Exasperated parents looking for good books for their children would do well to follow the awards – specifically, the annual Newbery Award for children’s literature.
The Newberys have been around since 1922 so there is a long backlist of books to choose from. When I think of the Newbery Awards I tend to remember the older winners like "Ginger Pye" (1952) by Eleanor Estes or "The Witch of Blackbird Pond" (1959) by Elizabeth George Speare or "The Island of the Blue Dolphins" (1961) by Scott O’Dell because those are the ones I read and loved as a child.
I recently re-read "The Island of the Blue Dolphins" and was amazed at how truly excellent it is and how it withstands the test of time. In fact, the issues addressed in this small book (love of nature, human-animal bonds, independence of women) are even more compelling today than they were in 1961.
Take, for instance, the heroine of the book. Karana is a Native American woman – girl, really – who learns to live independently not only of any adult men but of any human society whatsoever. She is strong, fearless, capable and kind.
The animals on the island become her friends. She tames a wild dog, then birds and an otter. Later she finds that friendship means she can no longer kill birds for their feathers or otters for their pelts.
But Karana is not too independent. When she meets another young woman, part of a hunting party, they become friends. And when missionaries come to her beautiful island, she leaves with them in hopes of being reunited with her own people.
The spell cast by this book, written in a wonderfully matter-of-fact style, is especially meaningful because the story is true. As O’Dell says in his author’s note: "The girl Robinson Crusoe whose story I have attempted to re-create actually lived alone upon this island from 1835 to 1853 and is known to history as The Lost Woman of San Nicolas."
San Nicolas is one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara. Early in the story, the tribe of Indians that Karana belonged to decided to leave the island and boarded a ship to do so. But when Karana realized that her brother had stayed behind to find his lost spear, she jumped overboard to be with him. They were both left behind.
O’Dell wrote in his afterword: "Father Gonzales of the Santa Barbara Mission, who befriended (Karana) after her rescue (18 years later), learned that her brother had been killed by wild dogs. He learned little else, for she spoke to him only in signs; neither he nor the many Indians at the mission could understand her strange language." She was the only member of her tribe left, everyone else had drown when the original ship went down.
The Lost Woman of San Nicolas is buried on a hill near the Santa Barbara Mission. Her skirt of green cormorant feathers was sent to Rome.
OK, that was the 1961 award winner. But let’s move on to present day.
The 1998 Newbery Medal winner is "Out of the Dust" by Karen Hesse (Scholastic). In "Out of the Dust," 14-year-old Billie Jo relates how her mother dies after an accident with burning kerosene. Blaming both herself and her father, she is unable to express herself through her piano playing because of the burns that scar her hands. She leaves but quickly returns to her home "of dust" as she realizes how much a part of her it is.
Ellen Fader, 1998 Newbery Committee chair, said: "Hesse’s painstaking first-person narration of Billie Jo’s withering and finally taking root is spare and gritty. She creates a stark and piercing rhythm in a free verse form that naturally and immediately communicates this story of Billie Jo’s fierce spirit and growing self-understanding."
Additionally, three 1998 Newbery honor books or runner-ups are: "Ella Enchanted," "Lily’s Crossing" and "Wringer."
"Ella Enchanted" by Gail Carson Levine (HarperCollins) is described as "spunky, stubborn, and very clever." This new Cinderella spends a lifetime trying to outwit the curse of a fairy’s unwelcome gift of obedience. In a kingdom populated with ogres, giants, princes, and fairies, Ella begins a fruitless quest to have the curse lifted, only to discover that she has that power within herself.
"Lily’s Crossing" by Patricia Reilly Giff (Delacorte) takes place during Lily’s 1944 summer vacation in the Rockaways. Lily’s best friend moves away and her beloved father Poppy goes off to war. Then Lily, 10, meets Albert, a young Hungarian refugee with whom she builds a poignant friendship based on shared loneliness, secrets and lies.
"Wringer" by Jerry Spinelli (HarperCollins) is about a young boy, Palmer LaRue, who dreads his approaching birthday because he does not want to be a wringer, one of the 10-year-old boys who breaks the necks of pigeons wounded at the town’s pigeon shoot fund-raiser. When his three bullying friends suspect he is sheltering a stray pigeon, Palmer decides to take a personal stand against this annual rite of passage.
To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
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