Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Newbery Wayback Machine: Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, by Rachel Field (1930)

Hitty, Her First Hundred Years is narrated by the titular character, a doll carved from a piece of mountain ash wood by a peddler in Maine in the early 1800s. She recounts her adventures, which took her to the South Seas, India, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and sundry other places in the hands of a succession of owners, before finally arriving at an antique shop in New York City.

I can understand why people at the time enjoyed Hitty. It's several different adventure stories at once, with a protagonist that allows the action to shift from one place to another without the usual time constraints. If you're interested in a panorama of at least some parts of 1800s and early 1900s America, Hitty might well appeal to a 1930 version of you.

I would opine, however, that, even if we adjust our standards to "1920s and 30s kidlit," Hitty is...pretty racist, actually. Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, Indians, and African Americans all come in for unflattering and exoticizing portrayals. The "dialect" conversations of the Black characters made me cringe, the descriptions of Bombay are all kinds of offensive, and although Hitty makes some attempt to show that the "Injuns" aren't really anything to be afraid of, that passage leaves many unpleasant statements unexamined. (For example, "[the Native Americans]'ve got baskets and things to sell, but he said you couldn't trust 'em round the corner.") But the South Seas section is the worst offender -- when the bone-in-the-nose islanders take Hitty and worship her as an idol, it's exactly as bad as you might fear.

Also, I have to say that I found Hitty a tiresome companion. She comes across to me as hopelessly judgmental, prone to abusing superlatives, and obsessed with her own appearance. I'd be tempted to shove her into the back of the horsehair couch too, if that's how she was going to act. There's some humor, I suppose, in a doll with all of the concerns and values of a rather unpleasant great-aunt, but a) I don't think it's intentional, and b) it's more or less impossible to sustain over 200 pages.

As much as I disliked Hitty -- and I'd rank it near the bottom of the Newbery winners I've read -- I don't have an opinion as to what should have won instead. Six Honor books were named, but I've never heard of them other than as titles on the list; I also can't think of any books left off the Newbery list that should have been chosen. It's hard for me to think of a modern reader I'd recommend Hitty to, however, unless you're a Newbery completist too.

Monday, May 8, 2017

2018 Contenders: Donald Trump: Outspoken Personality and President, by Jill Sherman

*deeeeeeeeeeeep breath*

I stopped by my local library the other day, and was browsing the shelf of new children's books. It turned out that the new batch of presidential biographies written after Donald Trump's win had arrived, and I couldn't resist taking this one home to have a look at it.

The presidential election of 2016 probably wasn't the nastiest of all time. (I've always enjoyed the tales of 1800's election, which featured, among other things, Thomas Jefferson's supporters accusing John Adams of having "a hideous hermaphroditical character," and Adams' supporters in turn spreading rumors that Jefferson had actually died, at a time when that was a lot harder to fact-check.) It was, however, the most deeply unpleasant of my lifetime, and I was curious to see how Jill Sherman would choose to address this unpleasantness in Donald Trump: Outspoken Personality and President.

The answer is that Sherman largely sidesteps the issue. She does mention that Trump's announcement of his candidacy contained statements that "immigrants can bring problems to the United States," but there's no mention of what kind of problems Trump mentioned, or of the fact that his comments specifically targeted Mexicans. There's no mention at all of Trump's Access Hollywood tape (or indeed, of any of his questionable remarks about women), of the proposed border wall, or of Trump's role in the "birther" movement. There's a bland mention that "Trump made other controversial statements that some people considered to be offensive," but that's about it. (It does, however, briefly explain the scandal about Hillary Clinton's emails.)

In fairness, I wouldn't have wished the job of writing this book on my worst enemy. At a time of deep political polarization, writing a biography about one of the most controversial candidates in the country's history is a thankless task. I'm not actually sure it's possible to write a successful version of this book; I am certain that it's impossible to write a version of it that would please everyone. I should also mention that the first part of the book, dealing with Trump's pre-political life, works better than the second part. But it's easy to see how hard Sherman is struggling to present a neutral view of her subject, and the seams, so to speak, never stop showing.

Presidential biographies do actually have a proud history in the Newbery rolls. In addition to Lincoln: A Photobiography, Russell Freedman's 1988 winner, the list of Honor books includes Leader By Destiny: George Washington, Man and Patriot (Jeanette Eaton, 1939); George Washington's WorldAbraham Lincoln's World, and George Washington (Genevieve Foster, 1942, 1945, 1950); and Abraham Lincoln, Friend of the People and Theodore Roosevelt, Fighting Patriot (Clara Ingram Judson, 1951, 1954). But there's essentially no chance of Donald Trump: Outspoken Personality and President joining them at next year's YMAs.

Published in April by Lerner Publications

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

2018 Contenders: Posted, by John David Anderson

Once more (with feeling!), we're participating in a blog tour for a new title from Walden Press. I was excited to be asked to join this one, because it meant that I got an advance copy of the new John David Anderson novel, Posted.

I wanted to read this one because I loved Anderson's book from last year, Ms. Bixby's Last Day. That one picked up four starred reviews and a fair amount of awards buzz, though it didn't end up taking anything at the YMAs. I was curious to see how Anderson would choose to follow that particular title.

Posted, as it happens, shares many of the qualities of Ms. Bixby. Both books tackle difficult questions with wide-eyed realism combined with a deep empathy; both deal with the dynamics of small groups of friends under trying circumstances; and both feature fitting, but bittersweet endings. Both books also showcase what I think of as Anderson's greatest talent as a writer: his virtuoso ability to reproduce the voice, cadence, and thoughts of middle-schoolers. To me, all of his characters sound authentic, which is easy to talk about, but fiendishly difficult to achieve.

Posted is narrated by Eric "Frost" Voss, an eighth-grader at Branton Middle School in Michigan. When cell phones are banned from school, Frost and his friends -- Deedee, Wolf, and Bench -- take to leaving sticky notes on each others' lockers in lieu of texting. This practice soon spreads, with consequences that soon spiral far beyond the control of Frost's circle. Additionally, the arrival of a new girl, Rose, puts a strain on the group's cohesiveness. The confluence of events leads to what Frost repeatedly refers to as a "war," the consequences of which are far-reaching indeed.

As I mentioned earlier, Posted gives readers a lot to like. I have a few questions about the structure of the book -- it's a little long, and I'm unconvinced that the initial two-page prologue is actually necessary. Those are quibbles, however, and it would surprise me if Posted doesn't attract positive notice from reviewers and readers. If I were still working a service desk, I'd recommend Posted to readers who enjoyed Wonder, Twerp, or Frindle, all of which explore at least some of the same themes and have similarly strong characters.

Publication in May by Walden Pond Press / HarperCollins Children's

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Newbery Wayback Machine: ...And Now Miguel, by Joseph Krumgold (1954)

Twelve-year-old Miguel Chavez's family raise sheep in New Mexico. Each summer, the men take the sheep into the pasture, high in the Sangre de Christo Mountains. More than anything, Miguel wishes to take his place among the men and join them in the mountains. However, as Miguel finds, even when wishes come true, there's a cost.

...And Now Miguel is a quiet, thoughtful book, one that succeeds largely on the strength of Miguel's first-person narration. I've read a lot of books told in the first person, but very few in which the character's personality comes through as strongly. Miguel is, in many ways, a precocious twelve-year-old, but he's still only twelve. He is frustrated by the things he doesn't understand, loses patience with others when his plans don't go as expected, and doesn't always know how to express himself so others will know what he means. But he has a big heart, fierce family loyalty, and a burning desire to figure out how the world around him works.

Miguel is always pensive, and surprised me at times with its depth. Near the end of the book, Miguel and his older brother Gabriel have a theological conversation about the ways that the Saints do -- or don't -- intervene in the world; almost any adult author would be proud to work a conversation as carefully considered into their novels. It's also noteworthy that, as in Joseph Krumgold's other Newbery winner, Onion John (1960 award), this is a book without any villains. There are only people trying to do the right thing as they understand it, who sometimes come into conflict with each other.

Miguel had a somewhat complicated genesis. Krumgold was a screenwriter, and was hired by the US State Department to produce a narrative documentary on rural Hispanic workers. The resulting hour-long film, also titled ...And Now Miguel, also came out in 1953. The committee apparently still considered the novel version an "original work" for Newbery purposes. 

I've seen the documentary, which is available in full on YouTube. Like the novel, though in a different way, it captures the wide, seemingly empty vistas of New Mexico, and the introspection that such a place can engender. The most immediately noticeable difference is that the film contains no dialogue at all -- just Miguel's narration, and some not-entirely-convincing Foley work. (My guess is that it was shot using a camera that didn't have the capability of recording audio.)

The plot, in its essentials, is the same in both the film and the novel, which leads me to another question. The film comes billed as a documentary, but the plot is so tightly constructed, and the narrative scenes in particular so obviously staged, that I can't help but wonder if the story actually happened or not. I don't know, but my library's copy of Miguel was filed in the fiction section, and that may be the best way to engage with it.

(As a side note, it's fascinating to note the way that the film plays up its patriotic message in the scene near the end with Gabriel and Miguel, while completely leaving out the theological questions that preoccupy Miguel in the book. Perhaps Krumgold felt more free to move in that direction when producing material that wouldn't be published under the aegis of the State Department.)

Five Honor books were named in 1954, including two different Meindert De Jong titles (Shadrach and Hurry Home, Candy). None of them, however, are likely to be familiar to most present-day readers. The one book from that publishing year that retains the most fans wasn't eligible -- The Silver Chair, by Irish-born British writer C.S. Lewis. ...And Now Miguel was a solid choice for the Newbery medal then, and remains readable and interesting today.

Monday, March 27, 2017

2018 Contenders: Short, by Holly Goldberg Sloan

ShortJulia is very short for her age (twelve). She's planning to spend her summer being short and missing her recently departed dog, but her mother makes her audition for a semi-professional production of The Wizard of Oz instead. To her own surprise, Julia is cast as a munchkin. The rest of the book is your typical coming of age plot with a lot of theater flavor thrown in. By the end, you will be unsurprised to learn, Julia has truly "grown."

(Ok, first of all, why would you call your book Short? Have you never been on the internet? What do you think is going to happen when someone googles "Short book review"? I couldn't even find it on Goodreads until I searched by "person who wrote Counting By 7s."


The best parts of Short are centered around the show business details of putting on a play. I'm enough of a theater nerd that I enjoyed the backstage shenanigans and technical details about costuming and wire work. There were lots of appealing secondary characters such as the aging director, the unexpectedly talented elderly neighbor, and the other adults in the cast and crew.

Then again, this is the second middle grade book I've read recently in which adult characters far outnumber child characters, and I'm not sure what I think about this trend. I suspect such books are more appealing to adults than children, because we adult readers sure do love to think about young people learning a thing or two from our fascinating lives. In my experience, if you're going to sell a kid on a book full of adults, they'd better be adult animals.

The narration in Short is first-person and I found Julia's voice funny in a believably (sometimes irritating) twelve-year-old way. She's trying to find her place in the world, and she spends a lot of time testing out reactions and humor on the people around her, which rang true. Kudos to Holly Goldberg Sloan for striking the right balance between funny and awkward with this character. No twelve-year-old is funny all the time - especially to adults.

I doubt that Short will get serious Newbery consideration, but it will definitely find its readers. I found myself wanting to recommend it to fans of Better Nate Than Ever, but I think the readership skews younger for this one. It might be a good choice for kids who are too young for Nate. 

Published in January by Dial Books

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Shiny Silver Medals: The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg, by Rodman Philbrick (2010 Honor)

The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg is a hard book to describe. For the first two-thirds of the novel, it's very much in the vein of something like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. We follow the titular protagonist as he searches for his brother, Harold, who has been forced into the Union army during the Civil War, marveling at the foibles and schemes of the adults Homer encounters, and laughing at his over-the-top lies. But then it takes a hard left turn into The Red Badge of Courage territory (even nicking that book's climactic plot point), becoming something of a meditation on the horrors of war.

The first part of Mostly True Adventures is fun and clever, but also fits into an established strain of children's literature. However, precious few children's novels are willing to go anywhere near as deep into the battlefields of the American Civil War. (Only Rifles for Watie, Harold Keith's 1958 Newbery winner, springs immediately to mind, and that one is, shall we say, a much less engaging read.) To me, the most effective and moving part of the book takes place near the end, as Homer rides desperately across the Gettysburg battlefield. It breaks into a poetic, all-caps series of brief descriptions of the horrors that Homer sees, ending with the gut punch of "THINGS TOO TERRIBLE TO WRITE, FOR FEAR THE PAGE WILL BURN. / THINGS BEST FORGOT."

Indeed, my 13-year-old daughter enjoyed the book, but opined that the contents of those last few chapters should have made Mostly True Adventures a YA book. I wouldn't go that far -- I think Homer's first-person narration keeps the book from fully tipping into YA territory -- but I certainly understand where she's coming from.

The final page is a brilliant, moving conclusion, and the novel on the whole is a true piece of art. It had no chance to win the 2010 Newbery -- nothing was going to beat When You Reach Me that year -- but the Honor it did take home is well-deserved.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Winner's Circle: The Girl Who Drank the Moon (2017)

For our fantastic three-way review of this year's Newbery winner, The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, we came up with a few burning questions each, and then asked and answered them in an online chat session, so you could bear witness our witty repartee. Without further ado...

First, let's try to summarize the book in thirty words!

Rachael: Babies are left in the woods to be claimed by an evil witch. The baby-claiming witch is not actually evil, but there is evil afoot. Also dragons and swamp monsters.

Sam: Plutocrats, propagandists, and sadists are defeated by an Indigo Child, a failed bureaucrat, an ex-ninja nun, a witch, a swamp god, and a motley host of other characters.

Rachael: Show-off.

Tess: Creepy town ruled by totalitarian regime requires yearly infant sacrifices. One of these babies is secretly adopted by a witch, grows powerfully magical, and learns to conquer fear with love.

What did you think of Barnhill's world building?

Sam: I appreciated Barnhill's ability to mention things in passing, to give the impression that the world extends beyond the boundaries of the book covers. Her world's "creation story" is a good example of this - we get a sort of poetic form of it, but we never really get into the details of it.

Rachael: I'm not sure if that's a bug or a feature, but I agree that we only get a fuzzy idea of the parameters of this world. What I did like was the way she reveals it in sort of slow, concentric circles - first just the Protectorate, then Xan and the other towns, and then some sense of the history and origins.

Tess: For some reason, I thought the book was going to be set in east Asia, or some east Asian inspired fantasy locale. I think because the cover, which is really lovely, has paper cranes on it, and reminded me of the covers of some of Grace Lin's books. Also because the first character we meet in earnest is named Xan. And the walled city of the Protectorate reminded me of walled palaces I have visited in China and Korea. When I realized that the setting is not meant to be Asian, or Asian inspired, that the fantasy world of the novel isn't meant to be comparable to anywhere specific in our real world, I had trouble adjusting. So I guess you could say that's evidence that Barnhill's world building didn't really work for me. I found the poetic fuzziness a little distracting. Instead of just accepting Glerk is a world-creating bog monster with multiple appendages, I kept really wishing there was a more detailed description or even an illustration of him. That's just me though! I could see how it would totally work for another reader.

What did you think of the political undertones of the story?

Sam: I'm gonna be honest here and say that I thought the politics of the book gave it some of its weakest moments. I'm thinking specifically here of the Elders of the Protectorate, whose contempt for the populace and unabashed love of luxury goods and status symbols don't provide for much in the way of nuance or depth. It would be a more interesting book, I think, if its villains had more complexity.

Tess: Reading this book within the context of our current political climate, I found the political undertones of the story very intriguing. The idea of a government controlling its citizens through fear fueled by misinformation and isolationism really resonated with me. And the message that that can be combated and corrected with hope, love, and acceptance is one I think is important for readers, particularly young readers, to be exposed to.

Rachael: I found that it hit close to home as well, given our current political climate. That makes me wonder how it will age, though.

What did you think of the pacing? 

Tess: The pacing, honestly, wasn't my favorite part of the novel, but historically books where the focus shifts chapter by chapter, especially when the chapters are short, are hard for me. I felt like there were several distinct storylines going on, and not necessarily simultaneously, and the shifts in perspective from one character to another weren't seamless for me, so the pacing felt very stop-and-go, and made me feel generally impatient.

Rachael: I had the same kinds of feelings. It reminded me a little bit of Keeper [by Kathi Appelt, 2012] in that there was a constant sense of urgency, but after it didn't lead anywhere for a couple of hundred pages, I lost interest. Too much of a sense of "building to something big" without enough momentum to carry it along.

Tess: I think the "hurry up and slow down" pacing worked a little better in Keeper because the sea is a constant motif in that book, and the pacing felt a bit like the rising and falling of tides. The pacing in that book felt more purposeful than the pacing in this book.

Sam: I felt like it would have been a lot better of a book if the first 200 pages or so had been condensed down to 50. When the plot finally gets rolling, it's consistently interesting, but that doesn't really happen until everyone finally leaves the farm. I remember when I was taking poetry writing classes, I'd consistently be asked to chop off the first two stanzas of whatever it was I'd written, since that was just whatever I had to get out in order to write my way into the meat of the thing. I'm not sure we need all that backstory. The various visits to the tower and all the details of Stargirl's childhood? It's all beautifully written; I'm unconvinced it actually NEEDS to be there.

Rachael: That's the thing - the sentence-level prose is lovely. I feel like that should be mentioned.

Sam: Yeah. Any given sentence is truly wonderful. I just wanted it to meander less and just briefly hit the points that we actually need to know when we get into the meat of the plot.

What did you think about the choice to have so many adult characters in a children's novel?

Tess: Personally, as a librarian, I love books like this, where there are equally interesting adult and child characters, because I can suggest them to any age group, particularly folks looking for a "family read" that everyone in their family - little kids, big kids, parents, grandparents - could hypothetically enjoy.

Sam: I think you make really good points, Tess! I'd also add that I think part of the reason that this decision works is that Barnhill pulls the neat trick of letting us see many of the most important adult characters as children. We get scenes from Antain and Ethyne's childhood, flashbacks to Xan's, and even bits of Sister Ignatia's. I think that makes it even easier for a child reader to identify with the adult characters.

Rachael: Xan also has something of the childlike adult in her, in the tradition of Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, etc. I think that makes it work as well.

What did you think of the ending? 

Rachael: I'm of a few different minds. On one hand, I love a book with lots of threads that finally come together in a satisfying way in the conclusion. On the other hand, as we discussed in the pacing question, I think Barnhill spends too much time stringing us along so that I was worn out as a reader before we got to the finish line. One thing I did appreciate though was Luna's reunion with her mother. It was nice to see a book that didn't feel the need to leave a child motherless in order for her to grow.

Sam: I agree with you on that last point especially, Rachael. I was kind of put off by the ending as a whole though, to be honest, and it had to do with the treatment of Sister Ignatia. She's spent the whole book as this implacable presence, and then we suddenly get an explanation for what's actually driving her. But... the book drops that idea almost as soon as it picks it up, and seems almost to forget about her during the coda. I don't always expect a redemption arc - the Grand Elder doesn't get one, and that seems fitting - but the treatment of Sister Ignatia at the end seemed remarkably incurious to me.

Rachael: I agree.

Tess: I also had mixed feels. As for the eruption that was coming that only Luna's extreme magic could save everyone from? Honestly? Meh. Especially since we don't even get to see what happens, we just get a flash forward to some time afterward. But I enjoyed all the stuff about the literal fog lifting from the Protectorate as its citizens get to live free from the tyranny of Sister Ignatia and her puppet Elders. And I actually loved the stuff about how even though Luna's mother is back in her life, she still loves her adoptive family, much like the star children who eventually return to the Protectorate. Their love is described as "multiplied, not divided" which I thought was really beautiful.

If you had to pair this one with another children's book or author, what would you choose?

Sam: So, this is maybe unfair of me, but as I was reading The Girl Who Drank the Moon, one of the things I felt like I was coming to understand even more was the genius of Anne Ursu. Ursu and Barnhill are both from the same group of Minnesota children's writers; heck, Ursu is actually thanked in the notes for The Girl Who Drank the Moon. They share similar concerns, such as the place in society for people who don't quite fit in, what happens when a normal-looking world is actually terrifying just below the surface, and how it's impossible to fully understand the world and everything in it. But Ursu is, IMHO, one of the most talented and meticulous of all of our American children's writers. Ursu carefully, methodically, only ever gives you shades of gray, and Barnhill can't resist the broad stroke. Barnhill may be more of a crowd-pleaser; it's probably easier to love The Girl Who Drank the Moon than it is to love Breadcrumbs for a lot of people. But the difference between the two is the difference between a good book and one of the most jaw-dropping achievements in modern children's literature.

Tess: Those are some deep thoughts Sam. I was just thinking that generally kids at my library love books about characters who discover they have magic powers and have to learn how to use them, so my instinct is to pair this book with books like the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, and the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. But those books center on male protagonists, so I'm especially happy for this book's female representation.

Sam: You're probably thinking more like an actual children's librarian making actual recommendations to actual children than I am! And I definitely agree with you on the female representation issue.

Rachael: My mind keeps going to Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, for some reason. I think it's because I connected with this book more as a mother than as an imagined child, and there's no better portrait of motherhood in children's lit than Mrs. Frisby.

Any closing thoughts?

Sam: I think we've all learned a valuable lesson here.

Tess: LOL

Rachael: Um... I liked this book better than it sounds like I did?

Tess: There you have it folks!