1973 Newbery Medal: Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George

Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George, was published in 1972 by Harper Collins.

Rating: 3/5

Julie of the Wolves
is one of the wilder, out-there children’s books I’ve read. George clearly loves survival novels, as she also wrote My Side of the Mountain. Julie of the Wolves, however, has the titular character surviving in the wilds of Alaska while also being accepted into a wolf pack. (!?)

The book’s premise is bonkers, and I honestly have no idea if any of the things that Miyax does to ingratiate herself into the wolf pack would actually work, especially since I know that wolf packs work differently than what was thought back when the book was written. But it does make the book incredibly interesting, so there’s that positive going for it.

I enjoyed the way George used Miyax’s name to highlight important moments. She’s Miyax in the wilderness, Julie in civilization, and then Julie again at the end of the book when she realizes that she can’t live the way she wants. It’s interesting to see her struggle with the realization that her father, the great Eskimo hunter, has succumbed to the dominant ideas, and the way that his killing of Amaroq is almost akin to the death of a lasting Eskimo culture. And her shedding of her name, Miyax, and taking up the English name, Julie, is the last signal in the book that everything has changed.

George is playing around with and showing a lot of interesting and important ideas in Julie of the Wolves, but it’s ruined slightly by the sheer “But would it work!?” surreal angle of the basic plot. I’m also not sure how well explaining being married at thirteen to the readers of this book would go, as well as the scary scene in the middle where Daniel attacks Julie. And, to be honest, I think a lot of the nuance in the book would fly over a younger reader’s head (you’d be amazed at the sorts of things my high school students miss in books).

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Some slight, brief indication of domestic abuse/attempted rape.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

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

2018 Newbery Medal: Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

Hello, Universe, by Erin Entrada Kelly, was published in 2017 by Greenwillow.

Rating: 1/5

Sometimes I really wonder what is going through the minds of those who pick the Newbery Medal books. There are those Newbery Medals that are really wow! books, and there are those that are more eh, shrug, move on. Then there are the books that I’ve really questioned, like Secret of the Andes beating Charlotte’s Web, or Daniel Boone winning the Medal over By the Shores of Silver Lake.

Hello, Universe is a book that I question.

For one thing, the plot of this book is glacially slow. There are 311 pages, and 231 of those pages cover the same day. The entire plot of the book is based around a couple of hours in the lives of four kids, and there’s simply not enough excitement to make the pace feel fast at all. In addition, the plot itself is simplistic and bare-bones. The characters stand around and talk most of the time. And Chet, the bully, is stereotypical and overexaggerated. At least Kelly gave some insight into his behavior by giving him chapters that explored his home life. 

For another, Kelly utilizes the most irritating trend of contemporary literature: the third person/first person point of view switch. I have never understood this. It’s more annoying than first person present tense. Of the four kids, three of them get 3rd person treatment. Valencia gets 1st person. Why? What is the point? Also, why are her chapters only ever titled “Valencia”? Everyone else gets titled chapters as per the content. Valencia’s chapters are only ever given her name. Why? What is the point?

This book does, though, offer fascinating insight into the minds of readers today. They seem to value diversity over everything else, even story, and they expect their diverse characters to act appropriately diversely by following quite rigid patterns and speaking and acting only in ways that are deemed appropriate. This book celebrates diversity, with Virgil (Filipino), Kaori (Japanese), and Valencia (deaf), and then showcases that diversity everywhere. “Look at this book! It’s diverse!” is shouted from every page. This is a good thing, and Kelly avoids old stereotypes in all of her portrayals, though her attempts at bullying were a little excessive, in my opinion.

Yet, in my opinion, Kelly sacrifices a good story at the altar of diversity. What good is highlighting diversity if you can’t also create a compelling, interesting story? It is possible to create fantastic stories with diverse characters, so why are people seemingly settling for less? All Hello, Universe shows is that Kelly capitalized on the diversity trend without bothering with what makes a book actually memorable and long-lasting, which is the story. In my opinion, it cheapens diversity to a selling point.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Psychics, astrology, way too many uses of the word “retard.”

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

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

1966 Newbery Medal: I, Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Borton de Treviño

I, Juan de Pareja, by Elizabeth Borton de Treviño, was published in 1965 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Rating: 3/5

Rating books is much harder than it might seem. I’ve struggled with it a bit recently, as I’ve felt that 3 is now becoming my default, go-to, “lazy” rating. Or perhaps I’m being more critical of the books I read, which is why 4s and 5s come so rarely now. I’ve also been hit with a slew of books that have simply failed to grasp my entire attention. All of these things combined have been making me wonder if I really should be rating some books a 4 that I initially think 3.

Maybe I could solve this with a half point system, but I started the blog with that and then got rid of it for simplicity’s sake.

Anyway, I’m saying all this because I initially thought of rating I, Juan de Pareja a 4 merely because I didn’t want to give it a 3. I mean, I gave Merci Suárez Changes Gears a 3, and I feel like I enjoyed this book more than Medina’s. But, after thinking about it, I realized that I really didn’t have any desire to read the book again or think about it anymore (big factors in my ratings of books). And when I was reading it, I was more interested in finishing the book so I could pick up the other book I wanted to read more. So, it’s a 3.

I did actually enjoy lots of things about the book, though. I loved the writing, for some reason, or perhaps it was simply a nice change after the simplicity of Merci Suárez’s. I thought the content was interesting, especially the historical aspect. It’s a bit of an obscure topic, but some of my favorite historical fiction novels have those sorts of topics. And even though Juan’s attitudes towards slavery are a bit…well, not progressive, Borton de Treviño does throw in some different views about it, as well as lots of cultural information in general. Plus, Las Meninas is one of my favorite paintings, so it was cool to see some of the backstory (real and imagined) of Diego Velasquez and the slave-turned-painter Juan de Pareja.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Ls0mPu

2019 Newbery Medal: Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

Merci Suárez Changes Gears, by Meg Medina, was published in 2018 by Candlewick.

Rating: 3/5

I loved Meg Medina’s Burn Baby Burn, a YA book that dealt with a tough (and rarely discussed) topic. So I was interested to see how her foray into MG would be like, especially since it won the Newbery Medal. My verdict? Merci Suárez Changes Gears is disappointingly average.

It lacks some oomph, some sparkle, some sort of thing that would make it so much better than it is. Maybe the writing needed to be jazzed up. Maybe the platitudes and the cheesy way the book ended helped to keep it weighed down in “mediocre” territory. It’s not that the topic wasn’t relevant, or that the book was boring. It was simply missing…something.

I did appreciate the more nuanced sort of look at school troubles that Medina gave, though. I do have to give her credit for creating a realistic school atmosphere, and a more realistic look at bullying. I myself had way more experience with bullies who were friendly one day and mean the next, rather than the “I have a personal vendetta against you” bully that is so often portrayed, so I felt Medina’s take was much more reflective of what actually occurs, showing how navigating friendships and other people is complicated, especially in the tumultuous preteen and teen years.

However, that does leave me wondering as to why no one ever writes a story from the bully’s point of view. Where are all the books about the Ednas? Why does no author bother to tackle that sort of challenge?

Anyway, Merci Suárez Changes Gears doesn’t break out of any boxes or push any boundaries in terms of writing conventions or tropes. It’s a disappointing book, one that could have been much better with just a little something extra added to it to truly make it shine.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Iz69AP

1992 Newbery Medal: Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Shiloh, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, was published in 1991 by Atheneum.

Rating: 4/5

I don’t know why, but I’ve really been enjoying the dog books I’ve been reading lately. There’s been a few misses (Sounder and Old Yeller are at the bottom of the pack), but Where the Red Fern Grows, Ginger Pye, and now Shiloh are great.

I think what I like the most about a dog book like Shiloh is that it doesn’t hinge on the dog dying. That’s probably also why I really enjoyed Ginger Pye. To be honest, the two books are a little bit similar in that they deal with “unsavory” characters and animal abuse.

I think what I liked most about Shiloh, though, is Naylor’s portrayal of Judd Travers. Children’s books can stray into strictly black-and-white territory, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Travers is portrayed in a surprisingly nuanced way. Nothing that is revealed about him excuses his poor behavior towards animals, but it does help to explain how he became that way—and that sort of nuance is important in a children’s book. Nowadays I feel like we’ve gone even more strictly black-and-white in our portrayals of characters, as authors seem to be scared that any positive or empathetic view on a bad character, or any negative or critical view on a good character (or a character that society has deemed should only be portrayed positively), will result in backlash. As a frequenter of Goodreads, I’ve seen how much readers expect characters to think and act in certain ways. So Naylor’s characters, written thirty (!) years ago, and the human ways they are portrayed are a breath of fresh air.

The book is also great in its discussion of ethics, as well as in how Marty’s determination shines through despite the unfair way Travers treats him (and how that wins over Travers, in the end). Overall, for such a short book, there’s quite a lot to unpack and think about in Shiloh

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2IE5T27

1972 Newbery Medal: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brien, was published in 1971 by Aladdin.

Rating: 4/5

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is one of those books where I felt like I remembered a lot about it before reading it, and then realized that I really didn’t remember much at all. The only thing I truly remembered was that Mrs. Frisby’s son Timothy gets sick, and also that the rats were genetically modified. Other than that, my vague impressions of the book were dead wrong.

The book has a more middle-to-high level reading level (on a scale that I invented just this minute to express what I’m trying to say about the writing), and so it feels, at least, a bit more mature and complex than an average Newbery Medal. I actually quite like this type of writing style. There’s a lot of words, but they’re not complicated ones, so children should still be able to follow along fairly well. It was a nice change after some of the more simplistic things I read, and it helped give the book a more serious and studied air, as befitting the NIMH rats.

The story itself is engaging. Mrs. Frisby enlists the help of the genetically modified rats of NIMH to help her move her house, and along the way learns their story and their ultimate goal of achieving their own sustainable den so they no longer have to steal to survive. There’s some tension involving the cat, Dragon, as well as the looming threat of NIMH, and the ending is dramatic and even a little ambiguous as to the final fate of the rats (one in particular).

The biggest weakness of the book is that the whole premise of the book is based on evolutionary theory, and I honestly don’t think O’Brien did a very good job at all at communicating it in an even remotely sensible way. Perhaps the age of this book shows a little during all the talk of monkeys and prairie dogs. In any case, it’s presented in a way that’s almost laughably bad. In addition, the end goal of the rats is shaky at best. It’s a bit like Rabbit Hill was. At least in this book it explains how the rats were modified, but the whole idea that rats could have their own community, their own farm and crops, and flourish (in essence, live like humans) is unbelievable.

Despite my problems with the entire premise, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is still an interesting story—and it’s not all about the rats, either. Mrs. Frisby gets some great moments to shine, too, which are arguably some of the best moments of the book besides the rat escape at the end.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy

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

1952 Newbery Medal: Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes

Ginger Pye, by Eleanor Estes, was published in 1951 by Harcourt.

Rating: 4/5

There are a lot of dog books out there, but Ginger Pye is probably one of my favorites. It has the sadness you might expect from a dog book, but without the heartbreak. It has humor, charm, memorability, and a nice sense of oomph and depth. It deals with difficult topics without getting into crying-lots-of-tears-at-the-end territory, like Old Yeller or Where the Red Fern Grows, and so is a much better vehicle for communicating those topics to younger children.

Ginger Pye is about, of course, Ginger Pye, the dog that Jerry buys for a dollar. The story, though, is more than just about Ginger—it’s about Jerry, and his sister Rachel, and their Uncle Bennie (who is only three years old—this book also is a great vehicle for communicating different family dynamics, such as a girl who marries young, who has young parents who have another child ten years (thus becoming “old’ parents) after their daughter gave birth to two of her own.). It’s a much more daring book than The Moffats in several regards: the aforementioned family dynamic, the whole idea of “unsavory characters,” and, of course, kidnapping and animal abuse—because it can’t be a dog book without something happening to the dog.

In this case, Ginger is kidnapped. This happens about halfway through the book, and so the rest of the book is Jerry and Rachel searching for him and wondering where he is. Estes also portrays this quite realistically: time passes, and even as Jerry and Rachel continue to hope Ginger will return, life goes on for them. They go to school, they hike, they camp, they play with friends. Yet they never stop thinking about Ginger, or thinking up ways to find him, so of course at the end of the novel, they are reunited, though not without some trauma on Ginger’s side.

I think that’s probably what I liked most about this book: the way Estes handles these difficult topics, the way she includes stories and asides everywhere, the way she communicates danger and abuse without being graphic or overly angsty or even losing a bit of the charm and simplicity that’s in the book. In fact, really the only complaint I have is that this book is massively long because Estes takes her time building everything up, as well as telling lots of stories to establish the characters. It maybe takes too long to get to the climax—two chapters too long—but it’s an adventure worth taking.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2K4rsLN

2001 Newbery Medal: A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck

A Year Down Yonder, by Richard Peck, was published in 2000 by Dial.

Rating: 4/5

A Year Down Yonder is technically a sequel, but luckily it’s not at all necessary to have read the book that comes before it—which is good because I didn’t. The book is about Mary Alice, who goes to live with her grandmother for a year during the Great Depression, due to the financial situation of her family. It’s pretty much a “city girl goes to the country” type of a book, except with less school drama. Instead, Mary Alice learns the ins and outs of the town, including all the small-town shenanigans you might expect. There’s secret family histories, women’s committee drama, and, all right, a small amount of school drama.

But the star of the show is, of course, Grandma Dowdel, who is a fierce and formidable woman. She manipulates the people around her so that she gets the results she wants, but she also shows a soft side when it comes to her family and friends. The story revolves more around her than Mary Alice, for better or for worse.

Peck manages to expertly capture the oddities and charms of small-town, country life. Though the scenarios are often outrageous, there’s an undercurrent of believability underneath them that makes them that much more appealing. Grandma Dowdel steals the show with her boots and her shotgun, though Mary Alice has her moments, too. A Year Down Yonder is a charming read, and what it lacks in memorability and depth, it more than makes up for in good, plain fun.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2LSgT0T

1963 Newbery Medal: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle, was published in 1962 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Rating: 3/5 (2/5??)

A Wrinkle in Time has always been That Book for me. Not That Book that you really enjoy, or That Book that knocked you off your feet, but That Book that everyone talked about and referenced as a fantastic book, that you grew up hearing about, that you read a long time ago, that your friends all mention, that is always upheld as a great example of x genre. And with such a towering reputation, it’s always difficult to admit that you don’t actually like That Book.

I left my rating the way I typed it when first thinking about how to review this book because it really illustrates my conflict here. On the one hand, I didn’t like it: hence, the 2/5. On the other hand, I acknowledge its significance and reputation: hence, the 3/5. But 3/5 has turned into my lazy rating, my “it was average, but not terrible, but not great” rating, so I want to be bold and say 2/5. Yet, I think my dislike of it has to do with my personal taste in books, so I want to be fair and say 3/5.

So, I kept both ratings there because I couldn’t decide.

I always feared going into reading this book that I wouldn’t like it. See, the thing is, I simply don’t like science fiction. I struggle to enjoy even children’s books of that genre. So I knew that my thoughts about A Wrinkle in Time might be negative simply from that standpoint.

But I also didn’t think the book was that great…

I mean, the theme is great. Love wins over evil—fantastic. But the way everything is delivered, the way everything happens, is clunky, and not developed enough, and way too quickly paced. The explanation in this book is scant; we’re swept along just like Meg and Charles Wallace and Calvin are, except there’s the feeling that the characters know more than the reader. There’s two kids who are special—somehow, with no explanation as to how or why they’re like that—and their father is missing, then BOOM! they get taken away by these three strange angel ladies to rescues their father, then BOOM! they go to the planet where their father is and one special kid gets overtaken by the evil, then BOOM! stuff happens, they rescue their father, one kid goes back to rescue the other, she stares at him and thinks about love, then BOOM! he’s back, they’re back, everyone’s back, and everyone’s happy.

But how is Charles Wallace different, and why is he different? Why do Meg and Charles Wallace and Calvin seem to instinctively know how to combat IT, despite never knowing about him before? How does staring at Charles Wallace and thinking about love break ITs hold on him? Why do these kids just go with the flow and not freak out? Why is everything so pat and quick and why do the kids seem to know what to do despite also not knowing what to do?

Maybe I’m missing the point? Like this is supposed to be one giant allegory, even more than the one that’s abundantly obvious already, and that’s why everything is the way it is. I like the good/evil allegory/symbolism, but I didn’t think it was written all that well, to be honest!

So, those are my thoughts on A Wrinkle in Time. I’m now a pariah among my friends, I know, but I just found the whole book strange and poorly explained.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Science Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2LELu1G

1980 Newbery Medal: A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl’s Journal, 1830-1832 by Joan W. Blos

A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl’s Journal, 1830-1832, by Joan W. Blos, was published in 1979 by Atheneum.

Rating: 4/5

A Gathering of Days reminded me quite a lot of Dear America, if Dear America dedicated itself a bit more to accurate writing style and language. It’s a collection of journal entries detailing Catherine’s life at school and home, and while it’s a simple book at its heart, there’s a lot of charm and character hidden in each entry.

The book doesn’t have too much action in it; the action is developed through character rather than through plot. There’s a runaway slave, along with some abolitionist talk, a new mother and brother, and lots of school and home activities. Through it all, Catherine shares poems, little bits of her thoughts, and other things that help her shine as a character. The novel does a great job of showing how hard life was in those days and how much work everyone had to do, and it also does a great job of giving the appropriate amount of balance between religion and daily life that was in those times.

To be honest, I think I only would have given this book a 3 rating if it hadn’t been for one line towards the end of the book: “Trust, and not submission, defines obedience.” What a great theme to end the book with, and such an important one to discuss even today. While I wouldn’t say A Gathering of Days was as interesting as some of the better Dear America books I’ve read, some of the themes that Blos develops are far more profound and important.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2JdSQq8