The 2017 Newbery Books

Each year I anticipate the winner and honor books for the Newbery Prize. Past winners have included authors I regularly seek out, like Kate DiCamillo  (Flora and Ulysses). Among my favorite winners are a book about a gorilla (The One and Only Ivan) and Jacqueline Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpernia Tate.  One quote from that tale of an eleven year old budding scientist still rings true: “It was too bad, but sometimes a little knowledge could ruin your whole day…”

This year’s winner and honor books include a fantasy – The Girl Who Drank the Moon -magic is often a theme in Newbery books.  As a fan of “The Canterbury Tales,” I look forward to reading the Honor Book – The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, written by Adam Gidwitz.  Another honor book, Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow found its way into book club discussions, as its theme of bullying and discrimination mirrored present-day angst.  Finally, Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan, completed this year’s winners, with the music of poetry and the rhythm of song telling a story of history.

Read them all – it won’t take much of your time – and you will find satisfying tales written well.  Sometimes a good children’s book can be better than one written for adults.

9781616205676_p0_v4_s192x300   The Girl Who Drank the Moon

This year’s winner of the Newbery Prize – Kelly Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon – delivers other worldly magic – we all need some right now. In a world similar to Shirley Jackson’s famous short story “The Lottery,” one person is sacrificed each year to appease an evil witch and keep the rest of the village safe – for another year.  Unknown to the villagers, the baby is rescued each time by a good witch of the Forest, who safely whisks the child off to a new family in a safer place, while the evil witch, disguised as mother superior in the local convent, thrives on the sorrow and despair of the sacrificing town.

One year the good witch, Xan, who shares her home with an ancient Swamp Monster and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon, keeps the baby.  When Xan accidentally feeds the baby girl light from the moon, instead of the usual fare of stardust, Luna becomes enmagicked with amazing powers.  Xan subdues Luna’s powers until she is thirteen, when she joins forces with her mother, imprisoned all these years in a tower, whose magic changes paper birds into lethal weapons,  and Antain, a young man from the village with a good heart whose baby would be next on the list to be sacrificed.  Of course, evil is defeated and a new world order of hope replaces the misery.

Each minor character has notes of the familiar in everyone’s life.  Antain disappoints his mother’s ambition for him by leaving the head Council and following his own yearning to be a carpenter.  The little dragon never seems to grow up, until a crisis tears away his youthful outlook and forces him to deliver.  The old Swamp Monster offers steady and sage advice and comfort when needed.  But, my favorite character in this story is Ethyne, who knows the evil witch from her days as a novice, before she left to marry Antain.  Ethyne’s outlook is always positive and cheery, with a steady sense of self which she uses to steer both her husband and the despairing villagers as well as her former subservient connections in the Convent.  Ethyne is that voice of common sense who might bring you a cup of tea when you are down, or suggest a plan to overcome your inertia when you need motivation.  She is someone everyone should have as a friend.

Related Review:  Wolf Hollow


The One and Only Ivan – 2013 Newbery Medal Winner

9780061992254_p0_v4_s260x420With dignity and sensitivity, Ivan, the captured silverback gorilla, narrates in his own voice in Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan.  Based on the life of a real gorilla who was captured as an infant in the Congo, raised in a home until he became too large to manage, and then sent to a circus-themed mall in Washington state, Ivan’s story reveals hope and strength.

In Applegate’s fictional adaptation of Ivan’s life, she creates loyal friendships with Stella, an aging elephant, and Bob, a stray dog who acts as sidekick and conscience.  The janitor’s daughter supplies Ivan with paper and paints,  inspiring him to practice his artistic talent; his pictures of banana peels sell in the mall’s gift shop.   Although Ivan and Stella have endured years of confinement in a concrete and metal box in a shopping mall near a highway – mostly in denial of their appalling conditions, their apathetic existence changes when a new baby elephant, Ruby,  initially resists and subsequently surrenders to the trainer’s claw prod.

Applegate  sprinkles her narrative with phrases that you might find useful to quote:

“Humans waste words. they toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot.”

“They think I’m too old to cause trouble…Old age is a powerful disguise.”

“I always tell the truth…although I sometimes confuse the facts.”

Determined to save young Ruby from the life of humiliation and loneliness that he has endured,  Ivan uses his artistic talent to attract media attention that eventually leads to a new life in a zoo.   The real Ivan found a new home and celebrity with a large group of fellow gorillas at Zoo Atlanta, until he died last year.

Although Applegate mentions only a few of the horrors, she does not soft-peddle her views on the capture of wild animals or their isolation from their home turf in captivity. An articulate Ivan, with the soul of an artist, challenges both children and adults to consider the treatment of wild animals.

I always look forward to the Newbery Medal Award.  This year’s winner, as usual, is just as much for adults as for children.

Reviews on Other Newbery Winners: