Newbery Pie

A review site


October 2015

The Summer of the Swans: The 1971 Newbery Winner

Hi! Welcome to this week’s Newbery Pie! Today, Sara and I will be discussing The Summer of the Swans, the 1971 Newbery winner.


Sara’s Review: I should have already read Summer of the Swans because it is on our Elementary Battle of the Books list, but it is one of the few selections that I didn’t read. I really enjoyed it , and it was a fast read. The author, Betsy Byars, is from my home state of North Carolina, and I share a name with one of the characters. It is even spelled the same way.

Sara is a fourteen year old living with her aunt, her older sister, Wanda, and her younger brother, Charlie, who is described in 1970s terms as “mentally handicapped” because he never speaks. Sara is his strongest defender. One time she soaks a girl in a silk dress with a hose for calling him a “retard,” and her biggest enemy is the boy she thinks stole Charlie’s watch. At the same time, she is resentful at having to be responsible all the time.

The main event of the story is the family waking up one morning to find that Charlie has disappeared. Sara, whose biggest concern up to this point is her disastrously dyed tennis shoes, is determined to find him.

Sara really isn’t a likable character in the beginning; she complains a lot and is very judgmental. I couldn’t help but compare her to Julia from Up A Hill Slowly. They both lost their mother, and are living with their aunts instead of their fathers. While Sara defends a character against bullies, Julia participates in bullying of a character. However, that character is her brother, not a classmate. How can we say that Julia would not have done the same thing as Sara under different circumstances or vice versa?

I think as we think about book characters to remember that as human beings, we do not fit into categories, and we develop and evolve over time. I know that I’m better at 37 than I was at 17 or 27. Even now, some days I know I am not my best self. And I agree with what Benji said in his Up a Hill Slowly review: who wants to read about boring one-dimensional characters anyway?

I give it four out of five Newbery Pies.

Benji’s Review:

I jokingly told Sara that I hoped that I would hate this one, so I could say, “The best part about this book was that I found a copy at the thrift store for 79 cents (true story)” in my review. Alas, I didn’t hate it at all. It would have made a great line.

I don’t know if I found Sara’s character totally unlikable. She was a pretty normal teenage girl, over-worried about looks and unimportant things like that. That’s just part of being a teenager, I think. I immediately found some redeeming qualities in her, her fierce love and devotion for her brother being the biggest. She may have been rude and obnoxious to a lot of the other characters, but as a sister, she was exactly what Charlie needed. Her temper and fiery personality made it tough for her to apologize to Joe Melby once she realized she was wrong about the watch incident, but she did, and that said a lot to me about how much she had grown up in the two days in which this book takes place.

There were a lot of amusing scenes, like when her sister’s boyfriend gets her aunt to ride on the motor scooter, and when Sara dies her shoes puce, accidentally. Those tone in those parts of the book reminded me a lot of It’s Like This Cat.

The one part of the book I really didn’t like was Sara’s relationship with her father. I’m ok with a character having a poor relationship with a parent. That’s just the way things are sometimes, but it seemed like it was just mentioned, but never really dealt with, even at the end when he calls. It felt like an unfinished part of a story in which everything else is wrapped up pretty neatly.

I also give the book 4 out of 5 Newbery Pies

Next up: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH


Sounder: The 1970 Newbery Medal Winner


Hi! Welcome to this week’s Newbery Pie. Today, we’ll be discussing Sounder by William H. Armstrong. As usual, we’ll start things off with Sara’s review.

Sounder appears to be almost the complete opposite of our last book, The High King. It is short, barely over one hundred pages. Where The High King has a long cast list of character names to remember, the character list ofSounder is quite short, with the dog being the only named character in the story. We have a family of sharecroppers enjoying food that is an obvious luxury to them, a luxury because the food is not theirs. A police officer comes and arrests the father and their dog, Sounder, gets shot trying to chase after the vehicle who takes away his master. I do not want to give away the entire story, but I didn’t enjoy this one. I know that some people think that there is never an excuse for stealing, but I think the brutality the father receives as punishment for his crime was just too much. There is also a gruesome part about the boy putting Sounder’s severed ear under his pillow. I guess the one glimmer of hope in the story is the boy gets taken in by a teacher and taught how to read. As a teacher and a librarian, of course this saved the book for me. In terms of dogs, Sounder is about a loyal as they come. The most important thing to him is seeing his master again, and nothing, even death, interferes with that. In terms of painful Newbery books, this one was nowhere near as difficult as I, Juan de Pareja, but it wasn’t my favorite. I’m going to give it 2.5 Newbery pies. Benji didn’t tell me I could give half pies, but he didn’t tell I couldn’t. 😉

Benji’s Review

I seem to have enjoyed this one much more than Sara. It was a really dark story, but the late 19th century was a really dark time for African American sharecroppers. Despite the darkness, though,There was a LOT of hope in the book. The boy hoped that they would somehow manage to get food to eat. After his dad was arrested, the boy hoped that he would be able to come home soon. He hoped against all of his mom’s advice that Sounder wasn’t dead. He hoped that he could get his hands on a book so he could teach himself to read. He may have been really naive, but in the end, his relentless hoping does pay off, and he finds himself in a better situation. I felt like hope was a recurring theme in the book.

The book did something that I really didn’t like in Where the Red Fern Grows, but I didn’t mind it so much in Sounder because I felt like it was done for different reasons. I’m talking about the narrator giving us the name of the dog, but not naming any of the other characters. I felt like Rawls did it in Red Fern because she was trying to manipulate our emotions. As a reader, we felt closer to the two dogs than any of the human characters because we didn’t even know their names, so when the dogs are finally killed, we’re supposed to feel it more intensely. It didn’t work for me. I felt like Armstrong didn’t give us the boys name, because he was basically every black boy during that time. They were all struggling to eat, a lot of them were all missing fathers who had been abused by the system and were arrested for minor things like stealing a ham. He didn’t need a name because he could have been anyone from that community.

Now, the ending for the boy was by no means, the case for every African American living at that time. The opportunity that the boy gets at the end wasn’t available to all, and I kind of felt like Armstrong was saying, “If you just keep on hoping and keep working for it, your dreams will come true!” Which is kind of a high handed tone for a white author in the 70’s to take, but that’s really the only thing about the book I didn’t like. It was well-written and concise, and I appreciate that.

I give it four out of five Newbery Pies.

Next up: The Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars

The High King: The 1969 Newbery Medal Winner


Welcome to this week’s Newbery Pie! We’re finishing up the 60’s this week with the High King, the 5th and last book of the Chronicles of Prydain. We’ll start with Sara’s review.

Guess what happens when you try to read the 5th book in a high fantasy series (pun intended) without reading the others, and the author does little to reintroduce characters or explain what has already happened. Confusion. Lack of focus. My mind wandering. I put the book down several times; it felt comparable to reading a foreign language where you’ve had a couple of years of study and then you try to read a novel, yet you are nowhere near ready.

First challenge: who is who? Here is a helpful wiki site I found:

It is not light reading though and I was still confused. Then I found a movie!

No, I didn’t cheat to get out of reading! I was born in 1978 and I vaguely remember the 1985 release of the Black Cauldron. I accessed it via Amazon Instant Video. The Wiki page described it as a critical and box office bomb. It also mentioned that it terribly departed from the books (it was supposed to cover the plot of the first two). However, I found it helpful in setting up who was who among the main characters (although some were left out) and detailing the basic premise of the series (oracle pig, cauldron that can call the dead back to life, love story between an enchantress and who we assume-to-be a lowly assistant pig-keeper).

Once I understood the story, I did enjoy it for the most part. It was long and tedious at times, although I loved how Taran and his crew often defeated their enemies with their brains rather than brawn. One time, they melted a frozen sheet of ice that turned into a waterfall and washed their enemies away. My favorite character was Eilonwy. She was amazing, right there fighting alongside Taran and the others. I like that she wasn’t a damsel in distress; she was a very fitting role model for girls in 1969. Movie Eilonwy is a typical Disney princess. If the movie had been really popular,  she could have been princess royalty along with Belle, Ariel, etc., but alas, it was not to be. She’ll just have to be a kickass book character instead.
I got so mad at how I thought the book was ending that I almost threw it across the room. However, to say anymore spoils not only the end of the book, but the whole series. If you want me to tell you why, DM me on Twitter at @sralph31. Alexander fixed it though so I can give The High King 3.5 pies.

Honestly, I do not see myself reading the rest of these because I already know the outcome and there are too many great new books to read.


Benji’s Review

I’ve heard it so many times this year when I tell people that Penderwicks in Spring  is my favorite for the 2016 Newbery Medal. “Yeah, it’s a good book, but does it stand alone?”  (I do think it does, for the record, and I even got one of my students to read it who hadn’t read the rest of the series. You can read her interview here if you want.) I don’t know when this whole stand alone thing became an issue, but it was definitely some time after 1969 because The High King definitely does not stand alone, and it still won the Newbery medal.

Like Sara, I was really confused in the beginning trying to figure out who everyone was and what their backstories were. Alexander definitely seems to have expected his readers to read the other four books before attempting this one. (Speaking of Alexander, he called Jenn Holm! Like on the phone. Sara directed me to this Nerdy Book Club post, and I loved it.) The Wiki page helped some, and I did start enjoying the book before too long. I do feel like the mini-giant would have been funnier if I had known more of his back story, and the partings at the end would have been more sorrowful if I had been with the characters for the other four novels.

My favorite character was Fflewddur Fflam. I loved the idea of a bard whose harp stings broke every time he stretched the truth, and instead of just learning to tell the truth, he was just repairing harp strings all the time. Storytellers, huh? A dishonest bunch of people. I made me wish I had read the other books, and known more of his tale.

In the end, I did really like the book. It was a bit long, but there’s nothing in there that didn’t really need to be. I just have a lot of reading on my plate, right now, so longer books tend to frustrate me a little. Luckily, our next book, Sounder, is less than 100 pages!

I didn’t watch the Black Cauldron movie like Sara. I tried to find in on YouTube, but you had to pay, and I can be a cheapskate sometimes.

I probably will read the rest of the series someday. I want to know more about Hen Wen and Fflam, the king who wanted to be a bard, and the tiny guy who drunk a magic potion to become a giant and got stuck in his cave. I give The High King four out of five Newbery Pies.

Next Up: Sounder by William H. Armstrong

The 1968 Newbery Medal Winner: From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler


Hi, welcome to this week’s Newbery Pie. We’ll be discussing a well-loved Newbery Winner, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. 

We’ll start with Sara’s Review:

Reading things as an adult ruins a book sometimes. We tend to overanalyze things and want them to fit very neatly into specific boxes. Being a librarian can make these qualities even worse. Thanks to meticulous (read: nerdy) record keeping that I eventually transferred over to Goodreads, I know that I first read The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler in 2004. I was twenty-six years old, I had one child (which is frankly baffling to even try to remember since now my third, and youngest child, will be eight in about a month) and I was in my first year as a school librarian. Twitter didn’t even exist and I had no inkling that I would eventually belong to the amazing community of educators, readers and authors from the Nerdy Book Club. I didn’t like the book and I scoffed at its beloved status in the Newbery canon. Despite the fact that it was written in 1967, I couldn’t get my head around the fact that two children could stay in the Metropolitan Museum of Art overnight.

I was more than prepared to have suspension of disbelief issues again this go round, and wasn’t looking forward to reading the book again. I even found research to make the reading a little easier. Mental floss has a neat article about the book:

Apparently, E.L. Konisburg did her research and I was wrong about the book being implausible. However, when I started reading the book, such details didn’t matter in the least because my connection with the characters was so strong. You see, I live with a Claudia. My 12, almost, 13-year old daughter, Carolyn, gets fed up with her siblings and her parents, and I’m sure she would love to run away at times. I have also taught over 1200+ 5th graders, which is more than enough to remember that I was kind of like Claudia myself once upon a time. There was a time in middle school when I wanted to go and spend my birthday money on books; my father would not drive me so I decided to walk to the store myself. I swore my sister, Amy to secrecy, and like a loyal sibling, she did not tell my parents where I had gone. I called the house and she told me not to come home! She did give in when they called the police, and my father found me sitting on a lawn chair in K-mart reading a book! Growing up, I haven’t lost all of my Claudia-like qualities. Friends may describe me as kind, but you will not be my friend/follower on social media for long before discovering that I am also very opinionated and outspoken, almost to a fault.

Also, if you like art, I highly recommend this book over I, Juan de  Pareja. Unlike the latter, I did not fall asleep reading the Mixed Up Files even once! I give it 5 Newbery pies!

Benji’s Review: I’m really glad to see that Sara had a change of heart, because Mixed up Files is a really good book. I too, first read it as an adult, but I loved it. I still remember wondering as a kid if it would be possible to stay in the mall or Wal-mart overnight if I hid in a bathroom stall. I think every kid wants to run away at some point in their life, no matter how good they have it. Even if they never attempt it, it’s there in their daydreams, and that’s why I think this book has such high appeal to kids, even today. I wouldn’t hesitate recommending it to one of my students. I’m not sure why I gave it four pies on Goodreads back when I first read it, but I didn’t notice any flaws at all this time around, and without hesitation, I give it 5 Newbery Pies.

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