Wednesday, November 27, 2019

2020 Contenders: Blue Daisy, by Helen Frost

One day, friends Sam and Katie happen to see a dog, filthy and thin, wandering through their neighborhood. None of their neighbors, from the flower-gardening Wilson sisters to the rock-throwing Tracy twins seem inclined to show it any kindness. Sam and Katie are concerned for the dog, and want to love and help her -- but in a childish moment of weakness, they do something that makes the dog mistrust them. Now, all they want to do is make things right -- but how?

What I liked most about Blue Daisy, a brief novel for younger middle-grade readers, was the way that its protagonists seemed like real children. Sam and Katie are generally good kids, who are nonetheless capable of momentary breakdowns in impulse control. Not only does this lead them to do something they profoundly regret, but they're unable even to really voice why they did it in the first place. Development of executive function is hard work, and seemingly inexplicable lapses happen to even the most well-behaved and kindest children. I thought that Helen Frost portrayed this with sensitivity and gentleness, while still creating an accurate portrayal of the way things can suddenly go sideways for kids.

Blue Daisy is the first of Frost's books that I've read since Salt (2013). I do note that, while they're very different books, some of the reservations I had about Salt are the same ones I have about Blue Daisy. Blue Daisy is written in alternating sections, with Sam's being written in poetry, and Katie's in prose. This distinguishes the voices, to be sure -- but I'm not sure the stylistic choice works fully. Sam and Katie come across as very similar characters, and while Sam is slightly more dreamy and impulsive than Katie (and so, it could be argued, fits better in verse), the fact that each one ends up narrating some of the other's words and actions blurs the lines that separate the two. (Katie's dialogue, for instance, is in prose when she's delivering it, but in poetry when Sam is reporting it.)

I also wished the secondary characters stood out a little more. That's a big ask in a short novel, and it likely won't make a difference to the book's target readers, but it's the sort of thing that might get discussed by the Newbery committee.

Realistically, it's hard for me to imagine Blue Daisy bubbling to the top in a year with several strong Newbery candidates that take more risks and excel in more facets of storytelling. I do think, however, that the kind of kid who likes to read quieter books, and anyone who enjoys animal stories, will be won over by this novel's charm.

Published in March by Holiday House

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Blog Tour: My Jasper June, by Laurel Snyder

Hello, folks! Our friends at Walden Pond Press asked if we'd be interested in being part of the blog tour for My Jasper June. Of course, we've already reviewed (and loved!) the book, but I'm excited to rep Laurel Snyder, as she's officially confirmed as our Eastern Shore Regional Library visiting children's author for 2020. I'm really excited to bring her out to speak to students here on the shore, and I look forward to getting the opportunity to meet her in person when she visits in April!

In the meantime, you should read My Jasper June. I'm reposting our review of the book below, to tell you all the reasons why it's wonderful.


After a terrible tragedy last year, Leah finds herself in a holding pattern, distanced from her friends, her neighborhood, and her parents. One summer day, alone and restless, she takes a walk by the creek, and meets another girl, a free spirit named Jasper. Leah and Jasper quickly become inseparable -- but the tensions in Leah's life, as well as Jasper's own dark secrets, won't be denied, and eventually threaten to tear the new friends completely apart.

There are two things that I think My Jasper June does exceptionally well. The first is its respectful, honest portrayal of the inner lives of its main characters, girls at the awkward intersection of tween and teen. This was also a feature of Laurel Snyder's previous novel, Orphan Island (which won our 2017/18 Maryland Mock Newbery), and represents one of her key strengths as a writer. Leah and Jasper both felt real and recognizable to me, which helped me care about their adventures and fortunes.

The other area in which My Jasper June excels -- perhaps more so than any other book for children that I've ever read -- is in its laying bare the double bind that those grieving a traumatic loss often find themselves in. At the very moment when they need the most support, they often experience isolation, as those around them no longer know what to say to them or how to act around them, distancing themselves from the griever as a result. Without going too far into sad details from my own experience, I'll say that I've seen this dynamic and the pain it causes in real life, and Snyder does magnificent work in limning it. The scene in which Leah finally loses all patience and calls a school teacher out on this behavior at the public swimming pool is cringey in exactly the way the incident might play out in reality.

In a lot of years, My Jasper June would be my immediate choice for Newbery frontrunner. This year also features The Lost Girl and The Moon Within, so it's more complicated than that. But it's at the very least in the conversation, and I heartily recommend that you pick it up and have a look for yourself.


And here's the itinerary for the remainder of the blog tour!

September 4 Open Book Reviews 
September 5 Teachers Who Read 
September 6 Nerdy Book Club
September 9 Read Wonder 
September 10 About to Mock 
September 11 Novel Novice 
September 12 Create Explore Read 
September 13 Book Monsters 
September 16 Maria's Melange 
September 17 Writer's Rumpus 
September 18 Bluestocking Thinking 
September 19 Storymamas 
September 20 Amber Kuehler 

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

2020 Contenders: The Long Ride, by Marina Budhos

Jamila Clarke, Josie Rivera, and Francesca George live in Queens, New York, in 1971. Though their neighborhood is majority white, all three girls are mixed-race. This year, the three friends will be entering middle school, but even more changes are in the air. A school busing initiative has been enacted, and Jamila and Josie will be making the long trek to attend a school in a majority-black neighborhood; Francesca's parents are choosing instead to send her to a private school. Against this backdrop, our heroines will struggle with family drama, navigating relationships with boys, school politics, and more.

Probably too much more, to tell the truth. As I was reading The Long Ride, I felt that it was trying to stuff too many themes and plot points into a book that's right around 200 pages. Some of the subplots are so briefly developed that they might as well not be there (it's hard to remember that Jamila's service as campaign manager for an acquaintance's bid for class president even happened), while others seem rushed or less than fully explored. This also affects the pacing, which I thought had a certain stop-start nature that worked against the story.

The book that The Long Ride reminded me of most was Glory Be, Augusta Scattergood's 2012 novel. Both volumes are exceptional in the way that they conjure up a specific place and time, and help the reader feel what it was like to be a child there and then. Both attempt to meld a story about family relationships and friend dynamics with larger issues of civil rights, racism, and justice. And, to be honest, neither book is really able to achieve this goal; they both end up having bitten off more than they're able to chew.

Marina Budhos's previous work has been for adult and young adult readers, and she's received starred reviews, nominations, and awards for many of those books. If The Long Ride doesn't quite hold together, it may be that Budhos is still becoming comfortable with writing books for a younger age group. I don't think The Long Ride will seriously contend for the Newbery, but it does make me curious about the next story that Budhos will choose to tell.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Digressions: Those Who Run in the Sky, by Aviaq Johnston

Piturniq, an Inuk youth, has begun making a name for himself in his village. He is a talented hunter, and Tagaaq, an elder, is training him to be the next village leader. Pitu's talents don't stop there; with the proper guidance, Tagaaq believes that Pitu will be able to serve as a shaman. However, the shaman who would be able to train Pitu disappeared years ago, and no one knows where he might be.

One day, while Pitu is out hunting, a blizzard hits. He manages to survive the storm, only to find himself transported to the world of the spirits -- a dangerous place filled with frightening beings of enormous power. It will take all of his skill -- as well as finding the right allies -- if Pitu is to make it back home to his village, his family, and the woman he loves.

I found myself captivated by the world of Those Who Run in the Sky. Aviaq Johnston, herself an Inuk author, perfectly conveys the arctic setting and Inuit culture without compromising them or watering them down. The back matter includes a helpful glossary and a thoughtful author's note, but it's entirely possible to enjoy the book without having to constantly refer back. The setup for the main plot is fairly long, but I didn't have any trouble with the pacing -- and the last 50 pages are a thrilling burst of adrenaline.

Those Who Run in the Sky is more YA than juvenile, but I think you can argue that it scrapes the top of the Newbery age range. If I were evaluating the book for the Newbery and using the award criteria, I'd note that it's outstanding in its interpretation of theme, development of plot, and especially, delineation of setting. The delineation of characters is somewhat weaker, and though the style is appropriate, the prose overall is more workmanlike than exceptional for most of the novel. Those Who Run in the Sky was published in 2017, and I would have loved to have included it in our Maryland Mock Newbery reading list that year. I don't know that I would have voted for it over Landscape with Invisible Hand (my favorite from that list), or Orphan Island (our MMN winner), but I think it would have sparked some fascinating discussions. (For what it's worth, recognizing that it's just my opinion, and Your Mileage May Vary And Probably Will, I do think I would have voted for Those Who Run in the Sky over that year's actual Newbery winner, Hello, Universe.)

Sadly, Those Who Run in the Sky wasn't eligible for the Newbery, as Aviaq Johnston is from Nunavut, and still lives in Canada. If I could change one rule about the Newbery, it would actually be the prohibition against Canadian authors specifically; the American Library Association has many Canadian members, and the ALA annual conference has actually been held in Canada six different times (most recently in 2003, as an ALA/CLA joint conference). It frustrates me that we welcome participation from Canadian librarians on our committees and boards, but don't allow Canadian authors to compete for what's possibly the most prestigious literary award we hand out.

Alas, I don't make the Newbery rules. What I can do is encourage you to read this book, buy it for your library, and get it into the hands of kids who will appreciate it. A sequel, Those Who Dwell Below, was just published last month, and I'm excited to see how Pitu's story continues beyond the confines of this novel.

Published in 2017 by Inhabit Media

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

2020 Contenders: Indian No More, by Charlene Willing McManis with Traci Sorell

The United States historically hasn't, to put it mildly, done a great job of treating Native Americans well. Many of the worst offenses are well known to students of American history: the Trail of Tears, the Great Sioux War, the Wounded Knee Massacre. Some, however, haven't received as much attention, and remain little-known to most Americans outside of the Native American community.

The latter category includes, among others, the so-called Indian Termination Policy of the 1950s and 1960s. During this period, the Federal government unilaterally ended its recognition of over 100 Native American tribes, ceasing to recognize those tribes' reservations and land claims, and cutting off all Federal aid. Congress also passed the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, which provided some financial benefits and vocational training for Native Americans who would move from reservation land to urban centers. It did this at the cost, however, of breaking up communities, and placing Native Americans in areas where racial discrimination was often heavy; additionally, not all of the promised benefits always materialized for Native Americans who entered the program, and many participants ended up in low-wage jobs with little hope for advancement. The Termination Policy was ugly, and the Native American community had essentially no say in designing or administering it. They did, however, organize to fight back against it, and by 1968, President Lyndon Johnson was publicly calling for the policy to be ended. Though the US began re-recognizing some tribes as early as 1973, the policy wasn't officially abandoned until 1988(!).

This brings us to Indian No More, a novel that is set during the Termination period. It's narrated by Regina Petit, whose Umpqua family lives on the Oregon reservation of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. After the Grand Ronde's recognition is terminated, Regina's family moves to Los Angeles to try to take advantage of the Indian Relocation Act. Regina's father is excited by the prospect of moving to the city, but the rest of the family is less enthused -- especially Chich, Regina's grandmother. As the story progresses, opportunities and new friends do await in the city. However, so do culture shock, racism, and family tensions over preserving their Umpqua identity.

Indian No More has a fascinating, though bittersweet, genesis. Charlene Willing McManis, who was, in the words of her biographical note in the book, "of Umpqua tribal heritage and enrolled in the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde," came to a writing career late in life. This book, her only novel, was honed in a We Need Diverse Books mentorship with Margarita Engle, and picked up by Tu Books, a Lee & Low imprint. It's based on McManis's own childhood experiences; her family also moved to L.A. after her tribe's termination.

Sadly, McManis died in 2018, before the book was entirely finished. Before her passing, McManis personally asked her friend Traci Sorell to complete the manuscript. (Sorell's name may be a familiar one to our readers, as her We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga picked up a Sibert Honor this year.) Fortunately, Sorell, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, was able to fulfill this request, and bring the book to a state ready for publication.

As far as the Newbery goes, I doubt Indian No More will end up on the stand -- though the setting and the cultural research are magnificent, the plot meanders a bit, and the prose doesn't stand out as exceptional to me; in the kind of strong field we have this year, it probably won't rise to the very top. What I do hope is that libraries purchase this book and that many, many children read it, hearing a story that they probably don't know yet, but that needs to be told.

Publication in September by Tu Books / Lee & Low

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

2020 Contenders: A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata

Hanako's family spent four years in U.S. internment camps during World War II, and now they are leaving America for Japan. They will live with Hanako's paternal grandparents on a farm outside of Hiroshima. Arriving in Japan, Hanako and her family are appalled at the devastation wrought by the atomic bomb that the United States dropped on the city. At her grandparents' house Hanako is surrounded with love, but the family is very poor, and food is a constant concern. Hanako's parents and grandparents also wonder what will happen to Hanako and her younger brother Akira. In the United States, they didn't have much money, but they had options to better their lives. In Japan, they will most likely become tenant farmers, like their grandparents and many generations before them. But Hanako and Akira are still American citizens, and though their parents renounced their citizenship, there is a chance that they can get it back. Should the family try to return to America, even if that means starting over with nothing?

In this gentle book, it's the characters who really shine. Hanako's Jiichan (grandfather) and Baachan (grandmother) are the sweetest little old people ever, and I just wanted to give both of them a hug. But each member of Hanako's family is nuanced and complex, grappling with big questions. Hanako herself deals with fitting into a different culture, as one might expect from the book description, but she also struggles with her impulse to be compassionate, balanced with her own family's privations. Should she give food to a bomb-scarred war orphan? What if it means that her own little brother will go hungry that night? This concentration on emotions and morality necessitates an inward focus, so there's not a lot of action in the book's plot. In some ways, this is an ur-Newbery book: deeply contemplative historical fiction with a female protagonist, with strong character development at the expense of plot. I'm not trying to denigrate the book; just saying that it follows a venerable tradition of strong, well-written Newbery contenders.

I don't think this book is well-served by either its nondescript title or its bland brown and yellow cover, but of course, neither of those factors has any bearing on its Newbery eligibility. A Place to Belong received starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, and Booklist, and though it's up against strong competition for the Newbery, I think it has at least earned a spot at the discussion table.

Published in May by Atheneum Books

Monday, July 1, 2019

New Member of the For Those About to Mock Team: Misti Tidman

We're feeling pretty excited here at For Those About to Mock today, because we have a new blogger joining our team! Please join us in welcoming Misti Tidman to this space.

Longtime readers might already know Misti's name, as she's done three guest review for us in the past. She and I attended the Morris Seminar together back in 2014, and since then, she's done some great work over at the Guessing Geisel blog. When we were considering expanding our roster of bloggers here, Misti was the first person I thought of, and I'm ecstatic that she's elected to sign on!