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Newbery Pie

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July 2014

 

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Look at that cover. I mean look at it. The publishers of the 1930’s really knew how to hook a kid in, didn’t they?

The cover aside, I was very pleased with this one. It wasn’t the first biography of Louisa I’d read. I’m a big fan of her and her sometimes wise, occasionally very foolish, but always lovable father. It is one of the better Louisa Alcott biographies. It manages to not weigh the reader down with too many details, while at the same time remaining incredibly thorough. Sadly, while I liked it very much, I don’t have a whole lot to say about it, so I’ll keep this review short.

I’m giving it four out of five Newbery Pies (2nd 4 pie book in a row!)

Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze: The 1933 Winner

In Alabama, school starts in early August these days. That means that this week and next week, teachers are putting their flip flops away and are returning to their classrooms to get things ready for another school year. Jake is one of those teachers, and he is having to take a break from the Newberys for a while .This means I (Benji) will be traveling the Newbery trail alone for a bit. While this is sad news, it also gives me a bit of an opportunity to catch up. About a year ago, Jake had read about 30 more Newbery winners than I had, this summer, I managed to pull within 10 titles. Hopefully, by the time Jake returns to the challenge, I’ll be even with or ahead of him.

This week, I read Young Fu, the 1933 winner, and I have to admit that when I first picked it up off of the shelf in my school library, I muttered an unrepeatable word under my breath. Not only was it another Newbery set in the Far East (the previous winners set in Asia were usualy boring, and sometimes a bit racist) but it was a thick, heavy book. Luckily though, the size was misleading. The way it was printed makes it look like a 500-600 page novel, but in reality it was really about 250 pages. For me the story was absolutely charming. I loved Young Fu, as a character and I was totally absorbed into his adventures in Chungking. His journey from boyhood to manhood made for a good story. I feel like the Elizabeth Foreman Lewis had a good grasp of Chinese culture. I didn’t find the book racist or condescending at all.

This probably would have been a three Newbery pie book, but since it surpassed my expectations, and eased my dread, I happily give it four.

Flora and Ulysses, your reigning Newbery champion

This week, we’re discussing Flora and Ulysses the 2014 Newbery Winner!

Jake’s Review: Flora and Ulysses, the 2014 and most current winner of the Newbery award, is nothing short of fantastic. While I have thoroughly enjoyed several of the most recent Newbery winners, the part of my brain that processes entertainment has rarely been so employed. The deeper themes to be explored and discussed in this book are so disguised as to make any book-shy kid only subconsciously realize that they are learning and growing as the protagonist deals with her various relationships. That disguise is the very whimsical tale of a girl who befriends a squirrel who has recently acquired super powers after being sucked into a vacuum cleaner. Random, yet well-told and organized, Flora and Ulysses is probably the funniest Newbery winner I have ever read. Dealing with the problems any typical, angst-ridden middle school-aged skeptic deals with (mainly in the form of her mother), the story is suspenseful, yet consistently ensuring that the reader is relieved by laughter. Housing a host of colorful and comical characters, so unique as to only be found in this one book, one is likely to find him/herself wishing they could be a character in the story. The nice mixture of text and comic book-style pages reinforces the book’s emphasis on the equal power of word and image, which is also done through the main character’s love of comic book’s and her tendency to imagine certain words floating above peoples’ heads. I happily give this book 5 pies.

Benji’s Review: Every year around Christmas time, I experience what can only be described as a Newbery crisis. I realize that the ALA Youth Media Awards are right around the corner, and that the committee will be picking a new Newbery winner and that there are several books getting lots of buzz that could potentially win, that I haven’t yet read, so I start to ferociously cram as many books as I can into myself before the big day. As a librarian, there isn’t much that makes me feel like a failure as a book winning the Newbery that I haven’t read. That happened a few times at the beginning of my career, and it really bummed me out, so I try to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

This year, Flora and Ulysses was one of those books in my cram pile. I read through it in a few hours, and was very impressed. This was a book that I already knew that kids loved. One particular student had already told me that it was her new favorite book, but I wasn’t sure that I would love it. I did though. It was very funny, complex and extremely kid friendly. I immediately started listing more students in my head who I just knew would love it too. I didn’t want it to win the Newbery, though. My heart was already won over by Navigating Early, One Came Home and Doll Bones (Early won a Printz Honor and the other two won Newbery Honors, so I was pretty happy). On my Goodreads, Newbery 2014 list, I had Flora as number 10.

When Youth Media Awards day rolled around, and Flora won, I wasn’t disappointed at all. My thoughts went straight to the kids who I already knew loved Flora, and I knew that they would be thrilled when I showed them the awards announcement. I wasn’t wrong, either. One student had Flora in her lap, and when it won, she jumped up and told her classmates, “I’m reading that right now! That’s what I’m in the middle of!”

The Newbery has come under some criticism over the years for picking books that aren’t very kid-friendly. I have to say, though, the committees have picked winners these last two years. They’ve managed to pick books that are incredibly distinguished, and well-loved by kid readers. It’s hard to do that in a world where Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Captain Underpants rule the circ stats. Even though, Flora wasn’t my favorite to win the 2014 medal, I acknowledge that the committee did a stellar job picking the winner, and the honors. Flora is a book that I love, and one that will continue to thrill my students for years to come.

I give it five out of five Newbery pies.

The Grey King: The 1976 Newbery Winner

Jake and I finaly disagree about a book! I was super-excited when I realized this was happening as we texted our initial reactions to each other. I thought it would be a super exciting knock out debate, but it was really just a difference of opinion, nothing too exciting. Anyways, here are the reviews.

Jake’s Review: I was super excited about reading The Grey King, but I have rarely felt such deflation since reading Twilight. I loved The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley, the 1985 Newbery winner, so I was eager to pick up another fantasy Newbery-winning novel. I understand that this is the fourth of a series of five, and that means that some things were going to be unclear since I hadn’t read the previous three, but I still could not overlook what I thought were glaring inconsistencies and major flaws.

Overall, this story felt like a lazy version of more well-told fantasy tales, such as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. In a nutshell: where Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings give the reader an explanation for why their worlds work the way they do (magic-guiding rules, why the villain doesn’t just attack at certain times, the overall ramifications of each person’s and place’s powers), The Grey King seems to expect the reader to take these things for granted. Everything is very vague. It was more like the plot of a video game, where I’m less inclined to care about the storyline and more about the gameplay. At one point, our main character Will is supposed to find some obscure harp in some obscure mountain by answering three very obscure riddles from three obscure dudes in obscure hoods, and then there’s the part where the Grey King (is he a mist, mountain, wind, or tangible villain? I don’t know) appears as some sort of smoke monster (maybe that’s where Lost got it) and somehow has the power to make Will’s obscure harp heavy. Sometimes, it seems Will can feel the Grey King’s presence, and other times he can’t. In well-told fantasy stories, like Harry Potter, we know why, when, and how Harry can sense Voldemorte, and Rowling offers such explanations for nearly every element of her world. I could go on and on. Where the best writers make their fictional realms seem real, this one never soars past fictional, because I don’t even think the writer ever gave much thought to the ramifications of hers. I’m not saying everyone has to pull a “Tolkien” and write several appendices about their world, but it would sure help if Cooper had given some thought to the way hers worked so that everything didn’t seem like an element from a Zelda video game.

More from the nutshell: characters were so flat, I didn’t care about any of them. The story consisted more detail about rocks and “bracken” than it did the characters, and more often it was whole lot of detail about a whole lot of nothing.

Benji and I had tossed around the idea of us making this review an email debate, and you’ll soon see why: Benji liked it a lot. So this should at least make for a good review blog. There’s a lot more I’d like to say about this book, but I’ll turn it over to my esteemed colleague. I give it a half pie.

Benji’s Review: Half a Pie! Really?! Half a pie!? I don’t even think Jake gave The Story of Mankind a score that low. I could be mistaken about that, but really? Half a pie? I disagree with Jake’s entire review. Yeah, pretty much all of it. I did read the first book in the series Over Sea Under Stone years ago, but I haven’t read books two or three. I think that almost all of Jake’s problems with Grey King have to do with this being the 4th book. Of course the characters are going to come across as flat. They’ve already been developed in the other books. Of course the rules of the magic are going to seem vague and unexplained. They’ve already been explained in the previous books. It seems to me that authors taking the time to reintroduce characters and reexplain the plot and the conventions (magic and things like that) is a fairly new thing. If you were reading the 4th book in a series, an author used to just assume that you had already read the other three. It doesn’t really work that that these days.

Anyways, I really enjoyed this book. I love Wales as a setting. One of my favorite novels set in Wales,A String in the Harp won a Newbery Honor the year after Grey King won the gold. It seems like there was a fascination with Wales and its tales and folklore going on in the 70’s, and I’m totally into that. I thought Grey King was exciting. I love the Arthurian tie-ins, and I thought the Grey King’s foxes were pretty cool.

Like Jake said, we were going to make this a long debate, but really the only reason why we didn’t is because we’re lazy. While we were reading the book, it seemed like a great idea, but after we finished, we were ready to move on to the next book.

I give this one 4 Newbery pies.