King of the Wind, by Marguerite Henry, was published in 1948 by Simon & Schuster.
When Agba, a simple horse boy in the royal stables of the Moroccan court, is selected to accompany his stallion to France he is beside himself with pride. Sham, along with five other horses, is the golden bay named for the Arabian sun, and meant to sire a stronger race of horses throughout Europe. But when Sham and Agba arrive, the king sees them as nothing more than a carthorse and his charge and sends them away. Bound by the orders of the Sultan, Agba knows he must protect the pedigree of Sham at all costs. A duty that will change the history of thoroughbred horses—forever.
I think I’ve found the book that inspired The Black Stallion, or at least, the book most likely to have influenced it. King of the Wind reads far too similarly to Farley’s series for it to be a coincidence (unless I’m crazy and making things up, which is also possible).
King of the Wind traces the lineage of the great racehorse Man O’ War back to “The Godolphin Arabian,” the horse from Morocco that traveled all the way to England through various methods and sired swift racehorses. Besides The Black Stallion, the book also read like Black Beauty, especially in terms of all the predicaments Sham found himself in (though the book isn’t told from his perspective as in Black Beauty). It’s basically a story about how Agba, Sham’s groom, never gives up on believing that his horse will accomplish great things despite all the terrible things that happen.
It’s a beautiful book, especially with the illustrations, even though it does a lot of hand-waving some times. For example, I completely missed when Agba and Sham got to England from France, and things definitely progressed at an unrealistic rate and setting. But the book is, at its heart, a horse book, and so it can more easily get away with things like that, in my opinion.
I’m also impressed that Henry seemed to do a lot of research on this book, judging by the lists of books she gave at the end. It’s obvious that the majority of it she made up, but knowing that there’s a seed of truth in it somewhere helps make the whole book seem more meaningful somehow.
My one disgruntlement is that the marvelous horse race that’s beautifully illustrated inside the cover never happens. In fact, Sham never races at all. It’s actually a little harder to sell the title, in my opinion, if Sham never actually runs, but I mean, I suppose he lives on through his super-fast children.
King of the Wind is so reminiscent of mid-twentieth century horse stories, combining danger and adventure in the basic story of the love between a boy and his horse. It’s a great starting point to talk about differences in culture and in religion, and the frequent dismissals of Sham as being too weak/little/etc. to be a good breeding horse can certainly be related to present day topics. I just wish that horse race that was so gorgeously illustrated on the front and endplates had actually taken place because it would have been awesome.
The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, was published in 1978 by Dutton.
This highly inventive mystery involved sixteen people (including a dressmaker, a secretary, an inventor, a doctor, a judge, a bookie, a burglar, and a bomber) who are invited to the reading of the very strange will of the very rich Samuel W. Westing. They could become millionaires, depending on how they play the game. All they have to do is find the answer—but the answer to what? The Westing game is tricky and generous, but the heirs play on—through blizzards, burglaries, and bombings. Ellen Raskin has entangled a remarkable cast of characters in a puzzle-knotted, word-twisting plot filled with humor, intrigue, and suspense.
The Westing Game is a fun mystery/puzzle story, with a diverse and quirky cast of characters and a twisty-and-turny plot that, according to the introduction, the author made up as she went along. I’ve had this book recommended to me by a couple of people, so I knew when I started this Newbery Medal read that I would finally get a chance to see what it was all about.
At first, the characters can be hard to differentiate between, and none of their voices (or their interactions) seem quite accurate. However, as they start to get fleshed out and you become used to each character’s particular quirk, it becomes easier to tell them apart. Raskin was clearly aiming for humor/distinction rather than realism with these characters (and with her plot as a whole), so there’s still a little bit of separation there, but once the mystery really gets going, the odd absurd factor to the novel becomes less apparent.
Speaking of the mystery, it’s really quite fun. While I figured out the first half of it relatively quickly (almost as soon as the clues appeared), the rest was a surprise for me—especially the last part, which was almost too obscure (but not quite, making it rather brilliant). I wish there had been more to it, though—more clues, more steps, something. There was slightly too much in the middle that didn’t have to do with the clues and instead had to do with random revelations about each character (some of which didn’t really fit, like what we learn about Angela). It helped us get to know the characters more, but made that part of the mystery drag.
The multiple characters in The Westing Game are hard to get accustomed to at first, but once they get fleshed out it’s easier to tell them apart. The mystery is great—lots of twists and turns, obscure hints, red herrings, and a pretty cool reveal. However, there was almost too much going on in some parts, and the ending wasn’t as satisfying as I would have liked (why does Angela marry the intern after a whole book of her lamenting mournfully about marrying him??). It’s not quite on level with an Agatha Christie mystery (I have a bad habit of comparing all mysteries with hers), but it’s still great fun.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill, was published in 2016 by Algonquin Young Readers.
Every year, the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an offering to the witch who lives in the forest. They hope this sacrifice will keep her from terrorizing their town. But the witch in the Forest, Xan, is kind. She shares her home with a wise Swamp Monster and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon. Xan rescues the children and delivers them to welcoming families on the other side of the forest, nourishing the babies with starlight on the journey. One year, Xan accidentally feeds a baby moonlight instead of starlight, filling the ordinary child with extraordinary magic. Xan decides she must raise this girl, whom she calls Luna, as her own. As Luna’s thirteenth birthday approaches, her magic begins to emerge—with dangerous consequences. Meanwhile, a young man from the Protectorate is determined to free his people by killing the witch. Deadly birds with uncertain intentions flock nearby. A volcano, quiet for centuries, rumbles just beneath the earth’s surface. And the woman with the Tiger’s heart is on the prowl…
I’ve heard many, many good things about The Girl Who Drank the Moon. I was excited to read it because of those good things, and also because the cover is gorgeous, and also because I like it when fantasy novels win Newbery Medals. However, I think a case of “high expectations ruin things” struck because I ended up not enjoying the book as much as I thought I would. I wasn’t disappointed, per se, simply…underwhelmed.
I’ve read a Barnhill book before (The Witch’s Boy), and I described Barnhill’s writing style as “really interesting,” a style that “I wasn’t sure whether to love or hate.” And that still holds true for this book. At times, I thought the writing was really beautiful. And then, at other times, I thought it was far too random, or too strange, and tried too hard to be poetic (all the mad woman’s scenes were like this). All of the “normal” scenes were fine (I actually really enjoyed the vibe of those scenes, a little quirky/whimsical), but the minute magic was introduced, things fell apart a little, at least for me.
The story also was a little underwhelming, in that the beginning stretched on for far too long and the solution happened too quickly. Once the ruined castle was introduced, I was hoping for some sort of “let’s do things properly this time and save the world” plot, but instead Luna stares at a witch in an extremely anticlimactic conflict (I don’t expect my kid’s stories to have brilliant magical battles, but still, I thought the villain would put up more of a fight). There’s also lots of things Barnhill included that I thought were never fully explained (which is possibly why I was expecting more out of the abandoned castle).
In addition, the message seemed oddly simplistic, and was also combined with a strange “we are all one” theme that was conveyed in that strange, floaty writing style that I didn’t really enjoy. I like beautiful writing, but a lot of the times I feel as if authors, in their attempts to write things in memorable ways, go too far and end up losing some solidness (Maggie Stiefvater writes this way; Barnhill does it slightly better). It’s hard to describe what it is that I mean.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon has a beautiful cover and at times beautiful writing. However, in some scenes I felt the writing became too over-the-top. The plot is fairly simplistic, with an uneven pace and an anticlimactic finish, and the message is simplistic as well, in addition to being vaguely New Age-y and strange. I’m disappointed that I didn’t enjoy this book more, as I really have heard lots of good things about it.
The Giver, by Lois Lowry, was published in 1993 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Life in the community where Jonas lives is idyllic. Designated birthmothers produce newchildren, who are assigned to appropriate family units: one male, one female, to each. Citizens are assigned their partners and their jobs. No one thinks to ask questions. Everyone obeys. The community is a precisely choreographed world without conflict, inequality, divorce, unemployment, injustice…or choice. Everyone is the same. Except Jonas. At the Ceremony of Twelve, the community’s twelve-year-olds eagerly accept their predetermined Life Assignments. But Jonas is chosen for something special. He begins instruction in his life’s work with a mysterious old man known only as The Giver. Gradually Jonas learns that power lies in feelings .But when his own power is put to the test—when he must try to save someone he loves—he may not be ready. Is it too soon? Or too late?
Confession time: I’ve never read The Giver before. Even after years of hearing people tell me how great it was, even after the hype surrounding the movie and the renewed interest in the book it brought, I never read it. So, this was my first time reading The Giver, and I got to see firsthand whether or not I thought it was as good as people told me.
And the verdict is…mostly. It’s mostly as good.
The message behind The Giver is excellent. Lowry shows the importance of feelings, memories, and choice through the chilling world of the community, where everything is predetermined and feelings are suppressed. While this sort of utopia sounds good on paper (a place where there’s no animosity, injustice, inequality, etc.), the reality Lowry shows makes it clear that the utopia is actually a dystopia, and that in the effort to make things peaceful, the community has dehumanized life and people and sucked out all the color and diversity and humanity that emotions and choice bring to people. The message is clear and easy to understand, making this an ideal book to talk about the importance of freedom with children.
The one blip on the radar for me is that the world, plot, and ideas are simplistic, and, at times, confusing. Vague, hand-wavy “science” has accomplished the colorless, emotionless life of the community. However, the Giver and, in turn, Jonas, have powers of memory that border on the magical, not the scientific, and Jonas’s ability to “see beyond” also seems more magical than not, making the world a strange blend of science fiction and fantasy, but not really selling either genre. In addition, the structure behind the idea of a Receiver/Giver of Memory is hazy at times, and it’s not clear why, once Jonas has left the boundaries of the community, the memories return rather than stay with him.
Lowry builds the chilling world of The Giver well; by the end, the people seem like robots, or maybe just unfeeling, emotionless shells. However, occasionally her world is less than airtight in development, especially regarding the whole foundation of memory, and it fluctuates between science fiction and fantasy with no clear line or explanation. It’s a book ripe for discussion, and even if it is simplistic, at least it’s a profound simplistic.
Leigh has been Boyd Henshaw’s Number One fan ever since his second grade teacher read aloud Ways to Amuse a Dog. Now in the sixth grade, Leigh lives with his mother and is “the new kid” in school. Troubled by the absence of his father, a cross-country trucker, and angry because a mysterious lunchbag thief steals all the “good stuff” from his lunch, Leigh feels his only friend is Mr. Fridley, the school custodian. Then Leigh’s teacher assigns a project that requires writing letters asking questions of authors. Naturally Leigh chooses to write to Mr. Henshaw, whose surprising answer changes Leigh’s life.
Dear Mr. Henshaw is the story of Leigh Botts, who, through letters to the author Boyd Henshaw and later in diary entries, describes his troubles with writing, his plans to catch a lunchbox thief, and his feelings over his absentee father. It touches on divorce and poverty in the subtle, but noticeable, way of a children’s book, and Cleary does a good job of describing the sort of complicated feelings that can arise in a child when dealing with an absent father.
I liked Dear Mr. Henshaw, but it lacked the depth and memorability that I enjoy in children’s books. It’s the sort of book that I enjoy in the moment, but after I put it down I forget about it. It didn’t grip me or move me in a profound way; it’s not a book that I will look back at with delight. I think it is a book that is, in the moment, good for adults and good for children, but struggles to have much of a lasting impact.
I do think Dear Mr. Henshaw’s portrayal of divorce is one of the better portrayals out there, which is probably why it won a Newbery Medal. Also, the “letters to an author” motif was well done. However, the rest of it was forgettable and in a broad sea of medal winners, Cleary’s book gets lost under the waves.
“New Folks coming, Mother—Father, new Folks coming into the Big House!” shouted Little Georgie the Rabbit. All the animals of the Hill were very excited about the news and wondered how things would change. Would the new Folks bring dogs, traps, and guns? Or would they be planting Folks who would care for the land and grow rich crops? It had been years since there had been a garden at the House.
I feel slightly guilty rating Rabbit Hill this low, as I really didn’t dislike it at all. But the 3/5 rating has become my default, go-to rating, which I’ve realized is making distinctions between books harder to figure out. And I don’t think Rabbit Hill is on par with some of the other 3/5 books, Newbery or otherwise, that I’ve reviewed—plus I kinda thought the book was a little ridiculous once I finished it.
Basically, Rabbit Hill is a really nice, feel-good story about field animals wondering if the “Folks” moving into the farm will be good or bad for them. They discover, eventually, that the Folks are the best sort of Folks there are—lovers of animals, determined to let no trace of poison or traps or dogs cross their paths, with a communal idea of living.
Yet, I read the book, and immediately I thought, “Come on! This could never happen in real life!” Now, I know talking animals means that the books is already straying away from reality. But at the heart of the book, Lawson seems to be saying that the best way to farm is live alongside the animals surrounding your farm—more than that, he’s saying that you should go out of your way to protect and feed the animals. So, at the end of the book, the skunk and the fox are fed every night with the scraps the cook leaves out for them, there’s a statue where food is laid out for the rest of the animals so they never go hungry (and never take from the garden), the moles are free to burrow wherever they like, etc. It sounds good in a book about talking animals who can think and have a semblance of a governing body, but the wonder of the book is really lost when you’re an adult thinking how dumb the whole idea of a communal living like that is, and how fast it would fail in reality.
It’s probably a good thing the book is marketed for children, huh?
I still finds lots of wonder in many children’s books, but Rabbit Hill is one where adult sense gets in the way of the imagination. The whole concept Lawson is going for is simply ridiculous to me. It’s a great little farm story, but the concept falls apart as soon as the Folks move in. I would have much preferred to read a story where the animals team up to survive a more cruel type of person, rather than the utopia they ended up getting. Not a particularly enjoyable read for me—Rabbit Hill is definitely one of the weaker Newbery Medals.
The White Stag, by Kate Seredy, was published in 1937 by Viking.
For generations the tribes of Huns and Magyars had moved relentlessly westward, obeying the voices of their pagan gods, which compelled them to follow the elusive white stag to their promised homeland. They swept Europe, all the while pursuing their vision of the stag. Their leader was called Attila, and the land Hungary. Here is the epic story of their tribal migration and their fierce leader—known to us even today.
The White Stag is a fairy-tale-esque narrative of the Huns’ migration from Asia to Europe. Seredy states from the beginning that she is more concerned with story than fact, and the narrative she unfolds rings very much like a mythic tale. The imagery of the book is quite striking, and the story flows well and has beautiful description.
The story focuses on three leaders of the Huns, though I believe only Attila has been historically confirmed. The first leader is Nimrod, of biblical fame, who has twin sons, Hunor and Magyar. Hunor’s son, Bendeguz, is the second leader, and the third is Attila. Seredy weaves mythological elements into the narrative in order to emphasize the importance of Attila—fiery portents, the White Stag, Moonmaidens, prophesy, sacrifices, a flaming sword, and eagles.
However, despite the beauty of the writing and the whole mythological aspect, I did find it hard to relate to the book. Seredy’s grand overtures in her heralding of the coming of Attila was a bit hard to take. I get that Attila was an important historical figure, but the godlike way he’s described in this book is too much. Seredy is trying to portray it from the Hun’s history, of course, but a downside of that is that it does make the book seem wildly over-the-top and grandiose. It also makes it seem as if Seredy is extolling Attila beyond what he deserves.
I ended The White Stag a little disgruntled, since the way Seredy portrayed Attila sat wrong with me. There was too much hero and not enough reality, not to mention the fact that none of the book is historically grounded beyond brief sketches. And I do understand that Seredy wanted to get away from fact and go back to the mythological, imaginative way of telling history, but I feel as if she took it too far in that direction. A good balance between the two would have been much better.
Lincoln: A Photobiography, by Russell Freedman, was published in 1987 by Clarion.
Abraham Lincoln stood out in a crowd as much for his wit and rollicking humor as for his height. Here is a warm, appealing biography of our Civil War president, illustrated with dozens of carefully chosen photographs and prints. Russel Freedman begins with a lively account of Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood, his career as a country lawyer, and his courtship and marriage to Mary Todd. Then the author focuses on the presidential years (1861 to 1865), skillfully explaining the many complex issues Lincoln grappled with as he led a deeply divided nation through the Civil War. The book’s final chapter is a moving account of that tragic evening in Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.
A truly deserving Newbery Medal winner, Lincoln: A Photobiography takes us through the life of Abraham Lincoln from childhood to death, complete with photographs and prints of written documents. I learned a lot about Lincoln I hadn’t before, as well as much about the Civil War period that I hadn’t known.
Freedman neither idolizes nor demonizes Lincoln, instead taking a refreshing, objective viewpoint as he recounts Lincoln’s ideas, motivations, and political aspirations. I had never before known that Lincoln started out quite lukewarm about slavery—convinced it was bad, but unsure about what, exactly, he could do about something so deeply grounded in culture. It was only the pressure and tension from the Civil War that gave him both the will and the power to accomplish emancipation, when he was in a position where he could no longer be so easily browbeaten by opposing forces.
I also appreciated how Freedman lists his research and additional resources in the back of the book. Sometimes many biographies aimed for children can leave out this information, assumingly because they think children will have no need or interest for such things. I, however, appreciate seeing both the effort the author made in creating the work and making it accurate, and the additional information that I can utilize for myself if I am so inclined.
Lincoln: A Photobiography is a wonderful read, highlighting the life of one of America’s most famous presidents, a man whose legacy lives on today. The research Freedman put into this book is exhaustive and well explained, and the photos add another layer of depth and interest. There’s also much about the culture and the thought of the time that I found enlightening. A fantastic book, and great to use for reports or the like for school assignments.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Lincoln is best known as the Great Emancipator, the man who freed the slaves. Yet he did not enter the war with that idea in mind. “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union,” he said in 1862, “and is not either to save or destroy slavery.” As the war continued, Lincoln’s attitude changed. Eventually he came to regard the conflict as a moral crusade to wipe out the sin of slavery.
No black leader was more critical of Lincoln than the fiery abolitionist writer and editor Frederick Douglass….Later, Douglass changed his mind and came to admire Lincoln. Several years after the war, he said this about the sixteenth president:
“His greatest mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery….taking him for all in all, measuring the tremendous magnitude of the work before him, considered the necessary means to ends, and surveying the end from the beginning, infinite wisdom has seldom sent any man into the world better fitted for his mission than Abraham Lincoln.”
A few hours after nine-year-old Garnet Linden finds a silver thimble in the dried-up riverbed, the rains come and end the long drought on the farm. The rains bring safety for the crops and the livestock, and money for Garnet’s father. Garnet can’t help feeling that the thimble is a magic talisman, for the summer proves to be interesting and exciting in so many different ways. There is the arrival of Eric, an orphan who becomes a member of the linden family; the building of a new barn; and the county fair at which Garnet’s carefully ended pig, Timmy, wins a blue ribbon. Every day brings adventure of some kind to Garnet and her best friend, Citronella. As far as Garnet is concerned, the thimble is responsible for each good thing that happens during this magic summer—her thimble summer.
I don’t think Thimble Summer is quite as strong as Enright’s Melendy Quartet or Gone-Away Lake (which must have had much stronger competition when it was published, as it only received a Newbery Honor and it’s arguably a stronger book than this one), but that’s understandable since this is one of Enright’s first books. It still has all the lovely Enright charm to it—she can make descriptions of one girl’s summer sound more exciting than a book about pirates and stolen treasure.
You can see the shaping here of what Enright really loved to explore in her books—the day-to-day, the small adventures that take place over the course of a day or a summer, the boundless joy of children, their desire for new things battling with their desire to keep things the same. Things never get too dark or too scary in this book, yet there are times when even Enright recognizes the need to express when things are serious. One of my favorite moments in the book was when Garnet goes off to a neighboring city without telling anyone where she’s going, and when she gets back she’s confronted by her neighbor, who gently chides her and reminds her that she has people who care about her and who worry if she disappears, and that what she considered an adventure was not felt that way by other people. It’s delivered in such a way that readers can definitely tell that Garnet did the wrong thing, but it’s done gently and woven well so that the story still keeps its lightheartedness and its joy.
Thimble Summer simply highlights how much better Enright will get in her writing: the good things in this book are amplified and better developed and executed in her later works, the flaws and weaknesses in this book are better reined in or gotten rid of altogether in later books. This is not my favorite Enright book, nor do I think it is her best, but it’s still charming, and so full of joy and life that you can’t help but read it with a smile.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s
Garnet saw a small object, half-buried in the sand, and glittering. She knelt down ad dug it out with her finger. It was a silver thimble! How in the world had that ever found its way into the river? She dropped the old shoe, bits of polished glass, and a half dozen clamshells she had collected and ran breathlessly to show Jay.
“It’s solid silver!” she shouted triumphantly, “and I think it must be magic too!”
When Great-granny Brown packed up and moved to the Women’s City Club in Boston, Miss Hickory was faced with the problem of spending a severe New Hampshire winter alone. This might not have been so bad if Miss Hickory had not been a country woman whose body was an apple-wood twig and whose head was a hickory nut. Also, if her house had been built of stronger material than corncobs, however neatly notched and glued together. This is the story of how she survived those trying months, in the company of neighbors like Crow, who was tough, wise, and kindly; Bull Frog, who lost his winter clothes; Ground Hog, a surly man afraid of his own shadow, and a host of others. It is a fantasy full of the peculiar charm of the New Hampshire countryside, seen from an angle which most of us, city-bound in the winter, know little about.
I’ve mostly liked and enjoyed all the Newbery Medal books so far, with a few notable exceptions (The Dark Frigate, *shudder*). Miss Hickory, unfortunately, falls on the side of the ones I didn’t like so much. It’s not that the quality is low or the messages are poor. I actually thought the message was quite good; there was a delightful little scene in the middle where Miss Hickory realizes the cost of hardheadedness.
My main problem with Miss Hickory is that the premise is strange (a living wooden doll existing alongside animals, with no explanation as to how she got there or as to why there isn’t any creature like her) and there is nothing that reconciles that strangeness, and the ending is downright creepy. Seriously, I read the end and almost couldn’t believe what was happening; there is also a rather frightening picture to go along with the event. If, as an adult, I feel creeped out by a book, how much more so would a child be frightened? I don’t think Bailey meant it to be frightening, of course, and the story does end happily, if strangely, but nevertheless, it was the wrong tone to end the book on.
Miss Hickory should have been like Hitty, Her First Hundred Years or similar, but the premise was too strange and unexplained (why does Miss Hickory even exist? Why aren’t there others like her?) and the ending was frightening. I enjoyed the book, I suppose, but it’s definitely not a standout nor is it a book I would recommend to anyone anytime soon. Not every Newbery can be perfect, but it’s still a little disappointing.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Warnings: None, unless you count the end where Miss Hickory loses her head and then her headless body walks around.
Genre: Fantasy, Realistic, Children’s
“You have seen through Great-granny Brown’s kitchen window how deep the snowdrifts are in New Hampshire. I’ll wager that there were days when you could not see through the windows. The winters are long and hard here, Miss Hickory. “
“What could one do?” she begged. She would not believe him yet.
“Don’t feel too badly, as if they had forgotten you,” he said kindly. “Ann has other matters than dolls to fill her mind now. Great-granny Brown was born and bred in New Hampshire. She expects you to be equal to any weather. You’ll have to move, Miss Hickory.”