Thursday, February 20, 2020

2021 Contenders: Blue Skies, by Anne Bustard

Life is complicated for fifth-grader Glory Bea Bennett. Her father was lost on Omaha Beach, and is listed as MIA -- but Glory Bea is sure that he's coming home, just like he promised. This means that she isn't taking much of a shine to Randall Horton, her father's old friend from the military who seems to be taking too much of an interest in Glory Bea's mother. But one of the Merci Boxcars -- forty-nine railroad boxcars sent to the USA from the grateful people of France -- is going to be stopping in Glory Bea's hometown of Gladiola, Texas, on its way to the state capital in Austin. Glory Bea is sure that boxcar will bring her father home.

I had a hard time fully engaging with Blue Skies. Part of this, if I'm being honest, was because reading about Glory Bea constantly reminded me that I'd already encountered that particular piece of wordplay in another children's novel. But more so, it was because I felt like Blue Skies never fully took flight. Many of the plot points seemed awfully familiar to me, from a child character refusing to believe that a family member who perished in WWII is actually dead, to the trauma resulting from combat service in WWII, to a child trying to break up their parent's new relationship.

A well-worn plot can, of course, be magic in the right hands, if the details, setting, and characters bring it to life. Probably the area in which Blue Skies does best is the setting -- the (fictional) town of Gladiola rang true to me, and the bits about the Merci Boxcars do a great job of highlighting a nearly-forgotten slice of American history. Overall, however, I often felt like I was having trouble remembering the book even while I was reading it.

It's possible that readers with an affection for historical fiction or mid-20th-century Americana may find and love Blue Skies. It's hard for me to imagine that it will garner a mass following though, or that it will tick enough boxes for the Newbery committee to show it some love.


Publication in March by Simon & Schuster

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Newbery Wayback Machine: Up a Road Slowly, by Irene Hunt (1967)

Up a Road Slowly, Irene Hunt's 1967 Newbery winner, covers ten years in Julie Trelling's life, from the time she loses her mother at the age of seven, to her graduation from high school at seventeen. During this period, she lives with her Aunt Cordelia, a stern schoolteacher who nonetheless softens as the narrative progresses. She also deals with her dissipated Uncle Haskell, falls in, out, and in love, and navigates changing family dynamics, as marriages and moves alter circumstances.

I didn't much care for Up a Road Slowly as I read it, and my assessment didn't really change after I finished it. It's a pale copy of a copy of Anne of Green Gables (1908) or Little Women (1868-69) -- heck, Julie's personal goal, to become a writer, is exactly the same as that of Anne Shirley and Jo March, and though the book mercifully ends before Julie enters the working world, she comes from a whole family of schoolteachers (which, you may remember, is the profession that both Anne Shirley and Jo March enter). But Julie is a good deal less memorable than her predecessors; I finished the book feeling like I didn't really know her all that well.

Part of the problem is that the book covers ten years in less than 200 pages (in my edition), which means that it's racing at breakneck speed through the whole process, casually mentioning events that have never been recounted, and generally telling, not showing. One of the reasons that Anne and Jo feel so alive is that we have plenty of time to linger on their adventures and learn their individual quirks -- Little Women also covers ten years, but is easily twice as long as Up a Road Slowly, and the timeline of Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea (1909) combined is only six years or so.

There are other issues too: the prose feels deliberately affected and old-fashioned, even for the time; I never really got to like Aunt Cordelia all that much; and there are some passages that feel awfully dated now. The worst of these last is probably the part where, when Julie is seven, two boys forcibly hold her arms back while a third, Danny Trevort, kisses her. After Julie, justifiably in my opinion, punches Danny in the face and gives him a black eye, Aunt Cordelia tells her "that a small boy's kiss was hardly in as poor taste as a small girl's physical violence." Though Cordelia eventually revises her opinion to admit that "the boys certainly have their share of the blame for this unfortunate episode," it just wasn't enough for me. Julie actually ends up dating Danny at the conclusion of the book, but I still came out of it wishing that I was reading about Anne and Gilbert Blythe instead. It's way funnier when Anne cracks the slate over Gilbert's head, and a good deal less rape-y to boot.

Clearly, I'm the wrong audience for Up a Road Slowly. As for the Newbery? Well, it wouldn't have been my choice, but I don't think it was an obvious mistake. The 1966 publishing year wasn't the strongest of the decade. Other than the three Honor books, The King's Fifth, by Scott O'Dell; Zlateh The Goat and Other Stories, by Isaac Bashevis Singer; and The Jazz Man, by Mary Hays Weik, the only other "classic" book from the year I can identify is Lloyd Alexander's The Castle of Llyr. The Alexander book would have been my choice, but given that he had already won a 1966 Honor for The Black Cauldron, and would later win the 1969 Newbery for The High King, his Prydain books are pretty well represented in the Newbery canon. Even if I don't think Up a Road Slowly is all that good, I can't identify anything I think was obviously slighted. All years aren't created equal.


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