Category Archives: Chapter Books

Newbery Project – Joey Pigza Loses Control

I have not read the first book in the series, so I came at this book with no prior knowledge of Joey or his relationships with family members.

Looking at the book from a Newbery perspective (the book received an Honor in 2001, and was a National Book Award Finalist), I can easily see that characterization was probably one of the number one attributes the committee was recognizing in giving the book an award. The main characters are all sharply and realistically drawn. Carter is trying to do what he thinks is right, he just is a failure. The grandmother is mean, but reading between the lines you can see that she really does care for Joey, even if he drives her insane sometimes. There are all too many adults in the world that just aren’t the nurturing type, and if she is not very nice, she’s also not malicious either. This is a dysfunctional family, but a realistic one.

Joey’s voice is very strong, and the sentence-level writing is clear and well done. There were some great analogies and good strong writing on display. Joey’s actions make a certain kind of sense when we view the world from his perspective, as each new idea builds on an old one, even at the point where a more rational person would stop and think “hmm, that’s maybe not such a great idea”.

Newbery Project – Amos Fortune, Free Man

I had grave misgivings before I began reading this book. It won the Newbery Award, yes, but it won in 1951, and it’s a book about a black man written by a white woman. In 1950. That’s enough to give me a bit of a pause entering into the reading experience.

On the whole, the book was not as racially insensitive as I thought it would be. That doesn’t mean that it’s a shining example of careful research and subtle characterization, just that it’s not as bad as it could have been.  Which is something.

It’s interesting to me that being free is such an integral part of who Amos Fortune is, and is clearly one of his most vividly held beliefs, and yet slavery is generally shown to be not that bad. All of the slaves in the book want to be free. But when his original owners, who were going to offer him freedom, he denies it because “he’s not ready”. And later when the male owner dies and his widow and child sell Amos on the auction block to pay off their debts, Amos is not upset about this because he knows that it is his duty to help out his friends in paying the debts. Um, I’m sorry, but when your “friends” consider it perfectly acceptable to put you up on the auction block, a humiliating experience that could possibly result in physical and mental danger depending on who buys you, that is not friendship. That is not doing your duty. That is one set of people who have not been able to reach out a true hand of friendship and therefore still see you as chattel when push comes to shove and the good times end. Amos should have felt betrayed. Even if he understood why they felt they had to sell him, he should have felt something more than just cheerful to do his part.

Because the book spans nearly one hundred years, I had a hard time connecting to the emotional life of Amos. Each chapter covers a decade or more in his life, leaving very little time to truly feel the impact of any one decision or life event. The only major incident that is brought up throughout the book as a painful memory is Amos’s sister Ath-Mun. And that memory made me angry, because it was so obvious that he was being incredibly idiotic about his continued search for a 12 year old girl. That a man as smart as Amos spent decades looking for his little sister before he realized suddenly that she would no longer be 12 seemed unrealistic.

This is supposedly a biography, but it falls into the category only vaguely. It would not be published as such today. It lacks any sort of bibliography or resources to indicate how the author did her research. It also takes liberties, with the narrator claiming to understand what Amos was thinking or feeling, when there is no way to really know that. This was common in children’s biographies of decades past (Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, also a Newbery winner from the ’50′s, is written in a very similar vein. Actually, that book covers a very similar time period, though from a completely perspective. Both books are about men who worked hard to “make something of themselves” though, which is interesting from a cultural perspective.) but it’s still frustrating to me as a modern reader who would like something more.

The overt Christianity in the book annoyed me a bit too. Amos’s people are pagan at the beginning of the book, but it’s made clear that they’re the “good” kind of pagan that even though they aren’t Christian don’t resort to wanton violence. That’s patronizing. There’s a fine line between a character believing strongly that his good fortunes are from God and that his misfortunes are God testing him, and the author signaling that that is clearly her worldview and all else must therefore spring from it. This book goes over the line.

With all of that criticism, there were still some good aspects. Although I found bits of the book patronizing, or misrepresentative, or otherwise flawed, I could see that the author was trying to show that African Americans were equal in intelligence and ambition to every other type of American, and for 1950 just the fact that she was trying counts for something.

I’m not entirely certain what the committee saw in the book. I don’t think the themes were necessarily carefully expressed throughout the book (Amos loves freedom, but isn’t upset when it is denied to him, twice, by owners who are supposed to care.) The characters go through so much of their lives that they are not terribly well drawn, more glimpses into their lives. The setting is well done, I’ll give them that.

Newbery Project – Wheel on the Schoolhouse

This was a sweet story that managed to just dance back from becoming sentimental. It is very distinguished in its interpretation of theme, with the entire village being necessary to accomplish the final goal. On the first page the old people and the very young children are dismissed as “not very important” compared to the schoolchildren. Yet by the end of the book everyone comes together, and it is only through everyone’s unique input that the storks return.

Each character was well-drawn with his or her own motives and personality. I particularly liked Janus. His turnaround was a little quick, but at the same time I fully believed in his chance to go from “useless” to informal leader, so I’ll forgive the initial conversation with the boys.

The setting was also distinguished. This was not any particular coastal town, it was Shora, a small village in Holland with particular needs and customs.

I did find that there was a lot life-threatening actions taken just to get the storks. There were several times – getting the wheel, putting it on the school, getting the storks – when adults were perfectly happy to put children’s lives in danger. That part didn’t quite ring true from a realistic perspective, but it sure ratcheted up the tension and action!

Chapter Books – A Tangle of Knots

I very much enjoyed this fun little book about an orphan, but something holds me back from loving it.

The many coincidences did not bother me, because the themes of fate and destiny running through the book were consistent.

I saw most of the plot twists coming a million miles away. That didn’t bother me too much, because I liked feeling clever when I was right. I’m not sure if the intended audience, who will have less background expectations, will see the twists telegraphed so obviously.

I wish that the Fair/Talented dynamic had been explored a little more deeply. It’s implied that Marigold’s mother was happier when she thought she was Fair, but if that’s the case, then why not just pretend that she’s not Talented? Most of the Talents in the book seem pretty random and not at all something that could earn money or be at all useful in the creation of society and civilization. This means that the majority of people doing a particular job will not be Talented in that job. Sure, it might be more difficult to be an archaeologist without a related Talent, but I can’t imagine that every archaeologist would have a Talent, there simply are too many scientists and not enough randomness for that.

I didn’t like the implications with the Zane storyline. On the one hand, no child should be told that he is useless and worthless. But at the same time there is a general sense that his parents get defensive when anyone criticizes him and make no real attempts to change his rotten behavior. Getting sent to boarding school is extreme, but the tone seemed to me to be criticizing his getting punished at all, despite the fact that he was stealing things. He is selfish and amoral, and that’s not okay any more than being told that he’s worthless is okay. I didn’t find the mother’s part of the plot believable either.

Newbery Project – Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, and me, Elizabeth

I quite liked this book, which won a 1968 Newbery Honor, more so than the winner that year – which was also by the extremely talented and apparently very quick writer E.L. Konigsburg. I realize I’m probably very much in the minority, but I’ve never liked From the Mixed Up Files. It’s been a number of years since I’ve read that one, so I’m not sure how they compare in being distinguished literature, but this one was, for me personally, more fun to read.

I would have realized it was from the sixties, even if I hadn’t looked it up. There were some dated references. Only fathers have jobs. A kid dresses up as cigarettes for halloween. When a candy plant makes the air smell of mint, Elizabeth is excited that she can “pretend to be smoking a menthol cigarette.” But while some of these small details are dated, the story, about a complex relationship between a somewhat lonely girl and a controlling friend is timeless. I liked that in the end it was clear that Elizabeth had taken a more equal role in the friendship, but that Jennifer was still Jennifer.

I especially liked the analogy where Elizabeth’s father says that even though 98.6 is the “normal” temperature, many people are higher or lower than that, and then Elizabeth is proud that she’s not 98.6.

I was surprised when I got to the Christmas show and Jennifer’s mother was easily identified as being the only Black mother in the room. I was listening to an audiobook, so the illustrations had not told me that Jennifer was black. The implication is that she’s the only black student in the entire school. I’m not sure what racial overtones that gives the story, where Jennifer’s favorite food is watermelon, she says she’s a witch, and is noted several times as having no manners. Does Elizabeth more readily believe that Jennifer really is a witch because she is an exotic Other in a school where she is the only black student?

Chapter Books – Water Castle

This probably really is a four star book for me, except that I had very high expectations that were not met, and I think that soured it a little. That’s the problem with excellent buzz sometimes.

Things I liked: the blur between fantasy and science fiction. The book reads like a fantasy in many ways, but the ultimate explanations appear to have more of a scientific basis. It’s hand-wavey science, but still ultimately science fiction rather than magic juice. I thought Ethan and Mallory both dealing with difficult parenting situations was well done, especially how awkward those interactions could be. I particularly liked the scene where Mallory realizes how much she could emotionally manipulate her mother, but then chooses not to.

I also felt that some of the characters were very one dimensional. All of the Wylies except for Will were caricatures of greedy, malicious, not-very-nice people. Young Harry never felt like a real person to me.

There were a lot of loose ends left dangling, so I can only assume that this book was the first in a planned series.

There was a lot that I enjoyed but thinking about too hard just doesn’t make sense.

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There is a strong implication that Mallory’s mother is Nora, and that it’s possible her father is Harry. How does the rest of the town not clue in on that? In the past hundred years how has no one found the barrel of water on the roof? Giving the water to Will at the end seemed a little forced, since Ephraim no longer believed the water was anything special. Watching someone bleed to death, my first reaction would not be to give them a glass of water. I thought Ephraim’s sudden change of mind about the water and stubborn refusal to believe otherwise seemed a bit forced as well.

Newbery Project – Moon Over Manifest

Sometimes you read a book knowing that it won an award, and all you can think is “huh?” Other times knowing that the award has already been achieved allows you to pay more attention to the excellent qualities of the book, to look for what that committee saw. I think this book benefited from my previous knowledge, allowing me to appreciate why the award was given to this particular book.

The setting was excellent. The town, both in 1918 and 1936, was carefully drawn and the sense of place was vivid.

The characters were well done, though I hesitate to add the qualifier “very”. Lettie and Ruthanne were a little too generic spunky girls, Miss Sadie a bit too exotic, etc. However, Vanderpool did manage to juggle a cast of thousands without ever losing me, and that deserves its own type of praise.

The pacing was good. I was far (far!) more interested in Jinx’s story than I was in what Abilene was doing or thinking, but the Abilene sections moved along at a pretty good clip, so I didn’t get too impatient even though I thought what was going on in the historical sections was inherently much more compelling. There is a part of me that thinks the book might have been stronger if it was just the Jinx bits, but at the same time I can see how the slightly removed, but still knowing narrative perspective in those sections would have been difficult to pull off in a book-length format. The frame gave the historical actions more weight and consequence.

The plot was very good, though I’m not entirely convinced it rises to the level of distinguished. I will admit that the courtroom scene made me cheer as I drove along listening to the audiobook (which, as an aside, was FABULOUS. I hope the narrator won some kind of award. She sounded twelve, but she handled all of the accents smoothly.) But the subplot about Miss Sadie and Ned seemed farfetched, and while it somewhat resonated with themes of fitting in and family, I think its removal would have strengthened the book because it didn’t really add anything.

SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER

 

It really frustrated me that Abilene is not told that Jinx was her father. It was obvious to me from the start, and even Abilene suspects it for quite some time. I can maybe understand Miss Sadie and Shady making the choice not to tell her, but no one else in town? Not a single person – all of whom seemed to know immediately who she was – ever said something like “wow, your daddy was one smart fellow”? His cons led directly to huge changes for the town, and even if those changes were almost immeadiately overshadowed by the influenza epidemic, that doesn’t mean they disappeared or that people forgot them completely.

For all that I loved the book, I am not entirely sure that, had I been on the committee that year, I would have voted for this one to take the top prize, though I would have happily given it an honor. I’m not entirely sure what I would’ve handed the prize to. It’s been two years since I read One Crazy Summer, which I think was my prediction going into that year’s announcement. I was hugely impressed with Dark Emperor, which surprised me because I’m not normally a poetry person.

Newbery Project – Bomb

Bomb tells the story of the creation of the atomic bomb, the sabotage efforts to keep Germany from creating their own, and the spies on all sides trying to discover information. A Newbery Honor book in 2013, it  also won the Sibert, and was National Book Award Finalist and several other accolades to make it the most decorated book of the year.

I certainly am not going to go against the grain, because I can only agree that the writing here was stellar. The author keeps an almost journalistic viewpoint, as though the action were happening right now, allowing him to build real tension as the story progresses, despite the fact that everyone already knows the basics of how the book will end. (Even the most naive child reader will surely be aware that the US has nuclear weapons.)

I learned a lot from the book. Not only was the science behind nuclear warfare explained extremely well for such a short treatment, but a lot of the history was unknown to me. All of the stuff with the Norwegians I hadn’t heard before, as well as most of the spying stuff.

The author has also been getting a lot of praise for his restrained treatment of the morals in the story. His authorial presence is very light-handed, presenting the story and the people involved as they were, with their motivations and actions told in their own words, then letting the reader come to his or her own conclusions about the moral and ethical implications of those motivations and actions. Only in the epilogue does the author take a small break and start talking about the permanent and international implications of atomic weaponry that effect us even now. An excellent book.

Recommended to fans of nonfiction, fans of history, and people who like spy stories, even if they think they “don’t like nonfiction.”

Newbery Project – Whittington

A Newbery Honor book in 2006, this is several stories in one package. A barnyard full of animals comes together to teach a young boy how to read, while at the same time recounting the famous story of Dick Whittington and his cat as a reward to the boy when he is finished with his work.

This title was enjoyable, but not without its flaws. The structure overall was very well done, moving from one time period to another with easy transitions and keeping the pace with both stories. But at the same time, I was not terribly interested in Ben’s work with his reading, so those parts of the book always seemed to drag for me, less because the pacing was bad than because of my boredom with the subject matter. A child who’s struggling to read? I can’t imagine how that’s going to turn out!

It bothers me, perhaps overmuch, to have a few factual errors in the book as well. Whittington talks about rats getting into FitzWarren’s potatoes, when potatoes were not available in fourteenth century Europe. Granted, this is the cat’s story and so it could be considered a character error, rather than a factual one. But there was also the fact that The Lady did not lay any eggs until the appearance of Gent. Ducks lay eggs regardless of whether there is a male around (the male is only needed to fertilize them). While it wasn’t actually said that Gent caused her to lay eggs, it was strongly implied.

The emphasis on rhubarb, which Dick was unable to obtain, and the side note about tofu, also seemed sort of tangential to the main story. What was the purpose of having it there if it just sort of petered out?

I enjoyed the book more than I am making it seem. I can see why it was not the overall winner in that year. The prose, while solidly good, is not particularly polished or exceptional. The characters are well drawn, however, particularly the animal characters. Abby and Ben never seemed like anything other than Generic Kid and Generic Kid With Dyslexia.

Newbery Project – Strawberry Girl

Ten year old Birdie is excited about starting on her new farm in Flordia, but a feud with a neighboring family brings tension and unwelcome excitement.

This book almost rated four stars, but the highly improbably ending left a sour note in my mouth. I did not believe for a moment that a single kindness (even a long and sustained kindness) could so totally change the character of Mr. Slater. I could sort of see him being nice to the Boyers from now on, but his entire personality has changed. When he’s talking about the death of his livelihood and entire way of life, it says that previously he’d have been in a rage, but now he was gentle as milk. What? No. Having a change of heart, even a sincere one, does not change you completely overnight. He also seems to have kicked the alcoholism without any troubles whatsoever.

I thought I was going to hate the dialect – I usually do – but I ended up really liking it. I think that was because it was largely a vocabulary difference rather than a pronunciation difference. I wasn’t having to squint and think to figure out what a particular phonetic pile was meant to represent. A fair amount of the phrases, such as “might could” I have heard actual people use, so they were familiar to me already.

The setting was one of the most distinguished characteristics of the book. The time period was one that I was not familiar with, particularly in a rural Florida context, and there were lots of details and atmosphere to make it come alive.

Some of the pacing seemed almost episodic, a chapter would end with violence and the next one would open with something mundane. The little Slater girls were angry, then they weren’t, then they were. But there are many other books set up like that, and I think it was purposeful.