Thursday, October 30, 2008


It's been about a month since I finished reading all the Newberys (which happened to coincide with a lot of Newbery talk around the blogosphere, since just a day or two later, an opinion piece that basically said the Newberys were no good anymore was published in the School Library Journal, so I had a lot of good Newbery talk), and this is how it's gone: first, I was ALL EXCITED to read the books I hadn't been able to get to because I was busy reading Newberys. After I read the ones I'd already checked out, I went to the library to get more and found myself... curiously at sea, like I'd somehow forgotten how to choose books for myself. I even fell back on scanning the shelves for medal stickers again, and checked out a couple of Printz and Newbery Honor books. But then I opened My Brother Sam is Dead, read one page and thought "I don't really want to read this"--realized I DIDN'T HAVE TO, and with joy, I tossed it aside.

But there's definitely still a lingering "Reading books I haven't read before is fun" effect. I'm scanning blogs for recommendations, and a few days ago I put a whole bunch of things from my Goodreads to-read list on hold. And now--they're coming in! "Circulation notices" from the library galore! I don't even know where to start. What a delightful situation.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Newbery Report, Part 3 of 3

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

Newbery Report, Part 2 of 3

Part 2 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.


Q: Doesn't it seem like all the Newbery books lately are depressing? How many of them are problem novels?

A: I always thought this, too. It's true that almost all of them are quite serious and deal with serious subjects. But very few are what I would consider “problem novels”--books centered on a depressing subject, where the character is mostly dealing with that subject. Dear Mr. Henshaw (1984) by Beverly Cleary is, I would say, a classic example of a Newbery-quality problem novel. (It's about a boy with divorced parents and the problems he has with that.) There are a few others, but it was hard to pin many of them down that way, and I don't think there are many, if any, Newbery books that wouldn't have won except that they're problem novels. (I do note that an author's most serious work is most likely to be awarded the medal or honored--see Beverly Cleary, Lois Lowry, Jane Langton.) Using a very broad definition of “problem novel”, I could only come up with 15% of the Newberys belonging to that category.

Q: But come on, didn't they used to be better and less depressing? Look at the old classic Newberys. Where's A Wrinkle in Time (1963) or Miracles on Maple Hill (1957)?

A: Well, there aren't many books like A Wrinkle in Time; that would be asking too much. But plenty of the older Newberys are not very good—we just notice the good ones more. And as far as being depressing, sad, violent, inappropriate for children, etc—number one, by far, is Lois Lenski's Strawberry Girl (1946). This story about feuding, violence, murder threats, killed animals, child abuse, and alcoholism would chill people who disliked The Higher Power of Lucky (2007) to the bone.

Q: So if they aren't problem novels, what are they, mostly?

A: Historical fiction. 51, or 59%, of the Newbery winners are either historical fiction or plain historical (there are a few biographies, for instance). Only a few of the books are realistic fiction, about ordinary kids in the US.

Q: What? Why?

A: Maybe librarians like historical fiction. Maybe they think they're less likely to seem dated in twenty years. Who knows?

Q: How many of these books are about orphaned or semi-orphaned boys traveling through medieval England and meeting colorful characters typical of the period?

A: Funny you should ask. There are three books with that plot: Adam of the Road (1943), The Door in the Wall (1950), and Crispin: The Cross of Lead (2003). The Whipping Boy (1987) is a little like that, too.

Q: What other time periods are strongly represented?

A: I actually count eight total books about medieval Europe. Otherwise, they're pretty scattered—three Depression books, a few other twentieth-century historicals, several scattered around the nineteenth century, several colonial-through-Revolutionary-times. And since a lot of the books that were contemporary when written are now more like historical fiction to today's kids (sometimes they're successful as “historical fiction”, sometimes they just seem dated)--well, this makes for a very historical-feeling list.

Q: What else is there a lot of?

A: The “exotic”. This is a little difficult to define, but it's plain that the Newbery committees have often loved books that take place in settings that would be exotic to the average reader. I think there's always been an effort—sometimes misplaced—to make this list multicultural, which has sometimes resulted in a sort of... fetishization. In counting books I would put under the “exotic” label, I'm basically considering books that take place outside the US or pre-colonial England; also settings outside mainstream US culture, like a Navajo reservation. I count 22% of the books in this category. Some of them are really excellent (A Single Shard, 2002), and others are “goodness, aren't other cultures interesting! They eat funny food! Their customs are so colorful!” (Dobry, 1935).

Q: You said there are lots of books about boys?

A: Yeah. 53% of the books have male main characters. 34% have female main characters. (The rest either don't have main characters, or are ensemble books. There are differences of opinion about certain books, such as whether The Westing Game has a main character or not; I vote not.) I think this goes back to that annoying idea that “girls will read books about boys, but boys won't read books about girls”. For one thing, I don't think this is as true as people claim. For another, I think a lot of books that girls enjoy that do have male main characters are not books that boys enjoy anyway. But I think, either consciously or sub-consciously, that some people on the committee must have always thought that if they choose books that they think will appeal to boys, it will encourage boys to read. This is not the purpose of the award, and I don't think it works. And if boys really are reluctant to read “girl” books, let's talk about the way those books are marketed, what their covers look like, and how we react to boys who are reading those books, rather than simply saying that “boys won't read that”.

Q: What about a gender breakdown on the authors?

A: 66% of Newbery winners were written by women. Except for the first decade, there have always been far more women authors honored than men authors. I'm sure that's at least partly due to more women than men who write for children. But it's interesting to note that obviously a lot of women authors chose to write about male protagonists. (Three men authors wrote about female protagonists.)

Q: How about people of color?

A: About 24% of the books have main characters who are people of color, including people of African, Latino, Asian, American Indian, Alaska Native, and Arabic heritage. That's just a statistic, not a judgment of under- or over-representation; I have no idea about that. Some of these are positive representations, some are not, and some are partly positive and partly problematic. I don't know the racial backgrounds of all the authors, but I think I can safely say that since the 1960s, there have been more Newbery winning authors who are people of color, and the portrayals of people of color have been more positive.

Q: So what's under-represented?

A: Funny books. Lots of them are not funny at all, and I only count a few that are VERY funny. There are more of these in the Honors. Maybe they do not have sufficient gravitas for the committees. Also, if any genre is permissible, why is all the non-fiction historical stuff? Where are the books about science and art and math? I understand that they might be reluctant to choose most science-oriented books, out of fears that they would soon be outdated—probably true—but there are probably possibilities in any of these categories. Wouldn't you like to have seen The Way Things Work (published 1988) on the list? Also, books about Jewish children. There's The Bronze Bow (1962), which is about historical Jewish people who are following Jesus; some of the people in Number the Stars (1990); some characters in The View from Saturday (1997). Asian American characters are also rare, although there are several books that take place in Asia, as are Latino characters.

Q: Do you think a lot of the Newbery books have racist elements?

A: Yeah, I do. Some of the stuff I can accept as being “of the times”--Hitty, Her First Hundred Years (1930), for instance, has some racial characterizations that are definitely offensive, but the characters are presented positively, and the author displays some sensitivity; I think it was actually sort of forward-thinking. None of the characterizations have the intent of showing another race to be stupid or “lesser”. I would recommend that book to some kids, with cautions and discussions. On the other hand, in Smoky, the Cow Horse (1927), there's a villain whose primary characteristic is that he's of mixed race. This has clearly doomed him, because, the author seems to claim, such people are born bad. I expect that to be unforgivable no matter what the times were like in which it was written. It also comes down to—does this book have redeeming qualities? Is it so good that people should read it even though it's racist? This is a question people can only judge for themselves.

And I have to give the committees credit: by being willing to honor books about people from a variety of racial backgrounds, they were opening themselves up to this kind of criticism in the future. It's better, perhaps, than if they had only chosen “safe” books about white people.

Q: How many of the books that won are definitely not better than one or more books that received an Honor that year?

A: Not as many as I thought there would be, actually. A lot of times when there was a really good Honor book that you want to think “that should have won”, there was an equally good winner; sometimes when the winner is weak and you think “how did that win”, the Honor pool looks equally weak; and sometimes the winner is really good and the Honors are all really good, and you just have to think, “Wow, that was an amazing year for children's books.” But to be honest, I haven't read enough of the Newbery Honors to judge this very well. Hitler Youth (2006 Honor) is an amazing, fascinating book, but I loved Criss Cross, the winner. I probably would have chosen Hitler Youth, but I can understand why they chose Criss Cross. I haven't read all the Honor books from 2003, when Crispin won, but based on reputation, probably one or more is better. I greatly prefer Charlotte Doyle to Maniac Magee (1991), but Maniac Magee has plenty of fans.

Ones I would definitely put in that category:

Julie of the Wolves (1973) beat The Upstairs Room

Rifles for Watie (1958) beat Gone-Away Lake

Secret of the Andes (1953) beat Charlotte's Web (the most famous mistake, and the worst)

Rabbit Hill (1945) beat The Hundred Dresses—okay, actually I hate The Hundred Dresses, but I know a lot of people love it, and Rabbit Hill is not very good

Call it Courage (1941) beat The Long Winter (this is the second worst mistake, in my opinion)

Daniel Boone (1940) beat By the Shores of Silver Lake

Newbery Report, Part 1 of 3

Part 1 of 3 about the Newbery Award. Absolutely everything should have an assumed “In my opinion” affixed. Any information about the award is taken from the ALA website, except for a few things that I've picked up from people I know who have been on the Newbery Committee. If I've misunderstood and/or misinterpreted what they've talked about, that, of course, is my own fault.

You can find a full list of Newbery winners and Newbery Honor books here.


Q: Who are you to be criticizing classic and award-winning books?

A: No one. I'm just a reader of children's books; I have strong opinions, and sort of old-fashioned ideas about what makes good writing. I tend to be more interested in books about girls. I didn't read any new-to-me Newberys that I liked as well as my favorites from when I was a kid—for one thing, I think I really had read some of the best ones, and for another, it's easier to overlook flaws when you're a kid—so I have a strong bias there. I don't pretend that I could do a better job than any of these writers. I just read 'em.

Q: Why did you decide to read all the Newbery winners?

A: I reread a lot and don't read as many new-to-me books as I could. I thought this would get me to read a lot of different kinds of books that I'd never ordinarily pick up, like books about boys or animals (or boys AND animals), or books with dull-sounding titles.

Q: Hadn't you already read a lot of them?

A: No. To my surprise, I'd only read twelve of them as a child, and I read seven more as an adult before I began the project. A lot of them had titles and covers that were not appealing to me, which led me to believe that most Newberys were not that good; that made me even less likely to pick them up, no matter what the title or the cover.

Q: Did you read all the Honor books, too, or just the winners?

A: No, just the winners. It never crossed my mind to try to read all the Honor books, too, but apparently it has crossed a lot of other minds, because several people have asked me this.

Q: Are you going to read all the Honor books now?

A: Not really. I'm far more likely to pick up a random Honor book now than I used to be, but I don't intend to read all of them. To be honest, I don't think all of them are probably worth reading, especially the older ones—check out some of those titles.

Q: Should I read all the Newbery winners, too?

A: Only if you are compulsive about finishing things, or, like me, you need a shove to make you read other kinds of books. Quite a few of them are not that great.

Q: How are Newbery books chosen?

A: From what I understand (anyone chime in if you know more than me), there's a committee every year, formed from members of the American Library Association (ALA). ALA members can suggest each other for the committee, and I assume you can apply, but I don't think they take outside suggestions. They try to get members from a variety of library types. The members of the committee read a lot of books, then get together, discuss, and vote. Because of the nature of the process, sometimes the “wrong” book gets chosen. Really good books, by their very nature, usually have something that makes some people dislike them. I get the impression that sometimes the winning book is something of a compromise, and that's why it might seem like the Honor books are better than the winners (more on that later).

Q: What is the Newbery awarded for?

A: The most distinguished contribution to children's literature that year.

Q: Isn't it supposed to be, like, a story? What's with the medieval poetry and biography of Lincoln?

A: No, any genre is acceptable, in theory.

Q: Don't you think some of the books are inappropriate for children?

A: No. Books suitable for children up to age 14 are eligible for the Newbery Medal. That doesn't mean every book is suitable for every child, and several of them might not be appropriate for your ten-year-old—they might have been written for your young teenager. It's up to you, as always.

Q: What are the criteria for the award? Some of these books are dumb.

A: ALA defines “distinguished” as: marked by eminence and distinction: noted for significant achievement; marked by excellence in quality; marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence; individually distinct. The elements the committee is supposed to look at are: interpretation of the theme or concept; presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization; development of a plot; delineation of characters; delineation of setting; appropriateness of style. These criteria are not going to be relevant to every genre, but if it applies to the genre, it's supposed to be distinguished.

Q: What are the REAL criteria?

A: I would add innovativeness, exoticness, seriousness of message, potential appeal to boys. We'll get to that later.

Q: What is NOT supposed to be considered?

A: How good an author's other books are; “didactic intent”; popularity. This does not attempt to be any kind of kids' choice award.

Q: What's your personal opinion of what a Newbery book should be?

A: The writing should be terrific. I don't like books where the author's voice breaks into the character's. I like the books to feel really authentic, like I totally believe that these are the thoughts and observations of the characters. Any message should be worked into the story so thoroughly that you don't realize you're being preached at—you don't realize it until later, or you feel like you're learning along with the characters. No effort should be made to wring sympathy from the reader. I don't think Newbery books need to appeal to everyone, but their appeal should not be too narrow. If I have a problem with something in the book—whether it's in the writing or the content—I make no excuses for “but it's written for kids, and kids would never notice that”--excellence should be honored. They should be enjoyable to read. And preferably, they should be at least a little bit funny.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


Why did I think there would be fireworks, or something like what happens when you win at computer solitaire, when I finished all the Newberys?...

No fireworks, but maybe I will dance a jig.

Reports to come tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Newbery Grumble

I do not WANT to read Smoky, the Cowhorse. I think I have ten Newbery books left, and I was totally going to finish by the end of summer next week, but now there's no way. It's not all Smoky's fault--it took me way longer to read Tales From Silver Lands and Dobry than it should have, just in the last few weeks--and there have been times during the summer when I took a week or so off.

But Smoky, the Cowhorse is written in DIALECT. It's by an uneducated rancher who took up writing after an injury. It's full of double negatives and spelling mistakes. It's not just dialect in the dialogue, like (if I remember correctly) Huckleberry Finn. No, the whole thing is in dialect.

Beverly Cleary has fond memories of one of her teachers reading this aloud, so I am trying to hear the voice of Beverly Cleary's teacher in my head as I read it. Pretending it's being read aloud makes it slightly more tolerable. Actually, if this was a very short book, it would even be interesting. But it's LONG.

I should be able to finish (with all the books, not just this one) by the end of September, though. Then there will be a REPORT, with STATISTICS. And I have several non-Newbery books in my stack from the library, just waiting to be read, including the sequel to Roller Skates and Hungry Planet, both of which I'm just longing to get my hands on.

Don't you love hearing me complain about things no one's making me do besides myself?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

It's pumpkin! Ma made it of green pumpkin!

In my third year of trying, I finally managed to procure a green pumpkin to make green pumpkin pie with.

For those who need background: in The Long Winter, the Ingalls family is surprised by an early freeze, and most of their garden is ruined before much was harvested. But they save what they can--the potatoes are fine, some of the tomatoes are ripe, and Ma makes pickles out of the green ones. And there's a bushel of beans. (They think they have enough food to last through the winter, but they DON'T, and when you reread this you know, and it is all scary foreshadowing.)

A few of the pumpkins are ripe, but most are green. Ma's wheels must be turning, because as soon as Pa leaves to go hunting...

After he had gone, Ma said "Girls, I've thought of a surprise for Pa."
..."What?" they all asked her.
"Hurry and get the work done," Ma said. "And then, Laura, you go to the corn patch and bring me a green pumpkin.
[wonder if Ma realizes that growing squash and corn together is an "Indian idea"?] I'm going to make a pie!"
"A pie! But how..." Mary said, and Laura said "A GREEN pumpkin pie? I never heard of such a thing, Ma."'
"Neither did I," said Ma. "But we wouldn't do much if we didn't do things that nobody ever heard of before."'
Laura and Carrie did the dishes properly but in a hurry. Then Laura ran through the cool, misty rain to the corn-patch and lugged back the biggest green pumpkin.

(I used only two pounds of this ten-pound pumpkin.)

"Now what do I do?" [Laura asked].
"You may cut the pumpkin in slices and peel them while I make the piecrust," said Ma. "Then we'll see what we'll see."

(I cut them a bit smaller than that in the end.)

Ma put the crust in the pie pan and covered the bottom with brown sugar and spices. Then she filled the crust with the thin slices of the green pumpkin. She poured half a cup of vinegar over them, put a small piece of butter on top, and laid the top crust over all.
"There," she said, when she had finished crimping the edges.
"I didn't know you could," Carrie breathed, wide-eyed, looking at the pie.

"Well, I don't know yet," Ma said...

(On the advice of the cookbook, since I didn't have any homemade vinegar around, I used hard cider instead--she says this is more similar to what Ma would have had. And I used a third cup, to allow for modern measurements. I couldn't taste any alcohol in the finished pie, and I have an extremely sensitive-to-alcohol palate.)

The pie was baking beautifully. When Ma... opened the oven, the rich smell of baking pie came out. [This was truly an amazing smell; I wish I could have taken a picture of it for all of you. It was richer and somehow more complex than that of either apple or pumpkin pie.] ...Ma turned the pie so that it would brown evenly.
"It's doing nicely," Ma said.
"Oh, won't Pa be surprised!" Carrie cried.
Just before dinner, Ma took the pie from the oven. It was a beautiful pie.

[They hoped to have it for dinner, but Pa doesn't come home, so it has to wait for supper. What a disappointment that must have been. (Mary probably thought it built character.)]

Laura set down the pie.
For an instant Pa did not see it. Then he said "Pie!"
His surprise was even greater than they had expected. Grace and Carrie and even Laura laughed out loud.
"Caroline, however did you manage to make a pie? What kind of pie is it?"
"Taste it and see!" said Ma. She cut a piece and put it on his plate.
Pa cut off the point with his fork and put it in his mouth. "Apple pie! Where in the world did you get apples?"
Carrie could keep still no longer. "It's pumpkin! Ma made it of green pumpkin!"
Pa took another small bite and tasted it carefully. "I'd never have guessed it," he said. "Ma always could beat the nation cooking."...

They ate slowly, taking small bites of that sweet spiciness to make it last as long as it could.
That was such a happy supper that Laura wanted it never to end.

The pie was tasty. I wouldn't say that it was as good as apple pie, but of course apples have never been scarce for me; and also, I was using an ordinary Halloween pumpkin, which I got for free from the patch because it would have been too scarred to sell. If I had used a pie pumpkin, I'm guessing it would have been more flavorful. The pumpkin pieces were a little bland and watery--they reminded me of the chayote squash I often had in soups in Guatemala. I was pretty skeptical about the cup of brown sugar the cookbook directed me to put in the bottom of the crust. It filled up about half the pan, and I sort of doubt that Ma would have been able to put that much sugar in. The flavor was good, but I think it would have been fine with less sugar. And as you can see, it was QUITE liquidy after being cut. I think that was probably from the pumpkin, and a tablespoon or two of flour might have improved that. I bet the extra liquid would be good on vanilla ice cream, though I think if you ate a scoop along with your pie, the ice cream would overwhelm its delicate flavors.

I discovered that the pie was even better the next day, so the Ingallses were probably better off having to wait to eat it at supper, anyway.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Newbery-Induced Hysteria

(Note: this entry was copied over from my LJ; I see now that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but it captures my mood and the unclearness of my thinking at the time, so I'm posting it anyway.)

I know it sounds a little crazy, but I am happy: I just discovered that I never moved Island of the Blue Dolphins over to my Newbery shelf on Goodreads, so my count has been off, and I only have 26 books left to read, not 27. Excellent!

I'm sort of amazed that that happened, but the list is a long one, and even though I tried to compare my list of have-reads to the list of winners before, it's not unusual for me to be off when I count stuff, and I kept forgetting which books I decided to count as "read" and which I hadn't--because there are quite a lot of Newberys that I might have read, or maybe tried to read and never got past the first few pages--anyway, if I couldn't remember it well enough to rate it, I wasn't counting it. But looking at the list of what I have left, I notice that I've done almost none of those so far--so the home stretch is going to involve a lot of books that I'm actually familiar with. Also books from the thirties. I only have one left each from the twenties and the sixties, but for some reason... six from the thirties. Maybe this was a low period for the Newberys--several of them are not actually in the Central Library and I'll have to order them from other places, so I guess that's why I haven't gotten to them.

I am so looking forward to compiling lists and statistics, when I finally finish. I read my last two more quickly than I expected, so I've been stranded with no books over the holiday weekend, but I reread Strawberry Girl and Island of the Blue Dolphins so I could write some comments about them. (I have good momentum going now and didn't want to risk breaking it up with, you know, one of the many non-Newbery books I have waiting to be read.)

Vanity, Thy Name is Cake

Vanity cakes are not at all what I expected.

...Ma made vanity cakes. She made them with beaten eggs and white flour. She dropped them into a kettle of sizzling fat. Each one came up bobbing, and floated til it turned itself over, lifting up its honey-brown, puffy bottom. Then it swelled underneath till it was round, and Ma lifted it out with a fork. She put every one of those cakes in the cupboard. They were for the party.
--On the Banks of Plum Creek

So I had a childish idea of what vanity cakes would look like and taste like, and never really let go of it. I'll try to describe what I pictured: about the size of a baseball, but a little flatter, not a perfect sphere... there's a word for that shape, like a double lens? Completely hollow on the inside, truly like a bubble of pastry, with a very thin "skin", honey-brown but translucent--kind of like if you were able to make a bubble of phyllo dough.

I can SEE these vanity cakes sitting on the cupboard shelf (covered with starry paper) in the house on Plum Creek. I can feel them in my mouth: a big bite that turns out to be mostly air, with a few crackly bits in my mouth.

The trouble? They don't exist.

I don't know why I took it into my head to make vanity cakes yesterday, but I did. And I fully expected them to turn into the pastry balloons described above until they were dropped into the sizzling fat.

The funny thing is, they acted EXACTLY as Laura describes, step by step. It was delightful to watch them drop to the bottom, bob up to the top, and flip themselves over. It's just the end product that is not what I expected (and that, of course, is my own fault, not Laura's).

I sprinkled them with powdered sugar, as recommended in The Little House Cookbook, and ate them hot. They were fairly good (especially considering I don't have the best track record with this cookbook, usually because of similar unrealistic expectations), but perhaps a little tougher than they should be--the dough might have been too stiff. They were a lot like cream puffs--deep-fried cream puffs.

Overall, a successful experiment--though I'm not likely to repeat it, unless my nieces are interested in trying them sometime, or something. The Little House Cookbook scared me off deep-fat-frying for many years, and I don't want them to live with the same fear.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Newbery Burnout

I'm pretty well burned out on Newbery books. I knew this might happen, but I hoped it wouldn't happen soon, because theoretically I'd be reading a whole lot of different genres and styles.

This is not altogether true, as I think I've posted before. But it's somewhat true, and I think that's staved off burnout for quite a while.

Part of the problem is that it's been ages since I read a Newbery that I really liked; I think I haven't rated anything four stars on Goodreads since, like, twelve books ago. Even most of the three-star books are just books I... couldn't really find anything wrong with.

I've read 53. 33 to go.

I've read... 35 since beginning this thing, which, look, I'm more than halfway through the books I actually have to read now.

To break things up a little, I've been rereading the California Diaries, an awesome Babysitters Club spinoff. Except I'm about to read the one where Sunny's mother died of cancer. I was supposed to read that to the CITs that year when we were all reading the California Diaries; I'd read the first two Sunny books to them; but I couldn't wait for them and read this book ahead, and then told them I wouldn't be able to read it because just reading it to myself made me cry too hard, so there was no way I'd be able to read it to impressionable 17-year-olds. (I gave it to them and they took turns reading it to each other, until it developed that some of THEM couldn't read it without crying, so the sturdiest girl took over the reading.)

Monday, July 7, 2008

Halfway through

I am now officially halfway through all the Newbery winners.

That sounds really good, but it includes the (admittedly few) I'd read before beginning the project--though I think I might reread them anyway, even the ones I know well. I already reread The Westing Game for sort of a break, and it was even better than I remembered. It is, possibly, the best Newbery there is.

I've discovered some books I hadn't read before that I love, and I've suffered through a couple that I really didn't like. Most of them are pretty good.

But I do wish they weren't so heavy on historical fiction. Out of the 43 I've read, I think 19 are historical fiction. That doesn't include the ones that are less fiction and more history, or the ones that I'm not sure about--are they historical fiction, or were they contemporary? Some of the ones I read awhile ago, I can't remember. Strawberry Girl? Thimble Summer? I'm not sure. Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, but I feel sort of... weighted down.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Summer Project

My summer reading project is going to be reading every Newbery winner (that I haven't already read). (jeez, I'm such a child. This is only a couple of steps better than trying to spend the summer reading every book in the library, starting with A.)

That sounds great, in theory, and I originally intended to leave this entry with the final sentence "Even LINCOLN: A PHOTOBIOGRAPHY and SMOKY, THE COWHORSE." But I just looked over the list of Newbery winners and... man, are there ever a lot of books there that I have no interest in reading. With few exceptions, I think I've already read just about every Newbery book I'm interested in. So many of them are about BOYS, and ANIMALS.

But this will be good for me; and I really, really liked IT'S LIKE THIS, CAT, a Newbery winner I'd always avoided in the past.

It also means I will finally read CADDIE WOODLAWN, which I will probably enjoy.