Books

With the Newbery awards just around the corner, kids pick their favorites

Standing to make her point, fifth-grader Kenna Finlason discusses a Newbery book award selection at the Brookwood Elementary library in Leawood.
Standing to make her point, fifth-grader Kenna Finlason discusses a Newbery book award selection at the Brookwood Elementary library in Leawood. The Kansas City Star

“The Fourteenth Goldfish” is hugely popular among the fifth- and sixth-graders at Brookwood Elementary School in Leawood. Grace Richards, a student in the school’s mock Newbery club, is exasperated with a friend’s summary of the book.

She repeats the flawed reading to other club members: “He said it was about this girl who gets a bunch of fish! It has nothing to do with goldfish!” she shouts. Grace sits at a table with five other kids, all of them excited about books.

Just before the monthly 50-member mock Newbery meeting gets underway, Suzie Jensen, Brookwood Elementary’s librarian, explains why she enjoys it so much.

“You’ll feel it when they come in the door, the energy that comes from the kids. They’re excited about reading and want other kids to feel the same,” she says.

Jensen began the mock Newbery club 10 years ago at the request of a friend who was on the real committee and wanted to hear kids’ opinions about the books. Jensen and a steady stream of students have freely offered their ideas over the years.

Club members vote for their favorites monthly. “The Fourteenth Goldfish,” reviewed below, took first place in November and December. “The Crossover,” also reviewed below, has been a close second three months running.

Until the votes are cast the Brookwood library’s copies are for club members only, but there are never enough. The wait can be frustrating.

“But if a book’s out, you know someone has it who’s actually going to read it and vote on it,” Anna Blair says to explain that a holds list isn’t bad news for the club. Anna has read a record 22 of the 27 books selected by Jensen.

This year’s Newbery Award winner will be named next month by 15 committee members selected by the Association for Library Service to Children. Having sifted through all the domestically published books written for 8- to 14-year-olds, they will narrow the nominees to about 100, then to just a handful. Only one award is given, though sometimes the committee selects honors books.

Brookwood’s pick has coincided with the Newbery committee’s only once: 2013’s “The One and Only Ivan.”

“Brown Girl Dreaming”

By Jacqueline Woodson (336 pages; Nancy Paulsen Books; $16.99)

Jackie’s grandma said not to play with “Coraandhersisters”; their mother ran off with the pastor. But Grandma understands Coraandhersisters are just little kids.

When Coraandhersisters take over Jackie’s swing set, Grandma says to have a big heart.

“But our hearts aren’t bigger than that./Our hearts are tiny and mad./If our hearts were hands, they’d hit./If our hearts were feet, they’d surely kick somebody.”

“Brown Girl Dreaming” is Woodson’s autobiography of her childhood told in free verse. She grew up with one foot in South Carolina and the other in Brooklyn during the 1960s and ’70s.

While Coraandhersisters were brown people, as young Jackie identifies herself, they were often rejected as trespassers by Jackie and her siblings. Woodson places moments of prejudice throughout the poems, many of which deal with racism.

Jackie, with a writer’s flare for observation, puzzles over the South’s midcentury struggle with desegregation. She’s not quite sure what she thinks because, as a child, the issue of race doesn’t make a lot of sense to her.

On the one hand, she knows that when she visits the fabric store — see the many colors — with her grandma, they’re “just people” to the white clerk. “They discuss drape and nap and where to cinch/the waist on a skirt for a child.”

On the other hand, when she and her mother tend the laundry, they separate the whites from the darks. “Each/a threat to the other … /Maybe/there is something, after all, to the way/some people want to remain — each to its own kind./But in time/maybe/everything will fade to gray.”

The not-knowing what to think leads her to understand that it’s up to individuals to write our collective future.

“Brown Girl Dreaming” won the 2014 National Book Award for young people’s literature. Woodson’s work has received three Newbery Honors awards.

“The Crossover”

By Kwame Alexander (237 pages; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $16.95)

The rhythm of a dribbled basketball pounds through this story, told in short poems rather than prose.

Josh Bell is a seventh-grader whose top two loves are his dad and basketball. His twin brother and assistant-principal-of-a-mother are a close third and fourth.

His dad, Charles “Da Man” Bell, played professional ball but ruined his knee.

The Bell twins are basketball phenomena. Alexander paints their star power at times with the typeset of poetry.

“He’s a/Backcourt Baller/On the b r e a k,/a RUNNING GUNNING/SHOOTING STAR/FLYING FAST.”

The crisis comes when the twin finds a girlfriend, and Josh finds himself alone. To make matters worse, his dad’s health is failing. Josh unleashes on his brother, firing “a pass/so hard,/it levels him,/the blood/from his nose/still shooting/long after the shot-/clock buzzer goes off.”

Josh is suspended from the team as punishment. The reader is so close to Josh that the pain and desperation this causes is palpable.

Their dad was toying with the idea of writing a book. From his hospital bed he says that he’d call it “Basketball Rules.” It’s these rules that keep Josh moving when life becomes unbearably hard.

Rule No. 5: “When/you stop/playing/your/game/you’ve already/lost.”

Rule No. 10: “A loss is inevitable,/like snow in winter./True champions/learn/to dance/through/the storm.”

“The Fourteenth Goldfish”

By Jennifer Holm (208 pages; Random House; $16.99)

Ellie wakes to find her goldfish belly-up. She thinks it’s the same fish her preschool teacher gave her seven years ago, but her mom reveals it’s actually the 13th. The preschool teacher’s intent had been a lesson about death, but what mom wants to go down that road with a 4-year-old?

Right before Ellie’s 12th birthday, a teenage boy barges into her house. But he’s not a stranger, he’s her grandfather, a brilliant scientist who has discovered a cure for aging.

“The Fourteenth Goldfish” reads like a kid-friendly Aimee Bender story. The prose and the storyline are so aerodynamic that the reader’s mind has plenty of space to take in and digest Holm’s messages.

Ellie thinks of her grandfather, “It’s like he’s been playing the part of Grandfather in a play, but underneath the makeup is something more. A real person.”

But this grandfather still has the mind of a 72-year-old and does what a grandparent does best: bring to light life’s wonderfully interesting facets. Before she knows it, Ellie is in love with science.

What are the far-reaching implications of eradicating old age? Ellie understands the message she was meant to learn with the fish: “Endings are sad.… But beginnings are exciting.

Like discovering something I might be good at and making new friends.” Would this still be the case if we could press life’s “repeat” button at will?

Three of Holm’s previous books have been awarded Newbery honors.

“Greenglass House”

By Kate Milford (376 pages; Clarion Books; $17.99)

Milo Pine, 12, is relieved that winter break finally has arrived. He expects to spend Christmas in peace, alone with his parents.

To his dismay, one by one, strangers fill the family’s inn, Greenglass House, known for boarding smugglers in the tiny Quayside Harbor district of Nagspeake (nagspeake.com).

Milford weaves this tale in Charles Dickens’ tradition of a Christmastime ghost story. As soon as the last mysterious guest arrives it’s clear that this odd bunch is snowed in.

Numerous items are stolen from the edgy guests. The Pines expect smugglers to be on their register, but not thieves low enough to steal in-house.

Milo and a girl he assumes is the daughter of the cook begin a role-playing game and search for the stolen belongings.

Each guest is seeking something he or she believes the house keeps. At first Milo cannot imagine a mystery or a treasure associated with his home.

Around the inn’s great fireplace, Milo craftily coaxes the five travelers to tell a story, hoping they’ll reveal their secrets.

Take the professor who has studied a great stained-glass artisan, who is missing along with designs for his last four windows. The professor is certain that the artist’s work holds the key to the riddle of smuggler Doc Holystone, the house’s most infamous proprietor.

Or cranky Mrs. Hereward, whose story sounds like a fairy tale, complete with wishes granted and a magic lantern. But she’s certain that the relics of the story are real and are somewhere at Greenglass House.

Just as there are innumerable unexplored nooks and crannies in the house, so the story contains twists and turns the reader won’t see coming. This book was a finalist for a National Book Award.

“The Night Gardener”

By Jonathan Auxier (368 pages; Harry N. Abrams; $16.95)

Molly, 14, and Kip, 11, are orphans at the end of the 1800s. The first thing on Molly’s mind is protecting Kip from the fact of their parents’ deaths; he was delirious with fever and missed when they happened.

So she spins a yarn, saying their parents were captured by pirates.

An old gypsy storyteller asks Molly the difference between a story and a lie. Molly eventually answers that “A story helps folks face the world, even when it frightens ’em. And a lie does the opposite. It helps you hide.”

When the two take work at the Windsors’ mansion, they learn that the biggest lies people tell are to themselves.

A parasitic tree is sucking the life from the Windsors. The tree is tended by a terrifying man who visits in the dark: the Night Gardener. From bed to bed each night he collects the sweat of the family members lost to nightmare, then waters the tree with it.

Because the tree grants the family’s desires, they refuse to move out.

Penny Windsor is a normal, self-obsessed 6-year-old who wants “Princess Penny” stories nonstop. The tree spits out beautiful picture books that cater to her tiny ego.

Alistair is a bully of a preteen who’s greedy for candy. The tree fattens him up.

Mr. and Mrs. Windsor turn to the tree for money and jewelry, but it never doles out enough to satisfy them or their creditors.

Molly receives letters from her dead mother, while Kip has been sleeping in the stable and so is least susceptible to the black magic. He is also discerning enough to separate stories from lies and bribes from true gifts.

This book is dark, haunting and often in demand.

“The Port Chicago 50”

By Steve Sheinkin (208 pages; Roaring Brook Press; $19.99)

“The Port Chicago 50” is the story of how the United States Navy’s largest mutiny trial led to the desegregation of the armed forces.

On July 17, 1944, more than 300 men were killed in an explosion at Port Chicago, Calif. The majority of casualties were African-Americans because loading munitions was one of only a handful of jobs the Navy assigned black sailors.

On a regular day, the scene on the dock was “frantic, stressful, loud, chaotic — bombs rolling and clanking together, winch engines chugging and smoking, nets swinging through the air, sailors shouting and cursing, officers urging the men on.”

The white officers placed bets on which division could load explosives onto a ship fastest, ratcheting up the already frenetic laborers.

The blast seemed inevitable.

Fifty of the sailors vowed not to return to work under the same hazardous conditions and were subsequently imprisoned for refusing to obey a direct order. They were tried for mutiny.

According to Thurgood Marshall, lead attorney of the NAACP, “The Port Chicago 50 had been judged guilty of mutiny, but their real crime, he insisted — the thing that really got them in trouble — was drawing attention to the disgraceful way the United States Navy treated black sailors.”

This book also was a finalist for a National Book Award.

“What the Moon Said”

By Gayle Rosengren (224 pages; Putnam Juvenile; $16.99)

Esther, 10, is the second-youngest of five. She has a best friend, her big sisters are generous and fun, her mom stays home, and her dad has a decent job.

The year is 1930, and though her family has kept its head above water, the descent into poverty is inevitable.

But the Great Depression isn’t what troubles Esther. She doesn’t understand why her mother isn’t more affectionate with her. She sees other moms hugging and kissing their children and is sad that her own isn’t that way.

Aside from being cold, her mom is over-the-top superstitious, going so far as to tell Esther she can no longer be friends with a girl who has a mole on her face because she is “marked.”

“By angry fairies.… It is important to keep the fairies happy,” her mother explains with conviction. “I only know how dangerous it is to ignore fairies. And I know that the child is cursed. To be near her is dangerous.”

Ma also keeps Esther home from the most exciting party of the year and throws away her favorite doll. Still, she longs for her mother’s approval and affection.

Wisely, mother and daughter never cuddle in this book — that’s not where Rosengren is headed. The girl’s wish doesn’t come true, and she does not change her mother. Instead, a light goes on in Esther’s mind, and she understands there are many ways of loving someone.

“Love was actions more than words. Not just easy actions like hugs and kisses. It was hard ones, like sticking by someone in bad times, not just in good.”

To reach Anne Kniggendorf, send email to akknigg@gmail.com.

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