1948 Newbery Medal: The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois

The Twenty-One Balloons, by William Pène du Bois, was published in 1947 by Viking.

When Professor William Waterman Sherman leaves San Francisco in a hot-air balloon, he intends to fly across the Pacific Ocean. Instead, through a twist of fate, he lands on Krakatoa, a legendary island of unimaginable wealth, eccentric inhabitants, and fantastic balloon inventions. Once Professor Sherman learns the secrets of Krakatoa, he must remain there forever—unless he can find a means of escape.

Rating: 4/5

The Twenty-One Balloons reminds me a great deal of the Dolittle books, or the Oz books, or The Pushcart War or any number of inventive, imaginative novels that describe a lot of things that somehow manage to keep being interesting despite the wealth of information. This book is a fond memory from my childhood and I enjoyed rereading it and remembering all the little bits and moments that stood out to me back then.

I wish the beginning of the novel was quicker-paced; it’s a little tedious and takes a long time to get into the meat of the story, which is William Waterman Sherman’s trip. It’s hard, especially with a book as descriptive as this, to start in media res without being boring. I mean, the beginning is interesting, but not nearly as interesting as Sherman’s journey.

I like that du Bois took a real event (the volcanic eruption on Krakatoa) and expounded a fictional story on that, as far-fetched as it is. I really do like “shipwrecked on an island” stories (aka The Black Stallion, The Swiss Family Robinson, etc.), or survival stories in general, and I feel like this was an especially common trope in the mid-20th century, for some reason (perhaps inspired by Robinson Crusoe or by shows such as Gilligan’s Island). Du Bois’s story, though unrealistic as I said, is fascinating, fun, and quite worthy of a children’s book.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“Wake up, wake up; you’ve got to get in the shade!”

I shook my head and opened my eyes again. There was a man kneeling over me. He wasn’t a native, and didn’t suggest an explorer or a traveler. He was wearing a correctly tailored white morning suit, with pin-stripe pants, white ascot tie, and a white cork bowler.

“Am I dead?” I asked. “Is this Heaven?”

“No, my good man,” he answered, “this isn’t Heaven. This is the Pacific Island of Krakatoa.”

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

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1950 Newbery Medal: The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli

The Door in the Wall, by Marguerite de Angeli, was published in 1949 by Doubleday.

Ever since he can remember, Robin, child of Sir John de Bureford, has been told what is expected of him as the son of a nobleman. He must learn the ways of knighthood. But Robin’s destiny is changed suddenly when he falls ill and loses the use of his legs. Fearing a plague, his servants abandon him, and Robin is left alone. A monk named Brother Luke rescues Robin and takes him to the hospice of St. Mark’s, where is taught woodcarving and patience and strength. Says Brother Luke, “Thou hast only to follow the wall far enough and there will be a door in it.” Robin learns soon enough what Brother Luke means. When the great castle of Lindsay is in danger, Robin discovers that there is more than one way to serve his king.

Rating: 3/5

I’m really not sure what’s going on in the 2005 cover of The Door in the Wall. It makes it seem as if the novel is some sort of roadtrip comedy or something along the lines of The Court Jester. On the contrary, The Door in the Wall is a fairly serious historical fiction set in medieval times, describing the various political, military, and physical dangers that were present at the time.

The book is, perhaps, a bit more bright and sparkling than the historical background warrants, but this is a book for children, and Robin’s personal journey as he undergoes illness and becomes a hero despite of his physical weakness is heartwarming. De Angeli also portrays the weight the culture at the time placed on knighthood, familial duty and inheritance, and independence in general through Robin’s misgivings and anxieties over not fulfilling these roles. There’s also much in this book about how central monasteries and monasticism were to medieval society.

The Door in the Wall is a short book, but its historicity is surprisingly deep and immersive. The story is not particularly exciting, but it is uplifting. I must give some mention of the illustrations, which were wonderful (I read the Yearling edition, but I couldn’t find an illustrator listed). The language of the writing may make it hard for younger readers to get involved, but even that lends itself to the historicity of the novel as a whole. I’m not sure why the cover is so slapstick, but don’t let the inevitable jarring that will result as the cover and the contents clash deter you from reading the book.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

“Will I go back home soon?” asked Robin fearfully, for the gate had clanged shut behind them as if it had been closed forever. “Will a message be sent to my father? Or to my mother?”

“Be comforted, my child,” Brother Luke answered. “As soon as the plague is somewhat quieted in London, a messenger will be sent to thy father. Meanwhile, we shall care for thee.”

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

1932 Newbery Medal: Waterless Mountain by Laura Adams Armer

Waterless Mountain, by Laura Adams Armer, was published in 1931 by Knopf.

Younger Brother is only eight years old, but already he knows he will be a Navaho medicine man. He has seen signs and has had a vision. It will take many years of hard work for Younger Brother to learn how to use his gifts. As he grows, he must also master skills for survival, such as how to read a trail, train a horse, and find water in the desert….This deeply moving and authentic account of young Navaho’s childhood and spiritual journey is filled with wonder and respect for the natural world.

Rating: 3/5

Newbery Medal winners have always been cultural and historical in scope, but I feel as if the earlier ones tend to be so without focusing so much on the darker side of life (self-esteem problems, bullying, loss, etc.) Waterless Mountain is a celebration of life and of the Navajo people, told through the eyes of a poetic, deeply-thinking boy.

I wish I could have appreciated this book more, but I read it at a time when I was working long hours and I would always be falling asleep while reading it. I don’t really think that has anything to do with the quality of the book, although perhaps a more exciting book, or a book I was more excited to read, would have helped me stay awake. In any case, the book blurred together for me, although I do know that I thought Younger Brother’s trip across the country was a little strange. Not that he would go on it, but that it made the book have a kind of Western movie feel to it, complete with bandits.

If you don’t really know much about the Navajo culture, this book will certainly teach you a lot—and it shows, also, how separated the culture was, at least back then in the 1930s, from the Western country it lived in. I’m not sure how integrated Native culture is today (presumably more so now), but seeing that the Navajos managed to keep their culture and their way of life years after all the big forces that moved them around and took away their land is heartwarming.

Waterless Mountain maybe isn’t the most interesting Newbery I’ve read, but it’s definitely one of the most informative and one of the most culturally imbued. I’m not sure if it’s a “pick up and read again and again” book but I do think it’s a book that needs to be read.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“Uncle, where does the Turquoise Woman live?”

“On an island in the wide water of the west. There she waits every day in her turquoise house for her husband, who carries the sun.”

“And when the Sun Bearer reaches his home in the west, what does he do with the sun, Uncle?”

“He hangs it up on a turquoise peg on the turquoise wall of the turquoise house of the Turquoise Woman.”

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

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

The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz

The Inquisitor’s Tale, Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, by Adam Gidwitz, was published in 2016 by Penguin.

61tsxh3l6llOn a dark night in 1242, travelers gather at a small French inn. It is the perfect night for a story, and everyone in the kingdom is consumed by the tale of three children: Jeanne, a peasant girl who has visions of the future; William, a young monk with supernatural strength; and Jacob, a Jewish boy who can heal any wound. Together, their powers will be tested by demons and dragons, cruel knights and cunning monks From small villages to grand banquet halls, these three unlikely friends—and their faithful greyhound—are chased through France to a final showdown in the waves at the foot of the abbey-fortress of Mont-Saint-Michel.

Rating: 1/5

I struggled to finish The Inquisitor’s Tale. After each chapter, I kept thinking that I would stop reading it. But I gritted my teeth and continued, because as much as I am less averse to not finishing a book, I still think it’s a cop-out. So, instead of the book growing on me, or me wanting to know how it ends, I finished the book out of sheer determination, not pleasure.

I can’t even really describe, either, what I disliked so strongly about The Inquistor’s Tale. I found it childish in its humor, overly preachy in its message, and melodramatic with its characters. Gidwitz frames this story like The Canterbury Tales, sort of, and while it’s an interesting device to use and while he does some clever things with it, nothing was truly spectacular or added any depth.

Gidwitz, though dealing a fair hand with his portrayal of religions—somewhat—also emphasizes that sort of bland, all-inclusive type of depiction that culture loves to do. Underneath its preachiness, his message seemed to be nothing more than “live and let live,” but at the same time denounced any form or expression of religion that went against what the characters, and through them, Gidwitz himself, thought was right. So, Gidwitz was, at the same time, emphasizing both inclusivity and exclusivity. Since he’s working within the historical time period, some things he manages to get away with, but for the most part what he’s trying to emphasize is muddled and confused.

If I ever felt physical pain when reading before, The Inquistitor’s Tale is what would cause it. This book did not entertain, engage, or even mildly appeal to me in any way. Add to that a muddled message beneath a, granted, decent Middle Age setting, unrelatable characters, and immature humor, and The Inquisitor’s Tale is not any book I would ever want to read.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Some gruesome scenes.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Middle Grade

Standing in the center of the clearing was a figure as white and shining as a ghost.

But it was not a ghost.

It was a dog.

A white greyhound, with a copper blaze on her forehead.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2w2Kg6K

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

The Promise of Dawn by Lauraine Snelling

Disclaimer: The Promise of Dawn, by Lauraine Snelling, was provided by Bethany House. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

Opportunities are scarce in Norway, so when Rune and Signe Carlson receive a letter from Rune’s uncle, Einar Strand, offering to loan them money for passage to America, Rune accepts. Signe is reluctant to leave her home, especially a she is pregnant with her fourth child, but Einar promises to give them land of their own, something they could never afford in Norway. But life in Minnesota is more difficult than Signe imagined. Uncle Einar and Aunt Gerd are hard, demanding people, and Signe and her family soon find themselves worked nearly to the bone to pay off their debt. Afraid they will never have the life they dreamed of, she begins to lose her trust in God. When the dangers of the North Woods strike close to home, will she find the strength she needs to lead her family into the promise of a new dawn?

My rating: 4/5 

The Promise of Dawn is an interesting read. It’s not like a lot of the other historical fiction I’ve read that deals with the same sort of scenario and it’s not at all like the other Snelling book I reviewed, Streams of Mercy. There’s very little plot and the book is basically about all the work that Rune and Signe do once they get to America. There are pages devoted to day after day of Signe cleaning the house and cooking, the boys taking care of the animals, and Rune cutting down trees, with scenes that show how their work is made even harder by the demands of Einar and Gerd. I don’t know why a book like that would be so engaging, but I found it much more interesting than I would have thought if I had just heard a description of it.

The book is really a close-up look at perseverance and how hard people worked back in those days, especially when their livelihood and their life depended on it. Crops and animals were both food and money in those days, so having little or none was devastating. I suppose my love for Laura Ingalls Wilder and the pioneering in those books are why I enjoyed The Promise of Dawn so much.

The lack of a big plot line isn’t bad for a book that, at its heart, is simply about work and perseverance. However, there were some things that I ended up being dissatisfied with, such as the lack of explanation as to why Einar was so mean and the continuous questions and dropped hints that implied we were going to get an explanation but which never happened. There’s only so many times a character can wonder “What happened?” before you start to think you’ll get the answer eventually. However, Snelling never explains, which I found disappointing. It’s just chocked up to Einar being a mean person (with occasional glimmers of hope), which isn’t particularly good character development.

I enjoyed The Promise of Dawn for the look at Western expansion, pioneering life it gave us. The continuous work described in the book may be tiring for some readers, especially since it encompasses nearly all of the book with very little plot to break it up, but I found it interesting. My only complaint is that Einar, in particular, was underdeveloped as a character. If Snelling meant to connect his behavior with something revealed at the end of the novel, she needed to do a better job of making it clear. If she didn’t, then he’s an especially weak character. However, the other characters were great and the book reminded me, once again, of the hard, work-filled days of the settlers as they fought to survive in the wilderness. 

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Christian

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2vR01vT

Threads and Flames by Esther Friesner

Threads and Flames, by Esther Friesner, was published in 2010 by Viking.

It’s 1910, and Raise has just traveled alone from a small Polish shtetl all the way to New York City. She is enthralled, overwhelmed, and even frightened, especially when she discovers that her sister has disappeared and she must now fend for herself. How do you survive in a foreign land without a job, a place to live, or a command of the native language? Perseverance and the kindness of handsome young Gavrel lead Raisa to work in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory sewing bodices on the popular shirtwaists…until 1911 dawns, and one March day a spark ignites in the factory. Fabric and thread and life catch fire. And the flames burn hot enough to change Raisa—and the entire city—forever.

Rating: 3/5

Threads and Flames tells the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the deadliest industrial disaster in New York City history. I was given the impression that a lot of the book would focus on the fire, but the book focuses much more on Raisa’s life and what leads her to work at the factory. The fire is not until the last third of the novel, which surprised me, though I can’t say why. I supposed I was just expecting the fire to be a little bit more central to the novel.

The novel is much better in the middle than it is in the beginning and the end. Friesner’s writing is clumsy, moralizing, and stilted in places, especially apparent at the beginning, the end, and in the places where Raisa’s thoughts take up most of the page. Some of the antagonism of the book sometimes comes across as forced, such as the woman whom Raisa first works for who is almost melodramatically villainish, and most of the moments that are the most tense or the most meaningful seem too moralizing, probably because of Friesner’s tendency to tell, not show.

However, the middle of the book flows really well, probably because it’s absent of most of the significant and/or tense moments, and was my favorite part of the book. Friesner is certainly no Ruta Sepetys, but Raisa’s story is mostly engaging and keeps the reader interested into the end, even with the flaws. It’s a pity that the writing style is so obvious and preachy; otherwise, this book would have been excellent. Instead, Threads and Flames is good, but not a novel I would immediately recommend.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Anti-Semitism

Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult

“Your sister?” The man stood up from the table and came closer. He studied her face with as much concentration as if he expected to find a treasure map in her eyes. “You’re her sister? But she was beautiful!”

Raisa swallowed a sharp retort.

“We’re sisters all the same,” she replied mildly. “She was always sending money home so that I could join her over here. I just arrived yesterday, except they tell me she’s bene gone for weeks.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2w6TD65

1933 Newbery Medal: Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze

Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze, by Elizabeth Foreman Lewis, was published in 1932 by Henry Holt.

When Young Fu arrives with his mother in bustling 1920s Chungking, all he has seen of the world is the rural farming village where he has grown up. He knows nothing of city life. But the city, with its wonders and dangers, fascinates the thirteen-year-old boy, and he sets out to make the best of what it has to offer him.

Rating: 3/5

Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze read much more like a modern novel than I was expecting. I suppose I was so used to the style of the 20s and 30s literature I’ve read that I thought Lewis’s writing would follow the same pattern. However, Young Fu was engaging, informative, and reminded me of more recent books such as The Golden Goblet and A Single Shard.

Perhaps the biggest flaw of the book is that it seems long, especially in the middle. Young Fu is basically a series of events in Young Fu’s life and it starts to drag about halfway through. Part of the reason for the slow pace may be that Fu is not the most interesting of characters. He also is not a particularly relatable one, at least to me—I found him a little too smug and thought he conquered things a little too easily. His condescending air, though accurate for a teenager, is very hard to take and I found it hard to feel sorry for him or root for him during the times Lewis wants us to do so.

However, historically I liked the look at the turmoil in China right before the time of WWI and the rise of the Nationalist Party and Mao. It’s not a perspective prevalent in literature and the edition of the book I read (the 75th anniversary edition) included lots of information in the back about the time period and how China was transforming as a nation in terms of technology and politics. Lewis did a good job of weaving the politic tension in and showing the conflict between the “old ways” and the “new ways.”

Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze is slow-going in the middle and I thought that Fu himself was not a particularly relatable character, but I liked the historical aspect of the novel and the way Lewis incorporated it in the novel. The writing style was evocative of a modern novel and lacked a lot of the language and stylistic choices and accompanying problems that I discovered in the earlier Newbery books. Overall, Young Fu is a deserving Newbery Medal winner—though it’s not my favorite so far.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

That night on Chair-Maker’s Way, Young Fu told his mother,” Today a foreign man bought a tray in our store.”

“He did not see you, I hope!”

“He did. Tang told me to carry brasses into his presence. Also, he spoke to me.” At his mother’s exclamation of fright, he reassured her, “Do not fear! He was ugly, but harmless.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2w8BtkX

The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton

The House of Dies Drear, by Virginia Hamilton, was published in 1968 by Macmillan.

The house held secrets, Thomas knew, even before he first saw it looming gray and massive on its ledge of rock. It had a century-old legend—two fugitive slaves had been killed by bounty hunters after leaving its passageways, and Dies Drear himself, the abolitionist who had made the house into a station on the Underground Railroad, had been murdered there. The ghosts of the three were said to walk its rooms….Yes, the house held secrets…did it hold danger as well? Thomas was sure it did, but his obsession that the house give up its secrets led him on, through the terror entrapment in its labyrinth of tunnels and to an awesome confrontation with Pluto, the mysterious and formidable “devil” who jealously guarded the house. Then, suddenly, it was alarmingly clear—there was danger, and the Smalls were being warned to flee. But what kind of danger, and why, and what did it have to do with running slaves and the ordeals of a hundred years ago? Thomas searches, and in searching finds not only the answer to these secrets from the past, but a deeper sense of his own connection to that past.

Rating: 3/5

The House of Dies Drear is a bit of a spine-chilling suspense/mystery novel. Hamilton’s sparse writing helps contribute to the overall tension of the book, combining with the history and the mysteries of the past to create a creepy atmosphere. It’s a bit of a strange book, but you can tell how much Hamilton put into this book as it relates to her own history.

I suppose calling this book a mystery is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not really a mystery; it’s more suspense. There is some mystery aspects to it, especially at the beginning, but the mystery is solved midway through and the rest of the book is the characters dealing with what they have discovered.

The House of Dies Drear holds a lot of information about the Underground Railroad and black culture, in general, including things like the church environment which was nice to see in a novel. Most novels these days (and movies) pretend like religion (or, at least, Christianity) doesn’t exist at all, and if it does, it’s some distorted version of it that the author uses as a strawman. Hamilton’s take was both historical and respectful, detailing how important things like church and the church experience are to people, especially when in a new situation.

The House of Dies Drear is an effectively creepy novel, and though it’s not the best thing I’ve read, it was certainly interesting and informative. I appreciated it for the passion so subtly conveyed by the author and for its historical worth. I probably won’t read it again, as it was a little too strange and not quite engaging enough for me, but it’s a good book.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

As soon as Thomas had entered the room, he understood what old Pluto had tried to do. He had arranged the furniture in a rigid progression, with the two long windows, not the open fireplace, as its focus. Thomas’ eyes swept from the fireplace to the windows, then out into the gray day, on and on, until he could see no farther.

It’s his warning, thought Thomas. He means for us to flee.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2fr64TF