The Rebecca Caudill Book Award

Comments by Kevin Killion (

This years' Caudill books are best classified into two groups. I call them "The World Is A Cold, Cruel Place", and "Find The Spin".

Group 1: The World Is A Cold, Cruel Place

  • Different Kind of Hero by Ann Blakeslee - In a novel that is a near-perfect combination of brutal realism and piercing lyricism, the son of a brawling miner becomes a pariah in his lawless frontier mining town when he befriends a Chinese immigrant boy, Zi.

  • Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman - Even in the middle of ugliness and neglect, a little bit of beauty will bloom. It's not an easy victory: Toughened by the experience of putting her children through public school, Leona spends several days relentlessly bulling her way into government offices to get the lot's trash hauled away; others address the lack of readily available water, as well as problems with vandals and midnight dumpers; and though decades of waging peace on a small scale have made Sam an expert diplomat, he's unable to prevent racial and ethnic borders from forming. The blighted neighborhood is transformed when a young girl plants a few lima beans in an abandoned lot.

  • Lone Wolf by Kristine Franklin - Perry has learned to accommodate his father's personality as best he can. That means being self-sufficient, never speaking unnecessarily, and above all, keeping a lid on "those kinds of feelings, the bad ones, that make a guy act like a wuss." He and his dad have moved to the north woods of Minnesota following the death of Perry's baby sister, and although Perry's mother writes him regularly, Perry never reads her letters.

  • Lily's Crossing by Patricia Reilly Giff - Lily lost her mom when she was little. Her father and a grandmother are her only family. This year though, Lily's father announces that he's enlisted in the Army; days later, he is gone. Alone with her grandmother, Lily sees a long lonely summer ahead. And then, Albert appears. A refugee from the Nazis, his family thrown to the winds, young Albert bears a grief and sadness of his own. Read along as Lily and Albert negotiate the pain they feel and the secrets and adventures they share.

  • Sun & Spoon by Kevin Henkes - Ten-year-old Spoon Gilmore is consumed with one worry--that he will forget his beloved, recently deceased grandmother. The author drives this story with unusual characters, such as Spoon's eccentric younger sister who carries suitcases full of twigs, and Spoon himself, a complicated boy grappling with guilt and loss. But most impressive is the book's compassion for the painful mistakes that children often make while trying to sort out the inevitably disturbing emotions and events of childhood.

  • Earthquake Terror by Peg Kehret - Jonathan and his little sister, Abby, are left alone on a camping trip when their father seeks medical attention for their mother's broken ankle. A devastating earthquake hits, flooding the island, flattening their camper, and stranding the children. Jonathan helps his sister, who uses a walker, make it to safety.

  • As Long As There Are Mountains by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock - Iris loves the northern Vermont hills dreams of one day running the family farm. Her brother, Lucien, certainly wants no part of it. But the year 1956 holds many surprises for her and her family. It begins with their barn burning down and Iris's suspicions that her cousin Draper may be responsible. Then Father is injured in a logging accident and in his anger and depression that follow, he decides to sell the farm.

  • Stranded by Ben Mikaelsen - Young Koby remembers all too well the speeding car that wrecked her bike and caused her to lose her right leg at the knee. Now, her parents break up and friends treat her differently. Out on the ocean, everything is okay. Then Koby finds injured whales stranded on the beach. As she works to save the whales, she discovers her own strength and comes to terms with her accident.

  • Butterfly Lion by Michael Morpurgo - A ten-year-old boy's attempt to run away from a miserable boarding-school existence ends in a dusty house, where a friendly old widow shows him a great lion cut into the chalk on a hillside. She tells him how it came to be there: Her Bertie, a lonely boy in South Africa, found and began to raise a white lion cub, tearfully saw it sold to a French circus owner, reclaimed it years later during the Great War, and brought it to England to live. Urging him to come again, the old woman takes the boy back to school; only later does he learn that she died--as her husband did--years ago. The tender-hearted reader should have a few tissues close by.

  • Stones in Water by Donna Jo Napoli - In wartime Italy, Roberto, a Venetian boy, attends a movie with a Jewish boy, Samuele, an unwise idea when restrictions and dangers are multiplying. German soldiers enter the theater and capture all the boys; at first, Roberto can't make sense of what is happening to him. Transported to desolate regions, the boys are forced into labor building a tarmac; food is scarce, the climate is life-threatening, and survival seems remote. The horrors they experience change Roberto's outlook from self-preservation to guarded activism to, following his escape, outright sabotage.

  • Saving Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor - This book rounds off a trilogy with the story of a boy and his dog, and the brutal, angry man who finds the road to redemption at last. Judd Travers has stopped drinking and become less hostile; nonetheless, years of bad feelings have left their mark, and his is the name that comes up most often in conjunction with a murder and some local robberies. Marty is half-willing to give Judd the benefit of the doubt--and so defends the man to schoolmates on the bus, and even pays him an occasional visit. Judd shows signs of authentic human feeling, grieving when he must kill one of his hunting dogs.

  • Silverwing by Kenneth Oppel - A small bat's curiosity touches off a war of extermination against all his kind. Young Shade defies a punishment imposed millions of years before when bats refused to fight in the Great War Between the Birds and the Beasts. In swift retribution, owls burn the ancient nursery of the silverwing bats, forcing them to depart early for Hibernaculum, their winter roost. Shade acquires a nemesis in Goth, a huge, seemingly indestructible tropical bat with cannibalistic tendencies; escapes capture above ground and below; encounters a host of allies and enemies; and finds several mysteries to pursue--why other animals are so ready to wipe the bats out, what the silver bands humans give some bats portend, and especially what became of his banded father.

  • Treasures in the Dust by Tracy Porter - 11-year-olds Annie and Violet are best friends in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. Violet's family is eventually driven to seek work in California. The girls tell their stories in alternating first-person narratives and then in letters, relating the general social conditions and find metaphors in the broken land. Readers will be held by the daily particulars of the struggle to keep going when dunes shift and change every day and dust seeps through cracks in the window and covers your pillow when you sleep. Violet's account of the struggle in California is just as graphic, including the exploitation and prejudice and "the days when my shoulders ache so much from working fields that I can't bear lifting my hands to wash my face."

  • Alphabet City Ballet by Erika Tamar - 10-year-old Marisol wins a scholarship to the Manhattan Ballet School, and dreams of being a dancer. Unfortunately, her much loved older brother, Luis, has a more dangerous dream: to go to work for the neighborhood drug lord. The story of the struggles of a single-parent Puerto Rican family to survive in New York City is saved from problem-novel predictability by the strength of its characterizations, the believably guarded friendship that develops between Marisol and a Haitian girl who lives in a nearby shelter.

  • Leon's Story by Leon Walker Tillage - Tillage, a black custodian, reminisces about his childhood as a sharecropper's son in the South, and his youth as a civil-rights protester. He explains the mechanics of sharecropping and segregation, tells of his mistreatment and his father's murder at the hands of white teenagers, and relates his experiences with police dogs, fire hoses, and jail. Tillage matter-of-factly recounts horrific events, as he drives home the harder realities of his childhood.

  • Orphan Train Rider by Andrea Warren - From 1854 to 1930, the orphan trains took homeless children from cities in the East to new homes in the West, the Midwest, and the South. In Warren's book, one man's memories of his childhood abandonment and adoption give a personal slant on the subject. Some of the children were adopted by loving families; others were not so fortunate.

  • Group 2: Find The Spin

    The first group we called, "The World Is A Cold, Cruel Place", and it constitutes the bulk of the Caudill nominees.

    The remaining group is much, much smaller. By and large, the content appears harmless. But parents may wish to take a close look at these titles as well, to determine if the content is worth your child's time, or if there is a "spin" for politically correct issues.

  • Losers, Inc. by Claudia Mills - Twelve-year-old Ethan, the co-founder of a club for misfits, falls madly in love with his student teacher and begins to excel academically to impress her. He wants to impress her. He reads Dickens for his book report (instead of the shortest book on the shelf), and he wants to do the best science project. At the height of his scholastic achievements, he realizes he is missing something important.

  • P.S. Longer Letter Later by Paula Danziger and Ann M. Martin - Best friends Elizabeth and Tara Starr now live in different towns, but they continue their friendship through letters. Tara Starr loves glittery things and parties. She lives with her young parents who are finally starting to grow up.

  • Ella Enchanted by Gail Levine - Why did Cinderella carry out the bidding of her evil step-relatives? Now consider whether obedience is a blessing or a curse. What if anyone could control you with an order? Ella, under the dominion of a vulgar stepmother and duplicitous stepsisters, reveals the gift of obedience (from fairy Lucinda) to be a scourge that only someone of Ella's sensitivity and intelligence would have the means to outwit.
         One reader posted on Amazon that the book was "uninventive and for-girls-only", adding "I was extremely disappointed... Not only is it both a precious and boring retelling of a story already told clearly and simply, it is an unfulfilled promise of an adventure story for much of the first half of the book, and an insipid, somewhat chauvinistic romance for much of the second. After two children turned their noses up at it saying that it was 'boring and stupid', I thought that surely they must be wrong. After a quick read (more time than it deserved), I fully agree. A two-fisted thumbs down."

  • View from Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg - How on earth could a group of sixth-graders beat out team after team of seventh- and eighth-graders to become champions of the state Academic Bowl? Certainly not by being knowledgable! (No progressivist school wants kids to know "mere" facts!) Rather, a variety of wacky experiences just happened to have given them just the answers they needed.
         One teacher posted this on Amazon: "This was, by far, the worst book I have ever had the misfortune of reading. The author owes me the money and time I spent on this worthless pursuit. ... Once again, the Newbery medal choice [this book also received that] boggles the imagination. The Newbery has become a way to tell us teachers what books NOT to bring into the classroom."

  • I don't have a problem with my son learning about all facets of the world -- that's all part of life. But why is the category I called "The World Is A Cold, Cruel Place" so huge?

    And why are there 19 fictional works, while there are only one book from the entire factual, real world -- and that's about the often bleak story of the orphan trains?

    While it is important for a child to learn about the realities of the world, shouldn't there also be a place for positive, uplifting themes?

    Why not?

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    -- Kevin Killion