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.”
Cusi, a modern Inca boy, leaves his home high in the Andes mountains to learn the mysterious secret of his ancient ancestors. Accompanied by his pet llama, Misti, he slowly discovers the truth about his birth and his people’s ancient glory—now he must prove himself worthy to be entrusted with the fabulous secret from the past.
Secret of the Andes tells the story of an Inca boy, Cusi, and the adventure he goes on to learn the history of his people. It’s a gorgeously detailed book, describing the majesty and beauty of the Andes, the way of life and culture of the Incas, and the history of the Incan Empire and their conquest by the Spanish. The main plot is loosely based on history, and though Clark does take some liberties, she does a fantastic job of conveying her main message: the preservation of one’s culture.
The one thing that stood askance to me, amidst all the descriptions of Incan/Andean ways of life, was the continual reference to the Inca as “Indians.” Cusi calls himself and other Incas “Indians,” though there’s no reason for him to be using that name at all. Clark is clearly using that name as one that would be familiar with her audience, but it’s still jarring to hear Cusi, who given his circumstances would probably never have heard the word “Indian” in his life, call himself one.
Fun fact about this book: it beat out Charlotte’s Web for the Newbery Medal. Apparently one of the judges picked this book over E. B White’s because she hadn’t seen any good books about South America, a case where uniqueness, rather than quality (Charlotte’s Web is much more memorable and lasting than this book, and, arguably, a better book), won the day.
Secret of the Andes reveals the secret of the title slowly, and isn’t all together clear, either, about it, though the ending did a much better job of explaining things than I initially thought. The book itself has a quality that I can only describe as “majestic” and Clark does a great job of briefly, but clearly, explaining the way the Spanish conquest of the Incas has left them as a people. It’s a rich book, though its lasting power and memorability is not as strong as some others.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s
Cusi was left to entertain the visitor. “Our mother llamas never carry loads,” he told the minstrel importantly.
“I know,” the man answered. “You keep them for shearing.”
“And to have their babies,” Cusi added.
The minstrel nodded. “That Misti fellow of yours is a good one,” he said. “Did you know that in the days of the Inca Kings a black llama like yours was always the first to be sacrificed to the Sun?”
It’s 1936, in Flint, Michigan. Times may be hard, and ten-year-old Bud may be a motherless boy on the run, but Bud’s got a few things going for him: He has his own suitcase full of special things. He’s the author of Bud Caldwell’s Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself. His momma never told him who his father was, but she left a clue: flyers advertising Herman E. Calloway and his famous band, the Dusky Devastators of the Depression!!!!!! Bud’s got an idea that those flyers will lead him to his father. Once he decides to hit the road and find this mystery man, nothing can stop him–not hunger, not fear, not vampires, not even Herman E. Calloway himself.
While watching the film Coco, about ten minutes into the movie I thought, “Wow, this movie is a little bit like Bud, Not Buddy.” Don’t worry, I won’t spoil Coco, or this novel, but both function around the same premise: boy searches for lost family member tied to music.
Basically, Bud runs away from an abusive foster home to search for his lost father, who he believes is connected to the posters his mother had of a jazz band. Along the way, he runs across a “redcap” who is trying to help spread unionization, and gets involved in the world of jazz. There’s also references to Hoovervilles, as well as racial tension at the time.
It’s a book I read as a child, and one I remember quite well. Bud is a plucky, courageous protagonist, whose politeness is a breath of fresh air after reading books with rude main characters. The story is heartwarming, but also very bittersweet, especially the ending, or at least I thought so. I really don’t want to spoil anything, but this book has the capability of hitting readers very hard with Bud’s circumstances as well as what he finds out about his family. It’s a happy book, or at least it has a happy ending, but there’s still a note of poignancy that makes it far more reminiscent of reality than a stereotypical happy ending.
Bud, Not Buddy, is bittersweet, with an ending that’s almost too sudden, yet somehow fits perfectly with the overall mood of the book. Bud is a great protagonist, and he reads more like a real person than most protagonists do, in my opinion. The message is powerful and poignant and the best part about the book. It’s a memorable Newbery, one that stuck in my mind for years after I first read it.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction
“Where’s your momma and daddy?”
“My mother died four years ago.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“It’s OK, she didn’t suffer or nothing.”
“So where’s your daddy?”
“I think he lives in Grand Rapids, I never met him.”
“Sorry to hear that.” Shucks, she held right on to my hand when she said that. I squirmed my hand a-loose and said, “That’s OK too.”
Deza said, “No it’s not, and you should quit pretending that it is.”
“Who said I’m pretending anything?”
“I know you are, my daddy says families are the most important thing there is.”
Stanley Yelnats is under a curse. A curse that began with his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing great-great-grandfather and has since followed generations of Yelnatses. Now Stanley has been unjustly sent to a boys’ detention center, Camp Green Lake, where the boys build character by spending all day, every day, digging holes exactly five feet wide and five feet deep. There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. But there are an awful lot of holes. It doesn’t take long for Stanley to realize that Camp Green Lake isn’t what it seems .Are the boys digging holes because the warden is looking for something? But what could be buried under a dried-up lake? It’s up to Stanley to dig up the truth.
I love Holes. I consider the movie with Shia LeBeouf to be one of the most faithful film adaptations of a book out there (plus, it has Dulé Hill/Gus from Psych as Sam), so I really enjoyed picking this book up again.
Holes is wacky, unbelievable fun, basically. The whole premise revolves around this detention camp that troubled teenagers are sent to instead of going to jail. At the camp, they dig holes, because why not? While there, Stanley uncovers (dare I say, digs up) secrets about the Warden, the nature of the camp, and his own past.
There’s a whole lot of convenience to the plot, but it’s already so out there as a premise that it’s really not hard to swallow all the convenience, too. And at the end of the book, Sachar pokes fun, a little, at the camp and the things the Warden got away with, so as strange as it is, it works.
I’m not sure why Holes won a Newbery Medal, but I’m glad it did. While the main plot with Stanley is wacky, the story-within-a-story that is told as the novel goes on is heartbreaking. The story of Katherine and Sam is the real jewel of the story; simplistic on the surface, but with so much packed in underneath. Sachar conveys the thoughts and feelings of the time in a few pages that reveals all of its unfairness before you even realize it. Furthermore, the tie-in is good, too; Sachar weaves all the stories together in fantastic fashion, connecting everything together in simple, yet effective, ways.
Holes is a great book. It’s fun, memorable, and has more moments of heartbreak, tension, and emotion than you might expect from the premise. It makes me want to watch the movie, really, but it also makes me glad that I reread this book and got to experience it all over again.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Genre: Children’s, Realistic
“I’m finished,” Stanley said, putting his blood-spotted cap back on his head.
“All right!” said Mr. Pendanski, raising his hand for a high five, but Stanley ignored it. He didn’t have the strength.
(…) Mr. Pendanski climbed back into the truck without filling Stanley’s canteen. Stanley waited for him to drive away, then took another look at his hole. He knew it was nothing to be proud of, but he felt proud nonetheless.
It’s Like This, Cat, by Emily Neville, was published in 1963 by HarperCollins.
Dave Mitchell is fourteen and growing up in the midst of the variety and excitement of New York City. In this quiet, reflective, and humorous story of a boy’s journey toward adulthood, Emily Neville captures the flavor of one kind of New York boyhood—the sights and sounds of Gramercy Park, Coney Island, the Fulton Fish Market, the Bronx Zoo, the stickball games played in city streets, the fascinating mixture of nationalities and eccentrics that give the huge metropolis so much of its flavor and excitement. But most of all the author tells a realistic tale of Dave’s affection for a stray tomcat, his comradeship with a troubled nineteen-year-old boy, his first shy friendship with a girl, and his growing understanding of his father as a human being and not just a parent.
It’s Like This, Cat captures the 1960s feel perfectly (as one might expect, given that it was written then…so, okay, maybe not the best way to describe it), along with the sights and sounds of “old” New York. It’s funny…I really don’t like NYC (not a city fan, especially huge cities), but reading about it in the past makes me feel incredibly nostalgic. Of course, I also love stories that take place in the 1940s-1960s, so maybe that also has to do with it.
The book is “slice of life,” though not as isolated as these sorts of book can sometimes get. The book is united with the thread of Cat and of Tom, the teenager Dave stumbles across with the troubled home life. Meeting Tom causes Dave to think about his own home life and, specifically, about his father. The book is a superb story about a father/son relationship—and there’s also lots in there about family, too, and how not all families are alike (even if a child might think so).
Perhaps the biggest flaw, for me, was that there wasn’t anything truly remarkable that stood out to me. I enjoyed the story and I enjoyed Dave’s growth as a character. However, there wasn’t anything in particular that made me stand up and say, “Yes, this is why this book should be read.” That doesn’t mean I think it shouldn’t be read; it simply means this isn’t the first book that would immediately jump to my mind if I wanted someone to read a book set in 1960s New York.
It’s Like This, Cat has some delightful moments, and overall I enjoyed the father/son relationship as well as all the family moments. However, the book was lacking in memorability and “stand-outness.” I’m not sure I would remember it in a month, to be honest.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction
“Take care,” [Mom] says. “No fights.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll stay out of fights,” says Tom quite seriously.
We go down the stairs, and Tom says, “Your mother is really nice.”
I’m sort of surprised—kids don’t usually say much about each other’s parents. “Yeah, Mom’s O.K. I guess she worries about me and Pop a lot.”
“It must be pretty nice to have your mother at home,” he says.
M. C. Higgins, the Great, by Virginia Hamilton, was published in 1974 by Simon & Schuster.
M. C.’s family is rooted to the slopes of Sarah’s Mountain. His great-grandmother escaped to the mountain as a runaway slave, and made it her home. It bears her name, and her descendants have lived there ever since. When M.C. looks out from atop the gleaming forty-foot pole that his father planted in the mountain for him—a gift for swimming the Ohio River—he sees only the rolling hills and shady valleys that stretch out for miles in front of him. And M. C. knows why his father never wants his family to leave. But when M.C. looks behind, he sees only the massive remains of strip mining—a gigantic heap of dirt and debris perched threatening on a cliff above his home. And M.C. knows they cannot stay. So when two strangers arrive in the hills, one bringing the promise of fame in the world beyond the mountains and the other the revelation that choice and action both lies within his grasp, M.C’s life is changed—forever.
I struggled to get engaged with M. C. Higgins, the Great. Very little actually happens, and the book has an almost sleepy tone to it, yet also a deceptively menacing tone, as well. I say “deceptive” because I kept expecting a dead body to show up, what with all the talk of gullies, tired people, and the feeling of dreadful anticipation that hovers over the events of the book.
The book takes place over about three days of M. C.’s life, and I suppose is a good glance at a “day in the life” of a teenage boy who is worried about the spill heap threatening his home and fascinated by the strange girl that shows up and turns his world, briefly, upside-down. There’s some neighbor conflict, with the strange, possibly inbred Killburn family, but the overall conflict is clearly the danger on the mountain.
I could tell, while reading, how Hamilton conveys the threat of strip mining to people’s lives and homes while also emphasizing the family bonds that keep people in one place, regardless of danger. Yet, even though I could see it, the book didn’t make me feel it. I was monstrously bored throughout, and the agonizingly slow pace made it difficult for me to want to continue reading it.
I can see why M. C. Higgins, the Great, won the Newbery Medal. I can see why it’s considered a great book. However, I didn’t like it. It was slightly too all-over-the-place for me, but the biggest thing was simply that the book didn’t interest me. I also thought the ending was a little strange, in that I have no idea why M. C. thinks his solution would actually work. A great book, but not my cup of tea.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s
“There’s some girl out there,” M. C. said. “Saw her early, just walking along. Some new kind of a girl. And just now I saw something shining. But I don’t see it now. Don’t know if it’s the girl for sure. You have any protection against girls?” He laughed.
The dude smiled up at M. C. “Is she a pretty little thing with a back pack?”
When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, was published in 2009 by Yearling.
By sixth grade, Miranda and her best friend, Sal, know how to navigate their New York City neighborhood. They know where it’s safe to go, and who to avoid. Like the crazy guy on the corner. But things start to unravel. Sal gets punched by a kid on the street for what seems like no reason, and he shuts Miranda out of his life. The apartment key that Miranda’s mom keeps hidden for emergencies is stolen. And then a mysterious note arrives, scrawled on a tiny slip of paper: I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own. I ask two favors. First, you must write me a letter. The notes keep coming, and Miranda slowly realizes that whoever is leaving them knows things no one should know. Each message bringers her closer to believing that only she can prevent a tragic death. Until the final note makes her think she’s too late.
When You Reach Me is a book that, after I finished it, I was surprised to look back and find that I liked it. I mean, while reading it, I was engaged in the story, and I had this overall positive impression throughout the book. So I suppose it’s not really so surprising that I enjoyed the book. But it is surprising that Stead could include such a strange turn of events in the plot and the entire premise and I still wound up enjoying the book despite its oddball reveal.
I don’t want to say too much, because it is such a strange and random revelation that saying it might make the novel seem cheap. It’s not—it’s a Newbery winner, after all—but a simple description or summary really doesn’t do it justice. I don’t know how I felt about the reveal, but Stead incorporates it in such a way that by the time it is revealed, I cared enough about the characters that I could roll with the punches.
Without the “surprise” of the novel, the story itself is delightful—a simple story about a girl growing up, trying desperately to fit into a changing environment and dealing with changing friends, rivalries, and odd and scary neighbors. Stead portrays nicely the changing dynamics of friendships as people grow older. Even though not too much development is given to the secondary characters, Miranda’s friends and family, they’re still interesting enough that her time spent with them seems meaningful. It’s also nice to see a rivalry story that isn’t over-the-top dramatic.
When You Reach Me has a bizarre reveal that actually works with the story as she developed it, so that even as strange as it was, it somehow seemed to fit with the story. It’s a unique sort of novel, and the main story itself, without the twist at the end, is good enough to warrant the Newbery medal, in my opinion. The twist doesn’t make the book better, but it certainly makes it stand out more.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Genre: Children’s, Realistic, Science Fiction
I was named after a criminal. Mom says that’s a dramatic way of looking at things, but sometimes the truth is dramatic.
“The name Miranda stands for people’s rights,” she said last fall, when I was upset because Robbie B. had told me during gym that I was named after a kidnapper.