And now we have a new tag on this blog: “Terrible Newberys.” Thanks to Journey Outside, when you’re searching around for new book ideas for your kids, you can also quickly figure out what books NOT to try.
Truly, I disliked Journey Outside from page 1, and it didn’t get any better after that. The main character — whose name completely escapes me, he was that forgettable — spends most of his early life underground, floating around on a raft in a circular passage of caves. Eventually, it occurs to him that… hmmm… perhaps that pile of rocks looks familiar…
How he managed to pass the exact same rock formations for years and years before he noticed is never really explained; although it’s painfully apparent that the reason his father and grandfather haven’t noticed is because they are trapped in their own narrow understanding of the world, and afraid to look beyond it. Among its other flaws, Journey was way too preachy.
I’ve also managed to forget most of the other characters the boy meets once he escapes from the cave. They were all uninteresting, annoying, or just plain bad. I wasn’t sure in the end if the “Outside” was really any better than the underground world of the raft people.
I read this book because I had the realization that, working my way backwards from the current Newberys, it would take AGES before I ever got to read (or re-read) some of the great books of my childhood, or to discover some of the great books I missed as a kid. I LOVE old books. Usually, the older the better (Okay, yes, there is a limit on that. I’m really not into Plato.) So I decided to start at 1970 and to work my way back from there and from the 2000s at the same time.
Happily, Journey Outside is not the only book I’ve read from the 70s (or I might have just given up the whole project). I’ve also fairly recently read Frog and Toad Together (lovely!), Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM (one of my childhood favorites!), Bridge to Terebithia (I cried. Yes, I did.), The Westing Game (plot too complicated for audiobook, but good and mysterious in paper form). So, I guess I won’t give up on the 70s. Not just yet.
Journey Outside, by Mary Q. Steele
Newbery Honor: 1970
A.R. Book Level: 5.7 (but really, don’t do this to your 5th grader)
Praise be to all that is sunny in Florida. I was not wrong. I did remember correctly that Turtle in Paradise was a great book. Funny, even. Okay, yes, there is a sad part in the end. But this sadness is nowhere near as overwhelming as the heart-crushing grief caused by Our Only May Amelia (Just last night I got teary-eyed trying to describe that book to my husband. In fact, it’s making me a little melancholy AGAIN just thinking about it.)
I listened to Turtle on audiobook in 2011 and LOVED it. But after reading Our Only May Amelia and listening to Penny From Heaven, I wondered if my memory deceived me. Amelia, of course, plunged me into a mini-depression. Parts of it were just that sad. Penny wasn’t quite as mournful, but it certainly didn’t live up to my memories of Turtle. Turtle is just funny.
“We got babies today.”
“I don’t like babies. They’re like Shirley Temple. Everybody thinks they’re cute, but all they do is scream and make messy diapers.” — I’ve been trying to remember for two years where I got this line from. Have to admit, I thought our own clever E. had said it, but then I kept wondering how she knew about Shirley Temple. Of course E. didn’t say it — Turtle did.
And yes, I LOVED the diaper gang.
Plot Summary from Jennifer L. Holm’s website:
Life isn’t like the movies, and eleven-year-old Turtle is no Shirley Temple. She’s smart and tough and has seen enough of the world not to expect a Hollywood ending. After all, it’s 1935, and jobs and money and sometimes even dreams are scarce. So when Turtle’s mama gets a job housekeeping for a lady who doesn’t like kids, Turtle says goodbye without a tear and heads off to Key West, Florida, to stay with relatives she’s never met.
Florida’s like nothing Turtle has ever seen. It’s hot and strange, full of wild green peeping out between houses, ragtag boy cousins, and secret treasure. Before she knows what’s happened, Turtle finds herself coming out of the shell she has spent her life building, and as she does, her world opens up in the most unexpected ways.
Turtle in Paradise, by Jennifer L. Holm, Audiobook narrated by Becca Battoe
Newbery Honor: 2011
A.R Level/Points: 3.7/4.0; Middle Grades
Many of the Newbery books have seemed to me to be written a little over the heads, perhaps, of the intended audience. Or maybe they just seemed too serious for kids to enjoy. The Higher Power of Lucky is a strange exception to that rule. Strange, because my general impression of Lucky was that it was a light-hearted, fun book. But when I think about the plot — little girl’s mother dies, her father is so uninterested in her that he gets an old friend to look after her, then never sends enough money for them to get by on — oh, and add one friend whose mother is in jail, and another who has a neurotic rope tying obsession, as well as a town full of folks who live on government food subsidies and spend a lot of time at AA meetings, and you have one book that’s very light-hearted indeed. Really. It was funny. And yet, I kept thinking maybe I shouldn’t be laughing at this.
I was starting to think I need to hook into Susan Patron and ask her how she meant the book to be read. But then I ran across this New York Times article and realized I wasn’t alone in my confusion. Remember — I really liked this book. I’m just not sure who the audience was meant to be. The protagonist is ten, and the generally accepted wisdom is that kids like to read books about characters who are older than them, but tend to avoid books about characters who are younger. But this book was clearly not written for 8-year olds.
And then there’s the censorship controversy.
Really. I think people need to stop getting their panties all in a wad about things like this. If people actually read the entire book instead of getting stuck on the word scrotum on page one, they might be reminded that all over the United States there are, in fact, people living on government food subsidies, and kids who are trying to get by without any real adult involvement in their lives. In other words, they might discover that there are far more important issues in the world today than whether fourth and fifth graders learn the actual official name of an awkward male body part, instead of just calling it by one of the far more interesting slang words they already know.
Meanwhile, food service workers are protesting the minimum wage, and a teenager I know just blasted that whole movement on his Facebook page. Basically, he thinks they should just suck it up and get better jobs. Because somebody has told him it’s just that easy and he hasn’t seen enough of the world to know better. Sadly, instead of reaching out to the working poor and trying to help them, we have become a country that gives tax breaks to the rich, and vilifies the poor. And our kids are starting to think that’s okay.
So if you’re one of the folks who got all excited about the whole scrotum thing, try putting all that energy toward a more worthy cause, and leave your kids alone if they want to read this book. Maybe they’ll learn something
The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron; Narrated by Cassandra Campbell
Newbery Medal – 2007
A.R. Level: 5.9; Middle Grades
The Surrender Tree sucked me in. I know, you’re wondering how a tree can suck anything. Well, I ask you, haven’t you ever put a dry plant into a pot of water and watched the water just disappear? Plants are like that. And so are great books.
One minute, I was opening to the first page and thinking Oh no, more poetry! and the next minute — or really about two hours later — I was putting the book down. I had finished it all in one sitting. Last night I picked it up to refresh my memory for this review, and if it hadn’t been for my husband saying “Uh, you know it’s a work day tomorrow, right?” I probably would have read the whole thing in one sitting again.
The poems are short, and they cover a long span of Cuban history, that, I have to admit, I knew virtually nothing about. You would think, living in Florida as I do, that we’d get a little bit of Cuban history here and there. Apparently, we don’t.
For instance, I had no idea that the first concentration camps (long before Hitler came up with his horrendous plans) were actually created in Cuba in 1896. I didn’t know that the Spanish-American War, which barely registers at all in most Americans’ historical knowledge, is called Le Disastre in Spain. I didn’t know that some Cuban property owners freed their slaves voluntarily in 1868, and that this act of humanity (and rebellion), began a civil war that lasted for decades. I didn’t know that a peasant woman named Rosa Castellanos (known in Cuba as Rosa la Bayamesa) became famous for the folk hospitals she established in the countryside during all this strife.
The Surrender Tree made me glad I took on the project to read all the Newberys because I know it’s just the type of book I would never have thought to read otherwise…but it would have been a shame to miss it. Yes, this book may be outside your comfort zone . The plot sort of wanders along, and the whole book is written in verse. You should try it anyway. You may learn something too.
The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom, by Margarita Engle
Newbery Honor: 2009
A.R. Book Level: 6.1; Middle Grades
- Newbery Honor
- Pura Belpré Award
- Américas Award
- Jane Addams Award
- Claudia Lewis Poetry Award
- Lee Bennett Hopkins Honor
- ALA Best Books for Young Adults
- ALA Notable Book
- NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Book
- Amelia Bloomer Book
- Booklist Editor’s Choice
- Kansas State Reading Circle
- Michigan Great Lakes Great Books Award Master List
- Junior Library Guild Selection
- Finalist – Once Upon a Word Children’s Book Award, Museum of Tolerance, Simon Wiesenthal Library
- Bank Street College of Education Selection List of Reading Aloud With Children Twelve and Older
The Black Panthers. Finding the mother who abandoned you. One Crazy Summer isn’t exactly Captain Underpants. It’s serious stuff. And yet, it was moving, and touching, and very recommendable.
Although there was no Disney happily-ever-after ending here, One Crazy Summer broke with what was beginning to seem like a Newbery tradition — the heart-wrenching tragic event. (And thank goodness for that. It’s really not my goal when reading for pleasure to sob miserably at any point. I mean, it’s one thing for a book to be meaningful, and another thing altogether for it to make me depressed for weeks. But for that rant see my discussion of Hattie Big Sky.)
Delphine, and her younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern, are sent to spend the summer with Cecile, the mother who abandoned them years earlier. From their travel to their mother’s home in California to their interactions with her Black Panther friends, the girls provide a fresh, and often painfully honest, look at the turmoil of the 1960s.
Give it a try. I know it may not be your usual read, but One Crazy Summer will give you a lot to think about. And that’s not a bad thing.
One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia
Newbery Honor – 2011
A.R. Level: 4.6; Middle Grades
For it’s wild and it’s windy
way out in the woods,
where the moss grows like candy
and the hunting is good,
where the rain falls from heaven
and mud’s underfoot.
It’s wild and it’s windy
way out in the woods.
Beautiful poetry. Gorgeous illustrations. I wonder that it didn’t win a Caldecott too.
So many mysterious words surrounding and being surrounded by the brilliantly colored, yet eerie illustrations of Rick Allen. (Can you find the salamander on every page?)
I’ve admitted before that I’m not much of a poetry buff, but it’s hard not to appreciate the alliteration in “It’s wild and it’s windy way out in the woods.” I suspect I’ll be repeating that line to myself for the rest of the day.
Newbery Honor – 2011
AR Level: 6.1; Lower Grades
There were many, oh so many, possible ways this book could have ended with at least a tiny ray of hope. But none, oh none of them, actually occurred.
- Hattie could have borrowed just enough money to save her claim.
- Traft Martin could have had at least one redeeming quality, making Hattie’s in-and-out relationship with him feel like it had a purpose.
- Hattie could have married her friend Charlie (why else did they write each other constantly?).
- Some small portion of the crop she slaved over could have been saved.
- The children she loved so much could have gotten really sick, but by a miracle, come through the Spanish Flu alive.
Or, if you’re really into being totally bummed out while reading for pleasure:
- Traft Martin. our handsome anti-hero, could be completely and hopelessly irredeemable.
- Hattie could end up, after a year of back-breaking work with less than she started out and going off to be a chamber maid in a boarding house — the very job she traveled to Montana to avoid.
- Her favorite little girl could die painfully, while lying in Hattie’s arms.
- Hattie’s best friends could move away and desert her to fend for herself.
You tell me — which version of this story would you prefer to read?
When just over half way through Hattie Big Sky I bragged to my brother about how much I was enjoying reading the Newbery books. How the one I was reading right then was so good that I couldn’t decide which of my nieces to give a copy to — or whether I should just give one to each of them. “It is that good,” I said.
Then I read the final chapters, in which literally, it seemed, everything that could go wrong did go wrong, in every possible way. Everything. I have still not gotten over the disappointment. I still complain about it every time this book comes up in conversation (which is surprisingly often, probably due more to my state of frustration than to anyone’s actual interest in hearing my complaints).
I understand that the Newbery judges like a good tragedy. They like death. They like poverty. They like orphans. They like parents who desert their children, or who don’t like them much. But personally, I can’t believe that we need to tell our kids that life is quite that hard — at least not all in one book. Surely children need a tiny ray of hope to go on. Just a smidgen. Anything.
Hattie Big Sky, by Kirby Larson
Newbery Honor Book – 2007
A.R Level: 4.4; Middle Grades +
No toys in the fishtank!
A boy takes off his shirt to swim, but not his shorts.
So many of my fears for Owen actually happen to David in this book.
My fear that other kids will make fun of him, and he’ll think they’re his friends.
My fear that his big sister, who currently thinks he is the most awesome baby ever, will one day be embarrassed by him.
My fear that he won’t have any friends and will drive his brother and sister crazy by tagging along with them all the time (okay, my own little brother did that, and he didn’t have a disability).
My fear that our lives will sometimes feel like they revolve around his disability instead of around our family as a whole.
Rules is the story of 12-year old Catherine’s constant frustration with her brother David’s autism, even as she loves and protects him. We see how embarrassed she is by him, while at the same time stoutly defending him. Catherine isn’t a perfect sister, and I’m grateful for that. I think sometimes we work so hard in the disability world to emphasize the positive that we make it feel abnormal to have feelings of regret, sadness, and fear.
Cynthia Lord has a son with autism, and you can tell her writing comes from a real place. The real experience — not what we wish it could be. And she does this with a great deal of humor, mixed with enough Arnold Lobel quotes to send me to B&N and Amazon looking for the complete Frog and Toad collection.
I laughed a lot, and I cringed more times than I can count, and I knew deep down that I was no better than Catherine.
And, I suppose, no worse.
Rules, by Cynthia Lord; Audiobook Narrated by: Jessica Almasy
Newbery Honor – 2007
A.R Level: 3.9; Middle Grades