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[personal profile] justice_turtle
Summary: A young man in 1830s Minnesota becomes a logger and pioneers the technique of felling trees during winter so that the spring thaw will carry them to market.

Reaction: The distressing thing about Cornelia Meigs is that I always remember her other books I haven't reviewed yet as being better than the one I'm reading. :P Like The Windy Hill and Clearing Weather, this one suffers from a human villain whose actions don't come across as remotely realistic, either psychologically or (sometimes) in the realm of physical possibility. Our plucky young hero and his teammates on the side of Good have the same problem, actually -- physics and human psychology bend to their convenience, while twisting to hinder the villain's purposes. I mean, not just in normal storytelling ways, but in noticeable, "what the fuck does anybody here think they're doing" ways. :-(

Rating: One star. Because she did have the fools' gold identified as such from the start, which I don't think I've seen done in any other story that referenced fools' gold, and she described it accurately enough that my geologist's instincts twigged it straight off (though I didn't trust her enough to believe I was right).
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[personal profile] justice_turtle
Summary: A boy named Garram is BETTER THAN EVERYBODY, either in his home village among the central Nigerian hills or in the nearby Muslim-controlled town. He demonstrates this through a series of adventures.

Reaction: Well, this book does have one redeeming quality, which is that nobody talks in horribly stereotyped "eye dialect". I think this may be the first Newbery in which a black character talks proper English (though only as a translation of his native language). For the rest, though, it reminds me painfully of Charles Boardman Hawes -- the conflation of embarrassment with humor, the lack of consistent characterization, the way everybody kind of obviously lands in whatever position the puppet master decided would make Garram look coolest, the way even the laws of physics bow before our hero. Oh, also a lot of Haha Funny Stupid Muslims shit, idek.

Rating: Uhhhhh. Zero stars? I did get through the whole thing, but it was pretty painful. Like, in what universe does it make sense to forcibly dye your nemesis indigo before sending him home? Not in any way where the punishment fits the crime, either. Just, "haha I will stick you in a dye vat all day and have an entire town laugh at you, cos I'm the HERO!" *headshake*
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[personal profile] justice_turtle
Summary: A scholarly biography of Davy Crockett, intertwined with a selection of the contemporary stories and legends about him, aimed at middle-grade kids.

Reaction: I mean, I'm not being as harsh on this as I am on a lot of Newberys. Still and all, it's a childhood favorite that the Suck Fairy hasn't visited. :-) The writing and structure is genuinely really good, and like a lot of the best historical writing, it gives a really good sense of the atmosphere along with the facts. I mean, this is the book that established for me how you write history, it's not like it was going to come up lacking by that standard. ^_^

Rating: Five stars. Actually really good, I highly recommend reading it, though obviously there's also a nostalgia factor here for me.
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[personal profile] justice_turtle
Summary: A class of nine-year-olds from a Dutch school go on a day-long skating trip with their teacher.

Reaction: Well, that was a lot more action-packed than I expected. :-) Also a lot longer -- it's almost a novelette, not a picture book. The pacing is excellent, as is the sense of place, and the preteen boys who form most of the Plot act like preteen boys. The girls didn't seem to add much to the story at all, though, and Afke seemed a lot younger than her twin brother Evert, to whose adventures and mishaps she spent most of her time reacting.

Rating: Three stars. If the girls had had more to do (i.e. anything at all) I might have given it four. The art is also fantastic.
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[personal profile] justice_turtle
Summary: Traditional life in a Bulgarian village. Also a boy named Dobry has artistic talent, falls in love with the only available girl, and ends up going off to art school.

Reaction: It's clunky. I'm not sure if the prose is bad or just... I'm going to pull my favorite(?) line here: "[He looked] at the grandfather with the questioning wonder everybody feels when he sees a really living person who warms other people with that spark of God he always keeps burning in himself." I don't even know what's happening here, okay. ^_^ Nobody sounds like a human being, but -- well, it's a ride. :D

Rating: One star. I dislike Dobry as a character, the book isn't progressive or outstanding in any way, it's hard to follow what's happening or when anything is, and I yelled at the endgame kind of a lot. But it was entertainingly enthusiastic about whatever the hell it thought it was doing, which is more than you can say for a lot of these. *looks pointedly at The Old Tobacco Shop, still and hopefully forever the nadir of Newberys*
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[personal profile] justice_turtle
Summary: Teenaged "Young Fu" (he has a full name, but nobody uses it) and his mother move to Chongqing after his father dies. The book follows their first five years in the city, during which Young Fu becomes an accomplished coppersmith, learns to read and write, and has several adventures.

Reaction: *flomps* Glory hallelujah, we are DONE with chinoiserie! :D Young Fu is a realistic teenager living in (as far as I can tell) an accurately portrayed 1920s Chongqing. Sometimes he's full of himself, sometimes he screws up, but he's a generally good kid who works hard and takes good advantage of the luck he has. I feel like he might be just a titch too modern-Western in his kind of "pssh, evil spirits" attitude at times, but it is mostly earned.

Rating: Five stars. I'm so bloody happy to have a really good book set in China that I can't even criticize it. :D And it is honestly a good book.
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[personal profile] justice_turtle
Summary: A sadly disjointed collection of Irish folktales that can't decide whether it has a frame story or not. Spans a lot more eras than just the standard Fianna and Tain Bó retellings that generally fall under the head of "Irish folktales", though, and in a couple of stories explicitly references the Catholic/Protestant political split that's so much a part of Irish culture for the last 400 years, which honestly impressed me -- children's books don't usually go there at all if they don't have to.

Reaction: I wanted to love this book, I really did. I love and admire Padraic Colum and what he did for Irish literature, and "Stories from My Own Countryside" sounds like a topic he should be brilliant on, but this just falls flat. :-(

Rating: Two stars. I couldn't bring myself to go lower, and even as good as the prose truly is, it doesn't deserve higher. :-(
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[personal profile] justice_turtle
Summary: Retold tales from the Kalevala, surrounded by a frame story about the Finnish Civil War of the late 19-teens. The frame story follows a preteen boy named Vaino (presumably there should be diacriticals there, but the book uses none) and his family through the conflict.

Reaction: No suspense, a lot of "oh, war is fun and thrilling!", very little nuance, no character development at all. I didn't like it enough to finish it.

Rating: One star, because it wasn't as gobsmackingly bad as most of the zero-star offerings we've had. I don't recommend reading it, though; there are far better Kalevala retellings out there, and the frame story is boring as hell.
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[personal profile] justice_turtle
Summary: Retells in English the life story of Fionn mac Cumhall, one of Ireland's great mythic heroes, and of his comrades the Fianna, from Fionn's boyhood through to his old age.

Reaction: Ella Young, like Padraic Colum, was a member of the Gaelic Revival and Celtic Revival movements in the early 20th century. Like Padraic Colum, she is an AMAZING writer in her field -- incredibly talented at use of language and at structuring a retelling so a reader without background knowledge can follow it and find it fascinating.

Conclusion: Five stars. Highly recommended for anyone with any interest whatever in Ireland, Irish mythology and legend, or good writing.
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[personal profile] justice_turtle
Summary: cut for spoilers )

Reaction: After a slow start, a surprisingly sweet little book, quick to read and full of memorable, likable characters. By the end of the book, I really cared quite a lot about the welfare of this train engine. ^_^ Highly recommended. WHY DOES IT HAVE TO BE OUT OF PRINT. :P If I am ever a multi-millionaire, one thing I'm going to do is buy up the rights to some of these books and reprint them for modern readers.

Conclusion: Four stars. I docked it one for the slow start and for some infelicitous language choices, like the use of spelled-out "Negro dialect" in the one spot where an African-American porter appears.
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[personal profile] justice_turtle
Summary: cut for spoilers )

Reaction: I think I like this one maybe even a teeny bit better than Millions of Cats, since it doesn't have the slightly gruesome turn of that book, but keeps the Grimm's Fairy Tales feel and the truly glorious pen-and-ink artwork in double-page spreads. Babar artist Jean de Brunhoff pioneered the oversize picture book a child could "climb into", a few years after Millions of Cats and The Funny Thing came out, but I'll definitely argue in favor of Wanda Gág as a precursor of the same trend.

I also really enjoyed Bobo's gentle, genre-savvy sporking of the "sermonizing" type of child's picture book in one place. :D

Conclusion: Five stars. I wouldn't say this book should have won the Newbery over Hitty, but I'd definitely give it a Mock Pre-Caldecott for the year. ;-) (The actual Caldecott medal wouldn't be awarded till 1938.)
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[personal profile] justice_turtle
[Note: I'm planning to post Mondays and Thursdays for a while. Also, I have my laptop hooked up to a desktop monitor and it seems to be working okay.]

Summary: A fictionalized version of the year or so leading up to Vasco da Gama's 1497 voyage to India, seen through the eyes of the young Ferdinand Magellan and a highly fictionalized Jewish banker named Abel Zakuto.

Reaction: Oh, where to start? O_O I only got 13% of the way in before I gave up on this mix of bad research and utter nonsense with a nice thick scoop of misogyny on top.

Every single thing that could be slanted to the glory of Western explorers has been slanted so. Every single reference to women in the book is derogatory and stereotyped. There are two female characters, but by the point I stopped, it hadn't passed the Bechdel test even by implication, because one of them didn't talk, even offscreen.

And as far as I can figure, the portrayal of the political situation in Portugal at that time was made up out of whole cloth... to the point that "Abel Zakuto" was made up as a separate character from real-life Portuguese Royal Astronomer Abraham Zacuto, and was given most of Abraham's true history and accomplishments, apparently just to separate "Sympathetic Hero Character" from "person who has any sympathy or respect for the Portuguese monarch"! O_O BECAUSE CONFLICT, that's why. If you don't have a villain, make one up! *sigh*

Conclusion: One star. Half because because Mrs Hewes has an enjoyably brisk writing style well-suited to adventure stories, and half because -- even though it wasn't actually meant to come across as a romance -- the budding gay teen romance between young Ferdinand Magellan and fictional character Nicolo Conti was adorably sappy and quasi-realistic.
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[personal profile] justice_turtle
Summary: The story takes place just after the American Revolution, and follows three protagonists - a shipyard owner's young heir, a fugitive French revolutionist, and a young sailor-lad - in their twin quests, first, to save a New England town's failing economy via the two-year voyage of a trading ship carrying trade goods ventured by all the townspeople, and second, to discredit the traitorous townsman who SABOTAGED the economy out of jealousy for the shipyard owner! ...yes, it really is presented as that Dramatic, and that easily fixed.

Reaction: I may have just plain grown out of Cornelia Meigs's writing style, but everything in this book just felt so obvious to me. Sympathize with this character! Don't sympathize with that character! Here's foreshadowing for the ENTIRE PLOT! Everything will be fixed in the end when this one Bad Person gets his just desserts! :P Not to mention all the weird segments of racism and classism scattered throughout. :-(

I'm... I know I've never liked her "boys' books" as well as her "girls' books", but I'm really starting to wonder if any of her books are as good as I thought. I'm still going to have The Covered Bridge on the Mock Newberys list, even though it'll be an interlibrary loan, because I seem to recall that being a really good book, but -- I'm revising my expectations downward. :P Which is sad.

Conclusion: No stars. I feel like I've been giving out zero stars a lot, but actually this just brings "zero" up to par with "one", "four", and "five", at five books each. And there was really nothing in the part of this book I read that I would give a star for.
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[personal profile] justice_turtle
Summary: cut for spoilers )

Reaction: On the one hand, I was really epically impressed by the amount of detail research the author obviously did, and by the light hand with which she distributed the details to draw a clean, memorable picture. I was also massively impressed by the illustrator, Harrie Wood (definitely not the Australian civil servant), who did a full-page illustration in period style for the beginning of each chapter.

On the other hand, after a rather hopeful first chapter or two with spoilers ), the writing kind of devolved into "sympathize with THIS side!", and every single time it was the whiter side. (Except I don't know about spoilery conflict ). Was there a whiter side in that one?) Every time. I quit on the chapter about spoilery name ) the Muslim pirate, because the writing was all about how he was EVILLY EVIL and really he was a pretty cool guy. He just did his pirating at Europeans instead of at brown people, like proper European pirates do. *end ALL THE SNARK*

I learned a massive amount from all the Wiki-searching I did to check things this book was saying, though. It was packed chock-full of references to historical events and characters I'd never heard of before. I wouldn't have wanted to read it pre-Google - there wasn't quite enough background provided to help check anything - but I enjoyed it as it stood.

Conclusion: Three stars, out of five possible. It wasn't bad, it just could have been so much better, and all it would have taken is some more balanced writing. It came so close.
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[personal profile] justice_turtle
Summary: A collection of eighteen short stories and poems, previously published separately in a children's magazine, here gathered as a book and illustrated with 200 silhouettes by the author.

Reaction: Humor is a very subjective thing. Let's just put that out there. Me, for instance, I've never heard a Joss Whedon joke I unequivocally liked, but 99%1 of geeks seem to think he's the last word in humorous adventure writing.

1: 55% of all statistics are made up on the spot - including these. ;-)

So it's hard to criticize a book like this whose only stated purpose is humor. But, well, I didn't like it. I only managed to get through the first two stories, one of which was a long poem set in a "China" which only resembled any historical or traditional version of China in that the men wore their hair in braided pigtails and the women had tiny bound feet -- oh, and one character was a mandarin. ;P The other story was about a Caliph of Definitely-Not-Baghdad (this does not seem to refer to a Caliph in the specifically religious sense, the leader of a whole sect of Islamic worshippers, but to a more-or-less secular ruler of a city) who buys a clock from a Yankee con man in order that Mr John Bennett may try to write a parable on Daylight Savings Time, and fail miserably. You don't spork DST by ignoring how it actually works.

And the inherent racism in having a city full of "laughable" brown people conned by a Yankee deus-ex-machina, which left a bad taste in my mouth by itself, is followed up - in a later story (I flipped forward) about the same fictional Caliph - by an entire court of Persian astronomers and mathematicians who didn't know the earth was round. :P On which I gave up.

Conclusion: One star. I'm really tired of giving no stars to book after book, and this one's illustrations are impressively detailed and lively for silhouette-work, even though I am well prejudiced against them because of the offensive subject-matter: they started with a Chinese laundryman using his queue or pigtail as a clothesline, and didn't get any better. :P

I don't know if Mr John Bennett's older book Master Skylark, set in Shakespeare's England, is any good, but you can read it from Project Gutenberg at that link if you want a sample of his writing. ;S Like I say, humor is subjective, and he might not be as racist in Elizabethan England.
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[personal profile] justice_turtle
Summary: A young Navajo1 boy grows up in the contemporary Southwest.

1: Please note: There is an ongoing controversy over whether the proper term is "Navajo Nation" or "Diné Nation". ("Tribe" is deprecated.) The current official name is "Navajo Nation"; in 1994, the Navajo National Council voted not to change it to "Diné Nation". I have chosen to use the current official name, "Navajo", here. I apologize for any offense given.

Reaction: The author was apparently one of the first white people to study Navajo customs and beliefs in depth, and the book's tone reflects that. In two different ways about which I feel conflicted -- first, the protagonist's worldview is drawn in remarkable and beautiful detail, with no narratorial condescension about his belief in magic or spirits, which I found very refreshing; second, the protagonist's local Navajo group is shown to be on very, very good terms with the white man who runs the local trading post, and this white man is deeply involved with some of the protagonist's practices and secrets, in a way that made me... a little uncomfortable, because it sometimes felt intrusive / not always quite respectful.

And I really, really, really had to wonder - the whole Navajo village is always portrayed as being fine with the stuff the white trader does, because they know he's a friend and helper and Genuinely Interested etc etc, and I just really had to wonder how much of that portrayal the Native people Mrs Armer interviewed would've agreed with. Were they all really fine with her knowing and writing about their customs and beliefs in such detail? Or did some, even most, consider her a nosy white woman and wish she'd go away? How much of her portrayal of the beloved white trader here is accurate, and how much is her trying to feel better about all the prying she does in the way of research?

I had a hard time deciding on a star rating for this book, because the parts where the white trader doesn't appear seem very respectful and just interested in letting readers know that this group of people the author genuinely loves are awesome people and here's what they are like and see they're totally sympathetic people and not savages or stupid; but then the white trader shows up and the whole tone shifts, and there's an awkward sort of "this guy is being portrayed as awesome and sympathetic and Totally Not Doing Anything At All Wrong, but he says things like 'these Indians will always...' and does things like throw an awkward Christmas party for the Native kids at the trading post?" feeling.

Conclusion: Three stars, I think.
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[personal profile] justice_turtle
Summary: In the English port town of Boston, Lincolnshire, near the beginning of the fifteenth century, three plots are getting started at once. One concerns a mysterious man who's been repeatedly sneaking into the town in different disguises; one concerns the master of customs, who has gotten (honestly) rich off export tariffs on English wool and sheepskin, but is now starting to act in favor of home industry and the expansion of England's sea power in defiance of the Hanseatic League with which he treats - all of which makes his colleagues on the town council mistrust him; and one concerns Tod of the Fens, a rogue japester, and his band of merry wastrels, who fish for their livings and befool their fellow man at every opportunity for fun. There's also a romantic subplot involving the customs master's teenage daughter. I won't spoil anything further for you. ^_^

Reaction: I was a bit dubious at first, as the book's front-loaded with a chapter full of research and set-up, and another one introducing Tod with, hm, a certain amount of confusion and obfuscation all round. But after that, things get moving at a good pace, and every one of the characters except the major villain (an evil pirate captain! :D) gets a well-rounded characterization... even the Scolding Housewife and the Noble Popinjay. This book is full of the BEST BANTER EVER - I swear, I wouldn't know Shakespeare hadn't written it if it weren't prose - as well as the BEST RESEARCH EVER. The 15th-century characterization is absolutely spot-on perfect in every particular, even to the casual belief in the supernatural with not one occurrence of "of course we 20th-century humanists know better". The clothing is perfectly accurate period, as are the ships, and the geography and even the wind directions are well researched. I can't swear to the political climate but I will lay odds it's perfect. ;-)

Plus, after their first chapter or so, the antics of Tod et alia are way less embarrassment-squicky than I had feared. The romantic subplot with the customs-master's daughter is wonderfully handled; the author works around the social necessity of arranging a marriage by letting the boy and girl meet first, and having them become fast friends so naturally that I squeed over their relationship every time they took the spotlight through the whole book. :D The town's politics and the way everyone's individual purposes interact are extremely well-drawn. And while the pirate company of Evil Germans are Evil, they're not opposed to a uniformly shining company of Englishmen (or Englishwomen), nor do they cause everything that goes wrong in the course of the book. In fact, they're a bit of a distraction. :-) And the goodness or reliability of the characters is not predicated on their social class, or even on their preoccupation with class status. In short - this has the least simplistic characterization and the least OMG 1920S I have yet seen in a Newbery, iirc. :D

Conclusion: Five stars. All in all, a truly remarkable book, and you should read it here posthaste if you have any interest in Merrie England with politics and banter and subplots and RESEARCH. :D (And if you're okay with a lot of "thou" and "shouldst", because the language is pretty accurate, at least compared to Malory. But I found it very readable. Admittedly I find Shakespeare very readable.)
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[personal profile] justice_turtle
Summary: spoilers )

Reaction: It's a fairy tale. Wanda Gág grew up on a German-speaking New England farm where Grimm's fairy tales were told regularly; when she grew up she did wonderful English translations of Grimm, but she also wrote and illustrated some excellent, high-quality fairy tales of her own. "Millions of Cats" is one. For very good reason, it's also the oldest American picture book still in print; Ms Gág's distinctive art is some of the best storytelling art, rather than merely supplemental art, I've ever seen. Every pre-reading toddler (except the ones who would be genuinely scared or upset by even this light treatment of the climactic spoiler ) incident - I've known, not to say been, kids like that) should have a board-book of this.

Conclusion: Five stars. I can't criticize Wanda Gág. It's like critiquing Richard Scarry or Dr Seuss. ^_^ MY CHILDHOOD, and objectively good enough to be a recommended part of other people's childhood too.
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[personal profile] justice_turtle
Summary: cut for spoilers )

Reaction: also cut for spoilers )

Conclusion: Two stars. It has a clever plot with plenty of foreshadowing and twist reveals, hard to summarize in a sentence or two, and one of the female characters gets to save the lives of the two titular male heroes at one point. (Admittedly, by running to fetch male deus-ex-machina character spoilers ); it doesn't speak well to the general quality of adventure-stories that even this amount of agency for a young lady strikes me as very rare in adventure stories with a male main.) But its historicity runs to the dubious, and the levels of racism, classism, and especially ableism are really terrible.
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[personal profile] justice_turtle
Summary: A live Dutch doll about eight inches tall, named Nicholas, visits a fantasyfied New York City to see the sights.

Reaction: This book could have been so, so, so good. I love "virtual tour" stories about places I've never been; if this had been a good example of that genre, I would've had no complaints.

Sadly, it's not an example of the genre at all. It belongs to the very close but distinct genre of "tour guide disguised as fiction" - landmarks aren't clearly described, just mentioned offhand, with very specific directions as to finding them "on the ground", and it's really hard to stay interested in the storyline when whole chapters consist of "they went to this really awesome little place! and this one! and this one!" with no atmosphere to give a sense of the places. It's really clearly aimed at kids who live in 1920s New York and have the ability to follow in Nicholas's sightseeing footsteps.

WHICH IS SAD. A book that did give the atmosphere of these little hole-in-the-wall shops and big department stores would be an invaluable time-capsule story for its era! There are tiny hints of time-capsule things anyway, like the NYC-dwellers counting time by the flashes of the (then brand-new) stoplight at Forty-Second and Fifth - but just not enough. :-(

Conclusion: Two stars. I'd mark it much higher, but it was clearly never intended to go beyond its own place and time, and therefore doesn't really belong on the Newbery list.

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