Even as a kid, I hated most children's literature, and that was especially true of Newbery works. While it's hardly great literature, "Shadow of a Bull" represents one of their very best.
For starters, the book is set in the bullfighting world of Spain in the 1920s, and author Maia Wojciechowska goes to great lengths in describing it. We learn about specific bull-fighting techniques, the type of cloth used to bait them, the various men ready to lance the bull, as well as the type of bull used. (After a certain amount of experience, we are told, the bulls will stop going for the cloth and instead rush the matador)
Imagine that, a children's author who actually did his/her research! Learning this information is interesting in its own right, but it also helps the bullfighting world become vibrant and alive.
The plot, while being fairly simple, is a solid one that most kids can relate to.
Manolo is the son of a famous bullfighter and expected to carry on the tradition after his father's death. However, he has little passion or ability for the craft. Nevertheless, he is faced with the pressure of living up to expectations, especially familial ones.
Without being overly dramatic and sentimental, or introducing any horrific event, the author came up with a decent, appealing premise.
Along the way, Manolo meets a boy named Juan Garcia who, despite his family's poverty, is himself a talented young bullfighter that simply needs a chance in front of a big crowd. With his help, Manolo trains hard and strives to become the great bullfighter the townspeople expect him to be.
The ending is a satisfying, if overly convenient one. At the very least, it makes sense given the previous events of the story, and what we know about each character's personality traits. Again, a logical ending might seem like standard stuff, but the vast majority of Newbery books I have read fail this criteria.
While "Shadow of a Bull" has its basics down well (strong research, solid plot, logical ending), it never goes beyond them. The discussions about Manolo's fear and bull-fighting performance become a bit repetitive, and feel like filler before the climax.
There are few characters (six total, including very minor ones), and only Manolo and Juan Garcia are especially important. In fact, Manolo himself is the only one with any depth; Juan Garcia is less a boy and more a representation of young bullfighting perfection.
Nevertheless, "Shadow of a Bull" succeeds in telling a decent story, especially for a child audience, for which I award it three out of five stars.