Saturday, June 23, 2018

Newbery Reviews: The Whipping Boy || Out Of The Dust || Dear Mr. Henshaw

One of my long-term goals is to read all of the Newbery winners. Here are a few I read recently.

The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman

Pages: 90
Genre: Historical Middle Grade
Publication Date: 1986

A Prince and a Pauper . . . Prince Brat and his whipping boy inadvertently trade places after becoming involved with dangerous outlaws. The two boys have nothing in common and even less reason to like each other. But when they find themselves taken hostage after running away, they are left with no choice but to trust each other.

The Good: A Newbery winner that kids might actually like? Who knew it was possible? There are a lot of Newbery winners that I wouldn’t have been able to get through as a kid, but this isn’t one of them. I might have actually enjoyed this story. It’s a lightning-fast, humorous adventure about a prince and his whipping boy who accidentally run away together. At first they hate each other, but when they’re taken hostage by thieves, they have to put their differences aside to escape.

This novel is only 90 pages, but the characters change a lot over the course of the story. They learn to listen to each other. They also learn that sometimes you’re forced to work with stupid, pompous jackasses. You can’t change those people, so you have to find ways to succeed in spite of them. That’s a valuable life lesson.

What was he looking for, a prince in fine velvets and a crown cocked on his head? Was it clothes that made a prince, Jemmy wondered, just as rags made a street boy?The Whipping Boy

The Bad: The plot isn’t the most original. I feel like there are a lot of bored-prince-lives-among-commoners stories in the world. The characters aren’t particularly original, either. The prince is a spoiled brat. (He’s even nicknamed “Brat.”) The whipping boy is the quick-witted one who gets them out of trouble. I’ve seen this all before.

The Bottom Line: There’s something in this book for everybody. Kids would like the quick pace and slapstick humor. Adults would like the themes and the lively writing style.

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse

Pages: 227
Genre: Historical Middle Grade Novel-In-Verse
Publication Date: 1997

When Billie Jo is just fourteen she must endure heart-wrenching ordeals that no child should have to face. The quiet strength she displays while dealing with unspeakable loss is as surprising as it is inspiring.

Written in free verse, this award-winning story is set in the heart of the Great Depression. It chronicles Oklahoma's staggering dust storms, and the environmental—and emotional—turmoil they leave in their path. An unforgettable tribute to hope and inner strength.

The Good: This story is written in free verse, so even though it’s 227 pages, you can finish it in an afternoon. There aren’t many words on a page. The author is a talented poet. The poems are straightforward and easy to understand. What I love most about novels-in-verse is that they get right to the heart of the story. This book has a lot of action and not a lot of extra fluff.

The narrator, Billie Jo, is a tough character. Her life in dust-bowl-era Oklahoma is relentlessly awful, but she finds ways to survive. After each new disaster, I wondered how she was going to keep going. She always manages to adjust, even when it’s hard.

The way I see it, hard times aren't only about money, 
or drought, 
or dust. 
Hard times are about losing spirit, 
and hope, 
and what happens when dreams dry up.Out of the Dust

The Bad: If you don’t like depressing books, then you should definitely avoid this one. There’s not much in Billie Jo’s life to bring her joy. I love depressing books, but even I was like, “Damn, this is bleak.” I guess it’s historically accurate. The dust bowl wasn’t a particularly happy time for farmers.

The book is aptly named. There is a lot of dust. Actually, I got sick of poems about dust. They got repetitive quickly.

The Bottom Line: I like the author’s other book, Witness, more than this one, but I understand why Out of the Dust won the Newbery. It’s well-written historical fiction.

Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary (Leigh Botts #1)

Pages: 144
Genre: Middle Grade Contemporary
Publication Date: 1983

After his parents separate, Leigh Botts moves to a new town with his mother. Struggling to make friends and deal with his anger toward his absent father, Leigh loses himself in a class assignment in which he must write to his favorite author. When Mr. Henshaw responds, the two form an unexpected friendship that will change Leigh’s life forever.

The Good: When I was in middle school, I adored the Ramona Quimby series and read approximately a zillion of those books. It was good to be back in Beverly Cleary’s “world.” I think she really understands kids. She knows that they can be funny and insightful, infuriating and annoying. Leigh’s personality in Dear Mr. Henshaw rings true. He got on my nerves, but in a realistic, childlike way.

My opinion of Leigh changed as he matured. At first, I kind of hated him. He writes tons of rude letters to an author and demands that the author answer them. As someone whose email inbox is constantly flooded with unsolicited emails, I understand how annoying it is to have a stranger making demands of you. Luckily, my opinion of Leigh changed drastically as the book went on. Once he stops harassing Mr. Henshaw and starts keeping a diary, I became a lot more understanding of his behavior. The author does a nice job of showing Leigh’s loneliness and his frustration over his parents’ divorce.

I like that Leigh’s writing “career” follows a realistic path. He decides that he wants to write stories and learns that writing is hard. I love that he’s not immediately good at it.

I am sort of medium . . . I guess you could call me the mediumest boy in the class.Dear Mr. Henshaw

The Bad: This is one of those books that make me wish I could question the Newbery committee. Why is this the Beverly Cleary book that won the Newbery? Because it’s more serious than some of her others? I don’t know. I like the early Ramona books more than I like this one. I guess I find quirky Ramona more compelling than troubled-and-demanding Leigh.

The Bottom Line: It’s good. I don’t think there’s anything really wrong with the book, but it didn’t blow me away. I probably won’t read the sequels.

Have you read any of these? What did you think?


  1. That's a pretty cool idea to read all of the Newberry Award winners. There was a list on Pinterest with books from a bunch of different countries that I thought would be interesting to read, maybe I'll do that.

    1. There are so many book lists that I want to get through eventually. I’ve read almost all of the Printz winners. I want to do an around the world challenge someday, too.

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

  2. I remember reading Out of the Dust in fifth grade!! It was one of the first books I had read that was entirely in poetry (free verse). I don't think I truly got just how depressing it was... and I have no desire to go back and realize it for myself haha. Great reviews!!

    1. Yeah, it’s a bleak book. Pretty much every character dies or gets sick or injured.

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

  3. I remember reading Out of the Dust in 6th grade and loving it! I had read some poetry before, but I hated it because of so much extra fluff punching me in the face. I cannot keep up with the fluffy prose all the time. Then, Out of Dust was so straight-forward. I loved that it would tell a story and stick to that story rather than go on about how cantaloupes and dragons are the same thing. (They're not!) Also, it is really cool that you are reading all the Newberry Award winners. I would like to do this; however, as I am really bad at sticking to TBRs, I would stink at this so badly. Have a great day!

    1. Haha, YES, exactly. Some novels wander all over the place, but novels-in-verse tend to get to the point quickly.

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

  4. A couple of the Newberys I read made me think the same about the stories, that a kid would most likely drop the book like a hot potato. Ha ha. My son adored Cleary's mouse books. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on these. ☺

  5. Wow, okay, then my school should definitely replace this as a mandatory reading with the otehr less-kid-friendly-newberry-award-books they force students ot read. Great review!

  6. 100% agreement here that Witness is the best Hesse book and Ramona beats the pants off whiny Leigh. Even now the Newbery committee makes some odd choices in terms of books actual kids would want to read.

  7. OK, I've wondered for years and none of you US book bloggers are gonna come out and say it on your own: WTF are the Newbery's? Like, I feel like it's some sort of award you have, but then there seem to be approx. 5.7 million books that are 'Newbery's' and there seems to be no logic to what wins - let the rest of the world in on your secrets, please?!

    1. Haha, it does seem like there are 5.7 million Newberys. The Newbery is an award that’s given out by the American Library Association every year. Only children’s books (middlegrade and younger) are eligible to win. There are a zillion books with Newbery stickers on them because the judging committee chooses 1 winner and a bunch of “honor” books every year. The award has been around since 1922. I’m trying to read all 96 winners. The books vary widely in quality because the Newbery has a different committee of judges every year. I don’t understand what some of the committees were thinking. They’ve chosen some odd books.

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

    2. On behalf of all international bloggers - thank you for explaining what the hell you Americans are talking about ;)

  8. Great reviews! I've actually read all these books for my challenge already. Woohoo! I'm with you about Dear Mr. Henshaw. My favorite of Cleary's books are actually the Ralph Mouse books, but I think rosey glaseses are dominating there. Regardless, Ramona, Ralph, or something different, Dear Mr. Henshaw is a weird choice.