2016 Newbery Medal: Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña

Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Peña, was published in 2015 by Putnam.

Rating: 4/5

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 beat The 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.

Recommended Age Range: 6+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

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

2004 Newbery Medal: The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo, was published in 2003 by Candlewick.

Rating: 2/5

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.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2X8Gvaw

1991 Newbery Medal: Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli, was published in 1990 by Little, Brown and Company.

Rating: 4/5

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.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2I3ove8

Broken Things by Lauren Oliver

Broken Things, by Lauren Oliver, was published in 2018 by HarperCollins.

Rating: 3/5

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Lauren Oliver and her books. Some, I liked. Some, I hated. I enjoy her writing a lot, but occasionally her plots leave a lot to be desired. Panic was a jumbled mess of unrealistic garbage. Vanishing Girls was interesting and compelling.

Luckily, Broken Things is more like Vanishing Girls. The plot, which may have been inspired (but I’m just guessing) by the real-life Slender Man murder, is intriguing and a fairly decent suspense novel. The characters are interesting, too, if generic and too teenager-y for me. I liked the inclusion of the Narnia-esque fantasy book and the nod to fanfiction, though I’m not a fan of the “end a book mid-sentence” aspect.

I was ultimately going to give this book a 4 out of 5, but when I figured things out a hundred pages before the characters did, and when I realized how much of the book was clues and how much was just Brynn and Mia thinking about how terrible Summer was to them, I knocked its rating down. I mean, they really should have figured things out with the wildly obvious clue that was mentioned and then immediately forgotten because Oliver didn’t want her characters to figure it out for another two hundred pages, so she had them deliberately bypass it.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be a superfan, or even a fan, of Lauren Oliver. Her writing is beautiful, but her books never appeal to me beyond the interesting plots that they sometimes have. There’s always something about her books that set my teeth on edge, that make me want to hurry up and finish so I can be done with the teenage angst and the attitudes and the catty behavior. Broken Things has a decent, compelling plot, marred by the actions of the characters, but it’s character-driven and I’m not that big of a fan of character-driven books, especially when the characters are forced to forget things in order that they don’t figure things out too quickly.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: LGBTQ themes, sexual situations, swearing, drinking, drug abuse.

Genre: Young Adult, Mystery, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2V8fjbh

2014 Newbery Medal: Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, by Kate DiCamillo, was published in 2013 by Candlewick.

Rating: 2/5

Magical realism is a genre that I struggle with. To be honest, I can’t even think of one book title, beyond this one, that I’ve read in magical realism that I’ve liked (there probably are some, but at the moment, nothing comes to mind). I prefer my fantasy world separate from my reality, and I always have, really. I’m more drawn to other-world fantasies than fantasies set in this world and mingling with it.

I didn’t know going in that Flora & Ulysses was magical realism. From the cover, it simply looks like a girl with a pet squirrel. Slightly strange, but it won a Newbery Medal, so there must be something special about it, right?

Then the squirrel picked up a vacuum cleaner, and that’s where the book lost me. I stuck it out, of course, through the whole book. It’s a fairly short and quick read, and to be honest, not all that much happens. Flora finds Ulysses, shenanigans happen, Flora leaves with her father, more shenanigans happen, Flora goes back to her mother’s with her father, more shenanigans happen, Flora and her mother connect, and the ending is happy. While there’s a little bit in there with Flora and her mother in terms of message and power, most of the book is light and fluffy stuff about a superhero squirrel, a cynical girl, and a temporarily blind (or is he?), philosophical boy.

It’s strange, and I’m not a huge fan of strange, especially in realism. I’ve never liked “odd” books, and this one is so quirky, and is so obviously the type of book that will really appeal to certain people, but leave the rest scratching their heads. I was scratching my head as I finished this one. I like that a work of magical realism won the Newbery Medal, but Flora & Ulysses and its superhero squirrel story just made no sense to me.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy, Realistic

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

The Only Road by Alexandra Diaz

The Only Road, by Alexandra Diaz, was published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster.

Rating: 4/5

The Only Road was much less preachy and heavy-handed than I thought it would be Instead, Diaz tells a compelling story of two children fleeing their town in Guatemala after being targeted by the local gang. Their destination is, of course, the United States, where Jaime’s brother lives. They must travel through the security-heavy borders of Mexico and the US, hide from gangs and immigration officers, and try not to lose each other.

Diaz gives a chilling picture of what it is like to travel through Mexico in secret. Apparently, Mexico is not very fond of other Central or South American countries, and of course the US heavily patrols its borders, so Jaime and Angela must fake their way through a bus ride, almost die in a closed boxcar of a train, scrape up enough money to pay a coyote to take them across the Rio Grande, and then safely contact Jaime’s brother. And Diaz communicated all of this without ramming her ideas of immigration down the reader’s throat. Instead, she uses the story to paint the picture, a much subtler approach that I appreciate.

The only thing I struggled with in the book was the appearance and disappearance of Jaime and Angela’s traveling companions, as well as the abrupt, almost-too-happy ending. I do understand that it’s likely that traveling companions will leave, eventually, but it seems to go against the book a bit—though of course Diaz is perhaps just emphasizing the separation of friends at certain points. The ending, too, is almost too happy, where Jaime, Angela, and Tomas drive off into the sunrise and nothing else is offered regarding Jaime’s and Angela’s status as illegal immigrants. Perhaps it’s because this book is for children that Diaz decided to end it as she did.

The Only Road pleasantly surprised me, and overall, despite a few wobbles, it offers a compelling story about the reasons someone might flee their home and head for a better life in a new country. It also shows lots about Central American and South American culture, such as Mexico’s heavy security in regards to immigration and the people’s dislike of outsiders. It was interesting to read about, and I appreciated it that Diaz went for subtlety rather than outspokenness.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Violence, death, disturbing images

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

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

Sunny by Jason Reynolds

Sunny, by Jason Reynolds, was published in 2018 by Atheneum. It is the sequel to Patina.

Rating: 2/5

I enjoyed the first two Track books, Ghost and Patina, but Sunny is the weakest one so far. It’s messy and all-over-the-place, and I get that it’s supposed to be inside of Sunny’s head, but half the time he’s just making random noises and talking about random things. Maybe that’s appealing to some, but not to me.

There’s a lack of depth to the book, too, that seems out of place, especially when comparing it to the previous two books. There’s some sad stuff going on, but there’s really not that much to the book at all. Half of it is just Sunny making sound effects and thinking about dancing. Yes—those parts of the book really bothered me! The scenes with Sunny and his dad were good, and the handling of all the unspoken (and spoken) expectations that Sunny is trying to fill, when he also wants to strike out on his own, were good. But I like tightly-focused, tightly-plotted books, and Sunny was just too stream-of-consciousness for me.

I also am growing very irritated of Reynolds’s penchant to ending the books right in the middle of a track meet (and then starting the next book with the resolution of that track meet). It’s hokey, and doesn’t really accomplish much. There’s no sense of closure or growth by cutting off the book right in the character’s shining moment. Instead, we’re left to wonder “Did he do it?” and there’s no rush of victory that is so great to feel when reading a book that’s so character-focused as this one.

I think I might still get the last track book, just to finish the series, but Sunny was ultimately a disappointment. Too random, too noisy, and just not my cup of tea.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2GFdP43

The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson

The Parker Inheritance, by Varian Johnson, was published in 2018 by Arthur A. Levine Books.

Rating: 3/5

The Parker Inheritance namedrops The Westing Game a lot, and with good reason. The mystery in this book is very similar to the one in Raskin’s novel, with similar stakes. I enjoyed the puzzle/riddle aspect a lot, though occasionally I had to raise my eyebrow at some of the more difficult logical leaps that the characters took. Perhaps I’m simply underestimating a child’s ability to solve puzzles, but sometimes things seemed just too much of a stretch.

Embedded within the puzzle story is a story of a black family during segregation. The story does a fantastic job of portraying the 1950s and the many injustices that occurred—as well as what the black community had to do to overcome them, if that was possible. The puzzle aspect is based off of this rich, story-within-a-story aspect of the novel that is the best part about the book.

Johnson also gets pretty political and preachy in this novel, which ruined the effect for me. He was clearly writing for a certain kind of audience, which isn’t a problem—but that audience doesn’t include me. I found it interesting, and was even delighted, when Johnson included a glimpse into a Southern church, but was severely disappointed when nothing else was mentioned about it outside of two churchgoers, who are hardly reflective of their religion. Christianity extends far more than just going to church on Sundays. But perhaps that was all it was for Candice and Brandon, so maybe I shouldn’t be so disappointed that Johnson forgot that spiritual conversation isn’t simply limited to a couple of hours on a Sunday morning.

The puzzle part of The Parker Inheritance is what pulled up its rating; otherwise, the rest of it was disappointing, frustrating, and preachy. If you like books that push particular political agendas and are concerned with the current social justice issues, then this book is right up your alley. I don’t like those sorts of books, however, regardless of whether or not I agree with them (one need only view my consistently negative feedback of Christian novels to recognize this).

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Wyx98o

My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George

My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George, was published in 1959 by Dutton.

Rating: 3/5

My Side of the Mountain is a survival novel a lá Hatchet, though Sam willingly chooses to live off the land in this book, as opposed to the protagonist of Hatchet, who is forced to do so after a plane crash. I found it amusing that the author’s note to this book states that the publisher was originally unwilling to publish a book that featured a boy running away and living off the land, lest kids also want to do so—reading this book almost 60 years later, it’s hard to imagine any teenage boy today doing what Sam in this book does.

The survival aspect of this book is the most interesting part, as George details what Sam does to survive a summer and winter on the side of a mountain. It almost seems too good to be true—Sam is so knowledgeable about vegetation and the wilderness that the novel almost has a fantastical, or at least exaggerated, atmosphere to it. The conflict in the book is of the natural variety, as the adults and other children he runs into are always curious and pleasant, rather than hostile. This poses a problem to the realism, though perhaps that’s modern culture speaking—I can’t imagine all of the adults being so nonchalant about Sam’s living on his own. Even his father exudes more awe at his son’s abilities than relief that his son is alive.

The ending is definitely of the fantastic variety, a sappy, feel-good ending that smacks perhaps too much of the glory of the country/wilderness as opposed to the darkness of the city. That’s really the main problem of this book—everything is just a little too pat, people react just a little too nonchalantly. There is a blissful, “I’m right to live in the wilderness” undertone that eats a little at the survival aspect. My Side of the Mountain is not as frantic nor as tense and dangerous as a book like Hatchet, which makes it perhaps better suited for certain ages, but it’s too light and fluffy to be a compelling survival novel.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic, Survival

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2RYT762

1971 Newbery Medal: The Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars

The Summer of the Swans, by Betsy Byars, was published in 1970 by Puffin.

Rating: 3/5

The Summer of the Swans is a novel on the shorter side, with a simplistic, yet important, message. The events of the book take place over two days and starts off with Sara expressing how discontent she is with everything in her life. We get a glimpse into what her life is like with her older sister, her aunt, and her little brother with an unspecified disability. As one might expect, by the end of the book, Sara has come to appreciate what she has and has learned to not always express her dissatisfaction and to be open to the possibility that she might be wrong.

As with other shorter Newbery Medals like The Whipping Boy or The Matchlock Gun, I find it quite hard to comment much on The Summer of the Swans. I read it all in one bus ride on my way to student retreat, and spent some of the time both during and after reading it conversing with my students (mostly about my pace of reading), so this is not a book that I had the luxury of reading without distractions.

The message is standard and simple, but still important today. It’s interesting how effective the “I took everything for granted, but then I realized what I really had when it was almost too late” plot can be. Byars deals with Charlie’s mental disability very well, though handwaves the specifics (it seems a little like autism to me, but Byars clearly says that Charlie became this way after an illness). By giving some scenes from Charlie’s perspective, the reader is able to understand a little bit more of Charlie—and to see “the other side” that Sara cannot yet see.

I’d be interested to see what someone who has experience with special needs kids would say about this book. I thought the message was important, though the story itself was basic. It’s not a particularly memorable Newbery, and it’s nowhere close to my favorite, but I do think The Summer of the Swans was ahead of its time, in a way, in portraying something that back then was probably much more closeted and taboo of a subject.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Charlie is called “retarded” a couple of times.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Se61t1