medal: Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith

Rifles for Watie, by Harold Keith, was published in 1957 by Harper.

Jefferson Davis Bussey is sixteen when the Civil War breaks out. He can’t wait to leave his Kansas farm and defend the Union against Colonel Watie, leader of the dreaded Cherokee Indian rebels. But Jeff soon learns that there’s more to war than honor and glory. As an infantry soldier, he must march for miles, exhausted and near starvation. He sees friends die in battle. He knows that each move he makes could be his last. Then Jeff is sent to infiltrate the enemy camp as a spy. And it is there that he makes his most important discovery: The rebels are just men—and boys—like him. The only difference between them is their cause. Passing himself off as a rebel Jeff waits for the information he needs to help the Union conquer the enemy forces. But when the time comes, Jeff finds himself up against a very difficult decision .Should he betray the enemy? Or join them?

Rating: 4/5

Rifles for Watie starts out with an author’s note that explains the historical research and interviews that Harold Keith conducted in order to make the book as realistic as possible. And that research shows in every area of this book, from the attitudes of the various people to the details of battles to the geographical locations.

It’s fascinating to read a book about the Civil War that is remarkably respectful to both sides (mostly the Confederate side). Nowadays, all you tend to get is “Confederates bad!” and other, more extreme iterations. Rifles for Watie, however, delves into some of the psychology of, at least, the Native American side of the war (many of whom fought for the Confederates) and has an empathetic, wonderful protagonist in Jeff, who realizes that people are people, not nameless pigs to be slaughtered, and that things are confusing in war when it seems that the side you were fighting against might, actually, have a legitimate reason for fighting you. In this case, keeping one’s property. And no, I’m not talking about slaves.

Land and the idea of owning your own property is really the driving force presented in the novel. Jeff is fighting to drive the bushwhackers out and to help his family keep their land without fear of being killed. The Native Americans on both sides are fighting to keep or reobtain their land. While there are slaves, there’s very little mention of slavery as a reason to fight, except when it came to the slave who runs away to join the Union’s all-black regiment. There is, maybe, just a tad too much of the “happy slave” idea, but Keith still treats the subject with respect (and, after all, this was a book for children in the 1950s).

Keith also depicts both good and bad sides of both forces. There’s looting from both armies; there’s corrupt Clardy on the Union side juxtaposed with charismatic Watie on the Confederate side; there’s the friendly Confederate cook; there’s the loyal Union friends Jeff makes; and, of course, Lucy, who is on the Confederate side but has respect (and deeper feelings) for Jeff, a Union soldier.

Overall, Rifles for Watie is a fabulously even-handed book on a war that pitted two ideologies against each other. There’s respect for the great leaders on the Confederate side, even when Jeff (and through him, the reader) disagrees with their ideas. Both the good and the bad of both the Union and the Confederate armies are shown or hinted at (let’s be real here; the Union army most likely did some terrible things to the people living in the Confederate south, looting their houses and taking their livestock being some of the more mild). Jeff is empathetic, does not simply dismiss the Confederates as “bad” or “racist” but recognizes similarities and respects them even as he seeks to combat them. Rifles for Watie can teach people today a thing or two about what it’s like to really put yourself in another person’s shoes and respect them even as you disagree with them.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Violence, death.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“I’m lonesome,” David blurted, miserably. “I want to go home and see Ma. Goshallmighty, Jeff, I ain’t cut out to be no soldier. I was a fool to ever leave the farm.”

“Corn, Dave,” Jeff said, in alarm, “you can’t just walk off from the army once you’ve joined it. That’s desertion. You know the penalty for desertion. They’ll stand you up against a wall and shoot you.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2uv0tk8

1930 Newbery Medal: Hitty, Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field

Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, by Rachel Field, was published in 1929 by Simon & Schuster.

Hitty is a doll of great charm and real character. It is indeed a privilege to be able to publish her memoirs which, besides being full of the most thrilling adventures on land and sea, also reveal a personality which is delightful and forceful. One glance at her portrait will show that she is no ordinary doll. Hitty, or Mehitable, as she was really named, was carved from a piece of white ash by a peddler who was spending the winter in Maine. Phoebe Preble, for whom Hitty was made, was very proud of her doll and took her everywhere, even on a long sailing trip in a whaler. In this way Hitty’s horizon was broadened and she acquired ample material to make her memoirs exciting and instructive.

Rating: 4/5

Hitty, Her First Hundred Years is a charming novel, very much like a more serious The Doll People if the dolls only observed the goings-on around them. While it starts out a little outlandishly with Hitty’s adventures with the Preble family, it very quickly smooths out and becomes much more realistic in terms of Hitty getting from one place/family to another.

This may very well be my favorite Newbery Medal book so far, even surpassing The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle. Hitty’s voice, the adventures she goes through, and the observations she makes all combine to make a delightful book. There are definitely a few spots where the book’s age shows, but not very many, and once the book gets past those spots it’s very easy to immerse yourself into the book once again.

It’s amazing that a book about a doll would be so successful and lasting. I mean, The Doll People is good and all, but Hitty has a whole different sort of charm to it. I think one reason is that Hitty’s adventures certainly sound real—if an antique doll had a story to tell, it may very well be quite similar to Hitty’s own (except perhaps the whaling adventure at the beginning, the most hard-to-swallow of them all, as well as the most eyebrow-raising). It also helps that the people in the book, in the stories Hitty relates, are interesting and help keep Hitty’s story interesting. And, as vehicles for which Hitty moves, they’re nicely integrated into the story, and, as I said, make the story more believable.

Hitty, Her First Hundred Years is a promising start to the 1930s Newbery Medals. Along with Caddie Woodlawn, this decade is shaping up to be much more interesting and engaging than the 1920s boring fest of medal winners.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: N/A

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“There, Kate,” said the Captain, suddenly pointing with his whip, “that’s the first mountain-ash tree I’ve seen this fall.”

There, sure enough, at the edge of some woods was a slim, tallish tree loaded down with bunches of orange berries. The tree seemed to bend under their weight and they shone like burnished balls.

“That’s Hitty’s tree,” cried Phoebe, “and it’s magic!”

“Hush, child,” reproved her mother, “you mustn’t say such things.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2uAAU1u

A Tangle of Gold by Jaclyn Moriarty

A Tangle of Gold, by Jaclyn Moriarty, was published in 2016 by Arthur A. Levine. It is the sequel to The Cracks in the Kingdom.

His visit turned out to be ridiculously brief. Madeleine and Elliot barely talked before word came that he and his father would be bundled back to Cello. On the train platform, Elliot didn’t snap out of the distant fog he seemed to be in. And Madeleine’s nose bled—again!—just as she tried to say good-bye. Now she’s mortified, heartbroken, lost—and completely cut off from Cello. Cello, meanwhile, is in crisis. Princess Ko’s deception of her people has emerged and the kingdom is outraged. Authorities have placed the princess under arrest and ordered her execution. Color storms are rampant, more violent than ever. And nobody has heard the Cello Wind blowing in months. But Madeleine can’t let go of Cello. It gave her a tantalizing glimpse of the magic she’s always wanted—and maybe it’s the key to the person she is meant to become. She also can’t let go of Elliot, who, unbeknownst to her, is being held captive by a dangerous branch of Hostiles. What will it take to put these two on a collision course to save the Kingdom of Cello, and maybe to save each other?

Rating: 4/5

I’m going to jump right in with my absolute favorite thing about A Tangle of Gold: it has one of the best plot twists I’ve experienced in a long time. Looking back, I can see now how all the pieces line up and all the hints and clues that were scattered along the trilogy. In the moment, though, when things were happening and I was wondering what on earth was going on and starting to roll my eyes at the ridiculous/ “poetic” descriptions, Moriarty drops that piece of amazing plot reveal right in my lap. I actually gasped and said, “No way!” out loud, and not many books get me to do that. And the best thing was that it made so much sense but wasn’t so obvious that I saw it coming a mile away—because I didn’t see it coming, at all.

The biggest complaint I’ve had about the Colors of Madeleine trilogy so far is the voice of the characters. However, in A Tangle of Gold, either there was less of it jarring me out of the book or I simply noticed it less. Maybe the plot reveal made me look at the book more favorably. I will say, though, that some things happened that I had a really hard time swallowing. Like Princess Jupiter’s magical abilities manifesting because of plot convenience. And Elliott’s brainless decisions while being with the Hostiles. And that whole thing with the Circle and immortality. And, made slightly more tongue-in-cheek by Belle’s reaction, the whole thing with Jack revealed at the very end. Also, the ending was jarring because it ended so abruptly and not particularly as satisfying as I thought it could be.

However, A Tangle of Gold might be my favorite of the trilogy if only for that marvelous bit of plot weaving that Moriarty did throughout the entire trilogy leading up to that plot reveal. You’re likely not to be disappointed by this book if you enjoyed the other two, and while some things become a little convenient with our heroes and there’s still a kind of pretentious, fake voice to the teenagers, particularly Belle, it’s a good finish to the trilogy. If only the ending had given just a little more closure.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Swearing.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

That night, Madeleine lay on her couch-bed and felt the silence rising up from the flat downstairs. It joined the darkness in her own flat, injecting it with shots of deeper darkness.

A thread of burning colours was coiling through her veins. A hot-oil rainbow. It smelled like ink spilled from permanent markers, the high, poisoned sweetness of it.

She was going mad.

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

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly, was published in 2009 by Henry Holt.

The summer of 1899 is hot in Calpurnia’s sleepy Texas town, and there aren’t a lot of good ways to stay cool. Her mother has a new wind machine from town, but Callie might just have to resort to stealthily cutting off her hair, one sneaky inch at a time. She also spends a lot of time at the river with her notoriously cantankerous grandfather, an avid naturalist. It turns out that every drop of river water is teeming with life—all you have to do is look through a microscope! As Callie explores the natural world around her, she develops a close relationship with her grandfather, navigates the dangers of living with six brothers, and learns just what it means to be a girl at the turn of the century.

Rating: 4/5

For some reason, I wasn’t expecting The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate to be as good or as engaging as I found it to be. It was humorous, interesting, and surprisingly much lighter in tone and material than I expected it to be. I kept expecting something sad or dangerous to happen throughout (perhaps because of its Newbery Honor status) and—spoiler?—nothing did.

I was worried going in that the book was going to be very heavy on Darwinian evolution and I had no interest in reading a book that very clearly pushed an agenda (*cough*ScottWesterfeld*cough*). However, the book focuses mainly on natural selection and general observation and scientific method, and while some mentions of the clash between Genesis and Darwin’s theory are in the book, they’re dealt with much more matter-of-factly and historically, and less politically, which I liked.

What I didn’t like is the whole “girl hates what girls did back then and tries to be more progressive and feels stifled by her unprogressive society” trope. I’m thinking it’s because I’m an adult and so this sort of thing doesn’t really jive with me anymore. I’m past the point where I need to be told that I can be a naturalist if I want to. I’m past the point where I need to be told that it’s fine if I don’t know how to cook (but, seriously, housekeeping skills are dead useful. Where are the books where boys learn how to sew?). At least the grandfather states how he had to learn to knit during the war. That redeemed the trope for me a little.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is surprisingly (at least, for me) light-hearted, which actually made it a little disjointed for me. I kept expecting something bad to happen and kept seeing hints of things cropping up, only to find out that I was completely wrong. However, I still enjoyed the novel, despite the prominent archetype/trope present, which, to give credit where it’s due, is at least historically rooted and it make sense for Kelly to include it. I just wish it wasn’t also combined with “wild child” at the same time. I don’t see why Callie couldn’t have sewed well and also wanted to be a naturalist, but perhaps the uneven balance is necessary for a book aimed at middle-grade readers.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: N/A

Genre: Historical Fiction, Middle Grade

“Anyway, as a thank-you, the great man sent me the bottled beast you see on the shelf next to the armadillo. It is my most prized possession.”

“Excuse me?” I said, looking up from the trilobite.

“The bottled beast you see there on the shelf.”

I looked at the monster in the thick glass carboy, with its freakish eyes and multiple limbs.

“It is a Sepia officinalis he collected near the Cape of Good Hope.”

“Who collected it?”

“We are speaking of Mr. Darwin.”

“We are?” I couldn’t believe it. “He sent you that?”

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

Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal

Valour and Vanity, by Mary Robinette Kowal, was published in 2014 by Tor. It is the sequel to Without a Summer.

After Melody’s wedding, the Ellsworths and Vincents accompany the young couple on their tour of the continent. Jane and Vincent plan to separate from the party and travel to Murano to study with glassblowers there, but their ship is set upon by Barbary corsairs. It is their good fortune that they are not enslaved, but they lose everything to the pirates and arrive in Murano destitute. Jane and Vincent are helped by a kind local they meet en route, but Vincent is determined to become self-reliant and get their money back and hatches a plan to do so. But when so many things are not what they seem, even the best laid plans conceal a few pitfalls. The ensuing adventures is a combination of the best parts of magical fantasy and heist novels, set against a glorious Regency backdrop.

Rating: 4/5

Valour and Vanity is much better than I remember Without a Summer being, though, granted, it’s been a while since I’ve read the latter. It’s a delightful heist novel, though the heist itself does not take place until the last third of the book, and the build-up to the heist is slow, yet never a trudge, and filled with appropriate tension and mystery. While the reason Jane and Vincent need to pull off a heist seems overly elaborate, it’s acknowledged by the characters and seems warranted due to the circumstances.

I prefer fantasy novels that, if they have complicated magic, it makes sense and is explained well. I don’t understand the glamour aspect of Kowal’s world and I don’t think I ever have or ever will. Kowal explains it often enough, but I’ve never been able to grasp the concept. I’m not sure if that’s a flaw in the design or simply a flaw in my understanding. It does make things a little hard to understand, and read, when it gets to the technicalities, such as the glass glamour spheres the Vincents are working on and all that complicated glamour stuff they do for the heist. Kowal at least makes it to the side of “understandable enough to pass muster,” though the system still seems confusing overall.

The previous two books in the series seemed a little more complicated and far-reaching than this one, and I really enjoyed the more simple nature of Valour and Vanity. Odd to say of a heist novel, I know. It further developed and resolved some storylines from the previous books, but the scope did not seem as large, nor did there seem to be so many interacting characters and storylines. There was much more of a focus on the development of Jane and Vincent’s characterization and relationship, done wonderfully well. This was probably my favorite book after the original, and it’s not even because of the heist, though that was well done. The characterization is delightful and that, above all, is what made me enjoy Valour and Vanity so much.

Recommended Age Range: 15+

Warnings: Implied sex within marriage.

Genre: Fantasy

“What is it you wish to make.”

“A sphere of cristallo.”

“That’s it? Just a ball?”

“A perfect sphere.” Vincent rolled his shoulders. “I shall need you to hold it quite steady as we cast glamour into it. The glassmaker we used in Binché—”

“I know what I am about, sir. You do not need to instruct me.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2t0CqZL

The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss

The Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann David Wyss, was first published in 1812. I read the 1992 Bantam Classic version.

“For many days we had been tempest-tossed…the raging storm increased in fury until on the seventh day all hope was lost.” From these dire opening lines, a delightful story of adventure begins. One family will emerge alive from this terrible storm: the Robinsons—a Swiss pastor, his wife, and four sons, plus two dogs and a shipload of livestock, hens, pigeons, and geese! Inspired by Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, this heartwarming tale portrays a family’s struggle to create a new life for themselves on a strange and fantastic tropical island. There each boy must learn to control his own nature—such as Ernest’s bookishness and Fritz’s hot temper—as their adventures lead to amazing discoveries, danger, and tantalizing surprises, including a puzzling message tie to an albatross’s leg. But it is the authenticity of the boys’ behavior, the ingenuity of the family, and the natural wonders of this exotic land that have made The Swiss Family Robinson, first published in 1812-1813, one of the world’s best-loved and most enduring stories of shipwreck and survival.

Rating: 4/5

I owned the Children’s Great Illustrated Classics version of The Swiss Family Robinson and read it many times when I was young. The entire concept of an island paradise where a family has to live off the land and does so successfully (and lives in a tree house!) fascinated me. I knew as I got older that the book I owned was abridged, but I wasn’t sure of how much had actually been cut out. So, I decided to pick it up to read the full thing for the first time—and also I wanted to relive that island paradise fantasy of mine.

Now, reading the original as an adult, I can see how silly that fantasy was—not because it’s wrong to imagine things like that, but because—realist that I am—I had a hard time believing that so much variety in animal and plant life would be on that island. I know there are penguins on Madagascar, so it’s not too much of a long shot to have penguins on an island in the Indian Ocean somewhere, but penguins and ostriches and lions and bears and seals and capybaras and jackals and hyenas and the myriad of other animals that are living on this apparently very large island? That’s a bit of a stretch. And yes, it makes for a great and fascinating tale, fulfilling all the “wild animal tamer” fantasies of many children (who doesn’t want to ride an ostrich?), but as an adult, it’s a bit harder to swallow.

That’s not to say I didn’t like the book. Even if the exact descriptions of planting, killing, skinning, crafting, cooking, etc. were a little wearing after a while, I still enjoyed the basic message and plot behind all the (oftentimes boring) details. Even if the tree house wasn’t as big or as majestic as I remember (thanks, Disney), I still liked the concept of a family surviving and thriving after what could have been a deadly accident.

The book gets a little preachy at times, but that’s common in a lot of 19th century literature. For the most part, Wyss devotes his time to describing how the family survives with a few interludes from the father about thankfulness and providence—not a bad thing to emphasize, just delivered a little clumsily.

The Swiss Family Robinson wasn’t as thrilling and imaginatively fantastic as I remember it being, but it still hits all the “shipwrecked on a deserted island” boxes—and then some! The emphasis on the technicalities of how the Robinson’s survived is, perhaps, a bit much at times, and it’s hard to believe that any island could be as varied in flora and fauna as the one the Robinson’s are on, but there’s still wonder and fascination to be had when reading it. However, even after reading the original, I think the Children’s Illustrated Classic edition will still be the one that has the biggest stamp on my mind and memory—it was just that fascinating to me.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Middle Grade

“Stop, stop, my boy!” cried I. “All will be done in good time. Tomorrow and the day after will bring work of their own. And tell me, did you see no traces of our shipmates?”

“Not a sign of them, either on land or sea, living or dead,” he replied.

“But the sucking pig,” said Jack, “where did you get it?”

“It was one of several,” said Fritz, “which I found on the shore; most curious animals they are. They hopped rather than walked, and every now and then would squat down on their legs and rub their snouts with their forepaws. Had not I been afraid of losing them all, I would have tried to catch one alive, they seemed so tame.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2rI2vtD

Poison is Not Polite by Robin Stevens

Poison is Not Polite, by Robin Stevens, was published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster. It is the sequel to Murder is Bad Manners.

When Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong visit Daisy’s sprawling countryside estate for the holidays, Daisy’s mother throws her daughter an extravagant birthday tea party. Then one of the guests falls mysteriously ill—and everything points to poison. With wild storms preventing anyone from leaving (and the police from arriving), Daisy’s home is suddenly a very dangerous place to be. Everyone is keeping secrets. When someone very close to Daisy look suspicious, the Wells and Wong Detective Society must do everything they can to reveal the truth…no matter the consequences.

Rating: 4/5

Poison is Not Polite (Arsenic for Tea in the UK) continues the fun, charming yet surprisingly deep at times story that I found so delightful about Murder is Bad Manners. Daisy and Hazel are back with another murder mystery, this one establishing a bit more character for Daisy as her family members are all suspects.

I didn’t know whether or not I liked Daisy in the first book, and although this book gave her a bit more development I still don’t know how I feel. I found her a little less annoying in Poison because I understood her character better, but she’s not a character type I’ve ever really liked so the jury’s still out on her. Hazel, however, is delightful and Kitty and Beany are great additions to the detective society as well.

I found the mystery in this one a little more obvious than Murder—as well as some of the other reveals—but I also fell into the same kind of thinking that Daisy and Hazel did, which meant the reveal was still a surprise, if only in its execution as opposed to its “whodunit” value. Stevens is a remarkably good mystery writer, not just in putting together the pieces of a puzzle but also in having her characters figure it out. Hazel and Daisy never take logical leaps or stretch the evidence more than is warranted; everything is carefully thought out and executed by Stevens, which makes for a nice, natural flow to the book as a whole.

I’m still going to hold out on a 5/5 rating for this series until one of the books completely blows me away. Poison is Not Polite is great, but not excellent, and even though I’m thoroughly enjoying the series so far, the “wow” factor is not quite there yet. Good mystery and characters aside, there’s still something missing—and I’m not quite sure what it is yet.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Mystery, Middle Grade

“How handsome!” Aunt Saskia was staring at the watch, and her eyes were glinting. She looked as though she wanted to lick her lips.

“Oh—this?” asked Mr. Curtis jauntily. “A memento. I do like having beautiful things around me.”

“Do you indeed?” asked Uncle Felix, in his most silky voice.

They stared at each other down across the table. Everything had suddenly become very tense.

“Goodness!” cried Lady Hastings. “What has got into you all? We ought to be celebrating. Let’s have a toast. To the party! May this weekend be absolutely perfect!”

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