Tag Archives: Orphans

The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron – The Newbery Project


The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron

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: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom, by Margarita Engle – The Newbery Project


The Surrender Tree

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.


Monument to Rosa la Bayamesa in Parque Bayamo

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

Other Awards:

The Surrender Tree, winner of Oh-So-Many Awards

The Surrender Tree, winner of Oh-So-Many Awards

  • 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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Thief Lord, by Cornelia Funke

The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke

The Thief Lord, by Cornelia Funke

A.R Level: 4.8

Recommended for: Grades 4-6

The Thief Lord was a really enjoyable read. (Actually, “Awesome!” was my original adjective describing it, and maybe a better one) It didn’t hurt that the story is set inVenice, making everything that much more magical. It also made me want to go back toVenice. For a month. Or maybe a year.

Prosper and Bo are orphans (Why are all the best protagonists in children’s books missing at least one parent? See The Willoughbys for more on this theme.) They’ve run away toVenice to escape the clutches of their perhaps not-so-evil aunt.  As it happens, their aunt only wants Bo, not Prosper, because she wants a cute child (also a theme known to child welfare workers everywhere) and Prosper, at 12, is too old to be “cute.” She has plans to send Prosper away to boarding school.

Once in Venice Prosper and Bo meet up with a group of street children who take them in and introduce them to the Thief Lord. The Thief Lord provides his brood with items to sell for food money and a place to stay – an abandoned movie theatre – and everything seems to be going just swimmingly until (1) the semi-evil aunt returns, and (2) through a series of events you’ll have to read about yourself, the children suddenly need to find a new place to stay.

Although I didn’t expect to find one, I was truly disappointed to learn that there was no sequel, no other opportunity to hang out with these kids. The Thief Lord is one of those books that makes you feel like you actually know these people before you’re done. Thankfully, my friend S., who knows volumes about such things, tells me that Funke’s Igrain the Great is better than Inkheart. So, if I can’t hang out any more with Prosper, Bo and crew, I’m looking forward at least to spending lots of time in the future with Ms. Funke’s other creations.

Afterthought: I should have a separate category for books that were vastly better in book form than as movies. Ella Enchanted, though a good movie, would fall into this category. As for The Thief Lord, I guess I’d better see the movie before making my judgment, but considering that one of the reasons I read this book is because my friend R. said that Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart  was a vastly better book than movie, I suspect that The Thief Lord may fit into this category as well. If you’ve read the book and seen the movie, let me know what you think.