A few more Newbery books

I am still working slowly on my challenge to read all the Newbery medal books. Here are three I read recently:

1. Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo

This was the 2014 winner that I picked up at a yard sale a year ago for fifty cents, if I remember right. It features a cast of quirky characters, chiefly a squirrel who gets sucked into a vaccuum cleaner and turned into a hero.

I have to admit that at first I thought the book was too silly. But it grew on me. Now I have to smile when I think back on Flora's father, who introduces himself and says "How do you do?" as a nervous tic, or the revolting shepherdess lamp that Flora and we as the readers love to hate.

The illustrations are cute and funny as well. I think this would be a fun one to read with the kids sometime.

2. Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

I borrowed this one from the library. It was the 2011 winner. I personally don't care much for time-slip novels, where you have two storylines happening in different times. They tend to bore me (though one exception I can think of is Hidden Among the Stars by Melanie Dobson, which was excellent). I think there are way too many time-slip novels in the adult fiction world without adding any to juvenile fiction.

I could appreciate how tenderly the author wrote about Abilene, the main character, trying to figure out what her father's story was and understand why he would send her off to live with an old friend while he disappeared. The love between a father and daughter is heartwarming. Also I thought this author made an important point that you rarely see in kid's books. Without a doubt parents ought to try to understand their kids and we ought not to lean on our young children or think they should take care of us instead of the other way around. But in a broken world sometimes a hurting parent needs understanding from their son or daughter. I enjoy reading Rebekah Matt's blog and she wrote beautifully about this:


Still... I did get a little bored with Moon Over Manifest. The book's title was delightful, though. I love a great title or first line.

3) Dicey's Song by Cynthia Voigt

This was an older one -- the 1983 winner. I can remember seeing it on the library shelves for as long as I've been browsing the children's section. Why didn't I ever read it? I really enjoyed it, even the cheesy 80s cover art which made me feel like a kid again.

Those covers used to make me wonder if the person who designed them even read the book or just read the blurb and decided to go from there. On this cover Dicey is leaning against a shabby upside-down boat on the beach, but in the book the boat never even leaves the barn. Typical mistake for cover art back when I was a kid.

The four Tillerman children are trying to settle into a new life with their Gram, who has lived alone, widowed and estranged from her children for years. Their mother is in a sanitorium far away in Boston. Their father walked out years ago.

I just found out this is a middle book in a series about the Tillermans but I was able to read it as a stand-alone without any trouble. It just describes some of the problems they work through, like the youngest brother's anger issues and how their sister can't seem to learn to read and how Dicey isolates herself. One fascinating part of the story was that while the children are changing and growing, their grandmother is also changing and growing because of her choice to take them into her home. She says something to Dicey that I found touching and profound. This is after Dicey is falsely accused of plagiarism by her teacher. ("He" here is Gram's deceased husband.)

I stuck by him. But I got to thinking, after he died -- whether there weren't things I should have done. He wasn't happy, not a happy man. I knew that, I got to know it. He wasn't happy to be himself. And I just let him be, let him sit there, high and proud, in his life. I let the children go away from him. And from me. I got to thinking -- when it was too late -- you have to reach out to people. To your family too. You can't just let them sit there, you should put your hand out. If they slap it back, well, you reach out again if you care enough.

She tells Dicey that she doesn't want her to stop reaching out, just because her hand got slapped when she reached out to her school. And Gram leads the way in example by reaching out to a lonely man who becomes their good friend, proving that it is not too late. The book had a hopeful message, even with a sad ending. I couldn't hold back a few tears in the last few chapters of the book. Maybe I'll have to read the other two books in the series.

Bonus: recently I discovered Michael Morpurgo's books for children. Being an English author, he can't win the Newbery medal, of course. I loved all of his books that I read, which was three or four that were available at the library. They seem like especially good books for boys. Adventurous and character building. I'd be glad to give The Day the World Stood Still or The Butterfly Lion to my boys to read in a few more years when they are old enough. There was a third one I read that I am forgetting the name of. I think it was called Eagle in the Snow. Based on a fascinating legend of a soldier who almost -- but didn't -- shoot a young Adolf Hitler in World War I.

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