1942 Newbery Medal: The Matchlock Gun by Walter D. Edmonds

The Matchlock Gun, by Walter D. Edmonds, was published in 1941 by Dodd.

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?

Rating: 1/5

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.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2pYZ0PX

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1987 Newbery Medal: The Whipping Boy

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.

Rating: 2/5

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.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

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

1977 Newbery Medal: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor, was published in 1976 by Dial.

Why is the land so important to Cassie’s family? It takes the events of one turbulent year—the year of the night riders and the burnings, the year a white girl humiliates Cassie in public simply because she is black—to show Cassie that having a place of their own is the Logan family’s lifeblood. It is the land that gives the Logans their courage and pride, for no matter how others may degrade them, the Logans possess something no one can take away.

Rating: 5/5

I haven’t read this book in years, but I still vividly remember the last sentence. That tends to be a good omen in terms of how much I now like the books I had read as a child, but I was still a little hesitant going in. I didn’t remember all that much of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, beyond the last sentence, but I had a vague sense of “good” attached to it. My students read this book and I remember seeing it and saying, “Oh, that’s a great book!” without having any solid feeling to back it up.

Now, having read it, I can honestly say “Oh, that’s a great book!” when I see my sophomores with it because this is a great book.

It’s fantastic, actually…like To Kill a Mockingbird fantastic. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is sad, enraging, bittersweet, yet it possesses in its characters and in the land that they own an almost triumphant sense of undefeatedness. Taylor pulls absolutely no punches in her depictions of Southern life during segregation. In Cassie, Taylor has created a perfect vehicle for all readers to learn. Injustice and sorrow are center to this book, and are something that the book never resolves, only abates, as befitting the historical time period.

Roll of Thunder is one of the best vehicles for explaining segregation and the racism prevalent in the time before Civil Rights to children. To be honest, I found this book more shocking than Huckleberry Finn and more educational as well. While Twain is excellent at crafting just how much the culture has affected Huck in his attitudes towards Jim, Taylor has given us a book that shows us how that sort of mindset affects those it’s directed towards. It is shocking in its blatant honesty, and it’s not a book where you set it down and are satisfied.

Basically, I want to gush about Roll of Thunder till the cows come home. This is one of the best children’s books I’ve ever read. Highly deserving of that Newbery Medal and of all the rewards, both now and forever.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Violence.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2O8Wcyk

2015 Newbery Medal: The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander, was published in 2014 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

“A bolt of lightning on my kicks…/ The court is sizzling. / My sweat is drizzling. / Stop all that quivering. / Cuz tonight I’m delivering,” raps basketball phenom Josh Bell. Thanks to his dad, he and his twin brother, Jordan, are kings on the court, with crossovers that make even the toughest ballers cry. But Josh has more than hoops in his blood. He’s got a river of rhymes flowing through him—a sick flow that helps him find his rhythm when everything’s on the line. As their winning season unfolds, things begin to change. When Jordan meets the new girl in school, the twins’ tight-knight bond unravels. In this heartfelt novel, basketball and brotherhood intertwine to show Josh and Jordan that life doesn’t come with a playbook and, sometimes, it’s not about winning.

Rating: 4/5

I’m not a huge fan of novels written in verse, but The Crossover won me over. Alexander made the format actually fit in a way that made sense; there was a reason that’s important to the story why it was written this way, and it really would not have been the same book at all if it had been written in prose. Not many novels-in-verse are like that.

This book is remarkably sad, as befitting a Newbery Medal (I kid, but seriously, Newbery Medal winners often have some poignancy attached), and the worst part is that what makes it so sad is the unnecessariness of it all. You can see the sadness coming from a mile away, and all you want to do is scream at the characters and get them to prevent what’s coming, but of course, that’s not how books work.

Despite the sadness, The Crossover is quite funny, and there’s even a happy ending of sorts. More bittersweet than happy, perhaps. And Alexander does a great job of conveying all the various emotions of everyone, not just Josh, so that really helps give the characters more depth.

The one thing that I found confusing was simply the basketball terminology. Even after having a crossover explained to me, I still had no idea what the point of it was or why it seemed to be so important in basketball. It would have been nice to have someone explain why it’s important to have a good crossover, but perhaps that would have broken up the flow of the book.

The Crossover actually reminded me quite a bit of some my students, who I think might really enjoy this book—even if it is written in verse! It’s sad and funny and heartwarming and bittersweet in all the right places in all the right times. I’m still not a fan of novels in verse, but The Crossover is one of my favorites of the style.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2DB5zBY

1951 Newbery Medal: Amos Fortune, Free Man by Elizabeth Yates

Amos Fortune, Free Man, by Elizabeth Yates, was published in 1950 by Dutton.

Here is the riveting true story of Amos Fortune, born a price of the At-mun-shi tribe in Africa and abducted by slave traders at the age of fifteen. In Massachusetts, at the age of sixty, he finally bought his own freedom—and then continued on as a free man to become an expert tanner, a loving husband and father, and an active citizen until his death in 1801. But most importantly, he fulfilled his life’s dream by buying the freedom of many other enslaved people.

Rating: 2/5

Amos Fortune, Free Man tells the apparently true story of Amos Fortune, a prominent African-American citizen of New Hampshire. He was born in Africa, brought to America as a slave, purchased his freedom at the age of sixty, and then became a successful tanner. Yates includes excerpts from, presumably, actual historical documents, such as a “freedom paper” signed by Fortune’s owner, as well as the headstone inscriptions of Fortune and his wife. She also includes a list of places and people to thank for her research at the beginning of the novel, so it’s clear that this is a biographical work.

The one thing that really didn’t sit well with me is the tone of the book. I will forgo the apparent oddity of a Quaker, who is against slavery, buying a slave, since I can see not only the intentions behind it, but also the fact that apparently it actually happened. The tone, however, is one that is not so easily dismissible. The Quaker states that he won’t free Amos until Amos is “ready to be free.” Now, I get that mindset is important—perhaps the Quaker didn’t want to free Amos if he thought Amos would immediately go out and do something rash and get himself in trouble. But, still, this Quaker doesn’t even like slavery, so why does he agree to keep a slave? Quakers were historically vehemently against slavery, so it makes no sense.

The Quaker isn’t the only example. Amos himself has moments where he views the people around him in odd ways. And by odd, I mean in ways that don’t make a lot of sense. Perhaps that’s just my modern view imposing itself on a colonial culture, though. I don’t doubt some slaves viewed people as Amos did, but as I’ve said, the tone is just so odd and so hard to reconcile with what I know that it makes this a very difficult book to read.

Since we probably have very little on the real Amos Fortune, it’s hard to say how historically accurate Amos Fortune, Free Man is. I do know it’s likely a difficult book to read today, especially with some of the attitudes and ideas presented in the book. I don’t think it’s too controversial, but it has a tone that is so alien from what people hear today that it can’t help but seem jarring.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Slavery.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

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

1949 Newbery Medal: King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry

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.

Rating: 4/5

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.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Bcb1Kv

1979 Newbery Medal: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

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.

Rating: 4/5

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.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Realistic, Mystery, Children’s.

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2uXaeY7

2017 Newbery Medal: The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

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…

Rating: 2/5

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.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Children’s

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

1994 Newbery Medal: The Giver by Lois Lowry

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?

Rating: 4/5

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.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Children’s

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

1984 Newbery Medal: Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary

Dear Mr. Henshaw, by Beverly Cleary, was published in 1983 by Morrow.

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.

Rating: 2/5

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.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2xKVD5V