I haven’t read all the Newbery winners since 1922, but I have read a lot of them. Here are my favorites, all four or five star reads for me.
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle. Meg’s father disappeared a year ago, and now three crazy ladies claim she and her little brother and a new maybe-friend can travel instantly across space to rescue him. This has been made into movies, but none of them are as good as the book. Controversial at the time for a children’s book, this has become a classic for very good reasons. I love the characters, love the fantastic settings, love and hate the way the plot makes me think about the world and good vs evil, and love the way Meg succeeds. The rest of the series is also good, though the first two books are the best.
The Giver, by Lois Lowry. Okay, not exactly sci-fi, but sort of. In a future world, Jonas lives in the perfect society, without fear, poverty, or war. Then his new job as the Receiver of Dreams reveals secrets that could destroy his entire world. This has been made into a movie, too, with mixed results. The book is still better. While not a “fun” read, this is very thought-provoking, and Lois does a great job of dribbling out the revelations until we finally understand. I did *not* enjoy the others in the series.
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brien. This one is also hard to classify. In part contemporary beast tale, in part speculative sci-fi, this is the story of a mouse who discovers her deceased mate was an escaped inmate of scientific experiments that increased his intelligence to human levels. When Mrs. Frisby’s house and sick son are threatened by the plow, she turns to the likewise intelligent rats for help. The movie is cute, but the book is touching. Mrs. Frisby isn’t as smart as the rats, but her courage and motherly love carry her through the story.
The Grey King, by Susan Cooper. The finale in a series between the Dark and the Light. Memories lost to illness, only a broken riddle can guide Will to retrieve a magical harp from the most powerful Lord of the Dark, the Grey King. Though the book is set in “modern” times, at least in part, it definitely has the feel of ancient fantasy seeping down through the years. Will is a great hero, strong despite weakness, and the book wraps up the hanging threads from the rest of the series into a tidy conclusion.
The Hero and the Crown, by Robin McKinley. Aerin is the daughter of the king and a witch. Powerless though she is, her tainted blood has banned her from the throne. Now dragons are stalking the land, and she is the only one who can fight them. While I would classify Aerin as a strong heroine, it’s not her sword fighting or horse riding that makes her so. Instead, it’s her honesty, her determination, and her desire to protect her land that make her the hero of the story.
The High King, by Lloyd Alexander. Another series finale. When the most powerful weapon in Prydain falls into the hands of Arawn-Death-Lord, Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper, and Prince Gwydion raise an army to march against Mount Dragon, Arawn’s stronghold. I love the characters so, so much, and while this last book is sad, it is the fulfillment of the series in many ways. The characters have matured into even more wonderful people who make hard choices because it’s the right thing to do.
The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman. Let’s call this one urban fantasy. It’s set in modern times, but with ghosts and other supernatural creatures. Nobody Owens, known as Bod, would be completely normal if he wasn’t raised by ghosts. If Bod leaves the graveyard, he will come under attack from the man who killed Bod’s family. The book can get a little spooky at times, but isn’t actually horror. The mystery builds and builds, and while I guessed things ahead of time, it didn’t ruin my enjoyment of watching the author draw all the strands together into a tapestry. While the basic story is very good all by itself, the little touches Neil adds in puns and allusions made it even more enjoyable for me.
The Bronze Bow, by Elizabeth George Speare. Daniel bar Jamin wants to revenge his father’s death by forcing the Romans from Israel. His hatred wanes only when he starts to hear the gentle lessons of Jesus of Nazareth. The historical aspects are good, but what really touched my heart was the vision of love winning over hate.
King of the Wind, by Marguerite Henry. The Sultan sent six of the best horses in the kingdom to the King of France! Agba, the mute horseboy, knew his horse Sham would be chosen. But when a corrupt boat captain steals the food for their journey, the horses nearly die by the time they arrive. And the King of France sends Sham to be a workhorse! Will he ever be able to prove himself the champion that he is? I don’t know if Agba or Sham is the better character, but I felt for both of them throughout the story. I’m not a true horse-enthusiast (call me pleasantly neutral), but I still liked the horse parts and the history.
A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park. Tree-ear, an orphan, wants nothing more than to watch master potter Min at work, and he dreams of making a pot of his own someday. When Min takes Tree-ear on as his helper, Tree-ear is determined to prove himself–even if it means arriving at the royal court with nothing to show but a single celadon shard. Tree-ear is another ordinary hero who wins through determination and character rather than flashy skills and big battles. The historical aspects make an excellent backdrop to Tree-ears character arc.
Sarah, Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLachlan. Sarah comes from Maine to the prairie to answer Papa’s advertisement for a wife and mother. Will Sarah be nice? Will she sing? Will she stay? Though a children’s book, this is a great example of a historical romance. Love grows slowly as the characters get to know each other, and in the end, we believe because we’ve seen why. The movie is pretty good.
Holes, by Louis Sachar. Stanley Yelnats is under a curse that has followed generations of Yelnats. Now Stanley has been unjustly sent to a boys’ detention center where the warden makes the boys “build character” by spending every day digging holes. It doesn’t take long for Stanley to realize the warden is looking for something. The mixed-up timeline is a little confusing, but the reasons for it become clear by the end. Louis doesn’t waste a word as he lays out the clues, and the revelations at the end tie everything together perfectly. The movie for this one is actually pretty good.
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg. When Claudia decided to run away, she planned very carefully. She would be gone just long enough to teach her parents a lesson in Claudia appreciation. And she would live in comfort at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She saved her money, and she invited her brother Jamie to go, mostly because be was a miser and would have money. It takes a mystery and Mrs. Basil to teach her how to go home again. I enjoyed the mystery, but the biggest draw for me was the relationship of the siblings.
Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson. Jess Aarons’ greatest ambition is to be the fastest runner in his grade. But on the first day of school, a new girl boldly crosses over to the boys’ side and outruns everyone. He and Leslie Burke become inseparable, creating Terabithia, a magical kingdom in the woods where the two of them reign as king and queen, and their imaginations set the only limits. Imagination and friendship are the true kings in this book, despite its sad ending. (My husband watched the movie with tears rolling down his face and accused me of cruelty for recommending it.)
There you go! Fourteen books from the Newbery Award Winners. How long will it take you to read them all?
M. C. Lee