54.-67. A Massive (Mostly) Newbery YA Round Up

Though I haven’t been blogging, I have been making some progress on my Newbery Medal Project.  It’s so interesting how varied the chosen books are - not just over time, which would be expected - obviously tastes in the 1940s are not those of the 1990s.  But even in a close period of time the books vary so much in subject matter, reading level, etc.  Makes me wonder how they are chosen and what the criteria for winning is.  I mean, not enough to actually google that information, but there are some very interesting contrasts.  

Because this is such a long post and you might lose interest, I’m putting the good ones on the top.

54.-55.  Homecoming/Dicey’s Song, Cynthia Voight

“The woman put her sad moon-face in at the window of the car."

“What a day, Dicey thought.  What a summer, for that matter, but especially, what a day.”

You probably already read these two books, if you are reading this blog. Unless, maaaaybe if you are boy - I am certain that every girl who grew up in the eighties/early nineties read these, because they are amazing, and thus the kind of books that get pushed on young readers.  But if somehow, somehow, you have not read Homecoming and Dicey’s Song, you must remedy it immediately.  Not your kids, you.  They are so, so good. And so sad, and so on point about the emotional lives of the characters, that I honestly think they could have been adult fiction.

Anyway - the plots.  Homecoming is first, and it starts with the four Tillerman children being abandoned by their mother in the parking lot of a supermarket in Peewauket Connecticut.  Dicey, the oldest, takes charge, and decides they need to continue their voyage to Bridgeport.  But they have very little money, and the book describes how they basically walked there, and, further voyages later on.  It’s perhaps implausible that they were not stopped by any adults (though they were very, very careful to avoid any adults - and this was the late 1970’s), but the book describes their troubles so realistically and truly that that aspect of the plot is easy to forgive.  The voyage is heartbreaking both physically and emotionally.  When I read this book as a child I was interested in the nuts and bolts of how they made it - as an adult I was devastated by the people in the book - how real and how flawed they are.  This one only was a runner up for the Newbery (and I checked, the winner was Jacob Have I Loved - another amazing book), but it is tremendous.

And you really do need to read it before you read our 1983 Newbury Winner, Dicey’s Song.  Because this book is about what Dicey does once she gets her family safe - how she adjusts to not being on the move and in charge, and how she has to deal with the aftermath of her journey.  It is phenomenal.  Dicey is such a real person - stubborn, brave, full of contradictions.  Her growth and acceptance of her new life is captured so well.  And the other characters are just as knotty and real.  Do do yourself a favor and read these.  You won’t be sorry. (And there are way more Tillerman books if you want to keep delving, too!)

 56.-58. A Long Way From Chicago/A Year Down Yonder/ A Season of Gifts, Richard Peck

“It was always August when we spent a week with our grandma.”

It was a September morning, hazy with late summer, and now with all the years in between.”

“You could see from here the house was haunted.”

This series of books could not be more different from the Tillerman saga, but are equally amazing to read.  Unlike the serious emotions of Cynthia Voight, Richard Peck has written three rollicking comic delights.  Though, seriously, what is with the Newbery people again awarding book number two in the series? It does, in all fairness, make you (if you are a compulsive nut like me) read more books, but it’s an odd habit.  

These books about about Grandma Dowdell, a magnificant force of nature who lives in a very sleepy town in Illinois, and how first her grandchildren, and then her neighbors' children, learn to deal with her various eccentricities, and, of course, eventually learn to adore her.  The fun is in the various adventures and plots that they get pulled into through Grandma, who has her finger in every pie in town - despite acting as the local recluse.  The first book is about her grandchildren visiting her from Chicago for a week is summer.  They dread the trips as boring and miserable - but Grandma has other ideas.  The second (2001 prize winning) book centers on the granddaughter, Mary Alice, who, because of the Depression, has to go live with Grandma for a year.  The final book focuses on a neighboring family that moves into the town, and how Grandma helps them fit in. 

I’ve made it sound a bit predictable and didactic, maybe, but this is absolutely not the case.  Grandma isn’t a sweet old lady - she is kind of a dangerous nut, and the activites that happen in the small town are something else.  She isn’t a sweet old lady - she is tough as nails and prepared to do just about anything to get the results she wants. The books are funny and well, well worth the award.  They are also, I think more age appropriate for the kids of the people I know who read this blog.   The Tillermans are for teenagers, but my kids (especially my 9 year old, if I could get him to read any book without magic in it) would like Mary Alice and Grandma Dowdell.

59. Holes, Louis Sacher

“There is no lake at Camp Green Lake."

Oh, Holes.  Holes  (the 1999 prize winner) is amazing. And it is 100% kid-approved - I read it to Thing One (8 at the time) and Thing Two (6 at the time) and they adored it. It’s a funny, twisted, complicated plot that ties up so beautifully at the end.  And they even made a movie about it, starring Shia La Boeuf.

Stanley Yelnats has been sent to Camp Green Lake, a juvenile detention center in the middle of nowhere, Texas. There is no lake, there are no trees, there is nothing but dirt.  And the kids, every day have to dig a gigantic hole in the dirt - allegedly to build character.  Stanley (who is innocent of the charge) is a total loss - he has never seen anything like this place, or the other (not so innocent) kids who are also there.  But very quickly he learns to dig.  

Of coure, more is going on than meets the eye, and complications ensue, as they say.  And it’s funny (Sacher is the creater of Wayside School) and it’s sweet, and it’s a great read.  Can’t vouch for the movie though - the kids watched it with out me.

60. Ginger Pye, Eleanor Estes

“Would Gracie-the-cat be jealous if the Pyes got another pet - a dog?”

For a bit of a change of pace, this is the 1952 Newbery prize winner.  I have to be honest, and say I opened it prepared not to like it.  Here I must confess my shameful secret, which is that I just do not like books about animals, and I’m really not much of a dog person.  The Incredible Journey (remember that?) was like, the only book I was offered as a child that I flatly refused to read.  So when I realized that Ginger Pye was the Pye family dog (my copy is ex-lib and not quite so doggy on the cover), I was bummed.

FALSE ALARM! This book is good.  I mean, it’s written in the 50’s, so don’t expect hard-hitting emotional realism, but it absolutely charming in its own way.  It is the story of the Pye family, and how they adopt a dog, and then it is lost, and (SPOILER) eventually found.  But I enjoyed it much more as a historical record of how people lived at the time (which to me reads a bit more late 40’s early 50’s than the suburban glory of the mid 50’s, but whatever).  The Pyes are funny and sweet, and I even found myself hoping Ginger would be found.  So much for judging a book by it’s cover (or in my case, jacket blurb). A good read for younger kids.

AND, I realized as I read this that Eleanor Estes wrote The Hundred Dresses which was possibly the most devastating book I ever read as child.  Did any of you read that one? Sadder than Where the Red Fern Grows AND Bridge to Terebethia.

61. The 21 Balloons,  William Pene du Bois

“There are two kinds of travel”

This one (the 1948 winner) may be out of print, which would be a shame, because it’s a fun read. It is the story of Professor Wlliam Waterman Sherman, who sets of on a year long balloon trip, only to land on the island of Krakatoa, where he finds an amazing civilization.  After the volcano erupts, however, he ends up adrift in the Atlantic Ocean (long story), and is rescued at the last possible second.  He returns in triumph to San Francisco, and tells his amazing story.  

The book is piffle, of course, but fun piffle, and the illustrations are fun too.  Fun, especially if you like adventure stories on the fantasical side.

62. The Whipping Boy, Sid Fleischmann

“The young prince was known here and there (and just about everywhere else) as Prince Brat.”

The heir to the throne is known far and wide as Prince Brat, for all of his horrible antics. Alas, the law forbids spanking the heir to the throne, so Jemmy is taken from his life in sewers to become the Prince’s Whipping Boy.  Jemmy is miserable and determined to run away - and it seems the Prince has the same idea.  Soon the two of them are off on a journey that will change them - and their relationship forever.

So.  This is the 1987 winner.  It is super super short, and yet, my kids got bored.  The thing is, anyone with a brain sees where this is going from, if not page one, as soon as they take off together.  And they barely have characters, given that it’s a 90 page paperback.  And the adventures aren’t quite madcap enough to cover up for that, at least for an adult.  And, as I said, my kids weren’t into it.  It’s not bad - it’s a fun, short, read, but I can’t help wondering what it was up against that year. 

63. The Slave Dancer, Paula Fox

“In a hinged wooden box upon the top of which was carved a winged fish, my mother kept the tools of her trade.”

This 1974 prize winner is the story of Jessie, a young boy who is out running errands for his mother one day, and instead shanghaied to go play his fife on a slave ship.  You see, they need someone to make the slaves dance, so they just don’t die of apathy on the long trip home.  Jessie is horrified, but stuck with his lot, and the novel tells this terrible story.

It’s quite good, and the parts with the slaves dancing are harrowing.  You can see this is the sort of book that was used for years in units to teach children about the horrors of the slave trade, as well has how tough ship life was generally.  And it does all that very well.  I don’t think I’d read it to my kids, though - not because I want to sheild them from these topics (don’t forget, I’m the person who took my kid to a boron mine and a Japanese-American detention camp on the same day), but to the extent we are going to read about the horrors of slavery, I’d rather read something that is more from the perspective of the slaves themselves.  This book is beautifully written and very moving, but in this day in age, I’d prefer something that comes from the voice of the enslaved people, not just a white person’s pain in experiencing slavery.

64. Miss Hickory, Carolyn Sherwin Bailey

“Miss Hickory heard heavy footsteps, clump, clumping along the stones of the pasture, then approaching her lilac bush.”

Miss Hickory - the 1947 winner - is a sweet little tale about a doll that gets left outside for the winter and needs to learn to fend for herself.  Luckily she’s a wooden doll with a hickory nut head, so she fits right in with all the outdoor creatures.  It’s a slow book, for sure - lots of the plot is like, Miss Hickory teaches the lady pheasants how to make the male pheasants pay attention to them.  Or, Miss Hickory moves into a robin’s nest and decorates it with leaves.  If you were very into slow old fashioned books about nature this might be your bag.  My kids (who, granted, like books about magic the most) HATED it.  Like they wouldn’t let me finish reading it to them, and it was only 121 pages long.  So, there’s that.  But I found it quaintly enjoyable, especially once I stopped reading it outlound and got to finish it in about 20 minutes.

65. Hitty Her First Hundred Years, Rachel Field

“The antique shop is very still now.”

Hitty (the 1930 winner)  is basically a better version of Miss Hickory.  And it won first, too - way to go back to the lesser well, Newbery winners!! It too follows the life of a doll, Hitty, over a hundred years of her life, but Hitty has way way better adventures than Miss Hickory did. She was made by a peddlar in Maine, she got stuck in a tree, she was owned by a sea captain’s daughter and went abroad, she lived with Quakers, and in a city, and met Charles Dickens, etc. etc.  Much more fun for me (though I’ve already showed my anti-animal and nature book bias).  Not to be sexist, but I can see a little girl quite enjoying this book.  Or some little boys - not just the ones I gave birth too.

66. The Door in the Wall, Marguerite de Angeli

“Robin drew the coverlet close about his head and turned his face to the wall.”

This book, the 1950 Newbery Winner, was a book that was always around when I was a kid.  And for some reason I never read it, deeming it, in my gender constructed way, a “boys book.”  And now I have read it, and it’s actually pretty good - probably so good I should have put it higher on this list, but it happened to be on the bottom of the pile and I am too lazy to cut, paste, and renumber.

Anyway, it’s set in England in the Middle Ages.  Robin, son of Sir John de Bureford, knows he will be raised to be a knight, just as his father.  But due to series of complications, he ends up alone in the home while plague strikes.  Left for dead he is rescued by Brother Luke from the local monastery.  Brother Luke provides him a home - but how can he ever be a knight, now that his body has been wrecked with disease, and his legs crippled?

Very very good on both authenic medieval details, and on the emotional life of Robin - he feels like a real person, but not a modern one.  His problems and feelings are truly of his time (or, I don’t know, what it seems like that would be, having never been a person who lived in medieval England).  

67.  A Visit to William Blake’s Inn, Nancy Willard

“Will you come?” said the Sun.

“Soon,” said the Moon.

Ok.  This one.  This is a whole different kettle of fish.  A Visit to William Blake’s Inn won both the 1982 Newbery and Caldecott Awards (for picture books).  And on that I cry foul. I don’t know if no one wrote any good books in 1982, but this 100% a picture book - not at all on the same plane as any of the other books I’ve read so far.  Which isn’t to say it isn’t a delightful picture book - Williard has imagined an inn owned by William Blake an written a number of poems about it that are sweet.  The illustrations are absolutely perfect, and I think this is an award winning book. I just don’t understand why, for this one time (at least so far in my quest) the Newbery is a 44 page picture book instead of a children’s novel.  BUT, if you  like Blake and poems, you will like this.

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017