The Burning by Kathryn Lasky

The Burning, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2004 by Scholastic. It is the sequel to The Shattering.

Rating: 3/5

The Burning is the last of the six-book fleck/Pure Ones/St. Aggie’s arc before Lasky takes the series into a different direction. As a last book, it wraps everything up as it’s supposed to: there’s tension and uncertainty to ramp the tension up before the final battle, the villains are defeated, and great acts of bravery are performed by multiple characters.

Yet there is still much left to be desired with this “closing” of the first Soren arc (for he comes back later on in the series). The time jumps are bothersome, leaving great swathes of character’s actions to be explained in commentary or as an afterthought later on. This includes Gylfie and Otulissa leaving the Glauxian Brother’s Retreat, Soren’s insistence on not teaching the St. Aggie’s owls to fight, and Gylfie’s appeal to the Northern owls parliament. In fact, Gylfie’s entire courageous arc, where she escapes from pirates and brings an army to help out the Guardians at just the right moment, is entirely overshadowed by a brand-new viewpoint character, and her most amazing moment is never even seen, though we get some of its effect later on when she meets back up with Soren at the battle.

In addition to those odd jumps, Lasky decides to have the battle between Kludd and Soren end in a rather strange way, though at least that decision makes more sense than the random jumps in time. We get a fight between Soren and his brother, but the end result is strangely anticlimactic and unsatisfying. In fact, it seems to have been done purposefully to preserve Soren’s purity than for any other reason.  Or perhaps it was to show how different Soren is from his brother—though that, of course, isn’t a necessary distinction to make since we already know that Soren is far and away the better owl.

Anyway, despite my grumblings, I still thought The Burning was a good end. It wraps up the Pure Ones arc very neatly, and it leaves room for some more growth to the series with the very brief reveal at the end with Nyra. The missteps and the strange choices are probably due to the fact that the last couple of books were published in the same year, so Lasky likely didn’t have a lot of time to really think about the choices she was making.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Violence

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy

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

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The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson

The Parker Inheritance, by Varian Johnson, was published in 2018 by Arthur A. Levine Books.

Rating: 3/5

The Parker Inheritance namedrops The Westing Game a lot, and with good reason. The mystery in this book is very similar to the one in Raskin’s novel, with similar stakes. I enjoyed the puzzle/riddle aspect a lot, though occasionally I had to raise my eyebrow at some of the more difficult logical leaps that the characters took. Perhaps I’m simply underestimating a child’s ability to solve puzzles, but sometimes things seemed just too much of a stretch.

Embedded within the puzzle story is a story of a black family during segregation. The story does a fantastic job of portraying the 1950s and the many injustices that occurred—as well as what the black community had to do to overcome them, if that was possible. The puzzle aspect is based off of this rich, story-within-a-story aspect of the novel that is the best part about the book.

Johnson also gets pretty political and preachy in this novel, which ruined the effect for me. He was clearly writing for a certain kind of audience, which isn’t a problem—but that audience doesn’t include me. I found it interesting, and was even delighted, when Johnson included a glimpse into a Southern church, but was severely disappointed when nothing else was mentioned about it outside of two churchgoers, who are hardly reflective of their religion. Christianity extends far more than just going to church on Sundays. But perhaps that was all it was for Candice and Brandon, so maybe I shouldn’t be so disappointed that Johnson forgot that spiritual conversation isn’t simply limited to a couple of hours on a Sunday morning.

The puzzle part of The Parker Inheritance is what pulled up its rating; otherwise, the rest of it was disappointing, frustrating, and preachy. If you like books that push particular political agendas and are concerned with the current social justice issues, then this book is right up your alley. I don’t like those sorts of books, however, regardless of whether or not I agree with them (one need only view my consistently negative feedback of Christian novels to recognize this).

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Wyx98o

My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George

My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George, was published in 1959 by Dutton.

Rating: 3/5

My Side of the Mountain is a survival novel a lá Hatchet, though Sam willingly chooses to live off the land in this book, as opposed to the protagonist of Hatchet, who is forced to do so after a plane crash. I found it amusing that the author’s note to this book states that the publisher was originally unwilling to publish a book that featured a boy running away and living off the land, lest kids also want to do so—reading this book almost 60 years later, it’s hard to imagine any teenage boy today doing what Sam in this book does.

The survival aspect of this book is the most interesting part, as George details what Sam does to survive a summer and winter on the side of a mountain. It almost seems too good to be true—Sam is so knowledgeable about vegetation and the wilderness that the novel almost has a fantastical, or at least exaggerated, atmosphere to it. The conflict in the book is of the natural variety, as the adults and other children he runs into are always curious and pleasant, rather than hostile. This poses a problem to the realism, though perhaps that’s modern culture speaking—I can’t imagine all of the adults being so nonchalant about Sam’s living on his own. Even his father exudes more awe at his son’s abilities than relief that his son is alive.

The ending is definitely of the fantastic variety, a sappy, feel-good ending that smacks perhaps too much of the glory of the country/wilderness as opposed to the darkness of the city. That’s really the main problem of this book—everything is just a little too pat, people react just a little too nonchalantly. There is a blissful, “I’m right to live in the wilderness” undertone that eats a little at the survival aspect. My Side of the Mountain is not as frantic nor as tense and dangerous as a book like Hatchet, which makes it perhaps better suited for certain ages, but it’s too light and fluffy to be a compelling survival novel.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic, Survival

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2RYT762

1960 Newbery Medal: Onion John by Joseph Krumgold

Onion John, by Joseph Krumgold, was published in 1959 by HarperTrophy.

Rating: 3/5

Onion John joins the ranks of mediocre, not-terrible-but-not-amazing Newbery Medal winners. It is a coming-of-age story; Andy, through his friendship with Onion John, discovers new things about himself, his family, and life in general as the town strives to help Onion John through building him a house.

While the book is detailing Andy’s transition from unquestionable belief to skeptical uncertainty, Krumgold is fairly gentle with Onion John’s ways and culture. While Andy’s father, and eventually Andy himself, question Onion John’s methods and beliefs, Krumgold adds just enough detail for the reader to wonder, “Was Onion John right after all?”

Besides exploring interaction with people from different cultures, Krumgold also explores how it’s possible to help someone too much, as demonstrated by the town building Onion John a house. While this was unquestionably a good thing to do, there were, perhaps, better ways to help him than give him a house he didn’t understand or want. While Andy buys too much into Onion John’s beliefs, a reflection of his culture, the town doesn’t consider his culture enough. Onion John is really an exploration of balance, of not going so far in one direction that you leave the person behind. This is also explored in Andy’s relationship with his father.

In the moment, I enjoyed Onion John, but I doubt I’ll remember much of it a week from now. My desire right now is for books that pull me in immediately; Onion John didn’t do that. It’s a good exploration of coming-of-age and what that might mean, but it’s tame and bland and ultimately unsatisfying.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2G2FJGQ

Land of the Buffalo Bones by Marion Dane Bauer

Land of the Buffalo Bones: The Diary of Mary Ann Elizabeth Rodgers, an English Girl in Minnesota, by Marion Dane Bauer, was published in 2003 by Scholastic.

Rating: 2/5

Land of the Buffalo Bones is a “special edition” of Dear America, though at first I didn’t know why. However, it became clear at the end—this Dear America book was based off of real people. And I don’t mean that real people showed up as side characters within the book, as happened in previous Dear America books. I mean that the protagonist herself was a real person—though not much is known about her.

Bauer relates the story of Reverend George Rodgers, who took his family and a large group of people from England to Minnesota, filling their heads with talk of fertile soil and beautiful land. The reality, of course, is harsh winters, hot summers, grasshoppers, and bleached buffalo bones everywhere, not to mention Indians. Rodgers soon leaves his “colony” in disgrace, moving his family around after that. Polly is the protagonist and the voice of the story, though, as the author’s note reveals, not much is known about her at all, so most of the information given in this book is made-up by the author.

The struggle of immigrants in a harsh land may be a tale that’s interesting to some, but Polly is such a disagreeable, passive protagonist that it’s hard to find anything compelling about this book. As is the problem with many Dear America books, there is too much observation and not enough plot to sustain the novel. Polly is merely a passive observer to all around her—even her friendship with Jane is seen at a distance, and Jane’s ultimate decision to leave the colony is marred by Polly’s blunt language and bewilderment at the entire affair. If more had been given for Polly to do—if Polly had interacted with people beyond her family and Jane, done more than gripe at her younger sisters and exclaim at the extreme weather conditions—this might have been a more interesting book.

Land of the Buffalo Bones was obviously a labor of love for the author, who is chronicling a fictionalized version of her family’s history, but it’s not particularly exciting and it adds nothing to the Dear America canon. Polly is too bland of a character, and the book too observational. It has a little historical value in its exploration of religious freedom, but very, very little—and almost nothing to contribute in other areas. Dear America books are so much better when they are focused on significant events, rather than on vague periods of time.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2B3DWOx

Little House by Boston Bay by Melissa Wiley

Little House by Boston Bay, by Melissa Wiley, was published in 1999 by HarperTrophy.

Rating: 3/5

Having finished the Martha Years, I’m moving right along to the Charlotte Years—Martha’s daughter, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s grandmother. The same author wrote both sets of books, which is a good thing—Martha remains familiar, and the details of her life in Scotland remain accurate. Not that many details are given—Wiley saves that for another book.

As a kind of hopeless romantic at heart, for most of the book I reflected on Martha and Lewis. If I remember correctly, Martha marries Lewis, a blacksmith, someone of a much lower station than her, and as a result her family disowns her (however, there is some research that indicates that “Martha Morse” was never Scottish at all, and that her husband’s name was really Joseph). It’s kind of interesting to read this book with that perspective and reflect on all the sacrifices that were made, but also see how much Martha and Lewis love each other.

The book is fairly similar to the Martha Years books—as it would be, with the same author—although obviously without the Scottish background. Instead, we have the War of 1812, and the political tension of the day woven into the background. It’s maybe not as immediately gripping as were the backdrop of the Scottish Highlands, but Little House by Boston Bay is still part of a series that were dearly loved by me as a child—I know the scenes like old friends, and I vividly remember the too-spicy pounded cheese chapter and the Saturday family. Perhaps the Charlotte Years aren’t too exciting, but reading this book has been a great nostalgia trip for me.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2CgFJQ3

1940 Newbery Medal: Daniel Boone by James Daugherty

Daniel Boone, by James Daugherty, was published in 1939 by Viking.

Rating: 2/5

Daniel Boone is a pretty outdated book, as you might expect from having been written in 1939. I’m sure the information about Boone is mostly correct, and I appreciated how Daugherty included excerpts from actual documents of the time, but many people today would take issue with the portrayal of the Indians, as well as their depictions in the illustrations.

I thought the illustrations were gorgeous most of the time, and though the pictures of the Indians I thought represented a stereotypical, outdated representation, there were a couple of pictures that I thought were actually quite powerful (there is one of an Indian man standing over a woman who is cradling a dead child (or possibly an adult) in her arms, and the text facing it is from a Seneca Indian speech about the destruction of his race). So, while Daugherty does continue to portray Indians as thoughtless warriors who attack the settlers, day in and day out, there are glimpses that he is trying to explain their side of things, though he doesn’t really succeed.

To be honest, the one thing I took away from this book was not the story of Daniel Boone. It was the thought that the entire conflict between the settlers and the Indians portrayed in this book was just really sad. The story that Daugherty laid out was just reaction versus reaction: one side gets mad at the other for some reason, so they attack; the other side reacts in vengeance; the first side reacts in vengeance; the other side reacts in vengeance; so on and so forth.

As far as biographies go, there are certainly better ones for Daniel Boone than Daugherty’s. There are just too many problems with Daniel Boone. Some of those are due to the modern age, some are due to the culture’s thirst for what they deem an acceptable portrayal of Native Americans. This book won the Newbery Medal over By the Shores of Silver Lake, and in my opinion, Wilder’s book was far superior.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction, Biography

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2RwfT4f

1941 Newbery Medal: Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry

Call It Courage, by Armstrong Sperry, was published in 1940 by Macmillan.

Rating: 2/5

Call It Courage wasn’t a bad book, but it simply didn’t grip me. I found it boring. It’s an adventure/survival book based in Polynesia, telling the story of Mafatu and his quest to become courageous by leaving his island and striking out on his own. Sperry traveled extensively, mainly in the Polynesia/Hawaii area, and it shows in his knowledge of Polynesian culture and language.

The only knowledge I have of Polynesia is from the movie Moana, so it was funny to read about Moana the Sea God and Maui the God of the Fishermen. Other bits of the Polynesian language are scattered about and always translated at some point so that the reader isn’t totally confused. It seems accurate and representative of the culture, though I’m sure someone more versed would be able to say it was or was not more definitively.

This definitely reads like a 1940s book: the language is much more cumbersome and complex, and so it might be difficult for a modern child to read. As I stated above, this book really didn’t interest me in the slightest, but I can see a boy or an adventurous girl really enjoying it. I’m glad it was short, as there was nothing in the book to pull me in or compel me to keep reading. Call It Courage is definitely one of the more forgettable Newbery Medals that I’ve read. Not as bad as The Dark Frigate, but pretty low.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2C5zPks

Down the Rabbit Hole by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Down the Rabbit Hole: The Diary of Pringle Rose, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, was published in 2013 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5

Down the Rabbit Hole is the first of the revamped Dear America books I’ve read. Scholastic prettied up the covers, added the author’s name to the front, and placed a summary, rather than an excerpt, on the back of the book. I think the official reasoning behind it was that it made the books appear more like fiction (the old Dear America books did not have the author’s name at the front, and the copyright page was in the back of the book), but the complaints of “How are we supposed to know it’s fiction?” towards the old Dear America books always seemed thin to me. It’s in the fiction section, people—it’s fiction!

Anyway, my first experience with the revamped books wasn’t that bad. To be honest, I would have rated this book higher if it hadn’t been for the ending. The ending seriously annoyed me. I also didn’t like the titles of the sections, as it really disrupted the diary feel of it. And though I found the constant going back-and-forth in time annoying at first, I soon got used to it.

I would probably rank this book in the middle of my imaginary Dear America rankings. It seems more useful and historically integrated than A Light in the Storm, but it’s not as compelling as I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly. Bartoletti talks about labor unions, Down’s syndrome, and the Chicago fire well enough, but a lot of her plot hinges on convenience. Cager arriving at the Pritchard’s house was when everything turned awry for me. There was too much convenience, too many things being revealed, and several out of character moments. The ending was a letdown.

I don’t really understand the reason for the revamped Dear America books, but at least Down the Rabbit Hole promises somewhat good additions. Everything in the book was strong until the ending. I don’t know if I like the stylistic choice, but I’m glad to see that the change didn’t lead to a significant drop in quality.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Ru2zwZ

1971 Newbery Medal: The Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars

The Summer of the Swans, by Betsy Byars, was published in 1970 by Puffin.

Rating: 3/5

The Summer of the Swans is a novel on the shorter side, with a simplistic, yet important, message. The events of the book take place over two days and starts off with Sara expressing how discontent she is with everything in her life. We get a glimpse into what her life is like with her older sister, her aunt, and her little brother with an unspecified disability. As one might expect, by the end of the book, Sara has come to appreciate what she has and has learned to not always express her dissatisfaction and to be open to the possibility that she might be wrong.

As with other shorter Newbery Medals like The Whipping Boy or The Matchlock Gun, I find it quite hard to comment much on The Summer of the Swans. I read it all in one bus ride on my way to student retreat, and spent some of the time both during and after reading it conversing with my students (mostly about my pace of reading), so this is not a book that I had the luxury of reading without distractions.

The message is standard and simple, but still important today. It’s interesting how effective the “I took everything for granted, but then I realized what I really had when it was almost too late” plot can be. Byars deals with Charlie’s mental disability very well, though handwaves the specifics (it seems a little like autism to me, but Byars clearly says that Charlie became this way after an illness). By giving some scenes from Charlie’s perspective, the reader is able to understand a little bit more of Charlie—and to see “the other side” that Sara cannot yet see.

I’d be interested to see what someone who has experience with special needs kids would say about this book. I thought the message was important, though the story itself was basic. It’s not a particularly memorable Newbery, and it’s nowhere close to my favorite, but I do think The Summer of the Swans was ahead of its time, in a way, in portraying something that back then was probably much more closeted and taboo of a subject.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Charlie is called “retarded” a couple of times.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Se61t1