Monday, January 4, 2016

Announcement: Plans for Next Year!

Welcome to 2016! We hope everyone had a great holiday season. We've hinted before that this year, we might be taking a bit of a different direction here at For Those About to Mock, and we're finally ready to unveil our plans.

Since we started this blog four years ago, we've used the preponderance of our space to review new books that could be contenders for the Newbery (and, to a lesser extent, the other Youth Media Awards). However, we've also written other posts, including our Winner's Circle series, in which we've looked at some of the past Newbery winners.

This year, we've decided as a team to focus on looking more carefully at the past winners of the Newbery Medal, which means we get to fire up our
Each month, we'll feature reviews of winners from a different decade, starting with the 1920s here in January.* Expect lively discussion and a (hopefully) entertaining look at prizewinners from the days of yore! We hope our readers (especially our noble #nerdbery forebears) will chime in with comments about favorite (or less than favorite) winners.

We may also review some current books in contention for the 2017 Newbery, but expect our main spotlight to be on past winners. We hope you enjoy!

* Fortunately, I've already reviewed Smoky, the Cowhorse. *shudder*
** Thanks to Kacey Martin for our awesome Newbery Wayback Machine logo!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2016 Contenders: Kiki and Jacques, by Susan Ross

On the surface, Jacques, a lifelong resident of his rural Maine town, seems to have little in common with Kiki, a Somali refugee who, with many of her family and friends, has only just arrived. However, a bond soon forms between the two, which might just help them overcome a raft of difficulties that come their way.

There's a lot going on in Susan Ross' debut novel -- probably too much. Between the arrival of the Somali refugees, the financial difficulties threatening Jacques' grandmother's bridal shop, Jacques and the captaincy of his soccer team, a girl with an obvious crush on Jacques, Jacques' alcoholic father, Kiki's desire to play soccer, the attempts by a neighborhood lout to bully Jacques into committing crime, a possible romance for Jacques' grandmother, and probably a few I've forgotten, it's an incredibly complicated plot, and given that Kiki and Jacques clocks in at a brisk 144 pages, many of the elements get a perfunctory treatment, and many of the characters don't feel completely developed.

And yet, I enjoyed reading Kiki and Jacques in spite of all that. It's never boring, and it gets a lot of mileage out of a setting (small-town Maine when Somali refugees begin settling there) that's  underused in children's lit. Especially given all of the political talk about refugees going on in the US right now, the book feels more than a little timely, and I imagine plenty of libraries will want to put Kiki and Jacques on their shelves.

I don't see it placing in the Newbery lists; it has distinguished elements in setting, but it's not the masterpiece of construction and writing that several of the year's leading contenders are. I'd certainly like to read some more from Susan Ross, however, and I hope this book brings her work to the notice of many readers.

Published in October by Holiday House.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Books We Read Because We Didn't Realize the Publication Was Pushed Back to 2017: Sondheim

I am deeply confused by this book.

The first 143 pages cover the first thirty years of Sondheim's career (1957-1987).

The last four pages cover the second twenty-eight years (1987-2015; it will be an even thirty years by the time the book is released in 2017).

I mean... I just... what?!

He has written actual shows since 1987 - granted, only five of them, compared to the fourteen he did before that (if you start with West Side Story). None of them were big hits, but Merrily We Roll Along was a notorious flop, and we got a whole chapter on that one.

*scratches head*

Anyway, the coverage of the first half of Sondheim's career is well-researched and interesting enough (it helps to be a huge theatre nerd, which I am). It doesn't exactly shine in the areas of pacing and narrative structure - The Family Romanov this ain't - but it provides a nice, detailed look at a giant of musical theatre.


Expected publication: May 2017, by Roaring Brook Press. 

(Though Goodreads also notes that it was first published November 3, 2015. No sign of that on MacMillan's site, where you can order the ebook to be delivered in 2017.)

(It's also a Neal Porter book. Curiouser and curiouser.)

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Mock Caldecott Results and Future Plans

Librarians from the Eastern Shore of Maryland (and some from the other side of the bay too) met to discuss six candidates for our Mock Caldecott medalist. When we cast our votes, the winners were...

Winner: Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, by Don Brown
Honor: Wait, by Antoinette Portis

Thanks to everyone who attended, and especially to our discussion leaders, Julie Ranelli and Natalie Lane. Special thanks to Heidi Hammond and Gail Nordstrom for their wonderful presentation on reading the art in Caldecott books. It was a fun day! 

Long-time readers of this blog may ask why we held a Mock Caldecott rather than the usual Mock Newbery. Well, we wanted to try something new. I started the Mock Newbery several years ago as a opportunity for local librarians to hone their book evaluation skills. I was really excited about it at the time, but the last couple of years I have noticed my excitement waning, so Sam and I decided it was time to get excited about something else. 

(I am always excited about art - especially picture book art - but I had never really immersed myself in the critical language of evaluating that particular medium.) 

What does that mean for the future of About to Mock? Well, we don't have any plans to close up shop (especially since we just added Tess!) but the format of the blog may change slightly next year. More on that to come. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Ones That Got Away: Ramona the Pest, by Beverly Cleary

Almost every good children's book has well-developed child characters, but there are certain authors whose works seem to exhibit a truly exceptional grasp on how children act, think, and feel. I think of authors such as Kevin Henkes, Louise FitzHugh, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Jack Gantos. And I certainly think of Beverly Cleary, whose characters are so clearly-written that I half expect to look up from one of her books to see Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins, or Leigh Botts standing in front of me.

It's this quality, I think, that makes Ramona the Pest such a standout book. The novel is loosely arranged around Ramona's adventures during her first few months of kindergarten, but what makes the individual set pieces work is the richness and warmth of the characters. Perhaps even more importantly, the relationships between Ramona and the other characters feel natural and real. Ramona's sometimes-exasperated friendship with her neighbor and classmate, Howie Kemp; the mix of love and fear with which she regards her teacher, Miss Binney; the way in which Ramona interacts with her parents -- all of these are note-perfect.

Cleary wrote the Ramona series slowly, with some 44 years separating the first (Beezus and Ramona, 1955) from the last (Ramona's World, 1999). Several of the titles won major awards -- the fourth and sixth (Ramona and Her Father, 1977, and Ramona Quimby, Age 8, 1981) were Newbery Honor books, and the fifth, 1979's Ramona and Her Mother, won the National Book Award. Ramona the Pest, the second in the series, came out in 1968, but was shut out of the 1969 Newbery list.

Even if we were to re-award that year's medal today, Ramona the Pest wouldn't be likely to win; the 1969 Newbery went to Lloyd Alexander's The High King, which remains an undisputed classic. It's interesting to note, however, that the committee only named two Honor books: To Be a Slave, by Julius Lester, and When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw and Other Stories, by Isaac Bashevis Singer. If it were up to me, I'd be tempted to add Ramona the Pest to that number.

As it stands, although none of the Ramona books took the top honor, they're firmly in the pantheon of American children's literature regardless, and Cleary did eventually win the 1984 Newbery Medal, for Dear Mr. Henshaw. I suppose even every great book can't make the Newbery rolls, but I do remain in awe of Cleary's ability to honestly and gently depict the thoughts and feelings of children.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

2016 Contenders: Drowned City, by Don Brown

Hurricane Katrina was the sixth-deadliest natural disaster in the history of the United States. Even that fact possibly understates the significance of Katrina to modern history; three of the events with more fatalities happened during the 19th century (the 1889 storm that led to the Johnstown Flood, the 1893 Cheniere Caminada Hurricane, and the 1900 Galveston Hurricane), and the other two (the 1906 Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, and the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane) took place during the Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge administrations, respectively. Americans had certainly experienced mass tragedies related to war and terrorism, but no natural disaster on the scale of Katrina had occurred in the US in living memory -- or in the modern media age.

We now have ten years of perspective on Katrina, and dozens of books have been written on the subject, including titles we've reviewed here. Drowned City belongs in the very top tier of those books, and may be the best of those written with a juvenile audience in mind. It briefly but effectively sets the stage -- important, given that much of its readership is too young to remember Katrina -- and then brilliantly describes conditions inside the ruined city, as well as the responses to the tragedy, which ranged from the heroic to the unforgivably incompetent.

All of this is done in spare, poignant language; this is a book that shows, rather than tells. The few lines of dialogue are taken directly from primary sources and news reports, all noted in the carefully cited back matter. Although we can tell where Brown's sympathies as an author lie, he holds back from using words that blame, preferring instead to let his readers come to their own conclusions.

Of course, Drowned City is a nonfiction "graphic novel," and so the interplay between the words and the images is where much of the book's meaning is created. The body language of Brown's figures perfectly captures the range of emotions surrounding Katrina, and his stark wide-screen drawings of the utter devastation that followed the storm pack a visceral punch. Brown does not shy away from the hard realities of his subject; although it's all tasteful, and I maintain that the book is certainly appropriate for a middle-school reader, Drowned City includes pictures of storefronts being looted, corpses floating in the flooded streets, and people trying to break out of their attics before the water rises high enough to drown them.

Up until the last couple years, I would have assumed that Drowned City was too visual an experience to show up in the Newbery rolls; after Flora & Ulysses and El Deafo, I'm less sure. I do hope the Sibert committee notices how carefully Brown has used his sources, and how clearly he presents his information.

Published in August by HMH Books for Young Readers

Friday, October 23, 2015

2016 Contenders: Crenshaw, by Katherine Applegate

This past weekend, I was having brunch with two of my favorite people, Sam and Rachael, and the inevitable topic of conversation among a gathering of book lovers came up: “Whatcha reading?” I told them I was reading Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate. They asked if I was liking it. I sighed. I said I didn’t know how I felt about it. I told them the basic plot, and Sam said “Oh, it’s like Harvey for kids.” And I realized he was exactly correct, and that indeed I didn’t know how I felt about a Harvey for kids.

Harvey, for those who aren’t familiar, is a play by Mary Chase, which was famously adapted to a 1950 film starring Jimmy Stewart. It’s the story of a man named Elwood P. Dowd, who has a friend named Harvey, who he says is a six foot tall walking rabbit. Elwood’s family wonders if they should have him committed. There are clues that lead you to question whether Harvey is imaginary or just invisible to everyone but Elwood, but the general consensus is that he’s suffering from a delusion, but it’s a delusion that isn’t hurting anyone, least of all kind and caring Elwood, so he is spared the sanitarium.

Crenshaw is very much a nod to Harvey. Applegate even opens the book with a quote from the play. It’s the story of a boy named Jackson. Jackson is a fifth grader who loves facts. He’s very logical, values honesty, and wants to be scientist. When he was in first grade he had an imaginary friend, a very large talking cat named Crenshaw, but that’s baby stuff, and he’s outgrown Crenshaw. Or so he thinks. Much to his chagrin, Crenshaw has shown up in his life again.

Come to find out, Jackson met Crenshaw when his family was homeless. Both his parents lost their jobs. In addition to struggling financially, Jackson’s dad was also diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. When they could no longer afford to live in their house, the entire family - Jackson, his parents, his sister Robin who was just a baby then, and their dog Aretha - moved into their minivan. Times were very hard, and having a friend helped, so Crenshaw became a part of Jackson’s life. Eventually Jackson’s parents saved enough money for an apartment and re-establish some stability.

That was years ago, but lately Jackson’s noticed some serious signs of insecurity - a distinct lack of variety of food in the pantry, frequent yard sales, his parents arguing about applying for assistance - and he’s frankly scared to be homeless again. He’s also frustrated by his parents who insist on changing the subject when it arises or feigning that things are better than they are. It’s about this time Crenshaw reappears.

There were things about Crenshaw that were problematic for me.

For one, the character of Crenshaw is kind of pompous. I mean, he’s a cat, so I suppose that’s to be expected. But there are moments I felt he was impatient with Jackson, who is befuddled by his return. He alludes to being smarter than Jackson, which I guess could be true, but isn’t very friendly, and what is an imaginary friend supposed to be if not friendly?

There are a few Harvey-esque moments where you may question whether Crenshaw is truly an invention of Jackson’s stressed imagination, or if he’s… well… something else? So I guess you could categorize the book as magical realism, and if you go into it prepared for that kind of story you may enjoy it more than I did.

Another, totally valid in my opinion, way to read Crenshaw is as a horror story.

I recently had an in-depth online conversation with several friends about whether or not Halloween, and “scary” things in general, have been too toned down, to make things “kid-friendly.” What prompted the conversation was during a twilight walk through my neighborhood I realized that Halloween here had basically turned into “orange Christmas,” with twinkling lights replacing any more menacing decorations. Even the jack-o-lanterns looked cute. Traumatizing children is a real concern, of course, and caregivers should know and respect their children enough to not expose them to things they can’t handle yet. Trick-or-treating is supposed to fun. But it’s also supposed to be scary! Is it right to throw away traditions so we won’t upset anyone? Is it wrong to spook our kids every now and then, especially when we know danger isn’t actually present? I cited Grimm fairy tales, and an Austrian Krampuslauf, as examples of safe but scary things for children. Maybe I was a weird kid, but I liked creepy stuff, like Tim Burton movies, and Alvin Schwartz books, when I was young. And I tend to believe experiencing fear through media can help children be resilient when forced to face fear in real life. Are there monsters in my closet? Definitely not. The conversation unexpectedly meandered into a discussion about what is actually scary in the world - things like war, hunger, and social injustice - and how long we ought to protect children from these things, to maintain their innocence. I had not considered a correlation between the horror of ghosts and witches and things that are realistically scary. Like becoming homeless. And I think this idea very much colored my reading of Crenshaw.

Jackson is scared of his family being homeless again. He’s scared there won’t be enough to eat. He’s also scared when his dad has to use a cane, and I think it’s safe to say he’s a bit scared of the enormous talking cat he didn’t invite back into his life, showing up all over the place, making him question his own sanity. I could see this book truly distressing a sensitive reader. I work in a public library where homelessness and hunger are not far-fetched concerns for many in our service area, and I know kids who are housing insecure and food insecure. By the way, I want to give big ups to the librarian in this book, who is helpful and non-judgmental. Way to be, fictional librarian. You are a hero.

I found the ending of Crenshaw to be a bit ambiguous. Throughout the book the reader is lead to believe Crenshaw is only present when Jackson is in need (even if he doesn’t think he is in need). When Jackson’s family’s financial troubles appear to be resolved, at least for the time being, we presume Crenshaw will go away again, but he doesn’t. I was unsatisfied by this, because I wanted Jackson to be “okay” and I’m not sure him continuing to see and hear things others cannot constitutes being okay. But if Harvey is the precedent, I suppose it’s fine to just leave the story there?

I think Crenshaw is probably under consideration for the Newbery, however I don’t know how strong a contender it is. I don’t think it's as finely crafted as Applegate’s 2013 winner The One and Only Ivan. But it is a thought-provoking, opinion-inspiring novel, so the committee will at least have a possibly rollicking, possibly raucous, discussion about it ahead of them. Let the literary throw-down commence! Oh, and...