Of course I wouldn’t expect anything less from E.L. Konisburg.
The View from Saturday, by E.L. Konigsburg; Audiobook narrated by Jan Maxwell and Jenna Lamia
1997 Newbery Medal
AR Book Level: 5.9; 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
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
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 Hiaasen; Audiobook narrated by Chad Lowe
Newbery Honor – 2003
AR Level: 5.2; Middle Grades
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 Moon. I 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
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
The Willoughbys, The Giver, Number the Stars, and Gooney Bird Greene, all amazingly by Lois Lowry
The Willoughbys – 5.2
The Giver – 5.7 (Newbery Medal -1994)
Number the Stars – 4.5 (Newbery Medal – 1990)
Gooney Bird Greene – 3.9
Recommended for middle grades, except Gooney Bird Greene (elementary)
Lois Lowry is one of those authors who makes me wish I had been born a little later – like about 25 years later – so I could have enjoyed her books as a child. I was first introduced to her work about a year ago when our local library happened to have a copy of The Willoughbys displayed in a staff recommendations collection in the children’s department. I thought it had a cool-looking cover, and I was still on my seemingly never-ending quest to find books that T. would actually want to read (thank you, Captain Underpants for finally ending that quest for me), so I checked it out. Truly, it was one of the funniest books I had read in a long, long time. When I finished it, I thought, Hey, anyone who can write a story this funny about four kids who want to be orphans must have a whole collection of funny books. I should look for more! And so I went back to the children’s department and picked up a copy of The Giver.
Those of you who are familiar with Lois Lowry are laughing right about now. Those of you who aren’t… well… The Giver turned out to be the story of a dystopian society (look it up – I did) in which all knowledge is controlled by a single person – the Giver. All access to books, to information about life outside their community, all held in a single hand. In a once-in-a-lifetime moment, a boy is chosen to succeed the Giver. At first, he’s flattered and overwhelmed. But the more he realizes how much his society is missing, the more discontent he becomes. It’s a moving and disturbing view of what our future could be if we aren’t vigilant about protecting our freedoms.
Naturally, once I read The Giver I was amazed that the person who’d written this very serious book could have been the same as the writer of the slapstick Willoughbys. I looked up more of her writings and found Lowry had also won a Newberry for Number the Stars, the story, as told through the eyes of a young Danish girl, of her people’s efforts to save their country’s Jewish population from certain slaughter by the Nazis during World War II. Frankly, I was still feeling a little morose from thinking about everything The Giver gives you to think about and wasn’t quite ready for a Holocaust novel. Since then I’ve read The Gendarme and Sarah’s Key, which just goes to show that you shouldn’t avoid reading difficult things, or something even harder might just come your way.
After reading The Giver and reading about Number the Stars, you can imagine my surprise when I discovered recently that Lois Lowry was also the author of the Gooney Bird Greene Series! These aren’t just different types of books – they are in completely different ballparks, on opposite sides of the country, possibly on different continents. Ready now to continue my Lois Lowry journey, I checked out a copy of Gooney Bird Greene. I was not disappointed. Gooney Bird is a hoot. She is entirely an individual, and full of great stories. You should check her out even if it’s been many, many years since you were in second grade.
I’m looking forward to discovering more of Lowry’s work and I hope you will too.
Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine
Newbery Honor Book – 1998
AR Level: 4.6
Recommended for: Anyone who loves tough girls and a good fairy tale.
Themes: Fairy tales; coming of age
If you’ve only seen the movie, YOU ARE MISSING OUT! You must read the book. A good friend suggested this book a while back — her daughter had enjoyed it. I thought “well, the movie was nice, but so simple — why would I bother reading the book?” It was a good movie, but Ella Enchanted is an excellent book. Even though I knew perfectly well that it was all going to end Happily Ever After, each time I left the story, I couldn’t wait to get back to find out what would happen next. The story is a variation on Cinderella, but in this version, Ella has real personality and wins over the prince, not due to her great beauty, but because he just likes her. She’s smart, tough, funny, independent, honest, and so determined to do right, even when it could cause her to lose everything important to her, that you can hardly wait for the Happily Ever After to finally come. And when it does…you laugh out loud with happiness for this girl you know doesn’t even really exist, and your own world of Just-Another-Day-of-Drafting-Boring-Contracts becomes just a little bit brighter.
Thimble Summer, by Elizabeth Enright
Newbery Medal – 1939
AR Level: 5.7
Recommended for 4th through 8th grade girls
Themes: Nostalgia, farm life, family, 1930s
Thimble Summer, Elizabeth Enright’s first Newbery Award winner, is a lovely book for the clever girl who enjoys books about the “olden days.” Garnet Linden finds a silver thimble in the beginning of the story and believes it bodes well for her summer. As the story progresses, she experiences new things, expands her horizons, and realizes how much she loves her family and home. Like Gone Away Lake, Enright’s other Newbrry winner, Thimble Summer just sort of flows from one scene to another. There isn’t an obvious plot, although Timmy the pig and the lucky thimble make a couple of appearances, but the story draws you back in each time with the beauty and joy of each Garnet’s experiences.
Garnet has a level of freedom most children in 2010 can barely imagine. She wanders all over town, hitchhikes to a nearby city and explores the county fair on her own, all at apparently ten years of age. When reading this book, and others of its era, you can’t help but wonder how our children now ever achieve the independence and creativity of earlier generations. For our over-protected children, it’s a little window to a world they may never know.