Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night, By Joyce Sidman – The Newbery Project


Dark Emperor

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.

Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night, By Joyce Sidman; Illustrated by Rick Allen

Newbery Honor – 2011

AR Level: 6.1; Lower Grades

Hattie Big Sky, by Kirby Larson – The Newbery Project


hattie-big-skyIf Hattie wasn’t Irish, she should have been been. What else could possibly explain Murphy’s Law apparently being the theme for this entire book?

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 +

Lexile: 700L

Rules, by Cynthia Lord – The Newbery Project

Rules, by Cynthia Lord

Rules, by Cynthia Lord

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



I have learned, that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. – Henry David Thoreau



The Underneath, by Kathi Appelt – The Newbery Project

The Underneath, by Kathi Appelt

The Underneath, by Kathi Appelt

“There is nothing lonelier than a cat who has been loved, at least for a while, and then abandoned on the side of the road.”

It’s a beautiful start to a deeply poetic book.

Poetic, yes. Enthralling, no. To be honest, I almost didn’t finish it. Unlike many of the Newbery books, I not only didn’t read it all in one sitting, but it took me a couple of weeks to get through. The poeticism was just a bit much for me.  Of course, I was also unable to get through WaldenA Tale of Two Cities, and every philosophy book that I have ever bothered to pick up. So there may be a precedent for this that has nothing to do with the actual quality of the book.

However, I still have to admit that The Underneath just dragged a bit. There’s a lot more waiting than action.  The cat in question is abandoned on the edge of the bayou, where she hears the also lonely bay of an old hound dog who has been chained underneath the house by his abusive owner. When the cat has kittens, and the kittens start wondering about the world outside the underneath, well, as they say, “curiosity killed the cat.” The kittens and the hound dog have to figure out how to find the ones they love, and how to survive in a tough world where nothing comes easy.

Louis Sachar blurbed The Underneath and his description is terribly complimentary. He describes it as: “A mysterious and magical story, poetic yet loaded with suspense.” All of these adjectives are true. And yet I didn’t love it.

For the sake of those who DO read poetry well, I’ve noted below some of the other awards this book won in addition to the Newbery Honor.  If that’s your style, you should try this book. If you’re a sadly shallow reader (as I apparently am), you might as well just admit that to yourself and go read The Hunger GamesYou’ll love it.

The Underneath, by Kathi Appelt

Newbery Honor – 2009; National Book Award Finalist; Pen USA Award

A.R. Level: 5.2; Middle Grades

The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo – The Newbery Project

The Tale of Desperaux, by Kate DiCamillo

The Tale of Desperaux, by Kate DiCamillo

It was a cute book, but I wouldn’t label it “middle grades” (as the AR folks do). I’d put in the category of good books for advanced Lower Grades readers. In fact, I think I like the title as much as I liked the book. It’s clever. “The Tale of Desperaux – Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread.”  How can you beat that?

From Kate DiCamillo’s Webpage:

Welcome to the story of Despereaux Tilling, a mouse who is in love with music, stories, and a princess named Pea. It is also the story of a rat called Roscuro, who lives in the darkness and covets a world filled with light. And it is the story of Miggery Sow, a slow-witted serving girl who harbors a simple, impossible wish. These three characters are about to embark on a journey that will lead them down into a horrible dungeon, up into a glittering castle, and, ultimately, into each other’s lives. And what happens then? As Kate DiCamillo would say: “Reader, it is your destiny to find out.”

The Tale of Desperaux actually reminds me a bit of  The Princess Bride (which is a huge compliment, by the way), with its general fairy tale kookiness. You can’t help but wonder where does she come up with these things? as you’re reading.

My only gripe — it it even is one — is that I couldn’t figure out which of the kids in my life I would recommend this to. Clearly T, at 12, would consider himself too grown up to read a book about a mouse. Meanwhile, R, though not-quite-ten, reminds me of myself at her age. She’s a very advanced reader for her age and quite proud of that fact. I’m afraid she would also reject a fairytale story as being too “baby.” This is a shame. My only remaining option is S. She’s already 10, but is also the proud owner of a couple of rats. Of course, she thinks rats are the good guys. (I think rats are disgusting.) Maybe I’ll package this book up and send it to her with a copy of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, and see whether she ends up preferring rats as the good guys or rats as the villains.

Has anyone else come across this dilemma? Good book, but trouble placing the audience?

The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread,
by Kate DiCamillo; Audiobook narrated by Graeme Malcolm

Newbery Winner – 2004

AR Level: 4.7; Middle Grades

What if…..


What a great idea!

Penny From Heaven, by Jennifer Holm – The Newbery Project


Penny from Heaven, by Jennifer L. Holm

I now know what an Iron Lung looks like. (Thank you, Jennifer L. Holm for making me wonder and thank you Google for making pictures of EVERYTHING so easy to find.) The most horrible part about the Iron Lung is that some people who contracted polio ended up using an Iron Lung for life. I mean, look at these things:


I worry every day that O will catch yet another virus from one of the other babies in his daycare and we’ll end up, yet again, hunkered down for the long haul at Wolfson Children’s Hospital. Doing a little research on polio makes me feel a little paranoid. These days, there’s almost no chance that your typical immunized kid will come down with a deadly casually transmitted disease. (Thank you, Dr. Salk!) And the next time I get all pitiful about O being hooked up to oxygen for almost three weeks:

2013-03-27 In the hospital...again

Next time, I’m going to remind myself of the iron lung, and the fact that he’ll never get polio. And I’m going to remember to be grateful.

From Jennifer Holm’s website:

It’s 1953 and 11-year-old Penny dreams of a summer of butter pecan ice cream, swimming, and baseball. But nothing’s that easy in Penny’s family. For starters, she can’t go swimming because her mother’s afraid she’ll catch polio at the pool. To make matters worse, her favorite uncle is living in a car. Her Nonny cries every time her father’s name is mentioned. And the two sides of her family aren’t speaking to each other!

Penny From Heaven was an enjoyable flashback to a bygone era, but Turtle in Paradise is still my favorite of Holm’s three Newbery honored books. I listened to Turtle long before I started The Newbery Project. I’ll be reading (or listening to) it again when I’ve finished the rest of the Newbery books from the 2000s. A little piece of me wonders — will I love it as much the second time, now that I’ve read so many other wonderful books for kids?

Stay tuned to find out.

Penny from Heaven, by Jennifer L. Holm; Narrated by Amber Rose Sealey

Newbery Honor – 2007

A.R. Level: 4.0; Middle Grades

Hoot, by Carl Hiaasen – The Newbery Project


Hoot, by Carl Hiaasen

I thought from the beginning that T should read this book. When the main character pulled out a copy of A Land Remembered, I was certain.

For those of you who are not from Florida, A Land Remembered  is a fictional telling of a Florida family’s lives over a period of 100 years or so. As T puts it “a lot of people die.” A parent of a student in his 4th grade class read it aloud to the class over the course of the school year. At the end of the year, the class party had an Olde Florida theme, including square-dancing (a time-honored way of embarrassing older elementary school kids). I read it in about two days, so I could go to the party and not be the only one who had no idea what was going on.

Admittedly, the moment when Roy pulls out his copy of A Land Remembered and ponders the loss of natural Florida is a little bit of a teachy moment in an otherwise un-teachy save-the-environment book. And yet, that was the moment I spontaneously pulled right into the Barnes & Noble parking lot and bought T’s copy. (Yes, I was listening to it on audiobook. No, I don’t read and drive. Or text and drive. Or do any other hazardous thing  when driving except eating french fries and a Frosty, which is more messy than hazardous…)

The summary (from Carl Hiassen’s website):

Roy Eberhardt is the new kid–again. This time around it’s Trace Middle School in humid Coconut Grove, Florida. But it’s still the same old routine: table by himself at lunch, no real friends, and thick-headed bullies like Dana Matherson pushing him around. But if it wasn’t for Dana Matherson mashing his face against the school bus window that one day, he might never have seen the tow-headed running boy. And if he had never seen the running boy, he might never have met tall, tough, bully-beating Beatrice. And if he had never met Beatrice, he might never have discovered the burrowing owls living in the lot on the corner of East Oriole Avenue. And if he had never discovered the owls, he probably would have missed out on the adventure of a lifetime.

By the way, T — who tries to avoid reading all books over 75 pages — loved this one. Now he’s got me looking for the movie, which unfortunately garnered only 26% on rottentomatoes.com. I hate it when a great book has a bad movie (think The Golden Compass, for starters — one of the best books EVER. But the movie? 42% Sad.)

So go check out the Burrowing Owl. I have to agree with Roy on this one. I’d much rather have a couple of those little guys in my neighborhood than a Mother Paula’s Pancake house.

Hoot, by Carl HiaasenAudiobook narrated by Chad Lowe

Newbery Honor – 2003

AR Level: 5.2; Middle Grades

A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park – The Newbery Project


A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park

This book is AMAZING! The narration by Graeme Malcolm was beautiful and moving and entrancing. Or maybe that was the gorgeous writing by Linda Sue Park. It was hard to separate one beautiful thing from another while listening to this book. And it was even harder to break away from. In fact, A Single Shard has inspired me to start a new ranking methodology, with the highest ranking being “Audiobooks So Good I Start Hoping for a Traffic Jam to Make My Commute Longer.” Congratulations, Linda Sue Park, for being the first awardee.** I’m sure you’ll print this out and hang it right next to your Newbery Medal.

A summary, from Linda Sue Park’s webpage:

Tree-ear is an orphan boy in a 12th-century Korean potters’ village. For a long time he is content living with Crane-man under a bridge barely surviving on scraps of food. All that changes when he sees master potter Min making his beautiful pottery. Tree-ear sneaks back to Min’s workplace and dreams of creating his own pots someday. When he accidentally breaks a pot, he must work for the master to pay for the damage. Though the work is long and hard, Tree-ear is eager to learn. Then he is sent to the King’s Court to show the master’s pottery. Little does Tree-ear know that this difficult and dangerous journey will change his life forever.

If this doesn’t sound fascinating to you, it’s because you haven’t read the book. Even my husband, who is currently reading about how the SEALs nabbed Bin Laden (surely the opposite end of the literary spectrum), got so into this story on a short drive we took together, that he asked to borrow the CDs so he could listen to the rest before I returned it to the library.

This is the right way to do historical fiction. By the time I finished the book, I was doing research on celadon and Korea and cranes. I couldn’t help myself. All of the sudden, all of those things were deeply fascinating. I still have a strong desire to go out and buy some beautiful ceramic pots, but I’m afraid they wouldn’t be up to potter Min’s standards, so I hold off.

I was interested to see that Ms. Park is also the author of a number of 39 Clues books. Impressive diversification. Kind of reminds me of Lois Lowry. Not bad company to be in.

**NOTE: To be fair, if I’d thought about it at the time, I would also have granted this august award to Grace Lin for Where the Mountain Meets the MoonI know, I know, you’re saying “Enough about that book, already!” But it really was wonderful. You should read it. Or, better yet, listen to it. Today.

A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park; Audiobook narrated by Graeme Malcolm

Newbery Medalist – 2002

A.R. Level: 6.6; Middle Grades