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!
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.
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.
A cat watches as his owner paints a picture of animals for Buddhist monks. The painter loves his cat but knows that he cannot put a cat within the picture because cats are the one animal that was not blessed by Buddha.
This is the first book Newbery canon that I’ve read that I just did not like much. All of the other books so far I’ve been able to appreciate what the committee saw in the book to have honored it. But this one just leaves me cold.
I didn’t think the prose was particularly spectacular. I didn’t think the setting was particularly stellar. It gives a generic “Asian” setting, but I don’t think it felt exclusively Japanese, other than the one offhand comment about samurai. Also, the title is not very culturally accurate, since the cat would not have gone to Heaven, she would have achieved Nirvana.
The pacing felt slow to me, and very repetitive. Once the artist started painting it went: think about this, paint this, think about this, paint this. The stories themselves were fairly interesting, largely because I wasn’t already familiar with most of them, but I also kept thinking that they could have been better. It’s never a good sign when you’re reading a story and thinking, “hmm, that’s a pretty cool story, now here’s how it could have been presented to make it an awesome story…” If this is the 1930 winner it doesn’t make me particularly eager to read the honor books, of which there are an unusually large amount.
Jack is feeling like a fish out of water – if that’ s the right analogy for a landlocked Kansas boy plunked down at a coastal Maine boarding school just after WWII. Still unmoored by his mother’s sudden death, Jack drifts towards a relationship – not quite friendship – with Early Auden, a very strange boy at the same school. When Early, convinced that the number Pi is telling a story that is proof his brother did not die in the war, heads off on a quest to find them both, Jack is an often reluctant companion in the week long trek through unforgiving woods filled with numerous larger-than-life characters, some nurturing – and some very much not.
This was an enjoyable book, and I was happy to pick it up every day on my lunch break. But I never felt compelled to stay up til midnight reading it, and my final assessment leaves something to be desired.
First off, I agree with Sondy at the Heavy Medal blog, that it is preposterous that a serious mathematician would be positing that pi was going to end. That’s the entire point of pi, that it’s an irrational number.
The string of coincidences was too much for me as well. I suppose it was supposed to feel like the hand of fate (or the hand of Pi?) guiding the boys to meet first a series of people who have a remarkable similarity to the characters in Early’s story, and then for those people to turn out to have strong coincidental connections to one another. I maybe could have bought the story connections with some suspension of disbelief, but the further connections where it turned out that everyone knew everyone else and they all happened to be in more or less the same place at the same time? That was too much.
What I did like: the portrayal of Early as a boy with autism before high-functioning autism was recognized as a possibility. The setting was also highly realized.
This was a perfect little fable-like tale. The language was wonderful: “It moaned like a lonely demon, like a mad despairing animal, like a huge and anguished something chained forever in its own great tragic disappointments.” Wow.
The story itself is quite thought-provoking. I thought it was spot on in its depiction of people who sorta-kinda know deep down that there isn’t really a monster, but want to believe there is because it makes life more interesting. I know a lot of people don’t like the book because they see it as a mockery of religion, but I disagree. Religious people sincerely believe in God, versus the people in this book seemed to me to be having fun with the belief. It provides “a gleeful terror” and the villagers are clearly enjoying themselves. The scene where everyone denies what Egan has to tell them read to me less as blind faith refusing to face the facts and more as purposeful self-delusion/willful ignoring of something that will spoil the fun. When I was a child my sister and I convinced ourselves a witch lived in an abandoned building down the street. We knew that it didn’t really live there, but that didn’t stop us from being truly frightened.
It’s funny, because as a child I would have identified with Egan and been extremely frustrated with not having anyone take my story seriously. But as an adult, I was sympathized with Uncle Anson. I found myself hoping that Egan would change his mind about announcing his “find” and upset when he did. Everyone was so obviously enjoying themselves it seemed a shame to disabuse them of their fun.
I did not think I would enjoy this book. The cover blurbs generally focus on something like “Tim’s brother is a Patriot and his father is a Loyalist! Poor Tim doesn’t know which side to be on!” which made it sound like it would be a wishy-washy narrator who has a coming-of-age moment when he realizes that he doesn’t have to follow in his father’s footsteps and inevitably joins on the side of the rebels. I should have realized that such a predictable plot-line and character arc are not what wins a Newbery Honor. Instead of what I thought I was going to read, I encountered what has to be the best anti-war book aimed at middle school students that I have ever read.
Far from being about whether Tim chooses to be a Tory or a Rebel, Tim’s coming-of-age moments generally happen when he is forced to the conclusion that war is hell and that everyone involved in the war, on both sides, is irrevocably changed by the experience, and not for the good. Both sides do heinous things, and both sides make excellent points about why they should win. I’m so used to reading books set during the Revolution that just assume that obviously the Patriots were the good guys and fighting the cause of the just, that it was twice as shocking to see the gritty reality portrayed here. Tim’s epilogue written as an adult even says that while he thinks, in the end, that becoming their own country was a good thing, he wishes it could have been done without having to go to war.
One of the things I appreciated about the book is that we were not witness to any battles. Historical fiction centered around a major event (like a war) generally bends over backward to put the main character at a turning point in the event. Not so here. We see the war from the point of view of a backwater village. Battles are fought far away and the effects of the war are felt in the lack of food, lack of security, and the many friends and neighbors who are killed in distant parts. When the British pass through very briefly there is a fatal skirmish and when the Patriots camp out in town there are dramatic repercussions, but neither of these highly traumatic scenes are parts of a battle or very important in the big picture. Part of the power of the anti-war message in the book is how many characters are killed as a direct result of the war for stupid reasons that have no real impact on the “glory of war”.
A lovely book, and a fascinating look at the ups and downs of homesteading at the turn of the century. It was interesting to see such a familiar children’s book topic (homesteading) set in 1918 rather than the more familiar 1880′s, so that fear of grasshoppers and talk of horses were juxtaposed with automobiles and the first world war.
As I was reading at first I found myself wondering why this book garnered the Newbery Honor, but now that I am finished and as I am reflecting, I can see why. The writing was solidly good, with occasional brushes with excellent. The characterization was wonderfully done. Traft, who I thought was a bit too villainous at first, ended up being a reasonably complex character. He was angry and did hurtful things, but if I try to see the story from his perspective, I can also see why he did some of those things, and how sometimes things were out of his control.
SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT
The end of the book surprised me. I thought for certain that something miraculous was going to happen at the last minute to save Hattie’s claim. I’m glad that the author chose to let Hattie lose it to be true to the many, many homesteaders that did. So few books, for either young people or adults, are willing to let the main character pour their heart and soul into something, to want something more than anything else, and then deny the character. Yet that is the way real life works in so many cases. And, just as in real life, Hattie does not crumble. She keeps going, and takes from the experience strength. That’s a true pioneer spirit. END SPOILER
This Newbery Honor book from 2012 was an excellent look at life in Stalin’s Russia from the viewpoint of a young boy whose unwavering and unquestioning support of Stalin is suddenly stripped from him after his beloved father is arrested. The scene setting was fabulously done, some of the best “you are there” I’ve seen. I loved that the author didn’t spell things out for the reader. We are solidly in Sasha’s head the entire time, but he leaves clues that Sasha may not fully understand everything. The neighbors that he is convinced “respect” his father, for instance, are clearly scared instead. Or when Sasha pities the poor little capitalist children who have probably never been given a carrot as a treat. Some of these are very subtle, and I’m not entirely sure how a child with no background knowledge about Stalinist Russia will be able to fully understand everything that is going on, but I can also see that it’s not entirely necessary to fully grasp every single nuance to appreciate the book. I have seen some criticism that no space is given to other viewpoints, or the possibility that Sasha’s father really is working against the Stalin regime, but that does not bother me, since the viewpoint is so firmly Sasah’s it is easy to recognize that we are not getting the entire picture. It’s not important whether the father is guilty or not, what is important is Sasha’s reaction.
I did think the episode with the talking Stalin’s nose was significantly out of join with the rest of the novel. The other parts of the book are so solidly grounded in real experience to have this strange and surreal episode – is he hallucinating from the stress? really? – threw me out of the story completely. I wish it had not been included, the entire book would have been stronger as a result. There is a small part of me that thinks that Sasha is too quickly brought to action against everything he believes in (the book takes places only over a 24 hour period) but it’s mentioned that Vovka underwent a similarly overnight transformation under similar circumstances, and extremely high stress coupled with complex insights can be transformative.
This based-on-a-true-story Newbery winner has a light, breezy tone and engaging writing style. It is clearly a product of the fifties, as anyone familiar with books (particularly books for boys) written during that period can attest. It has the breathless rush of action so often found from that period. The message that hard work and self-education will create success is right on the edge of being heavy-handed, but luckily never quite leaps off the cliff. There is also a depth to the characters, so that we see Nat grow from a restless child to a responsible young man.
As with many books from the fifties, there are some cultural hiccups that modern readers will likely pick up on. Nat is told that “boys don’t blubber” because they need to “protect women” and keep girls from worrying. (Ironically, and I suspect unnoticed even by the author, it is often the women who do their best to keep Nat from worrying. Polly purposefully puts on a good face despite her concern over his travels, Mary goes out of her way to reassure him when her husband dies, etc.) The references to the inhabitants of Sumatra as “squat brown savages” who are characterized by unrelenting violence is no longer acceptable, though the book is not nearly so egregious as some others written in the same era.
In a more subtle “cultural flaw” the book falls into the category of fictionalized biography, a popular genre of yesteryear. It is still found on many biography shelves, but modern readers are more likely to consider it fiction. Nat expresses opinions and feelings that the author could not possibly have known, and there is no documentation or source notes or other means by which a reader could determine how much of the book is based on pure fact and how much was fictionalized for the sake of a more compelling narrative.
I finished this book the same day I started it. I can’t quite pinpoint what I found so compelling, but there you have it. On the surface it doesn’t sound that exciting: a boy becomes an indentured servant, works hard to better himself, and, after a few years at sea, writes a book on navigation. But the reality is a book that is engaging and keeps the reader wanting more.