Okay, I know this post is months late (the Newbery winners were announced in January). I have a very good reason for this; it took me this long to get my hands on a copy of The Surrender Tree, the last book left for me to read. I finally got it from the library this week, so here are my thoughts on each of this year’s Newbery books.

graveyard-book2009 Newbery Medal Winner:
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. Harper Collins, 2008.

I adored this book. I also read Coraline this year, and while I loved both I far and away preferred The Graveyard Book. Bod Owens is just a toddler when his family is brutally murdered by the man Jack. Little Bod escapes the same fate when he crawls out of his crib, out of his house, and into the ancient cemetary next door. The ghosts adopt him and keep him safe from murderous Jack, and the mysterious Silas becomes his guardian. He is raised by the ghostly Owens couple and christened Nobody since no one knows his real name. Bod grows up with all the freedoms and privileges of the cemetary, which gives him certain abilities everyday mortals lack. The threat from Jack is ever-present, which leads to a climax where the ghosts, Silas, and the very clever and brave Bod get to show off all their tricks. In the meantime, Bod grows up and has the kind of adventures found in kids’ dreams (or nightmares). This book is exceptionally funny (as when Bod tries to convince a schoolteacher about how history really happened, since he was told firsthand by a ghost who was there), scary, sweet, magical, and just exceptional.

I listened to this on audio book, read by the author, and it was the most enjoyable performance I have listened to in quite some time. I highly recommend it.

underneath2009 Newbery Honor Books:
The Underneath by Kathi Appelt. Atheneum, 2008.

I reviewed this book back in January, and my opinion is still the same. I thought this was a beautifully written, lyrical book with a convoluted plot. It took quite a while for all the elements to come together, and while the prose was enough to keep me going at first it eventually became hard to stay with. I booktalked this and promoted it to my students, and my hardest core readers couldn’t get through it. A beautiful choice, but not the most readable.

savvySavvy by Ingrid Law. Dial, 2008.

Mississippi Beaumont is waiting anxiously for her 13th birthday. That’s the day everyone in her family get their “savvy,” or special power. She has a brother who can make hurricanes, another who can control electricity. “Mibs” hopes her savvy will be something pretty amazing. But just before her birthday, her father is seriously hurt in a car accident, and her mother rushes to his side a few towns away. Convincd that her savvy will somehow help save her father, she gets her brothers, the local preacher’s kids, and a Bible salesmen to help her on a rollicking adventure to her father’s bedside. Along the way they meet an eccentric cast of characters, and Mibs learns her savvy isn’t anything like what she imagined, but it’s still pretty great.

The homespun phrases in Law’s first book can become a little tedious, and the promising start of the book droops a little as the adventures of the troupe in the Bible bus get more and more outrageous, but this is still a charmer of a first book.

aftertupacAfter Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson. Puntam Young Adult, 2008.

I’ve never read a Jacqueline Woodson book that stepped wrong, and this one is no exception. This is another book I reviewed several months back, and I still remember it vividly. The 11-year-old narrator and her best friend Neeka, inseparable since birth, are sitting on their stoop in Queens one day when D Foster appears. She’s mysterious, not from the neighborhood, and she loves Pac and his music as much as they do. They become fast friends. But as the drama of Tupac Shakur’s last years play out, the secrecy and problems of D’s life becomes more and more clear to the friends from Queens. And then one day D is gone, leaving behind questions, lies, and heartbreak. Did they even know her real name?

This book is phenomenal, about good kids from the city who have lives more complicated than they realize and a tremendous ability to love and tolerate. Set against the backdrop of  Tupac’s final years, the story will call up vibrant memories from his fans who were following along and remember. For the teens reading it, it’s an absorbing look into how his music moved people.

surrendertreeThe Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle. Henry Holt, 2008.

This is an historical account of Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain, told entirely through verse. Each poem is told from the point of view of Rosa, an herbal healer helping the rebel movement in the mountains of Cuba; Jose, her husband and protector; Lieutenant Death, slavehunter for Spain and set on destroying Rosa; and the various other characters they meet during 30 years of war. It is heartbreaking, beautiful, hopeful, tragic, bloody, and thrilling. It’s the kind of book that transcends age and could inform and move people from all walks of life. It is beautifully written by Engle, and the poetic format balances the content: the ugliness and hopefulness of war.