Friday, March 6, 2015

2016 Contenders: Random Body Parts, by Leslie Bulion

What an odd book Random Body Parts is! It's a series of poems that are also riddles, the answer to which is always a part or parts of the body. Each riddle is followed by a fact box about the poem's subject, in a manner reminiscent of some of Joyce Sidman's books. And then, at the end of the book, there's a brief note about each poem, which includes the poetic structure used, and how each one incorporates a tribute or reference to Shakespeare.

The immediate reaction may be to look at this disparate set of elements and wonder if this isn't a cynical ploy to try and hit as much of the Common Core book market as possible. However, despite the diversity of its elements, Random Body Parts actually works fairly well. In general, the poems work as poetry, and the side and end notes provide interesting information in an easy-to-understand way.

I'd definitely recommend purchasing Random Body Parts for just about any library collection, and I think it may have broader child appeal than many other poetry books. I don't, however, see it generating much awards discussion. Leslie Bulion is a solid poet, especially considering the restrictions placed on her by this book's structure. When compared to works by the top tier of current children's poets, though, Random Body Parts doesn't have the otherworldly reverence of Joyce Sidman, the quiet pensiveness of Bob Raczka, the brain-twisting cleverness of Jack Prelutsky, or the formal inventiveness of Marilyn Singer. Given that those four poets have the grand sum total of one Newbery Honor between them (which belongs to Sidman, who Honored in 2011 for Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night), it's unlikely that Random Body Parts will break through and make the Newbery rolls.


Published in March by Peachtree

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

2016 Contenders: The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Ten-year-old Ada has never left her squalid, one-room London apartment. Born with a clubfoot that her abusive and neglectful mother has left untreated, she sits in her chair and looks out the window all day. Caring for and protecting her little brother Jamie provides the only joy and meaning in her life, and ultimately motivates her to begin the painful process of teaching herself to walk. This is all taking place in the run-up to the second world war, though, and when the children of London are evacuated to the countryside, Ada's life changes in every way.

This is not the first novel that has seized on the evacuation of London's children to set its plot in motion. The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and Bedknobs and Broomsticks are two classic examples. But whereas the plots of those books rely on the benign neglect of the children's temporary guardians, The War That Saved My Life goes in the opposite direction. Only with Miss Smith, their reluctant foster mother, do Ada and Jamie discover for the first time what it means to be cared for and loved.

My instinct is to be cautious in my assessment of this book, because my emotional reaction to it was strong, and because I listened to the audio version, which is narrated masterfully by the inimitable Jayne Entwistle (seriously, go listen to something she has narrated - she is just divine). After some thought, however, I feel confident in recommending it as both emotionally satisfying and finely crafted.

Ada and Miss Smith (Susan) are nuanced, complex characters who grow in realistic ways throughout the course of the novel. Ada's traumatic experiences are treated with the narrative weight they deserve. As she begins the process of healing her psychological wounds, she runs up against the setbacks and regressions that would be inevitable for a child who has never felt safe or loved. Susan Smith, who struggles with depression, and who is mourning the loss of her partner Becky, turns out to be the ideal parent for Ada. She approaches Ada and Jamie with patience, and with empathy born of her own experiences with parental disapproval.

If The War That Saved My Life excels in the areas of character development and emotional realism, however, I'm not sure I can say the same about the plot. The conclusion is satisfying and triumphant... as Tess Goldwasser said of Wonder, it makes you want to pump your fist in the air! As such, it stretches the bounds of credibility just a little bit. Ultimately, though, I have to forgive it that, and agree with the Horn Book's Martha Parravano that "this is a feel-good story, but an earned one." (Possibly unlike Wonder.)

It's early in the year, and there are some major challengers on the horizon (can't wait to get my hands on Gone Crazy in Alabama), but I can see The War That Saved My Life being a strong Newbery contender.

Published in January by Dial Books




Friday, February 27, 2015

The Winner's Circle: A Wrinkle in Time (1963)

 In a sense, there's no point in reviewing A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L'Engle's first children's novel, and winner of the 1963 Newbery Award. It's securely ensconced in the upper echelon of the American children's literature canon, in the same realm as Charlotte's Web, The Giver, and Bridge to Terebithia. Indeed, the last time that Fuse #8 ran the Top 100 Children's Books poll, A Wrinkle in Time finished second, just below Charlotte's Web.

When I was a child, I loved A Wrinkle in Time, and read it through on several occasions. I hadn't picked it up in years though, and so I decided to read it again to refresh my memory of it.

Rereading my childhood favorites is always an interesting exercise for me. In some cases, I find that they're even better than I remembered -- that, now that I'm an adult, I find even more to appreciate in them. That's the case for Anne of Green Gables, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Hobbit, Higglety Pigglety Pop!, and many others.

On the other hand, sometimes I go back and fail to locate the magic that I once found in those titles. As a child, I adored The Chronicles of Narnia; as an adult, I find them almost unreadable. I was a huge fan of Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator back then, while it now seems too full of misanthropic (and racist) nastiness to really be enjoyable. I even, uncomfortably, remember a time when I was much younger when I wasn't thoroughly creeped out by Love You Forever.

Upon settling in to read A Wrinkle in Time again, I found that what I immediately noticed were things in the book I didn't care for. I almost instantaneously lost patience with Charles Wallace, who felt more like an excerpt from a book about Indigo Children than an actual character, to the point that his existence in the novel threatened my suspension of disbelief. (It's possible this was exacerbated by his proximity to his sister Meg, who is eminently real and believable.) L'Engle's Christian-infused mysticism felt dated and creaky to me, and her extensive use of quotations started to feel more like a crutch than a considered stylistic device. And I'd forgotten how slow the book is to start -- the pacing never seemed quite right to me.

This isn't to say that I found A Wrinkle in Time a complete disappointment. Even now, after I've read Orwell and Huxley and Kafka and Ray Bradbury, the Camazotz scenes retain a striking aura of surreal menace. And I remain charmed by Aunt Beast, the gentlest and tenderest of the many extraterrestrial beings who populate the book's pages. The ending too, remains warm and fitting, even though by now I know its beats by heart.

Interestingly, the Time series was possibly the first series that I lost patience with as a young reader. I loved A Wind in the Door, possibly even more than A Wrinkle in Time, but I found A Swiftly Tilting Planet confusing and bizarre, and I disliked Many Waters so much that I never bothered to read past that one to the books featuring Meg's daughter Polly.

Having said all this, I'm not entirely sure what conclusions to draw. There's no question of whether or not A Wrinkle in Time was a deserving Newbery winner -- as I mentioned, it has one of the widest and most loyal followings of any American children's book. Additionally, it has little competition. Although the 1962 publishing year was an amazing one for picture books (The Snowy Day, Chicken Soup with Rice, and The Sleep Book, just to name a few), it was less impressive on other fronts. The two Newbery honor books, Thistle and Thyme: Tales and Legends from Scotland, by Sorche Nic Leodhas, and Men of Athens, by Olivia Coolidge, are essentially forgotten. The one other "classic" novel published during that year was The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, by Joan Aiken, a British author who wasn't eligible.

My reactions may just say more about me as a reader than about A Wrinkle in Time as a book. I've come to be fairly skeptical of Good vs. Evil plots, and I place a premium on fully believable characters, and so A Wrinkle in Time may just not be the book for me anymore. It's certainly the book for a lot of other people though!

Friday, February 6, 2015

2016 Contenders: The Penderwicks in Spring, by Jeanne Birdsall



At long last, we have received news of the Penderwicks. 

Jeanne Birdsall has consistently avowed that it takes her three years to write a Penderwicks novel. The Penderwicks at Point Mouette came out in 2011. So (allowing for the vagaries of the editing and publishing process) the next volume of Penderwickia will arrive in stores next month right on schedule.

Interestingly, even more time has passed within the world of the Penderwicks than in our world. When last we saw them, Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty were 13, 12, 11, and five years old. Ben was “too small to be without his mother.”  As The Penderwicks in Spring opens, Rosalind is away at college, Skye and Jane are in high school, and Batty and Ben are in fifth and second grade, respectively. Aging the characters up like this is an interesting – even unusual - approach to an ongoing series. There’s plenty of precedent for doing it the other way – Joey Pigza being last year’s most notable example – but Birdsall has always been clear about her vision for the series, which seems to involve seeing the sisters all the way to adulthood. 


It could be difficult to balance that goal with her other priority, which is to keep the series solidly in middle grade territory. In a 2013 Horn Book article, she addressed the importance of keeping middle grade separate from YA:  “But in terms of maintaining the boundaries of the middle grade category — so that children know where to go for books that address their particular lives — it matters a great deal. “ In practical terms, that seems to mean that Penderwicks novels will always focus on the characters who actually fall within the middle grade age range. In The Penderwicks in Spring, that would be Batty and Ben. Skye, Jane, Rosalind (and Jeffrey, and even Tommy Geiger) are present, but in the background. The story is told exclusively from Batty and Ben’s points of view. 

As a reader and fan, it took me a while to get on board with that approach, because it requires Birdsall to alter her usual narrative pattern. The Penderwicks exist very much in the tradition of the family novel, which has a clear structure: chapters alternate between the points of view of the siblings, and each sibling has a conflict to overcome (sometimes in addition to an overarching family conflict). That’s how it worked for the Little Women a century and a half ago, and that’s how it worked for the Family Fletcher last year. The Penderwicks in Spring is different. It’s all Batty. Ben is there too, but really, most of Ben’s conflicts have to do with worrying about Batty (and keeping her secrets). 

So it’s Batty’s show, and a dark, dark show it is. There has always been an undercurrent of melancholy in the Penderwicks’ world, but in this book, it actually pulls us under, right along with Batty.  She alone has to wrestle with the central tragedy at the heart of their family, and as Birdsall plunged us into those icy emotional waters, I really wasn’t sure she was going to be able to pull us back out effectively. 

Reader, she does. Though Batty’s quiet struggle is at the heart of the book, it echoes through the rest of the family and their friends (Jeffrey, the Geigers), and in the end, it is the whole Penderwick tribe that emerges stronger for it. When spring comes to Gardam Street, they have earned it. 

This is not to say that the book is an unqualified success. Most notably, I’m not sure that Ben is as strong a character as his older siblings, and I was disappointed that he didn’t have more of his own story (in a 350 page book, you would think there would be room for it). 

Overall, though, I think this is a satisfying penultimate volume in the Penderwick saga. There are welcome moments of levity (provided by Jane’s and Rosalind’s ridiculous gentlemen suitors and Batty’s shabby dog-walking charges), as well as the unflinching emotional authenticity we’ve come to expect from Jeanne Birdsall. 

(As for Newbery? It’s a long shot. Despite being so temporally separate from its predecessors, I don’t think the book works without previous experience with the Penderwicks.)

Publication in March, 2015, by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Maryland Mock Newbery: 2015 (Online) Winners!

The unpredictable weather on the east coast this year included a storm that snowed out our scheduled discussion for the 2015 Maryland Mock Newbery. Then, a second storm snowed out our snow date. With ALA Midwinter and the Youth Media Awards upon us, we weren't able to pick a third date, and so, to our dismay, we were forced to cancel for the year.

However, we weren't willing to concede defeat to Mother Nature, and Rachael set up an online poll. Twenty of our scheduled participants voted on our reading list, which means that we're able to announce that the winner of our 2015 Maryland Mock Newbery is...


Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson

It's not really a surprise choice, given the way that Brown Girl Dreaming has swept to victory at many of the other Mock Newbery awards we've seen this year. Our group voted for it overwhelmingly -- it was such a runaway winner, actually, that we didn't name any honor books.

Will the real Newbery committee also name Jacqueline Woodson's book the winner? Tune in to the YMAs tomorrow morning to find out!

2015 Contenders: If it Rains Pancakes, by Brian P. Cleary

If it Rains Pancakes is an interesting hybrid volume: part book about poetry, part book of poetry. It begins with an introduction to what a haiku is, followed by several examples of the form. This process is then repeated for the lantern, another Japanese-derived poetic form.

If I were teaching a poetry class or unit, particularly for elementary school children, I think I'd love If it Rains Pancakes. The explanations of the forms are simple and clear, and Brian P. Cleary's poems that follow show how flexible each form is. In such a setting, this book would be perfect.

As a "contribution to literature," I'm not sure the book is quite as effective. Some of the poems are certainly gems -- "The Mind," with its clever take on memory, was my favorite, and one I think deserves to be anthologized. Others are perhaps less creative, if certainly serviceable. I did think that, taken as as a literary work, If it Rains Pancakes wasn't on the same level as Santa Clauses or Winter Bees, two other volumes of poetry that we've looked at recently.

I will also confess that I was a bit bothered by the fact that every poem in the haiku section is given a title -- not something as unobtrusive as the dates that accompany each poem in Santa Clauses, but a title that states the theme or setting of the piece. Very few published haiku have titles, and in fact, the prominent haiku-themed poetry journals look highly askance on the practice. (Modern Haiku strongly discourages titles, for instance, and Haiku Journal won't even accept submissions with titles.) It's a small issue, to be sure, but it felt like an important one to me.

There's a possibility that If it Rains Pancakes will make this year's Notables list; it's among their final nominations, and I'm curious to see if it makes that last cut. I doubt it will show up in the Newbery committee's selections though.


Published in May by Millbrook / Lerner 


Saturday, January 31, 2015

2015 Contenders: The Right Word, by Jen Bryant

Although the earliest work that could be considered a thesaurus was written almost two millennia ago (On Synonyms, a volume written by Philo of Byblos, who died in 141), the first truly modern thesaurus didn't appear until until 1852, when Peter Mark Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases was first published. Nowadays, it's hard to find a person who hasn't used a thesaurus in some form -- and yet Roget himself is a little-discussed figure in popular circles.

Full disclosure: at ALA Annual last year in Las Vegas, Rachael and I scored an invitation to a dinner that Eerdmans was hosting in celebration of Jen Bryant, Melissa Sweet, and the forthcoming release of The Right Word. I got a chance to talk to both of them at length, and they're the most wonderful people that you could hope to meet. In fact, Melissa Sweet took it upon herself to make each of us name badges, each of which contained a small fragment from a 19th-century edition of Roget's Thesaurus. Mine is hanging proudly on my cubicle wall now, and it makes me smile every time I see it.


So yes, I'm very much predisposed to like The Right Word. But even when I try to look at it with more objective eyes, I come away from it thinking that this really is an excellent book. The Right Word begins in Roget's childhood, and traces his life from there. It includes information about his many endeavors -- Roget wasn't just a thesaurus writer, but a polymath who also published important works on natural history, medicine, electricity, and optical illusions. However, the book manages to keep its center by referring back to Roget's near-obsessive list-keeping, which began when he was only eight years old, and which culminated in the publication of the Thesaurus.

Indeed, the main problem with The Right Word from a Newbery perspective is similar to the problem with El Deafo: the text and the illustrations blend together to the point that analyzing just the text is almost impossible. The dialogue bubbles -- which are not designed to be read as part of the main text -- add layer upon layer of detail to the story, and Melissa Sweet's illustrations include both drawings and collages of Roget's various lists. Even the typesetting, which includes several passages with only a word or two on each line, serves to reinforce the theme of Roget's passion for order. Simply reading The Right Word aloud doesn't do it justice, and I don't know that the Newbery committee will be able to consider it in a way that would really allow its considerable strengths to shine.

I have, however, seen The Right Word show up on several Mock Caldecott lists, and the Sibert committee may well find a lot to love here as well. I hope it wins something; it's a brilliantly-designed book that sheds a great deal of light on its quirky, important subject.


Published in September by Eerdmans