A Year Down Yonder, by Richard Peck, was published in 2000 by Dial.
A Year Down Yonder is technically a sequel, but luckily it’s not at all necessary to have read the book that comes before it—which is good because I didn’t. The book is about Mary Alice, who goes to live with her grandmother for a year during the Great Depression, due to the financial situation of her family. It’s pretty much a “city girl goes to the country” type of a book, except with less school drama. Instead, Mary Alice learns the ins and outs of the town, including all the small-town shenanigans you might expect. There’s secret family histories, women’s committee drama, and, all right, a small amount of school drama.
But the star of the show is, of course, Grandma Dowdel, who is a fierce and formidable woman. She manipulates the people around her so that she gets the results she wants, but she also shows a soft side when it comes to her family and friends. The story revolves more around her than Mary Alice, for better or for worse.
Peck manages to expertly capture the oddities and charms of small-town, country life. Though the scenarios are often outrageous, there’s an undercurrent of believability underneath them that makes them that much more appealing. Grandma Dowdel steals the show with her boots and her shotgun, though Mary Alice has her moments, too. A Year Down Yonder is a charming read, and what it lacks in memorability and depth, it more than makes up for in good, plain fun.
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle, was published in 1962 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Rating: 3/5 (2/5??)
A Wrinkle in Time has always been That Book for me. Not That Book that you really enjoy, or That Book that knocked you off your feet, but That Book that everyone talked about and referenced as a fantastic book, that you grew up hearing about, that you read a long time ago, that your friends all mention, that is always upheld as a great example of x genre. And with such a towering reputation, it’s always difficult to admit that you don’t actually like That Book.
I left my rating the way I typed it when first thinking about how to review this book because it really illustrates my conflict here. On the one hand, I didn’t like it: hence, the 2/5. On the other hand, I acknowledge its significance and reputation: hence, the 3/5. But 3/5 has turned into my lazy rating, my “it was average, but not terrible, but not great” rating, so I want to be bold and say 2/5. Yet, I think my dislike of it has to do with my personal taste in books, so I want to be fair and say 3/5.
So, I kept both ratings there because I couldn’t decide.
I always feared going into reading this book that I wouldn’t like it. See, the thing is, I simply don’t like science fiction. I struggle to enjoy even children’s books of that genre. So I knew that my thoughts about A Wrinkle in Time might be negative simply from that standpoint.
But I also didn’t think the book was that great…
I mean, the theme is great. Love wins over evil—fantastic. But the way everything is delivered, the way everything happens, is clunky, and not developed enough, and way too quickly paced. The explanation in this book is scant; we’re swept along just like Meg and Charles Wallace and Calvin are, except there’s the feeling that the characters know more than the reader. There’s two kids who are special—somehow, with no explanation as to how or why they’re like that—and their father is missing, then BOOM! they get taken away by these three strange angel ladies to rescues their father, then BOOM! they go to the planet where their father is and one special kid gets overtaken by the evil, then BOOM! stuff happens, they rescue their father, one kid goes back to rescue the other, she stares at him and thinks about love, then BOOM! he’s back, they’re back, everyone’s back, and everyone’s happy.
But how is Charles Wallace different, and why is he different? Why do Meg and Charles Wallace and Calvin seem to instinctively know how to combat IT, despite never knowing about him before? How does staring at Charles Wallace and thinking about love break ITs hold on him? Why do these kids just go with the flow and not freak out? Why is everything so pat and quick and why do the kids seem to know what to do despite also not knowing what to do?
Maybe I’m missing the point? Like this is supposed to be one giant allegory, even more than the one that’s abundantly obvious already, and that’s why everything is the way it is. I like the good/evil allegory/symbolism, but I didn’t think it was written all that well, to be honest!
So, those are my thoughts on A Wrinkle in Time. I’m now a pariah among my friends, I know, but I just found the whole book strange and poorly explained.
A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl’s Journal, 1830-1832, by Joan W. Blos, was published in 1979 by Atheneum.
A Gathering of Days reminded me quite a lot of Dear America, if Dear America dedicated itself a bit more to accurate writing style and language. It’s a collection of journal entries detailing Catherine’s life at school and home, and while it’s a simple book at its heart, there’s a lot of charm and character hidden in each entry.
The book doesn’t have too much action in it; the action is developed through character rather than through plot. There’s a runaway slave, along with some abolitionist talk, a new mother and brother, and lots of school and home activities. Through it all, Catherine shares poems, little bits of her thoughts, and other things that help her shine as a character. The novel does a great job of showing how hard life was in those days and how much work everyone had to do, and it also does a great job of giving the appropriate amount of balance between religion and daily life that was in those times.
To be honest, I think I only would have given this book a 3 rating if it hadn’t been for one line towards the end of the book: “Trust, and not submission, defines obedience.” What a great theme to end the book with, and such an important one to discuss even today. While I wouldn’t say A Gathering of Days was as interesting as some of the better Dear America books I’ve read, some of the themes that Blos develops are far more profound and important.
…and now Miguel is a bit of a ponderous, slow read, due to Miguel’s long inner monologues and descriptions, but ultimately the book is a heartwarming tale of a boy trying to show his family that he is grown up. There’s a bit more to it than that, especially at the end, but mostly the book is about Miguel’s journey, both literally and figuratively, to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
The book is also about sheep, as Miguel’s family are sheep farmers, and boy, did I learn a lot more about sheep than I ever thought I wanted to know. Miguel explains a lot about sheep and the raising and tending of them, but of course it’s filtered through his desire to be useful to his family and to be seen as capable and grown in their eyes. There’s a great humor underlying some of the dialogue and the descriptions that might be a little hard to catch, but helped make some of the ponderous scenes a little more bearable.
I think I would have liked …and now Miguel better if it hadn’t been so unevenly balanced in tone and pace. There’s some parts at the end that are perfect, but spoiled by being dwelt on for far too long. There’s some great stuff having to do with wishes, and change, and why things work out the way they do. Miguel is left both pleased that he gets to go to the mountains at last, but also sad that it is at the expense of his brother being sent off to war. There are some great lessons to learn from this book, but it might take a while to get to them. I didn’t really enjoy reading the book due to the length and the way everything felt it was taking forever to get to the point, but I enjoyed the message behind the story and the way it communicated change in the end.
Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Peña, was published in 2015 by Putnam.
It’s difficult to write reviews of books as short as Last Stop on Market Street, so, fair warning, this review will most likely be almost as short as the book.
Last Stop on Market Street is a children’s book for younger readers: mostly pictures, with a few lines of text on each page. It tells the story of CJ and his grandmother on the bus on the way to serve at a soup kitchen, and his grandmother shows him how to be satisfied with the things he has and how to see beauty in the ordinary.
Simple books like this are adored by many people, and I get the appeal: beautiful pictures, a relevant, straightforward message, and a nice tone and style throughout. Yet these types of books (not quite a picture book, not quite a plain story) don’t really appeal to me unless I’m reading them to children and get to see their faces.
I can at least appreciate the book, and I do see why it won a Newbery Medal—though I’m baffled as to how it beatThe War That Saved My Life. There is beauty in simplicity, though, and that’s why this book is beautiful in both pictures and message. I am just unable to appreciate it for all of its worth, I guess.
The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo, was published in 2003 by Candlewick.
I must not like Kate DiCamillo as an author (though I remember liking Because of Winn-Dixie). I didn’t like Flora and Ulysses, and I didn’t like The Tale of Despereaux, despite the latter’s place as a beloved children’s novel and one of the few that have had a film adaptation.
I really don’t know what it is about DiCamillo that I struggle with. Flora and Ulysses and The Tale of Despereaux are very dissimilar to each other. So, perhaps it is just the books and not the author herself.
What didn’t I like about Despereaux? Pretty much everything. The grating narrator “address the reader” asides, the simplistic themes, the annoying protagonist (yes, I found Despereaux annoying), the villain, the unwitting sidekick…all of it combined created an unpalatable mess that I could only barely tolerate. It was the type of book where, if I had my way, I would take forever to finish reading it because I dreaded it so much, but I forced myself to finish it so I could move on to a more exciting book.
However, Despereaux is still not bad enough for a 1/5 rating, and that’s because I acknowledge that this read had a lot more to do with me than it had to do with the book. I don’t like magical realism, I don’t like breaking-the-4th-wall narrators, and I don’t like simplistically obvious messages about light and dark and courage. Plus, the ending was extremely anticlimactic. However, I did like the introduction of complicated words and ideas that the narrator explained, and parts of the novel were, if not enjoyable, at least tolerable—so long as the narrator stayed out of things.
I’ve described lots of Newbery Medals as mediocre, and The Tale of Despereaux is one of the few that I’ve actively disliked, though I wouldn’t call it mediocre. I suppose it’s just an acknowledgement that tastes can vary among readers—even with award-winning books. The Tale of Despereaux is well-written and far from average, but, simply put, I just didn’t care for it.
Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli, was published in 1990 by Little, Brown and Company.
Maniac Magee, though told in as quirky and fast-paced of a tone as its protagonist, is a delightful story about Jeffrey Magee, who, after running away from his aunt and uncle, continuously crosses cultural and social barriers as he lives in and around a segregated town.
The story is told in 3 parts: the first part details Jeffrey’s arrival in Two Mills, where he upsets the status quo, accomplishes a number of near-legend things, and lives with a black family. Once he upsets both sides of the segregated town, he leaves, which is where the second part starts. The second part describes his relationship with a former baseball player, Grayson, and shows more of Jeffrey’s longing for a family and a home. The third part is his return to Two Mills and his ultimate conquering of societal norms through his former enemies, Mars Bar and John McNab.
The writing style is a bit odd, and not something I normally would enjoy, but it fits this book to a tee. There’s a fast-paced rush to it, helped by the frequent short sentences, “ands,” and “buts.” It perfectly fits the always-moving Maniac Magee, and I suppose a lot of the charm comes from the style of writing, though I’m personally not much of a fan.
Maniac Magee deals with segregation in a completely unconventional way, and in a way that really works. I liked the way Jeffrey’s innocence and, in some case, lack of knowledge of societal norms, really helped him in developing relationships. It just shows how a combination of innocence, persistence, and kindness can go a long way in breaking down barriers. I’m not a huge fan of the writing, but it fits the overall mood of the novel. The only thing I knew about Spinelli before this was Stargirl, so I’m glad that I got to see more from him than just that one book.
Shadow of a Bull is the story of Manolo, who struggles to find his own purpose in life as the people around him try to make him into the next great bullfighter, just like his father. It dives deeply into the rich history of Spain and of bullfighting, and Wojciechowska helpfully gives a glossary of all the Spanish bullfighting terms she uses. The whole book is basically a love letter to bullfighting and its roots in Spanish culture.
It’s also really boring.
This is the type of book where my mind goes wandering off while in the middle of reading, unable to find enough interest to keep its attention going. One time I read three pages without really processing what was happening, then had to give myself a little mental shake to get back on track. There was nothing to the book that really grabbed my attention and held it; I rushed to finish it because I was so bored of reading it.
Maybe it’s because outside of the main plot of Manolo deciding he doesn’t want to be a bullfighter, nothing else happens. It’s just bullfighting terms and people talking about bullfighting. That’s it.
I suppose after such a long string of good Newbery Medals, there had to be one that I didn’t like. Shadow of a Bull was not my cup of tea at all.
Sounder is an interesting book. It’s cast as a dog book, in the vein of Old Yeller or Shiloh or something, but it’s really much more about the boy than it is about the dog. However, it’s probably significant that the dog is the only thing in the book that has a name—there’s the boy, his siblings, his mother, his father, and the teacher, and the dog is the only thing with a name. And it’s probably significant that the dog’s name is “Sounder,” and that he only “sounds” when the family is whole and together. He remains silent when the boy’s father is gone.
This book isn’t happy, but it’s not quite sad, either. There’s a certain tragedy about it, yes, but the sad events are told so matter-of-factly that it creates a distance. And the book seems much more concerned with the growth of the boy than of lingering on injustice. The book is really about the day-to-day that takes place amidst injustice, and how families try and go about their daily lives even though things have changed inexplicably. Time is a bit hard to grasp, but the book, which is barely over 100 pages, takes place over years of the boy’s life, years spent waiting and searching for his father’s return, years where Sounder does not sound.
I’m honestly quite hard-pressed to find a clear-cut message in this book. Instead, the book is really focused on metaphor and symbolism, unless I’m really taking the Sounder and names thing too far, and much less concerned with getting some sort of idea across. That makes Sounder unique for a Newbery Medal book, but not as immediately or clearly relevant as, say, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, or even M. C. Higgins, the Great. It’s also not too great a sell as a profound dog book, either. Sounder is unique and somewhat interesting, but I think most young readers will find it difficult to grasp and enjoy.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Warnings: Racial slurs, descriptions of bad wounds, violent thoughts.
The Slave Dancer, by Paula Fox, was published in 1973 by Simon & Schuster.
I always admire authors who portray characters and events in ways that aren’t as extreme as modern culture seems to want. Maybe “progressive” would be a better word to use than “extreme.” What I mean by this is that I feel that a lot of modern authors create characters and then, in order to express the author’s own ideas (or mainstream ideas, or socially acceptable ideas, etc.), they have the character do things that maybe aren’t as historically accurate or as realistic as the setting warrants. However, in The Slave Dancer, Fox has a character with feelings and thoughts that fit the time period and still expresses all the themes and messages that Fox wants.
Jessie, the main character, gets pressganged onto a slave ship and is forced to become a cabin boy, and later the “slave dancer.” Jessie, who has lived all his life in New Orleans, has been raised by a mother who disapproves of slavery (at least, that’s what I inferred), but his only real experience with slavery is the slave market in the city. His feelings range from desperation to horror to hopelessness throughout the terrible journey. What I liked about Jessie as a character is that he acts realistically, especially for that time period. He isn’t instantly, vehemently against slavery—in fact, it isn’t until he both encounters the slaves and sees their treatment that he begins to be disgusted. And, when he reaches that moment, he reacts exactly as a human being would—first he feels pity for them, then he feels hatred (towards them) because of the terrible situation they are in and the one that he is in (which he blames them for, in exactly the sort of irrational way one would), then he feels numb to it all. This is really a story of survival—Jessie’s survival, the slaves’ survival, Ras’s survival.
I also really enjoyed the scene when Jessis encounters the runaway slave Daniel. Daniel is polite and kind, but there’s so much conveyed in his actions and words that show you that, despite his trials and experience, Jessie still has no idea what being a slave is like. He was a “slave,” of a sort, on the ship, but not in the same way that Ras and Daniel were slaves. And Fox shows how that haunts Jessie throughout the rest of his life.
There is a lot of depth and meaning to The Slave Dancer, perhaps more than a child could get on their own. It is not a light book or a happy book. It is heavy and dark and expresses a lot of complicated and heavy topics. This is definitely a book to be read and discussed alongside of the child reading it.