1983 Newbery Medal: Dicey’s Song by Cynthia Voigt

Dicey’s Song, by Cynthia Voigt, was published in 1982 by Simon & Schuster.

Rating: 4/5        

Dicey’s Song is the second in a series, and while reading the first book, Homecoming, will certainly help with knowing the characters and the backstory, enough is explained that it’s not necessary. The story is about Dicey and her younger brothers and sister as they navigate a new home, a new school, and all the troubles and pain that their situation (absent father, sick mother) warrants. While the main focus is on Dicey’s internal conflict as well as her relationship with her grandmother, there is also focus on her relationship with her classmates, her teachers, and her siblings. Oh, and there’s a bit of mother-daughter relationship/conflict as well.

Voigt does a good job of dealing with all the various emotions and conflicts present in the book. There’s a lot of characters, but most of them are complex and interesting. The relationship between Dicey and Gram, with its give-and-take, learning aspect, is great. She’s a bit heavy-handed with her theme, but for a children’s book it’s appropriate, especially one dealing with such heavy topics as this one does (depression, dyslexia, death, and grief). My only raised eyebrow was when James was so adamant that he knew the right way to teach Maybelle. I don’t think Voigt was intending it as a “this is what you should do,” but it came across that way a bit.

This is the penultimate Newbery Medal book I read. It’s a little bittersweet, but also immensely satisfying. I don’t think Dicey’s Song will reach my list of top favorites, but I think it was more emotionally satisfying than many other Newbery Medals, as well as more interesting and memorable.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2LV78f9

Ghostly Echoes by William Ritter

Ghostly Echoes, by William Ritter, was published in 2016 by Algonquin. It is the sequel to Beastly Bones.

Rating: 2/5

Something happened to these delightful Jackaby novels, and I’m not quite sure what. The first two books were fun and charming. Ghostly Echoes, though…I struggled to immerse myself in it. It started off promising enough, but then characters appear simply to voice author messages and political/social stances, and the pleasant supernatural mysteries explode into a malevolent evil plot, complete with a trip to the Underworld.

I think what I liked about the first two Jackaby books was that they were urban fantasy/supernatural lite. There were supernatural elements, sure, but those were intertwined with “normal” 1800s life. Yet this book suddenly decides to introduce immense supernatural content (such as the aforementioned Underworld, and a sinister Dire Council) with the mystery taking the backseat.

Perhaps this is simply my dislike of supernatural books talking, much like how I struggle to enjoy science fiction. I also started disliking Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys when she started ramping up the supernatural. Or perhaps it’s my dislike of authors using characters merely as mouthpieces, which is what happens in this book with the character of Lydia Lee, who serves absolutely no purpose beyond plot convenience and soapboxing. Make those characters more interesting!

Whatever it is, my enthusiasm for Jackaby has dimmed so much that I wonder whether I’ll even read the last book. To be honest, I have no desire to find out what happens next. That disappeared when Abigail took a trip to visit the dead.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Urban Fantasy

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

1982 Newbery Medal: A Visit to William Blake’s Inn by Nancy Willard

A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers, by Nancy Willard, was published in 1981 by Harcourt.

Rating: 2/5

Books of poetry are always tough for me. I’m not a huge fan of poetry, and I read fast (and hate to slow myself down) so I don’t really absorb poetry the way it should be absorbed. And, if I’m going to read a book of poetry, I want it to have a good theme and unity.

When I first saw the title of this book, I thought it would be rewritten poetry of Blake’s, or his poems presented in a new way. But it’s not about that at all—instead, Willard starts with “Hey, let’s pretend William Blake ran an inn” and then talks about dragons and monkeys and tigers and cats. It’s not even about William Blake at all, so the little tribute that Willard includes in the beginning to William Blake makes no sense. In fact, if William Blake had been left out entirely and some random made-up person had been the innkeeper instead, the poems would have had the exact same effect.

Maybe I’m just really unaware of Blake’s poetry—maybe Willard has actually subtly woven in parts of Blake’s poetry into her own poetry as a nod and as a unifying theme to warrant the title. But to me it seems like she just chose this historical person and inserted him into poems about dragons and a fantastical inn because she liked him as a poet, not because he actually lent himself to the material in any way.

So, basically I’m not the best audience for this sort of book because I don’t really like reading poetry and I think characters with no use shouldn’t be in books. However, A Visit to William Blake’s Inn is full of magic and fantasy, with poems that would be fun to read aloud to a child and lots of great illustrations to go with them.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/34we1fp

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, by Katherine Woodfine, was published in 2015 by Egmont.

Rating: 3/5        

I like a good mystery, and the back cover of this book appealed to me immensely, with its invitation/advertisement style. The feel of the book is great, too—the front cover exactly exudes the department-store atmosphere that runs throughout the book, and I loved the setting. Though I must say that the hat descriptions that separated each part seemed out of place and didn’t really contribute anything beyond a pretty illustration.

However, the story itself was a bit tepid. The characters are not developed enough, and so though on paper the four of them are quite interesting, in “the flesh” they lack a little oomph. Sophie is spirited, but flat; Joe is mysterious, but flat; Billy is…something; Lil is funny, but flat…you get the picture. And it doesn’t help that the mystery is framed in such a way that all four characters have to do something that stretches just beyond the bounds of believability. At least in Sophie’s case, part of it is mentioned as part of the villain’s ultimate plan—the fact that she was able to figure out so much stuff was solely due to the fact that she was placed in the exact room with all of the information and the secret door leading to the hiding place of the stolen goods, something another character points out as suspicious for the villain to have done without an ulterior motive (and thank goodness for that because otherwise that would have been the epitome of plot convenience).

However, the others get no such excuse, and so we have Lil lurking in corners and somehow never being discovered despite her lack of ability to be nonchalant or secretive about anything, and Billy successfully switching papers because no one even bothers to check that the envelope he handed over was the right one, and Joe being…well, being not really anything at all except the person who tells them about the Baron.

I mean, I’m sure for the audience that is intended, The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow is probably quite exciting and sufficiently mysterious, and the characters are interesting (if flat). But for me, the solving of the mystery and a lot of the action relied way too much on plot convenience.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

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

2008 Newbery Medal: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, by Laura Amy Schlitz, was published in 2007 by Candlewick.

Rating: 4/5

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! is a book of poems about the medieval time period, and Schlitz does an excellent job of capturing the voice and style. She also crams a whole lot of information into each of the “voices.” Each poem is from the point of view of a different person of the village, ranging from the lord to his villein. Sometimes the poems are connected, sometimes not.

I read a book a few months ago that described just how brutal the medieval life was, and this book captures that in a way that’s still suitable for children. Schlitz includes footnotes and other things for some of her references, but mostly the information is communicated directly through the poem, whether it’s the glassblower’s apprentice trying to blow glass, the glassblower’s daughters wondering whether they will marry said apprentice, a runaway villein, the miller, a knight…Schlitz expertly shows the hierarchy and class conflict that existed in the medieval days. Even religious tension is shown.

The book does do a great job of communicating lots of things about the medieval period, which means it’s full of dirt, dung, babies and mentions of birthing, the feudal system, and other things that may not be suitable for younger children. Schlitz also includes brief “essays” about various things in the medieval period, such as Jewish/Christian relations and the Crusades (which is unfortunately one of the worst takes on the Crusades I’ve read). Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! is a good way to get an overview of the medieval period, and a much more interesting book of poetry than some others I’ve read.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: See last paragraph.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

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

The Crow by Alison Croggon

The Crow, by Alison Croggon, was published in 2006 by Candlewick. It is the sequel to The Riddle.

Rating: 4/5        

I anticipated that The Crow would be my favorite of the Books of Pellinor so far, and I turned out to be correct. The absence of Maerad and pages of pages of her and Cadvan doing absolutely nothing helped make The Crow more interesting, though still just as massively long. This time, though, the book is cram-jam full of action, from the siege of Turbansk to Hem infiltrating the child army of Den Raven.

That’s not to say the book was perfect. It was still way too long, and this time there was so much crammed in that there was almost no time to pause before being slapped in the face with tension and action all over again. I also really didn’t like the plot convenience behind Hem getting his hands on the second half of the Treesong, and the fact that his trek across the country to rescue Zelika was a complete waste of time (except for that previously mentioned plot convenience—or should I say incredibly obvious plot machination??).

Speaking of Zelika, she was a bit annoying, and I’m sure many people probably don’t like where her character goes and how her character is used in the book, though it didn’t bother me as it was realistic. I just am not fond of brash, headstrong characters who do stupid things. Hem was better, though he got a bit annoying at times, too. I liked him more than Maerad, as he seemed more normal and acted in a more understandable fashion than Maerad’s odd weak/strong, passive/assertive ping-pong personality. He also used more magic in one book than Maerad seemed to use in two, so Hem definitely seems the more Bardic of the two and also seems to understand more about many things than Maerad does, though perhaps my memory of the first two books is simply failing me.

Despite the problems with the book, I still enjoyed The Crow for being much more fast-paced and action-y than the first two books, as well as less clumsy in delivery. The characters were more interesting and realistic, though I wasn’t fond of Zelika and Hem had his bad moments, too. The worst part of the book is the obvious plot manipulation in the last third, which made all the other manipulation stand out even more.

The last book promises to bring together Hem and Maerad in one last attempt to free the Treesong and defeat the Bad Guy before he destroys everything. I remember not liking the ending, so we’ll see how it goes!

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2ZxY84d

The First Collier by Kathryn Lasky

The First Collier, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2006 by Houghton Mifflin. It is the sequel to The Outcast (but technically a prequel to the series).

Rating: 2/5

The First Collier is an interesting installment in the Ga’Hoole series. It’s the first book in a prequel trilogy that details the start of the legends of Ga’Hoole: the owl king Hoole and his war with the hagfiends (and presumably his founding of the Guardians of Ga’Hoole). This first book deals with Grank, the titular first collier, and how he comes to receive Hoole’s egg and cares for it. Appropriately, the book ends with Hoole hatching.

Lasky really steps up the fantastic elements in this one, with the owl-crow hagfiends and their yellow eye magic, Grank’s own magery, and, of course, the ember of Hoole and the egg of Hoole. It’s also the first Ga’Hoole book to be in first person, which actually helped out a lot. It completely changed the usual ebb and flow of Lasky’s writing and helped make things less stiff and clunky and cheesy. Rather than everything feeling stilted and there being an abundance of telling rather than showing, the first person narration lessened that a lot, though there were a few instances of rather awkward worldbuilding.

However, despite some of the new things, I think I’m simply getting bored of the series. Every book feels the same. Lasky does not do enough to change things up (the first person helped, as did some of the elements of the world, but not enough); I feel as if I am reading the same story over and over again. It reminds me a bit of Erin Hunter’s Warriors series, another set of books that I ultimately got tired of as they were all too similar. The First Collier had interesting bits to it, but overall everything was done in the same delivery and style—there was even an Otulissa replacement! The only thing that changed was the terminology. I’m halfway through the Ga’Hoole series, but I’m not sure if I want to finish or not.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Violence

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2U7iTmk

The King’s Fifth by Scott O’Dell

The King’s Fifth, by Scott O’Dell, was published in 1966 by Houghton Mifflin.

Rating: 4/5

Despite the fact that I barely remember the first half of The King’s Fifth—due to distraction plus lack of memorability—I thought the latter half was quite good, which is why I gave it such a high rating. O’Dell has crafted a relatively even-handed story of the conquistador era, and how gold and greed led to trickery, violence, and even murder.
Esteban de Sandoval, a mapmaker, follows Captain Mendoza and his cohorts in the latter’s search for Cίbola and gold. Along the way, he is caught between the greed of the Spaniards and the peace of Zia, their Indian guide, and Father Francisco, a monk.

O’Dell shows very well the lengths men will go to for gold, as well as the terrible things that happen as a result. Coronado invades the city of Hawikuh, Mendoza steals from and kills several Indians, and the party starts to splinter from within because of greed. Even Esteban is not immune to it, as he starts acting more callous and selfish the more gold is available.

I didn’t remember much of the set-up of The King’s Fifth, beyond the trial sections, which were more interesting, but the last half of the book I thought was pretty good. It’s a good look at the way gold shaped the exploration of Mexico/the current Southern US, as well as how it shaped the treatment of the natives (and of people in general). The hint of romance between Esteban and Zia is, perhaps, a bit too sentimental and predictable, but that is a core part of what led him to resist greed at the end, so I suppose I can see why it was there (otherwise, there is only one other cause for Esteban to hide the gold, which I don’t think would have been enough to make it believable).

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Hl8H4x

Wolf Queen by Tanith Lee

Wolf Queen, by Tanith Lee, was published in 2001 by Dutton. It is the sequel to Wolf Star.

Rating: 4/5

Wolf Queen solves lots of the mysteries that were set up over Wolf Tower and Wolf Star and sends Claidi and Argul off on a happy ending, finishing up the Claidi Journals on a sweet, sentimental note—or, at least, that’s what the book wants me to think.

See, this isn’t actually the last Claidi book, though it’s the last one I read. Lee wrote one more, though apparently wasn’t planning to, based on the blurb for this book. I’m excited to read it to see what happens, as that one will truly be a “blind” read for me. This book, Wolf Queen, wasn’t quite as jaw-dropping as it should have been, since I’ve read it before and knew the big twist already. However, it was nice to read it to see all the hints Lee dropped beforehand.

Claidi’s voice is as delightful and unique as always, and even though this book introduces some truly outrageous (in a good way, I think) fantasy/sci-fi elements, her voice made everything somehow more plausible and realistic. I wish it was explained more as to how, exactly, a lot of the magic/technology works—we’ve got clockwork people, which I understand, but then all there are also powerful items that operate on a “don’t pay too much attention to the mechanics” level. Ustareth’s ring is one of those, of course, and it did bother me a bit that there was no explanation as to how it can do half of the things it did.

I wish each book didn’t hinge quite so much on “Claidi gets taken places,” but, again, Claidi’s voice is so delightful that she could probably stay in one room the whole book and it would still be interesting. These books lack a bit of something that I can’t really explain—they’re interesting, and I like them a lot, but they don’t grip me like some books do. However, Claidi and Argul are adorable, and the draw of the books is Claidi’s voice, not complexity of plot or stellar worldbuilding. I can deal with that—and I’m looking forward to exploring Wolf Wing, the book I never read, and seeing if Lee can surprise me.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2HhAtP8

1967 Newbery Medal: Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt

Up a Road Slowly, by Irene Hunt, was published in 1966 by Modern Curriculum Press.

Rating: 3/5

Up a Road Slowly reminds me a little bit of a lesser Anne of Green Gables, but much more of Rebecca of Sunnybrooke Farm, except with less moralizing and a nicer aunt. It’s the story of Julie, who at seven goes to live with her aunt after her mother dies and learns new meanings of love and family as she deals with her older sister getting married, her wild uncle, school rivalries, the death of a student, and boyfriends. However, like Rebecca, it’s much less tongue-in-cheek than Anne, and it uses a ton of plot tropes and language that is extremely reminiscent of older literature and really dates the book.

The writing style is a little old-fashioned and very mature-sounding, even when Julie is only seven (something that is a bit jarring until you get used to it). As Julie gets older, however, she grows into her voice, and I do believe the whole thing is supposed to suggest that Julie is writing this as a memoir from later on in her life. As far as plot and theme go, I thought Hunt’s messages were very good, though they were often delivered in ways that wouldn’t be acceptable today. For example, the description of Agnes, Julie’s classmate who suffered from some sort of mental disability, made me wince a bit, though that would have been an acceptable description in the 60s. However, the language as a whole really gives the book much more of an old-fashioned feel than I think the decade it was written in warrants.

There’s also quite a few dark themes hidden in the book, the most notable being Julie’s old friend Carlotta being “sent away” for the winter after scandal erupts (i.e. she was pregnant). The book as a whole is really quite mature for a children’s book, much more suited for a young adult audience (who would probably understand it and enjoy it more).

I enjoyed Up a Road Slowly, but I didn’t find it overly impressive, and I think it’s too dated to really stand out. The maturity of the themes and the writing were welcome after some of the rather more childish books I’ve read, but that limits the audience as well as alienates them. A good book, but not one I’d probably revisit.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/31I8q3i