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

2019 Newbery Medal: Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

Merci Suárez Changes Gears, by Meg Medina, was published in 2018 by Candlewick.

Rating: 3/5

I loved Meg Medina’s Burn Baby Burn, a YA book that dealt with a tough (and rarely discussed) topic. So I was interested to see how her foray into MG would be like, especially since it won the Newbery Medal. My verdict? Merci Suárez Changes Gears is disappointingly average.

It lacks some oomph, some sparkle, some sort of thing that would make it so much better than it is. Maybe the writing needed to be jazzed up. Maybe the platitudes and the cheesy way the book ended helped to keep it weighed down in “mediocre” territory. It’s not that the topic wasn’t relevant, or that the book was boring. It was simply missing…something.

I did appreciate the more nuanced sort of look at school troubles that Medina gave, though. I do have to give her credit for creating a realistic school atmosphere, and a more realistic look at bullying. I myself had way more experience with bullies who were friendly one day and mean the next, rather than the “I have a personal vendetta against you” bully that is so often portrayed, so I felt Medina’s take was much more reflective of what actually occurs, showing how navigating friendships and other people is complicated, especially in the tumultuous preteen and teen years.

However, that does leave me wondering as to why no one ever writes a story from the bully’s point of view. Where are all the books about the Ednas? Why does no author bother to tackle that sort of challenge?

Anyway, Merci Suárez Changes Gears doesn’t break out of any boxes or push any boundaries in terms of writing conventions or tropes. It’s a disappointing book, one that could have been much better with just a little something extra added to it to truly make it shine.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Iz69AP

All Manner of Things by Susie Finkbeiner

Disclaimer: I voluntarily received a copy of All Manner of Things, by Susie Finkbeiner, from Revell. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 3/5

All Manner of Things takes place during the Vietnam War, and while the main character has a brother who joins the army, and certain details of the culture of the time and the negative attitude towards the war is shown, there’s so much more to the book than just that. There’s also the theme of war in general, and how it affects people—Annie, the main character, has a father who was left with PTSD or similar after the Korean War, and abandoned the family while she was young. After the brother leaves to go to Vietnam, he gives her information about where her father is, starting a chain of events that leads to the father coming back into their lives, but not particularly nicely or neatly. The way Finkbeiner handles the way the family navigates the reappareance of a long-absence father is very well done.

Finkbeiner also includes aspects of the Civil Rights movement as well, though not too much. Annie starts up a friendship with a black man, David, and while everyone seems okay with it, it’s very clear that David is considered an outsider. Overall, I enjoyed the fact that Finkbeiner didn’t make the novel as dark and angsty as it could have been. It was a very light, wholesome novel, despite the sad parts.

All Manner of Things is very carefully and cleverly constructed. The characters have great voices, especially the three children (well, technically two are young adults): Mike, Annie, and Joel. The mother is perhaps the flattest of all the characters, but everyone’s interactions are all very well done. The letters in between each chapter are also really good at communicating tone and atmosphere.

I really enjoyed All Manner of Things, so I debated for a while whether to give a 4 rating or not. However, in the end I felt the book was missing something. It was just one step away from being entirely engrossing. As it was, I enjoyed it, but I didn’t feel absorbed by it. I was able to put it down easily and walk away. It was just missing some sort of connection for me. I’d probably recommend it to other people, but it didn’t have the sort of pull that would make me come back to it again.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Christian, Realistic

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

1992 Newbery Medal: Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Shiloh, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, was published in 1991 by Atheneum.

Rating: 4/5

I don’t know why, but I’ve really been enjoying the dog books I’ve been reading lately. There’s been a few misses (Sounder and Old Yeller are at the bottom of the pack), but Where the Red Fern Grows, Ginger Pye, and now Shiloh are great.

I think what I like the most about a dog book like Shiloh is that it doesn’t hinge on the dog dying. That’s probably also why I really enjoyed Ginger Pye. To be honest, the two books are a little bit similar in that they deal with “unsavory” characters and animal abuse.

I think what I liked most about Shiloh, though, is Naylor’s portrayal of Judd Travers. Children’s books can stray into strictly black-and-white territory, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Travers is portrayed in a surprisingly nuanced way. Nothing that is revealed about him excuses his poor behavior towards animals, but it does help to explain how he became that way—and that sort of nuance is important in a children’s book. Nowadays I feel like we’ve gone even more strictly black-and-white in our portrayals of characters, as authors seem to be scared that any positive or empathetic view on a bad character, or any negative or critical view on a good character (or a character that society has deemed should only be portrayed positively), will result in backlash. As a frequenter of Goodreads, I’ve seen how much readers expect characters to think and act in certain ways. So Naylor’s characters, written thirty (!) years ago, and the human ways they are portrayed are a breath of fresh air.

The book is also great in its discussion of ethics, as well as in how Marty’s determination shines through despite the unfair way Travers treats him (and how that wins over Travers, in the end). Overall, for such a short book, there’s quite a lot to unpack and think about in Shiloh

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2IE5T27

Refuge at Pine Lake by Rose Chandler Johnson

Refuge at Pine Lake Blog Tour

About the Book

Refuge at Pine Lake

Series: Pine Haven

Genre: Christian, Contemporary

Publisher: Chanson Books

Publication date: March 7, 2019

Robin Lancaster, a twenty-six-year-old former kindergarten teacher, has her summer and her life all figured out. She’s ready to be on her own, writing and illustrating her children’s stories at her family’s beloved lake house. Once there, she intends to rekindle a romance with Caleb Jackson, the area’s top hunting and fishing guide, and bag him for herself. Complications arise from the start when Robin finds out her mother has rented the lake house to a man they know nothing about. Matthew McLaughlin, forty-year-old widowed university professor and author from California, shows up at Pine Lake in crisis. A sabbatical might be his only hope to save much more than his career. He needs a place of refuge. Sharing the lake house with a lighthearted young woman and her dog is the last thing on his mind. Caleb Jackson has his own plans. He’s used to things going his way, but a man staying in Robin’s house presents unforeseen challenges. When paths unavoidably entangle for these three, hearts are on the line.

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About the Author

rose-chandler-johnson

Rose Chandler Johnson is known for her heartwarming, inspirational writing. In addition to works of sweet contemporary fiction, her devotional journal, won the Georgia Author of the Year Finalist Award in 2014.

In her novels, Rose brings to life fascinating characters with compelling relationships embracing family, community, and faith. In distinctive southern settings, Rose creates memorable stories that will stir your heart. Readers often say her writing warms the soul as it reaffirms belief in love and wholesome goodness. Don’t be surprised if you sigh with pleasure as you savor the final pages of her stories. Rose has lived in a suburb of Augusta, GA for thirty plus years. Before retiring from Georgia’s school system, she taught English, French, and ESOL. Currently, she is an English instructor at a community college. In addition to reading and writing, Rose enjoys cooking, sewing, gardening, and spending time with her six children and her beautiful grandchildren.

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Giveaway

(1) winner will receive a $25 Amazon Gift Card.

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Giveaway ends June 14 at 11:59pm MT.

Enter the giveaway HERE.

Tour Schedule

Check out the other stops and follow along with the blog tour HERE.

Lu by Jason Renolds

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

Rating: 3/5                                                           

I was worried that Lu, despite being the last book in the series, would continue the same formula and tropes of the previous three books, which culminated in my dislike of Sunny. However, while the book reads very much like all the others (character-focused, with some sort of familial trouble/angst, and occasional odd quirks), thankfully Reynolds finally ditches his tired ending that he used three times before and did something new and fresh with this last book.

The ending is really what pulled this book up for me, because while it certainly isn’t bad, I couldn’t get into Lu’s head at all, much like I couldn’t with Sunny. There were moments that shone through, such as Lu’s softer side and his interactions with his parents, but then there were other moments that just confused me, like everything with Kelvin and his mysterious turnaround, as well as the vague descriptions of marks on his arm. Was Reynolds implying that he was a drug addict, or a victim of domestic violence, or what? What did the marks on his arms have to do with his bullying, and why did he stop when they were gone?

However, the ending I loved because it did exactly what I have wanted these books to do since I read Ghost—it ended with a defining character moment, not some cheap cliffhanger that doesn’t resolve anything. The ending of this book is fabulous, if a bit cheesy, and even if I couldn’t really relate to Lu, I still could see all the ways he grew throughout the book.

The Track series was a bit hit-or-miss for me, but they have the air and charm that I’m sure kids will love, and I liked that each book focused on a different person and how unique each character was. I also really enjoyed the voice and tone of the characters and the style Reynolds has. I hated the endings, and Sunny was a low spot, but the other three books, especially Ghost and Patina, are great.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

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

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