Newbery Pie

A review site


November 2015

The Slave Dancer: Winner of the 1974 Newbery Medal

slave dancer


Happy Thanksgiving! Why not sit down and have a big slice of Newbery Pie? This week we’re discussing Paula Fox’s The Slave Dancer.  As usual. Sara will kick things off.

Sara’s Review: 

Young Jessie is a boy living in New Orleans. While out wandering one night, he is kidnapped and taken to be the “Slave Dancer” on a ship that illegally transports slaves from Africa to Cuba. His main job is to play a fife to exercise the slaves on their trip over the Atlantic. This book was disturbing on so many levels. I have the original edition from 1973 in the library. It contains illustrations that are not reprinted in other editions. Many of them make me wonder if I should reconsider having this book in my elementary school library. Then there are graphic descriptions of the violence the captain reigns down on the crew and the slaves. One crew member receives a beating for supposedly stealing the captain’s food. If the slaves appear to be diseased, the captain just chucks them into the ocean. The worst part was a scene near the end where the crew make the slaves dress up in women’s clothes (regardless of gender) and then treat them as “guests.”

Paula Fox is an excellent writer, but the story dragged in several places. I was all set to give this book two pies until I read the justice she meters out for the captain and other members of the crew. They are stuck in a storm and the ship sinks, drowning everyone except for Jessie and one slave boy (most of the slaves were chucked over the deck when the crew fears being caught by another American ship) who wash up on the shore of Mississippi. An escaped slave takes Ras in and helps Jessie get home. Benji seems to be able to find hope in books of groups of people being treated horribly (Sounder comes to mind), but I am quite the cynic. This time, I think The Slave Dancer attempts to be hopeful, but I can’t quite buy it. As happy as I am the crew got their just desserts, hundreds of slaves died right along with them; doesn’t seem quite equitable at all. When I have time, I need to research slave ships; I’m thankful that most historical fiction books published today do this legwork for us by providing details of the author’s research in notes at the end of the book.

I give The Slave Dancer 3 out of 5 Newbery Pies.

Benji’s Review:

I agree with most of what Sara said. It is a pretty dismal book, but the writing for the most part is very good. I found the climax a little lacking, though. An American ship was approaching the slaver ship, and it seemed that justice was coming. Instead, a big convenient storm came and wiped everyone except for Jessie and Ras. It was almost like the author didn’t really know how to tie things up, so she just destroyed everything with a big storm.

I did like the complexity of the novel, though. As a boy, Jessie is intrigued by the slave markets, and tries to peek in as the slaves are being auctioned off. After his experience on the slave ship, he won’t have anything to do with slavery. He has to move north to get away from it. To me, he really grew as a character.

The relationships on the slave ship, were pretty complex, too. Jessie found himself liking some of the slavers more than others. His best buddy ended up being the same guy who stuffed him in a sack and  forced him to work on the slave ship, and the guy who was kindest to him (I got the feeling that his  kindness had some other, very creepy motives) ended up being his enemy. Jessie found himself feeling compassion towards the slaves and being repulsed by the at the same time. He definitely wasn’t a perfect character without any flaws, and I appreciated that. I found him to be likable and very believable.

All in all, it was a pretty good book. Like Sara, I found myself questioning whether or not I should keep it in my elementary library. I think the 5th graders can handle it, but I don’t know about younger students.

I give it 3.5 out of 5 Newbery Pies.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving everyone!












Julie of the Wolves: The 1973 Newbery Winner


Hi! Welcome back to Newbery Pie. This week, we’re discussing Julie of the Wolves which won the 1973 Newbery medal. We’ll start things with Sara’s review.

Julie of the Wolves is divided into three parts. In the first part, we find Julie (Miyax), lost and starving in the Alaskan tundra. On her way to San Francisco to visit (live with?) her pen pal, she has run out of provisions, and must turn to a pack of wolves for help. Fortunately, Julie grew up living on the land and is able to survive until the wolves accept her into their pack. This part of the book just about put me into a coma. It was a slow start to say the very least.

Luckily, the story picks up in part II. In this section, George flashes back to the events that led up to Julie running away. We learn about her father, Kapugen leaving her so she can attend school, Julie’s marriage at thirteen, and then her flight after her husband attempts to consummate their marriage. I found myself enjoying the story and sympathizing with Julie, especially when she finds out her father dies seal hunting.

In the final part of the book, Miyax is back with the wolves. She learns the realities of life in the wolf pack, including what happens to a wolf who becomes an outsider, and the harsh reality of a confrontation with the wolves’ enemy – humans. This book could have ended like Hatchet or Island of the Blue Dolphins with a child character surviving the elements and learning how to adapt to life in the wild. I admit, I would have enjoyed the story much  better had it ended that way, but George goes a different route. Julie meets two humans and finds out that Kapugen is alive. What should be the happiest moment of her life turns to be the opposite when she find out that he has turned his back on the Eskimo way of life, marrying a white woman and living in a modern house. Worst of all, she concludes that he is responsible for killing her wolf father, Amaroq. After discussions with Benji, I think maybe that George uses this new Kapugen story as a vehicle for the sequels she wrote about Julie, but to me it didn’t seem fitting based on how he was presented earlier in the book. I guess a child’s idealism of their parent has to end at some point, and that could be what George was trying to depict, but it definitely put a damper on the book for me as a reader.

I give it 3 out of 5 Newbery pies.

Benji’s Review

I first read this book 3 years ago, and loved it. I loved the Hatchet-like survival story, I loved the Eskimo culture, and I even appreciated the ending which I thought was pretty realistic as Eskimo culture was becoming Americanized back in the 70’s. One scene, though put me off this time. I remember reading it last time, though, but I didn’t take time to process the message that was being conveyed. I guess that’s why we reread books,

The scene I’m referring to is when Julie sees her reflection for the first time after living in the wilderness for months and nearly starving. Her face is thinner and less round, and she’s pleased because she thinks that she looks more like a white girl. This set off all kinds of alarms with me this time around. Was George saying that Eskimo girls all want to look like white girls, and that they should starve themselves to get there? That may have been an overreaction, and maybe I was hearing things that George wasn’t saying, but that’s what was going through my head at the time. After finishing the book, I think that maybe George was noticing and commenting on the decline of Eskimo culture. Possibly, she was lamenting it in this scene, and definitely at the end. It would have been an easy scene to take out, there’s really no reason for it being there, except to make a statement about something, and I think that’s what George was doing.

Unlike Sara, I liked part one very much. I was fascinated by the wolves and how Julie learned to communicate with them, and even get food from them. It did move a little slowly at times, but I guess it”s like having a scene in a book with a loaded pistol that is never used. It’s tough to have a fast-paced novel with wild wolves that never attack, at least not until Jello does in part three.

Honestly, I didn’t mind the ending. I thought it was powerful. Julie has this man who she idolizes and has up on a pedestal. We see that he might not have been as good of a man as Julia thinks, (one of Julia’s relatives tells her that her dad didn’t ever do anything good again after her mother died, and we find out later that he was best friends with an alcoholic bum, another man Julia admired AND he never once tried to contact Julia or keep up with what was happening in her life, until she ran away. He just gave her a way out of life with her aunt by having her become engaged to a guy he didn’t know with some serious mental health issues who later tries to rape her) but Julia doesn’t see all of that. He’s just her dad, a man she respects an admires. When she realizes that he is actually the man she despised for killing the leader of her wolf pack just for fun, she decides to go back into the wild, only to change her mind after her bird dies. She has to face her father, even though she knows what he really is now, and she has to make sense of what is happening to the Eskimo people. Their culture is fading, and their lives are changing. It kind of made me want to read Julie, the sequel. Maybe one day.

I’ll give it four our of five Newbery Pies.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH the 1972 Newbery Winner


Hi! Welcome back to Newbery Pie. This week we’ll be looking at Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien.

Sara’s Review: Mrs. Frisby has a problem; her son Timothy is sick with pneumonia and unable to make the early Spring move to avoid Mr. Fitzgibbon’s plow. The solution comes from the Great Owl: go to the rats to have them move her house so that it is safe from the plow. As soon as she enters their rose bush, she discovers that they are no ordinary rats. Their leader, Nicodemus, tells Mrs. Frisby the story of their captivity at a research facility called NIMH, where they received injections that enhanced their intelligence and life span. He details their escape, temporary life at a mansion, arrival at the Fitzgibbons’ farm, and their eventual plan to survive without stealing from humans. Most shocking of all, Mrs. Frisby learns that her husband was at NIMH and that he died trying to drug Dragon, the Fitzgibbons’ cat. In order for the rats to move her house, Mrs. Frisby will also have to drug Dragon!
My favorite childhood book was Charlotte’s Web and if I had to choose my favorite as an adult, I would say The One and Only Ivan. Based on these titles, animal fantasy is obviously on my list of preferred genres. I love this book and enjoy it more every time I read it. As a mother I identify with Mrs. Frisby’s plight completely and find her brave and admirable.

Being the “old” one, I remember a 1980s animated film adaptation titled The Secret of NIMH. The screenplay writers glossed over the NIMH story and added a goofy amulet, but the characters were great, especially the shrew (renamed Auntie Shrew). My husband and I quote one of her lines all the time, [about Martin] “Cast not pearls before swine, I always say, and that includes impudent little piglets. Good day!”

I give Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH 5 pies.

Benji’s Review: I had never read this one before, and for some reason, I really struggled with it for the first few pages. It just reminded me a lot of the other talking animal books that we’ve already read on the Newbery trail, specifically Rabbit Hill. I had heard so many good things about it, so I knew that the whole book couldn’t be as dull as I was finding the beginning. It got a lot better, though, as it when on, especially once the sci-fi elements of the story got going. I specifically liked how as the rats became more human-like, they got caught up in the futility that is the pointless upgrading to nicer things without any real improvement to their quality of life. I liked the moral dilemma that they faced. They would never be really happy while they were living on stolen goods. They were going to have to go out and create resources for themselves to find any kind of satisfaction. (hmmm. I didn’t realize that this book could have a kind of conservative political message while I was reading it) Someday, I want to read the sequels to see if Mrs. Frisby’s children get mixed up with the Rats of NIMH in the future. The story seemed a bit unfinished to me once it was all over.

I give it 4 out of 5 Newbery Pies

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