1983 Newbery Medal: Dicey’s Song by Cynthia Voigt

Dicey’s Song, by Cynthia Voigt, was published in 1982 by Simon & Schuster.

Rating: 4/5        

Dicey’s Song is the second in a series, and while reading the first book, Homecoming, will certainly help with knowing the characters and the backstory, enough is explained that it’s not necessary. The story is about Dicey and her younger brothers and sister as they navigate a new home, a new school, and all the troubles and pain that their situation (absent father, sick mother) warrants. While the main focus is on Dicey’s internal conflict as well as her relationship with her grandmother, there is also focus on her relationship with her classmates, her teachers, and her siblings. Oh, and there’s a bit of mother-daughter relationship/conflict as well.

Voigt does a good job of dealing with all the various emotions and conflicts present in the book. There’s a lot of characters, but most of them are complex and interesting. The relationship between Dicey and Gram, with its give-and-take, learning aspect, is great. She’s a bit heavy-handed with her theme, but for a children’s book it’s appropriate, especially one dealing with such heavy topics as this one does (depression, dyslexia, death, and grief). My only raised eyebrow was when James was so adamant that he knew the right way to teach Maybelle. I don’t think Voigt was intending it as a “this is what you should do,” but it came across that way a bit.

This is the penultimate Newbery Medal book I read. It’s a little bittersweet, but also immensely satisfying. I don’t think Dicey’s Song will reach my list of top favorites, but I think it was more emotionally satisfying than many other Newbery Medals, as well as more interesting and memorable.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2LV78f9

1982 Newbery Medal: A Visit to William Blake’s Inn by Nancy Willard

A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers, by Nancy Willard, was published in 1981 by Harcourt.

Rating: 2/5

Books of poetry are always tough for me. I’m not a huge fan of poetry, and I read fast (and hate to slow myself down) so I don’t really absorb poetry the way it should be absorbed. And, if I’m going to read a book of poetry, I want it to have a good theme and unity.

When I first saw the title of this book, I thought it would be rewritten poetry of Blake’s, or his poems presented in a new way. But it’s not about that at all—instead, Willard starts with “Hey, let’s pretend William Blake ran an inn” and then talks about dragons and monkeys and tigers and cats. It’s not even about William Blake at all, so the little tribute that Willard includes in the beginning to William Blake makes no sense. In fact, if William Blake had been left out entirely and some random made-up person had been the innkeeper instead, the poems would have had the exact same effect.

Maybe I’m just really unaware of Blake’s poetry—maybe Willard has actually subtly woven in parts of Blake’s poetry into her own poetry as a nod and as a unifying theme to warrant the title. But to me it seems like she just chose this historical person and inserted him into poems about dragons and a fantastical inn because she liked him as a poet, not because he actually lent himself to the material in any way.

So, basically I’m not the best audience for this sort of book because I don’t really like reading poetry and I think characters with no use shouldn’t be in books. However, A Visit to William Blake’s Inn is full of magic and fantasy, with poems that would be fun to read aloud to a child and lots of great illustrations to go with them.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/34we1fp

2008 Newbery Medal: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, by Laura Amy Schlitz, was published in 2007 by Candlewick.

Rating: 4/5

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! is a book of poems about the medieval time period, and Schlitz does an excellent job of capturing the voice and style. She also crams a whole lot of information into each of the “voices.” Each poem is from the point of view of a different person of the village, ranging from the lord to his villein. Sometimes the poems are connected, sometimes not.

I read a book a few months ago that described just how brutal the medieval life was, and this book captures that in a way that’s still suitable for children. Schlitz includes footnotes and other things for some of her references, but mostly the information is communicated directly through the poem, whether it’s the glassblower’s apprentice trying to blow glass, the glassblower’s daughters wondering whether they will marry said apprentice, a runaway villein, the miller, a knight…Schlitz expertly shows the hierarchy and class conflict that existed in the medieval days. Even religious tension is shown.

The book does do a great job of communicating lots of things about the medieval period, which means it’s full of dirt, dung, babies and mentions of birthing, the feudal system, and other things that may not be suitable for younger children. Schlitz also includes brief “essays” about various things in the medieval period, such as Jewish/Christian relations and the Crusades (which is unfortunately one of the worst takes on the Crusades I’ve read). Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! is a good way to get an overview of the medieval period, and a much more interesting book of poetry than some others I’ve read.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: See last paragraph.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

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

1967 Newbery Medal: Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt

Up a Road Slowly, by Irene Hunt, was published in 1966 by Modern Curriculum Press.

Rating: 3/5

Up a Road Slowly reminds me a little bit of a lesser Anne of Green Gables, but much more of Rebecca of Sunnybrooke Farm, except with less moralizing and a nicer aunt. It’s the story of Julie, who at seven goes to live with her aunt after her mother dies and learns new meanings of love and family as she deals with her older sister getting married, her wild uncle, school rivalries, the death of a student, and boyfriends. However, like Rebecca, it’s much less tongue-in-cheek than Anne, and it uses a ton of plot tropes and language that is extremely reminiscent of older literature and really dates the book.

The writing style is a little old-fashioned and very mature-sounding, even when Julie is only seven (something that is a bit jarring until you get used to it). As Julie gets older, however, she grows into her voice, and I do believe the whole thing is supposed to suggest that Julie is writing this as a memoir from later on in her life. As far as plot and theme go, I thought Hunt’s messages were very good, though they were often delivered in ways that wouldn’t be acceptable today. For example, the description of Agnes, Julie’s classmate who suffered from some sort of mental disability, made me wince a bit, though that would have been an acceptable description in the 60s. However, the language as a whole really gives the book much more of an old-fashioned feel than I think the decade it was written in warrants.

There’s also quite a few dark themes hidden in the book, the most notable being Julie’s old friend Carlotta being “sent away” for the winter after scandal erupts (i.e. she was pregnant). The book as a whole is really quite mature for a children’s book, much more suited for a young adult audience (who would probably understand it and enjoy it more).

I enjoyed Up a Road Slowly, but I didn’t find it overly impressive, and I think it’s too dated to really stand out. The maturity of the themes and the writing were welcome after some of the rather more childish books I’ve read, but that limits the audience as well as alienates them. A good book, but not one I’d probably revisit.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/31I8q3i

1989 Newbery Medal: Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices by Paul Fleischman

Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, by Paul Fleischman, was published in 1988 by HarperCollins.

Rating: 4/5

This review will be short, as befitting an incredibly short book. Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices is—as the title suggests—a book of poetry specifically formatted for two people to read out loud. The poetry is in two columns, designed for one reader to read the left and the other to read the right. Sometimes the lines overlap, sometimes not. This makes for some interesting poetry, such as “Honeybees” where the two columns say opposite things about the queen bee, or to sort of emulate the hopping of grasshoppers or the whirring of cicadas by having separate, overlapping lines like a round in a song.

I don’t really have much to say about the book, however. I thought the format was clever, though the effect is a little loss as a single reader, and the poems, all about different insects, communicated different aspects of those insects well (also thanks to the format). I’m not overly fond of poetry, so I didn’t spend a lot of time reflecting on the poems beyond “Hm, cool,” and then moving on.  I am glad that a book of poetry won the Newbery Medal, however.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2YCEx7v

1995 Newbery Medal: Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech, was published in 1994 by HarperCollins.

Rating: 4/5

Walk Two Moons is an interesting coming-of-age (coming-to-terms?) story about Salamanca Hiddle, her cross-country trip with her grandparents, and a flashback story about her friend Phoebe. The premise revolves around the trip to Idaho because Salamanca is desperate to bring her mother (who left and never came back) home, but a central part of the story is also Phoebe’s experience with her own mother. In fact, the two stories serve as foils/mirrors of each other.

I say “interesting” for several reasons. One is because of the voice. There’s a distinctive tone to the whole novel, helped by words like “jing bang,” “wing-dinging,” “thumpingly,” and the like. Phoebe’s voice is the perfect melodramatic pre-teen’s, complete with italics and mood swings. The voice is really what got me to start really enjoying the novel because it help me get past a few other things that I found puzzling.

Another reason the novel is interesting (and this one is used in more of the “in-teresting…” way, like people say when they either don’t care about what the person is saying or find the whole thing very suspicious) is the Indian slant Creech gives it. She includes multiple references to Salamanca’s Indian heritage and commentary on Indian folklore and culture. Yet most of it smacks of Creech’s ideas, and what Creech wants to communicate, rather than of the real thing. Really, it just seems like Creech was in love with Indian culture and so added it to her book. It’s completely useless and adds nothing at all.

I did really enjoy the book, but one thing that puzzled me was if Creech really wanted the mystery of Salamanca’s mother to remain so for the whole book, or if the reader was supposed to figure it out very quickly. To support the latter theory, it states very early on, incredibly specifically, what happened to Salamanca’s mother. Yet Creech spends the whole rest of the book using vague terms and mystery language until the moment Salamanca reaches Idaho, and then everything is explained. Perhaps Creech wanted the reader to know the result, but not the why? I don’t know. I just thought it was confusing that she kept dancing around the issue as if she hadn’t revealed it in the second chapter.

Walk Two Moons falters a bit because of its random and useless inclusion of Native American culture, as well as the baffling “Wait, don’t we already know about Salamanca’s mother?” question. However, the story itself is great, especially Phoebe’s, and the way Creech deals with themes like death and change is well done.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2YLa3zg

1993 Newbery Medal: Missing May by Cynthia Rylant

Missing May, by Cynthia Rylant, was published in 1992 by Scholastic.

Rating: 2/5

Missing May is yet another Newbery Medal winner that baffles me. It’s a book about grief, and learning to move past grief, but there’s nothing overwhelming special about it and the book is so short that it’s hard to get a firm grasp of the characters or even their development. The entire book hinges on a trip to some Spiritualist Church so that Summer, Cletus, and Ob can summon the ghost of Ob’s wife May (or something). And then everything is resolved in the space of a single paragraph.

Okay, so there’s a little bit more going on than that. There’s the relationship between Cletus and Summer, Cletus and Ob, and Cletus, Summer, and Ob. There’s Summer realizing that Cletus isn’t the person he appears, and that other people don’t view him the way she does. And there’s a bit of a peek into Summer and Ob’s relationship, though most of the book is focused on May and Summer. But, again, the book is so short that there’s not enough time for all of these dimensions to be fully explored. Rylant does a fairly good job, but it mostly relies on cramming development into single sentences (like with the resolution of the novel).

Plus, the whole premise is strange. Ob “sense” the “ghost” of May, then is determined to go call up her ghost because he misses her so much, so they plan a trip to make a séance. The exploration of grief is interesting and needed, but the ghost stuff skews the focus, in my opinion. And, again, the book is too short to achieve any sense of fulfillment or development!

Missing May will go on the “How did this win?” list, as well as the “I won’t remember this in two days” list. The theme of the story—grief and overcoming grief—is important, but the spiritualism makes the whole book strange, and the character development, like the plot, is rushed and poorly resolved.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Yswm93

1962 Newbery Medal: The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare

The Bronze Bow, by Elizabeth George Speare, was published in 1961 by Houghton Mifflin.

Rating: 3/5

Books written in the time of Jesus (a.k.a the early ADs and the Roman occupation of Israel) are hard for me to read. It always feels strange to have someone put words into Jesus’s mouth that aren’t the ones given in the Bible by people who were actually there. A part of me is always like, “Okay, well, it sounds good, but…” So, I’m basically the least well-suited person to thoroughly enjoy The Bronze Bow.

However, I did enjoy it, mostly. I mean, the plot is blindingly obvious, but Speare does a great job of showing how the Jews hated the Romans, and how they longed for someone to come and free them from Roman control. Daniel and Joel both show different sides, with the outright hatred of Daniel and the more reserved, religious dissent of Joel. And there are numerous other facets of that time involved, too, like Leah, Daniel’s sister, and her fear that is attributed to demonic possession, and all the Jewish laws and customs as well.

And yes, Speare’s portrayal of Jesus did make me uncomfortable, though I do think she did a fairly good job. And her description of him did show me that she seemed to be writing from the Christian perspective of him (the Son of God) rather than a more secular view of him (merely a prophet/teacher), though she may have simply been borrowing from the Christian tradition as opposed to being a Christian herself.

Mostly I really enjoyed Daniel’s transformation, which I think was the most accurate representation in the book. There is, perhaps, not quite enough build-up or resolution, but as a children’s book Speare perhaps felt that a more abrupt change would work best. It is certainly effective, and it shows even beyond the words Speare puts in Jesus’s mouth the heart of his mission and of Christianity.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

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

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