Moon Over Manifest (by Clare Vanderpool)

It is 1936 and Abilene is 12 years old when her daddy sends her to Manifest (supposedly just for a little while, though a little while soon turns into a long while). She has spent her whole life drifting from one town and job to another with Gideon (her father). Abilene knows all about being the new kid. She copes with this by determining that there are "universals" everywhere a person goes. Rich snobs, tricksters, odd balls, etc. are some of the labels she hastily applies to the people of Manifest.

It is only after discovering a box of trinkets and, along with the help of a few friends she quickly learns she has misjudged, Abilene uncovers the pieces to the mystery of Manifest...and her father as well.

*Moon over Manifest is the 2011 Newbery Award winner.

M.C. Higgins, the Great (Virginia Hamilton)

The latest installment in my Hamilton series...

In M.C. Higgins, the Great, M.C.’s family lives in hill country near the Ohio River. M.C. knows his land well, and one day when he encounters two newcomers, he wonders if his hope for leaving the hills behind for a better life is going to happen after all. One of the strangers is a wandering girl who says her name is Lurhetta Outlaw who inspires M.C. by showing him that it is scary and even dangerous to undertake new adventures, but rewarding nonetheless. The other stranger is someone who has come to confirm rumors of and even record the talented voice of M.C.’s mother.  At odds with the neighboring hill people for a long time, M.C.’s family comes to develop a better relationship with them despite their strange ways. Though not the main character, to me the most memorable character in this book was
Lurhetta. She is so mysterious and so eager for adventure, yet simultaneously afraid of change. This makes Lurhetta one complex character, and the fact that she totally uprooted M.C. the Great’s world makes her memorable as well.

The Wednesday Wars (Gary D. Schmidt)

I have had this book in a stack for some months now, and I must admit that I hated every word of it for about 5 chapters. Many times I will abandon a book that I feel is a waste of my time, but for some reason I stuck with this one...and I'm so glad that I did.

Set in the mid-60's, this book is about Holling Hoodhood's (yep, that's his name) weekly experiences with a teacher who he is convinced hates his guts. At this point in educational history, students were dismissed midday on Wednesdays to go to their respective churches or temples and learn about their religion. The Catholic students went to parochial school to learn about Catholicism, and the Jewish students went to Hebrew school to prepare for the bar and bat mitzvahs. That left Holling, a Presbyterian, who had nowehere to go, and therefore was stuck with Mrs. Baker. Their "Wednesday wars" are actually some creative and meaningful times spent together that grow Holling in ways that could never have been anticipated.

What was most interesting to me was how Schmidt makes the interactions with Mrs. Baker (the teacher who Holling thinks hates him) the star of this novel, and how there are so many intriguing side-stories that are much more important and significant than her literature lessons. Here are a few of them:
1. Holling's father is an architect, and a successful one. He's also a jerk. This affects Holling, his mother and sister, and his friends in some very important ways.
2. The story is set during the Vietnam war. Mrs. Baker's husband is a soldier, and becomes trapped behind enemy lines.
3. The culture of the Vitenam era is also a pressing, and most interesting, issue in this tale. One of Holling's classmates is a Vietnamese orphan who has had nothing whatsoever to do with the war, yet she takes the brunt of the town's frustrations in some very demeaning and hateful ways. 
4. Initially considered the bane of his existence, Mrs. Baker is actually Holling's strongest ally.
4. Mrs. Baker is an awesome teacher, whose strongest characteristics are her perception, her discretion, and her compassion. We could all take a few notes from Mrs. Baker.

My primary concern during the first few chapters was that students would not be engaged in this book. Set in a different time period in a different part of the country that had very different anxieties than our students currently experience, I worried that it would be much too foreign for them to relate. Then again, I will be the first to acknowledge that one of the greatest gifts literature can offer us is the ability to step outside ourselves and our problems and our egos and into the shoes of another person we would never perhaps even meet, much less be.

It's a good book, and I'll recommend it to my 5th graders... maybe some 4th graders as well. But, I know now HOW to recommend it and prepare my students for its consumption. The Wednesday Wars: Handle With Care!

*The Wednesday Wars is a Newbery Honor Book.

The Cat who Went to Heaven (Elizabeth Coatsworth)

First published in 1930, this book is about a very poor Japanese artist whose housekeeper brings home a cat to keep them company. He is reluctant about this cat at first, but as she comes to distinguish herself as an extraordinary sort of cat, he gives her the name Good Fortune and grows to accept her as a member of the household. The cat watches as the artist designs a great picture of Buddha for his town's largest temple, which is a great honor to him. The artist goes through several meditative-sort of states in order to encompass an accurate depiction of Prince Siddhartha, the man who came to be known as the Buddha, and all the animals who supposedly came to pay homage to him.

A few things I learned from this book included some background information about Buddhism. I don't practice Buddhism, but it is always good to be educated about other religions.

I have a few questions about this one that were never answered in the story...namely, how does a poort artist still have enough money to keep a housekeeper? What was it about the animals (and their place in this culture) that made the artist focus so intently on them?

Cross Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins

Another audio encounter, and one I thought would NEVER release me from its evil clutches!

Criss Cross is about 4 teenagers, and how they are going about their daily life trying to figure out who they are and what they think about things. There weren't really any major events or development in character. There weren't any major conflicts. It was just these kids, doing normal things. It reminded me of that movie Crash in a way, as occasionally each of the characters would cross paths with another and only the reader is aware of the full impact of each event...only Crash was interesting. I know, sounds harsh.

I do have one good thing to say about this book. The author's style is very sophisticated. She used lots of metaphors in the book, which made for beautiful text. The only problem was, no true picture of these characters was really painted.

I will be honest, I have no idea why this was a Newbery winner. Did I skip a CD or something?