Monday, August 29, 2011

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis [2000]

My Rating: 7/10

Quick Summary: During the Depression, 10 year old Bud runs away from a bad foster care situation in order to try and track down the jazz musician he thinks is his father.

I know you all will simply be shocked, shocked I say, when I mention that this was a historical book.  In fact, of the twelve Newbery medal winners I've already covered, there were only 2 that were not.  The 1930s seem to be a particularly popular time- this is the third one with a Depression-era setting.

Moving on from that, though, this was a charming book with an excellent sense of humor.  Bud is a very likable protagonist with a great narrative voice.  And also, if I'm going to read a book about the 30s, it's nice to actually get a non-white perspective for once.  In the afterward, Curtis mentioned that several of the characters were actually based on some of his own relatives, so he clearly put a lot of time and love into the research, and it shows.  He managed to convey a lot of feeling for the time without a lot of unnecessary exposition, and the atmosphere was well-defined.

I suppose my only real complaint about the story itself would be the rather far-fetched happy ending.  It was all a bit too pat and vaguely unrealistic, but as I've mentioned before, I'd rather have the happy ending for a children's book.  Cynical realism can come later.  And at least the author set up the Chekov's gun in the form of the stones and the picture at the beginning of the book, and then paid them off.

It's an accessible, likable book, and one that I think could be used in the classroom setting, or read solo.  And with that, we are on to the 1990s...

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Year Down Yonder, by Richard Peck [2001]

My Rating: 7/10

Quick Summary: It's the Depression, and 15 year old Mary Alice Dowdel's parents can't afford to keep her, so she goes to live with her rather colorful grandmother in the country.  The sequel to A Long Way from Chicago.

Whoops, it's been awhile- I got a little caught up in other things.  I actually finished this one a week or two ago, but was having trouble figuring out what I wanted to say about it.

Color me shocked- as mentioned above, A Year Down Yonder is set in the 1930s.  I should really start a running tally of all the Newbery books that are period pieces (although it would be easier to count the ones that aren't).  Instant Newbery- just add history!

I actually quite liked this one, and its prequel.  Grandma Dowdel is a delightful character, especially viewed from the perspective of her grandchildren (Joey in the first book, and Mary Alice in this one).  The books are quite fun, and frequently heartwarming without being saccharine.  The stories have a sort of ageless quality about them that meant that I enjoyed reading them without feeling like they weren't meant for children.

I think my biggest critique would be the fact that the book is anecdotal rather than plot-driven- it feels more like a collection of interconnected short stories, rather than one novel.  (Though A Year Down Yonder suffers from this slightly less than A Long Way from Chicago.)  I can imagine that this would actually make it an ideal read-aloud book for a class, however.

It's funny, I didn't recognize author Richard Peck's name until I read his flap copy bio, and saw that he was the man who wrote Ghosts I Have Been, which I read during my R.L. Stine/Christpher Pike/et al supernatural kick around age 10.  I guess I shouldn't be so surprised- Ghosts I Have Been was also historical, and had a lot of the same sort of humor, but on the surface, the books seem so very disparate... ah well.  Good on Peck, anyway.

This is exactly the sort of book that tends to win the Newbery Medal without a lot of argument- it could have been a winner from 20 years ago, or 40, or 60.  The flip side of that, though, is that there isn't anything about this book that makes it particularly relevant for the present- it's a historical book about white bread characters, which means that a lot of kids would find it rather exclusionary.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park [2002]

My Rating: 7/10

Quick Summary: In 12th century Korea, an orphan named Tree-Ear develops a passion for pottery that leads to him working for the local master potter.

I readily admit that I was dragging my feet on this one, because the edition of A Single Shard that I was reading had a lousy cover (not the one pictured above, which is far more appealing) and worse flap copy, not to mention the fact that I'd just read one book about a boy in the Middle Ages (Crispin) and wasn't anxious for another.  (Seriously, what is it about the Newbery committee and historical books?)

The book was a bit slow to start, but once I got into it, it was clear how much time and effort Park had put into researching the time and place, and most especially, the techniques that went into making pottery.  I think whenever someone is truly passionate about something (in this case, both the author and the main character), it really comes across and can be quite compelling.  I've never done any pottery making myself, but I became interested in the techniques as they were discussed.

The story was rather slow paced (especially for a book with less than 200 pages), and there wasn't a whole lot of plot beyond pottery through most of the book, but there was a decent amount of action for the climax, and a creditable level of emotional development for the characters.

In the end, it was a quiet book, and surprisingly subtle without being misaimed in terms of age group.  I wouldn't call this one a universal pleaser- its slow pace would turn a good number of kids off- but there's some definite appeal to it, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that this book inspired several children into taking pottery classes.