Daniel Boone is a pretty outdated book, as you might expect from having been written in 1939. I’m sure the information about Boone is mostly correct, and I appreciated how Daugherty included excerpts from actual documents of the time, but many people today would take issue with the portrayal of the Indians, as well as their depictions in the illustrations.
I thought the illustrations were gorgeous most of the time, and though the pictures of the Indians I thought represented a stereotypical, outdated representation, there were a couple of pictures that I thought were actually quite powerful (there is one of an Indian man standing over a woman who is cradling a dead child (or possibly an adult) in her arms, and the text facing it is from a Seneca Indian speech about the destruction of his race). So, while Daugherty does continue to portray Indians as thoughtless warriors who attack the settlers, day in and day out, there are glimpses that he is trying to explain their side of things, though he doesn’t really succeed.
To be honest, the one thing I took away from this book was not the story of Daniel Boone. It was the thought that the entire conflict between the settlers and the Indians portrayed in this book was just really sad. The story that Daugherty laid out was just reaction versus reaction: one side gets mad at the other for some reason, so they attack; the other side reacts in vengeance; the first side reacts in vengeance; the other side reacts in vengeance; so on and so forth.
As far as biographies go, there are certainly better ones for Daniel Boone than Daugherty’s. There are just too many problems with Daniel Boone. Some of those are due to the modern age, some are due to the culture’s thirst for what they deem an acceptable portrayal of Native Americans. This book won the Newbery Medal over By the Shores of Silver Lake, and in my opinion, Wilder’s book was far superior.
Call It Courage wasn’t a bad book, but it simply didn’t grip me. I found it boring. It’s an adventure/survival book based in Polynesia, telling the story of Mafatu and his quest to become courageous by leaving his island and striking out on his own. Sperry traveled extensively, mainly in the Polynesia/Hawaii area, and it shows in his knowledge of Polynesian culture and language.
The only knowledge I have of Polynesia is from the movie Moana, so it was funny to read about Moana the Sea God and Maui the God of the Fishermen. Other bits of the Polynesian language are scattered about and always translated at some point so that the reader isn’t totally confused. It seems accurate and representative of the culture, though I’m sure someone more versed would be able to say it was or was not more definitively.
This definitely reads like a 1940s book: the language is much more cumbersome and complex, and so it might be difficult for a modern child to read. As I stated above, this book really didn’t interest me in the slightest, but I can see a boy or an adventurous girl really enjoying it. I’m glad it was short, as there was nothing in the book to pull me in or compel me to keep reading. Call It Courage is definitely one of the more forgettable Newbery Medals that I’ve read. Not as bad as The Dark Frigate, but pretty low.
The Summer of the Swans, by Betsy Byars, was published in 1970 by Puffin.
The Summer of the Swans is a novel on the shorter side, with a simplistic, yet important, message. The events of the book take place over two days and starts off with Sara expressing how discontent she is with everything in her life. We get a glimpse into what her life is like with her older sister, her aunt, and her little brother with an unspecified disability. As one might expect, by the end of the book, Sara has come to appreciate what she has and has learned to not always express her dissatisfaction and to be open to the possibility that she might be wrong.
As with other shorter Newbery Medals like The Whipping Boy or The Matchlock Gun, I find it quite hard to comment much on The Summer of the Swans. I read it all in one bus ride on my way to student retreat, and spent some of the time both during and after reading it conversing with my students (mostly about my pace of reading), so this is not a book that I had the luxury of reading without distractions.
The message is standard and simple, but still important today. It’s interesting how effective the “I took everything for granted, but then I realized what I really had when it was almost too late” plot can be. Byars deals with Charlie’s mental disability very well, though handwaves the specifics (it seems a little like autism to me, but Byars clearly says that Charlie became this way after an illness). By giving some scenes from Charlie’s perspective, the reader is able to understand a little bit more of Charlie—and to see “the other side” that Sara cannot yet see.
I’d be interested to see what someone who has experience with special needs kids would say about this book. I thought the message was important, though the story itself was basic. It’s not a particularly memorable Newbery, and it’s nowhere close to my favorite, but I do think The Summer of the Swans was ahead of its time, in a way, in portraying something that back then was probably much more closeted and taboo of a subject.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Warnings: Charlie is called “retarded” a couple of times.
Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos, was published in 2011 by Farrar Straus Giroux.
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.
The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman, was published in 2008 by HarperCollins.
I’m not sure why it took me so long to read The Graveyard Book. I’ve read a bit of Neil Gaiman and like him, though not as much as I like other fantasy writers. The book was delightful; I loved how each chapter told a different story in the life of Bod, and I loved the rich world of the graveyard, with its ghosts, ghouls, and the not-living, but not-dead Silas. Most of all I loved Bod, who went from a young boy struggling to understand and use his powers, to a quiet, confident young man who suffers from a lot of heartache, but still manages to move forward.
I’m perhaps most displeased with what happens to Scarlett, though I suppose what happens with her fit the story. A quiet part of me, probably the romantic part of me, wanted a different ending, but the ending with Bod striking out on his own to see the world is quite fitting.
The villain, Jack, starts out being mysterious and foreboding, and I’m not quite sure how I feel about his appearance at the end of the book. What happens to him is something I guessed almost from the beginning, but there were other revelations that had me scratching my head a little. In addition, the incentive for killing Bod’s family seemed thin, though I suppose, with the way Gaiman built the world, it made sense.
I enjoyed The Graveyard Book, with its lengthy, story-building chapters, rich ghost world, and likeable protagonist. I’m not sure if it compelled me enough to pick up some of Gaiman’s other works for children, but I know now where I can turn if I want a good fantasy.
The Wheel on the School, by Meindert DeJong, was published in 1954 by HarperCollins.
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.
Bridge to Terabithia is one of those books that you don’t ever really forget. I first read this book maybe 15 years ago (wow! It feels weird saying that!) and I’ve never forgotten the ending. The majority of the content I did forget, and it was surprising to me to read it again (more on that later), but the ending stuck with me.
There are many things to like about this novel: the depiction of a boy/girl friendship, a creative and imaginative boy protagonist, the focus on grief and how it is expressed in different ways and the subversion of the “men don’t cry” attitude. The emphasis on imagination and its power is especially well done, in my opinion.
What surprised me the most was some of the content, which to me made the novel seem a little inappropriate for children. However, it was written in the 70s, so maybe that explains the change, though today I don’t think some things are expressed that were expressed in this book. There are many exclamations of “Lord” throughout, which isn’t so problematic, I suppose (I didn’t even remember that being in the book), but the one thing that struck me was the inappropriate incest joke made by May Belle and then continued by Jess. My skin crawled when I read that part.
Bridge to Terabithia is pretty much the quintessential Newbery Medal: slice-of-life, centered story with tragic events. I loved a lot of the aspects of this book, especially the creative boy protagonist and the boy/girl friendship, but some of it I didn’t like so much. I also think Paterson is still a bit too strange of a writer for me (i.e., Jacob Have I Loved).
The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron, was published in 2006 by Atheneum.
The Higher Power of Lucky is about Lucky, a young girl in a small town who likes to study naturalism and eavesdrop on help groups, where she hears about the mysterious “Higher Power” and is curious to know what it is and how to find it herself.
I was a bit startled when I first started the book since on the very first page is a story about a rattlesnake who bit a dog in a very sensitive area. Patron actually gives the word rather than a tamer substitute like “groin,” and Lucky ponders the word and wonders what it is. The word is explained to her later on. It startled me because I’m not used to children’s books saying words like “scrotum” and having the main character wondering what one looks like. From that beginning, I was worried I wouldn’t like the book.
However, the book as a whole is quite sweet. This idea of a “Higher Power” permeates the entire book, and though Patron never follows it to a religious conclusion (or any concrete conclusion at all, not that I could tell), it’s used to show how Lucky is searching for something that she feels is missing. This is also accomplished through her relationship with Brigitte and Lucky’s worries that Brigitte will abandon her.
As an adult, it was interesting to read this book because Patron is very good at portraying a child’s view of things. Lucky acts like a child, but not in an extremely irritating way, or an arrogant way, but a normal, child way. She makes mountains out of molehills, oversimplifies things, and is mean at times and stubborn at others. Her voice felt real.
The Higher Power of Lucky startled me at the beginning, but then won me over with a realistic protagonist, whose outgoing nature and stubbornness actually won me over rather than pushed me away. I feel like the actual “Higher Power” part was lost in translation at the end, but it’s a delightful, heartwarming book all the same.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Warnings: It says the word “scrotum” at the beginning and then explains it at the end. Not crudely or anything, but not normally what you would find in a children’s book.
Even Father had never used the matchlock gun. In 1756, New York State was still a British colony, and the French and the Indians were constant threats to Edward and his family. When his father was called away to watch for a raid from the north, only Edward was left to protect Mama and little Trudy. His father had shown him how to use the huge matchlock gun, an old Spanish gun that was twice as long as he was, but would Edward be able to handle it if trouble actually came?
Much like The Whipping Boy, I’m puzzled as to why The Matchlock Gun won the Newbery medal, though it’s at least slightly understandable as this was published in the 1940s and there may not have been as much competition. It just seems so much different (and shorter) than other Newbery winners, even those from the same time period.
The book takes place during the French and Indian War and tells the story of how Edward saved his mother from an Indian raid (and is apparently based off a true story) by using his father’s matchlock gun. It’s very short; I read it in maybe ten or fifteen minutes. It does very little to actually explain the background of the French and Indian War, and there’s no explanation given as to why the Indians are raiding in the first place, nor how they slip past all the armed men, nor why they attack Edward’s mother (or why she even baits them in the first place). The ending is also very strange, as Edward’s father seems very unconcerned that his wife is unconscious and bleeding. I also had some questions as to how Edward managed to kill three Indians at once, until I remembered that Edward’s mother had stuffed what was essentially grape shot into the gun.
I’m sure other people who have read this book have expressed concern about the Indian portrayal and Edward’s use of the gun, but to be honest, that wasn’t my problem with the book at all. Edward was defending his mother, and I wouldn’t expect a book for children this short even try to address the politics. If you want a child to learn more about Indian culture, don’t give them this book, end of story. The main reason for rating The Matchlock Gun this low is that I really don’t understand why this book deserved an award. It’s too forgettable, too…average. I struggled to even come up with this much to talk about, to be honest.
The Whipping Boy, by Sid Fleischman, was published in 1986 by Penguin.
Jemmy, once a poor boy living on the streets, now lives in a castle. As the whipping boy, he bears the punishment when Prince Brat misbehaves, for it is forbidden to spank, thrash, or whack the heir to the throne. The two boys have nothing in common and even less reason to like one another. But when they find themselves taken hostage after running away, they are left with no choice but to trust each other.
I am legitimately confused as to how The Whipping Boy won the Newbery Medal. It’s not a bad book, but it’s so unremarkable that I can’t imagine why, out of all the books nominated (or however the process goes), this one won.
The book is short—not a point against it, just an observation—and thus an extremely quick read. There’s Jemmy, the whipping boy, the prince, who from the pictures seems to be French royalty (but who knows?), and various other characters. Basically, what happens is some sort of strange version of The Prince and the Pauper, but with bears and bandits and lots of exclamations of “Gaw!” Then it wraps up nicely with some character development for both Jemmy and the prince.
And that’s pretty much all I have to say about it.
Okay, so, I can see that a lot of children probably would really enjoy it, as there are lots of escapades and some amusing scenes and dialogue. And the message, while delivered far too quickly due to the length of the book, is a good one about friendship and treating others right. But there wasn’t a whole lot of meat there for me, which is why I’m puzzling over why this was given a Newbery Medal. But I suppose not all children’s books can appeal to all adults.