Friday, October 25, 2019

Newbery Award Challenge - 1990s

The end of my Newbery reading challenge is so close I can almost taste it.  Two more delicious decades to go. As expected, I'm finding the books read faster and more easily as we approach the current day.  I think there are several factors at play here, including my reliability to the plot/characters, the more contemporary language/vocab used, and the overall more familiar writing style and content.
I continue to take about six months per decade.  Even at this pace though the project will conclude in 2020, making this a five year reading journey for me.  I'm sure glad I took it up...even if I have grumbled about it occasionally.  As I've worked my way through the list I've revisited some favorites and discovered some new gems.  It has led to side-projects as I chase down other books by Newbery authors.  I've gained appreciation for a whole new magical genre of books--those lumped under the heading Fantasy.  There have certainly been a handful of duds, but at least by this point in the project they're in the minority.  Plus, that's just my opinion of what constitutes a dud.  I recall that following my review of From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler my friend Meredith told me how much she'd loved that book.  She read it first as a kid though, which might make a major difference.  As an adult, I gave it a one star.

So, of course, take my thoughts on the 1990s Newbery books below as you will.
1990 - Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
I read this book in one day, sitting in the greenhouse, basking in the sun.  It captured my interest from page one and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I can remember reading it in my school days as well.  From the first time I heard of Anne Frank I've had an interest in novels and memoirs and journals from the WWII era.  There was so much bravery exhibited by normal people.  There was so much hate, too, but I've always found that the bravery shines like a beacon.  It overshadows the hate.  Number the Stars is highly fictional but rooted in reality.  It is one of those bravery-over-hatred sort of stories.

The main character is a schoolgirl named Annemarie Johansen who is growing up in Nazi-occupied Denmark.  Thus far the Nazi-occupation hasn't really punctured her childlike sphere.  She knows her mother gets together with her friend/neighbor Ellen's mother, Mrs Rosen, for what they call coffee, but is not really coffee.  There hasn't been real coffee in years.  She knows there are soldiers stationed on all the major street corners and squares.  Overall though, her childhood has still been a pleasant and free one.  Then the Nazis begin to more actively persecute the Jewish population in Denmark.

When the Johansens and Rosens hear about the Nazis plan to "relocate" many Danish Jews the know they must do something.  Denmark had one of the most active Resistance movements in all of Europe.  Ellen is brought into the Johansen's apartment and masquerades as their deceased elder daughter, Lise.  The Rosens disappear into hiding with one of the Johansen's family friends (Lise's former fiance, actually) who is a member of the Danish Resistance.

Ultimately the Rosen family is reunited at the coast where the plan is to smuggle them out of the country via Uncle Henrick--brother to Annemarie's mom.  The story ends well, especially for a holocaust novel, but that is not to say the escape goes flawlessly.  Annemarie must show true bravery--and she learns that bravery isn't about not being scared, but rather about doing the right thing in the face of fear.  All and all, I love that.  I've often wondered how I would act if I were placed in such a situation and I did so again reading this book.  I hope I would be brave.

In an odd and unexpected twist, cocaine turns out to be a key to victory for the Danish Resistance.  When the Nazis realized the Danes were smuggling Jews across the North Sea to (free) Sweden in false bottomed boats they enlisted dogs to sniff them out.  an anesthesiologist teamed up with a pharmacist and they perfected a powdered compound of rabbit's blood and cocaine which attracted the dogs (blood) and temporarily ruined their sense of smell (cocaine).  This was disseminated to all the smugglers and the escapes resumed.  I guess I'd forgotten that bit of the story from my childhood reading.  How unexpected and clever is that?!?
1991 - Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
Maniac Magee is another of the many Newbery books which I'd never heard of before embarking on this endeavor.  Matt remembered the gist of it from his schooldays though.  We both enjoyed it--Matt as a kid, me as an adult.

The story is about a young homeless orphan who leads a very unconventional life and changes an entire community. Maniac's real name is Jeffrey, but a character like Jeffrey earns a legendary status and his nickname.  Maniac is always doing things that people don't expect.  He sleeps in the bison exhibit at the zoo, he doesn't go to school, he helps everyone he meets, and he fails to recognize that white people and black people each stay to their own side of town.

There are two underpinning themes in the book:  race and homelessness.  Maniac experiences intolerance and misunderstandings from both sides of Hector Street, the street that divides the town along white and black lines.   Maniac also struggles to find a place to call home after his parents' death.  Twice during the story it looks like he's finally found his new home only to lose it again due to forces outside his control.

It is a lovely, entertaining story.  If I might take liberty with the expression "a man's man," I would describe Maniac as "a kid's kid."  It is easy to see why he is popular with children on both side of Hector Street.  He is fun, adventuresome, and old enough to have good stories and a tad bit of authority.  Maniac uses his power for good, say, by bribing Piper and Russel McNab to keep going to school through a variety of stunts and promises of free pizza.

The McNabs are a little hard to take.  They're poor whites who think the black people across town are going to literally attack the white side of town.  The adults are so certain of this that they have built a bunker of a sort, to defend against the rebellion they are sure will come.  The McNab children use it to act out the same scenario for fun--like cops and robbers...except its black invaders versus white defenders.  It was fairly horrifying.  To be fair, there are black folks who menace Maniac for hanging out on their side of town, but it is much less horrifying.  Mars Bar (yes, that's the character's name) may not like the white people, but he doesn't think they're about to wipe out the black side of town.  The divide between the two sides is strong and apparent to everyone except Maniac who just wants to be friends with everyone.  Maniac tries to get them to see eye to eye, but is it a complicated situation and things don't go quite as planned.

It made me really thankful that I had a stable nuclear family.  That I always had a home.  That both my parents are still living.   That my sisters are my friends.  It made me reflect on race, class, and the rather homogeneous places I've lived and people I've known.  It made me wonder how to bridge major divides.  Yet, it was enjoyable reading the whole time, too--thought-provoking and entertaining both.
1992 - Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Shiloh is a story I was very vaguely aware of--possibly because they made a movie version--but I'd neither read nor watched it.  I knew it was about a boy and his dog.  That was it.  And, by and large, that is it, but with love and loyalty and learning to do what is right along the way.  A rather classic and charming coming-of-age-story.  Funfact:  I learned there is a literary term for this type of story.  It is called a "bildungsroman."

Marty, an 11 year old boy, finds a terrified and hungry beagle puppy on his family's property in the West Virginia hills.  He wants to keep the dog, but his father insists they return him to his rightful owner.  Unfortunately that is the town jerkwad, Judd Travers, who Marty knows mistreats his animals.  It is common knowledge that Travers is a nogoodnik, but everyone seems to look the other way.  It was maddening to me.  Marty's dad is trying to impress upon Marty that people just mind their own business.  They don't worry about stuff that isn't their business.  That is why no one reports Judd Travers for hunting out of season, say, or mistreating his dogs.  The dogs are his legal property and he can do what he wants with them.  Marty really wants to report Judd for animal cruelty, but knows it will be his word against Judd's.  This is a common short-coming in animal abuse cases.

After doing the wrong thing (lying and hiding stuff from his family) Marty is caught with the dog--now named Shiloh--and decides to work a deal with Travers no matter what.  Marty is insistent that Shiloh is his dog, not Judd's, but he needs to make that legal.  He eventually strikes a contract with Judd to work off the cost of the dog.  Judd is a jerkwad at all phases of this contract and I was certain he was going to renege on it.  In the end though, Marty and Shiloh are united in their hearts and in the eye of the law.

The tenderness and love Marty, and eventually the whole family, show to Shiloh warmed my heart.  Marty is my kind of boy.  Every animal should be a lucky as Shiloh.  The relationship with a pet is certainly a special one.  I also enjoyed the underlying message about honesty.  It is rough going for Marty when it is discovered that he'd hidden Shiloh and had not been being honest with his family or with Judd about it.  Marty's dad made it clear that he couldn't believe anything Marty said since he knew he could easily be lying.  That was tragically beautiful and painful, I thought.  It is so true.  That was a hard lesson for Marty to learn.

I was kind of put out by the fact Judd Travers never really gets his come-uppings.  Nor does he really seem to have a change of heart.  Maybe, but not really.  Shiloh is just the first book of the Shiloh series though so perhaps that comes in later.  I surely hope so.  That man was terrible and in serious need of a change of heart.  But, sometimes there aren't happy ending, just mixed ones.
1993 - Missing May by Cynthia Rylant
My godsister and I read this book together.   I'd never heard of it, but she very enthusastically recalled it from her youth.  It is a sad story, but at least the reader knows that pretty much from the get-go.  I mean it starts with the phrase, "When May died..."

May was a generousand caring free-spirit.  She let people feel at ease to be themselves.  She liked people who were a little weird.  She liked the artists and outcasts.  She was married to Ob and together they adopted their distant relative, Summer, and raised her as their own even though they were more grandparent-age than parent-age.  But, then May died and left Summer and Ob to figure out a new way of living, post-May.  It was a lovely, heart-breaking story about death, loss, friendship, family, and love.

At one point Summer says she always thought people were afraid of dying, but she realizes that they're actually afraid of saying good-bye.  I had to stop and sit with that one for a bit.  I suppose it is true.  I have sure hated to say goodbye to so many people over my 35 years.  I know they're at peace.  It is the having to say goodbye part that hurts.  Death has been a phenomenon that's perplexed me since my girlhood, laying in bed at night wondering what happens when you die.  Maybe it would have been good to have encountered a book like this back then.  It seemed so much scarier at that time in my life.  I love that Ob realizes that May  has never really left them.  I suppose that is also true.  The dead live on in each of us, trite though it may be.  My grandma, Josh, Chris, Ben, Erik, Grandpa Lyle...they still echo in my head, like May echoes in Summer's.

Death is a serious motif in this book.  And I don't mean it is a serious topic.  I mean, that is the hub the whole story moves around.  But aside from death the book also touches on family, home, and love.  Since Summer's mother died she'd been bounced from relative to relative until finally crossing paths with Ob and May.  They provided her a stable and loving home she'd been so lacking.  They taught her to trust in other people again.  Cletus, a schoolmate of Summer, inserts himself into their post-May world shattering Summer's preconceived notions of Cletus and proving himself invaluable to both Summer and Ob as they deal with their grief.  He is a good friend.

May and Ob are cool people.  They're dreamers and the world needs more dreamers.  Ob is an artist in world that doesn't even use that term.  They are already fairly old when they enter Summer's life, which seems a shame.  They don't get as many years together as they would have if they'd met Summer when her mom first died.  Still, sometimes things are sweeter because they're more rare, I guess.  It was a neat story, albeit an inherently sad one.
1994 - The Giver by Lois Lowry
This was the Newbery book I was probably most excited to re-read since it was a favorite of mine in school.  I've read it at least a dozen times prior to this, the last occasion being in 2012, according to my log.  As a child I only knew it as a stand-alone novel.  In 2012 I discovered it had been written into a quartet--The Giver, Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son.  The Giver will always be my favorite, but the whole series was enjoyable and Son really tied together the many threads of the saga.

I've always enjoyed novels that could be labeled "dystopian."  I especially enjoy the cautionary-tale aspects of them, particularly those that center around obsessive social control and extreme adoption of technology into many/most facets of life.  The Giver is one of those.  I think there is such an interesting double edged sword to social control, such a fine balance between personal freedom and group safety.  I find it utterly fascinating to think about.

Jonas is tasked with being the community's next Giver.  Throughout the book he holds the title of Receiver because the current Giver's job is to transmit to Jonas all the memories of humanity that have been restricted from the community.  Jonas' job to receive them, to hold them in private for the community's sake.  These are memories which need to be retained because they might someday help make decisions based on the past, but they would complicate life if everyone had access to them.  The range from sunshine to sunburn, from family and love to overpopulation and starvation, from birthday parties and rainbows to war and bigotry.  For the first time in his life he experiences real pain--both physical and emotional.  For the first time in his life he realizes that all may not be as it seems.

As a child reader, I was most perplexed by the "sameness" of Jonas' world, and my perplexity carried on into to my adulthood.  There is no weather to speak of, no seasons, no hills or valleys, no color!  Everything and everyone has been developed to be as close to the same as possible.  Mates and jobs are assigned, not chosen.  (What if they chose wrong?!)  How most of this sameness is achieved is not really explained in The Giver.  The reasons behind the sameness are though.

Things are easier to control if things are the same--food production and delivery, working conditions, health and wellness, law and order.  People are easier to control if people are the same, too.  Through rigorous social conditioning, at home and at school, the members of the community are taught to follow the narrow rules without question--without even realizing the rules are narrow.  The community members are comfortable and secure and safe in the knowledge that these things have been carefully studied and decided by wise people who have the communities' best interest at the core.

I wanted to write, "best interests at heart," but that didn't seem right, given the context of the story.  This leads me to one of the most disturbing aspects of the sameness--the lack of love.  No one in Jonas' community feels love.  They don't even know what they are missing.  Love is a complication that has been eliminated in the interest of stability.  Because people can fall out of love.  People can love obsessively.  People can love one-sidedly.  People can fall in love with the "wrong" people.  So, love was eliminated.  All members of the community past puberty take a pill every day to get rid of "stirrings" so even husbands and wives do not love each other--physically or emotionally.  They respect and value each other, but that's not the same thing.  That is part of love, but love is so much more.  I was heartbroken on this last reading when Jonas, upon learning about familial love from The Giver, impulsively asks his parents if they love him...and they sorta tease him for being too imprecise in language and using such meaningless and antiquated terms.  In addition to the memories of love, Jonas has stopped taking the pills.  He knows what he is missing.  I can't imagine being Jonas and finally knowing the feeling of love flooding through you for those you care about...and knowing that no one--NO ONE-- loves you in return.  A world without love.  It pains me to think about.  Even if love does make us do impractical things sometimes.

The ending of The Giver is fairly ambiguous--though since it blossomed into a quartet that is dramatically less so the case for the series as a whole.  As children my sister, Lisa,  thought that Jonas died at the end of The Giver.  I thought he had made it to the elusive Elsewhere, to safety.  That is a fabulously written ambiguous ending, I have to say, since both were totally plausible.  Some people are driven mad by a less-than-concrete end to a story, but I think they're absolutely perfect for a dystopia.
1995 - Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
I'd read Walk Two Moons once before, back in 2014.  I appreciated the book more on the second read through.  I don't know if that is because I've changed in the interim and so related to the story differently or if it was more fun because my friend Hannah and I read it together this time or what.  Either way, it is a charming little story about change, being true to yourself, and "walking two moons" in another person's moccasins before you judge them too harshly.

The story takes place in two ways.  In one thread, Sal is taking a cross-country roadtrip with her grandparents in order to make peace with her mom.  Sal's mom had a sort of breakdown and ran off to Idaho in an attempt to find herself again.  Sal holds a lot of hard feelings about this and is frustrated by how her father seems to be moving on.  In the second thread, Sal is telling her grandparents the story of her friend Phoebe.  Phoebe has a wild imagination and a home life that seems perfect on the surface, but isn't underneath.  Phioebe is confronted with a lot of change and takes a while to come to grips with it.

I loved Sal's grandparents.  They're a hoot.  I felt quite badly for her father.  His wife leaves him, his daughter isn't coping well, he wants to start a new chapter in his life, but doesn't quite know how, it seems.

In the end, Sal's story is a reflection or parallel to Phoebe.   Through telling it, discussing it with her grandparents, and finally coming to terms with her mother's departure Sal is forced to confront the change in her own life.  Sometimes the way we want things to be just isn't possible.  Change is hard, but sometimes it is required.  It often has ripple effects.  Nobody is perfect and we all fail from time to time, especially when we're trying to be something we're not.   The story has a bittersweet ending that dovetails pretty perfectly with all that.  The story as a whole sure has a lot of sorrow in it though.
1996 - The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman
I have a vague sense that I've read this book before, though no clear recollection.  It just struck me as familiar.  The Midwife's Apprentice is a story about finding a place to belong in the world and believing in yourself.  It stars a female protagonist and is set in a medieval country setting, both of which I enjoyed.  Though she starts the book without a name--or home or family or proper clothing--the main character eventually christens herself Alyce.  This proves to be one of the turning points in the story.  By claiming an identity for herself, Alyce is also demonstrating an increased self-confidence and growing aspirations for her life.  She begs for shelter from the local midwife, Jane Sharp, and finds her first home--albeit a rather coarse and harsh one.  She learns the trade of midwifery largely through observation since the midwife is reluctant to thoroughly train an apprentice who might go on to compete with her.

As it happens those concerns were well-founded.  Jane Sharp is so greedy and mean-spirited that, in time, the villagers start to call for Alyce and her soothing voice and kind, comforting hands instead.  However, Alyce lacks experience and one hard delivery sends her running away, feeling herself a total failure.  She dives into a different sort of work in search of new purpose and place--cleaning and cooking at an inn--and finds a sort of home for herself again.  Chance encounters with folks from her old village and with an educated gentleman--Magister Reese--who is staying at the inn change the course of her life once again, as does an opportunity to assist in an unexpected birth.  Alyce realizes her failure was not that she didn't have the skills, but that she quit rather than try harder, rather than learn more.  Her only failure was giving up.  I liked that persistence/perseverance motif a lot.

Throughout the book Alyce's closest friend is a cat.  She takes in the stray even though she herself has so little, sharing her cheese and finally earning the cat's love and trust.  I thought that was really beautiful.  Alyce was so lacking for love and connection and she found that with the cat.  Someone to talk to, to take care of, to console and to console her.  It was an interesting balance to the other side of the story where the town boys were so dreadful to Alyce.  They were at the bottom of the social pecking order until Alyce showed up.  When they found someone with even less power they threw stones and insults and harassed her with great abandon.  I thought that was an interesting contrast in humanity.

There is a hint of a witchcraft theme toward the end of the book, rather in keeping with its time and setting.  A double-headed calf is born and then some bad luck and immoral behavior comes to light.  The town decides it is the work of the devil.  I had to marvel at how tidy and convenient that must have been.  If one wanted to be "bad" they could just say the devil or a witch made them do it.  It is much more baffling and frustrating that humans are just too often easily tempted toward dishonest or immoral behavior, but that is the way it is.  No devil required.

It was a very fast and easy read.  I enjoyed it and finished it in under a day.
1997 - The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg
I'd never heard of this book before, but the author's name rang a bell since Konigsburg was also the author of the 1968 Newbery winner From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler....which, as previously mentioned, I didn't enjoy.  I am happy to say that I enjoyed The View from Saturday considerably more so.  There was still one sort of annoying character, but he was balanced out nicely by the rest.  And seriously, the odds are that in a group of kids I'm going to find at least one annoying.  Ha!  That's just reality.

I thoroughly appreciated that the story centers around smart kids and an academic competition.  There are side stories to accompany each of children and some of the adults, too.  Sometimes these stories overlapped in a way that was just a little too convenient to strike me as actually plausible.  Regardless, the lives of all the characters are highly interrelated, sometimes through family blood lines, but just as often not.  It was almost a little tricky to keep track up at first.  "So that guys is her dad and he was supposed to be the best man at the other kid's grandpa's wedding, but..."

Diversity and tolerance are an undercurrent throughout the story--in race, ability, religion, and gender.  Their teacher, Mrs. Olinski, is a wheel chair-bound person who is just returning to her teaching career following a catastrophic car accident a decade earlier.  A turban-wearing Indian and his son move to town to start a bed-and-breakfast.  One of Nadia's parents in Jewish and the other Protestant and while she enjoys having the "hybrid advantage" which includes cookies of both the Oreo and ruggelach variety she is also learning to manage her life within the framework of her newly-divorced parents--one of which lives in New York and the other in Florida.  I did crack up when it is said that even the gentile characters "knew about bagels because bagels have become popular even in places that never heard of them."  Ah, that made me happy.  It is so fascinating to me to think about a time when food cultures were so regional or culturally specific.  It reminded me of this chapter from an old WPA book I read once that was trying to describe tacos to an unfamiliar audience and called them a sort of "Mexican sandwich."  ...because outside of the southwest no one knew what the heck a taco was, but could relate to a sandwich.

Throughout A View from Saturday there are questions from the academic bowl competition.  They're never answered in the body of the story.  As I was reading I thought, " They should put all the questions and answers in the back of the book."  And then when I got to the end of the story--they had!  I must admit that I got many wrong despite the fact that the 6th graders in the story got them right.

A couple other interesting or amusing tidbits:

There is brief mention of teenagers piercing "weird" body parts, like the bellybutton or tongue.  Golly that gave me a chuckle.  The places people pierce has only gotten "weirder" I guess in the last twenty years.   It is also mentioned that the most common reason for grandmothers to disapprove of their grandsons was because of their choice in music or the length of their hair.

Nadia says it is so strange to call her step-grandmother by her first name, Margaret, but that is what Margaret told her to do.  This seems so formal that I'm surprised it is still part of a book published in 1996.  Aside from teachers we never called adults Mrs. So-and-So or Mr. So-and-so.  I didn't really call them by first name either though.  It was So-and-So's Mom or So-and-So's Dad, mostly.  Perhaps this is a lingering eastcoast thing...

One of the children has a realization that friendships, especially in childhood, are often built around and maintained because of geographical convenience.  I found that was worth thinking on.  In particular it brought to mind the way Matt talks about his childhood.  When I was growing up there weren't many kids my age on my block.  Basically all of Matt's childhood pals were neighbors though.  The distance between us and our respective childhood friends has certainly increased, but some relationships have been maintained...and I think they're all the more special because of their deep roots.  On a related note, our wedding bands were made by Matt's friend Kjell who grew up in the house across the street from him.  Kjell's parents and Matt's parents are still neighbors to this day.  All the photos in this post are from a trip we made to out to Arkansas to visit one of my old hometown, schooldays besties.

When Ethan is talking to Julian Singh about where he was born and how he grew up (Julian's dad is the turban-wearing Indian, but Julian is American-born.  He grew up on cruise ships at sea and in British boarding school though.) Ethan says Julian is "As American as apple pie."  Julian says that's not quite right though and that he is actually as "as American as pizza pie.  I did not originate here, but I am here to stay."  I dig that a whole lot.
1998 - Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
Out of the Dust is such a sadly beautiful and heart-rending story told in a free-verse poetry format.  It was a quick read and I definitely enjoyed it.  Out of the Dust is narrated by Billie Jo, a girl on the cusp of womanhood, growing up on a drought plagued farm in Oklahoma with her mom and dad during the Dust Bowl.  Billie Jo has a passion for music and is part of the local music scene as far as her mom will let her.  Ma always wants Billie Jo to focus on her education first and foremost, though she herself is a talented pianist.  Billie Jo's style seems jazzy and boogie-woogie and I didn't get the impression that her mom much appreciated the style.

Her dad always wanted a son, but more kids didn't seem in the cards for them until--when Billie Jo is fourteen--her mother finally conceives and carries a baby to term.  In a most unfortunate tragedy--while quite, quite pregnant-- Ma mistakes a pail of kerosene Pa left by the stove for a pail of water.  As she runs outside to put out the flames engulfing her, Billie Jo grabs the pail and throws it out the door.  The house is wooden and everything is in drought and she fears they'll lose their home.  She didn't know her mom was coming back for the pail herself.  Billie Jo throws the kerosene all over her mom, with devastatingly fatal results.  Ma lingers just long enough to give birth to her son.  He soon dies, too, though and they're buried together on the farm.

Guilt--and overcoming guilt and grief--are a major part of this story.  Billie Jo and her father have to forgive themselves AND each other.  Her dad for leaving the pail by the stove.  Billie for throwing the bucket.  They both also have to learn to go on.  To dare and risk again.  Billie Jo's hands are badly damaged by the hot bucket and she convinces herself she cannot play any more--that her hands are too ruined.  This is probably true shortly after the accident, but then it seems more like fear is keeping her back rather than pain.  Her hands hurt so she babies them and so they don't regain any of their strength and dexterity.  Without her mother, with her father so full of sorrow, without music to soothe her... Billie Jo is pretty lost.

She finds her way though.  Through all that.  AND through the dust.

The dust bowl is an almost unfathomable era.  This book did a really good job of relating the daily trails of dust storms--keeping the plates and cups upside down until the moment the meal is served to try and keep the dust out, the blackness of dust storms, the devastation for crops, livestock, wildlife, and humans alike.  Billie Jo hops on a freight train and heads for California in hopes of escaping the dust and her sad lot--as did so, so many people.  Eventually though, she realizes that her heart is with her father and that "getting away...wasn't any better...just different and lonely."  She goes back and her and her father make a go at making peace in their souls and finding a way to carry on.  Perseverance in the face of adversity is another major feature of the story.  It was a tremendously moving story.
1999 - Holes by Louis Sachar
As I picked up a copy of Holes I thought, "I think they made a movie of this."  I thought that movie had something to do with aliens, though I don't know why.  Turns out I was half-right.  Louis Sachar's Holes was, indeed, the basis for the Walt Disney movie of the same name.  Neither involve aliens in any way.  Though, there is certainly a supernatural element to the story.  I enjoyed the story a lot.  I could see it being an enjoyable family movie, too.

There are two storylines weaving through the book--one in the past and one in the present--and they connect much more than might initially be perceived by the reader.  I sure liked the end when the threads came together and tied in a lovely bow.

Stanley Yelnats IV comes from a line of cursed men named Stanley Yelnats.  (Their name is a palindrome!)  They've been plagued with bad luck ever since his great-grandpa failed to keep his promise to a gypsy woman.  Stanley's Grandpa lost everything and nearly died in the desert when he was robbed by the outlaw Kissin' Kate Barlow.  Stanley's dad acts out the curse as a failed inventor.  Meanwhile, Stanley gets convicted for a crime he never committed.  His family is too poor to hire and lawyer and his mom just tells Stanley to tell the truth...but the law doesn't believe him and he's shipped off to a harsh youth detention camp.  Once there he learns that the main way the camp helps "build character" is by keeping the kids hot, dirty, thirsty...and forcing them to dig one giant hole every single day.

But, they're told to let the Warden know if they find anything "interesting" while they dig...  That immediately tips the reader (and Stanley off) to the fact there is more being sought after than character development.

Eventually Stanley befriends one of the other campers called Zero.  He teaches Zero to read and realizes Zero is a lot smarter than he lets on.  He is an untrained math wiz, for example.  Zero digs part of Stanely's daily hole in exchange for these reading and writing lessons.  This eventually leads to a dispute within their group of campers.

When Zero finally has enough of the mean old Warden and her assistants he vows to never dig another hole and runs away into the bleak wilds around the camp.  The Warden writes him off, even deletes his files and orders the alteration of state records so it looks like he was never at the camp.  Zero is a ward of the state and the Warden knows no one will come looking for him.  Stanley takes off on a quest to find Zero and in the process they both learn a lot about themselves, stamina, family legacies, friendship, and survival.

I might just watch the movie, too.  Matt told me not to tell him about the book since he wants to read it, too.  He says he loved several other books Louis Sachar wrote, including the Wayside School series and Dogs Don't Tell Jokes.  I think Holes is a first for me...though Wayside school sounds very vaguely familiar.  I shall have to lay hands on a couple of them...and further distract myself from the Newbery challenge.   Ha!
All photos from the our trip to visit Val and the Hillberry Music Festival in Arkansas - October 2019.
Onward to the 21st Century of Newbery books!

For more on my Read-Every-Newbery-Winner project see the decade specific posts: 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s.


  1. That's AMAZING...and I didn't know that about the Giver those are going in my queue...
    ~Have a lovely day!

  2. I am currently reading The Giver quartet out loud to my big kids! We read most every night before bed. We're in the middle of Son and have lots to discuss.

    I should re-read Holes. I recall liking it A LOT when I read it as an English teacher - and my students always really liked it, too. I never watched the movie.

    1. That's cool, Margo. What a fantastic family activity! I bet the discussion part is just as good as the reading part!

      Sigh. I've probably lamented Matt's dislike of reading aloud to you before. I would LOVE to read together in the evening. I mean...together-together...not the two of us each reading separate things! ;)

      I remember that you were an English teacher, but remind me: What ages did you teach?


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