Thursday, September 11, 2014

2015 Contenders: The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, by Dana Alison Levy

Back in 2005, Jeanne Birdsall did such a good job of updating the traditional "family novel" that her effort, The Penderwicks, won the National Book Award for Young People. I am, *ahem*, kind of a Penderwicks fan, but I have to give some credence to one of the most common critiques of the series: that in attempting to establish a "timeless" tone, Birdsall actually fails to create an accurate portrait of the modern world. There are cell phones and computers in Penderwickia, but they are rarely used. The sisters never play video games. I don't think they even mention tv.

Not so with the Fletchers, of Dana Alison Levy's debut novel, The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher. The Fletchers text and email (sometimes with hilarious results). They say "dude," and "sick," and "awesome," and occasionally other, less printable words* (they all contribute to a "rude word jar" when they slip up).

They are a thoroughly modern family in composition and background as well: two dads and four adopted sons (two white, one African-American, one Indian). Levy deliberately downplays the diversity of the family - letting their traits and backgrounds emerge naturally in the course of the narrative - and in doing so she makes her focus clear. This is primarily a family story, in the classic mode of All-Of-A-Kind Family, Little Women, and Ginger Pye, and the Fletchers just happen to reflect what a family might look like in the 21st century.

In her own Goodreads review of the book, Levy says, "I'll be honest, I am a sucker for `comfort food' books - you know, books you can curl up with and feel like the world is an okay place for a little while," and that is exactly what you should expect from the Fletchers: comfort. Everyone in their little Massachusetts (I think? Possibly Maine?) town seems cool with the whole gay parenting thing, and the boys worry more about being ostracized for their thespian leanings than their racial backgrounds. Is that a flaw in the book? I would argue that it's not, because one, it's reflective of the genre, and two, isn't this what we mean with the whole "we need diverse books" campaign? That we need books about all kinds of diverse characters leading all kinds of lives?

I have to admit, though, that this book is precisely my cup of tea, so I'm biased. If I were on the Newbery Committee, it would definitely be a contender for one of my nominations - great characters, lots of humor, multiple well-realized settings, etc. Once we reached the discussion stage, I'm sure one of my other committee members would help me see it through less rosy lenses.

Since I'm just armchair quarterbacking, though, I'll just sit here and bask in the Fletchers' glow (until one of you'un comes to tell me otherwise).


*And can I just say how happy that makes me? Granted, the Penderwick paterfamilias deals with the chaos of the household by retreating to his office as often as possible, but even so, you can't tell me that having four children in the house would not result in the parent(s) screaming profanity at least once a week. I mean, I only have one child, and if I had a rude word jar in my house, its earnings would probably outpace my 401K.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

2015 Contenders - The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier

As vagabond Irish immigrants in nineteenth-century England, Molly and Kip don't have a lot of employment options. That's why they're headed to the cursed "sour woods," against the advice of everyone they meet, to take up employment as domestic servants. When they arrive, it's pretty clear to the reader that the advice was sound: the house is creepy, the family appears to be suffering from some kind of wasting disease, and the whole estate is dominated by a giant, menacing tree that is actually growing into the house. As I said, though: no options. So they stay. And bad things happen.

I should like this book, and I do, I guess. I just don't love it (I started it back in April, put it down, and just recently picked it up and finished it), and I'm not really sure why. I'll try to lay it out in practical terms.


Pros






  • The setting is well-realized, at least insofar as the house and its environs are concerned. The author achieves a nebulous sense of wrongness about everything in the sour woods. 
  • The characters have some depth and complexity. Molly and Kip, as well as the members of the Windsor family, achieve some believable personal growth during the course of the narrative. Secondary characters, particularly Hazel the storyteller, added color (though the two ruffians were kind of stock).
  • Style? I don't think it was distinguished, but neither was it clunky. 
  • The tone and pacing combine to give the story a genuinely frightening edge, the likes of which we don't see often enough in juvenile fiction. The night gardener himself is a scary bastard. 

Cons


  • It's another book about the power of story. Look, I believe in the power of story. I tell stories semi-professionally. I am trained in personal story facilitation. But the "power of story" theme is wearing seriously thin with me. It's right up there with the "librarian as savior" picture books that seem to be published on an annual basis. I am in the choir, folks! There's no need to preach in this direction.
  • To put the above in Newbery terms: theme. I don't think Auxier's thematic touch is light enough. As an example: when Molly brings Kip back from near-death with a story, there were some eyes rolling in this reader's head. 

It's a good book, and I will recommend it to readers of Bellairs, Aiken, and Gaiman, but I don't think it's a great book, nor the most distinguished J Fiction I've read this year.

Published in May by Henry Abrams.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

2015 Contenders: Angel Island, by Russell Freedman

Almost everyone in the United States knows at least something about Ellis Island, the gateway for immigrants arriving from Europe. However, Ellis Island's Pacific counterpart, Angel Island, remains much more obscure. I know I couldn't have told you anything about it before reading Angel Island.

There's a certain assurance of quality that comes with Russell Freedman's name, and Angel Island more than lives up to expectations. Freedman details the racism and onerous legal restrictions that faced immigrants from China, Japan, Korea, and elsewhere in Asia, with many references to primary accounts. Scattered throughout the book are a number of achingly sad poems -- mostly anonymous pieces that were written on the walls of the Angel Island detention barracks. They're a heart-rending window into a troubled part of America's past.

The archival photographs that accompany the text, though they're outside the Newbery criteria, are excellent and well-chosen. Freedman's author's notes and acknowledgments also provide insight into the work process of one of America's foremost children's authors. It's a really well-designed book, and both Freedman and his publisher, Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), should be proud.

Despite the fact that Angel Island is an excellent book (for my money, a superior title to Freedman's previous effort, last year's Becoming Ben Franklin, and the equal of the one before that, Abraham Lincoln & Frederick Douglass), I'm not sanguine about its Newbery chances. Although the Newbery guidelines are essentially genre-neutral, the last year that more than one nonfiction book (leaving out poetry and folklore) was honored was 1951. My library hold for Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson's verse memoir, hasn't yet been filled, but it has five starred reviews that I've seen, and the other early critical opinions are uniformly brilliant, with many reviewers naming it as the Newbery front-runner. I'm not sure that Angel Island is enough of a standout to beat that, and, to go back to books I've actually read, I'm also not sure it's superior to A Woman in the House (And Senate). Freedman might conceivably be able to add another Sibert Honor to his crowded awards shelf, but that's as high as I'm willing to project for it. I would, however, consider it a must-purchase title, and a worthy addition to what's possibly the most impressive corpus of work in the history of American children's nonfiction.


Publication in October by Clarion Books / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

2015 Contenders: The Madman of Piney Woods, by Christopher Paul Curtis

 The Madman of Piney Woods comes billed prominently as "A companion to the Newbery Honor book Elijah of Buxton." Elijah, however, remains a hole in my children's literature reading -- it came out when I was working in the adult department, and I've just never gone back to read it -- and so I encountered Madman as an independent work.

In fairness, Madman is set decades later than Elijah, and simply happens to use some of the characters in the earlier work as (relatively) minor figures. The main story arc follows Benji Alston, a black boy who dreams of becoming a newspaper reporter, and Red Stockard, an Irish-Canadian boy who wants to be a scientist. Both of them have encountered a mysterious man who lives out in the woods, and both are trying to find their own places in their families, communities, and beyond.

When Rachael and I were talking about Christopher Paul Curtis's last "companion novel," The Mighty Miss Malone, she mentioned that the prose was consistently high-quality, but the book didn't really hang together fully as a novel. Any individual page is wonderful, but it's less than the sum of its parts. That's exactly the feeling I had reading The Madman of Piney Woods. It's a series of beautiful paragraphs that doesn't really produce a successful book.

One of the difficulties I had with Madman is the way it's constructed. It's told in alternating first-person narration; however, it's not until page 197 of my ARC that the two narratives intersect. Up until that point, it basically felt like reading two separate novels, and many of those early chapters have only minimal impact on what turns out to be the main plot. The prose was engaging enough to keep me reading, but the lack of interplay between the narratives and the sluggishness of the pacing was troubling. Additionally, some of the minor characters seemed to exist simply as plot devices -- Mr. Bennett is the worst offender here, but he's by no means the only one.

But really, I guess my biggest problem with Madman is that it didn't seem to contain a story that needed to be told. In Curtis's best work, this isn't an issue -- Bud, Not Buddy, for instance, is centered around a well-developed character, Bud, who has a real and pressing problem, finding his father. Although many of the characters in Madman claim to have deep and abiding wants and struggles, those urges seem to get lost on their way to the page.

I don't feel any hesitation in saying the Christopher Paul Curtis is one of the four or five most important American children's authors still writing. I do note, however, that this is his third consecutive book that's a companion or sequel (after Mr. Chickee's Messy Mission and The Mighty Miss Malone), and he hasn't published a fully original novel since 2007. I hope that he returns to the inventiveness and brilliance of his peak work, because we need his voice. The Madman of Piney Woods, however, is a second-tier book from a first-tier author, and I don't think the Newbery committee will decide to honor it.


Publication in September by Scholastic.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

2015 Contenders: Revolution, by Deborah Wiles

I listened to the bulk of Revolution on a grueling, ten hour drive from southern Maine back to my home on Maryland's Eastern Shore. I finally crossed the Delaware Memorial Bridge and turned onto Delaware Route 1 just as the sun was setting, and the loblolly pines and marsh grass were bathed in warm, amber light. Everything felt suddenly easier, and more beautiful. "Oh man," I told my daughter. "It is so good to be back on the Eastern Shore."

That feeling - that fierce pride in one's home - is a thread that runs throughout Wiles' novel, the second book in her Sixties Trilogy. It's a feeling that unites all of the stakeholders in the turbulent summer of 1964 in Greenwood, Mississippi - "Freedom Summer" - when "invaders" from outside Mississippi mount a massive black voter registration campaign throughout the state.

As in Countdown, the reader views this particular historical moment through the eyes of children.  Sunny Fairchild is a twelve-year-old white girl with a fierce love for her town - its swimming pool, its movie theatre, its library, and even its dusty courthouse. She's resistant to change, both in the town and in her own family, which has recently been invaded by a stepmother and two step-siblings.

Raymond, as a "colored" boy is, of course, barred from all of Sunny's favorite experiences, and his keen awareness of this injustice sets the plot in motion. He sneaks into the swimming pool at night on the same night that Sunny and her stepbrother have decided to go for a forbidden late-night swim. The children literally collide, and from that point forward, their paths are intertwined with one another, along with the larger stories of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), the Ku Klux Klan, and everyone else with a stake in the racial integration of the town and the state.

In her "documentary novels," Deborah Wiles begins each chapter with primary sources from the time period, including speeches, song lyrics, political slogans, and pamphlets. In the print version of the book, these take the form of a sort of collage. In the audiobook, they are presented as a sound collage, performed by a full cast. The execution is magnificent and the effect is powerful. It does, however, make me hesitant to comment on the Newbery chances of this book, because so much of my reaction to it stems from having experienced it as an audiobook. I know that Revolution affected me more powerfully than Countdown, which I read in print, and I wonder how much of that can be traced to the format.

With that caveat, I can say, with confidence, that Wiles has achieved distinction in every category mentioned in the Newbery criteria. The setting is brilliantly realized, the characters (both major and minor) are complex and vivid, and the thematic elements are handled with deftness and subtlety. Prose style is always more difficult for me to discern when I'm listening to a book, but it seemed elegant and fluid. I would love to add it to our Mock Newbery roster this year, so I can read the print edition and form a more educated opinion.

Published in May by Scholastic

2015 Contenders: The Mark of the Dragonfly, by Jaleigh Johnson



What is The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson? Is it Steampunk? Is it Sci-fi? Is it Fantasy? IT'S ALL THE THINGS.

Piper is an orphan living in Scrap Town 16. She makes a living scavenging junk found in meteor fields. She's an eerily talented machinist, and hopes to one day make enough coin to leave for better prospects in the Merrow Kingdom's capital city.

One day, after a particularly harrowing meteor shower, she happens upon a destroyed caravan, with a girl inside, who mysteriously bears the mark of the dragonfly: an intricate tattoo sported only by favorites of the King himself. Piper nurses the girl back to health...to find she's quite a peculiar person. Anna is obsessed with order and organization, seemingly constantly preoccupied with analyzing whether things make logical sense to her, and her head is filled to the brim with information, not all of it practically useful. Before Piper can decide if she's made a huge mistake inviting this strange girl into her life, they're confronted by a man who claims to be related to Anna. Anna has no clear memory of him, and certainly bad vibes about him, so Piper and Anna flee the man, and the scrap town, aboard the 401, an old but beautiful train. Anna's dragonfly buys them passage, but not the trust of the train's head of security, Gee, a young man with a chip on his shoulder, and inhumanly green eyes.

The story takes off from here, as we try to unravel the mystery of who Anna is, and why anyone would be after her.

This book has got a bit of everything: Mythology, high speed chase scenes, cross-bow show-downs, magic, plot twists, even a little chaste romance. Also: A whole heck of a lot of GIRL POWER.

In regards to its literary merit, I found it to be well written, with dynamic characters, and a carefully constructed story line. Some may see Johnson's world building as a mish-mash of genres, but I liked it! Who says you can't mix your fantasy with your sci-fi? Probably the same fascists who don't want you mixing chocolate with peanut butter. It only makes the book more appealing, in my opinion. I can already think of a ton of kids who are going to be so hyped when I tell them about this book.

Is it a contender for the Newbery? I say why not? It's kind of "out there," but so were When You Reach Me and The Graveyard Book, and it got a starred review from Kirkus, which is typically a good sign. I think it's definitely praise-worthy, and I hope it's at least on the committee's radar. If nothing else, it gets two thumbs up from this humble librarian.

*****



Today's guest reviewer is Tess Goldwasser, Youth Services Librarian, St. Mary's County Library, Maryland. Tess also writes about picture books at Kid's Book Blog.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

2015 Contenders: The Fourteenth Goldfish, by Jennifer Holm

Science is having a big moment right now. We effing love it! STEM is everywhere (I refuse to add the "a," because Science Technology Engineering Arts and Math is just shorthand for "everything.") Neil deGrasse Tyson is a rock star (of course, my own child has grown so tired of him that she refers to him as Neil deGrasse Buttcheek, but I digress).

In that context, it's a great time for a book like The Fourteenth Goldfish to come along - a book that not only celebrates science as a discipline, but also delves into some interesting questions about scientific ethics.

Ellie has just entered the sixth grade, and big changes are in store. Her former best friend has drifted away into volleyball, her babysitter has quit, and her mother has brought a teenage boy home to live with them. Not just any teenager boy, though: Ellie's scientist grandfather, who has managed to reverse his own aging process with the help of a rare jellyfish. Grandpa/Melvin enrolls in school along with Ellie, and as she teaches him how to navigate sixth grade, he introduces her to the world of science.

Jenni Holm's prose is so buoyant that I was surprised, when I finished the novel, to realize what weighty themes she had addressed. Early on, Ellie learns about some famous scientists - most notably Jonas Salk, Robert Oppenheimer, and Marie Curie. As the plot advances, the dilemmas faced by these figures help to frame the moral decisions that Ellie and Melvin must confront. The "fourteenth goldfish" of the title initially seems like a pointless detour, but by the time Holm reintroduces it at the end of the book, it feels both surprising and inevitable.


It's very satisfying. I love a good ending.

There are some great characters too - teenage grandpa Melvin is a great invention, and supporting characters like Ellie's new friend Raj are vivid as well.

The novel is not without its flaws. Ellie's drama teacher mom is a bit much - I used to be a drama nerd, and my directors never raided the costume closet for their daily attire. And some of Ellie's internal philosophizing feels heavy-handed and ultimately unnecessary, given the way the plot reinforces the themes on its own.

I'm not really sure about the Newbery chances of The Fourteenth Goldfish... It feels, in some ways, similar to Flora and Ulysses, which I thought was too light and quirky to win consensus, and I was wrong on that count. In any case, it's a great title to hand to fans of Cosmos, or to tie in with a STEM (not STEAM!) unit.

Expected publication: August 26th 2014 by Random House Books for Young Readers