Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Ones That Got Away: The Last Martin, by Jonathan Friesen

Sometime back in 2011 or 2012, I was at a library conference, wandering the exhibits, and happened by the Zonderkidz booth. Jonathan Friesen was there, signing copies of his new book, The Last Martin. He was kind enough to sign one for my daughter, and I passed the book on to her after the conference.

This is the kind of story that's happened dozens of times during the course of my library career. But this time was different, because my daughter devoured this book, returning the verdict that The Last Martin was her FAVORITE BOOK EVER. To this day, that's an opinion that she stands by. Regardless of what other books she may read in the future, I think it's safe to say that, at the very least, The Last Martin stands as one of the defining novels of her childhood.

In the wider world, Friesen is an author who's picked up a big ALA award (the 2009 Schneider Award, teen division, for Jerk, California), and The Last Martin garnered starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal. The book didn't show up in the Newbery rolls in 2012, however, nor did it make the Notables list. As of this writing, it's still in print, but doesn't seem to have attracted a significant following outside of my daughter -- the most recent reviews on Amazon and Goodreads are both from 2016.

But, that's the thing about books. Sometimes, a book simply happens to be the perfect book for a reader at a specific point in time, regardless of said book's popularity. When I think back on the books that I remember with exceptional fondness from my own childhood, that list includes well-known titles such as CorduroyThe Hobbit, and Interstellar Pig. It also includes an obscure, mostly forgotten Barbara Dillon/Chris Conover picture book, The Beast in the Bed. Ranganathan's Third Law of Library Science, after all, is "Every book its reader," and that's as true now as it was in 1931, when Ranganathan wrote it.

As for The Last Martin, it's the story of middle schooler Martin Boyle, an unassuming budding writer, who lives with his little sister, Lani, his frenzied, germophobic mother, and his father, a professional military reenactor. On an annual visit to the family cemetery, Martin makes the startling discovery that, beginning with the 1790 birth of his military hero namesake, there has always been a Martin Boyle -- and that every time a new Martin is born, the previous Martin dies. Since Martin's aunt is six months pregnant, and plans to name her new baby boy Martin, does this mean that the current Martin is cursed to die in three months? It's up to Martin and his ragtag group of friends -- his best buddy, Charley; his crush, Julia; and Poole, a Huck Finn-esque orphan who's been living in an abandoned boxcar in Martin's backyard -- to solve the mystery and end the curse before Martin's time runs out.

On a purely literary level, I can see why The Last Martin didn't win any ALA awards. The characterization is often cartoonish, some of the pacing seems occasionally off, and the prose is competent without being particularly noteworthy. But I can also see why my daughter loves it -- there's mystery, humor, romance, and a group of friends banding together to overcome a seemingly insurmountable problem.

And maybe the lesson I should take from the book is that a novel doesn't have to be "perfect" to be enjoyable. I spend a lot of time evaluating and analyzing books, enough so that I sometimes forget that a story can sweep you away and draw you in even if it doesn't check every box that a literary award-winner would. The Last Martin has plenty of flaws, but it also tells a fascinating story -- a story that has found at least one lifelong fan.

Friday, May 31, 2019

2020 Contenders: The Library of Ever, by Zeno Alexander

Lenora is extremely rich, but she isn't happy. Her parents are away traveling, and her nanny insists on dragging Lenora on various boring errands, instead of giving her a chance to explore the city. However, the nanny does have to stop at the library, and while they're there, Lenora manages to slip away...and find her way into a much, much, much larger library, one with patrons ranging from a robot from the future, to a spacefaring tardigrade, to a small boy with a missing cat. Lenora convinces Malachi, the seemingly-magical Chief Answerer, to give her a job as Fourth Assistant Apprentice Librarian. This begins a series of adventures that will take Lenora into the future, on a quasi-Fantastic Voyage journey into an ant colony, and into direct conflict with a mysterious group of people with a vendetta against the very concept of the library itself.

The easiest comparison for The Library of Ever is The Phantom Tollbooth, with its bored protagonist who finds his way into another world full of whimsical characters, surreal adventures, and paeans to knowledge and learning. Now, The Phantom Tollbooth is one of the greatest achievements in American children's literature, and it's awfully hard to write anything in a similar vein that doesn't suffer by comparison. The Library of Ever doesn't hit the heights of Tollbooth, and doesn't come particularly close. What it does do, however, is avoid embarrassing itself; if it's not the "instant classic" that the somewhat hyperactive back cover blurb on the ARC declares it to be, it's a fun, breezy read, one amply seasoned with interesting trivia and colorful details.

I think that, if I were still a child, I would have really, really enjoyed The Library of Ever and its bookworm-turned-adventure heroine. As an adult, it roused my normal suspicions about books that lean heavily on tropes about the importance of Story and Knowledge and Libraries. (Once again, let's all return to Rachael's Maxim: "Story and imagination celebrate themselves when deployed effectively.") This particular novel manages to thread that needle better than most -- I don't have the same kind of grumpiness about The Library of Ever that I did about, say, Okay For Now -- doing so mostly by steering into its conceit and not trying to pretend that it's anything other than wish fulfillment for the kind of kids who show up at the library multiple times a week.

I'm actually just guessing about the Newbery eligibility of The Library of Ever -- Zeno Alexander seems to be a Lemony Snicket-style pen name, and I haven't found any information that might indicate who the person behind the nom de plume is. I'm not sure it matters, since the novel doesn't match up all that well in a literary sense against this year's strongest books. I do think it will find its readers, and that those readers will enjoy Lenora's adventures, as well as those to come; a sequel is promised for 2020.

Published in April by Imprint/Macmillan

Thursday, May 23, 2019

2020 Contenders: For Black Girls Like Me, by Mariama J. Lockington

Eleven-year-old Makeda "Keda" Kirkland is black. Her father, mother, and sister, however, are all white, as Keda was adopted when she was a baby. Keda loves her family, but often feels like they don't understand her. Now, they're moving to New Mexico, taking Keda away from her best friend Lena, and setting her up for what will become the most challenging year of her life.

Spoilers follow, because it's nearly impossible to explain what For Black Girls Like Me does so well without giving away the plot. From the beginning, it's clear that all is not well with Keda's family. Her older sister, Eve, is a teenager whose connection with Keda is becoming strained. Their parents' relationship is showing serious cracks. And something about Mama in particular. A one-time child prodigy on the violin, Mama now almost never plays at all, and veers dramatically from being a bundle of energy with questionable forethought, to a near-comatose figure who can barely get out of bed.

There's much more to the book, including Keda's near-constant encounters with racist peers and clueless adults, and the ways in which her white family struggles to appropriately recognize and deal with these experiences (her parents, especially, are well-meaning white liberals who nevertheless aren't nearly as woke as they think they are; I winced more than once in a kind of embarrassed recognition at their words and actions). But the center of the novel, I think, lies in the breaking apart and bringing back together of the Kirkland family.

The key fracture is inside Mama herself. She is, as is eventually made explicit, suffering from bipolar II disorder. Over the course of the book, Mama becomes more and more erratic, culminating in an episode in which she drags Keda and Eve on a spontaneous trip to Colorado, and then suffers a complete breakdown that ends in a suicide attempt. Papa isn't there to prevent any of this, as he is out of the country on an orchestra tour, having convinced himself in the face of significant evidence to the contrary that Mama will be okay as the sole parent in the house for several weeks.

The way that this dynamic is portrayed seemed extremely true to life to me. I've known many people with bipolar disorder in my life, and I found the book's characterization of the disease to be thoughtful and accurate. For Black Girls Like Me treats its characters with kindness, but it doesn't shy away at all from depicting the pain and anguish that untreated mental illness of this type can cause.

And in a larger way, empathetic but unsentimental is the way that For Black Girls Like Me treats just about everything. This is the kind of middle grade novel that not only features a scene in which a particularly vicious peer calls Keda the n-word, but puts the word there on the page in all of its unredacted ugliness. In the hands of a lesser writer than Mariama J. Lockington, this would be an invitation to disaster, but Lockington effectively uses this episode to force us to confront the ways in which language can be a form of violence.

I don't think For Black Girls Like Me is quite a perfect book (the bits with the Georgia Belles, who are possibly either spirit guardians for Keda, or a certain part of her subconscious coming to the surface, felt less integrated into the larger narrative to me). I do think it's an important, vital book, one that heralds the arrival of an important new voice (this is Lockington's first book for children). That may not be enough to push it past The Moon Within or The Lost Girl in the Newbery race, but it should absolutely put it on the radar of librarians, teachers, and readers nationwide.

Publication in July through Farrar Straus Giroux

Friday, May 10, 2019

2020 Contenders: The Lost Boy's Gift, by Kimberly Willis Holt

The Lost Boy's Gift is the story of nine-year-old Daniel, who is living with his mother after his parents' divorce. The pair moves to While-a-Way Lane, in the town of Falling Star Valley, in the shadow of Pointy Mountain. Daniel begins meeting many of the other residents, including next-door-neighbor Tilda Butter, who can talk to animals; quirky postman Dewey Wonder; and Annie, the Lemonade Girl. Adventures ensue, including some involving a school production of Peter Pan, and a cloud of benevolently magical fireflies.

Really, how much you'll like Kimberly Willis Holt's latest novel comes down to how that last paragraph made you feel. Perhaps you'll think it sounds enchanting and delightful; if so, the book won't disappoint you. Personally, The Lost Boy's Gift made me feel like I'd just overdosed on Pixy Stix. I don't have a particularly high tolerance for capital-W Whimsy, and boy howdy, does this novel trade in Whimsy. (The library in Falling Star Valley has a Ferris wheel. I'd dearly love to sit in on that library's budget meetings.)

Lest you think that I'm a pure killjoy, I should note that The Lost Boy's Gift does some things very well. Daniel's character felt real and alive to me. He's the sort of kid who's got a good heart, but at the same time, he can't keep his hands off of anything, and many adults who encounter him come away from the experience deeply exhausted. I've met kids like that in real life, and Daniel could easily be any one of them. His struggles in coming to terms with the breakup of his parents' marriage also felt genuine and lived-in.

The plot is less careful; some elements felt to me like they had little payoff (Agatha Brown's secret love of the saxophone), and some felt less than wrapped up (Daniel's gift doesn't show up until the very end, and I'm not really sure what its full significance is). Younger readers may not mind this, but I think the Newbery committee may take note.

Lots of people like Holt's work: our very own Tess loved Dear Hank Williams, and When Zachary Beaver Came to Town won the National Book Award. This is the first of her novels that I've read, and I didn't particularly enjoy it. How much of that is due to my reading preferences is open to question, of course. I think the book is unlikely to show up on Newbery Day, however.

Published April 30, 2019, by Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt/Macmillan

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

2020 Contenders: Sweeping Up the Heart, by Kevin Henkes

For the first time since 2014 Newbery Honor book The Year of Billy Miller, we have another chapter book from The Henk. In Sweeping Up the Heart, we follow a week in the life of 12-year-old Amelia Albright, an aspiring clay artist with a dead mother, a grieving and emotionally unavailable father, and a new friend named Casey, the nephew of the owner of her favorite art studio. Adventures ensue when Casey claims to see a "sign" from Amelia's mother -- which may or may not be the mother herself. This being a Kevin Henkes book, however, the important adventures are interior, taking place within Amelia's heart and mind.

Sweeping Up the Heart reminded me a lot of Junonia, Henkes' 2011 novel. Both novels have female protagonists who don't feel like their vacations are going exactly as they would have wished; both deal with themes of growing up and change; and both feel hushed and subdued even during the most "action-packed" moments. If you liked Junonia, you'll almost certainly enjoy Sweeping; if you found Junonia to be a low-stakes exercise in self-pity...then I don't really agree with you, but I can definitely say that, while you might like Sweeping better, you probably won't love it.

Kevin Henkes' work has always felt strangely out of time to me, as if it were being written from a close-but-not-quite parallel universe, or being sent forward from my own childhood. Henkes legendarily writes all of his books on a typewriter that his wife owned as a teenager (and does the illustrations for his picture books on a light box that he got for Christmas as a child), and his work has a sort of "vintage" feel to it. Sweeping Up the Heart is set in 1999, and while the temporal setting does allow Casey to express his fears about Y2K, it also felt to me like it allowed Henkes to tell his story without the background distractions of cell phones, social media, and omnipresent digital cameras, all of which would have complicated the atmospheric, whisper-quiet story.

Henkes is famous for his incisive, pitch-perfect characterization; I do not believe there is another author currently working who is as capable of actually getting inside the head of a child and understanding her hopes, dreams, and fears. Amelia certainly is one of Henkes' triumphs, but every other character in the story also comes across as someone you'd recognize if you met them in the street.

It's hard for me to evaluate the Newbery chances of Sweeping Up the Heart. It's a gem of a book with perfect craftsmanship evident in every line; it's also a deeply inward-looking book in a year in which I'm not sure that will be rewarded, one that takes few risks, and doesn't break any new ground for Henkes. The Henk's legions of fans will love this one, and every library should buy a copy. The competition may be too stiff for it to take the gold medal, however.

Published March 19, 2019 by Greenwillow/HarperCollins

Monday, March 18, 2019

2020 Contenders: Birdie, by Eileen Spinelli

Amateur ornithologist Birdie Briggs is twelve years old, and her life is in flux. She's experiencing her first crush, which has consequences for the rest of her social life; her mother may have a new love interest for the first time since the death of Birdie's father, and even her grandmother, Maymee, has a new man in her life. It's a lot for Birdie to manage, and she's trying to learn how to adapt.

I felt like the best thing about Birdie, Eileen Spinelli's new verse novel, is the way it captures the shifting emotions of a not-quite-teenager. Sometimes she's elated, sometimes she's depressed, sometimes she's throbbing with inchoate anger, but Birdie's feelings all rang true to me. Being twelve is a difficult time in one's life, and Spinelli records Birdie's internal experiences with grace and sympathy.

Indeed, Birdie is a gentle novel all the way around, one where the action and conflicts are largely interior. Bad things happen in the book's world, to be sure, but they're overcome with tenderness and love. It's a story and a setting filled with warmth.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I'm not much of a verse novel fan. Trying to set that personal preference aside, I can tell you that the pacing of the book seemed effective to me. I don't think that Birdie possesses the same level of technical mastery of The Moon Within or Caminar, but it's certainly competent. I don't know if I would have made the same choice that Spinelli did in giving each of the poems a title, but that's probably just my own predilection as a reader.

You should never take your Newbery odds from me -- I'm the guy who said "no picture book will ever win the Newbery" the year that Last Stop on Market Street won, after all. That said, I'm not sure that Birdie is going to rise to the top of what's already shaping up to be a hypercompetitive field for the 2020 medal. I do think that fans of Spinelli's writing, and readers who enjoy carefully-crafted interior worlds, will enjoy Birdie very much.

Publication in April by Eerdmans

Thursday, March 7, 2019

2020 Contenders: Bat and the End of Everything, by Elana K. Arnold

Bat and the End of Everything is the third volume in the adventures of Bixby Alexander "Bat" Tam, following A Boy Called Bat (2017), and Bat and the Waiting Game (2018). It picks up essentially where Waiting Game left off, with Bat about to finish the third grade, and still caring for Thor, the orphaned skunk kit. He's full of concerns, ranging from who is going to care for the class pet, Babycakes the rabbit, to the fact that his best friend, Israel, will be spending much of the summer in Canada. And underneath it all is Bat's greatest worry -- the need to release Thor back into the wild soon, even though Bat doesn't want Thor to go.

What holds End of Everything together is the strength of its characterization. Bat remains one of the most carefully detailed characters with autism in children's literature, and his family and friends also seem poised to walk of the page at any moment. Both the conflicts and the solutions to those conflicts arise organically from who the characters are; nothing feels forced or arbitrary. This, at least in my opinion, is the most distinguished feature, not only of End of Everything, but of the Bat series as a whole.

The ending is awfully sunny, and I suppose it's possible to complain that it steps around some of the issues that have previously been raised in the story. I thought it was prepared and foreshadowed enough that it was perfectly effective, as well as fitting in with the general tone of the series, which is suffused with optimism and love. End of Everything is a bighearted book, one unafraid to conclude with the novelistic equivalent of a group hug.

I'd be surprised if the third installment of this series was where the Newbery committee decided to recognize it. Indeed, series for younger chapter book readers include some of the best-loved books in American children's literature, but for whatever reason, they don't tend to do well in the Newbery race; we cherish Ramona, Homer Price, Ruby Lu, Clementine, and Ivy and Bean, but none of them have ever taken the gold medal. Regardless, End of Everything is cozy and lovely, and anyone who's followed Bat's adventures this far won't be disappointed.

Publication on March 26, 2019, by Walden Pond/HarperCollins