Thursday, August 2, 2018

2019 Contenders: A Friendly Town That's Almost Always by the Ocean, by Kir Fox and M. Shelley Coats

Davy Jones and his mother have just moved to the town of Topsea, and Davy is having a hard time adjusting to his strange new surroundings. His locker at school is at the bottom of the swimming pool, the mail is delivered by seagulls, and everyone seems to believe that dogs are a myth. On top of that, Davy is trying to work through his emotions regarding the recent loss of his father. Fortunately, he's developing a group of friends who can help him through, even in the strangest of circumstances.

The closest parallel I can think of to A Friendly Town That's Almost Always by the Ocean is actually a work for adults: the podcast/book/theatrical production series Welcome to Night Vale. Both take place in universes filled with Fortean/Lovecraftian weirdness, but are actually less about their settings, and more about the bonds of friendship and love that develop and grow even in the strangest surroundings. Both also work hard to develop a sense of mystery and wonder; there are far more plot hooks in A Friendly Town than there are resolutions, and I got the feeling that the book hardly even scratches the surface of Topsea's secrets. (This is the first in a planned series, and my ARC includes a teaser for the second book.)

That said, A Friendly Town doesn't quite have the emotional complexity of WTNV (or of its best point of comparison in children's media, the television series Gravity Falls). That's not really a knock on A Friendly Town, however, especially since the story that the book tells may come to a good stopping place, but clearly isn't finished. I also doubt that anything about the book will mitigate its appeal to its target audience -- budding horror/comedy readers and future Haunted USA viewers should be all over A Friendly Town like ants on candy.

The Newbery may be a harder hill to climb. A Friendly Town certainly has memorable characters and a fascinating setting, but it can't match the thematic power of something like The Button War, or the wistfully elegiac tone of The Penderwicks at Last. But be that as it may, I fully expect this to be a popular title at libraries, and a great title to booktalk.


Published in April by Disney/Hyperion

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

2019 Contenders: The Button War, by Avi

Patryk lives in a village in rural Poland, deep in the forest. His days are spent attending the village's tiny school, helping his father, who is a wheelwright, and engaging in hijinks with his six friends: Drugi, Makary, Raclaw, Ulryk, Wojtex, and Jurek. The village exists in near-total isolation; aside from the presence of a garrison of Russian soldiers, little from the outside world ever reaches into Patryk's life. However, two critical events change everything. First, World War I arrives with violence, beginning with a German airplane that destroys the school. Second, the darkly charismatic Jurek comes up with a dare, in which the boys have to steal "the best button" from the soldiers' uniforms. The winner will be the "Button King," to whom the other boys will have "to bow down." As the novel proceeds, the war gradually destroys their entire village, and the dare gradually destroys the boys.

That previous sentence, by the way, is not an exaggeration. This is a dark, dark book -- dark enough that I'm not sure I agree with the publisher's suggested age range of 10-14, as I'm having trouble conceiving of a 10-year-old who'd be ready for the emotional gut-punch that The Button War packs. By the novel's end, it's firmly into Joseph Conrad territory, and I don't think that's overstating the point. (Some spoilers follow.)

World War I was (in)famously one of the most opaquely motivated of major conflicts, and Avi does an excellent job of capturing that aspect of it. Though the village changes hands multiple times, and soldiers from at least four different nations make an appearance, the villagers generally regard the entire war in the same way they might think of an earthquake, or a meteor impact. Indeed, their reaction to the German soldiers' claim to have "liberated" the villagers is somewhere between bemusement and bewilderment. Like a natural disaster, the war cannot be understood or stopped. The most that one can hope for is to escape its path without losing too much in the process.

The boys' button dare is similar. The buttons have almost no intrinsic value, and even the choice of them as a prize is arbitrary, driven by a random event at the beginning of the book. Yet, even though the majority of the boys wish to back away from the whole affair, they continue -- even after multiple deaths -- until the bitter, bitter ending.

The major reason is the presence of Jurek, who's a powerful antagonist. Of all the boys, he's the one closest to the fringes of society -- his parents are both dead, and he lives in a tiny shack with his sister, who ekes out a meager living by washing the Russian soldiers' uniforms, and with whom he is constantly fighting. It's obvious from the text that he's struggling with feelings of inferiority. His initial method of compensating is to declare himself to be a descendant of King BolesÅ‚aw, and thus the true owner of the entire forest. However, he keeps pushing further and further, and by the end of the book, he's a pure sociopath, capable of anything up to and including murder.

If he were only a sociopath, Jurek would be easily dealt with. But, as I mentioned above, he's also wildly charismatic -- even when the other boys have grave doubts about his ideas, or think of him as a lunatic, or actively dangerous, they're seemingly incapable of going against him, or even just ignoring him. True charisma can be a frightening thing, because it's utterly value-neutral. Someone who has it can be Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mick Jagger, or Grigori Rasputin, or Adolf Hitler. Through the character of Jurek, Avi takes a painfully long look at this fact, and what he finds is unsettling.

Avi, of course, already has a Newbery Medal in his pocket (Crispin: The Cross of Lead, 2003). The Button War certainly excels in its setting, and in its powerful anti-war and anti-herd mentality themes. I don't know if the Newbery committee would be willing to give the award to a book this bleak -- if it were to win, I feel like it would race past Sounder and The Giver and even The Slave Dancer as the grimmest book in the Newbery canon. But its merits are sufficient to deserve a close look anyway.


Published in June by Candlewick Press




Thursday, June 28, 2018

2019 Contenders: The Parker Inheritance, by Varian Johnson


Candice Miller is not enthusiastic about spending the summer in Lambert, South Carolina, the small town where her grandmother used to live and work. It’s not just that her grandmother’s legacy as the first woman and the first African American to serve as City Manager was besmirched by a scandal, but Candice is also worried about present events in her more immediate family – her parents are divorcing, and she and her mother are in Lambert while Candice’s father fixes up their Atlanta house for sale. But when a mysterious letter leads Candice to dig deeper into the story behind her grandmother’s dismissal, the summer promises to get a whole lot more interesting. With the help of Brandon Jones, a book-loving neighbor from across the street, Candice learns about an ugly incident in the town’s history, and the reason that, years later, her grandmother thought that there might be treasure buried under the municipal tennis courts.

This book is not afraid to tackle some big issues, though it does so with a light touch. Candice and Brandon dig into the town’s history of segregation and racism, and readers get a front-row seat to a tennis match between teams from the town’s segregated high schools, and the violent aftermath. There are also present-day issues of bullying, LGBTQ rights, intolerance, and the way the past affects the present. It seems like a lot, and this book is packed pretty full of issues, but Johnson brings everything together into a cohesive whole. It’s timely, well-written, and entirely age-appropriate for middle-grade readers, without softening the harsh truth.

As a puzzle mystery, this book is a little less successful. The clues to the puzzle are all in the letter Candice finds among her grandmother’s belongings, but it’s unlikely that young readers (or even many adult readers) would be able to puzzle them out as Candice and Brandon do. There’s a reference to a mathematical concept that isn’t typically taught outside of calculus courses, plus certain mental leaps that aren’t immediately clear. Readers who want logic puzzles that they can work out along with the characters may be disappointed.

So, is this book a Newbery contender?  I think it’s a title worthy of discussion, at the very least. Will the weaknesses in the puzzle-novel conceit outweigh the strong writing, the well-defined and developed characters, the interpretation of theme, and the appropriateness of style present in this book? Only time will tell!



Published in March by Arthur A. Levine Books


Misti Tidman is the Collection Development Librarian for Youth Materials at the Mansfield/Richland County Public Library (Ohio). She is also one of the bloggers at Guessing Geisel.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Newbery Wayback Machine: A Year Down Yonder, by Richard Peck (2001)

It is 1937, and Mary Alice's father has lost his job and his apartment. While he and Mary Alice's mother move into a single room, and older brother Joey heads off to join the Civilian Conservation Corps, Mary Alice herself is shuttled away from Chicago, and down to Grandma Dowdel's home in rural Illinois. A Year Down Yonder does indeed cover nearly a year in Mary Alice's life, as she learns to navigate her new school, comes to understand the rhythms of small-town life, and bonds with her grandmother, an imposing woman whose gruff, threatening exterior conceals a caring heart.

In many ways, Richard Peck's novel, which won the 2001 Newbery Medal, was even at the time something of a throwback. Featuring a protagonist who is 15 at the book's outset, and consisting of a series of vignettes rather than a single, unified story, A Year Down Yonder reminded me of Anne of Avonlea (1909), It's Like This, Cat (1963), and similar episodic books that feature a teenage protagonist, but appeal to younger readers.

I'm unconvinced that Yonder is anything like as effective as the two novels that I mentioned, however -- although I'll also freely admit that what we may actually be looking at is my personal biases and tastes as a reader. It's a short book -- a mere 130 pages in my copy -- and I just don't feel like it has anything like enough room to develop the secondary characters sufficiently. This was especially true given the ending (spoiler alert!), in which an adult Mary Alice returns to her grandmother's house and marries Royce McNabb, who moves to town halfway through the book. But Royce has barely a dozen speaking lines in the novel, and I didn't feel like I knew him well enough for that ending to have any emotional heft.

From what I've read, a lot of the love for A Year Down Yonder (and its predecessor, A Long Way From Chicago, which Honored in 1999) comes from a love for the character of Grandma Dowdel, who is at the book's center. The thing is...I just didn't like her very much. She has a great deal of kindness towards the unfortunate and downtrodden, but she also has a streak of vindictiveness that was hard for me to deal with, and a tendency to kill mosquitoes with sledgehammers, metaphorically speaking. When the town boys are knocking down outhouses for their Halloween pranks, Grandma deals with this by...setting up a trip wire in her back yard, hiding, and then, once the lead boy has tripped on the wire and broken his nose on the concrete walk, throwing glue all over him. The whole story reminded me of nothing so much as this xkcd cartoon:


Similarly, later in the book, Grandma Dowdel's artist boarder has managed to sneak the local postmistress into the attic, and is painting her in the nude. The snake that lives in the attic falls on the postmistress, who runs screaming downstairs, and then begins to run back to her house, sans clothes. What does Grandma do? Why, she says, "That's too good a show to keep to ourselves," and goes outside and fires off her shotgun so that everyone in town will look outside to see what's happening and catch an eyeful of the postmistress. I think that's intended as comedic, but I gotta tell you, it just left me feeling icky.

A lot of people love this book, and so your take on it may be radically different from mine. But I'm not a fan, and would have preferred the Newbery to go to a different title that year -- perhaps one of the four Honor books, which included Because of Winn-Dixie and Joey Pigza Loses Control.

Friday, June 1, 2018

2019 Contenders: The Penderwicks At Last, by Jeanne Birdsall

Lydia Penderwick, now eleven years old and just as exuberant as she was as a toddler in The Penderwicks in Spring, has heard tales of Arundel all her life. Now, as the Penderwick diaspora converges for a long-awaited wedding, she gets to experience the magical estate firsthand.

18498292Jeanne Birdsall walks a tricky tightrope in The Penderwicks At Last. One one hand, she has been adamant from the beginning that this series will stay middle grade, and that each entry in the series will focus on the characters that make it a middle grade book. This will be no Anne of Green Gables, following its original protagonist well into adulthood. On the other hand, the readers of the series are devoted to the four older sisters and deeply invested in their various fates. Will Skye marry Jeffrey?! (There are apparently some people on Goodreads who feel VERY STRONGLY about this.) Will Batty marry Jeffrey? (That one has been my daughter's and my prediction since the beginning.) Will Skye become an astrophysicist?

Setting the book at Arundel is a elegant way to solve the problem. Seeing a familiar place through new eyes provides a way to balance the narrative between past and present, and a wedding is a classic narrative device for assembling the whole cast of characters. And they are indeed assembled: Aunt Claire and Turon; Alec and his new dog (RIP Hoover); gardener Cagney (now a paterfamilias). Even Mrs. Tifton is (hilariously) along for the ride.

Birdsall provides enough resolution of old tensions and strong hints about future plans to satisfy fans, while keeping the focus firmly on Lydia and her concerns. Most of the drama with the older Penderwicks sisters takes place in the background, filtered through Lydia's perspective. Meanwhile, the iconic places in Arundel are recognizable, but often changed. There are sheep in the field of the enormous bull who almost trampled Batty, and the manicured lawns have been turned into meadows where bobolinks (and eleven-year-olds) can hide.

There are new inhabitants as well - mainly Cagney's family, with whom Lydia spends most of her time - but also, oddly, Batty's ex-boyfriend and his amazing three-legged great dane. It can be a risky proposition to introduce new characters in a series finale, but the new additions are as well-drawn as the old favorites. (One minor quibble: the Kirkus review mentioned the default whiteness of the book and series, and that is certainly true, but I was more disappointed by the heteronormativity. I had really headcanoned Skye as a lesbian, and possibly on the asexual spectrum. So there, Skeffrey shippers.)

The novel is as much a meditation on time as anything else. Birdsall seems to understand that we want Arundel and the Penderwicks to stay the same forever (I honestly can't even talk about this book out loud without crying), but she won't let them remain in stasis. Like Lydia, we have to prance, leap, and gambol into the future.

(As for Newbery chances: doubtful. "Doesn't have to stand alone" be damned,  the committee is not going to choose this elegiac series-ender for a gold sticker.)

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

2019 Contenders: The Key to Every Thing, by Pat Schmatz

Tash lives with her great uncle Kevin, and next door to Cap'n Jackie, an older woman who provides a sort of quasi-maternal presence in Tash's life. This summer, Tash has to go to camp, which she emphatically does not want to do. Right before she leaves, she has a huge argument with Cap'n Jackie, which comes to a climax when Tash throws a key at Cap'n Jackie -- a key that's a sort of talisman for the magic that the Cap'n believes infuses the world.

When Tash returns, Cap'n Jackie is gone -- in inpatient treatment after a terrible fall -- and the key is missing. The Key to Every Thing traces Tash's attempts to get through to a now-silent Cap'n; it also gradually reveals the story of Cap'n Jackie's life, Tash's unorthodox living situation, and the deep fears at the center of Tash's heart.

The best parts of The Key to Every Thing, in my opinion, have to do with Tash's struggles to overcome the rage and sadness inside her. The internal monologue felt real and true to me. I also enjoyed the portions in which Tash and her friend Naomi are sneaking around the rehab center, which have a bit of an E. L. Konigsburg vibe to them.

I was less enamored of the book's structure. The ending especially, which involves a Letter That Explains Everything, felt sort of cheap to me. But I think this was partly because of my other issue with the book, which is that Cap'n Jackie never quite came into focus to me as a person, rather than an aggregation of quirks and plot points. That affected my reading experience, because the Cap'n is clearly intended as the emotional center of the book. I feel like Schmatz knows who Cap'n Jackie is, but I didn't feel like the book managed to fully communicate this information to me as a reader.

Pat Schmatz's career has garnered its share of plaudits -- among others, Lizard Radio won the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award in 2015, and Bluefish made the Notables list in 2012. I'm not sure that The Key to Every Thing will make any of the ALSC lists in 2019, but I've certainly been wrong about these things before. We shall see!


Publication in May by Candlewick Press

Friday, April 13, 2018

2019 Contenders: Bob, by Wendy Mass & Rebecca Stead

Ten-year-old Livy and her family are visiting her grandmother in Australia for the first time in five years. Livy can't remember almost anything about her previous visit, but soon finds someone who remembers it very well indeed -- Bob, a strange green creature who's been living in Gran's closet, waiting for Livy's return. Although Bob remembers Livy perfectly, his memory before that is a complete blank. Against the backdrop of Gran's drought-ridden farm and town, Bob and Livy begin trying to unravel the mystery of Bob's past and identity.

I enjoyed the time I spent with Bob immensely. It's a sparkling blend of whimsy, melancholy, mystery, and magical realism. The novel is constructed of chapters in alternating voices, one from Livy's perspective, followed by one from Bob's. Both voices are strong and complex, with solid characterization. The setting -- a desiccated, half-withered rural town and its surrounding farms -- is also carefully rendered.

In reading Bob, I noted its structural similarities to Rebecca Stead's other work. Bob starts with several disparate plot strands, and then winds them ever-closer together until they whirl into a unified whole. It's the same technique that undergirds When You Reach Me and Liar & Spy, and although the target audience for Bob might be slightly younger than that of those two novels, the basic plan is no less effective. I'm much less familiar with Wendy Mass's career, but I do note that the prose in Bob is less sparse and open than Stead's usual style (and the novel is also not set in New York City), so perhaps that's Mass's doing.

At any rate, Bob is a first-rate book, and one that I'd recommend highly. It's still too early to get a sense of its Newbery chances, but I imagine that this is one that will at least get some discussion from the committee.



Publication in May by Feiwel and Friends / MacMillan