Young readis: Reviews of Caldecott, Newberry and Printz award-winning books |

Young readis: Reviews of Caldecott, Newberry and Printz award-winning books

Karina Wetherbee
Special to the Daily
An illustration from “The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend,” written and illustrated by Dan Santat.
Special to the Daily |

“The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend,” by Dan Santat

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend,” the 2015 Caldecott winner for children’s literature, is a charming tale about discovering the magic of imagination and the power of finding the deepest and most profound love within yourself. Beautifully illustrated with vibrant colors, author and artist Dan Santat’s picture book for 3- to 6-year-olds opens on an island where imaginary friends are born and where they wait for their children to conjure them up into their lives.

The creatures, including Beekle, are dynamic and playful, each unique and ready to be imagined. But, it’s a lonely life of waiting. Like the sad presents on the Island of Misfit Toys, Beekle waits and waits, until he uses his own imagination to dream up a friend and a world of his own. Bravely daring to step into a reality that seems to be lacking in vibrancy, Beekle’s imagination sends him on an adventure, and the book is filled with big, blocky art that will inspire any young reader to imagine adventures of her own.

“Flora & Ulysses,” by Kate DiCamillo

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From Kate DiCamillo, the author of the much-loved “The Tale of Despereaux,” comes “Flora & Ulysses,” the 2014 Newberry Award winner. Part graphic novel, part novel, this worthy award-winner moves along quickly, with zany humor and playful, full-of-motion artwork. An unlikely friendship begins when young Flora rescues a squirrel from the jaws of her neighbor’s wayward vacuum cleaner. Flora is a fan of comics, and she marvels that her new furry friend seems to have acquired superpowers after his brush with death.

She christens the squirrel Ulysses, in honor of the vacuum cleaner brand that nearly sucked him into oblivion, and the adventures commence. The fast-paced romp begins a story which author DiCamillo seems to know is utter nonsense, so she dives in with both feet, reveling in the ridiculousness of it all. That said, she does not talk down to young readers; she accepts that they can appreciate the pleasures of complex words and abstract ideas.

The pages are filled with endearingly quirky characters — a poetry-writing superhero squirrel, a geeky boy who thinks he is blind, an unromantic romance-writing mother and a father who declares “holy bagumba” at the sight of the magical squirrel. Flora longs for Ulysses to battle “malfeasance” in the world, but he just wants to write poetry and eat, especially giant donuts with sprinkles.

At its heart, “Flora and Ulysses” is a book about words, their meanings and the thrill of discovering new things, including the immense joy of the world of imagination. As William Spiver, the not-so-blind blind neighbor, aptly puts it, “Don’t we all live in our heads? Where else could we possibly exist? Our brains are the universe.”

“Holy bagumba,” indeed.

“I’ll Give You the Sun,” by Jandy Nelson

The 2015 Printz Award was given to Jandy Nelson’s novel “I’ll Give You The Sun,” a classic coming-of-age tale that captures the often-overwhelming nature of the teen years, which can often feel as though they are drifting with a rudderless sense of nothingness.

Twins Noah and Jude have the bond of their birth, and they grow up very close, aware of each other’s moods and passions, and both have deeply ingrained artistic abilities. Noah’s talents run so deeply that they color his everyday musings, while Jude fights her gift, but art flows through the narrative like honey, with passion, color and abandon.

When Noah and Jude hit the teen years, though, their link begins to fragment, as the differences in their personalities present themselves. Noah is quiet, a loner, and though he sees a world full of inspiring color, he sees himself as colorless. Jude, on the other hand, is the center of attention, popular and beautiful, and pushes the rules in all the classic teenage ways.

The tensions increase when a boy moves in next door and confirms to Noah his anguished suspicions that he is gay. He flees to his art to help navigate his feelings, and Nelson aptly captures the pain that must come with being a gay teen. In addition to longing for his neighbor, Noah sets his heart on attending the local art school, but it is his sister who gets the acceptance letter, further fracturing their relationship.

Captivating from start to finish, with fully developed and realistic characters with real problems, “I’ll Give You the Sun” is a book about life’s choices and the consequences of not being true to oneself.

“Eleanor & Park,” by Rainbow Rowell

The 2014 Printz Award was presented to Rainbow Rowell’s very popular “Eleanor & Park,” a John Hughes-style teen love story set in the 1980s. Engrossing from the first pages, with its easy and natural dialogue, the author taps instantly into the emotional side of adolescence, digging into its awkwardness and its pettiness, and the intensity of the highs and lows of the teen years.

Even from the opening scenes, anyone who survived their teens will find recognizable moments in some universal themes of the clumsiness of growing up among unforgiving and disapproving peers. From the first moments on the school bus, the new girl, Eleanor, who is — in a realistically refreshingly twist — ungainly and full-figured, faces a fear that will be familiar to many — where to sit when no one wants to be seen being friendly to the new, awkward student.

Park, knowing that letting the geeky girl sit next to him will make him the target for taunts and teasing, moves over anyway, and thus begins their very slowly simmering romance. The beauty in the story comes from the touchingly familiar realm of that first flirtation that the two enter as they begin the awkward process of falling in love.

Eleanor is an insecure girl with baggage and with a family life she wants to hide from the world. Nonetheless, Park silently resists the opinions of his peers and slowly becomes fascinated by her. Their relationship begins silently over shared comics on the bus. There is a bittersweetness to it, as awareness grows with the reader that their love is doomed, even as the two drift closer, like ice flows, with a heart-wrenching inevitability.

Rowell nails the portrayal of every little milestone, from the first hand-holding to the first kiss, leaving the reader, whether young or old, reveling in the whole giddy, knees-trembling and melting magic of it all.

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