2003 Newbery Medal: Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi

Crispin: The Cross of Lead, by Avi, was published in 2002 by Hyperion.

“Asta’s Son” is all he’s ever been called. The lack of a name is appropriate, because he and his mother are but poor peasants in 14th century medieval England. But this thirteen-year-old boy who thought he had little to lose soon finds himself with even less – no home, no family, or possessions. Accused of a crime he did not commit, he may be killed on sight, by anyone. If he wishes to remain alive, he must flee his tiny village. All the boy takes with him is a newly revealed name – Crispin – and his mother’s cross of lead.

Rating: 2/5

I wasn’t all that impressed by Crispin: The Cross of Lead. It has a rich historical background, which lends itself well to the Newbery, but Crispin himself is an annoying protagonist and the plot is incredibly obvious. Bear was also a confusing character, in that the first moment we meet him he seems kind, then devolves into some sort of cruel master the next moment, then turns into a gruff man with a soft heart.

Avi clearly did his research with the setting, depicting the Middle Ages with particular emphasis on the influence of the Church as well as the feudal system and the call for reform. Perhaps that’s why I’m so disappointed at the plot, which seems clumsy and even a little obtuse. It’s a fine fit for the setting, I suppose, but the mechanics themselves are obvious, to the point where fifty pages in I already knew what was going to happen.

I also didn’t much like Crispin, especially towards the end of the book where he consistently refuses to listen to the adults around him and goes sneaking off three times in succession. The third time actually had me speaking out loud to my book, which is almost never a good sign (“Stop it, Crispin!”). I really don’t like rash protagonists. I suppose he’s a teenage boy, so of course he would do rash things, but that doesn’t make me like him any better.

Crispin: The Cross of Lead has that historical background that seems to attract Newbery Medals, but I wasn’t impressed with the plot or the main character.  I actually didn’t mind Crispin at first, but once things started getting moving and he started doing really stupid things, I started getting annoyed. I also very quickly figured out the entire plot, due to the limited possibilities and obvious clues. Unlike another one of Avi’s books, I’m not fond of this one.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“Asta’s son,” came Aycliffe’s voice, “in the name of Lord Furnival, you’re herewith charged with theft. Give way.”

I was too stunned to move.

“The boy’s a wolf’s head!” the steward shouted. “Slay him if you can.”

From either side, men ran forward.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2xRThND

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1934 Newbery Medal: Invincible Louisa by Cornelia Meigs

Invincible Louisa, by Cornelia Meigs, was published in 1933 by Little, Brown.

Biography tracing the fascinating life of Louisa May Alcott from her happy childhood in Pennsylvania and Boston to her success as a writer of such classics as Little Women.

Rating: 4/5

I’m glad that a biography won the Newbery Medal, since I think it’s important for children to read biographies as well as fiction books. And Invincible Louisa is written in such a way that it lacks the stuffiness and dryness (and all the footnotes) of many biographies written for adults, making it perfect for children to learn more about Louisa May Alcott.

I knew that Little Women was heavily inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s real life, but it wasn’t until I read Invincible Louisa that I realized how inspired it was. I knew that Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth were modeled after Louisa and her sisters, though I didn’t realize that almost every other character was also modeled after someone she knew, as well. Little Women is one of my favorite books (I am one of the rare people who agrees with Alcott not putting Jo and Laurie together; I laughed at her tenacious statement, “I won’t put Jo with Laurie to please anybody”) and, having now read this biography, it’s easy to see how many details Alcott included of her own life. It’s certainly not all there—Jo was never a nurse, nor do any of the March girls go near the fighting—but there is definitely more than just a casual influence.

I also didn’t know that Alcott’s family were on such close terms with authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The mention of Transcendentalism got me excited, since one of the things I teach my students is Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and the philosophy of Transcendentalism. Now I have some extra material to throw at them!

Invincible Louisa, as a biography, is certainly a different sort of book than has won the Newbery in the past. It’s hard to review biographies, but I enjoyed learning more about Alcott’s life and how it influenced Little Women. I also enjoyed learning more about Alcott than I ever knew before, including all the things her father did and the people that influenced her family along the way.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2z3BOCL

1935 Newbery Medal: Dobry by Monica Shannon

Dobry, by Monica Shannon, was first published in 1934 by Viking.

A Bulgarian peasant boy must convince his mother that he is destined to be a sculptor, not a farmer.

Rating: 3/5

Dobry is the story of a young boy growing up in a Bulgarian village. His grandfather tells him stories and teaches him the ways of the Bulgarian life; his mother shows him farming and the qualities of a hospitable adult. As the tiny blurb suggests, Dobry faces the tension of leaving the “family job” of farming to become a sculptor, though that aspect of the book does not come into play into nearly two-thirds of the way through.

Dobry, like Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze, is mainly a cultural piece. The Bulgarian culture is brought to life in this book, a fine example of how reading takes you to different places and times and allows you to experience people and cultures that you may otherwise never experience. Dobry is fascinating not because of the strength of its plot, but because of the richness of the setting, the glimpse into another country and the things they emphasize and celebrate.

It’s not my favorite book or my favorite Newbery Medal so far, but Dobry highlights the aspects of these award-winning books that I love: the cultural and historical. I suppose I wasn’t expecting so much variety as I started the challenge to read all the Newbery Medal winners. And I especially wasn’t expecting it in the earlier winners. But the glimpses into other countries, other cultures, other ways of life, other worldviews, that this journey is giving me is wonderful and beautiful and so much of what I love about reading.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

The grandfather leaned over and announced to the mayor, “Michaelacky, I am going to serve up a little of the wine made the October our Dobry was born. We must drink to the good harvest—nothing frozen.”

The mayor stood up and instead of using his everyday voice used the deeper, ringing tones he kept only for state occasions:

“Let us drink to Now, this very moment!” he called out. “Now! The harvest is in, the storm is over!”

“Na lay! Na lay!” everyone laughed, shouted, and got on his feet to sing the old gypsy melody. And once the music got into their blood, nothing in this world could have kept these peasants from singing.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2yscKt0

1948 Newbery Medal: The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois

The Twenty-One Balloons, by William Pène du Bois, was published in 1947 by Viking.

When Professor William Waterman Sherman leaves San Francisco in a hot-air balloon, he intends to fly across the Pacific Ocean. Instead, through a twist of fate, he lands on Krakatoa, a legendary island of unimaginable wealth, eccentric inhabitants, and fantastic balloon inventions. Once Professor Sherman learns the secrets of Krakatoa, he must remain there forever—unless he can find a means of escape.

Rating: 4/5

The Twenty-One Balloons reminds me a great deal of the Dolittle books, or the Oz books, or The Pushcart War or any number of inventive, imaginative novels that describe a lot of things that somehow manage to keep being interesting despite the wealth of information. This book is a fond memory from my childhood and I enjoyed rereading it and remembering all the little bits and moments that stood out to me back then.

I wish the beginning of the novel was quicker-paced; it’s a little tedious and takes a long time to get into the meat of the story, which is William Waterman Sherman’s trip. It’s hard, especially with a book as descriptive as this, to start in media res without being boring. I mean, the beginning is interesting, but not nearly as interesting as Sherman’s journey.

I like that du Bois took a real event (the volcanic eruption on Krakatoa) and expounded a fictional story on that, as far-fetched as it is. I really do like “shipwrecked on an island” stories (aka The Black Stallion, The Swiss Family Robinson, etc.), or survival stories in general, and I feel like this was an especially common trope in the mid-20th century, for some reason (perhaps inspired by Robinson Crusoe or by shows such as Gilligan’s Island). Du Bois’s story, though unrealistic as I said, is fascinating, fun, and quite worthy of a children’s book.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“Wake up, wake up; you’ve got to get in the shade!”

I shook my head and opened my eyes again. There was a man kneeling over me. He wasn’t a native, and didn’t suggest an explorer or a traveler. He was wearing a correctly tailored white morning suit, with pin-stripe pants, white ascot tie, and a white cork bowler.

“Am I dead?” I asked. “Is this Heaven?”

“No, my good man,” he answered, “this isn’t Heaven. This is the Pacific Island of Krakatoa.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2jIuZnm

1950 Newbery Medal: The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli

The Door in the Wall, by Marguerite de Angeli, was published in 1949 by Doubleday.

Ever since he can remember, Robin, child of Sir John de Bureford, has been told what is expected of him as the son of a nobleman. He must learn the ways of knighthood. But Robin’s destiny is changed suddenly when he falls ill and loses the use of his legs. Fearing a plague, his servants abandon him, and Robin is left alone. A monk named Brother Luke rescues Robin and takes him to the hospice of St. Mark’s, where is taught woodcarving and patience and strength. Says Brother Luke, “Thou hast only to follow the wall far enough and there will be a door in it.” Robin learns soon enough what Brother Luke means. When the great castle of Lindsay is in danger, Robin discovers that there is more than one way to serve his king.

Rating: 3/5

I’m really not sure what’s going on in the 2005 cover of The Door in the Wall. It makes it seem as if the novel is some sort of roadtrip comedy or something along the lines of The Court Jester. On the contrary, The Door in the Wall is a fairly serious historical fiction set in medieval times, describing the various political, military, and physical dangers that were present at the time.

The book is, perhaps, a bit more bright and sparkling than the historical background warrants, but this is a book for children, and Robin’s personal journey as he undergoes illness and becomes a hero despite of his physical weakness is heartwarming. De Angeli also portrays the weight the culture at the time placed on knighthood, familial duty and inheritance, and independence in general through Robin’s misgivings and anxieties over not fulfilling these roles. There’s also much in this book about how central monasteries and monasticism were to medieval society.

The Door in the Wall is a short book, but its historicity is surprisingly deep and immersive. The story is not particularly exciting, but it is uplifting. I must give some mention of the illustrations, which were wonderful (I read the Yearling edition, but I couldn’t find an illustrator listed). The language of the writing may make it hard for younger readers to get involved, but even that lends itself to the historicity of the novel as a whole. I’m not sure why the cover is so slapstick, but don’t let the inevitable jarring that will result as the cover and the contents clash deter you from reading the book.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

“Will I go back home soon?” asked Robin fearfully, for the gate had clanged shut behind them as if it had been closed forever. “Will a message be sent to my father? Or to my mother?”

“Be comforted, my child,” Brother Luke answered. “As soon as the plague is somewhat quieted in London, a messenger will be sent to thy father. Meanwhile, we shall care for thee.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2eTETgV

1932 Newbery Medal: Waterless Mountain by Laura Adams Armer

Waterless Mountain, by Laura Adams Armer, was published in 1931 by Knopf.

Younger Brother is only eight years old, but already he knows he will be a Navaho medicine man. He has seen signs and has had a vision. It will take many years of hard work for Younger Brother to learn how to use his gifts. As he grows, he must also master skills for survival, such as how to read a trail, train a horse, and find water in the desert….This deeply moving and authentic account of young Navaho’s childhood and spiritual journey is filled with wonder and respect for the natural world.

Rating: 3/5

Newbery Medal winners have always been cultural and historical in scope, but I feel as if the earlier ones tend to be so without focusing so much on the darker side of life (self-esteem problems, bullying, loss, etc.) Waterless Mountain is a celebration of life and of the Navajo people, told through the eyes of a poetic, deeply-thinking boy.

I wish I could have appreciated this book more, but I read it at a time when I was working long hours and I would always be falling asleep while reading it. I don’t really think that has anything to do with the quality of the book, although perhaps a more exciting book, or a book I was more excited to read, would have helped me stay awake. In any case, the book blurred together for me, although I do know that I thought Younger Brother’s trip across the country was a little strange. Not that he would go on it, but that it made the book have a kind of Western movie feel to it, complete with bandits.

If you don’t really know much about the Navajo culture, this book will certainly teach you a lot—and it shows, also, how separated the culture was, at least back then in the 1930s, from the Western country it lived in. I’m not sure how integrated Native culture is today (presumably more so now), but seeing that the Navajos managed to keep their culture and their way of life years after all the big forces that moved them around and took away their land is heartwarming.

Waterless Mountain maybe isn’t the most interesting Newbery I’ve read, but it’s definitely one of the most informative and one of the most culturally imbued. I’m not sure if it’s a “pick up and read again and again” book but I do think it’s a book that needs to be read.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“Uncle, where does the Turquoise Woman live?”

“On an island in the wide water of the west. There she waits every day in her turquoise house for her husband, who carries the sun.”

“And when the Sun Bearer reaches his home in the west, what does he do with the sun, Uncle?”

“He hangs it up on a turquoise peg on the turquoise wall of the turquoise house of the Turquoise Woman.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2gEGzLt

1931 Newbery Medal: The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth

The Cat Who Went to Heaven, by Elizabeth Coatsworth, was published in 1930 by Simon & Schuster.

This is the story of a little cat who came to the home of a poor Japanese artist and, by humility and devotion, brought him good fortune. Commissioned to paint the death of the lord Buddha for the village temple, the artist lovingly entered on his scroll of silk the animals who came to receive the blessing of the dying Buddha. The little cat sat patiently by, seeming to implore that she too be included. At least, the compassionate artist—knowing well that the cat alone of all the animals had refused to accept the teachings of Buddha—took up his brush and drew a cat, and thus brought about a Buddhist miracle.

Rating: 4/5

The Cat Who Went to Heaven is a very short, but very sweet, book. It’s the story of an artist and his cat, but’s it’s also a story about Buddha and what he did. Basically, before the artist paints each animal, he imagines himself as that animal and how it relates to Buddha, so there’s a lot of information about the story of Buddha. The drawings (by Lynd Ward) are excellent and really capture the spirit of the book.

The book is short, so I can’t really say too much about it. I do think the title is Coatsworth trying to make the book more appealing to a Western audience, since heaven in Buddhism is much different than what an American in the 1930s would think it was, but the concept does get across even if the only thing you know about Buddhism is what you learn from this book.

The Cat Who Went to Heaven is definitely the Newbery book that most fits the traditional “children’s book” vibe so far. A lot of the Newbery’s I’ve read fit more in a Middle Grade spectrum, at least in my opinion (then again, that division of genres didn’t exist back then, so maybe that explains it), but this book has a read-aloud feel to it with the length to match. Of course, reading this book might require a discussion of Buddhism, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If there’s one thing I’ve liked about all the Newbery Medal winners so far, it’s that they represent a wide-range of cultural and historical areas. The Cat Who Went to Heaven merely touches on a whole concept and culture, but it’s respectful and beautiful while it does so.

Recommended Age Range: 7+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“But where is the cat?” thought the artist to himself, for even in his vision he remembered that in none of the paintings he had ever seen of the death of Buddha, was a cat represented among the other animals.

“Ah, the cat refused homage to Buddha,” he remembered, “and so by her own independent act, only the cat has the doors of Paradise closed in her face.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2vHfiNW

1998 Newbery Medal: Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse

Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse, was published in 1997 by Scholastic.

A terrible accident has transformed Billie Jo’s life, scarring her inside and out. Her mother is gone. Her father can’t talk about it. And the one thing that might make her feel better—playing the piano—is impossible with her wounded hands. To make matters worse, dust storms are devastating the family farm and all the farms nearby. While others flee from the dust bowl, Billie Jo is left to find peace in the bleak landscape of Oklahoma—and in the surprising landscape of her own heart.

Rating: 4/5

I didn’t know going into Out of the Dust that it was written entirely in verse rather than prose, and I’m actually glad I didn’t know because I don’t particularly enjoy free-verse novels. However, Hesse does a really good job—I never thought the descriptions or details were sparse or vague and all of Billie Jo’s emotions and the things that happen to her come across in just the right way. And even though, towards the end of the novel, the culmination of Billie Jo’s emotions and decisions is a little abrupt, it’s still understandable why she does what she does.

My main complaint of free-verse novels is that they always feel so jarring and choppy. There never seems to be good enough transitions between the poems themselves so I feel like I’m constantly starting and stopping, starting and stopping. However, Hesse manages to mostly avoid this jerkiness, somehow. There are still poems that feel a little out of place, but for the most part they all function as a cohesive unit.

Out of the Dust is a unique novel, but its heartbreaking depiction of the Dust Bowl is in no way lessened because of its format.  This is one of the more gut-wrenching Newbery’s I’ve read, and not just because of what happens to Billie Jo’s mother. I found it a little choppy in places but overall the book is engaging and, despite its sad content, also manages to end somewhat on a happy note. Definitely a book for more mature readers, but it does teach a lot about the Dust Bowl.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Gruesome death.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2vWgIri

2002 Newbery Medal: A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park

A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park, was published in 2001 by Clarion.

Tree-ear is an orphan boy in a twelfth-century Korean potters’ village. For a long time he is content to live with Crane-man under a bridge, barely surviving on scraps of food. All of that changes when Tree-ear sees master potter Min making his beautiful pottery. Tree-ear sneaks into Min’s workplace and dreams of creating his own pots someday. When he accidentally breaks a pot, he must work for the master to pay for the damage. Though the work is long and hard, Tree-ear is eager to learn. Then he is sent to the King’s Court to show the master’s pottery. Little does Tree-ear know that this difficult and dangerous journey will change his life forever.

Rating: 5/5

A Single Shard is a short book, but it’s wonderfully crafted and much more engaging than you would think a book about pottery would be. I found every aspect of the book, to Tree-ear sneaking through the foliage to peek at Min’s work, to working at Min’s shop, to his journey to the royal commissioner, intriguing. It’s a simple little book, but it’s full of soul and charm.

The book also teaches quite a bit about celadon pottery and Park manages to show the process without dragging the book down in unnecessary or boring detail. Even as the centerpiece of the novel, the pottery aspect is balanced just enough so that the book doesn’t seem like a “how-to” guide. Tree-ear’s wonder and curiosity helps with the balance, as well.

I can see why A Single Shard won the Newbery Medal; it’s equal parts informative, delightful, and, yes, even tense. Tree-ear is a darling protagonist, conveying all the politeness that the Korean culture requires but with the inexorable energy of youth. There are good lessons woven throughout in the shape of Crane-man’s advice to Tree-ear, never overly moralizing or out of place. And the background and content is historically rich and informative, showing off the research Park did and melding it with a delightful little story about a boy who wants to make pottery and the journey he must take to do so.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“Honorable potter? Sir? Could I not work for you, as payment? Perhaps my help could save you some time…”

Min shook his head impatiently. “What could you do, an untrained child? I have no time to teach you—you would be more trouble than help.”

Tree-ear stepped forward eagerly. “You would not need to teach so much as you think, sir. I have been watching you for many months now. I know how you mix the clay and turn the wheel—I have watched you make many things…”

The potter waved one hand to cut off the boy’s words and spoke with derision. “Turn the wheel! Ha! He thinks he can sit and make a pot—just like that!”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2hl9Nmo

1958 Newbery Medal: Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith

Rifles for Watie, by Harold Keith, was published in 1957 by Harper.

Jefferson Davis Bussey is sixteen when the Civil War breaks out. He can’t wait to leave his Kansas farm and defend the Union against Colonel Watie, leader of the dreaded Cherokee Indian rebels. But Jeff soon learns that there’s more to war than honor and glory. As an infantry soldier, he must march for miles, exhausted and near starvation. He sees friends die in battle. He knows that each move he makes could be his last. Then Jeff is sent to infiltrate the enemy camp as a spy. And it is there that he makes his most important discovery: The rebels are just men—and boys—like him. The only difference between them is their cause. Passing himself off as a rebel Jeff waits for the information he needs to help the Union conquer the enemy forces. But when the time comes, Jeff finds himself up against a very difficult decision .Should he betray the enemy? Or join them?

Rating: 4/5

Rifles for Watie starts out with an author’s note that explains the historical research and interviews that Harold Keith conducted in order to make the book as realistic as possible. And that research shows in every area of this book, from the attitudes of the various people to the details of battles to the geographical locations.

It’s fascinating to read a book about the Civil War that is remarkably respectful to both sides (mostly the Confederate side). Nowadays, all you tend to get is “Confederates bad!” and other, more extreme iterations. Rifles for Watie, however, delves into some of the psychology of, at least, the Native American side of the war (many of whom fought for the Confederates) and has an empathetic, wonderful protagonist in Jeff, who realizes that people are people, not nameless pigs to be slaughtered, and that things are confusing in war when it seems that the side you were fighting against might, actually, have a legitimate reason for fighting you. In this case, keeping one’s property. And no, I’m not talking about slaves.

Land and the idea of owning your own property is really the driving force presented in the novel. Jeff is fighting to drive the bushwhackers out and to help his family keep their land without fear of being killed. The Native Americans on both sides are fighting to keep or reobtain their land. While there are slaves, there’s very little mention of slavery as a reason to fight, except when it came to the slave who runs away to join the Union’s all-black regiment. There is, maybe, just a tad too much of the “happy slave” idea, but Keith still treats the subject with respect (and, after all, this was a book for children in the 1950s).

Keith also depicts both good and bad sides of both forces. There’s looting from both armies; there’s corrupt Clardy on the Union side juxtaposed with charismatic Watie on the Confederate side; there’s the friendly Confederate cook; there’s the loyal Union friends Jeff makes; and, of course, Lucy, who is on the Confederate side but has respect (and deeper feelings) for Jeff, a Union soldier.

Overall, Rifles for Watie is a fabulously even-handed book on a war that pitted two ideologies against each other. There’s respect for the great leaders on the Confederate side, even when Jeff (and through him, the reader) disagrees with their ideas. Both the good and the bad of both the Union and the Confederate armies are shown or hinted at (let’s be real here; the Union army most likely did some terrible things to the people living in the Confederate south, looting their houses and taking their livestock being some of the more mild). Jeff is empathetic, does not simply dismiss the Confederates as “bad” or “racist” but recognizes similarities and respects them even as he seeks to combat them. Rifles for Watie can teach people today a thing or two about what it’s like to really put yourself in another person’s shoes and respect them even as you disagree with them.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Violence, death.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“I’m lonesome,” David blurted, miserably. “I want to go home and see Ma. Goshallmighty, Jeff, I ain’t cut out to be no soldier. I was a fool to ever leave the farm.”

“Corn, Dave,” Jeff said, in alarm, “you can’t just walk off from the army once you’ve joined it. That’s desertion. You know the penalty for desertion. They’ll stand you up against a wall and shoot you.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2uv0tk8