On Top of Concord Hill by Maria D. Wilkes

On Top of Concord Hill, by Maria D. Wilkes, was published in 2000 by HarperCollins. It is the sequel to Little Clearing in the Woods.

Rating: 3/5

As I hoped, once the Quiner family moved to Concord, the books started to get more interesting and memorable. In On Top of Concord Hill, the last book Wilkes will write of this series, a stepfather, the Gold Rush, cholera, and early frost all combine to create perhaps the most tension-filled book in the series so far. Of course, it’s still very tame tension, but it’s much better than what has been in the first three books.

This is also the first book that was written after the start of the Martha Years, which might explain why suddenly Caroline’s grandparents are mentioned more and why the cover has changed more and more to express similarity between the sets of books.

The thing I most enjoyed about this book was the subtle, lovely hints we got at the Charlotte/Frederick Holbrook relationship. I’m not sure whether in real life Charlotte married him for stability or love, but in this book, it’s very sweet to see the way they interact with each other. I am a huge fan of shy/quiet guy-marries-girl tropes, so perhaps that’s why this book so far is my favorite of all the Caroline books (though there wasn’t much competition, to be honest).

With an author change and the introduction of the Ingalls family in the next book, it will be interesting to see if the Caroline books will continue to improve or if the changes will be too jarring. I remember quite liking the last book in the series, so I’m hopeful that the change won’t shake things up too badly (or perhaps they will shake them up in a good way!).

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2XNxIQ0

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

The Middle Moffat by Eleanor Estes

The Middle Moffat, by Eleanor Estes, was published in 1942 by Harcourt. It is the sequel to The Moffats.

Rating: 4/5

The Middle Moffat focuses on Jane Moffat, as opposed to the all-encompassing Moffat family viewpoint of the first book, and her thoughts, struggles, and opinions over a year-ish of time. I don’t remember this book nearly as much as The Moffats, so it was almost entirely new to me. And it was a delight to read.

I think the thing I enjoyed the most about this book was Jane’s thoughts, her rambling, sometimes odd, but exactly on point in terms of age, thoughts that cover at least half of most of the chapters. As she explores playing the organ, taking care of the oldest inhabitant, dealing with Wally Bangs, and participating in the basketball game and the parade, her thoughts perfectly encompass the sorts of things a child doing those things might think about. It really is so delightful and fun to read her wondering about shooting baskets in a basketball game, and all the running and chaos that incurs, and all the things she doesn’t want to do beyond shooting baskets.

For younger readers, the book might be a little hard to understand because of all the outdated language, especially in terms of describing clothing, but Jane is inviting and endearing as a character, so I don’t think the setting will inhibit too much.

The Moffats was a good book, but The Middle Moffat made me fall in love with Estes and the Moffat family, especially Jane. I’m really looking forward to seeing what charm and delight the next books might bring.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2LRWKX1

Little Clearing in the Woods by Maria D. Wilkes

Little Clearing in the Woods, by Maria D. Wilkes, was published in 1998 by HarperCollins. It is the sequel to Little Town at the Crossroads.

Rating: 3/5

Little Clearing in the Woods finally starts to lift the Caroline books out of the pit of mediocrity they were sinking into. The family moving, the hardships they face on the new land, the new people they meet—all combine to form, if not a particularly dramatic book, at least enough tension to generate some excitement and interest.

The first half of the book has some overly dramatic conflict with wolves, delivered a bit clunkily, but once the family reaches their new home, it settles down to a more realistic conflict as the family struggles to get used to new surroundings. Caroline and Martha have a few spats, and I wish Martha was more developed of a character so that the fights would have more meaning instead of feeling so wooden.

The second half of the book is better than the first, with the introduction of Mr. Holbrook. Despite my problems with Wilkes’ writing, I will say that she paints a very good picture of the financial situation of the family. It is very clear that they struggle to put food on the table, and so the kindness of Mr. Holbrook and the generosity of Mr. Kellogg shine through even more.

It’s a shame that the Caroline Years don’t start out quite as strong or interesting as the previous two series, but at last the series seems to be improving. Little Clearing in the Woods still shares some of the problems of the first two books, but the second half promises better things to come.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2XCa2ZV

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

The Soul of An American President by Alan Sears, Craig Osten, and Ryan Cole

Disclaimer: I voluntarily received a copy of The Soul of an American President: The Untold Story of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Faith, by Alan Sears, Craig Osten, and Ryan Cole, from Baker Books. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 3/5

I’ve been trying to read more nonfiction lately, especially about people or events in history, so when Baker offered this book, I decided to read it. The book mainly focuses on, as the title suggests, the path of Eisenhower’s faith through his life. I appreciated that the authors mentioned straight away that they weren’t looking to glorify Eisenhower, but to portray his journey as realistically as possible, flaws and all. Mainly, they seemed concerned with combating the image of Eisenhower as irreligious or secular, so a great deal of time was spent showing the many ways Eisenhower showed his faith in his talks, writings, and actions.

I didn’t know much about Eisenhower before reading this book, so there was tons of information that I learned, such as his role in World War II and Operation Overlord. Also interesting was his early life and his life at the beginning of his presidency when he was baptized. I was hoping for a little more coverage of Eisenhower’s presidential policies and decisions; the authors covered many, mostly positive, but I felt as if the majority of his second term was swept by or summarized too broadly. It also felt a bit as if the authors were picking and choosing what they wanted to highlight; I can’t fault them for that because it’s nonfiction and they picked the focus, so of course they would pick to explain more in detail what fits best with what they want to say, but I still hoped for more detail.

This book is about Eisenhower’s faith, and that’s what it gives you. I learned a lot about him and the majority of the book was interesting, though towards the end I started to skim a little. I enjoyed most the descriptions of his life and actions up through World War II (my favorite time period to read about!), and overall I learned more about Eisenhower, his faith, and the things he did and tried to do to help America than I ever knew before (admittedly, very little).

Warnings: None.

Genre: Biography

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

1966 Newbery Medal: I, Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Borton de Treviño

I, Juan de Pareja, by Elizabeth Borton de Treviño, was published in 1965 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Rating: 3/5

Rating books is much harder than it might seem. I’ve struggled with it a bit recently, as I’ve felt that 3 is now becoming my default, go-to, “lazy” rating. Or perhaps I’m being more critical of the books I read, which is why 4s and 5s come so rarely now. I’ve also been hit with a slew of books that have simply failed to grasp my entire attention. All of these things combined have been making me wonder if I really should be rating some books a 4 that I initially think 3.

Maybe I could solve this with a half point system, but I started the blog with that and then got rid of it for simplicity’s sake.

Anyway, I’m saying all this because I initially thought of rating I, Juan de Pareja a 4 merely because I didn’t want to give it a 3. I mean, I gave Merci Suárez Changes Gears a 3, and I feel like I enjoyed this book more than Medina’s. But, after thinking about it, I realized that I really didn’t have any desire to read the book again or think about it anymore (big factors in my ratings of books). And when I was reading it, I was more interested in finishing the book so I could pick up the other book I wanted to read more. So, it’s a 3.

I did actually enjoy lots of things about the book, though. I loved the writing, for some reason, or perhaps it was simply a nice change after the simplicity of Merci Suárez’s. I thought the content was interesting, especially the historical aspect. It’s a bit of an obscure topic, but some of my favorite historical fiction novels have those sorts of topics. And even though Juan’s attitudes towards slavery are a bit…well, not progressive, Borton de Treviño does throw in some different views about it, as well as lots of cultural information in general. Plus, Las Meninas is one of my favorite paintings, so it was cool to see some of the backstory (real and imagined) of Diego Velasquez and the slave-turned-painter Juan de Pareja.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Ls0mPu

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

The Outcast by Kathryn Lasky

The Outcast, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2005 by Scholastic. It is the sequel to The Hatchling.

Rating: 1/5

The Outcast is full of cheese and fluff and represents a cheap version of a prophecy fulfillment story. The problems I spotted in The Hatchling return tenfold in this book, to the point where not even nostalgia could win the day.

Let’s start with Nyroc/Coryn. Coryn consistently speaks in grandiose, cheesy statements, and is given advice that is also grandiose and cheesy. He’s not as familiar or as memorable a protagonist as Soren; in fact, he’s a rather flat character who is pretty much flawless in every way. The only thing Coryn struggles with in this book is fear that other people will confuse him with his mother. He does everything perfectly because, as this book tells us multiple times, he is the next owl king and everyone knows it and welcomes him and whoever doesn’t recognize that fact is evil.

The side characters also speak declaratively and pithily. Even the introduction of the dire wolves and their clan system is derailed by the clunky dialogue and lack of plot. Too much happens too fast, and there wasn’t enough buildup to this whole idea of a new owl king for the plot to be in any way coherent or believable.

Lasky tried to take this series in a different direction, but the lack of adequate development and buildup, lack of worldbuilding in terms of Hoolian knowledge (something she tries to rectify with her three prequels about Hoole) and prophecies, and the awkward, cheesy dialogue only make The Outcast a chore to read and difficult to finish.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Violence, use of the word “damned.”

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2IQLx5X