Girl Dreaming is a memoir written in free verse about
the early life of the author, Jacqueline Woodson. It won a ton of awards,
including the Coretta Scott King and the Newbery Honor. To be honest, if I
liked free verse novels better, I might have enjoyed this book more, but
despite all of its accolades, I struggled to get immersed in the book.
Perhaps it’s because not too much happens. The blurb makes the book seem much more exciting than it actually is, and while there are certainly trials and tribulations that Jacqueline must overcome, things like segregation and the Civil Rights Movement aren’t nearly as prominent as the blurb suggests (or maybe I missed a TON of subtle things, which could also be true). Instead, the book is much more involved with family affairs, as well as Jacqueline figuring out what she enjoys and what she wants to do. I suppose I should have expected that, since this is a memoir, but going into it I didn’t realize it was one, so my mind took some time to adjust (and perhaps this is why I didn’t really enjoy reading it).
And, well, I found it a bit boring. There simply wasn’t enough going on to hold my interest. This is a book that is really meant for the reflective reader—slow, character-focused, with lots to think about—and I’m not one of those. I did like some things about it, like the interesting religious focus (you don’t often get books about Jehovah’s Witnesses) and the focus on family. I think the book was deserving of all of its awards, but it simply wasn’t my cup of tea at all.
Hear My Sorrow: The Diary of Angela Denoto, a Shirtwaist Worker, by Deborah Hopkinson, was published in 2004 by Scholastic.
Hear My Sorrow is very similar to Dreams in the Golden Country, detailing the lives of an immigrant family (Italian rather than Jewish) in New York City right after the turn of the century. However, while Dreams was a bit more of a hodge-podge in regards to its balancing of key events and ideas, Hear My Sorrow really brings those ideas to the forefront while still retaining an individual feel to the voice of Angela.
Hear My Sorrow discusses labor unions, the clash of cultures in NYC and the representation of those cultures in the unions, factory work, and, of course, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, one of the deadliest industrial disasters in US history. It also deals with family, as well, with the tight-knit Denoto family and their Italian background.
Hopkinson highlights many reasons why girls (and other
workers) joined strikes, as well as why they became “scabs”—strike breakers who
went back to work during a strike. This is especially apparent in the tension
between Angela and her sister Luisa, and with the rest of her family, as Angela
stays on strike while Luisa returns to work to help provide for the family. Hopkinson
also touches on the conflict between school and work as she describes how many
girls had to drop out of school to earn money so their families could survive.
The description of the fire itself is brutally clear for a children’s book. Hopkinson only barely softens the edges by leaving out graphic details; otherwise, every horrific moment is described through the eyes of Angela, who can barely realize what is happening (another softener, but again, just barely). The descriptions of the girls jumping out of the windows because there was literally no other option for them also brought to my mind the memory of the World Trade Center burning on 9/11. Not an image Hopkinson was consciously trying to bring to the surface, probably, but the resonance made the scene even more powerful.
In terms of describing history, Hear My Sorrow is one of the more successful Dear America books in
its detail and depiction of the period. There’s a little bit lacking in terms
of story and voice, but the book packs a lot of punch and is one of the more
vivid and memorable entries in the series.
A City Tossed and Broken: The Diary of Minnie Bonner, by Judy Blundell, was published in 2013 by Scholastic.
This Dear America tackles the San Francisco earthquake
and subsequent devastating fire in 1906. Also, since these revamped books seem
to focus more on an overarching plot than most of the older ones, there’s also
Minnie pretending to be the daughter of the rich family she was working for after
the deaths of the entire family.
For the historical aspect, I thought Blundell did a
good job of showing the devastation of the earthquake and the fear that
followed when fire destroyed half the town. She also hinted at, and explained
further in the historical notes at the end, the corruption that ruled San
Francisco during that time.
For the story aspect, it was…all right. I thought the
story was rife with convenience and dumb decisions made for the plot, however.
Like the whole Lily/Minnie switch, which rested entirely on a technicality and
a very well-timed dress change. At least the buildup, and follow-up, to that
was explained well. Then there’s Minnie’s time as Lily, which was okay—most of
what she did was believable, up until the end when she said, “I’m going to tell
Mr. Crandall,” and then never did for some reason that was never explained or
I did like the overall theme of family and sticking together, and Blundell does a good job of showing the difference between trade/”new” money in society, and inherited “old” money, as well as class (and racial) conflict. However, A City Tossed and Broken is missing some sort of spark to really make it sing, to make it stand out and make me say, “Now that’s a Dear America book!” So far, I still think the revamped books are subpar at best.
The Midwife’s Apprentice, by Karen Cushman, was published in 1995 by Clarion.
This is it, folks. The last Newbery Medal left in the pile (until next year, that is). It’s taken me about a year and a half to get through them all, but I’ve done it. I remember at one point I was trying to go chronologically, but somewhere along the way I said “nah,” and just started pulling books off the Newbery shelf at my library. This particular reading goal is over, which means…on to the next!
There have been a few medieval settings in the Newberys that I’ve read. They’ve ranged from serious to silly to poetic. The Midwife’s Apprentice isn’t serious, but it’s not really silly, either. It’s the story of Brat/Beetle/Alyce, the titular midwife’s apprentice, and her gaining self-confidence as she learns that she isn’t just a waif found on the side of the road. Cushman’s take on the medieval setting accurately portrays a lot of things, like all the various jobs, the beliefs and customs of the time, though I’d argue that Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!is far more educational in that regard. The midwife’s antics are especially eyebrow-raising, but it shows just how unknowledgeable the medieval world was in terms of medicine.
I like how the midwife in the book isn’t a loving,
sweet person. It’s a bit cliché to have Alyce learn to appreciate her strengths
and skills in that setting. Instead, Jane Sharp belittles and degrades her, yet
even so Alyce finds her place and seeks to be successful. It shows that even
when the people around you aren’t the stereotypical kind and caring people, you
can still grow and become kind and caring yourself.
Since this is the last Newbery, next week I’ll be posting a Top Ten list of the books I thought were the best of the best, the ones that really, truly deserved that award. To be honest, I think that might be a bit of a struggle for me, but we’ll see!
Dreams in the Golden Country: The Diary of Zipporah Feldman, a Jewish Immigrant Girl, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 1998 by Scholastic.
I would rank Dreams in the Golden Country on the middle-upper scale of Dear America books. It accomplishes so much more than similar immigration stories like So Far From Home; it talks about immigration (and even describes, very briefly, the Northern Ireland and Ireland conflict, as well as Catholicism versus Protestantism), labor unions, factory work, and even suffragism. And of course, it deals with the transition from a predominantly Jewish culture to one that is influenced by many religions and cultures.
Not being Jewish, I don’t know how good Lasky was at
communicating Jewish beliefs or history. It fits with what I’ve read and heard
about, so nothing jumped out at me as being overwhelming inaccurate. I liked
the way Lasky showed both the Jewish people, like Papa, who seemed to enjoy the
freedom a new country gave them in their religion and the Jewish people, like
Mama, who wanted to hold on to the traditions for as long as possible. It made
for some interesting conflict as well as some potential for discussion over
keeping traditions and culture in a new place.
The main flaw with this book is the way Lasky
continually plays up the “golden country” aspect of the novel. I don’t doubt
that many immigrants viewed it that way, nor do I necessarily disagree with
that idea or with what Zipporah felt in the book, but the way it was handled in
the book was clunky and felt a bit too orchestrated, like Lasky was putting it
in there because of the “Dear America” on the title, rather than as a natural
extension of Zipporah’s thoughts and feelings.
Dicey’s Song, by Cynthia Voigt, was published in 1982 by Simon & Schuster.
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.
A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers, by Nancy Willard, was published in 1981 by Harcourt.
When I first saw the title of this book, I thought it would be rewritten poetry of Blake’s, or his poems presented in a new way. But it’s not about that at all—instead, Willard starts with “Hey, let’s pretend William Blake ran an inn” and then talks about dragons and monkeys and tigers and cats. It’s not even about William Blake at all, so the little tribute that Willard includes in the beginning to William Blake makes no sense. In fact, if William Blake had been left out entirely and some random made-up person had been the innkeeper instead, the poems would have had the exact same effect.
Maybe I’m just really unaware of Blake’s poetry—maybe
Willard has actually subtly woven in parts of Blake’s poetry into her own
poetry as a nod and as a unifying theme to warrant the title. But to me it
seems like she just chose this historical person and inserted him into poems
about dragons and a fantastical inn because she liked him as a poet, not
because he actually lent himself to the material in any way.
So, basically I’m not the best audience for this sort
of book because I don’t really like reading poetry and I think characters with
no use shouldn’t be in books. However, A
Visit to William Blake’s Inn is full of magic and fantasy, with poems that would
be fun to read aloud to a child and lots of great illustrations to go with
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, by Laura Amy Schlitz, was published in 2007 by Candlewick.
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.
The First Collier, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2006 by Houghton Mifflin. It is the sequel to The Outcast(but technically a prequel to the series).
First Collier is an interesting installment in the
Ga’Hoole series. It’s the first book in a prequel trilogy that details the
start of the legends of Ga’Hoole: the owl king Hoole and his war with the
hagfiends (and presumably his founding of the Guardians of Ga’Hoole). This
first book deals with Grank, the titular first collier, and how he comes to
receive Hoole’s egg and cares for it. Appropriately, the book ends with Hoole
Lasky really steps up the fantastic elements in this
one, with the owl-crow hagfiends and their yellow eye magic, Grank’s own
magery, and, of course, the ember of Hoole and the egg of Hoole. It’s also the
first Ga’Hoole book to be in first person, which actually helped out a lot. It
completely changed the usual ebb and flow of Lasky’s writing and helped make
things less stiff and clunky and cheesy. Rather than everything feeling stilted
and there being an abundance of telling rather than showing, the first person
narration lessened that a lot, though there were a few instances of rather
However, despite some of the new things, I think I’m
simply getting bored of the series. Every book feels the same. Lasky does not
do enough to change things up (the first person helped, as did some of the
elements of the world, but not enough); I feel as if I am reading the same
story over and over again. It reminds me a bit of Erin Hunter’s Warriors
series, another set of books that I ultimately got tired of as they were all
too similar. The First Collier had
interesting bits to it, but overall everything was done in the same delivery
and style—there was even an Otulissa replacement! The only thing that changed
was the terminology. I’m halfway through the Ga’Hoole series, but I’m not sure
if I want to finish or not.
Across the Rolling River introduces Charles Ingalls and his family to the series, and young Charlie is just as boisterous and expressive as Pa Ingalls from the Little House books. It also shows us his family, who end up so close to the Quiner family (there are three Quiner/Ingalls marriages in total: Caroline, Henry, and Eliza marry Charles, Polly, and Peter respectively). Also appearing in this book are Mr. Carpenter and his son Charlie (who marries Martha eventually), who haven’t appeared since the third book, Little Clearing in the Woods.
This book really is starting to accelerate Caroline’s
development and love of learning. We see her desire to be a schoolteacher, with
the influence of her teacher, Miss May, as well as her budding attraction to
Charles Ingalls (though she’s only 12 in this book). We also see the
pearl-handled pen of the Little House books, as this book details how Caroline
came to get it.
I didn’t feel this book was as exciting or interesting
as On Top of Concord Hill, but I
liked the introduction of the Ingalls family as well as the exploration of
Caroline’s desires and wishes. The author switch seemed smooth, which can be
hard to accomplish even for a children’s book. All in all, not my favorite
Caroline book, but one that sets up a lot of things for the next two books.