Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Serious Books Win the Newbery

Just after the 2007 Newbery award announcement, J.L. Bell wrote in this post about the undeniable fact that Newbery committees tend to favor "serious" books.
For the Newbery Medal for children's literature, that means contemporary and historical fiction about Overcoming Hardships, societal or familial, almost always prevail over humor, adventure, and fantasy or science fiction. Stories that bring us into Other Cultures also have an edge, as long as those cultures are real. Of course, there are exceptions, like 2004's Tale of Desperaux, but the pattern holds up generally over several decades of winners. It's just the way our culture tends to think.

I looked back over the list of Newbery Award books (just the winners, not the honor books), and I found:

54 fairly serious books of contemporary and historical fiction about overcoming hardships.

19 books set in foreign countries, other than Britain.

14 books that could, very loosely, be classified as somewhat humorous, although most of those still dealt with serious themes, too. Example: Caddie Woodlawn is historical fiction about a girl growing up in a frontier town. It has humor, but it's also about being brave and facing the hardships of frontier life.

12 sort of fantasy-ish/science fiction books. Almost all of the fantasy and science fiction books were, again, serious books with grand philosophical themes. Except for The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle and maybe The Tale of Despereaux, the latter of which I haven't read yet.

Pure adventure? Roller Skates? The Westing Game?

So, are the books that really last, the classics, really all serious? I can name some classics that are certainly not serious: The Three Musketeers, all of Wodehouse's books, Anne of Green Gables, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Are these the exceptions that prove the rule?

Rule: Award-winning books must be Serious Books that deal with a Serious Theme ---mostly.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Mixed-Up Files

This is one of the few Newbery winners that I read and loved as a child, though I never could remember the title correctly - I always mixed Konigsburg up with Frankweiler, and just last week I wrote "Frankenweiler".

Mostly, I remembered the kids living in the museum, sleeping in the antique bed, hiding in the bathrooms, and fishing money from the fountains for their meals. Somehow I thought that they made soup from ketchup from the free packets at fast food restaurants - but that scene wasn't in The Mixed-up Files, and a couple of files in my own brain must have been scrambled over the years. I do remember thinking about this book when my family went to the Art Institute and the Field Museum in Chicago when I was little. Chicago was also one of the places that I saw fountains with coins (there weren't any such fabulous things in my small town!), and I dreamed about swimming in the fountains around the sculptures, scooping up all that cash.

On my re-read, I appreciated the complicated characters that Konigsburg created (and illustrated! I didn't realize she did the wonderful drawings, too): Claudia, with her love of comfort - especially baths - and her careful planning, secrets, and her need for the occasional argument and something different; Jamie, the impulsive yet thrifty third-grade cardshark; and Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the domineering, wealthy, eccentric narrator.

Claudia reminds me more than a little of my mother:
"She didn't like discomfort; even picnics were untidy and inconvenient: all those insects and the sun melting the icing on the cupcakes. Therefore, she decided that her leaving home would not be just running from somewhere but would be running to somewhere. To a large place, a comfortable place, an indoor place, and preferably a beautiful place. And that's why she decided upon the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City." (p. 5)
My favorite quote, though (apart from the one Alicia already described about happiness here) was Mrs. Frankweiler's statement about knowledge:
"I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It's hollow." (p. 153)
The whole bit about Mrs. Frankweiler and the experience of motherhood is something that went right over my head when I read it as a child, but that I appreciated today. Also, when I re-read The Mixed-up Files, I suddenly remembered my childhood satisfaction with the surprise ending involving Saxonberg. I still liked it, and indeed I still loved the whole story. Unlike the commenter who said that "as a kid, the promise of excitement was there in a museum" but that it wasn't the same as an adult, I still get excited at museums, even after working in one for years. Those drawers of artifacts and all of the files with their type-written letters and the carbon-copy replies still hold secrets and exciting stories.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Summer of the Swans

Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars won the Newbery Medal in 1971. I was able tell by some of the language and clothing that it was set in the 70s. There are also some drawings on the inside that dated it a little. However, I believe that this is a timeless story. We see a 14 year-old girl, Sara, caught up in the "misery" of her own life. Her feet are too big, her arms to thin, and her nose is too crooked. All of these things are brought into perspective when her 10 year-old mentally handicapped brother, Charlie, goes missing. This is the story of the day her worldview changed.

Swans is a quick and easy read. It probably took me a little over 2 hours. Faster readers could do it quicker! This story had exactly what I felt was missing when I read "Jacob Have I Loved". Both main characters really looked at the negative things in life, and both are named Sara! Sarah in Jacob Have I Loved found a way out of her circumstances but never really saw how negative she had been. It was all justifiable to her but it never was to me as a reader! Sara in Summer of the Swans really comes around and sees what is truly important in life.

None of the characters in the book are flat. Byars does an excellent job of telling the back story of Charlie, the mentally handicapped brother. I also really liked Aunt Willie, who has been taking care of them since their mother died. Her older sister Wanda is in the story for a shorter time, but I think that is what allows Sara to really respond to her brother's disappearance.

I realize I have not yet mentioned the swans! The title of the book comes from the excitement that is caused when 5 swans show up in a lake in Sara's small town.

In the final pages of the book we hear about this mental picture that she has of each of her family members on a set of stairs representing their different stages of life. I think that this represents a moment of growth for Sara and that it was a great conclusion to the story.

I couldn't help but think that this story would be very different if it was written today. Unfortunately, I don't think children would be nearly as excited to go see swans for entertainment. I also realized how corrupt my own mind was when I thought to myself that if Charlie had gone missing today that there are far more dangers that he could have encountered. But this was a simpler time, and I think that is one of the main reasons I enjoyed it so much.

Two thumps up!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Despereaux and Friends

Gor! This is a beautiful story. It reminds me of the movie The Princess Bride, which has a certain clever yet sweet humor and style that's hard to describe to someone who hasn't seen it. I really do need to get that video so my kids can see it soon. I'm looking forward to sharing The Tale of Despereaux (by Kate DiCamillo) with them just as much, which should tell you something about it (if you're a Princess Bride fan, anyway).

DrBacchus has already written an eloquent post on The Tale, but I'd like to put down some of my favorite passages here:
"Have I mentioned that beneath the castle there was a dungeon? In the dungeon, there were rats. Large rats. Mean rats.
Despereaux was destined to meet those rats.
Reader, you must know than an interesting fate (sometimes involving rats, sometimes not) awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not conform." (p. 25)

" 'Is that proper, do you think? Wouldn't that make this into some kind of topsy-turvy, wrong-headed world if a king played music for a bug?' " (p. 29)

"Unfortunately, a rat can hang from a chandelier for only so long before he is discovered. This would be true at even the loudest party." (p. 107)
The Tale of Despereaux is full of beautiful but sadly uncommon words, like adieu, egregious, perfidy, cauliflower-eared, and jig. The stories of Despereaux, Roscuro, Princess Pea, and Miggery Sow intertwine in a delightful, suspenseful, and ultimately satisfying manner. In short, I'm very, very happy to have read this book, and I'm looking forward to reading more by Kate DiCamillo.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Island of the Blue Dolphins

I know that I read Island of the Blue Dolphins (the 1961 Newbery winner) by Scott O'Dell as a child, but before re-reading it this week I remembered little about it except that I didn't like the story. Back then I thought it was disturbing and depressing, and my Scholastic Books paperback with the beautiful cover (I think it was this one, and I do remember loving the cover) sat undisturbed on the dusty end of the shelf with the other books that I didn't really like.

It's still not my favorite Newbery winner, but as an adult I was able to appreciate the beauty of O'Dell's descriptions of the landscape and the plants and animals living on and around a small Channel Island off the coast of California. I also appreciated the quiet strength and resilience that Karana shows, and her happiness in her surroundings:
"I felt as if I had been gone a long time as I stood there looking down from the high rock. I was happy to be home. Everything I saw - the otter playing in the kelp, the rings of foam around the rocks guarding the harbor, the gulls flying, the tides moving past the sandspit - filled me with happiness." (p. 69).

"With the young birds and the old ones, the white gull and Rontu, who was always trotting at my heels, the yard seemed a happy place. If only I had not remembered Tutok. If only I had not wondered about my sister Ulape, where she was, and if the marks she had drawn upon her cheeks had proved magical. If they had, she was now married to Kimko and was the mother of many children. She would have smiled to see all of mine, which were so different from the ones I always wished to have." (p. 153).
The second quote also highlights some of the things that disturbed me about this book as a child - stop reading right here if you don't want to hear spoilers!

This girl loses her entire family, including the little brother she stayed to save, and then spends most of the rest of her life alone on an island. The very matter-of-factness of the narrative bothered me. It was one thing to voluntarily spend a year away from your family, like Sam Gribley in My Side of the Mountain (a childhood favorite of mine which I did re-read several times), but to lose everyone? With no idea what happened to them, or if anyone would ever come back for you? I didn't like that at all.

As an adult, a little Googling didn't make this aspect of the book any less sad for me: The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island describes the true story that O'Dell's book is based upon. A woman stayed on the island when her child couldn't be found when the Native community was being relocated to a mainland mission. Can you imagine anything more horrifying? Well, yes, to then have your child killed by wild dogs. To spend eighteen years alone except for dogs and birds, and then when you are finally rescued, to not find your people again. And then to die from a disease from which your people had no natural immunity, only seven weeks after finally re-joining humanity.

I hate to end on a such downer, especially concerning a book that is so loved by many people, but I'm afraid I that that I just couldn't find that "sense of hope" that I've been reading about on the Island of the Blue Dolphins. My childhood 'rating' still stands, but I will be interested to see how other readers feel about it.

Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi

According to the endnotes, Crispin: The Cross of Lead was Avi's fiftieth published book. I've read a couple of other books by Avi and enjoyed them. This one, however, deserved the Newbery award, I think. And it was set in the Middle Ages, my favorite historical period to read about.

Asta's son, a thirteen year old peasant boy, without a name, accused of a crime he didn't commit, meets Bear, a huge and possibly mad, man, who becomes Asta's son's master and mentor. The boy is given the name of Crispin and a cross of lead that belonged to his mother by the priest in his home village, but he must flee the village and the enemies who are determined to capture and even kill him. So, Crispin: The Cross of Lead is a journey/quest story. Crispin must escape his pursuers and find out who he really is and what his purpose in life is to be.

The story takes place in fourteenth century England, and at least one of the minor characters in the book is a historical figure. John Ball was "an English Lollard priest who took a prominent part in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381." Not a great deal is known of Mr. Ball's antecedents, but he was "hanged, drawn and quartered in the presence of Richard II on July 15, 1381." Luckily for the reader, Crispin ends before this untimely and violent end of John Ball the priest. The book does paint a rather dark picture of life in medieval England, probably a rather accurate picture. I want to re-read another Newbery award book, Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray (1943) to compare the two. Adam of the Road is set about a century earlier than Crispin in England, and as I remember it, Adam of the Road depicts a much brighter, more idyllic, picture of medieval life than Crispin does. Another good book for comparison would be The Door in the Wall by Marguerite deAngeli, another Newbery book. All three books would be good read aloud books for a classroom or homeschool study of the Middle Ages.

There's a sequel to Crispin: The Cross of Lead called Crispin: At the Edge of the World, also by Avi.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Caddie Woolawn: The other side

In the comments to my post here, there was this:

I invite you to consider CADDIE from a critical stance that examines the ways that American Indians are presented in the story. I've doing this myself, over at my blog.
I posted a sort-of response, if you're interested. It's good to hear from the other side of the coin, too.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007


I don't have much to add to others' posts. I just wanted to record that I read it and thoroughly enjoyed it. My only disappointment was that I'd seen the movie for the first time about three weeks before starting the book. The movie was great -- perfect for the troupe of nine-year-olds I took to the free showing at our local art movie theater. The movie was a wonderful adaptation of the novel. I noticed that Louis Sachar wrote the screenplay. He is to be credited for modifying the story just enough to make it work delightfully on screen.

Friday, May 4, 2007

A Year Down Yonder

Because of Sandy's comments on her post, I decided to start at the beginning and read Richard Peck's A Long Way from Chicago, published in 1998 before I read the Newberry winner A Year Down Yonder. I am so glad I did because both books were deliciously funny. Both follow the exploits of Grandama Dowdel through the eyes of her grandchildren Joey and Mary Alice.

The subtitle to A Long Way from Chicago is A novel in stories and that is exactly what you find in the book. Joey and Mary Alice visit small town America each summer for seven years. Each year is covered in a short chapter and details the visit of the two young people. Life in the small town south of Chicago is hysterically navigated by Grandma with the children half delighted and half terrified by what might happen next. These chapters could be read as individual stories. We cataloged this book for Grades 3-7.

Sandy gave a great review of the 2001 Newbery winner A Year Down Yonder. This hilarious book follows Mary Alice as she moves in with Grandma Dowdel for a year. Since Mary Alice is 15, the stories focus on topics appropriate and entertaining to older children. In fact, this book was also awarded an ALA Best Books for Young Adults award.

Both books took me back to my childhood. My sister and I always spent the summers in Tennessee, moving from one grandmother to another. Our favorite place was a very small town in West Tennessee with a population of only 7,000. I knew people Peck wrote about quite intimately. Some of them might have been related. My uncle was a Sheriff's investigator and he knew every story there was to tell, often before they even happened. These summers contain some of my most cherished memories and I will read these books again in a few years just to stir these memories.

While looking at some information about Richard Peck, I ran across this poem written by Richard Peck at the Penguin Group homesite for the author:

Twenty Minutes a Day
Read to your children
Twenty minutes a day;
You have the time,
And so do they.
Read while the laundry is in the machine;
Read while the dinner cooks;
Tuck a child in the crook of your arm
And reach for the library books.
Hide the remote,
Let the computer games cool,
For one day your children will be off to school;
Remedial? Gifted? You have the choice;
Let them hear their first tales
In the sound of your voice.
Read in the morning;
Read over noon;
Read by the light ofGoodnight Moon.
Turn the pages together,
Sitting close as you'll fit,
Till a small voice beside you
says,"Hey, don't quit."

Also, you might notice that my posted by name has changed to Library Cat. I am having to do a project for our regional library consortia which requires a blog and for the life of me I could not figure out how to change the posted by name for just one of my blogs - in fact I don't think it is possible. So for now, this will be Library Cat by Flusianna otherwise known as Flusi!


Thursday, May 3, 2007

Caddie Woodlawn

Why is it that we adore some pioneer/adventuresome girls -- Anne Shirley, Laura Ingalls -- and diss others? Why is that Caddie Woodlanwn, ended up at #58 on this list, with the snarky aside: "The 'adventures' of a pioneer girl that leaves modern-day readers wondering 'so?'"? I couldn't imagine someone saying that about Laura, could you?

That's what kept running through my head as I was reading this book. I'd never heard of it until this project; I somehow missed this one as a kid. And, it's not a bad book (I'm not going to sum it up, Flusi did that nicely). It's a bit quaint, but one can chalk that up to writing style and time period. But, I, at least, enjoyed reading it. I enjoyed getting to know Caddie. I enjoyed her adventures; sure they're not really what we'd call adventures -- save her one rash decision to try and save her Indian friends from scared, vicious white men by running off to their camp in the middle of the night -- but they're still a lot of fun. I enjoyed Caddie's good heart (she spent the silver dollar she "won" from her uncle on the three halfbreed children in the town after their mother was sent away. I enjoyed seeing Caddie grow up, realizing that she can't be a tomboy forever, and with encouragement from her dad, slowly taking on the task of becoming a pioneer woman.

It sounds quaint, today, but I really liked this passage (Caddie's father is talking):
[Mother] really loves you very much, and you see, she expects more of you than she would of someone she didn't care about. It's a strange thing, but somehow we expect more of girls tan of boys. It is the sisters and wives and mothers, you know, Caddie, who keep the world sweet and beautiful. What a rough world it would be if there were only men and boys in it, doing things in their rough way! A woman's task is to teach them gentleness and courtesy and love and kindness. It's a big task, too, Caddie -- harder than cutting trees or building mills or damming rivers. It takes nerve and courage and patience, but good women have these things. They have them just as much as the men who build bridges and carve roads through the wilderness. A woman's work is something fine and noble to grow up to , and it's just as important as a man's. But no man could ever do it so well. I don't want you to be the silly, affected person with fine clothes and manners whom folks sometimes call a lady. No, that is not what I want for you, my little girl. I want you to be a woman with a wise and understanding heart, healthy in body and honest in mind. Do you think you would like to be growing up into that woman now? How about it, Caddie, have we run with the colts long enough?
It was such a different time (1864-1865) and place, that, yeah, it could be a little hard to relate to. Would anyone today get sick and tired of turkey every night and actually wish for baked beans and bread, or corn hash?? But it's such a good, honest book, full of love for family, community and country, that I think it still has (or should have) some value today.