Reviews of the 2021 Newbery Medal Winners

Winner

When You Trap a Tiger
by Tae Keller
Intermediate, Middle School    Random House    298 pp.    g
1/20    978-1-5247-1570-0    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5247-1572-4    $9.99

Korean American middle schooler Lily thinks she has to take on a magical tiger in order to save her beloved Halmoni (grandmother), but the truth is much more complicated. An ambitious number of themes — coming of age, family relationships (particularly between sisters and between generations), belonging, friendship, grief, and end-of-life — intertwine in a heartfelt novel. Debut author Keller incorporates Korean folktales throughout, adding richness and depth. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

From the Guide/Reviews Database.

 

Honor Books

Fighting Words
by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Intermediate, Middle School    Dial    269 pp.    g
8/20    978-1-9848-1568-2    $17.99

Ten-year-old Delicious Nevaeh Roberts, a.k.a. Della, doesn’t take “snow” from anyone (“Suki says whenever I want to use a bad word, I can say snow”). She’s learned to be tough from her fiercely protective sixteen-year-old sister Suki, who has been her de facto parent since their meth-addicted mother went to prison. Their life in East Tennessee is looking up now that they have moved in with pragmatic foster mom Francine. Della is making new friends at school and learning to swim at the Y, while Suki has scored a cashier job at their local supermarket. But Suki is hiding a devastating secret about the time they lived with their mom’s boyfriend Clifton, a secret that causes her to wake up screaming every night. It’s only after Suki attempts suicide that Della understands it’s time to use her own voice to help her sister speak up. “Sometimes you’ve got a story you need to find the courage to tell.” Newbery Honor winner Bradley (The War That Saved My Life, rev. 1/15) perfectly balances pathos and humor (as found in many of Della’s observations) in this tender story of sisterhood, while also showcasing the astonishing strength and resilience of children to confront, and eventually heal from, trauma and sexual abuse. Della’s bold, cheeky first-person narration is unforgettable, as is the supporting cast of adult characters, from redoubtable Francine to deli-counter worker Maybelline, whose brusque demeanor belies a kind heart. An author’s note includes information about suicide and abuse prevention organizations. JENNIFER HUBERT SWAN

From the September/October 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

We Dream of Space
by Erin Entrada Kelly
Intermediate, Middle School    Greenwillow    392 pp.    g
5/20    978-0-06-274730-3    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-274732-7    $9.99

In the foreground of this novel are three siblings. Twelve-year-old Fitch lives for video games and is angry through and through. His twin sister Bird is an amiable, peacekeeping engineering brainiac. Their older brother Cash feels he is a failure at school and everywhere else. In the middle ground is the toxic marriage of their parents, a couple given to sourness, sarcasm, and bickering. In the background, coloring the emotional tone of the book, establishing its historical setting, and propelling the plot, is the upcoming launch of the space shuttle Challenger in January 1986. With short chapters focusing alternately on each sibling, Kelly establishes distinct and original characters, doing an especially convincing job of re-creating, in Fitch, the physicality of rage. The form also emphasizes the emotional isolation of each member of the family. Middle school is portrayed in all its intensity, where a social misstep and an existential question about the meaning of life have the same weight. Tension builds until the shock of the Challenger disaster resets the relationship among the three children, releasing kindness in each one. Kelly creates a crisp, moving portrait of family dysfunction and the resilience of the young. Back matter provides information on the Challenger spacecraft and the seven crew members who died when it exploded, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe and mission specialist Judith Resnik (Bird’s idol). SARAH ELLIS

From the May/June 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team
by Christina Soontornvat
Intermediate, Middle School    Candlewick    288 pp.    g
10/20    978-1-5362-0945-7    $24.99

An author of picture books, easy readers, and middle-grade novels, Soontornvat (A Wish in the Dark, rev. 5/20) here presents a compelling work of nonfiction. On June 23, 2018, in Mae Sai, Thailand, twelve members of a youth soccer team and their coach decided to explore a nearby cave after practice. After venturing several miles in, they found themselves trapped by floods caused by unseasonably early monsoon rains. As Thailand marshaled international resources, the world watched the drama unfold. The rescue — all thirteen survived — would be nothing short of miraculous. In lucid prose written in third-person-present tense for a heightened sense of immediacy, Soontornvat gives readers a journalistic account of the difficulty and complexity of the rescue effort. Using interviews and other primary sources, she keeps a tight focus on the unfolding story, with its inherent edge-of-your-seat, heart-in-your-throat drama, adroitly juggling a parade of characters, clearly laying out the technical and engineering challenges, and judiciously parsing out expository information in the occasional sidebar. The rescue effort brought out the best in humanity, and inspiring messages of teamwork, cooperation, sacrifice (the death of a Thai diver is covered in a chapter called “A Tragic Loss”), loyalty, faith, and hope abound in these pages. Liberally illustrated throughout with full-color illustrations and maps; an author’s note, source notes, a bibliography, and an index are appended. (See Marc Aronson’s Rising Water, rev. 5/19, for another account of the same events.) JONATHAN HUNT

From the September/October 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

A Wish in the Dark
by Christina Soontornvat
Intermediate, Middle School    Candlewick    375 pp.    g
3/20    978-1-5362-0494-0    $17.99

Soontornvat balances inner change and political action with insight and stylistic flair in this fantastical Les Misérables retelling. In Chattana City, the Governor wields a power that is almost absolute and, ever since the Great Fire, he has been the sole distributor and regulator of light. "Light shines on the worthy," he says, decreeing that the poor will live in gloom and the rich in effulgence. To Pong, born in a prison and destined by law to stay there until age thirteen, there's no justice in the Governor's claim. When he gets a chance to escape in a stinky load of fruit rinds, he goes, landing in the care of a gentle Buddhist monk. But Nok, the prison warden's rule-following daughter, is bent on capturing him; forced to flee again, Pong is drawn into a plan for peaceful protest against Chattana's unjust laws. Alternating between Pong's and Nok's stories, Soontornvat tells a satisfyingly intricate tale of escape and chase while raising questions about institutionalized injustices of privilege and want. Her Thai-inspired world is fully engaging, but perhaps most winning are the innocence, hope, and humor she conveys in the context of the struggle for social justice and with respect to the children's growth. DEIRDRE F. BAKER

From the May/June 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom
by Carole Boston Weatherford; illus. by Michele Wood 
Primary, Intermediate    Candlewick    56 pp.    g
4/20    978-0-7636-9156-1    $17.99

“I entered the world a slave…I was a slave because my countrymen had made it lawful, in utter contempt of the declared will of heaven.” Our introduction to Henry Brown in the opening lines of the book are in his own words (from Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself). The history of Henry Brown — who self-emancipated from enslavement after his wife and children were sold away by shipping himself North in a wooden crate, hoping to “pass as dry goods” — has been told before (see Henry’s Freedom Box, rev. 3/07). Here, Weatherford’s moving, poetic verse gives the story a very personal tone as the reader becomes immersed in Brown’s harrowing tale of loss and sorrow and his determination to be free. Written in sixains, with each line representing a side of a box, the text painstakingly traces Brown’s journey: “I take a bladder of water and a drill to bore air holes / And cram my two-hundred-pound body into the box.” The mixed-media art uses collage elements effectively. Deep reds and bright blues and greens figure prominently, giving the art a somewhat vintage feel while still being vivid and vibrant. The book ends powerfully with a sixain titled “AXIOM”: “Freedom / Is / Fragile. / Handle / With / Care.” Appended with a timeline, a bibliography, and notes from the illustrator and the author. MONIQUE HARRIS

From the March/April 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

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