Newbery Pie

A review site


May 2014

Shadow of a Bull: The 1965 winner

Jake’s Review:Shadow_of_a_Bull

I want to keep this brief so as to not spoil your perception of how awesome this book is. So a recap and then my explanation for why I give it five stars. The Newbery winner in 1965, Shadow of a Bull is the story of Manolo Olivar, approaching his twelfth birthday when he will be expected to fight his first bull, the same age his deceased father fought his first bull. The whole town expects Manolo to become the legend his father was. All of their hopes lie in him, and they are certain that he will be as good if not better than his father. Manolo, however, is torn between his desire to please the people, to maintain his honor and not accrue shame for his cowardice, and his fear of fighting bulls and, likewise, his repulsion at the idea of killing a bull. The tension builds throughout the story, as Manolo approaches the date of his first fight and wrestles with his fears and doubts.


I love this story because I can identify with Manolo on so many levels. I am sure most males could identify with him, although they might not want to admit it. We all feel that pull to “be a man,” yet some of the things required to “be a man,” especially in the south, are not things that appeal to my nature. I grew up, feeling at times inadequate to other male relatives, and I still feel very insecure when I go to 15-minute oil change, as if the greasy men can smell the lack of car knowledge on me. Yet, I, like Manolo, also went through a stage in my life where I embraced who I was: a boy, still very much a boy, yet one who didn’t possess the lust for violence and the need to assert my male dominance. Manolo and I are kindred spirits in that we share that seeminly magic memory when we experienced the relief of realizing there’s no law against being an unconventional male. For that reason, I love this story. It is beautifully told, the main character is very real, and the themes, though I only touched on one, are many and worthy of embracing.

5 out of 5 Newbery pies! That’s the most you can give! Jake’s going all out!

Benji’s Review:

I agree with everything Jake said. When he told me he wanted to read this one, I cringed. I didn’t know anything about this book, but I have experienced a lot of pain when reading Newbery books about horses and cows (Thanks Smokey The Cow Horse) He texted me, though, before I started it and told me that I was going to love it. He was right. This book is really, really good. I usually spend a good amount of time during these reviews going back and forth on why or why not the title we’re discussing is or isn’t Newbery worthy. I’m not going to do that this time. There’s no question that Shadow of a Bull is distinguished and award-worthy. I love how compact the story is. It’s a novel about growing up, becoming a man, facing fears and finding identity all packed into 150 pages. There’s plenty in there about fighting bulls too. I feel like I could do it now. I still don’t feel like the fighting is really fair, though. I mean, the bull gets killed way more often than the bullfighter, and the odds are kind of stacked against him. Several characters in the book say that the bull really wants to die this way, but I call bull crap. (no pun intended.) That bull really would probably rather be left alone to eat and mate and just be a bull. But anyways this book isn’t about the ethics of bull fighting. The narrator doesn’t take a stance.The ending even surprised me a little. I thought Monolo was just going to run away and become a doctor, comfortable being who he was, but no, he actually got in the ring and confronted his fears, and then, after conquering them, left and became a doctor. Beautiful ending. Sorry if I spoiled it for anyone.

Anyways, I’m giving this book 4 Newbery pies. I could, in good conscience, give it five. I loved it, and there weren’t any big flaws that I could see, but I like to save the five stars for books like the one we’re reading next, The One and Only Ivan! Jake has never read it before, and I absolutely love it. I’ve read it several times to myself, and out loud to students, but I’m more than happy to read it again.

Sara’s Review: Manolo is expected to live up to the legacy of his father, the greatest bullfighter his town has ever seen. However, Manolo is terrified at the thought of fighting a bull. I was very sad to learn that a) Manolo’s father died in his early 20’s and b) he left his family with no money despite his grand success as a bullfighter; his supporters and friends give Manolo’s mother money to support the family. This support is one of the reasons that Manolo feels that he has go forward with the training as a bullfighter. As Manolo’s first fight draws near, he turns to his friend Juan for help. Juan dreams of fighting bulls, but his only chance of doing so is in the pasture in the middle of the night, a forbidden and dangerous practice. In exchange for an invitation to his first bullfight, Juan promises to take Manolo along on one of these excursions so that he can see if he has what it takes to face a bull before he shames himself at his debut. When Manolo gets to the fight, he decides to give bullfighting his best effort. However, when it is clear that he can handle the bull with the cape, but not the muleta (the small cloth), he allows Juan to take his place, fight the bull and receive the glory.


I never expected to be so enthralled by a story about bullfighting. I loved that Manolo doesn’t completely quit without trying, but knows to stop before he gets himself killed. I also think he is an amazing friend to Juan. In this novel, bullfighting is definitely a “depends on who you know” sport, and it really shows Manolo’s strength of character that he uses his failure as a chance for Juan to be successful.
When reading and reviewing an older Newbery book, it is always interesting to think about what else was published that year. Other books published in 1964 include Across Five Aprils, which won a Newbery Honor, Harriet the Spy and The Book of Three (the first in the Chronicles of Prydain series whose final book, The High King, won the Newbery Medal). Sometimes, we wonder what the committee was thinking when they chose the book that they did. And while I do love Harriet the Spy, I think Shadow of a Bull was the right choice for 1965 and I give it 4.5 out of 5 Newbery Pies.



Newbery Extras: Mr. Colby Sharp and John Schu recently finished up their own Newbery challenge, and I always end my reading of every book by watching their videos to each other about the title we’re reading. Colby’s video for Shadow of a Bull is too hilarious not to share. He is dead set on getting a cow in his video, but he is slightly afraid of being shot by a farmer, so like young Monolo, Colby must face his fears and prove to  himself that he is indeed a man. His two minute epic quest to film a cow is too good to miss. Watch it here.

I was really impressed with Travis Jonker’s new cover for Shadow of a Bull.



Onion John: The 1960 Winner

Hey, guys! Guess what? Jake’s back for a book or two! I’ve spent the last few weeks slogging through the 1920 winners, and now that summer has arrived, Jake has a little more time to read, and we’ll be skipping around taking some titles out in a hodgepodge manner. This week, it’s Onion John the winner of the 1960 Newbery. Fun fact, the author Joseph Krumgold is the first Newbery author two win the medal twice. It has happened three times, I believe, since then, most recently this year when Kate Dicamillo won again for Flora and Ulysses.  960 is also the year that My Side of The Mountain, one of my favorites as a child, won a Newbery Honor. I talk about that much more in my review.Enough trivia. On to the reviews!


Update: Sara just finished Onion John, so I’m adding her review today.


onion john

Jake’s Review

Published in 1959, Onion John was the winner of the 1960 Newbery Award, and despite the fact I haven’t read every Honoree, it seems well-deserved. A first-person fiction, the main character, Andy, writes as he would talk, a style that is often semi-grammatically correct yet with a southern edge. The story moves quickly, yet focuses only on a few months in Andy’s life, when he first meets Onion John, the strange man who lives on the outskirts of town in a makeshift house and speaks his own language. It would seem that Onion John’s peculiar language and superstitious beliefs (for example: that hanging rocks from a tree will make the apples decide to fall) are a mixture of mental disorders and the fact that he is an immigrant, unsavvy of normal 1950s American living standards.

Long story short, Andy becomes the only person who can understand Onion John’s strange language and, thus, also becomes his only friend. When Andy’s dad gets involved, however, things worsen. His dad insists on “domesticating” Onion John by ridding him of all his superstitions and building him a “proper” home, thus also doing away with Onion John’s entire way of life. The town gets behind this idea and builds him a new house, but when Onion John, not used to a normal stove, tries to start it with newspaper, the house burns down, and Andy pleads with his father not to rebuild the house. Likewise, Andy’s dad is always trying to prove to Andy that he, Andy, is incapable of making his own life choices and must, therefore, depend upon his father, who has Andy’s entire future mapped out.

I give this book four out of five Newbery pies, because it does two awesome things: 1) it reveals 1950 society’s belief that “father knows best,” and 2) it tells the story of a boy who seems to subconsciously want to rebel against his father’s wishes but because of his love and loyalty for his father, befriends a man that no one cares to take the time to understand. Like Andy, Onion John is surrounded by people, led by Andy’s father, who want to improve his life without ever even asking him what he wants. The way Andy’s town tries to “help” Onion John by deciding his lifestyle for him is a mirror for Andy to look into, reflecting the way his father tries to “help” him. Andy sees in Onion John the same desire and hope he has: a desire and hope to make his own decisions, torn between listening to the people who wish to help him and running away from them all at the same time.

In Onion John, we are reminded of the power of choice, how anything done against one’s will, even if some  loved one has the best intentions for making you do it, will never be done with passion but rather begrudgingly. We’re reminded that free will is what allows one to not only choose a path but blaze it with a sense of purpose and, thus, find fulfillment in life. Due also to this book’s unique storyline, I’m going to have to give this novel at least a good 4 out of 5 Newbery pies and could possibly be persuaded to give it 4.5.

Benji’s Review

I went into this book feeling skeptical. As a kid, one of my favorite books was My Side of the Mountain, which got an honor in 1960, the year that Onion John won. My Side of the Mountain is still being read by kids all over the world. A kid is probably reading it right now as I’m typing this. I’d be willing to bet that there aren’t 50 kids in the world who have read Onion John this year. I hadn’t even heard of it before a month ago, and yet the 1960 committee thought it was better than My Side of the Mountain. I had my doubts.

Despite my skepticism, I really liked this book. I didn’t love it. No, it’s not better than MSOTM, but I can see how it fit the time period better. It was published in 1959, and the world was changing. You can even see it in the book. It has a Leave It To Beaver small town kind of feel. But the father in the book is talking about the space race, and how men will be on the moon in less than two years, (It really took 10 years, but people of the late 50’s were optimistic) and he’s constantly encouraging his son, Andy, our main character to be part of this change. Andy, though, seems to want to hang on to the 50’s, and his home town Serenity. He starts hanging out with the town eccentric Onion John, a much older man, who has some crazy ideas, but is still well-beloved by the people of the town. To Andy, Onion John has always been a part of Serenity, and he kind of sees him as a sort of stability in a fast changing world.

Andy’s dad notices this, and decides to try and modernize Onion John by having the town build him a new house to disastrous results. Onion John just can’t be changed by simply getting a new house with modern appliances. It’s an odd, sometimes sad book, but it’s no doubt a pretty good book. 

So, the big question needs to be answered. Why did the 1960 Newbery Committee chose this book over a book that would go on to become a well-beloved classic of children’s lit? (I really do think this is 2nd biggest miss in Newbery history. It’s only behind Charlotte’s Web losing the gold to Secret of the Andes) I think there are a few answers. The first is, Joseph Krumgold was, at the time, a huge name. He had already won a Newbery Medal (no one else had ever won it twice before this book) and people were probably excited to read a new kid’s book from him. Jean Craighead George wasn’t yet such a big name as she is now, and the committee had no way of knowing how big MSOTM was going to be. Sometimes if an author, who has already written an excellent book and has a big fan base puts out another decent book, people are impressed with her overall talent and good things happen. You can see it with this year’s winner, Flora And Ulysses. It might not have been the best book of the year, but it was decent, and Kate Dicamillo has done great work all of her career, so her book took home the gold when maybe there were more deserving titles out there. I think that’s partly what happened here.

Another reason I think the 1960 committee chose Onion John over MSOTM is because it fit the time period very well. 1959 small town life is depicted perfectly in Onion John. It probably had lots of readers in the 60’s, but when the world turned and time passed, people moved away from this book just like they eventually moved from My Three Sons and the Dick Van Dyke Show. MSOTM is a timeless book that fits in with any time period, but the 1960 committee saw how well Onion John described their current world, and they chose that one.

Anyways, what happened happened. I would have never read this book if it had just won an honor instead of a medal, so maybe it’s good that it won. I really enjoyed the books theme of contentment vs. aspiration. Being happy with what you have vs. striving for better, you see it in Onion John’s desire to keep his life like it is, even though the town is trying to force him into a new house and in Andy’s desire to stay in Serenity and run the hardware store after his dad, even though his dad is trying to send him to the moon. I liked that the main character was a kind person. That always makes a book more enjoyable for me. I would give it 3 and a half Newbery pies.

My favorite quote from the book: “A bathtub was a beautiful statue, Onion John told me, of a hole in the ground.”

Sara’s Review:

Onion John is a weird, eccentric person, who is friends with 12-year old Andy. He lives in a run down shack with no electricity. He is a well-known, accepted part of the community. Onion John is happy with his life until the townspeople, led by Andy’s father, insist on building him a new house. I found the whole storyline to be very weird, and could not relate to it at all. The best I could come up with is The Andy Griffith Show; I live about 45 minutes from the town that is the inspiration for the show. The lesson is rather obvious: when you help someone, make sure you are doing what’s in their best interests, not what you think is best.

The part of the book I enjoyed most was the storyline is the father-son conflict based on Andy’s life plan. He wants Andy to attend MIT, become an engineer and astronaut and be the first person to walk on the moon. It is as if his father is living vicariously through Andy, pushing his son to do things that he missed out on doing. However, as a parent, I could relate to the sense of pushing your child to achieve bigger and better things than you did. Of course, this plotline connects back back to giving Onion John the house he doesn’t want, and the overall idea of the historical time period in which the 1950s “Father Knows Best” patriarchy is beginning to break down.

I didn’t find the writing particularly spectacular, and I am a little perplexed on why it won the Newbery. I give Onion John 2.5 Newbery Pies.


Next up: I think we’re skipping to Shadow of a Bull the 1965 winner.


Here are a few Onion John extras.

Here is the 90-second Newbery video for Onion John

Here is Travis Jonker’s New cover for Onion John in his “Covering the Newbery series.” Nice, right?


Gay-Neck: The 1928 winner and Trumpeter of Krakow the 1929 winner, too.

OK, so I’ve finished Gay-Neck, and I guess I see why it was in the Newbery discussion. I don’t think it was better than Downright Dencey, though. For some reason, the Newbery Committees of the 1920’s only saw it fit to give the award to men. Some will say, “But not so fast. Several women won honors those years. The problem with that is, there were no honors back then, they just gave a list of a few runners-up. They weren’t back-labeled as Newbery Honors until much later.  You and I both know that runner-up is really just another way of saying “loser.” Interestingly, something happened in the 30’s. I don’t know if ALA was getting some heat for only picking men for an entire decade, but only women won for the entire 1930’s. I have never heard this discussed, and it amazed me when I saw it. Only men for the 20’s and only women for the 30’s. Interesting.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about Gay Neck, really. It wasn’t as good as Dencey, but it was better than all of the previous winners except for Doctor Dolittle. I liked the freedom that the author took with the narrators, switching back and forth from boy to pigeon. It almost felt kind of magical, like we were actually entering Gay-Neck and taking over his body for a few pages.  Gay-Neck was a pretty good storyteller, too. I liked the WWI scenes. 1928 wasn’t that long after WWI, so I felt like a lot of the action was probably accurate. I liked the India descriptions. I actually felt kind of sad that Everest isn’t this holy place anymore untrodden by humans like it was when this books was published, and like the narrator comments. I wondered if the peoples of Nepal and India lamented while the rest of the world was celebrating when Edmund Hillary achieved his great feat.

Gay Neck was definitely one of the least difficult books of the 20s. The language is still pretty accessible, and it’s really short, especially if you just read Smoky the Cow Horse.  I still don’t think I would have much luck getting one of my students to read it, unless I just happen to come across one someday who happens to be obsessed with pigeons.

Next up would have been Trumpeter of Krakow. I’ve read that one pretty recently, back in 2012. I don’t remember a whole lot about it except for the basic storyline, and the fact that it was dry and boring like most of the other 20’s winners. I can’t force myself to read it again, right now. I’m eager to move on the the 30’s and the era of the women. In my opinion, by far, the best American children’s book of the 1920’s was Downright Dencey.

On to the 30’s! First, though, Jake and I will BOTH be reading and reviewing one from the 60’s, Onion John. He picked up a copy at his school library, and wanted to read it, so I’m game to skip ahead a few decades in order to have some company.



Downright Dencey: a 1928 Newbery Honor

I kind of feel like reading through the Newbery is like hiking the Appalachian Trail. If you only stick to the white blazed trail  you’re gonna see some cool sights, but in order to see a lot of the breathtaking views, you have to take some side trails, sometimes even a whole day’s hike away. Yeah, it’s going to make your whole AT hike a bit longer, but it’s going to also make it more memorable because you saw that amazing view that you wouldn’t have seen if you had just stuck to the trail.

If you just read the gold-stickered Newbery winners, of course you’re going to read some good books, but  you’re not going to get a clear picture of what Children’s lit was like at that time. You’re going to miss the Charlotte’s Webs and the Because of Winn Dixies. Lots of the time, the real gems are the honor winners or even the books unmentioned by the ALA Youth Media Awards (Wonder and Okay for Now anyone?) With this in mind, I’ve decided that I want to try to read at least one honor from each decade. Hopefully, one that I’ve  heard of or read before, or one that has gotten great reviews. For the 20’s I decided to pick up Downright Dencey by Caroline Dale Snedeker.


I picked it because I had read somewhere that Beverly Cleary really loved this book growing up, and I’m super glad that I did. If I had just read through the winners as planned, I would have totally missed this treasure of a novel. First, let me say that I have been really disappointed and a little confused by the winners of the 1920’s so far. With the exception of Dr. Dolittle, maybe, they have all been kind of dry, boring, and not at all kid friendly. There were two that I will probably hate for the rest of my life (The Dark Frigate and Smoky the Cow Horse). I was confused because I know that I’ve read kids books published before 1920 that I really liked. (Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, all of Nesbit’s books) So why are most of the 1920’s Newbery winners terrible? Then I realized that most of my favorite pre-1922 books were written by women, and for some reason, not a single woman won the Newbery in the first decade. A few got honors, such as Dencey, but not one woman won the gold. I don’t know if it’s just outright sexism, or if the committees were confused by the man on the medal, and thought that it had to go to a man, but yeah. No women won, which is a shame, because, even though I haven’t finished Gay Neck yet, the book that won in 1928, I can promise you, it’s probably not nearly as good as Dencey.(maybe I’ll eat my words next week, but I really doubt it) Downright Dencey is better than any of the previous Newbery winners, including Dr. Dolittle. The setting is terrific. Not only did it make me want to live in 1812ish Nantucket, but it kind of made me want to go live in a Quaker community now. The thing that upset me so much about Smoky the Cow Horse, the narrator’s contempt for the “half-breed” Mexican, is totally reversed in this book. There is an interracial character, who the community as a whole despises , but not only does the author redeem him, she makes him a focal point of the story in a positive way. It makes me feel better about the past that there were people like Caroline Snedeker out there to balance out the Will Jameses.

The language might be a little tough for some kids, since the Quakers had to use Thees and thous, but I got over that really quickly. The only question for me is, can I get my students to read this book? I’m definitely going to try!


Next Up: Gay Neck, the Story of a Pigeon (for real this time)

Smoky the Cow Horse: the 1927 winner

I woke up to a beautiful morning. It was a stereotypical beautiful morning. The sun was shining, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was nice and cool. We’re in the middle of an pleasant Alabama spring, which lasts for like two weeks before the scorching heat sets in, and makes everything miserable until November.  By far, though, the most beautiful part about waking up this morning, was that, as of  last night, I was no longer in the middle of Smoky the Cow Horse.

I’m finished! Through! I feel like a newly released prisoner, stepping out into freedom for the first time in years.

I know it sounds like I’m being dramatic, over-exaggerating a little, but I really don’t feel like I am. I disliked this book that much.

The first 1/3 of the book was tolerable. I kind of liked seeing Smoky in the  wild, it was a tad boring maybe, but it still had potential to maybe pull out a three star rating from me. I didn’t hate it in the beginning.

Aesthetically, the second third of the book drove me crazy. The author was obviously stretching the story out as far as he could take it. He told us the same things over and over again, then he would give a little anecdote to illustrate the point, and then he would make the point again, almost like the “In conclusion” part of a 10th grade research paper. Smokey was ornery towards other people. He only liked Clint. I figger that’s cuz Clint was nice to him. One day another man tried to ride him, and Smoky bucked him. Smoky only liked Clint. He was ornery towards other people. It goes like that for many, many maddening pages.

By the last third of the book, I was pretty much over it. Any other book, I would have abandoned by this point, but I want to read through the Newbery winners, so I had to keep going. (It felt much like The Dark Frigate all over again) I was tempted to just skim, but I stayed strong and slogged my way through. James was still boring me and saying the same things over and over again, but I didn’t have any real strong content objections to the book, just aesthetic ones.

Then, all of a sudden, Will James got all racist on me. I read a few reviews of the book before I started it, and I didn’t see any mention of this, so it really shocked me. It comes out of nowhere, you feel like you’re getting to the end, you’re gonna make it, and then BAM! Will James jumps out and makes his boring redundant book, a racist, boring, redundant book. I’ll just let you see for yourself.

There’s this guy stalking a bunch of horses. Smoky is in the group, and the guy’s going to steal the horses. The narrator, stops to describe the guy.  “A half-breed of Mexican and other blood thats darker…he was a halfbreed from the bad side, not caring and with no pride.”

It kind of slapped me in the face. What did he just say?

The narrator doesn’t call this character a man any more after this. From then on, he calls him “halfbreed” sometimes, but usually just breed for short. The breed beat Smoky with a stick. The breed tried to sell him etc.

I kept on reading. This “breed” is a pretty mean guy with no redeeming qualities. It struck me that James didn’t even do that with the horses. There are good horses and bully horses in the book, but the narrator is sympathetic to them all. The bullies have reasons to be mean. The “breed” is only bad because of his skin color. It seemed to me that James believed that people with dark skin were worth less than horses.

A little while after I thought this, the narrator pretty much goes and says the  same thing himself.

He calls the guy a “scrub of  a degenerate halfbreed and not fit to be classed among humans.”

There’s another scene later in the book. Smoky has become a cart-pulling horse, and a man of a dark complexion is beating Smoky with a whip. (It would seem from reading this book that white people didn’t beat horses. Everyone else did.) Clint takes the whip and starts beating the guy. The sheriff sees him, and tells him in a joking manner (the book says he’s grinning as he says it) “Say Cowboy…don’t scatter that hombre’s remains too much, you know we got to keep record of that kind the same as if it were a white man, and I don’t want to be looking all over the streets to find out who he was.” 

I’ll just let that speak for itself.

I read some  reviews from other Newbery travelers, and they couldn’t get past the western language and intentional misspelling in the book. I didn’t have a problem with that, at all. It fits the tone of the book, and even seems a little poetic at times. The other issues I had with the book totally eclipse that.

I know that I’m looking at things through a 2014 lens, but how did this blatant racism not make people uncomfortable, even in 1926? I know that it was a different time and people saw things (and each other) differently, so I accept that this book was publishable in 1926 (It definitely wouldn’t be now) but the Newbery? A committee of educated librarians thought that this was the best book of that year for kids? If I ever heard my son calling someone a halfbreed, well, let’s just say there would be very extreme consequences.

I read somewhere that there are only two children’s books that would have been eligible for the 1927 Newbery still in print. Smoky and the 8th Dr. Dolittle book. (Smoky wouldn’t be if it wasn’t for that medal) A lot of the good children’s books from this time were coming out over seas. such as Winnie the Pooh, but come on. Pick something else, anything else, in which the narrator doesn’t demean a group of people, and treat them as if they are worth less than horses. I know the eight Dr. Dolittle book probably wasn’t the best of the series, but is it racist? No? Ok, let’s give it the medal.

This is the first time I’ve said this, but the 1927 Newbery committee let us down. Big time. The more I think about this the more upset I get. I’ve even thought about weeding this book from my library. The only thing making me hesitate is that shiny gold medal on the front. But to be honest, Smoky the Cow Horse has kind of taken some of the luster off of the Newbery for me. I need to keep reading them, to get that specialness back. They can’t get much worse than this one, right?

Next up: Gay Neck, the Story of a Pigeon

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