Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson, was published in 2014 by Penguin.

Rating: 3/5

Brown 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.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2J1Kwsy

Hear My Sorrow by Deborah Hopkinson

Hear My Sorrow: The Diary of Angela Denoto, a Shirtwaist Worker, by Deborah Hopkinson, was published in 2004 by Scholastic.

Rating: 4/5

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.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

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

A City Tossed and Broken by Judy Blundell

A City Tossed and Broken: The Diary of Minnie Bonner, by Judy Blundell, was published in 2013 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5

I debated whether to rate A City Tossed and Broken 2 or 3, but I decided it was probably my favorite of the revamped Dear America books that I’ve read so far, so I gave it a 3.

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 shown.

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.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/31YL1eH

1996 Newbery Medal: The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman

The Midwife’s Apprentice, by Karen Cushman, was published in 1995 by Clarion.

Rating: 4/5        

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!

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/30gPJGW

Dreams in the Golden Country by Kathryn Lasky

Dreams in the Golden Country: The Diary of Zipporah Feldman, a Jewish Immigrant Girl, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 1998 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5

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.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2O4s5qu

1983 Newbery Medal: Dicey’s Song by Cynthia Voigt

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

Rating: 4/5        

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

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

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

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

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

1982 Newbery Medal: A Visit to William Blake’s Inn by Nancy Willard

A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers, by Nancy Willard, was published in 1981 by Harcourt.

Rating: 2/5

Books of poetry are always tough for me. I’m not a huge fan of poetry, and I read fast (and hate to slow myself down) so I don’t really absorb poetry the way it should be absorbed. And, if I’m going to read a book of poetry, I want it to have a good theme and unity.

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 them.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/34we1fp

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

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

Rating: 4/5

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

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

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

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: See last paragraph.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

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

The First Collier by Kathryn Lasky

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).

Rating: 2/5

The 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 hatching.

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 awkward worldbuilding.

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.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Violence

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2U7iTmk

Across the Rolling River by Celia Wilkins

Across the Rolling River, by Celia Wilkins, was published in 2001 by HarperCollins. It is the sequel to On Top of Concord Hill.

Rating: 3/5

Perhaps it’s because I read them too far apart, or the author tried very hard to make a smooth transition, but I couldn’t really tell that a different author had written Across the Rolling River. There were a few things that felt slightly off, but not enough for me to really be jarred by the change in style.

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.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2KAIv8d