2017

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It has taken my two months to write this blog post, despite the fact that I had already read this book before it won the Newbery! I’m just that amazing. (Not really; I just read a lot of children’s books. Also, apparently I’m really not that amazing, since it took two months for me to remember to write this. Whoops.)

The Book: The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

The Deal: A bunch of villagers send a baby out into the forest to be sacrificed to a witch every year, and every year, the witch rescues the baby in question. Usually, she sends them off to be adopted, but one year, she keeps the baby, of course. We all know how this goes. And she also enmagicks it with moonlight, as one does. I don’t know, this book is hard to explain. Basically, as the girl in question grows up, she grows into her magic and THINGS HAPPEN. (God, I am so bad at this.)

The Good: So I really liked this. I would have been excited about a fantasy winning the Newbery no matter what, because it happens so rarely that it’s very exciting when it does — but I’m extra glad it happened to a book I really enjoyed. The writing is beautiful and it has a very fairy tale-esque quality to it that contributed a lot to my enjoyment, I think. It felt like a mix of enough action to appeal to young readers plus sufficient depth to draw in older readers, too. It managed to feel meaningful without feeling somber, which is a tricky balancing act.

The Bad: There’s several stories being told here simultaneously, and while Barnhill draws all the strands together skillfully in the end, it occasionally felt a bit jarring to me to jump from one to the other.

The Verdict: Yay for a fantasy winning the Newbery! Yay for a good fantasy winning the Newbery!

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2016

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Hey, do I win an award for timeliest updating of a blog ever? I deserve a prize. Anyway, the ALA Youth Media Awards were handed out this morning, and while a couple of the Newbery Honor Books were among my favorite kids’ books of last year (The War That Saved My Life and Echo), I’d not read the winner. But I’ve now remedied that! How did you manage that so fast, you might ask? Because — GASP — a picture book won the 2016 Newbery!

THE BOOK: Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena, illustrated by Christian Robinson

THE DEAL: A little boy and his grandmother take the bus across town in some urban landscape, and the boy wonders about the many things that they don’t have — before being taught by his grandmother to appreciate the beauty in everyday things.

THE GOOD: Look, this is a lovely book, and I’m not surprised that it won the Newbery (AND was a Caldecott Honor Book, AND a Coretta Scott King Honor Book, yeesh). It has such an important message about appreciating the things that you do have and being grateful, but it doesn’t come across as at all preachy. And the illustrations are vibrant and beautiful and full of life.

THE BAD: You’re going to have people arguing that this only deserved its Caldecott Honor and not its Newbery, and they have a point to a certain extent. This is a picture book. It is. It’s in the picture book section of my library. It’s 32 pages. But! But! But! I think the concepts that are conveyed here are beyond the grasp of your typical picture book audience, and I do think this is aimed at kids of all ages, so I get where the committee was coming from. But still, that’s going to be a complaint people have, and it’s not totally unjustified. (Although, to go off on a bit of a tangent, if The Invention of Hugo Cabret can win a Caldecott like it did however many years ago, I don’t understand why it can’t work in the opposite direction, too.)

THE VERDICT: It might be the shortest Newbery yet, but it’s not short of substance, and I thought it was lovely.

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2015

Cover of The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

THE BOOK: The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

THE DEAL: Josh and his twin brother JB are basketball players, the kids of a once-great player who was sidelined by a knee injury before he could make it to the NBA. The story is told from Josh’s point of view, in verse, framed into quarters that mimic the makeup of a hoops game.

THE GOOD: I liked this sooooo much more than I thought I would. I love sports, but I am on the record of not liking sports books, and I also generally don’t like novels in verse, and yet I really, really liked this. I thought Josh’s voice and language felt really authentic, and the characters were so incredibly well-drawn. And hooray for diversity! We need more books like this.

THE BAD: I mean, it’s still about sports, and in verse. Two of my not so favorite things. This isn’t the book for everyone–BUT I think the kids it WILL interest are ones that often can’t find books for them on the shelves.

THE  VERDICT: It’s a relief to get to finish this Newbery project with a winner. (And a book that I hope is indicative of the future direction of the medal, for various reasons.)

Blog note: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA <— the sound of my hysterical, relieved laughter at being done with this never-ending project. I am going to go take a long nap until January, when the next winner is announced. Even if I don’t like the next winner, at least it will be better than a book about a twig. Or one in which Native Americans are referred to as savages. Or…you know what, let’s not even go down that road. Suffice it to say: this project has given me some perspective. Even boring books about squirrels are better than overtly racist ones. Hooray, Newbery committee! 

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2014

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THE BOOK: Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo

THE DEAL: This is about a girl named Flora and a SQUIRREL named Ulysses. Yes, friends, that is correct: while we have thankfully made our way past the dark days when a TWIG could be the protagonist of a Newbery winner, we’re not out of the woods yet, Taylor Swift, because a squirrel featured heavily in last year’s winner.

THE GOOD: I love Kate DiCamillo’s writing, most of the time. There are certain turns of phrase in here that will remind you of (the wonderful) Tale of Despereaux, which might make you smile. And there are pictures! Which are a) legitimately good on their own merits, and b) useful at making the agony of this book shorter.

THE BAD: Readers, within the first ten pages there is a moment when Flora is forced to perform CPR on Ulysses to save his little squirrel life after he is sucked up in a vacuum cleaner, and I said to myself, “Self, I do not think I am going to like this book.” And LO. I DID NOT. Squirrel CPR aside, the entire endeavor was too hipster for words, like what would happen if a coffee house lurker in an MFA program in Brooklyn decided to “write something fun for the kids, they like animals right?” and then spent two caffeine fueled days knocking out a manuscript and then a further two days playing around with the fonts on his computer. (There are weird fonts in this book.) The end result: NOT GOOD.

THE VERDICT: I’m not sure if you’re really grasping this, but I didn’t really like this book very much.

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2013

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THE BOOK: The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

THE DEAL: Ivan is a gorilla…who lives in a circus. Get your tissues.

THE GOOD: Okay I was totally prepared to hate this because a) I am over (and, in fact, to paraphrase Ross Gellar, was never really under) sad animal books, and b) it is narrated by a freaking GORILLA. And yet! Call me a sucker, but I really, really liked this. It’s SO SAD and yet I didn’t feel mad about the fact that I was being emotionally manipulated! Circuses are horrible and this book was, in my opinion, a great way to introduce kids to that fact without being too brutal about it.

THE BAD: If you don’t like being emotionally manipulated, you won’t like this book. Or rather, you will have to try hard to get past that fact. I mean, no one likes being emotionally manipulated, I guess, but your enjoyment of this book will depend on your ability to get past that speedbump. I cruised past it; one of my coworkers, however, hates this book, which is fair.

THE VERDICT: I liked! (If by ‘liked’ you mean ‘teared up while eating a sandwich as I read this on my lunch break’. Which I do.)

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2012

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THE BOOK: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

THE DEAL: Set in the (spoiler alert) dead-end town of Norvelt, PA, about a kid named–wait for it–Jackie Gantos, this is a kind of odd blend of fact and fiction (Gantos did in fact grow up in Norvelt, but I’m assuming some of the absurdities in this book are NOT autobiographical). It’s a hard book to describe as it’s full of lots of different plot threads–Hells Angels! Communists! MURDER???

THE GOOD: This book is quite funny. That is its strength, and its humor is strong enough to make up for the fact that this is not generally my preferred genre of reading. I was not excited about this one coming in–it had been sitting on my desk at work for several weeks for lunchtime reading and I think I actually audibly groaned when I finally picked it up–but it sincerely made me laugh out loud multiple times, because it’s full of memorable characters in odd situations that somehow still feel real and believable.

]THE BAD: I don’t think this book is for everyone–the plot is all over the place in a way that I thought ultimately ended up working, but probably won’t be everyone’s favorite.

THE VERDICT: I was pleasantly surprised by this one. I didn’t looooooove it but it made me laugh and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would for sure.

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2011

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THE BOOK: Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

THE DEAL: A twelve year old girl in 1936 spends a summer in a small town while her father is working a railroad job elsewhere; she discovers a box of letters from 1918 and uncovers MANY SECRETS!!!!!!!

THE GOOD: This is, objectively, a very good book. The twining together of the 1936 and 1918 storylines was seamlessly done, the characters are vivid and felt totally real to me, and the ending made me tear up.

THE BAD: You might think, after reading that, that I loved this book. But I actually didn’t! And I don’t know why! I had to force myself to read, and even as I was reading, I would think, “I KNOW this is a good book, truly, but I am not enjoying myself” and I DON’T UNDERSTAND. I did get more into it as it went, but…I don’t know. Perhaps I am weary of Newbery winners set during the Depression?

THE VERDICT: Good book for most people, probably, especially ones without children’s-books-set-during-the-Depression fatigue.

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