09 February 2008

I love Newbery winners!

For the last couple years I've been checking off my list, reading every winner of the John Newbery Medal. This is an award given by the American Library Association to the author of the "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." I'm 22% done so far. I love to read them because they are excellently written and generally pretty short. I can enjoy a complete story in one day if I so choose and it tends to be of great quality and completely lacking in the morbid depressing gray-ness that permeates much modern writing of today. Not that I don't enjoy a great piece of literature with controversial arguments and discussion-causing themes. I just like to intersperse them with something a little more encouraging and morally rejuvenating. That's when these Newbery's are perfect. So, without further ado here are three for you to consider:

1974 Newbery Medal - I finished Slave Dancer by Paula Fox and it is almost a painful read. It is the story of a boy who is press-ganged (kidnapped and forced to work) onto a slave ship. His job is to play his fife so the slaves will dance. This exercise keeps them healthier throughout the voyage. "Healthier" being a very, very loose term. The subject matter is obviously unhappy and almost unbearable. Even though it was disturbing, I recommend it. The author does an amazing job of describing the range of emotions the boy, Jessie, goes through. From fear, to hate, to disgust, to sympathy, it's all there and very real. The end is what I would consider, "as happy as you can expect." That sounds depressing but I don't mean it to be. It can't be wholly happy considering the subject, but it does have some happiness. Written very well and with the difficult sailing vocabulary, only the age of the hero and the length of the book would give indication that this was written for children. Fox excellently writes through the boy's eyes, giving him no more understanding than a thirteen year-old of that time would have.

1924 Newbery Medal - I also read The Dark Frigate by Charles Boardman Hawes. Didn't mean to do a bunch of sea stories, but that's what the library had for me. In this book, Philip Marsham, a nineteen year-old raised on the sea, is taken ill and is left with his father's friend who is an innkeeper. While recovering, an accident forces him to run away and join the crew of a sailing ship. Of course, the ship is overtaken by pirates and it's "join or die." So Philip is now a "pirate" by association and if found, would get the gallows. A pretty fun read. Actually had me concerned for poor Philip at a few points. It was written in 1923 and I've been noticing that vocabulary increases in difficulty the older a Newbery winner is. Is that an indication that we are getting stupider? (Yes, I know, I wrote it on purpose.) Either way, I liked it. Wouldn't hurt you to read it.

1985 Newbery Medal - Latest read: The Hero and The Crown by Robin McKinley. Loved it! I am a sucker for swords and dragons and misunderstood heroines. Aerin is the daughter of the king. Her mother from the "Wild North" was never granted title Queen, so Aerin feels the uncertainty of her place in her father's household. This book is basically her "coming of age" story, but with a whole bunch of fantastic crap I didn't have to deal with when I was her age. McKinley has created an entire land that has touches of the familiar (dragons, horses, kings) but is wholly new and exciting. (And this was written in 1984!) I really liked it. As I was reading, it was full of such imagery I kept thinking, "They should make this into a movie." Everything from the talking dragon's skull to the stairs that take a hundred years to climb to the royal plant that can let you see the future or kill you, all of it was completely engrossing to me. I'm a sucker for that kinda story, though. If you want a good fantasy story that includes an outcast princess with a lame war horse that are "reduced" to fighting dragons, this one's for you. I can't wait to read the sequel, The Blue Sword.

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