Tuesday, January 20, 2015

2015 Contenders: Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century, by Carole Boston Weatherford

Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century is a spare, poetic biography of the woman who would eventually become (according to a BBC Music critic's poll) the greatest American soprano ever to record. As remarkable a feat as that is in and of itself, the fact that Leontyne Price was a black woman from Mississippi, born in 1927, raised the degree of difficulty exponentially. This book carefully emphasizes the magnitude of Price's achievements and her indomitably sunny spirit, while also mentioning the many people who aided her along her way.

Voice of a Century is the kind of biography that only provides a brief overview of its subject's career. Indeed, it essentially ends with Price's spectacular star turn in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Il Trovatore in 1961, when almost a quarter-century of her operatic career was still in front of her. This means that most of her Grammy Awards, her Emmy Award, her Presidential Medal of Freedom, her Kennedy Center Honors, and her National Medal of Arts all fall outside of the book's time frame. In its structure, if not particularly in its content, it reminded me of last year's You Never Heard of Willie Mays?!

Nonetheless, Voice of a Century does an excellent job of chronicling Price's rise to prominence. Carole Boston Weatherford's prose is conversational without being talky, and indeed, reads in places very much like a prose poem. Readers who enjoyed Pam Muñoz Ryan and Brian Selznick's Sibert Honor book When Marian Sang might well enjoy Voice of a Century, especially since Weatherford repeatedly makes clear how much of a debt Price owed to Marian Anderson.

Raul Colón's lovely illustrations add a great deal to the book, though the Newbery committee won't be able to consider them. In honesty, I'm not sure that much Newbery love is going to come for Voice of a Century -- as we've discussed before in this space, short, heavily-illustrated biographical nonfiction tends not to show up in the Newbery rolls, regardless of how well-written it may be. 

The Sibert, however, has been much more open to these kinds of books (see: Balloons over Broadway, A Splash of Red, Ballet for Martha, and of course, When Marian Sang), and if Voice of a Century is to be recognized, that's probably the most likely place. I hope it wins something -- it's an excellent book, and I really enjoyed reading it.

Published in December by Alfred A. Knopf / Random House

Friday, January 16, 2015

2015 Contenders: Eyes Wide Open, by Paul Fleischman

Environmental issues, challenges, and disasters seem to occupy an ever-increasing percentage of the news. Clearly, we have problems, and Paul Fleischman wants to make sure that we are able to understand, analyze, and maybe even solve them.

Eyes Wide Open is a sharp, well-researched, and at times fiery book with two clear objectives: helping its readers to know what current environmental issues are, and making sure those readers have the critical thinking skills to separate fact from opinion. Fleischman talks about global warming, fracking, and renewable energy, but he also spends time discussing rhetorical strategies, cognitive defense mechanisms, and how studies and reports can be affected by who funds them. New information about the environment is always becoming available, and Fleischman wants his readers to able to evaluate it intelligently.

This means that Fleischman doesn't have a lot of patience with those whom he sees as obfuscating the truth, and he isn't shy about saying so. He explicitly mentions Republican denial of climate change, and even uses the famous quote from Stephen Colbert: "Reality has a well-known liberal bias." His tone -- cheerful, but insistent and unafraid -- reminded me of pop-science heroes like Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Fans of those thinkers will probably love Eyes Wide Open, even if it's hard for me to imagine that this book won't be challenged in at least one library somewhere.

Fleischman is equally clear that he doesn't intend for his book to be read on its own. It includes a dizzying number of links to other sources of information, and a formidable bibliography. Towards the end of the book, he even discusses some of the assumptions that he held when he began writing the book, and how, while his sources and research confirmed some, they disproved others. "Stay open to the facts, wherever they are," Fleischman says, and in some ways, that's the thesis of his book.

Paul Fleischman has, of course, won the Newbery already (Joyful Noise, 1989 award). It's unlikely to me that Eyes Wide Open will net him a second medal; not only does nonfiction rarely win the Newbery, but Eyes Wide Open is more informational than narrative, which indicates to me that it's not a top contender for a "literary" award. I'm curious to see if it draws any attention from the Sibert committee though.

Published in September by Candlewick

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

2015 Contenders: Saving Lucas Biggs, by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague

Margaret O'Malley's father, a corporate whistleblower, has been sentenced to death, wrongfully convicted of arson and murder. The trial judge, Lucas Biggs, is not only known for his harshness, but is also in the hip pocket of the Victory Corporation -- the very same company that Mr. O'Malley had taken on. Although the conviction and sentence are obviously travesties of justice, it appears that there is no way for Mr. O'Malley to escape.

However, Margaret has a secret weapon. Young people in her family, for uncounted generations, have had the ability to travel through time. They are strictly prohibited from using this ability, but with her father's life at stake, that prohibition begins to mean less to Margaret. But even if she manages to enter the past, there's still one problem: "history resists." Margaret may want to change the past, but the past may not want to be changed.

This is the setup for a lovely book, full of memorable characters and evocative prose. The promotional materials describe Saving Lucas Biggs as "When You Reach Me meets Savvy"; I also noted echoes of A Wrinkle in Time and The Water Castle. Those are some big literary shoes, and Saving Lucas Biggs tries its very hardest to fill them.

It doesn't entirely make it, I don't think -- the plot, especially in the last quarter, when some last-minute interventions make the structure come slightly loose, doesn't have the Swiss-watch precision of When You Reach Me; the climactic moments don't possess the pure force of those in A Wrinkle in Time; and the idea of a young girl with a special and unusual gift isn't as revelatory here as it was in Savvy. However, those are some of the most seminal books of American children's literature, and not quite matching them hardly makes a book a failure. Indeed, I think Saving Lucas Biggs is noticeably superior to The Water Castle, particularly in the way it ties the events of the two time periods together, and readers of this blog may remember that I liked TWC a lot. 

Marisa de los Santos has written several adult bestsellers, and David Teague wrote Franklin's Big Dreams, a picture book that got a starred review from Booklist back in 2010. This, however, represents both authors' first foray into middle-grade literature. Saving Lucas Biggs is a remarkably assured and tonally consistent novel, one I would probably have attributed to authors with more middle-grade experience than that.

In a year that features an overwhelming favorite (Brown Girl Dreaming) and several strong dark horses (Caminar, The Family Romanov, The Night Gardener, and Revolution, at the very least), the field may simply be too crowded for the Newbery committee to find room for Saving Lucas Biggs. I don't think I'd put it in my top three or four -- the competition is simply too fierce -- but it's definitely a book I'm glad to have read.

Published in May by HarperCollins

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

2015 Contenders: Space Taxi: Archie Takes Flight, by Wendy Mass and Michael Brawer

Today, Archie Morningstar turns eight years, eight months, and eight days old. It's also Take Your Kid to Work Day, and Archie is finally old enough to ride along with his father, a night shift taxi driver. Archie is very excited, but -- as the title of the book makes clear -- his father isn't an ordinary driver, and his vehicle isn't an ordinary taxi.

Space Taxi: Archie Takes Flight is billed as the first in a new series, and its thin plot is largely setup for the forthcoming installments. It was fun and offbeat, in a Daniel Pinkwater-lite for second graders kind of way, and I enjoyed the time I spent with it. It felt like the book would be an easy sell to a certain brand of reluctant reader, and that's always nice to see. I also liked the surprisingly prosaic use to which the mysterious item that Archie's grandfather gave him is put.

The novel doesn't excel in any of the Newbery criteria, however -- even compared only to some of the more "pop" books we've covered this year, the characters and setting are only loosely developed, and don't measure up to Nanny X or The Vanishing Coin. Space Taxi is pleasant, and I can see the series developing a real following, but it's not going to be a serious contender for any of the ALSC awards.

Published in April by Little, Brown Books

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

2015 Contenders: Rain Reign, by Ann M. Martin

I feel like it's starting to become a tired trope, on this blog, for me to say, "I really wanted to hate this book, but I ended up liking it." Of course, that tired trope itself is based on my own weariness with certain children's literature tropes that feel tired and worn out. Which ones does this book include? Autism, a missing mother, a neglectful father, a lost dog, and some weird childhood obsessions (homophones, prime numbers, and rules, in this case).

You already know that I liked it anyway, though, so I guess Ann Martin must have breathed some new life into those elements. Her protagonist, Rose Howard, ends up feeling like a real kid, and her relationship with her overwhelmed, borderline-abusive father rings sadly true as well. Rose (and can I just mention here that I'm really glad she doesn't have some whimsical name like Prunella) (of course, that wouldn't be a homophone) has "an official diagnosis of high-functioning autism," and the book jacket states that she suffers from OCD as well, though that is never spelled out within the text. Rose struggles at home and at school, clinging to her list of homophones, her routines, and her rules in order to feel safe. When her dog Rain disappears during a storm, however, everything in her life is called into question.

One thing I appreciate about Rose, as a character, is that she is genuinely irritating. The audio version of the book makes that especially clear, as the listener must wait patiently for her to spell every homophone she runs across. This is a refreshing antidote to some of the "magical autistic kids" that we've seen in the past, who are filled with preternatural wisdom and a distinct lack of human failings. Not so Rose. It's all too obvious why the people around her get fed up with her incessant homophones, her blurting out of prime numbers, and her tendency to stand up on buses and shout about THAT DRIVER WHO DIDN'T USE THEIR DIRECTION INDICATOR.

(On second thought, I often feel like doing that last one myself, but you know what I mean.)

Yes, Rose is a real kid, but I am less convinced about whether she reflects a real understanding of autism and/or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. As Sam pointed out, some of her mannerisms feel a bit like TV Autism (Rain Man, etc.). I do not feel qualified to comment further, but the portrayal of the disorders made me uneasy.

I am also unconvinced that her personal growth in the second act of the story comes about naturally. With the help of her uncle, she hatches a plan to find Rain, and calls around to every animal shelter in the area to ask about her dog. She also helps console another child whose family property was devastated by the storm. It's not that I think Rose couldn't get there eventually, but I don't think Martin shows us a gradual enough build-up to these successes.

This is all making it sound like I didn't like the book after all, but I promise I did. The characters are well-drawn, the prose is well-crafted, and the themes are well-realized. This is all displayed most notably in the third act of the book, where Rose has to reconcile her love for Rain with her compulsion to obey the rules. The ramifications of this choice resonate into the final pages of the book with great beauty and sadness, enough so that the final, homophone-filled line of the story seems both triumphant and inevitable.

Published in October by Feiwel & Friends.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

2015 Contenders: Gracefully Grayson, by Ami Polonsky

Twice within the last year or two, while attending a library conference, I attended a presentation about children's books that deal with LGBTQ themes. In both cases, after discussions about picture books and YA novels, someone asked about middle-grade novels. Both times, the presenters -- experts in their field -- didn't have much to say. There's Tim Federle's first and second books about Nate Foster, Jennifer Gennari's My Mixed-Up, Berry Blue Summer, and...probably some others? The list of titles was vanishingly brief; authors and publishers have largely shied away from including the topic.

There are signs, however, that this taboo is beginning to be less powerful. This year alone, we've seen the second Nate book, The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, and Ami Polonsky's debut novel, Gracefully Grayson, whose main character is a twelve-year-old struggling to carry the secret that, though biologically male, she internally identifies as female.

Although children's books have included plot-driven instances of cross-dressing at least since Huck Finn was skulking around in girls' clothing, I'm at a loss to think of another middle-grade novel featuring a main character who is transgender. Tellingly, Wikipedia's "List of books featuring transgender persons" only has four titles on it; three YA novels, and a 2012 picture book called The Adventures of Tulip, Birthday Wish Fairy. I could be forgetting or overlooking something -- and if I am, please let me know in the comments! -- but in large part, Gracefully Grayson is sailing in uncharted waters.

It does my heart good, then, to note that Polonsky's novel handles its material so well. Its main characters are vibrant and clearly drawn, its prose spare and often elegant, and its sense of place -- the Chicago area as fall creeps into the dark Midwestern winter -- is highly evocative. Although it's true that this is a story of a transgender "boy" taking a chance by trying out for the female lead role in the school play, and in the process, coming to terms with her own identity, it felt less to me like that sterile description, and more just like Grayson's personal story. I found the text refreshingly engaged with telling a particular narrative that belonged to a specific character, rather than some kind of quasi-political or archetypal myth. 

That's not to say that the book is without flaws. The plot uses some extremely familiar tropes: the school play as a key event, the orphaned protagonist, the letters from the dead mother, the death of a grandmother. Although I feel like these elements are sometimes used in a subversive manner, sometimes they're just cliches. Some of the secondary characters don't have a lot of depth, and some of the dialogue that the adults in particular have comes across as a tad soap-operaesque. However, I didn't find these flaws overwhelming, and I enjoyed spending time in this book's world.

I think the chances of Gracefully Grayson winning the Newbery are remote, given the strength of competition this year. However, I'm more than a little curious to see what the Stonewall committee thinks of it, and I'll be eagerly following Ami Polonsky's career from here on out.

Publication in November by Disney/Hyperion 

**Note:  Given the evolution of Grayson's sense of identity within the novel itself, figuring out which pronouns &c. to use while writing this review was really challenging for me. I tried my very best, and used the book jacket description for help, but I'm not an expert, and I apologize in advance if I didn't get it right.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

2015 Mock Newbery Reading List!

And now for the post you've all been waiting for -- our 2015 Maryland Mock Newbery reading list!

Longtime readers may note that we didn't make a longlist this year, and that we also didn't do our Second Takes series. We plan on doing those things again, but our process this year had to be compressed somewhat due to Rachael's service on the ALSC Notable Children's Recordings committee. (This is a two-year commitment, so we'll kind of have to see how next year goes as well.)

But, that having been said, let's go on to the list! It was hard to narrow it down to just five books, but we tried to achieve as much of a balance of styles, genres and authors as we could. Our finalists are:

Caminar, by Skila Brown
The Family Romanov, by Candace Fleming
The Key that Swallowed Joey Pigza, by Jack Gantos
West of the Moon, by Margi Preus
Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson

I can't wait for our discussion on January 12th!