Children’s Books by Former Newbery Medalists – Mister Max and The Thing About Luck

Mister Max and the Book of Lost Things by Cynthia Voigt

Best known for the Newbery Award winning book Homecoming,  a compassionate and adventurous tale of a lost family of abandoned children, Cynthia Voigt has written a number of children’s books since her first success, with her most recent – Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things – as the first in a new series.  The premise is familiar: Max’s parents mysteriously disappear, leaving him behind to live with his librarian grandmother.  Young Max pursues a series of detective jobs to earn money as the search for his parents continues.

I persevered through Max’s search for a lost dog and his disguises in his actor parents’ costumes (they own the Starling theater), but when he “solves” the case of the mysterious missing spoon by finding that it had fallen behind the cabinet, I skipped to the last few pages to see if Max found his parents. He does – sort of.  Since this is the first of three in the series, Voigt creates a scenario to tease readers into the next book.  Unfortunately, the action is too slow, the crime-solving is tedious, and I found myself not interested in Max’s story.

The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata9781416918820_p0_v6_s260x420

Author of the Newbery winning book, Kira-Kira, Cynthia Kadahata’s new children’s book – The Thing About Luck – again taps into the Japanese family ethic, offering cultural insights as the 2013 National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature.

With the hard life of the combine operator who follows the wheat harvest as the catalyst for the story, Kadohata taps into the thoughts of a twelve-year-old girl as she changes into a responsible adult.  Although the details of machine operation and time-sensitive crops were more than I needed, the family dynamics of Summer with her Japanese grandparents who work on a wheat-harvesting crew mix well with the occasional pithy advice.  Overcoming her fears of mosquitos, boys, and growing up, Summer manages to save the family – with a little humor and a lot of inner courage.

What the Family Needed

9781594486395_p0_v1_s260x420Steven Amsterdam’s What The Family Needed offers  perspective on how people cope with drama in their lives.  In a series of stories that span three decades, each focused on a member of two related families, Amsterdam gives some fantastic help – each person develops the superpower needed at the time: invisibility for the teenager coping with being uprooted by her parents’ divorce, the ability to hear mute patients’ thoughts for the hospice nurse, the at-home father who can fly away, and more.  Although Amsterdam plays it straight – he actually has each character practice his or her new skill – the underlying possibilities for everyman are clear.  Who wouldn’t want to fly away or be invisible now and then?

Alek, the troubled youngest child, wanders through the action of the others, teasing the reader with the possibility of his superpower, which is revealed in the last chapter -leaving the reader wondering if any of it actually occurred.

Strange but thoughtful read – not for everyone – but Amsterdam kept my attention throughout and piqued my curiosity.  What superpower would help you get through the day?


When was the last time you turned off all the electronics and spent some quality time with family or friends? Without a natural catastrophe – snowstorms, floods, or high winds that knock over electric lines; solar sun spots that mess with cell phone coverage – we maintain our network – without really being connected to those around us. In John Rocco’s Caldecott Honor Book, Blackout, a New York City power outage provides the opportunity for time out.

On a hot summer night the youngest in the family wants to play a board game (remember those?) – but everyone else in the family is much too busy, talking on the phone, working on the computer, watching television – until “the lights went out – all of them.” The family climbs up to the roof where they see stars for the first time in the dark sky. The neighborhood awakens with everyone coming out to the street, playing guitar, dancing in the street, giving away free ice cream – a block party. This is a friendly blackout (no looting). Of course, the lights come back on; the family goes back inside. Then, someone flips the light switch off, mother lights a candle, and they all gather round to play the board game.

Getting off the grid restored a sense of community and family time for a while. A good lesson for children and adults – we all need some time off from our electronic toys to spend time with real people.

Blackout is one of three Caldecott Honor Books this year. Read the reviews of the other two honor winners:

The Summer of the Bear

The suspicious death of a high-ranking British diplomat creates whispers of treason and spies; everyone seems to have lost faith in Nicky Fleming except his young son in Bella Pollen’s Cold War mystery – The Summer of the Bear.

After his untimely death, Nicky’s family flees to a remote Scottish island in the Hebrides for the safety of old family surroundings and seclusion from the harsh innuendo of the diplomatic gossips.  Letty, Nicky’s wife is tortured by his incriminating death-bed letter; Georgie, his seventeen year old daughter harbors a secret uncovered when she accompanied her father to East Berlin; Alba, fourteen, is angry at the world and her father for deserting them.  Only eight year old Jamie believes his father will keep his promise and come back to tell his family the truth.

As the family copes with their grief – each in their own way – a bear that has escaped from a one-man circus act appears intermittently in the action.  Pollen assigns chapters to the thoughts of each: Letty, Georgie, Alba, Jamie – and the bear.  Jamie believes the bear is his father in a new form, and Pollen allows the bear’s thoughts, its interest in the family, and its protective instincts toward the children to make the connection a possibility.

Place is important to the story – from the watchful paranoia at the Wall dividing Berlin to the proper stiffness of the British diplomatic corps in West Berlin, to finally, the wild Outer Hebrides.  Pollen spent her childhood summers in the Scottish Highlands and her descriptions of the raw beauty of the cliffs, the birds, and the sea places you there in that magical yet forbidding place.

I was caught up in the intrigue; was Nicky’s death murder, suicide, accident?  Did he betray his family and country?  Was he a double agent?  Pollen maintains the suspense while demonstrating how differently each character deals with the grief and uncertainty as well as with each other.   Although the dramatic ending is neatly tied with the imagination and loyalty of the young boy, my satisfaction came with the possibility – the belief – that the bear really was the savior.   More than a mystery or an examination of family relationships and loyalties, The Summer of the Bear is a sweet comfort I enjoyed.

The Widower’sTale

The names Percy Darling and Sarah Straight could be from a macabre reinvention of  Peter Pan. Instead they predictably add little weight to Julia Glass’s The Widower’s Tale.

Harvard's Widener Library

This was a “hot pick”  from my library, which meant I had to read it within a week –usually no challenge for me, but 70 year-old Percy’s somnabulant life as a retired college librarian, oblique references to the mysterious death of his young wife (Poppy), and the soft-peddling of his immediate family’s daily copings – worked better than a sleeping pill.

As I sloughed through, clearly something was about to happen –eventually.  Would it happen within the week allotted?

Aside from the predictable, that is, Percy finds new love – the subplots struggle to spice up the action with too much detail and unrealistic dialogue.  Glass has her characters not only think aloud about the minutia of their lives, but also about each others – the internal, eternal gossip of a family saga.

Stories overlap and all somehow relate to good old Percy:   Ira, the gay pre-school teacher who works in Percy’s converted barn/school; Clover, the forty-something daughter who has yet to grow up; her sister, Truthful – better known as Dr. Trudy of the women’s clinic – whose tolerance does not extend to her sister.

But the characters that kept me reading, despite the temptation to stop, were Robert, the “perfect” grandson, whose Harvard roomie is becoming the new dangerous environmental vigilante; and Celestino, the illegal Guatemalan landscaper, with potential for more in his life.

The story and the characters wake up at the end – literally in a blaze – but it was too long in coming.   Percy notes and I agree …

“I am a man of too many words…”

Glass polishes off the story with lessons learned and life goes on to meet new challenges.   For me, the challenge was to finish…and wonder why it was a hot pick.

But the first line is a keeper –

“Why, thank you, I’m getting in shape to die.”