Monday, March 12, 2018

2019 Contenders: Bat and the Waiting Game, by Elana K. Arnold

Once again, we're privileged to be a stop on a Walden Pond Press blog tour. Last year, we were introduced to Bixby Alexander "Bat" Tam and his family in A Boy Called Bat, and now comes the first sequel to that book.

It does my heart good to report that Bat and the Waiting Game is a worthy continuation of the story of Bat and his family. Bat himself remains one of the most detailed and believable children's book characters with autism that I can name, and his family and friends are also sharply drawn. I especially enjoyed getting to know Bat's best friend Israel, and watching the two of them navigate the challenges of friendship.

Waiting Game certainly features moments of entertaining action -- the climactic set piece, which takes place at Bat's sister Janie's school play, could easily have come out of a Marx Brothers movie. But the heart of the book is in its quiet passages, in the interactions between Bat and his family, as well as between Bat and Israel's family. Elana K. Arnold invests the novel with a warmth and a gentleness that feel lived-in and real. Plus, it's got a baby skunk in it, and for me at least, that's a serious selling point.

A Boy Called Bat didn't show up in the Youth Media Awards this year, and sequels are usually (though not always) harder sells for the Newbery committee. But I hope Bat and the Waiting Game finds a wide readership. I agreed to be a stop on the blog tour because I love and believe in this book, and I'm glad to have spent more time with Bat.

For those of you who'd like to hear more about this book, here's a list of the other stops on the blog tour, as well as the Twitter handles of the reviewers:

3/12 For Those About to Mock, @abouttomock (Sam Eddington)
3/15 Mrs. Knott’s Book Nook @knott_michele (Michele Knott)
3/15 @iowaamber (Amber Kuehler)
3/16 The Hiding Spot @thehidingspot (Sara Grochowski)
3/18 Educate*Empower*Inspire…Teach @guerette79 (Melissa Guerrette)
3/19 Maria’s Melange @mariaselke (Maria Selke)
3/20 Nerdy Book Club (post by Elana)
3/20 Writers Rumpus @kirsticall (Kirsti Call)
3/22 Bluestocking Thinking @bluesockgirl (Nicole Levesque)
3/28 Unleashing Readers @unleashreaders (Kellee Moye)

Publication on March 27, 2018, by Walden Pond Press

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Newbery Wayback Machine: Caddie Woodlawn, by Carol Ryrie Brink (1936)

Caddie Woodlawn, which won Carol Ryrie Brink the 1936 Newbery Medal, is based on the real-life adventures of Brink's grandmother, Caddie Woodhouse. Set in frontier Wisconsin just before and after the end of the Civil War, Caddie Woodlawn details the escapades of Caddie and her siblings as they navigate both the physical landscape of the Upper Midwest and the emotional landscape of growing up. It was immensely popular, and it spawned a sequel (Magical Melons, 1939, in print these days as Caddie Woodlawn's Family), a Brink-written 1945 radio drama, a 1989 TV movie, and even a 2011 stage musical.

It's also something of a controversial book these days. Just to take one example, a well-known piece by American Indians in Children's Literature founder and 2019 Arbuthnot Lecturer Debbie Reese talks in part about her daughter's highly negative reactions to the book's depictions of Native Americans.

And boy, those depictions are problematic. The Woodlawns' neighbors are about as racist as possible (witness their talk about a preemptive massacre against the local tribe). And although Caddie and her family are clearly presented as the most "enlightened" of the settlers -- Caddie undertakes a dangerous ride to warn her friend Indian John, and Mr. Woodlawn puts the kibosh on his neighbors' murderous plans -- that's not a particularly high bar. In perhaps the novel's most uncomfortable passage, Indian John, who is leaving the area for an unspecified period of time, leaves a treasured possession with Caddie: a scalp belt, inherited from his father. Caddie and her siblings decide that this provides them with an excellent opportunity to earn some side income, and charge admission to their school friends to see the scalp belt of "Chief Bloody Tomohawk." I kept waiting for the children to get some kind of comeuppance for this behavior...but they don't. The hired man, Robert Ireton, catches them, but is only upset that they've lit a candle in the barn, and sings an Irish folk song for the children as part of the show when they tell him what is taking place.

There are moments in Caddie Woodlawn that work -- the bit where younger brother Warren completely fails at his school recitation is almost Anne of Green Gables-esque, and older brother Tom's impromptu piece of fiction about Pee-Wee the Farmer is a piece of inspired lunacy. Overall though, I had a hard time with this one, even before the ending, which dovetails a kind of maudlin patriotism that's difficult for me to take, and a final bit that's simply an opportunity for me to repost my favorite Gary Larson cartoon*:

Weirdly, Caddie Woodlawn won the Newbery the same year that Little House on the Prairie failed to win or honor. Both books have many of the same strengths and drawbacks, and it's surprising to me that one book won while the other was shut out. The four Honor books from 1936 are ones I haven't made it to yet; all of them are lesser-known works from authors more famous for other things. (The Good Master is by Kate Seredy, who would win the 1938 Newbery for The White Stag; Young Walter Scott is by Elizabeth Janet Gray, who, after a name change to Elizabeth Gray Vining, would win the 1943 Newbery for Adam of the Road; All Sail Set is by Armstrong Sperry, who would win the 1941 Newbery for Call It Courage; and Honk, the Moose is by Phil Stong, an author mostly known for his adult works including State Fair, which was adapted into a 1945 musical film with songs by Rogers & Hammerstein.) As such, it's hard to say Caddie Woodlawn was a mistake choice, but it's not one of my favorites.

*Yes, I know Caddie Woodlawn predates The Incredible Journey by 25 years, but I'll stand by my response anyway.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Newbery Wayback Machine: Sarah, Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLachlan (1986)

As Sarah, Plain and Tall opens, Anna and Caleb are living on a farm somewhere in the endless prairies of the American west. Their Mama died the day after Caleb was born; although their Papa cares for them with kindness, he no longer sings, and their family is both smaller and sadder than before. However, Papa has placed a newspaper advertisement seeking a bride, to which the titular Sarah has responded. Her month-long trial visit with Papa and the children occupies the bulk of Patricia MacLachlan's novella, which took home the 1986 Newbery.

Sarah, Plain and Tall is a good candidate for the quietest book in the Newbery canon. The stakes are almost purely emotional, and revolve around the children's hopes for a life that includes Sarah, and their fears that she might return to her beloved Maine coast. Many of the scenes feature Sarah learning various farm tasks, which she approaches with full dedication. Other than Papa, the children, and Sarah, the only characters with any speaking lines within the book's 58 pages are a neighbor couple who come to help with some of the plowing.

And yet, at least in my opinion, Sarah is one of the crowning achievements in American children's literature. Its simply-structured prose has a numinous quality that makes it read like poetry; I've read precious few children's books that are as beautiful as Sarah. No words are wasted. The book's stunning imagery also gives us a window into the minds and hearts of the characters -- it's full of emotion, but emotion that is shown, rather than told, as creative writing instructors like to say. We feel Anna's nostalgia and hope, Caleb's frenetic dithering between joy and fear, and Papa's tender sadness as if they were our own.

At the center of it all is Sarah, who is complex and lovable and real. She contains an honest mix of loneliness, openness, and confidence. Although it's Maggie, one of the neighbors, who comes up with what is perhaps the book's central line ("There are always things to miss, no matter where you are."), it's Sarah who embodies it in both its melancholia and its comforting acceptance. If I were Caleb or Anna, I would want Sarah to stay too.

The resolution of Sarah's plot is perhaps given away by the fact that MacLachlan has written four sequels, starting with 1994's Skylark. But the plot isn't what makes Sarah -- it's the feelings of the characters, the vastness of the place, and the carefully-constructed fugue of imagery that raise the book to the level of masterpiece. Not every deeply emotional event is loud and dramatic, and MacLachlan shows tremendous respect for this fact.

The Newbery committee named two honor books in 1986: Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun, by Rhoda Blumberg, and Dogsong, by Gary Paulsen. Several other books that were eligible have become classics  -- at the very least, we have to mention The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg, The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales, by Virginia Hamilton, and The Castle in the Attic, by Elizabeth Winthrop. But despite the stiff competition, I think the committee made the right choice here. Sarah, Plain and Tall genuinely represents the best of American children's literature.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Maryland Mock Newbery 2018 Results

The Maryland Mock Newbery, sponsored by the Eastern Shore Regional Library, took place on January 18th. 11 library staff members from 7 different systems met and discussed the books on our shortlist. After the discussion, the participants voted, and our winner was...

...ORPHAN ISLAND, by Laurel Snyder!

The group also named one honor book:

PATINA, by Jason Reynolds!

Many thanks to all of our participants, to the Queen Anne's County Library for providing the meeting room space for our event, and to Natalie Lane of the Kent County Library, who served as our second discussion group leader.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

2018 Maryland Mock Newbery Reading List

After a two-year hiatus, we're once again hosting the Maryland Mock Newbery! This year's event will be held at the Kent Island branch of the Queen Anne's County Library on January 18, 2018. If you're hoping to attend, please contact me and I'll get you registered.

Our reading list for this year is:

Landscape with Invisible Hand, by M.T. Anderson
A Boy Called Bat, by Elana K. Arnold
See You in the Cosmos, by Jack Cheng
Patina, by Jason Reynolds
Orphan Island, by Laurel Snyder

I'm excited for the discussion, and to see what our group votes to the top!

Monday, December 11, 2017

2018 Contenders: Patina, by Jason Reynolds

One of the perennial questions that comes up in Newbery discussions is whether or not a given book "stands alone" -- that is, can the reader easily find their way into and out of it without having already read a book that comes before it, or needing to read another that comes afterward.

To be clear, there's nothing in the Newbery criteria that require a winner to stand alone. Indeed, the committee has, on occasion, given the gold medal to books that almost certainly don't. (The High King [1969] is probably the most obvious, but arguments can also be made about The Grey King [1976] and Dicey's Song [1983] at least.) It's something of a rarity, however.

All of this brings us to Patina, the second novel in Jason Reynolds' Track series. It follows 2016's Ghost, which I had missed, and will be followed by Sunny, which is scheduled to be published in April of next year. (One assumes that, at the very least, Lu will follow at some point thereafter.) At any rate, I approached Patina without having any background knowledge of the series, and for what it's worth, I found it difficult when separated from the rest of its series.

The Track books each follow one of the four new runners on the Defenders track team. Patina Jones, the title character of Patina, is trying to prepare to run a relay race for the first time, while also dealing with many challenges off the track. Her mother is largely disabled, and so Patina and her younger sister, Maddy, are living with their uncle and aunt. Patina, who is black, is attending a new school, an upper-class, heavily white, private academy; it's a vastly different place from her previous, more integrated, public school. She's trying to take care of herself, while at the same time looking out for her younger sister, and the pressure wears on her.

I was able to catch up to the story eventually, but the first chapter especially left me feeling ungrounded; it was full of characters I felt like I should already know, in a setting that felt like it should have been familiar. And (spoiler alert!) the novel ends with Patina running the last leg of her relay, sprinting for the finish line, and then...well, I don't know. There's no conclusion at all -- it's a pure cliffhanger, which one assumes will be resolved in the next book.

Patina has plenty of good points -- the characterization and voice, especially, are clear and strong. The pacing seemed off to me, but it's possible that problem might disappear in the context of the whole series. But make no mistake: this book demands to be read in concert with the others. I found it difficult indeed to evaluate in a vacuum. If I had to guess, the fact that Patina doesn't stand alone will probably keep it off the Newbery podium this year; I'll be curious to see how my opinion of it changes, however, when I read the whole series.

Published in August by Atheneum / Simon & Schuster

Monday, November 20, 2017

2018 Contenders: See You in the Cosmos, by Jack Cheng

Alex Petroski is an 11-year-old boy from Colorado who loves astronomy, rocketry, and cosmology in general. He has a rocket that he hopes to launch at the Southwest High-Altitude Rocket Festival; his goal is to get the rocket into outer space, where it will carry his "golden iPod" out into the universe, just like the "golden records" carried by the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes. Although his father is dead, his mother is clearly suffering from mental health problems, and his older brother is far away in Los Angeles, Alex heads off to the festival alone, planning to meet up with some of his friends from an online rocketry forum on his way there. His journey ends up taking him not only to the festival, but much further afield as well. Through it all, Alex continues to record to his iPod, and these narrations form the text of this quasi-epistolary novel.

See You in the Cosmos has received some stellar reviews, and I've heard Newbery buzz around it as well. In some senses, I can see why. Many of the supporting characters feel real and well-developed -- I'm thinking here especially of Ronnie and Terra -- and the book hits some heavy themes, especially in its second half, with an admirable open-heartedness. However, I'm not entirely sold on the novel, largely due to Alex himself, whom I was never able to fully believe in.

Alex is OBSESSED, in an all-caps kind of way, with Carl Sagan. He's intimately familiar with the original Cosmos, has seen Contact some uncountable number of times, and even owns a Sagan-style sweater. Heck, his dog's name is actually Carl Sagan. When Alex refers to Sagan, he often calls him "my hero." This isn't a passing fancy; this is integral to Alex's character and identity.

And...I just had a hard time buying it. The novel is clearly contemporary -- it's full of references to Snapchat, Yelp, and Google maps. As such, Alex would have been born in 2006 or so. And yet, the original Cosmos aired in 1980; Sagan died in 1996, and Contact came out in 1997. Alex's fixation on Sagan would have been like me being 11 and refusing to stop talking about George Gamow. I was a weird, weird kid with some off-the-wall interests, and that would have been a bridge too far even for me.

I could maybe have believed it if Alex's hero was, say, Neil DeGrasse Tyson; my stepdaughter is 11, and she not only knows who Tyson is, but likes him well enough to have expressed a desire to read his books. But, although Alex does mention Tyson once (in the context of Cosmos), that scene just reminded me of Martin Prince's opinions on Ray Bradbury:

Perhaps time has made me cynical. Perhaps there's some kid out there who could legitimately serve as a model for Alex. But I note with some unease when adult authors give child characters anachronistic interests, be they Carl Sagan, Heloise's Hints, or knowing the exact time that a network TV show airs, as if on-demand had never been invented. It usually feels to me like the authors are breaking the illusion of the fictional world they're creating, interrupting my willing suspension of disbelief. I couldn't help but compare Alex unfavorably to someone like Joey Pigza, who's much more easily recognizable as a real kid. (This is especially true since The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza deals with many of the same deep themes as See You in the Cosmos). 

However, in other ways, Alex is deeply authentic. (His paragraph-long run-on sentences, in particular, sound exactly like conversations I've had with kids that age.) Indeed, the prose itself is exemplary, and as I mentioned at the start of this review, there's a lot to like about the novel. If it's easier for you to believe in Alex's love of Sagan, you may well enjoy this book much more than I did. But this is one where, although I see why people adore it, I can't necessarily bring myself to love it myself.

Published in February by Dial/Penguin