Tuesday, April 19, 2016

#4 - El Deafo

El Deafo
Cece Bell
2015 Newbery Honor Book
Graphic Novel

I remember seeing this book listed as possible Newbery winners for 2015 and immediately liking the cover.  It was the first book I was eager to read when the list came out.  It is also the first ever graphic novel to be honored by the Newbery committee.  I know that a lot of people (especially educators, reading teachers in particular) often look down at graphic novels because they "lack content."  This book is definitely not lacking in content.

El Deafo is about a girl who loses her hearing at an early age.  She originally attends a program for hearing impaired students and learns to lip read but when her parents move to a smaller town, she has to attend school with all the regular kids.  She gets a giant hearing aid that she wears (called "The Phonic Ear") and the rest of the book is about her trying to make friends and be normal in a world the relies on being able to hear.

I love the tone of this book.  It is semi-autobiographical and Cece is so snarky.  Cece is very shy but she leads a rich fantasy life (in which she is a superhero, hence the cover) which shows us her true snarky side. It is a book about dealing with disability, about trying to fit in, and about friendship.  I also love how she uses rabbits and their overly large ears in a book about hearing loss (I caught the correlation right away and it was confirmed in a comment by Bell on Goodreads, so then I felt really smart).

I am hoping to see more of Cece Bell on the Newbery list.  She has already received awards for her other children's books, most notably a Theodore Seuss Geisel Honor for Rabbit and Robot: The Sleepover (my daughters love that book and we can't wait for the upcoming sequel).  She also has another children's book series, Sock Monkey (which I have only read one book because that's all my library system has).  I have interacted with her several times on social media and she seems to be a genuinely nice person too.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Newbery 1973

Julie of the Wolves (Julie of the Wolves, #1)
Julie of the Wolves
Author: Jean Craighead George
Genre: Historical Fiction
Plot: Julie is forced to live with a wolf pack for survival
Verdict: I prefer part 2
My rating: 3 stars
**Challenged Book**

Adventures of Frog & Toad (I Can Read Series)
Frog and Toad Together
Author: Arnold Lobel
Genre: Picture Book
Plot: Frog and Toad have adventures as friends
Verdict: Cute, readable characters
My rating: 4 stars

The Upstairs Room (Winner of the Newbery Honor)
The Upstairs Room
Author: Johanna Reiss
Genre: Nonfiction
Plot: Annie is a Jew who must hide in a room during World War II
Verdict: Interesting but not terribly compelling
My rating: 2 stars

The Witches of Worm
The Witches of Worm
Author: Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Genre: Fantasy
Plot: Jessica rescues a kitten that turns out to be a witch's cat.
Verdict: Creepy
My rating: 2 stars
**Challenged Book**

This year boasts two books from the banned book list.  Julie of the Wolves, the medal winner, is about a Native American girl who finds herself living in harmony with a pack of wolves when she is forced to flee her home.  The situation that she flees from is what gives the book its challenged status.  She was forced into an arranged marriage with a boy, who is intellectually disabled and he tries to rape her.  The other challenged book, The Witches of Worm, is the most disturbing of the three Zilpha Keatley Snyder books I have read.  The plot revolves around Jessica who rescues an abandoned kitten and has to feed it around the clock to keep it alive.  As it grows into a larger cat, Jessica hears the cat's voice in her head and bad things begin to happen. The fact that the cat is a "witch's cat" lands the book on the challenged list.  On an interesting note, we are never explicitly told if the cat is actually a witch's cat or if Jessica made up everything in her head.

There are two broad kinds of picture books.  The first kind contains fairly complicated text and is intended to be read aloud to pictures.  The second kind has simplified, decodable text and is intended for children to read themselves.  These books are often referred to as "easy readers" and generally are numbered 1-4 based on their level of complexity.  Picture books are rarities on the Newbery list and most often they fall into the first category of picture books.  This makes a lot of sense because Newbery books are awarded on  the basis of their text, not their pictures, and easy readers are often a bit choppy to read because of their simplified text.  Frog and Toad Together is the second book in the four book Frog and Toad series by Arnold Lobel.  Many of Lobel's books, including the Frog and Toad series, are considered easy readers, which makes Frog and Toad Together a unique addition to the Newbery list.  Frog and Toad (who are, in fact, a frog and a toad; Frog is green and Toad is brown) who are friends.  Each book contains five of their adventures together in five separate, stand-alone short stories.  My favorite in Frog and Toad Together (and probably the whole series) is "Cookies" where Frog and Toad bake cookies....and then can't stop eating them!

The Upstairs Room is one of two books on the Newbery list written by Holocaust survivors.  The other is Upon the Head of the Goat a Newbery Honor for 1982.  Both authors had very different experiences during the HolocaustIn The Upstairs Room, the author (known as Annie) is forced to flee her home in Holland with her sister.  They go into hiding in the country and most hide in an upstairs room of the farmhouse to survive.  Of the two, I actually prefer Upon the Head of the Goat which I think is more interesting since you can see the progression of the Jews losing their livelihood, possessions and houses and, at the end, getting sent off to the concentration and death camps.  Both, however, are definitely appropriate to read while studying the Jewish Holocaust.

#5 - Breaking Stalin's Nose

Breaking Stalin's Nose
Eugine Yelchin
2012 Newbery Honor Book
Historical Fiction

This was one of the first books that I read when I decided to start reading the Newbery list.  It is a quick read with short chapters and occasional black and white illustrations.  I read it shortly after reading Hitler Youth which has similar themes and complements it.

The book is told in first person by a boy named Sasha.  Sasha lives with his father in Stalin's Russia in a communal apartment.  Sasha's mother died some year prior and his father works for the State Security.  Sasha is very excited because he is going to join the Red Pioneers and he begins the book with a gushing letter to Stalin.

Things begin to go wrong when Sasha's father is arrested for being a traitor.  It is implied that the neighbor across the hall turned him in to get a larger room in the apartment.  Sasha is told he will be sent to the orphanage as he is evicted from his room when the neighbor and his family move in.  Sasha tries to find refuge with his aunt, but she turns him away in fear that their family will be punished for taking in a son of the enemy of the state.  Sasha goes to his school the next day, not telling anyone what happened. 
 
The rest of the book is a chilling look at Communism.  Because the book is written in first person, you can see how Sasha's thinking changes as events happen in the book.   The especially disturbing part is when the teacher asks the students to write down who they think broke the nose off the statue of Stalin.  It puts perspective on how scary it was to live under Stalin.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Newbery 1975


M.C. Higgins, The Great
M.C. Higgins, the Great
Author: Virginia Hamilton
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Plot: M.C. Higgins sits on top of a big pole watching over a mountain that is supposed to fall down.
Verdict: I'm not sure anything really happened
My Rating: 2 stars

Figgs and Phantoms
Figgs & Phantoms
Author: Ellen Raskin
Genre: Fantasy
Plot: Mona is part of the eclectic Figg family
Verdict: Quite strange
My Rating: 3 stars

My Brother Sam is Dead
My Brother Sam is Dead
Author: James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier
Genre: Historical Fiction
Plot: Tim lives in a loyalist town but his brother Sam goes off to fight with the Continental Army.
Verdict: Puts perspective on the Revolutionary War
My Rating: 3 stars
**Challenged Book**

The Perilous Gard
The Perilous Gard
Author: Elizabeth Marie Pope
Genre: Fantasy
Plot: Kathrine is banished to a remote mansion and is forced to live with the Fairy Folk.
Verdict: Boring start, interesting middle
My rating: 2 stars

Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe. (The Philip Hall Trilogy)
Phillip Hall Likes Me, I Reckon Maybe
Author: Bette Greene
Genre: Historical Fiction
Plot: Beth has a crush on Phillip Hall
Verdict: Interesting adventures
My rating: 3 stars

All in all, I don't consider this to be a great year for Newbery.  None of the books overly impressed me.

We start with M.C. Higgins the Great.  I came away from this book confused.  It seemed that nothing had actually happened in the book, but perhaps it was because there was a kind of "life goes on" theme.  I wanted to like the characters but I just couldn't make a mental picture of M.C. and his pole.  The next book, Figgs & Phantoms just isn't Westing Game.  It's an odd little fantasy book, mostly about Mona and her uncle and the quest for used books and Capri.  My Brother Sam is Dead is probably the best offering of this year.  This historical fiction set in the Revolutionary War is a perennial fixture on the challenged list.  The biggest issue is probably the violence, but I'm not really sure what you expect from a book set during a war.  It does really flesh out the challenges that Loyalist Americans faced during the war and would make a good addition to a middle school or high school social studies unit.  I wanted to like The Perlious Gard but it really didn't get interesting until the middle of the book.  The beginning and ending plodded a bit.  The time that Kate spends in the Fairy realm is actually quite interesting.  The last book is Phillip Hall Likes Me, I Reckon Maybe and it is about a girl who is on a quest to get a boy to notice her (because she has a crush on him).  They do have some interesting adventures.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Newbery 1972

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (Rats of NIMH, #1)
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
Author: Robert C. O'Brien
Genre: Animal Fantasy
Plot: Mrs. Frisby needs the help of the rats of NIMH when her son becomes ill.
Verdict: Nice animal fantasy
My Rating: 4 stars

Incident at Hawk's Hill
Incident at Hawk's Hill
Author: Allan W. Eckert
Genre: Historical fiction
Plot: A boy lost on the prairie is rescued and care for by a female badger
Verdict: Well written despite plausibility challenges
My Rating: 3 stars

The Planet of Junior Brown
The Planet of Junior Brown
Author: Virginia Hamilton
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Plot: Junior Brown is a piano prodigy who lives in his own fantasies
Verdict: Not my kind of book
My Rating: 2 stars

The Tombs of Atuan (Earthsea Cycle, #2)
The Tombs of Atuan
Author: Ursula K. LeGuin
Genre: Fantasy
Plot: Arha is the new high priestess for the Nameless Ones.
Verdict: Excellent sequel
My Rating: 3 stars

Annie and the Old One
Annie and the Old One
Author: Miska Miles
Genre: Picture Book
Plot: Annie tries to delay her grandmother's death by interfering with the weaving.
Verdict: Powerful theme
My Rating: 3 stars

The Headless Cupid (Stanley Family, #1)
The Headless Cupid
Author: Zipha Keatley Snyder
Genre: Fantasy
Plot: Amanda comes to live with the Stanley family in a supposedly haunted house.
Verdict: Creepy
My Rating: 3 stars
**Challenged Book**

The medal winner this year, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is also known as Secret of the NIMH, a movie made by Don Bluth.  In fact, the copy that my school library had actually had "Secret of the NIMH" on the cover.  There are some notable differences between the movie and the original book.  The basic plot to move Mrs. Frisby's house because of Timothy's illness remains intact in both the movie and the book.

The Newbery committee has a lot of flexibility when assigning honor books for each year so there's always some question of how many honor books there will be in addition to the one medal winner.  This year is on the higher end with five honor books.

The first is Incident at Hawk's Hill which is supposedly based on a true story.  Ben is a six year old boy who has an affinity for animals but does not get along with most of his family.  There is an incident with a fur trader and Ben finds himself alone on the prairie.  He is rescued by a female badger who has just lost her pups.  The plausibility of this, of course, is questionable.  However, the book does a good job of being extremely realistic with the story instead of venturing into the animal fantasy genre as some books like this tend to do.

The next book is by Virginia Hamilton, who is a very prolific and celebrated author.  The only problem I have is that I haven't been impressed with her writing.  To be fair, I think there is a cultural divide that I am not crossing (which is odd because I have enjoyed books written by other African American authors) either that or her writing style does not jive with my reading style.  In any case, The Planet of Junior Brown is an odd book about a piano prodigy who is kind of lost in his only fantasies.  He teams up with Buddy Clark, who is completely different and homeless and together they do things like build a model of the solar system in the janitor closet.

The Tombs of Atuan is the second book in the very popular fantasy series, The Earthsea Cycle.  In preparation to read this book, I read the first book in the series (A Wizard of Earthsea)....and strongly disliked it.  I was so hesitant to read the second book that I put it off for awhile, but I was pleasantly surprised.  Tombs has almost no connection to the first book until the very middle.  This seems to be quite common in fantasy series because I have also seen this with The Dark is Rising and Howl's Moving Castle.

Annie and the Old One is a longer picture book about Annie, a Navaho girl and her grandmother.  When her grandmother says that she will die when the current rug is done being woven, Annie tries whatever she can to stop the rug from being finished. It has a very powerful theme about how certain events are inevitable and there is nothing that an individual can do to change them.

The final book is a Snyder book called The Headless Cupid.  It reminds me a lot of Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth because of the whole "witchcraft initiation" plot line.  This plot line, incidentally, also landed the book on the challenged book list.  The Stanley family moves to a new house that is supposedly haunted.  Their mother has died so the father remarries and a new stepsister, Amanda arrives.  Amanda is very unhappy and says that she is a witch and then makes her new step-siblings initiates into witchcraft.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Newbery 2016

Last Stop on Market Street
Last Stop on Market Street
Author: Matt de la Pena
Genre: Picture Book
Plot: CJ and his grandma ride the bus after church.
Verdict: Good themes
My rating: 3 stars

Echo
Echo
Author: Pam Muñoz Ryan
Genre: Fantasy
Plot: Three different children possess a magical harmonica
Verdict: The stories are interesting
My rating: 4 stars

The War that Saved My Life
The War That Saved My Life
Author: Kimberly Brubraker Bradley
Genre: Historical Fiction
Plot: Ada and Jamie escape to the English countryside during the bombing in World War II
Verdict: Great story
My rating: 4 stars

Roller Girl
Roller Girl
Author: Victoria Jamieson
Genre: Graphic Novel/Realistic Fiction
Plot: Astrid signs up for roller derby camp but her friend does not.
Verdict: Awesome story about friendship transitions in middle school
My rating: 4 stars

The big stir over this year's Newbery awards was that a picture book took the medal for the first time in decades.  I enjoyed The Last Stop on Market Street and I can definitely see why it won the medal.  It has some great themes and the art really adds to the story.  However, as happens to me a lot, I enjoyed the honor books more than the medal winner.

Echo is a fantasy/historical fiction book with four storylines.  The first reads like something out of Grimm and introduces us to a possessed harmonica.  The three main story lines in the book follow a German boy prior to World War II, a pair of brothers in Philidelphia who live in an orphanage and a Mexican-American girl who lives in California.  The book touches on some rather controversial subjects like the German sterilization of "imperfect" people, corrupt orphanage directors, the Japanese internment camps and the placement of all Mexican American students in "naturalization" schools.  The War that Saved My Life is a historical fiction set during World War II.  Eva has a club foot and is mistreated horribly by her mother so she and her brother Jamie escape to the countryside with the other children who are feeling the bombings in London.  They are housed reluctantly with a woman named Susan and Eva's life improves drastically.  I think this was my favorite.

For the second year in a row, a graphic novel has been honored by the Newbery committee.  This year, the book is Roller Girl.  It centers on Astrid, who signs up for roller derby camp.  She thinks that her friend Nicole will also sign up but Nicole opts for ballet camp instead.  Astrid is hurt but continues with roller derby, learning the new sport and making new friends. This book is extremely relevant for middle schoolers who often find that they lose old friends and make new friends when transitioning to middle school.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Newbery 1985

The Hero and the Crown (Damar, #1)
The Hero and the Crown
Author: Robin McKinley
Genre: Fantasy
Plot: Aerin discovers the secret of a fire proof substance and goes off to find dragons.
Verdict: A rare good prequel
My rating: 5 stars

Like Jake and Me
Like Jake and Me
Author: Mavis Jukes
Genre: Realistic Fiction/Picture Book
Plot: A boy tries to bond with his stepfather
Verdict: Not that great
My rating: 2 stars

The Moves Make the Man
The Moves Make the Man
Author: Bruce Brooks
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Plot: Jerome tells the story of his runaway friend Bix and Basketball
Verdict: I don't like sport books
My rating: 1 star

One-Eyed Cat
One-Eyed Cat
Author: Paula Fox
Genre: Historical Fiction
Plot: Ned is guilt-ridden after firing his gun in the dark because he thinks he wounded a cat.
Verdict: The writing is a bit choppy and ploddy
My rating: 2 stars

The medal winner from this year, The Hero and the Crown is one of my favorite books and a rare prequel that outshines the original book.  It and the original book, Newbery Honor winner The Blue Sword are part of McKinley's Damar series, which really is only these two books and a few short stories.  McKinley is known for her retellings of fairy tales (similar to Gail Carson Levine, but McKinley's are more YA than children's lit) but Damar is an original series, not tied to any previous tales.  I love all her writing, it is very smooth and descriptive.

The other three books from this year are more realistic. Like Jake and Me is an advanced picture book.  The story is about a boy who is trying to bond with his very rugged, cowboyish stepfather.  It is unclear if his biological father is deceased or his parents are just divorced.  I wanted to like it but it seemed like it was missing something.  Be warned, in one picture, the stepfather is almost completely naked.  I wasn't sure that was terribly appropriate.  The Moves Make the Man is a sports book.  Unfortunately, I'm not a big fan of sports books but sometimes I am pleasantly surprised, like with 2015's The Crossover.  Sadly, this book did not impress me.  It is told in first person by Jerome, an African American high school student, who ends up being the only African America student in a whole white school.  He loves basketball but is not given a fair chance at the basketball team.  He makes friends with Bix in Home Ec class and teaches him the game.  I think it had many redeeming qualities and possible points of discussion but I didn't like the narrator's voice and as I said, I'm not big into sports.  One-Eyed Cat is more of a historical fiction book.  The main character, Ned, receives a gun for his birthday but it is taken away by his father.  He goes and gets it anyway and fires it into the dark.  The rest of the book is about his guilt because he believes he injured a cat.  I thought it plodded a bit but it is a good example of a book with guilt as the theme and the ending actually fit the rest of the story.