Tag Archives: Newbery Medal

The Giver – Lois Lowry

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I never read The Giver. When I picked out books for my kid to read, The Giver always looked too sad, too solemn, too serious. Now that we are both dystopia fiends—probably because we live in a dystopia—the other insatiable reader in the house has passed along The Giver to me. Lois Lowry won the Newbery Medal for this amazing tale of what it means to be human and how even pain is a privilege to be treasured. The Newbery must have been no contest that year because the novel is flawless and superb.

Jonas lives very carefully and precisely in the Sameness. Children are guided, year by year, by immutable rules that govern behavior. At certain ages you have jackets that fasten in the back so you learn interdependence. Then you graduate to front-buttoning jackets and in a year or so to your own bike as you are gradually introduced to more independence from your family unit. Pain is contained by medication. Courtesy is absolute. Everyone has an assigned role in life and at twelve you receive your Assignment—the task you will learn and perform until you are old enough for the House of the Old and, one day, celebrated and Released.

It is December and Jonas, an Eleven about to become a Twelve, is nervous, anticipating the news he will get at the annual Ceremony but unsure about which job he will draw. His father, who works at Nurturing with the newchildren has requested and been given permission to bring home an infant who is too fussy and failing to thrive. The baby will be Released if it doesn’t reach weight and development milestones by the time it should be transferred to a family who has applied for a child. But Jonas doesn’t think Nurturing will be his Assignment. He certainly won’t be a Birthmother, coddled for three births in as many years and then graduated to Laborer for the rest of life. He can’t imagine himself as Caretaker of the Old, a Doctor, or a Director of Recreation.

But then the Chief Elder skips him when she is handing out Assignments and his anticipation turns to anxiety. His unease isn’t much relieved when, at the end of the Ceremony, she explains to the puzzled audience that Jonas has been selected to be the Receiver of Memory, a prestigious and mysterious position that is seldom awarded and little understood. Jonas begins to study with the old Receiver, the Giver, and is stunned at the unusual transmission of skills that comprises his apprenticeship. And everything changes.

Jonas learns about the exhilarating and excruciating colors of life, about feelings he didn’t know could exist, about history, wisdom and emotion. The Giver shows him what Release really means and awakens a humanity that has been trained out of everyone in the community for generations. And, as Jonas awakens, he discovers that his bland and comfortable life is really an intolerable nightmare. The choices he will have to make demand a courage he isn’t sure he has.

It’s an extraordinary book, smooth as a polished stone, and as capable of stunning you as a polished stone aimed to hit you squarely between the eyes. The Giver explores the demanding terrain of memory, the significance of what it means to give, and the impulse to know the truth and follow it into an uncertain future.

The Giver (Newbery Medal Book)   Lois Lowry | Delacorte Press 1993

The Unfinished Angel – Sharon Creech

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Sharon Creech can write anything she wants. The Newbery Medal winner has a sure touch and ready audience for her fiction so The Unfinished Angel was no risk for her. It’s an odd little book but endearing. The angel of the title has flitted about a small town in the Swiss Alps for…a very long time…”maybe hundreds of years”.  S/he (angels are genderless, but you knew that) speaks a sort of pidgin language sprinkled with muddled words and hesitations. The angel doesn’t actually have a brief, has never seen another angel, doesn’t know where heaven is and mostly hangs out in the Casa Rosa tower and flishes in people’s heads to inspire them to do the right thing.

Along comes a brassy little American kid named Zola with her distracted father and three layers of skirts, two blouses, six or nineteen hair ribbons and all in loud clashing colors that look very beautiful. She can see the angel. In fact, she begins at once to boss it around. Zola has an open heart and a highly developed sense of justice so the angel begins to be very busy and only slightly annoyed.

There are a passel of orphans hiding in an old chicken coop to rescue and an arfing dog to shush (that one is a fail) and some hard grown-up hearts to melt and ruffled feathers to smooth over everywhere. The angel rushes around, still confused about what angels do and wondering constantly why s/he is an unfinished angel and not a poised, decisive spirit with a grand mission and a clear set of instructions.

The tale is charming. One of the most delightful chapters—they are all extremely short scenes and there are many of them—details the angel’s reaction to Zola’s memory of the angel that hovered over her premature brother in his incubator until he was out of danger. It looked to Zola like a pigeon and the angel is flummoxed and dismayed to think s/he might resemble a pigeon.

The Unfinished Angel isn’t complicated, although it manages to touch on the human predilection for war, neighborly spats, human loss, sorrow and need, the vacuity of consumer culture, the innocence and optimism of children, and how the language of the heart trumps the dictates of the head for happy endings. The book is aimed at kids and middle grade readers—if you are an especially theatrical reader you could succeed with this as a read-aloud for a younger child. It’s very funny, a tiny bit tense in spots and will leave you with a warm feeling, if you aren’t hopelessly and intractably cynical. You may never look at pigeons in quite the same way again.

The Unfinished Angel   Sharon Creech | HarperCollins 2009

The Hero and the Crown — Robin McKinley

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Robin McKinley does literate fantasy with enormous intelligence and a sure command of story. Her re-imaginations of Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty are revelatory and emotionally satisfying. Her heroines are strong and believable in ways more female protagonists should be. The Hero and the Crown won a Newbery Medal for its characters as much as its flawless craft. The story draws you into a world that seems real from its first detail to its last litter of puppies in the middle of the royal featherbed. It is Aerin’s story but it is a classic hero’s journey and every girl who reads it should get a few ideas. Every boy who reads it should re-examine a few.

Aerin is the king’s daughter, child of a mother who died at her birth, a mother who was considered by the good folk of Damaria to be a witch. So Aerin’s place in the kingdom is far from assured and she is the merciless taunt of her gorgeous and shallow cousin who schemes for power and position. The people believe Aerin may be a witch-child, a sol who has no apparent magical gifts, uncommon blazing red hair and white skin and a tendency toward unladylike pursuits.

From earliest childhood, Aerin has been inseparable from her friend Tor, the appointed first sola or heir to a king with no male children. Tor teaches her swordplay and confides in her but even Tor can’t define where Aerin fits in and what she is meant to be. She heals and tames her father’s injured war horse who has been turned out to pasture, teaching herself to ride hands-free and wield sword and spear on horseback. When she discovers an old formula for a fire-shielding ointment, she determines to perfect the recipe and become a dragon-killer—the dragons being fiercely volcanic vermin that terrorize the countryside, although they bear little resemblance to the legendary flying monsters that are long gone from Damaria.

Arlbeth, the king, refuses to take his daughter to battle with threatening dissidents from the North so Aerin sets out in secret to destroy Maur, the horrifying Black Dragon now returned, a massive evil presence laying waste to villages and farms at the outskirts of the kingdom. Her adventures are epic, her encounters deadly and the consequences of the lethal struggle with Maur set events in motion that spin wildly through tragedy, deep magic, heroism and destruction to the story’s conclusion.

McKinley has written another terrific tale, a fantasy with no fairytale princess but a tough, smart and battle-scarred heroine who shies away from the people who mistrust her and is desperate to prove her place. Aerin is funny, irreverent and brave. She is also impulsive, awkward and a miserable dancer. Her uncanny empathy with animals and the powerful magic she doesn’t realize she has propel her on a journey into a Tolkienesque hell that she undertakes as if fate compels her. Fate does. Aerin is no ordinary mortal but she is an extraordinary heroine and her quest captivates us. I rooted for her, even as I wanted to shout, “Go back! This is a really bad idea!” But there is no turning back. The losses are losses that can’t be redeemed; the victories are bittersweet. The story unspools as intensely visual as a film and I was sorry to leave the world McKinley created as I turned the last page.

 The Hero and the Crown    Robin McKinley | Firebrand 2002