Tuesday, July 28, 2015

2016 Contenders: Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights, by Ann Bausum

It is impossible to review Ann Bausum's new chronicle of the gay rights movement without thinking about where I was one month ago today: standing on Market Street in San Francisco, watching the biggest, most joyous Pride parade I have ever witnessed. It was two days after we all woke up to learn that the Supreme Court had granted same-sex couples the right to marry in all 50 states, and the mood in the city was total jubilation. The parade itself felt incredibly uncontroversial, with every corporation you can think of trying to get in on the act and soak up some of that LGBT goodwill. The Apple employees alone took up several city blocks.

Contrast that with the way things stood on the eve of the Stonewall Riots. Marriage equality was such a distant dream that Richard Enman, representing the Mattachine Society, said, regarding the legalization of same-sex marriage, "Homosexuals don't want that." "Cross-dressing" was a criminal offense, homosexuality was listed as a mental illness in the DSM, and men trying to pick up a date might be told to "keep moving, faggot, keep moving."

Bausum does an excellent job of evoking that time and place with a chatty prologue that addresses the reader directly and invites us to walk the streets of Greenwich Village with her. She maintains that sense of immediacy through the next several chapters, quickly establishing the historical backdrop and then plunging us into a play by play of the events at the Stonewall on June 27, 1969. She combines eyewitness accounts with historical context and broader social analyses to form a full picture of the significance of the riots. And she doesn't shy away from plainspoken descriptions of the gay experience in 1969, from sex in unlocked semi-trucks previously used to haul animal carcasses, to the raunchy chants that gay teenagers shouted at the police.

While the entire first half of the book is concerned with the lead-up to and immediate aftermath of the riots, the second half touches, in less detail, on the ensuing gay rights movement, including the AIDS crisis and the fight for marriage equality. Of course, despite the fact that the publication date is May 5, 2015, the book is already out of date, because it doesn't include the recent Supreme Court decision. Sam and I were speculating about whether Viking will release an updated edition, but things are moving so quickly that it might be impossible to keep up. Just last week, several legislators introduced the Equality Act, a comprehensive federal non-discrimination bill. 

As the LGBT community continues to rack up victories, it will become ever more difficult to remember this history of brutal oppression. Bausum's book serves as an essential reminder of that history, honoring those who risked their lives to pave the way, and, I hope, providing inspiration to the next generation to continue the fight.

I think it's unlikely that Stonewall will receive Newbery recognition. Despite the immediacy of Bausum's prose, I wouldn't call it narrative nonfiction on the level of something like Bomb, and it feels like a strong year for fiction. I won't be at all surprised if it the Sibert Committee honors it, though, and it seems like a shoo-in for the Stonewall Book Award. (There's a question: has a book ever won its namesake award before?)

Published in May by Viking Books for Young Readers


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

2016 Contenders: The Story of Diva and Flea, by Mo Willems

Everyone with even a passing interest in children's literature knows Mo Willems. He's created some of the most iconic characters of the past twenty years: Elephant & Piggie, the Pigeon, Trixie and Knuffle Bunny, Cat the Cat.

What he hasn't done, at least up until now, is write a novel. Each of his books to this point has been either a picture book or an easy reader. The Story of Diva and Flea, then, is his first foray into a longer form.

That's not to say that it's a form that's particularly long in the grand scheme of things. My ARC of Diva and Flea runs a mere 67 (heavily-illustrated*) pages, and it's pitched at the same emerging readers who enjoy Kate DiCamillo's Mercy Watson books and similar fare. Perhaps it's better to refer to it as a "chapter book," as I imagine much of its readership will do.

The plot involves Diva, a tiny dog who resides in posh comfort at 11 avenue Le Play in Paris, and Flea, a large cat who considers himself a flâneur, which Willems repeatedly defines as one "who wanders the streets and bridges and alleys of the city just to see what there is to see." When they meet by chance and become friends, will Diva learn to be more adventurous? Will Flea see the benefits of domesticity?

I described the book to Rachael as "a more G-rated Lady and the Tramp," and even though she questioned whether such a thing was actually possible, I'll stand by that description. There's no romance, no baby, and no actual danger; what remains is a mismatched pair where each learns to appreciate the other's point of view and to be willing to take (minor) risks in order to do so. Even that "conflict" is subdued -- once the protagonists meet properly, there's really no clash of wills or second-act argument.

Perhaps more noticeably, the signature Willems humor is decidedly muted. There are the odd moments that brought a smile to my face, such as when Flea asks if "Breck-Fest" is a friend of Diva's, but there's nothing here that comes close being as funny as the Pigeon's tantrum in Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! or the slow-burning exasperation of There is a Bird on Your Head!

That doesn't mean Diva and Flea is anything less than pleasant, because it's perfectly serviceable. But for someone with Willems' pedigree, the expectations are sky-high, and I feel like Diva and Flea doesn't live up to them.


*(As an aside, I thought it was odd that Willems, he of the three Caldecott Honors, two Geisel Awards, and five Geisel Honors, didn't illustrate the book himself, but Tony DiTerlizzi's beautiful drawings are a perfect match for the text.)


Publication in October through Disney / Hyperion

Monday, July 20, 2015

2016 Contenders: Poet, by Don Tate

George Moses Horton was the first African-American poet to have a book published in the South (The Hope of Liberty, 1829). Amazingly, this occurred while he was still a slave. Though Horton's hope was that the money from the book would enable the purchase of his freedom, his master refused to sell him, and Horton's slavery continued until the end of the Civil War, some three and a half decades later. Through it all, Horton continued to write, producing another volume of poetry, many uncollected poems, and a brief autobiography.

Although Horton is still in print, and he retains a strong following in his home state of North Carolina, he remains much less known than other early African-American authors such as Phillis Wheatley and Jupiter Hammon. I completed an English degree at a southern university, and still never came across any of his work. I'm glad to say that Poet does an excellent job of discussing the man, his unusual life, and his writing, which may well make him a more familiar name to a younger generation.

The writing is spare, but clear. Tate made his name as an illustrator, but in his previous foray into writing (It Jes' Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw, 2012), he certainly displayed a facility with words, and he continues to exhibit that talent in Poet. I really felt Horton's determination, his crushing defeat, and his indomitable will while turning the pages.

As good as the text is, it's not going to win the Newbery -- no picture book is going to break through and take the prize, not in a year with Circus Mirandus and Echo and Moonpenny Island and The Jumbies. Some of the other committees may appreciate it, however, and I do hope there's room for it on the Notables list.


Publication in September by Peachtree.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

2016 Contenders: Nanny X Returns, by Madelyn Rosenberg

Ali, Jake, Eliza, and the rest of the gang from last year's Nanny X are back for another adventure. This time, a criminal known only as The Angler has insisted that a large sculpture of a fish be placed on the White House lawn. If this isn't done, "the nation's greatest treasures" could be in danger. The Nanny Action Patrol (N.A.P.) has been assigned to the case, and Nanny X (and her diaper bag full of secret devices) must stop The Angler, with the help of her young charges and their other friends.

Much like its predecessor, Nanny X Returns is fast-paced and very funny. One of my favorite things about it is its grasp of the Washington D.C. area; Madelyn Rosenberg lives in Arlington, Virginia, and it's clear that she knows the region inside and out. Through touches as small as what exhibits are on specific floors of the D.C. museums, the setting truly comes alive on each page.

I'm not entirely sure that some of the thematic elements are as neatly wrapped up as I'd like. Some of them, such as the incipient romantic feelings between Ali and her friend Stinky, may well be points Rosenberg is holding in reserve for another book. Others, I wished had been returned to in the last few pages -- Ali's worries about whether the N.A.P. has its doubts about Nanny X, as well as her desire to solve the mystery first, come into play repeatedly during the book, but sort of fizzle out at the end.

These questions, however, didn't much affect my enjoyment of the book. I was delighted to return to the world of Nanny X and her crew, and I do hope this isn't the last visit I'll get to pay there. I also hope this particular series finds its way into the hands of the many children that I firmly believe will enjoy it.

As for the Newbery, I highly doubt Nanny X Returns will appear there -- it's popular, not literary, and it's just not the kind of book to which the committees are sympathetic. I'm optimistic, however, that it will land on the shelves of many libraries, where the children who love quick-reading humor will be able to find it.


Publication in October through Holiday House

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

2016 Contenders: Circus Mirandus, by Cassie Beasley

The Phantom Tollbooth. The Little Prince. Breadcrumbs. The House with a Clock in its Walls. Circus Mirandus.

That's a list of books that exist in an uneasy space between pure fantasy and true realism. It's a list of books that, regardless of their varied endings, don't shy away from the world's darkness. It's a list of books that demonstrate what I'm starting to think of as Rachael's Maxim: "Story and imagination celebrate themselves when deployed effectively."

It's a list of classics.

Yes, that's a bold claim to make about Circus Mirandus, a debut novel that's hardly been out for a month, but I believe that, if we come back to this discussion in twenty years, it's a claim that will have been vindicated. There aren't many recent children's books that have made this kind of first impression on me, and I actually sat in the car after work, just so that I could finish the last five pages without having to wait another day.

Circus Mirandus is the story of Micah Tuttle, a ten-year-old boy who lives with his Grandpa Ephraim. Grandpa Ephraim, a benevolent figure whose closest point of comparison might be Grandpa Joe from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, has cared for Micah ever since he was small. He's shared with Micah the Tuttle secrets of knot-tying, and he's regaled Micah with tales of the Circus Mirandus, a magical circus that Grandpa Ephraim visited as a child during the dark days of World War II. But now Grandpa Ephraim is desperately ill, his detestable sister, Great-Aunt Gertrudis, is making Micah's life miserable, and darkness seems to be settling into this formerly happy home. The only possible lifeline is that, when Grandpa Ephraim was a boy, the Circus Mirandus' greatest magician, the Lightbender, promised him a miracle -- a miracle that Grandpa Ephraim hasn't yet requested.

So begins the adventure. It would be criminal to reveal much more of the plot, but it's a grand one that takes Micah to the heights of ecstasy and the depths of despair. Along the way, he meets a host of memorable characters -- his newfound best friend, Jenny Mendoza; Chintzy the parrot; the mysterious proprietor of the circus, Mirandus Head; and many, many more. All of them felt real and solid to me, and even the worst of them turn out to have motivations for their unpleasantness.

The prose is captivating, and the book is willing to look into some very bleak places. The scene that includes the final performance of the Amazing Amazonian Bird Woman, in particular, is one of the most devastating passages I've read in a children's novel. And yet, if all of the characters don't achieve redemption, the book still manages to end on a defiantly upbeat note.

Circus Mirandus has received a tremendous amount of hype -- Dial/Penguin must have spent the GDP of a small country on the book's promotion, and the movie rights have already been sold. But for once, the hype is entirely deserved. This one's a winner, folks.


Published in June by Dial/Penguin

Monday, June 15, 2015

2016 Contenders: Cody and the Fountain of Happiness, by Tricia Springstubb

Cody and the Fountain of Happiness is the second Tricia Springstubb book we've reviewed this year, after Moonpenny Island. However, while Moonpenny Island is aimed at a traditional middle-grade audience, Cody is pitched younger, more to readers currently enjoying the Clementine books, or The Year of Billy Miller.

Cody's loose plot involves the beginning of the titular character's summer vacation. She makes a new friend, Spencer, by helping him find a lost cat, and her new babysitter turns out to be Payton, the object of her brother Wyatt's affections. There's also some drama involving her mother's promotion at work. All of these elements drift in and out of the book as it meanders towards its conclusion -- while it's a quick read, it's not exactly a propulsive one.

Moonpenny Island remains my favorite book of the year so far (although there are still some contenders I need to read). Cody works a lot less well for me, possibly because, even for a book for younger children, the stakes always feel so low -- particularly for Cody herself, whose problems often take a back seat to those of her mom, Wyatt, and/or Spencer. Kevin Henkes books often have the same issue, to take one example, but part of Henkes' genius is his ability to make problems that are trivial for adults take on weight and heft in the minds of his child protagonists. Cody doesn't achieve a similar effect, nor is its protagonist as memorable as Clementine or Ramona or Junie B. Jones.

That's not to say it's not an entirely pleasant book. The prose is solid, if not as poetic as that in Moonpenny Island, and it has its moments of humor. Even for a quasi-episodic novel, however, Cody is loosely structured -- the relationship between Wyatt and Payton, for example, ends on a weirdly sour note, and it seems odd for the book to finish with the characters discussing the party that's happening that night, rather than with them attending it. It's possible that Springstubb plans on writing more books about Cody and so is leaving some plot threads deliberately unresolved, but taken on its own, the ending really did seem a bit of a let-down to me.

At any rate, especially with how strong a book Moonpenny Island is, I don't think there's going to be a lot of room at the Newbery podium for Cody. One thing I'd be very interested in, however, would be getting an actual child reader's opinion of this one; it seems entirely possible to me that its target audience might enjoy it more than I did.


Published in April by Candlewick

Thursday, June 11, 2015

2016 Contenders: The Island of Dr. Libris, by Chris Grabenstein

Billy is spending the summer at a cabin owned by  the mysterious Dr. Xiang Libris. (X Libris. Yeah. It's that kind of book.)  There's no tv, no internet, and, conveniently, no smartphone: Billy's iPhone breaks as soon as they arrive at the cabin. Oh, but do you know what there is instead? A mysterious library! Because of course there is. And do you know what happens when Billy reads the books? The characters come to life! Because of course they do.

Before long, Billy has populated the island in the middle of the lake with Hercules, Robin Hood and Friends, and even Pollyanna (because we're expected to believe that a twelve year old boy would willingly pick up and read Pollyanna). In addition to trying to deal with the mayhem caused by the fictional characters, Billy has to figure out some way to stop his parents' divorce. Because of course he does.

Are you getting that I'm not terribly impressed by this book? (Full disclosure: I listened to this one as an audiobook as well, and it was narrated by Kirby Heyborne, who is narratorial anathema to me.) I had actually been looking forward to it, since it's by the same author as Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library, which many people enjoyed. It did not live up to my expectations.

I'm probably judging The Island of Dr. Libris a bit harshly because I am emphatically not the right reader for this book. The publisher's blurb mentions that it "celebrates the power of imagination." I am tired of books that claim to celebrate "the power of imagination" or "the power of story," because they usually fail to do so. Story and imagination celebrate themselves when deployed effectively.

I am also tired of books that celebrate books, and reading itself, in heavy-handed ways. If you're trying to push this kind of message within the pages of a 242 page novel for 9-12 year olds, you're preaching to the choir. Non-readers are not reading this.

Finally, I'm super triple tired of books that pit Real Books against Evil Electronic Devices. You guys, that kind of thinking feels so crotchety. I've been spending a lot of time on Tumblr lately, and it's full of tweens and teens who see no boundary between books and screens, and who spend their time not only discussing, but also creating fan art based on their favorite fictional worlds. If you take away their iPhones, where are they going to write about all of their Harry Potter headcanons

Anyway... aside from the fact that it offends me on a fundamental level, is the book any good? I guess it's a fairly competent adventure story, and many readers will enjoy the way the fictional worlds collide (Hercules joining Robin Hood's band of Merry People, etc.). I will note that the characters are not terribly well-developed, especially Billy's mother, who manages to be the stereotypical unfun mom despite the fact that she's getting a PhD in math. 

It would probably make a fun vacation read, and if you hand it to to the literary-minded kids you know, I won't even judge you. Much. 


Published March 24th 2015 by Random House Books for Young Readers