Part 3 of 3 about the Newbery Award. Absolutely everything should have an assumed “In my opinion” affixed. Longer reviews of most books—everything I read this summer—are on Goodreads. All dates signify the year the book won the award (which is the year after it was published), unless otherwise specified.
You can find a full list of Newbery winners and Newbery Honor books here.
The Newbery Medalists I Think Are Best:
The Westing Game (1979). This is everything a Newbery should be. It has serious messages, appeals to a wide range of people, is endlessly entertaining, teaches without trying (I love how it gets people to laugh at racism and classism as being ridiculous), and features brilliant writing.
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1968). Again, very entertaining with great messages. The characterizations are terrific. The kids do things that are “bad”, but they learn their lesson (and not in a pedantic way). There's mystery and suspense. Even though I'm not a “Claudia”--far from it—I enjoyed reading about her.
The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1959). This book has so many layers to it; there's so much to learn from it. All the characters show development. The relationships are beautiful, especially between Kit and Judith and Kit and Uncle Matthew. It never fails to be realistic. As a modern teenager, I could identify with Kit—and yet she does not seem like an anachronism. Every fact about colonial America that we learn, every custom that is described, has a place in the story; there's no instruction-for-instruction's-sake.
A Wrinkle In Time (1963). I have trouble knowing what to say about this. It isn't my favorite Madeleine L'Engle, and it's hard to let go of that and say why it's GOOD, but very few books are so unusual and wise and creative. Meg is a particularly real person.
The Twenty-One Balloons (1948). This is maybe the only really controversial choice here, but I LOVE this book. It's funny and suspenseful. I love reading the details about the balloon house and the balloon inventions. I only wish we got to spend more time reading about life on Krakatoa visiting the variety of ethnic restaurants.
Five Books That Are Great That You Maybe Haven't Read
The Wheel on the School (1955)—I just loved this sweet and funny and clever book. If only it had ended after about two-thirds of the book, I would probably call it a favorite; but it went on just a little too long. I can't describe it without making it sound dull, but it's about a bunch of kids in the Netherlands who are trying to attract storks to their town. Everybody learns more about their neighbors and their community; everyone they get to know has hidden depths; and it all comes together beautifully.
Onion John (1960)—I never thought this would be good, but it has a great plot about sons and fathers and how they misunderstand each other, and also how what you want for someone else might not be what they want. The father's Club takes on a new service project: building a fancy new house for the local indigent. It's funny. Seriously.
It's Like This, Cat (1964)—okay, NO ONE I recommend this to loves it as much as I do, but I really liked reading about New York in the 1960s, I liked the narrator's growth, and I liked the variety of characters.
I, Juan de Pareja (1966)—it's about painting, kind of like The Girl With a Pearl Earring. That's a genre I enjoy, and it's thought-provoking and intriguing.
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! (2008)--if you haven't gotten to the latest winner yet, I assure you, it's really good. I could pore over this book for hours. The pieces are sometimes sad, sometimes funny, often both; and the historical material is interestingly written.
Since My Top Five are All Books I Read As a Child, My Favorites From the Project
The Wheel on the School (1955), Criss Cross (2006), Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1972), Hitty, Her First Hundred Years (1930), Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! (2008).
Other Newberys I Think Are Really Good
Miracles on Maple Hill (1957), The Grey King (1976) (it's really one of my favorites, but I think it loses a lot if you haven't read the other books), The Giver (1994), A Gathering of Days (1980), A Year Down Yonder (2001), Lincoln: A Photobiography (1988), Dear Mr. Henshaw (1984), The Matchlock Gun (1942), The Hero and the Crown (1985), A Single Shard (2002).
Anything else, I think is good (on a wide spectrum). Except for:
Newberys I Did Not Enjoy
*Walk Two Moons (1995): I read this before and confess that I don't remember it well enough to say why I didn't like it. I know I didn't like the way American Indians were portrayed, and I didn't believe the story or the characters.
*Secret of the Andes (1953): I didn't think this was well-written at all. The protagonist's voice is unbelievable.
The Dark Frigate (1924): the story was dull to me, and the writing was convoluted.
*Summer of the Swans (1971): the characterizations were sort of inadequate, but the real problem with this is the way it talks about the mentally challenged child. I'm sure it wasn't offensive at the time, but it's incredibly dated now. I wouldn't recommend it to children.
*Maniac Magee (1991): some of my problems with this were due to the nature of the book—it's meaningless to say “Maniac didn't seem real to me” because he's supposed to be larger than life, that's the whole point—but that kept me from enjoying it very much. I could excuse that. But the disconnect between the white and black communities in this book is so broad that I thought it seemed silly; and I didn't want to read about white people who were planning violence on black people and believed black people were going to attack them. Yeah, the message of the book is that racism is bad, but I think it would have been better—even SCARIER—if it had been presented more realistically. Racism in our society isn't usually about violence or ridiculous notions (like thinking black people eat different food from white people); it's far more insidious. Do we want kids thinking that racism primarily means being physically afraid of people of another race?
*Rabbit Hill (1945)—this was just silly. The ending was sticky-sweet.
*Miss Hickory (1947)—very cheesy, creepy illustrations, bizarre ending. I can't even imagine why this was chosen.
*Tales From Silver Lands (1925)—dull. I can think of many, many more-interesting folktale collections.
*Daniel Boone (1940)—terrible writing, glorifies violence. Daniel Boone does not come off well.
*Dobry (1935)—this is one book that I can only assume was chosen because of an exotic setting (Bulgaria). It was dull, and the writing was not good. This is the only Newbery I rated with one star, though I hate Secret of the Andes more because it beat Charlotte's Web and is so clearly not as good (and I'm not even a huge Charlotte's Web fan).
*Call It Courage (1941)—I called this something that would be published in Boy's Life. The values are not values I agree with, and they are broadly presented—courage and killing stuff conquers all—and some of the events don't make any sense. (If he's so timid and always hangs back when other boys are doing things, where did he learn all this stuff about survival?)
*Smoky, the Cow Horse (1927)—I did not like the written-in-dialect thing, most of the story was very slow-moving, and the racism implicit in the villain was disgusting.
*Amos Fortune, Free Man (1951)—the implication is that Africans were lucky that white people took them on and civilized them through slavery. Amos Fortune tells you so himself, if only in action; other characters tell you in words and actions both. And did you know that African Americans aren't very smart, or hard-working? Except for Amos Fortune. If only they were all like him. Well, he isn't really smart, but he is so nice.
Really, there were some other books I didn't like much, but either it wasn't worth putting them on my “dislike” list here, or I can tell it's just because of my own biases that I didn't like them and they were probably pretty good.
That's it! Unless you have any questions. I am happy to discuss any books in detail, and hear about any agreements and disagreements. It's been really fun, but I love this feeling of freedom to read whatever I want now.