Monday, March 18, 2019

2020 Contenders: Birdie, by Eileen Spinelli

Amateur ornithologist Birdie Briggs is twelve years old, and her life is in flux. She's experiencing her first crush, which has consequences for the rest of her social life; her mother may have a new love interest for the first time since the death of Birdie's father, and even her grandmother, Maymee, has a new man in her life. It's a lot for Birdie to manage, and she's trying to learn how to adapt.

I felt like the best thing about Birdie, Eileen Spinelli's new verse novel, is the way it captures the shifting emotions of a not-quite-teenager. Sometimes she's elated, sometimes she's depressed, sometimes she's throbbing with inchoate anger, but Birdie's feelings all rang true to me. Being twelve is a difficult time in one's life, and Spinelli records Birdie's internal experiences with grace and sympathy.

Indeed, Birdie is a gentle novel all the way around, one where the action and conflicts are largely interior. Bad things happen in the book's world, to be sure, but they're overcome with tenderness and love. It's a story and a setting filled with warmth.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I'm not much of a verse novel fan. Trying to set that personal preference aside, I can tell you that the pacing of the book seemed effective to me. I don't think that Birdie possesses the same level of technical mastery of The Moon Within or Caminar, but it's certainly competent. I don't know if I would have made the same choice that Spinelli did in giving each of the poems a title, but that's probably just my own predilection as a reader.

You should never take your Newbery odds from me -- I'm the guy who said "no picture book will ever win the Newbery" the year that Last Stop on Market Street won, after all. That said, I'm not sure that Birdie is going to rise to the top of what's already shaping up to be a hypercompetitive field for the 2020 medal. I do think that fans of Spinelli's writing, and readers who enjoy carefully-crafted interior worlds, will enjoy Birdie very much.

Publication in April by Eerdmans

Thursday, March 7, 2019

2020 Contenders: Bat and the End of Everything, by Elana K. Arnold

Bat and the End of Everything is the third volume in the adventures of Bixby Alexander "Bat" Tam, following A Boy Called Bat (2017), and Bat and the Waiting Game (2018). It picks up essentially where Waiting Game left off, with Bat about to finish the third grade, and still caring for Thor, the orphaned skunk kit. He's full of concerns, ranging from who is going to care for the class pet, Babycakes the rabbit, to the fact that his best friend, Israel, will be spending much of the summer in Canada. And underneath it all is Bat's greatest worry -- the need to release Thor back into the wild soon, even though Bat doesn't want Thor to go.

What holds End of Everything together is the strength of its characterization. Bat remains one of the most carefully detailed characters with autism in children's literature, and his family and friends also seem poised to walk of the page at any moment. Both the conflicts and the solutions to those conflicts arise organically from who the characters are; nothing feels forced or arbitrary. This, at least in my opinion, is the most distinguished feature, not only of End of Everything, but of the Bat series as a whole.

The ending is awfully sunny, and I suppose it's possible to complain that it steps around some of the issues that have previously been raised in the story. I thought it was prepared and foreshadowed enough that it was perfectly effective, as well as fitting in with the general tone of the series, which is suffused with optimism and love. End of Everything is a bighearted book, one unafraid to conclude with the novelistic equivalent of a group hug.

I'd be surprised if the third installment of this series was where the Newbery committee decided to recognize it. Indeed, series for younger chapter book readers include some of the best-loved books in American children's literature, but for whatever reason, they don't tend to do well in the Newbery race; we cherish Ramona, Homer Price, Ruby Lu, Clementine, and Ivy and Bean, but none of them have ever taken the gold medal. Regardless, End of Everything is cozy and lovely, and anyone who's followed Bat's adventures this far won't be disappointed.

Publication on March 26, 2019, by Walden Pond/HarperCollins

Monday, February 25, 2019

2020 Contenders: The Moon Within, by Aida Salazar

Sometimes, it's hard to realize how far children's literature has come until we stop and take a look back. This is not to say that there aren't still VERY real problems in the children's lit world, or that fighting for progress isn't still necessary, because neither of those things are true. But I think it's also important to note that the efforts of many authors, publishers, teachers, and librarians to advocate for diversity, inclusion, and a general expansion of "acceptable" content haven't gone for naught.

When I first started working in public libraries, in 2007, the kerfuffle du jour involved whether or not it had been appropriate to award the Newbery to a book that used the word "scrotum" (that'd be The Higher Power of Lucky, for anyone who doesn't remember that moment in time). And as recently as 2014 or so, my requests at major library conferences for information about LGBTQ+ books for middle grade readers was met with the sum total of "Tim Federle and Jennifer Gennari."

Now, less than a decade and a half since I started my library journey, I find myself writing a review of Aida Salazar's The Moon Within, a book being put out by a major publisher (Scholastic, on its Arthur A. Levine imprint). If you had asked me even three or four years ago if I'd thought a middle grade book of this type was publishable, I would have responded with a sad shake of my head. This is a verse novel starring a main character of Mexican/Puerto Rican ancestry, and her genderfluid best friend, in which the plot not only centers on a recreated indigenous Mexica ritual celebrating a young woman's menarche, but also includes a poetic but frank discussion of women's genitals, including the purpose of the clitoris. If you thought Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret didn't pull any punches, The Moon Within has never even heard of the concept of pulling punches.

But that's not to say that The Moon Within is confrontational for the sake of being confrontational. On the contrary, it's a novel filled with sensitivity and compassion for its characters -- especially its narrator, Celi Rivera. She comes across as a living, breathing person, one who sometimes makes good decisions and sometimes makes bad ones, but who's 100% worth cheering for. I wanted positive things to happen for her, and the book's climax filled my heart with warmth. You could, I suppose, refer to this as a "problem novel," but it's better described as an authentic-feeling, character-driven book that doesn't shy away from the kinds of issues that real people in real communities run up against.

If it's not clear, I genuinely enjoyed The Moon Within, and I'm more than a little glad to see this book published. I have no clear sense of the Newbery race yet, but the mere fact that the publisher is promoting this novel heavily warms my heart. I think Aida Salazar is a fascinating talent, and this is one heckuva debut.

Published Feburary 26th by Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic

Saturday, February 2, 2019

2020 Contenders: The Lost Girl, by Anne Ursu

Yes, once more, I greet you from a stop on a Walden Press blog tour. This one, however, is, if such a thing is possible, even more exciting than usual, because this one is for The Lost Girl, the new book by Anne Ursu. Ursu happens to be my favorite active children's author (which, given how much I love so many others, is high praise indeed), to the point that, although I promise that what follows is an honest review, I'm not sure I can even pretend that it's an unbiased one.

Here's how the back cover describes The Lost Girl:

"When you’re an identical twin, your story always starts with someone else. For Iris, that means her story starts with Lark. Iris has always been the grounded, capable, and rational one; Lark has been inventive, dreamy, and brilliant—and from their first moments in the world together, they’ve never left each  other’s side. Everyone around them realized early on what the two sisters already knew: they had better outcomes when they were together.

When fifth grade arrives, however, it’s decided that Iris and Lark should be split into different  classrooms, and something breaks in them both. Iris is no longer so confident; Lark retreats into herself as she deals with challenges at school. And at the same time, something strange is happening in the city  around them: things both great and small going missing without a trace. As Iris begins to understand  that anything can be lost in the blink of an eye, she decides it’s up to her to find a way to keep her sister safe."

This is a perfectly reasonable and accurate description of the book. Along the same lines, "Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632-1675), c. 1664. Oil on canvas, 72.5 cm × 64.7 cm." is a perfectly reasonable and accurate description of The Concert.  It tells you everything there is to know about the work except for why it's so beautiful, and so special.

Mentioned, albeit cryptically, in the book, so not a purely gratuitous reference.

So why is Ursu's new book so beautiful and special? I guess I'd have to say that, in that odd way in which these words apply to a work of fiction, it's 100% true. Every character, every relationship, every detail of this world feels lived in, cared for, and real. Ursu has always excelled at this kind of truth in her writing, and The Lost Girl is as impressive a demonstration as ever.

I don't dare give too much of the meticulously-constructed plot away here. But longtime Ursu readers will recognize the overall themes that have long interested her. How do people who don't "fit into" the world nonetheless make their way in it? What does becoming a better human being cost? And what is the nature of the most dangerous destructive force in the world -- the evil (to be reductive) that we all face?

As in her previous books, Ursu seems to argue in The Lost Girl that the answer to the last question is that evil works first by fracturing the relationships between people, and then by destroying each person's sense of their true self. This was true in Breadcrumbs, it was true in The Real Boy, and it's true in this novel as well.

Though there are plenty of differences between the two books, I actually found myself thinking that The Lost Girl was what Breadcrumbs might have looked like with a radically changed underlying emotion. Where Breadcrumbs was bleakly, desperately sad, The Lost Girl is instead charged with what I can only describe as ferocity. As she makes perfectly clear in the introduction, Ursu is furious about society's treatment of women and girls, and has absolutely no patience for anyone or anything on the giving end of that treatment. Indeed, The Lost Girl is the most "of its historical moment" book Ursu has written; unlike her previous two novels, The Lost Girl does have a proper villain (though it takes a very long time for this to become clear), and at one point, that villain uses language that's either directly taken from a certain world leader's Twitter account, or so close as to make no difference.

The thing about Ursu's ferocity, however, is that it cuts both ways. She fiercely loves her protagonists, and the other supporting characters who are trying, as well as they know how, to do the right things. The climax, especially, includes a moment that's as close to a combination of a fist pump and a group hug as I think Ursu is capable of writing, and it's amazing.

If I say that The Lost Girl is not my favorite Anne Ursu book, it's only because Breadcrumbs is my favorite children's book of all time, full stop. The Lost Girl is certainly my favorite children's book I've read in a long, long time, one that feels vital, alive, necessary. You should read this book. You need to read this book. I have two copies, so I'll even loan you one of mine if you want.


One other thing, which I wanted to separate from my review of/cheerleading for the book, but nonetheless wanted to write about. For longtime Ursu readers, The Lost Girl is as full of Easter eggs as a Marvel trailer, and I found them delightful. Here are a few that I found:

1) Iris and Lark attend Barnhill Elementary, and past and present teachers and staffers at Barnhill who are mentioned or make appearances include Ms. Messner, Ms. Urban, Ms. Snyder, Ms. Baptiste, and Ms. Ruby. If you know that Ursu is central to a closely-knit group of children's and YA writers who include Kelly Barnhill, Kate Messner, Linda Urban, Laurel Snyder, Tracy Baptiste, and Laura Ruby, this is utterly delightful, and feels like a loving tribute to dear friends. There's also a Mr. Anderson, whom Ursu stated is named after a beloved teacher of hers, Rod Anderson.

2) The Lost Girl features twins who live in Minnesota. Ursu is a MASSIVE baseball fan, and her team of choice is the Minnesota Twins. (Remember the signed Joe Mauer baseball that played such a key role in Breadcrumbs?). I'm sure the reference wasn't the only reason for the choice of setting and characters, but it still made me smile.

3) There is a calico cat in The Lost Girl. Ursu loves cats in general, but calico cats in particular. As evidence, I present to you this song, which was based on online conversations I had with Ursu several years ago.

"Anne Ursu Loves Our Calico Cat"

And one last bit, which made me happy. Really happy. To help explain why, here is a picture of me for reference:

The photogenic one is Senator Harriet J. Hedgington, Esq.


True, Mr. Prickles is a very minor character, who advances the plot for a couple pages in the middle of the book, and then yields his space to the larger story. But he is there. And, especially since "Anne Ursu's new book has a hedgehog in it" is essentially a sentence algorithmically designed to insert joy directly into my soul, Mr. Prickles will always be there in my heart.


One final addendum: here is the schedule for the full blog tour!

FRIDAY FEBRUARY 1: Teach Mentor Texts
SATURDAY FEBRUARY 2: For Those About to Mock
MONDAY FEBRUARY 4: Maria’s Melange
WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 6: Bluestocking Thinking
FRIDAY FEBRUARY 8: Unleashing Readers
SUNDAY FEBRUARY 10: Fat Girl Reading
MONDAY FEBRUARY 11: Word Spelunker
TUESDAY FEBRUARY 12: Nerdy Book Club

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Rachael's Departure and Greatest Hits

It's with a heavy heart -- but also with a lot of gratitude -- that I announce that Rachael Stein, who co-founded this blog with me back in January 2012, will no longer be contributing in this space. She's moved to the exciting (and important!) world of correctional libraries, and won't be involved in children's services in her new position, and so she felt it was time to step away from For Those About to Mock.

I could tell you about the professional debt I owe her, how I probably wouldn't have become involved in ALSC, or participated in the Morris Seminar, or known half of what I know about children's literature without her. But instead, I'd like to invite you to take a stroll back in time to revisit some of her greatest hits.

- Rachael was (and is) a huge fan of Jeanne Birdsall's Penderwicks books. In her review of The Penderwicks in Spring, which was Rachael's most-read post of all time, she provides a thoughtful, nuanced examination of the penultimate volume in that series. Also worth a second look is her final review for this site, a discussion of the series' conclusion, The Penderwicks At Last.

- I always appreciated Rachael's ability to defend her opinions about books, even if they were a bit out of the mainstream. To take two stellar examples, witness her argue for the Newbery eligibility of Tom McNeal's Far Far Away, and then thrill to her encomium of the "only skink" in her review of Polly Horvath's Mr. and Mrs. Bunny -- Detectives Extraordinaire! 

- Rachael's writing was often at its most entertaining when she encountered a book she really didn't care for. One of my favorite instances is her review of The Island of Dr. Libris, by Chris Grabenstein ("...if you hand it to to the literary-minded kids you know, I won't even judge you. Much."). And then there's her legendary look back at Eric P. Kelly's 1929 Newbery winner, The Trumpeter of Krakow, which she at one point refers to as "Project Runway: Medieval Krakow."

Farewell from this space, Rachael! The correctional library is lucky to have you!

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Newbery Wayback Machine: Miracles on Maple Hill, by Virginia Sorensen (1957)

I'll confess: it took me a long time to get through Miracles on Maple Hill, Virginia's Sorensen's 1957 Newbery winner. Much, much longer than it should have taken to finish a breezy, episodic novel that clocks in at well under 200 pages.

Admittedly, books about the Magical Restorative Power of Country Living are a hard sell for this city kid. In Miracles, Marly, her older brother Joe, and her parents move from Pittsburgh to rural Pennsylvania, where Marly's mother once lived. Over time, this heals her family, provides her with a sense of genuine wonder, and even seems to completely cure her father's PTSD (which stems from his experiences in a POW camp, though it's never really explained what exactly happened to him, or even whether he served in WWII or Korea).

To be fair, a handful of my all-time favorite children's books are at least in part paeans to rural life (Twelve Kinds of Ice, Sarah, Plain and Tall), or feature characters whose lives are changed for the better after moving to the country (The Story Girl). But Twelve Kinds of Ice contains some of the most arresting prose I've ever read in a children's book, while Sarah, Plain and Tall and The Story Girl could be used in a master class on characterization. On the other hand, the prose in Miracles certainly has moments, but isn't consistently brilliant, and the characters often seemed one-note or flat to me -- the interactions between Marly and Joe, in particular, begin with a real grain of truth, but often seem to deteriorate into "girls and boys sure are different, aren't they?"

This last point feels like crux of the matter, because these kinds of loosely-plotted mid-century family novels live and die by the strength of their characters. When it works, you get Ramona Quimby, or Homer Price, or the Pye family. When it doesn't, there's a limit to how memorable the book can be, and I think that's a huge part of my problem with Miracles. It's not bad, but the lack of dimension to the main characters keeps the book from sticking in the mind, and even the avuncular Mr. Chris and the strangely dignified Harry the Hermit don't have enough depth to compensate.

Certainly, Miracles isn't the book from its publishing year that's best remembered; Newbery-eligible favorites from 1956 include Fred Gipson's tearjerker Old Yeller, Edward Eager's magical Knight's Castle, and Gene Zion's playful Harry the Dirty Dog, while non-eligible classics include English author Dodie Smith's The Hundred and One Dalmatians, and Irish-Englishman C.S. Lewis' final Narnia novel, The Last Battle. I don't think the selection of Miracles was indefensible -- to some extent, I mistrust my opinion of a book for which I may just be the wrong reader -- but I also doubt that it would win if we were to give out the 1957 award again. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Newbery Wayback Machine: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O'Brien (1972)

Mrs. Frisby is a mouse, raising her four children alone after the death of her husband. When her youngest, Timothy, takes ill, Mrs. Frisby tries to find a way to help him -- a task that will take her into places she didn't know existed, and eventually lead her to a group of superintelligent rats, who have mysterious ties to her husband's life.

This brief summary hardly does justice to one of the genuine classics of American children's literature. It's a treasure of a book, one that, its high concept aside, works because of the real, lived-in relationships between its characters. This holds true not only for the novel's central relationships (such as those between Mrs. Frisby and Nicodemus; Mrs. Frisby and her children; and Nicodemus and Jenner in the flashback section), but for those that are more subsidiary (Brutus and Justin; Mr. Ages and Nicodemus), and even for those that exist at the very periphery of the story (Jeremy and the Owl; Mr. Fitzgibbon and Paul).

To move one step further back, the relationships work because the characters are so carefully defined. Each figure in the story has real hopes, dreams, sorrows, and fears. The mice and rats who occupy most of the novel's space are as emotionally rich as any human character would be. It helps that they occupy a world that's open-ended -- though the plot comes to a satisfying end, many threads aren't fully tied off, and many mysteries remain.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH also reads as a surprisingly, even defiantly feminist novel. Rachael has often referred to Mrs. Frisby herself as the greatest single mother in children's literature, and I think that's a more than fair opinion. Mrs. Frisby doesn't have the genetically engineered smarts of the rats and Mr. Ages, the ancient wisdom and intimidating presence of the Owl, or the overwhelming physical superiority of Mr. Fitzgibbon and the other humans. Yet, whether comforting her children, rescuing Jeremy the crow, or risking her life in putting sleeping powder in Dragon the cat's food (the same task that killed her husband!), Mrs. Frisby shows herself repeatedly to be the bravest, fiercest, most big-hearted character in the book. The rats may have the kind of patriarchal society in which "the females sometimes went to meetings and sometimes not," but without Mrs. Frisby, they'd all be dead by the end of the story. (Mrs. Frisby has only a handful of other female characters, but I'd also point to the shrew, who is willing to stand in the doorway of Mrs. Frisby's house to protect it from an entire group of much, much larger rats, although she's mistaken in their motivations, and the rats pose no danger.)

The literary career of Robert O'Brien (whose real name was Robert Conly) was an unfortunately curtailed one. Though a journalist by profession, working for such prestigious publications as Newsweek, the Washington Times-Herald, and National Geographic, he didn't begin writing novels until his mid-forties, when he developed glaucoma, and had to move closer to his office, freeing up for writing the time he had formerly used in commuting. He published three books during his lifetime, of which Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was the second; a fourth, Z for Zachariah, was completed from his notes by his wife and daughter following his tragic death from a heart attack at 55. However, even though we have only a few pieces of fiction from O'Brien's pen, Mrs. Frisby alone would have been enough to secure his legacy.