Where the good books are (for adults)
On days when the light fades earlier, winds are chillier and summer reading is long past, it’s time to sit with a cup of tea by the warm glow from a fireplace or the light of candles, turn off the noisy television and put on some soft music as you begin the adventure of a good story.
There’s plenty of murder, political tension and family turmoil on the news, so why bother with the same themes in the often depressing best sellers for adults? There is a treasury of award-winning literature to be found in a section of the public library or Blue Ridge Books that many adults have never explored.
It was from our twin grandsons that I learned where the good books are. One recent afternoon their school backpacks landed on the front seat of the car and Richard Peck’s "A Year Down Yonder" popped out.
“Is it good? Should I read it?” I asked.
“Yes, grandpa, read it!”
My enthusiasm matched theirs when I saw the imprint of the Newbery Medal on the cover. The best children’s book of 2001, "A Year Down Yonder" was so much fun that I soon read two more Peck books about zany Grandmother Dowdel and the experiences of her grandchildren who come to visit in rural downstate Illinois. She is now one of my favorite personalities in all literature — a free spirited small town eccentric who cares not what others think of her. She’s surely earned the title of “town character.”
The one set at Christmas time, "A Season of Gifts," is filled with humor as grandmother shows her teen granddaughter how to let go and have fun by doing the unexpected. The writing is superb and the story lines move quickly without the drawn out introspection of many adult novels.
Newbery Medal winners have now become my constant reading companions. These aren’t childish picture books. They are fine literature with stories, personalities and quality writing to match any written for adults.
The John Newbery award is given annually by the American Library Association (ALA) for the most distinguished American children's book published the previous year. In 1921, Frederic G. Melcher, a lover of children’s literature, proposed that an award be created and named for the 18th-century English bookseller John Newbery. His idea was enthusiastically accepted and the first award was given by the ALA in 1922 “to emphasize to the public that contributions to literature for children deserve recognition and to encourage good writing in this field.” The Newbery Medal, the first children's book award in the world, continues to be the best known children's book award in this country and those on the list make for perfect winter time reading.
The stories are often inspirational, revolving around themes of bravery and loyalty, and are especially accessible for someone like me who doesn’t do well with books that are many hundreds of pages long. In recent weeks, I’ve read award winners as short as 65 pages and none longer than 230 pages, although the exception will come when I pick up a copy of "Johnny Tremain" (the 1944 winner) — a Revolutionary War era story also made into a beloved Disney movie of my childhood.
I particularly like stories set in another period of history and across the seas. "Number the Stars" by Lois Lowry (the 1990 winner) took me to Denmark during World War II to meet a young Danish girl, Annemarie Johansen, as she helps her family hide her best friend and Jewish neighbor Ellen and family from the Nazis. Annemarie heroically risks her own life in order to help them escape undercover across the narrow strait of the Baltic Sea waters to safe haven in Sweden. It’s historical fiction based on real events.
A two-time Newbery Medal winner, Lowry also wrote "The Giver" (1994), which in all my years of reading is the book I could not turn the pages fast enough to find out how it would end — even better than a murder mystery or John Grisham story. A chill of excitement ran through me as I reached the final pages of "The Giver."
Paula Fox’s "The Slave Dancer" (1974) is the story of a young white boy captured by the crew of a slave ship to provide music for the journey from Africa back to America with a cargo of humans in bondage. Jessie is forced to play his flute as the shackled prisoners are made to dance to keep their muscles strong. The conditions aboard the ship are important for all Americans to experience in order to know our nation’s history.
Memorable animal creatures take the lead in Robert O'Brien’s "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH" (1972) and "The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread" (2004) by Kate DiCamillo. The grandsons disagree on which is the best so I’m having fun reading both.
I will always remember the story of the young boy searching for his father among the jazz musicians of New Orleans, "Bud, Not Buddy" (2000) by Christopher Paul Curtis which I listened to on CDs in the car while driving.
Sharon Creech’s remarkable "Walk Two Moons" (1995) is another favorite that brought frequent smiles to my face and contentment to my soul.
Give yourself the treat of reading a Newbery Medal book and you’ll have a ready answer to the question, “Read anything good lately?”
A complete list of Medal winners can be found on the American Library Association home page using a search of the word Newbery.