2012 Newbery Medal: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos, was published in 2011 by Farrar Straus Giroux.

Rating: 4/5

Dead End in Norvelt is a really quaint story about a boy growing up in a dying town that was founded by Eleanor Roosevelt. While many of the townspeople are convinced that it’s time to move on from the town, Jack, through his friendship with the town historian/medical examiner, learns about the history surrounding the town and its inhabitants.

The book is funny, from Jack’s attempts to stay on the good side of his parents, to his nose bleeding at the slightest provocation, to the strange Miss Volker who lives next door and has to put her hands in wax constantly. The history is great, too, from the “This Day in History” to the obituaries to Jack’s books to his thoughts on events. It’s part historical, part humor, even part murder mystery.

It’s a small-town narrative, but one with a great deal of character and charm. And, apparently, it’s based off of a true story—Jack Gantos is the author, as well as the name of the main character. Maybe that’s why this book is so vibrant and full of life. It’s a great story, and I especially loved the history bits, the obituaries, and Jack’s internal monologues. And it’s interesting how a book that’s so full of death can be as entertaining as it is. “Gothic comedy” is the way one person put it on one of those promotional quotes on the back of the book, and that’s a good way to describe Dead End in Norvelt.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

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

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The Great Railroad Race by Kristiana Gregory

The Great Railroad Race: The Diary of Libby West, by Kristiana Gregory, was published in 1999 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5

I’ve mentioned before that I think Kristiana Gregory’s Dear America books are some of the best in the series. Seeds of Hope and Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie are among my favorites. Gregory seems to understand a balance of slice-of-life and history is needed in order to make these books shine.

That being said, The Great Railroad Race is a bit of a downer. While an important period of time, there just aren’t enough things that happen. It’s certainly very informative, but it’s lacking a little sparkle, in my opinion. There’s too much of Libby blushing about Pete and not enough about the politics and culture of the time. Gregory does include some things about the conflict with the Indians, as well as mentioning the Chinese that worked for Central Pacific, and there’s a great deal of information about what it was like near the railroad. But it’s too much in the background, I guess—it reads too much like information and there’s not enough immersion.

I did like Libby, though, with her matter-of-fact comments. Gregory did a good job of inserting the sort of opinions a girl would put in her diary, such as her thoughts on the President, the Indians, and the culture of the time. I’ve complained before about the protagonist simply being a vehicle for historical information, or for not being present enough in her own story, but there’s none of that here.

The Great Railroad Race definitely isn’t the worst of Dear America, but it’s not really near the best. It’s a good, average book in the series. The historical information is interesting, but not as immersive as others. Libby is a great protagonist, although she spends a little too much time talking about her feelings for Pete. It’s not my favorite of Gregory’s books.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

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

Beyond the Heather Hills by Melissa Wiley

Beyond the Heather Hills, by Melissa Wiley, was published in 2003 by HarperCollins. It is the sequel to Down to the Bonny Glen.

Rating: 3/5

Beyond the Heather Hills is the last Martha book, though I don’t believe it was intended to be. From what Wiley has said about her ideas for future books, I could see seeds of them being sown here, especially in the relationship between Martha and Lewis Tucker, and in Martha’s desire to see more beyond her home—yet also her fierce longing for the familiar.

This book deals with a topic not yet addressed in the Martha books, which is death. Martha is confronted with death, with leaving home, with change. Fear is a prominent theme in this book: fear of the unknown, fear of leaving the ones you love. Yet the end brings the promise of joy in new life, too. It’s a very familiar bookend, death and life, but it’s one that’s always needed.

Beyond the Heather Hills isn’t as fun as some of the previous Martha books. Martha spends too much time being homesick for that. But it is a very poignant one. It’s a shame that these books weren’t more popular, as they really are quite good children’s books, but they do lack a little something. As fiery as Martha is, the books are a little too plain.

I’ve enjoyed rereading these books, though they don’t hold a candle in my mind against the original Wilder books. Wiley did a good job with conveying Scottish tradition and culture and with making Martha a good protagonist who learns a lot but still manages to have fun along the way. They’re not my favorite of the “prequel series to Little House books,” but they hold a special place in my heart because of their presence in my childhood bookshelf.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

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

I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly by Joyce Hansen

I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl, by Joyce Hansen, was published in 1997 by Scholastic.

Rating: 5/5

I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly is a delightful story about Patsy, a freed slave who is struggling to find her identity and place in society. I knew very little about the beginning of the Reconstruction era that took place in the South after the Civil War, such as the government’s dealings with the freed slaves, so it was interesting to read this book to find out a little more.

Historical details aside, the heart of this book is Patsy’s story, as it should be. The best Dear America books are those that aren’t just there to give information about a particular time period, but actually tell a story through the diary entries. It seems pretty straightforward when I say it like that—why wouldn’t these books tell a story? But A Light in the Storm and a couple other Dear America books that I have read failed to move beyond the diary entries as a mouthpiece for the setting. I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly makes Patsy, rather than the setting, the center.

I always have a soft place in my heart for protagonists who outwardly appear weak or are looked down upon, but have inner strength that shows itself in various ways (that almost never has to do with physical strength). Patsy, with her stutter and her seemingly “slow” mind, outwardly appears slow and weak, but inwardly she’s sharply intelligent—which shines when she’s doing what she loves. Patsy overcomes not only her stutter, but also her former status as a slave, and chooses for herself a name and a position the process of which is truly heartening to experience.

After so many disappointing Dear America books, I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly was a delight, with a character-driven plot, a delightful protagonist, and a timeless message. It sheds light on an era that I didn’t know much about, but still remembers that it should also be a story, not just a mouthpiece for history. This book will likely remain a stand-out for me among all of the Dear America books.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

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

Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco

Stalking Jack the Ripper, by Kerri Maniscalco, was published in 2016 by Jimmy Patterson Books.

Rating: 3/5

At first I wasn’t sure if I would like Stalking Jack the Ripper as the protagonist seemed to be of the rebellious female trope that I don’t really like. However, while that certainly was the case, I actually liked Audrey Rose up to a certain extent. While she did have that annoying “I can do whatever I want” attitude, I liked the fact that she still appreciated good clothing and that she also displayed many feminine characteristics despite her progressiveness.

I also found that the romance, while typical, even cliché, was quite sweet and I liked the chemistry between Audrey Rose and Thomas. I thought Thomas was too Sherlock Holmesian in his deduction skills, but I liked the contrast between Thomas’s deduction and Audrey Rose’s induction—or, basically, reason versus feeling.

The mystery portion was good, though I found that actually “solving” the Jack the Ripper mystery made the novel almost too fictional, if I’m making any sense. It’s hard for a novel to successfully pull off an unsolved mystery and maintain an aura of realism—it screams, more than other fiction books, “the author is completely making this up.” Maybe I take my fiction too seriously, though! I do give credit to Maniscalco for coming up with the mystery and the solution, of course. It just seemed strange to me to read.

The only major criticism I have for the mystery as a whole is that there’s a part near the beginning where Audrey Rose and Thomas are investigating one of the victims and there’s a dramatic scene where tantalizing snippets of dialogue are thrown out to heighten the mystery. Except that the scene was completely worthless, since nothing about it is ever explained. It’s literally a red herring meant to increase the suspense, and it annoyed me that we never got solid answers about it.

Oh, and Audrey Rose’s determination at the end of the novel made it incredibly obvious who the killer was, since it was a moment of “that character is way too fixated on this particular thing; therefore, it must not be true.”

Stalking Jack the Ripper was surprisingly enjoyable for starring a protagonist type that I usually hate. I think I will keep an eye on Maniscalco and see what she cooks up next.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Violence, death, graphic descriptions.

Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction

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

1955 Newbery Medal: The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong

The Wheel on the School, by Meindert DeJong, was published in 1954 by HarperCollins.

Rating: 3/5

The Wheel on the School is a delightfully long story, which contains much more than I was anticipating. The best books, in my opinion, are ones that have multiple stories within the main plot. The main plot of this one is the children trying to get storks to nest in their village again, but there are other stories that are told along the way, with great messages of friendship, teamwork, and community.

The best story in the book, maybe even better than the main stork one, was of the communal acceptance of Janus. DeJong simply and beautifully sketches a tale of a man who self-isolates himself after an accident leaves him without his legs, who is then drawn back into and accepted by the community with the help of children. So the heartwarming story of community getting together to help each other and to help storks is made even more uplifting.

I really wasn’t expecting so much out of The Wheel on the School, and while there were parts that seemed a bit too long, I appreciate that DeJong took the time to really build up the village and the community rather than just tell a simple tale of children putting a wheel on a school. There’s even a bit of danger and adventure included. There’s not enough there to make it a particularly memorable book—it’s lacking a little bit of “oomph” to make it stand out to me—but it’s an enjoyable read nonetheless.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Lady of a Thousand Treasures by Sandra Byrd

Disclaimer: Lady of a Thousand Treasures, by Sandra Byrd, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

My rating: 3/5

Lady of a Thousand Treasures takes us to the world of art-collection fiends in Victorian England, starring the female curator/evaluator Eleanor and the intrigue, drama, and danger she faces after unearthing the seedy underbelly of the art world. There’s also romance because of course there is.

I did really like seeing into the art collection side of Victorian England. There was a lot of depth and explanation in every aspect of Eleanor’s job. There was also some subtle looks into females trying to establish their own careers and their own footing—the real-life Lady Charlotte Schreiber (first female accepted into a previously all-male curators club) and Elizabeth Garrett (first female physician in England) make appearances. Dante Rossetti shows up, too—you know, the brother of Christina Rossetti, of “Goblin Market” fame.

So, basically, I really loved the setting. The plot paled in comparison. There’s intrigue, and suspicion, and forgeries, and scandal, and debts, which sounds very exciting and tense, but to be honest, I spent most of my time wondering why Eleanor made the decisions she did. She is too quick to trust in one scenario, and too quick to doubt in another. She does really stupid things, then follows those up with some swift, quick-thinking decisions that are smartly thought-out. As a character, she is all over the place. I liked the mystery aspect of the plot, but the characters didn’t hold up on their end.

The romance was okay—nothing special. It ends as inevitably as you might suspect, with as much drama and progression as you might expect. I didn’t really like that Harry was used as a device to fuel Eleanor’s doubt, and then swoop in and get her out of trouble, and the parts involving him, his father’s collection, and the secret rooms in his house were some of the most confusing in the novel.

I loved the setting, mostly enjoyed the plot, and tolerated the characters in Lady of a Thousand Treasures. It didn’t blow me away, but I didn’t have strong feelings in the negatives towards it, either. It was an average book for me. I liked it better than many other Christian fiction I have read.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Christian, Historical Fiction

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

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein, was published in 2012 by Hyperion.

Rating: 4/5

I really enjoyed Wein’s Black Dove White Raven, and I’ve heard good things about Code Name Verity, so I was hoping for a good story. And the book delivered by giving me a twisty, complex plot all wrapped into a World War II setting (one of my favorites).

I was expecting a straightforward novel, but straightforward is not the word to describe this book. It starts out simple enough, but by the last half of the book Wein has completely turned the tables on the reader, upending everything he thought he knew. There’s spy intrigue, acute danger, friendship, and, of course, lots of piloting, something that shows up again in the other Wein book I’ve read. It completely upended my expectations and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. And it has plenty of girl power, but not in that obvious, in-your-face sort of way that annoys me so much in other novels. This is girl power solidly set in history, which makes it great.

I was rooting for a happy ending the entire novel, but Wein follows through on the historical accuracy and delivers a gutwrenching finale, displaying how sometimes there are no easy choices to make and that the best decision doesn’t mean everyone gets what they want. It’s a solid reminder that moral decisions can be hard to make and that in wartime, sometimes the best thing to do is the last thing you ever wished would happen.

Code Name Verity navigates friendship in wartime, how bonds are made and broken, and courage in the face of danger and death. I could have done without some of the swearing, but it did authenticate the voices of the characters. And the complexity of the plot will always stand out in my mind as an extremely pleasant surprise and a stand-out of the book.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Swearing, violence, death.

Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction

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

Down to the Bonny Glen by Melissa Wiley

Down to the Bonny Glen, by Melissa Wiley, was published in 2001 by HarperCollins. It is the sequel to The Far Side of the Loch.

Rating: 4/5

Down to the Bonny Glen has always been my favorite of the Martha books. It’s longer than the others and is mostly concerned with the character development and growth of Martha. Martha is more than just a spirited young girl in this book—she’s now finally starting to realize that she’s the daughter of a laird, and in that sense she’s quite different from other children around her.

This conflict is sown all throughout the book—Martha’s awkwardness around her friends, her brother and his friends’ hesitation at seeing one another after Duncan comes back from school, Martha’s realization that as a laird’s daughter she has different expectations. And yet we also see her determination to not let things like that bother her, to push past barriers and boundaries and do what she wants to do. We see that in her eagerness to cook and her parent’s appall at the thought of her cooking for a living, we see that in her desire to go to America, to have adventure, to play outside instead of sit in and sew. And we see that in the hints and subtle indication that connect Martha and the blacksmith’s son, Lewis Tucker.

Other than the character development, Martha also gets some personal growth in terms of her rashness and thoughtlessness. Her new governess helps by channeling Martha’s energy into suitable tasks and by the end of the book, Martha is much more careful without having lost any of her spiritedness.

The Martha Years will never be as memorable or long-lasting as the Little House books, but Down to the Bonny Glen is the highlight of the series, chock-full of thoughtless Martha, interesting events (my favorite is Martha and Grisie cooking for the house), and lots of character development.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2SvOqx7

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, was published in 2015 by Dial.

Rating: 4/5

The War That Saved My Life is about Ada and her brother, Jamie, who are sent to the country to escape the threat of Hitler (well, Jamie is sent—Ada sneaks along). Ada has a clubfoot and a terrible mother, and knows almost nothing about human interaction or the outside world. The book is basically a coming-of-age story for Ada, who learns many things while staying with Susan, the woman who took her and Jamie in, as well as a story of strength and survival.

There’s a lot going on in this book to unpack. There’s the background of World War II at the beginning, leading to its outright interference towards the end, so we get stories of heroes and spies at the same time as Ada is finding her own inner strength. We have Ada’s journey, from abused to hero, and her growing reconciliation with the fact that her clubfoot doesn’t make her worthy of less love. We have Susan’s journey, from depressed lonely woman to someone who grows to care fiercely for the children. And Jamie gets a mini-journey as well, though he never felt a believable six-year-old to me.

It’s a Newbery Honor book, and deservedly so. It’s a heartwrenching, heartwarming story of love and family. The inclusion of World War II isn’t toned down; it’s brutal and scary and shows just the sort of atmosphere that must have existed at the time.  Of course, the best part of the book is Ada, though Susan’s own journey is almost as important. However, there’s a scene at the end where Ada confronts her mother that is supposed to be the strongest part of the book, but I found to be a little confusing and a little too cut-and-dry. Despite that, though, The War That Saved My Life is powerful and memorable, and one of the better stories that handles abuse and disability.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2CR9sl5