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!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

2015 Contenders: The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza, by Jack Gantos

In the fifth -- and, according to the book's own dust jacket, the final -- installment of the Joey Pigza series, Joey is facing his most difficult set of circumstances yet. His mother is in the hospital, and so Joey suddenly finds himself as the sole caretaker for his baby brother, Carter Junior. Joey will need to control himself, take care of his brother, and deal with the lurking threat of his father -- who, depending on how you think of it, is either far too absent or nowhere near absent enough.

This is the second Gantos book that we've looked at this year, and it shares some notable similarities with the other title, Rotten Ralph's Rotten Family. Both are entries in long-running series, and both push their series into a darker, more painful place than it had previously gone.

It's not as if the Joey Pigza books have been sweetness and light, but The Key that Swallowed Joey Pigza still hits new levels of grimness for the world of Gantos's "wired" hero. Olivia, Joey's blind quasi-girlfriend, makes a reappearance, and gets a gut-wrenching monologue about her interior landscape, a black world dominated by an unopenable black box. The descriptions of Joey's house, with its piles of rotting food and dead roaches, are positively nauseating. Similarly, Joey's dad, who is constantly lurking in the shadows, his face scarred to unrecognizability by botched plastic surgery, seems imported from a slasher film. You could describe Key as a horror comedy, but, to me at least, the comedy seemed to be sublimated to the horror. Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein this ain't.

That's not to say that Key isn't firmly a middle-grade novel. It has an upbeat resolution, and although the book raises large questions, it doesn't lose itself in them. At 154 pages, it's lean and (relatively) straightforward. This isn't a case of a series moving from J to YA halfway through, in the manner of Harry Potter, and I don't think there's any question of it being eligible for the Newbery.

Will it win? I think it's an exceptional book -- Joey's narration may well be the strongest and most consistent voice in any children's title published this year -- but I still have my doubts. Gantos has won the Newbery before, of course, and taken an honor for another of the Pigza books (Joey Pigza Loses Control, 2001 Honor), but the Newbery has only been awarded to a title this far into a series once (when The High King, also the fifth in its series, took the 1969 medal). I think there are eligible books this year that would be easier to build consensus around, though that's a really tough thing to predict without actually being on the committee. However, in my personal opinion, Key is challenging but rewarding, and one of the very best titles of the year. I'd love to see it on Newbery Day.

Published in September by Farrar Straus Giroux

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

2015 Contenders: El Deafo, by Cece Bell

El Deafo! Pretty much everyone I know has given it five stars on Goodreads, and I don't want to brag, but the people I know are wicked smart. Is it really that good? Yep. In this "golden age of graphic novel memoirs," Cece Bell's story of growing up "severely to profoundly" deaf stands out as an especially distinguished artistic achievement. 

Bell contracted meningitis when she was four years old, and lost most of her hearing as a result. With the help of some powerful hearing aids, she was able to participate in the hearing world. El Deafo chronicles the first ten years of her life, as she wrestles with her feelings of isolation and shame at being the odd girl out. But describing the novel that way really misrepresents its tone, which is poignant, yes, but also laugh-out-loud funny in many places. It's also deeply perceptive about the social nuances of elementary school, and the frustrations, sorrows, and triumphs of making friends at that age.

But what about Newbery? Nina Lindsay writes thoughtfully about the way the criteria apply to El Deafo, noting, "I do not believe that these criteria tell us that the text must carry the entirety of the plot, characters, setting and style.  Only that we must find those elements distinguished within the text…at least whichever elements are pertinent to the text."

That's fair, and I think, in a book like Penny and Her Marble, it can work. I don't think it works here, though, for one crucial reason: in many panels, the text is inseparable from the illustrations. That is, the text itself has visual qualities, and when you render it as plain text, you take away a large chunk of the meaning. Consider the page on the right, where Cece sneakily turns off her hearing aids to drown out her new friend's bedtime chatter. Bell represents the muffling of the friend's voice by depicting it in fainter ink - a technique which she uses (with great effectiveness) throughout the book. In a panel like that, the text is a visual object, and I don't think we can consider it as text anymore. This kind of visual storytelling is part of what makes a book like El Deafo so distinguished, but it also makes it impossible, for me anyway, to consider the text separately from the illustrations.

I think we're still learning how to discuss and evaluate emerging media for children. Will our awards criteria keep up? The ALSC awards are notoriously slow to change, and I think that's a good thing, for the most part. I do hope there is a place for El Deafo in this year's awards pantheon, though.

Published in September by Harry Abrams

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

2015 Contenders: Nanny X, by Madelyn Rosenberg

Alison Pringle and her younger brother Jake aren't very excited that their mother is going back to work. They're definitely not excited to be getting a nanny, especially one who insists on being called Nanny X, and who sends them to school with peanut butter and anchovy sandwiches.

However, Alison and Jake are in for a surprise when, after a save-the-park meeting goes bad, they discover that Nanny X actually works for the legendary N.A.P -- the Nanny Action Patrol. Now the three of them, plus Alison and Jake's baby sister Eliza and their dog Yeti, must stop a dastardly undercover crime ring that threatens their friends, their town, and possibly even their lives.

Madelyn Rosenberg's previous book was 2013's Canary in the Coal Mine. I liked that book, but I loved Nanny X. It's a rollicking, funny novel that, at a brief 112 pages, doesn't overstay its welcome. It's the kind of thing that I loved when I was a child, and I think it would be an easy sell to kids who like mysteries, adventure, and/or self-aware humor.

Historically, the Newbery is highly resistant to humorous books, and even recent winners with a high comedy factor (think Dead End in Norvelt or Flora & Ulysses) have had a level of thematic complexity that Nanny X doesn't attempt. Essentially, Nanny X is the kidlit equivalent of a really good popcorn flick -- one that won't win any Oscars, but that will be enjoyed by (hopefully) many people. And, even though we pay so much attention to awards here, that's a worthy achievement in and of itself.

Published in August by Holiday House

Friday, October 17, 2014

2015 Contenders: The Meaning of Maggie, by Megan Jean Sovern

Maggie Mayfield, a precocious sixth grader, is given a beautiful journal for her birthday - the perfect gift for an aspiring memoirist and future President of the United States! Maggie dutifully records her year: a year, it turns out, that sees her father slowly lose his faculties to multiple sclerosis. Maggie keenly observes her family dynamics while pushing herself academically and emotionally through the trials and triumphs that await her.

Maggie is a bit like a younger version of Jaclyn Moriarty’s titular character in The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie. She is an extraordinary know-it-all, a sassy lass who insinuates herself into situations without a shred of self-awareness, one whose embarrassing lack of social cues simultaneously rewards and punishes her. She’s winning her umpteenth consecutive Student of the Month award while flopping spectacularly at physical education. This is a kid who elicits cheers and groans, often within a single paragraph.

Sovern is a first-time author, and The Meaning of Maggie is reportedly a fictionalized memoir. This closeness to the source material is what initially makes the novel intriguing and enjoyable, but also what ultimately buckles the proceedings entirely.

Maggie’s narration is consistently enjoyable. As the youngest sister, she paints energetic portraits of her older siblings. Layla, the eldest, is too cool to be even vaguely aware of Maggie’s existence, and Tiffany, the shrill middle sister, approaches caricature-like status, especially in Maggie’s snarky, hilarious footnotes. “When Layla was little Dad called her Layla Hayla because he thought she was the bee’s knees. He calls me “Mags” because it sounds cool and he calls Tiffany “Tiffany” because if you call her anything else, she loses her mind” (p. 55).

As the family comes to terms with Dad’s “sleepy” limbs, Maggie’s observations become heartbreaking. She seems innocent of, even removed from, the situation’s gravity, and the family’s interactions between and among each other resonate with a sad, heavy hope. Small, simple revelations paint a family in crisis, even if Maggie remains completely and curiously unaware. Maggie’s slow understanding of the severity of her father’s condition serves as the book’s emotional crossroads, and Sovern handles the awakening with grace. Sovern’s treatment of multiple sclerosis is thoughtful, compassionate, and immediate. It’s a beautiful portrait of a family dealing with the unthinkable.

Reviewers, both for professional publications and on Goodreads, have indicated that the novel’s time period (the late 1980s) seemed flimsy and awkward. It certainly isn’t fully realized nor is it integral to the story, and Sovern unfortunately stumbles with several anachronisms. I was Maggie’s age in 1988, and, to my recollection, remember almost no discussion of medical marijuana; nor do I recall girls being referred to as “hotties." I’m fairly certain, too, that the use of full-stops as emphasis (like. doing. this.) is a more recent literary device, and that most 11-year-olds would not have employed such techniques in their journals.

Maggie, too, is a strangely inconsistent character, even when her musings are hilarious. This is a child who reads voraciously and is academically superior to her peers, yet doesn’t know what a spleen is. She’s childish and mawkish on some pages and way-beyond-her-years on others. The “precious” quotient is through the roof, and not in the way puppies are precious. More in the way that hipsters who enjoy pickling foods are precious.

Despite these flaws, the book is enjoyable and, in my school library, it has circulated like crazy. My students, especially the girls, love it, and I can understand why it is so dear to them. Maggie is a sparkplug of a character, and her wittiness will appeal to many young readers. The Meaning of Maggie, in terms of Newbery-ness, lacks any distinguishing quality, and will likely be but a blip on the radar come awards season. Although its treatment of multiple sclerosis is sensitive and uplifting, I doubt, too, that it will nab a Schneider Family Book Award (which, if I were to bet, will go to Lisa Graff’s delightful Absolutely Almost).

Sorry, Maggie. My students love you, but I don’t think the Newbery committee will.

Published in May by Chronicle Books 


Today's guest reviewer is Joe Prince, Librarian at Marshall Middle School, and Chair of the North Allegheny (PA) School District Library Department. Check out his 6th Grade Mock Newbery -- it's great!