Tag Archives: Death

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

Heart of a Samurai, by Margi Preus – The Newbery Project


Heart of a Samurai, by Margi Preus

The whole time I was reading Heart of a Samurai, I felt like it was the kind of book my sixth grade teacher would have assigned, claiming that I was going to LOVE it. In fact, it was just a little…stiff. More like an assignment than a novel. Maybe I was biased from having just read the magical Where the Mountain Meets the MoonThat book is a hard act to follow!

I wondered if the Newbery judges picked it for its cultural significance (as opposed to literary beauty?). The general story line is that Manjiro, a boy from a small fishing village in Japan, is shipwrecked and eventually rescued by a ship captained by an American. The captain takes Manjiro home with him and treats Manjiro as a son, but Manjiro nevertheless faces discrimination. Eventually, Manjiro succeeds in returning to his native Japan (after about 10 years, I think), where is he imprisoned as a suspected spy. Manjiro convinces his captors that he is not a spy and that Japan needs to become more open to interaction with foreigners.

It’s based on a true story, which may be the cause of the “assignment” vibe. I think it can be a very difficult task to follow a story line that has already been set out for you, and maintain the creativity and flexibility necessary to write a really compelling book.

I feel a little big crazy complaining about this book — I mean, out of all the books published in 2011, only 5 were honored by the Newbery committee. But it wasn’t my favorite. There. I said it.

Heart of a Samurai, by Margi Preus

Newbery Honor – 2011

A.R Level – 5.4; Middle Grades

Our Only May Amelia, by Jennifer Holm – The Newbery Project


Our Only May Amelia

Okay, I admit it. I cried. And cried. And cried. In fact, I’ve been trying to decide for days how I was going to write up this post. My feelings about this book were a lot like my feelings about certain movies I’ve seen that were deep, powerful, moving, and so painful that I couldn’t recommend them to anyone else.

Most of Our Only May Amelia is just purely entertaining. May Amelia is the only girl in a family of seven boys, and in fact, is the only girl in the whole settlement. She wants to do everything her brothers do, and why not? Except that May Amelia lives in rural Washington in 1899. So we get to follow May Amelia as she pushes against the boundaries of propriety, and that part is enjoyable. I was really rooting for her.


Which I guess is part of the point. I was so completely rooting for her, that when bad things started happening, I just couldn’t handle it.

Now I know that life in 1899 was hard. I guess maybe I have no concept of how hard. Or maybe I’m just weak. I had a similar feeling reading Wuthering Heights recently. As one person after another in Wuthering Heights died, I thought either this is the most depressing book of all time, or life was really, really, horrible in England in the 1800s. (For the record, Wuthering Heights IS the most depressing book of all time.) Apparently life was just as hard, and death just as real in May Amelia’s Washington. I know that some my over-reaction is because the one main death that occurs is my worst fear — the thing that wakes me up in a cold sweat at night and causes me to place a hand on baby’s chest to make sure he’s still breathing. So, yes, I am weak, and May Amelia’s pain was so real to me that I still feel overwhelmed with sadness as I type these words — a week after I finished the book.

If you’re stronger than me, read this book. Just keep a box of tissues handy.

Our Only May Amelia, by Jennifer L. Holm

Newbery Honor Book – 2000

AR Level: 4.8, Middle Grades