Thursday, July 17, 2014

2015 Contenders: Hunter Moran Digs Deep, by Patricia Reilly Giff


In Hunter Moran Digs Deep, our titular protagonist is hot on the trail of the mysterious treasure hidden by Lester Dinwitty, founder of the town of Newfield. Together with his twin, Zack, their kid brother, Steadman, and their frenemy Sarah Yulefsky, Hunter is working on piecing together the clues that will lead to the loot. However, someone else seems to have the same idea, so Hunter and his posse will have to work quickly -- even though there are constant distractions involving drum lessons, leaf raking, and a birdhouse that Mr. Moran has been building, which Zack and Hunter have accidentally destroyed.

Digs Deep is the third book chronicling the adventures of Hunter Moran. I missed last year's Hunter Moran Hangs Out, but I did review Hunter Moran Saves the Universe back in 2012. I wasn't overly fond of that one, and Digs Deep unfortunately has many of the same issues. The main plot moves so quickly that it feels jumpy, and many of the side plots get minimal coverage at best. The book is also very short -- so short and so stuffed to the gills with moving parts that the character development is sidelined.

I also had questions about the book's setting. Lester Tinwitty's gravestone lists his date of death as 1905, and Hunter states that the search for the treasure has been going on "for a hundred years," which would seem to make the time frame essentially contemporary. However, although Mr. Moran's computer is mentioned, no one seems to have a cell phone. Additionally, one of Hunter's verbal tics is quoting catchphrases from TV shows, followed immediately by the name of the show and the time it airs -- something that's going to be on the spectrum from "quaint" to "incomprehensible" for child readers raised on TiVo, Hulu, and On-Demand cable. It felt very out-of-touch to me.

So, I don't see any Newbery love for Digs Deep, but it did make me want to read Lily's Crossing or Pictures of Hollis Woods, Patricia Reilly Giff's pair of Newbery Honor books. I've never read either one -- the only other Giff novel I've read was Gingersnap, which I thought had many of the same weaknesses as the Hunter Moran books. But I'd like to look at the Honor titles, to see if Giff is just an author that doesn't do it for me, or if it's simply that I've been reading her second-tier books.




Publication in September by Holiday House

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Digressions: Seeing Red, by Kathryn Erskine

Note: I wrote this entire post after having listened to the audiobook of Seeing Red. I did not realize  (until I double checked the publication dates) that the print version was published in 2013, rendering the entire discussion moot for our 2015 Mock Newbery purposes. 

As it turns out, the novel was ignored by all of the YMA committees. It did receive a starred review in Booklist, but it was otherwise a blip on the literary radar. Nevertheless, Recorded Books chose to record an audiobook version of it. I assume that's due to the author's National Book Award winner status, but really, who knows? I've been on this committee for six months now, and while some of the book-to-audiobook choices are obvious, some are still mystifying. And it's only getting weirder as it becomes cheaper for audio publishers to put out digital-only titles. Onward!

___

In a lengthy author's note at the end of Seeing Red, Kathryn Erskine explains (among other things) the reasoning behind her protagonist's name:

"Finally, Red’s last name is Porter for two reasons. Pullman Porters
were early leaders in the civil rights movement, successfully creating
a union and organizing events leading up to and including the March
on Washington in 1963. I wanted to pay tribute to them. Also, a
porter is a person who carries burdens and, symbolically, all of us are
like Red, carrying the burden of our history and the responsibility for
our current society." 

(http://www.usborne.com/downloads/teachers-notes/seeing-red-authors-note.pdf)

A noble sentiment, to be sure. But man, is that a heavy burden (no pun intended) for one kid to carry, and that kind of front-loaded symbolism is my biggest issue with this novel.

To back up... Red Porter is living in a small town in Virginia in the early 1970's. There are racial tensions in his town, but Red's family has never, of course, perpetrated any racial injustice. His recently deceased father was a kind of saintly Atticus Finch figure, and the whole family is having trouble adjusting - financially and emotionally - in the wake of that unexpected death. Of course, history is not always what it seems, and Red is going to have to adjust his view of his family and his town many times before he grows into his new status as the "man of the house."

There's also a young, progressive anti-war teacher; a Klan-like organization; an idealistic lawyer; a simple-but-wise man; an old alcoholic who beats his kids; and a strong black woman. There is, in short, a whole lot of history packed into this novel (which weighs in at a hefty 352 pages). The four page author's note makes it explicit that Seeing Red is Erskine's attempt to deal with some of the injustices she saw while growing up. Again, that's a worthy goal! But it doesn't make for an effective novel. The didacticism weighs down the plot, and the transparent symbolism of the characters makes this feel more like allegory than realistic fiction. 

Seeing Red is not a complete failure, of course. Erskine effectively evokes the atmosphere of a small town in the seventies (I lived in one, for a few years anyway). Her prose is accomplished as well (as can be expected from a National Book Award winner).



2015 Contenders: Across a War-Tossed Sea, by L.M. Elliott

Across a War-Tossed Sea is the story of Charles and Wesley Bishop, brothers who were evacuated from England to the USA during WWII. Through their interactions with their host family, other Americans, and even a group of German POWs, Charles and Wesley learn about themselves, the power of friendship, and what true bravery is.

It's not a bad setting, certainly, and it's not an awful book. However, Across a War-Tossed Sea falls into two of the traps that so often plague historical fiction novels, and as a result, I can't champion it for the Newbery.

The first is that, in the interest of showing a cross-section of life at the time, the book's characters tend to become stock types. So, instead of three-dimensional people, we have the evil Nazi, the noble POW, the wise and kind Native American, the racist bully, the Atticus Finch-style progressive, etc. It just made the book feel like there wasn't anything emotionally at stake, since the characters weren't real people.

The second is the tendency to try and cram historical details into dialogue and descriptive passages. This might help the book get a Common Core push, but it makes the writing awkward and the conversations stilted and stiff. Across a War-Tossed Sea has more than a few As You Know, Bob moments, and I found that they pushed me out of the narrative.

Like I said, Across a War-Tossed Sea isn't a terrible book -- the pacing is good, and I think readers who are most interested in action may well enjoy the Bishops' adventures. It also comes with something of a built-in audience, as it's billed as a "companion" to L.M. Elliott's well-regarded earlier book, Under a War-Torn Sky (2003). (The crossover is minimal, but readers familiar with the first novel will likely enjoy it.) However, I don't think it's a serious contender for the 2015 YMAs.


Published by Disney/Hyperion in April.

Monday, July 7, 2014

2015 Contenders: Brother Hugo and the Bear, by Katy Beebe

Brother Hugo has a problem. He's lost his library book, and even though he has one of the best excuses possible -- it was eaten by a bear! -- he still has to replace the volume. This being the Middle Ages, "replace" is used in its most literal sense: Brother Hugo has to go to another monastery, borrow their copy of the title, and then hand-copy it. However, the bear is still lurking about, and "once a bear has a taste of letters, his love of books grows much the more."

Katy Beebe's text is a joy to read. Its quasi-Chaucerian diction fits the setting without being overly difficult (especially given the glossary in the back). It also includes, as a natural part of the narrative, a clever introduction to medieval bookmaking. The story itself, which takes its inspiration from a brief passage in a letter written by Peter the Venerable, is winningly playful.

As a certified lit-nerd, I found Brother Hugo and the Bear impossible to resist. The Newbery committee may (and probably will) feel differently. We mentioned in last year's discussion of If You Want to See a Whale how hard it is for a picture book to gain Newbery recognition, and I don't think, alas, that Brother Hugo will cut through that resistance in this competitive publishing year.

The art, by S.D. Schindler, is a lovely pastiche of the illuminated manuscript tradition. It's possible that the Caldecott committee will take a liking to it. Whether or not that happens, I do hope that the folks handing out the two major awards for picture book text (the Golden Kite Award for Picture Book Text and the Charlotte Zolotow Award) take a good look at Brother Hugo. I think they'll like what they see.


Published in April by Eerdmans

Thursday, July 3, 2014

2015 Contenders: Greenglass House, by Kate Milford


Despite the fact that his parents run an inn, Milo was expecting a nice, peaceful vacation.  After all, the week of Christmas is usually not a busy time at Greenglass House.  But then, on the first morning of the holiday break, the guests just start coming . . . and coming . . . and coming.  Pretty soon, the inn is feeling much too full for Milo’s comfort.  His parents even ask their part-time cook to come up and help.  When her daughter Meddy, a girl just about Milo’s age, attempts to get him to talk to her, Milo is feeling disgruntled and tries to brush her off.  But Meddy won’t be brushed off – she’s sure that these people are all at the inn for a reason, and she and Milo come up with a way to investigate while appearing to be playing an innocuous role-playing game.  They soon discover that the guests are hiding more than one secret between them.  Some of the guests seem to know each other, though Milo wouldn’t call them friends.  Seemingly unimportant articles go missing from some of the guests’ rooms, and Milo hears the occasional sneaky set of footsteps on the creaky staircase, signaling that someone is where they are not supposed to be.  All the secrets and mysteries center on Greenglass House itself – and Milo’s home, where he has lived all his life – eaten, slept, done homework, goofed off – is suddenly much more fascinating and mysterious.  Is a smuggler’s treasure hidden somewhere in the house?  Can Milo and Meddy find it first?

This book rises to excellence in several different ways.  The setting is the first thing that grabs you: a hilltop inn, accessible by inclined railway from the waterfront of the Skidwrack River, frequented by smugglers of various unlikely items (flower bulbs and fountain pens, for instance).  Milo’s world is approximately contemporary to ours and shares some things (Christmas, the War of 1812) while others are charmingly different.  These differences appear as grace notes throughout the story, never piled on too heavily in one place.  Populating that setting are the characters.  The guests at the inn start out as quirky caricatures, but blossom and develop as the story rolls on.  And of course Milo, as main character, has plenty going on.  For one thing, he’s adopted and of Chinese descent, so there’s an undercurrent of him wondering about his birth family and heritage, while still loving his adoptive parents.  This adds depth to the story without ever overpowering the main plot.  Milo is also the sort of kid who values routine and gets agitated when things do not go according to plan, and much of his character development involves him being stretched in new directions by unforeseen circumstances.

 In terms of plot, this book delivers a good mix of coziness and adventure – there is exploration of the various nooks and crannies, hot chocolate and scheming by the Christmas tree, and covert investigation with the risk of discovery at any moment.  One thing I really appreciated about this book is how Milo and Meddy’s adventures feel like adventures while still being authentic kid experiences, things that are not out of character or impossible for a couple of kids in a large house full of strange adults.  As an added bonus, there are stories within the story as Milo, prompted by an old book lent to him by one of the guests, encourages all of the visitors to share stories in the evening.  Milo hopes that the stories they share will reveal their secretive reasons for staying at Greenglass House, and many times they do, enriching the book and helping bring all of the plot elements together in the end.

I found a lot to like in this book, and not much to criticize, probably because I’m the sort of reader who likes cozy mysteries in old houses with quirky characters and elements that feel a little bit like fantasy at times.  Another reader might find that the pacing lags at the points where the guests are telling their stories, but this didn’t bother me at all.  I could mention that Milo’s parents are arguably not as well-developed as some of the other secondary characters, but not everyone has to be quirky, and their main role is to provide stability for Milo (while also being preoccupied enough with the running of the inn to let him do his own thing without too much interference).  Is this book a Newbery contender?  Possibly.  This is a particularly strong year for middle-grade fiction, and mystery is a genre that rarely gets a lot of acclaim.  However, I think it’s earned a spot at the front of the pack, at least.

Publication in August by Clarion Books.
*****

Today's guest reviewer is Misti Tidman, Children's Librarian at the Licking County Library System (Ohio).  She is a fellow 2014 Morris Seminar participant, and blogs at Kid Lit Geek.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

2015 Contenders: A Woman in the House (And Senate), by Ilene Cooper

It was a mere 128 years after the first session of the United States Congress that a female representative joined that legislative body. There were legal, social, and political issues to be overcome, even after that first breakthrough. A Woman in the House (And Senate) both traces the narrative of women in Congress and provides detailed profiles of some of these notable legislators.

Some of the names were familiar to me: Clare Booth Luce, Geraldine Ferraro, Maryland's own Barbara Mikulski. Many others, however, I knew very little about, and I found myself enthralled by their stories. I read about Representative Jeannette Rankin of Montana, who was the first woman elected to Congress, and also the only person to vote against the United States' entry into both WWI and WWII; Senator Rebecca Felton, who was the first woman in the Senate, even though her interim appointment lasted only one day; Representative Helen Douglas, who gave Richard Nixon the "Tricky Dick" nickname; Representative Cardiss Collins, who worked so tirelessly for equality in college sports that she was enshrined in the Women's Sports Hall of Fame; and a whole host of others.

Ilene Cooper's writing is engaging, making what could be a dry recitation of facts into a vibrant collage of characters and achievements. Her research is also solid, and I found the source notes and other back matter thorough and easy to navigate.

The Newbery committee won't be able to consider the book's design, but the Sibert committee will, and they should find much to like. A Woman in the House (And Senate) features both vibrant illustrations by Elizabeth Baddeley and a wealth of archival photographs, and is a genuine joy to look at. The page design is both clean and engaging, and I think the choice to refrain from using sidebars was a wise one in this instance.

Ilene Cooper has made it to the Notables list before (Jack:The Early Years of John F. Kennedy, 2003), but hasn't received any of the big ALA awards. I think A Woman in the House (And Senate) may have a very good shot at changing that. It would very much be a Newbery dark horse, and I don't think I'd pick it over Caminar or Half a Chance. However, it's easily the best nonfiction book I've read so far this year, and if the Sibert committee is anywhere near as impressed by it as I am, it could easily show up in the list of winners at the 2015 YMAs.


Published in March by Abrams

Thursday, May 29, 2014

2015 Contenders: The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander

After I read the first three pages of The Crossover, I was excited. Here, perhaps, was another verse novel I could get behind. The vibrant, rhythmic poetry bounced like a basketball, and the voice of Josh Bell, the narrator, was clear and confident. I was curious to see where his story would go.

The problem is, those first three pages are the high point of the book. Maybe it wasn't possible to tell the whole story in that cadence, but I felt that -- with a few notable exceptions, most of which described on-court action -- the novel got prosier and prosier as it went along. The argument could be made that this mirrors the way Josh's swagger and confidence are shaken as the narrative moves along, but I'm not sure I would go that far. I just felt like Kwame Alexander had led with his best material.

I also had one of the problems that I almost always experience with verse novels, which is that the characters felt flat. Josh is a three-dimensional person, but even the secondary characters -- Josh's twin brother Jordan, Jordan's girlfriend Alexis, the boys' parents -- felt very one-note, and the tertiary characters barely registered for me at all.

The book already has a significant number of defenders, however (five starred reviews, plenty of positive blog notices, and cover blurbs from a laundry list of first-tier authors). To be fair, there are things it does very well. Alexander certainly knows his basketball, and anyone who's a hoops fan will be able to pick up on that right away. It's a quick read, and if the plot doesn't offer much in the way of surprises, neither did any of Matt Christopher's, and that never interfered with my enjoyment of his books. And it's nice to see characters who are so often caricatured as cruel and self-absorbed -- exceptionally skilled middle-school athletes -- treated with dignity and respect.

It's interesting to compare The Crossover with my pick for the best verse novel (and possibly the best book of any kind) of the year so far, Caminar. In purely literary terms, I think Caminar is by far the superior book, a technical tour de force with more assured verse, a much stronger protagonist, and more polished use of metaphor. I would champion it for Newbery consideration, and I would not do the same for The Crossover. And yet, I think for most readers, The Crossover will be much easier to love. It's a more accessible story, set in a more familiar environment, and I think it will be an easier book to find a reader for.

As I said, that doesn't mean I believe The Crossover should appear on the Newbery list. I do think, however, that it deserves to be noticed, and to be put into the hands of children who will find much to love about it.


Published in March by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt