Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Rachael's Departure and Greatest Hits

It's with a heavy heart -- but also with a lot of gratitude -- that I announce that Rachael Stein, who co-founded this blog with me back in January 2012, will no longer be contributing in this space. She's moved to the exciting (and important!) world of correctional libraries, and won't be involved in children's services in her new position, and so she felt it was time to step away from For Those About to Mock.

I could tell you about the professional debt I owe her, how I probably wouldn't have become involved in ALSC, or participated in the Morris Seminar, or known half of what I know about children's literature without her. But instead, I'd like to invite you to take a stroll back in time to revisit some of her greatest hits.

- Rachael was (and is) a huge fan of Jeanne Birdsall's Penderwicks books. In her review of The Penderwicks in Spring, which was Rachael's most-read post of all time, she provides a thoughtful, nuanced examination of the penultimate volume in that series. Also worth a second look is her final review for this site, a discussion of the series' conclusion, The Penderwicks At Last.

- I always appreciated Rachael's ability to defend her opinions about books, even if they were a bit out of the mainstream. To take two stellar examples, witness her argue for the Newbery eligibility of Tom McNeal's Far Far Away, and then thrill to her encomium of the "only skink" in her review of Polly Horvath's Mr. and Mrs. Bunny -- Detectives Extraordinaire! 

- Rachael's writing was often at its most entertaining when she encountered a book she really didn't care for. One of my favorite instances is her review of The Island of Dr. Libris, by Chris Grabenstein ("...if you hand it to to the literary-minded kids you know, I won't even judge you. Much."). And then there's her legendary look back at Eric P. Kelly's 1929 Newbery winner, The Trumpeter of Krakow, which she at one point refers to as "Project Runway: Medieval Krakow."

Farewell from this space, Rachael! The correctional library is lucky to have you!

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Newbery Wayback Machine: Miracles on Maple Hill, by Virginia Sorensen (1957)

I'll confess: it took me a long time to get through Miracles on Maple Hill, Virginia's Sorensen's 1957 Newbery winner. Much, much longer than it should have taken to finish a breezy, episodic novel that clocks in at well under 200 pages.

Admittedly, books about the Magical Restorative Power of Country Living are a hard sell for this city kid. In Miracles, Marly, her older brother Joe, and her parents move from Pittsburgh to rural Pennsylvania, where Marly's mother once lived. Over time, this heals her family, provides her with a sense of genuine wonder, and even seems to completely cure her father's PTSD (which stems from his experiences in a POW camp, though it's never really explained what exactly happened to him, or even whether he served in WWII or Korea).

To be fair, a handful of my all-time favorite children's books are at least in part paeans to rural life (Twelve Kinds of Ice, Sarah, Plain and Tall), or feature characters whose lives are changed for the better after moving to the country (The Story Girl). But Twelve Kinds of Ice contains some of the most arresting prose I've ever read in a children's book, while Sarah, Plain and Tall and The Story Girl could be used in a master class on characterization. On the other hand, the prose in Miracles certainly has moments, but isn't consistently brilliant, and the characters often seemed one-note or flat to me -- the interactions between Marly and Joe, in particular, begin with a real grain of truth, but often seem to deteriorate into "girls and boys sure are different, aren't they?"

This last point feels like crux of the matter, because these kinds of loosely-plotted mid-century family novels live and die by the strength of their characters. When it works, you get Ramona Quimby, or Homer Price, or the Pye family. When it doesn't, there's a limit to how memorable the book can be, and I think that's a huge part of my problem with Miracles. It's not bad, but the lack of dimension to the main characters keeps the book from sticking in the mind, and even the avuncular Mr. Chris and the strangely dignified Harry the Hermit don't have enough depth to compensate.

Certainly, Miracles isn't the book from its publishing year that's best remembered; Newbery-eligible favorites from 1956 include Fred Gipson's tearjerker Old Yeller, Edward Eager's magical Knight's Castle, and Gene Zion's playful Harry the Dirty Dog, while non-eligible classics include English author Dodie Smith's The Hundred and One Dalmatians, and Irish-Englishman C.S. Lewis' final Narnia novel, The Last Battle. I don't think the selection of Miracles was indefensible -- to some extent, I mistrust my opinion of a book for which I may just be the wrong reader -- but I also doubt that it would win if we were to give out the 1957 award again. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Newbery Wayback Machine: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O'Brien (1972)

Mrs. Frisby is a mouse, raising her four children alone after the death of her husband. When her youngest, Timothy, takes ill, Mrs. Frisby tries to find a way to help him -- a task that will take her into places she didn't know existed, and eventually lead her to a group of superintelligent rats, who have mysterious ties to her husband's life.

This brief summary hardly does justice to one of the genuine classics of American children's literature. It's a treasure of a book, one that, its high concept aside, works because of the real, lived-in relationships between its characters. This holds true not only for the novel's central relationships (such as those between Mrs. Frisby and Nicodemus; Mrs. Frisby and her children; and Nicodemus and Jenner in the flashback section), but for those that are more subsidiary (Brutus and Justin; Mr. Ages and Nicodemus), and even for those that exist at the very periphery of the story (Jeremy and the Owl; Mr. Fitzgibbon and Paul).

To move one step further back, the relationships work because the characters are so carefully defined. Each figure in the story has real hopes, dreams, sorrows, and fears. The mice and rats who occupy most of the novel's space are as emotionally rich as any human character would be. It helps that they occupy a world that's open-ended -- though the plot comes to a satisfying end, many threads aren't fully tied off, and many mysteries remain.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH also reads as a surprisingly, even defiantly feminist novel. Rachael has often referred to Mrs. Frisby herself as the greatest single mother in children's literature, and I think that's a more than fair opinion. Mrs. Frisby doesn't have the genetically engineered smarts of the rats and Mr. Ages, the ancient wisdom and intimidating presence of the Owl, or the overwhelming physical superiority of Mr. Fitzgibbon and the other humans. Yet, whether comforting her children, rescuing Jeremy the crow, or risking her life in putting sleeping powder in Dragon the cat's food (the same task that killed her husband!), Mrs. Frisby shows herself repeatedly to be the bravest, fiercest, most big-hearted character in the book. The rats may have the kind of patriarchal society in which "the females sometimes went to meetings and sometimes not," but without Mrs. Frisby, they'd all be dead by the end of the story. (Mrs. Frisby has only a handful of other female characters, but I'd also point to the shrew, who is willing to stand in the doorway of Mrs. Frisby's house to protect it from an entire group of much, much larger rats, although she's mistaken in their motivations, and the rats pose no danger.)

The literary career of Robert O'Brien (whose real name was Robert Conly) was an unfortunately curtailed one. Though a journalist by profession, working for such prestigious publications as Newsweek, the Washington Times-Herald, and National Geographic, he didn't begin writing novels until his mid-forties, when he developed glaucoma, and had to move closer to his office, freeing up for writing the time he had formerly used in commuting. He published three books during his lifetime, of which Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was the second; a fourth, Z for Zachariah, was completed from his notes by his wife and daughter following his tragic death from a heart attack at 55. However, even though we have only a few pieces of fiction from O'Brien's pen, Mrs. Frisby alone would have been enough to secure his legacy.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

2019 Contenders: A Friendly Town That's Almost Always by the Ocean, by Kir Fox and M. Shelley Coats

Davy Jones and his mother have just moved to the town of Topsea, and Davy is having a hard time adjusting to his strange new surroundings. His locker at school is at the bottom of the swimming pool, the mail is delivered by seagulls, and everyone seems to believe that dogs are a myth. On top of that, Davy is trying to work through his emotions regarding the recent loss of his father. Fortunately, he's developing a group of friends who can help him through, even in the strangest of circumstances.

The closest parallel I can think of to A Friendly Town That's Almost Always by the Ocean is actually a work for adults: the podcast/book/theatrical production series Welcome to Night Vale. Both take place in universes filled with Fortean/Lovecraftian weirdness, but are actually less about their settings, and more about the bonds of friendship and love that develop and grow even in the strangest surroundings. Both also work hard to develop a sense of mystery and wonder; there are far more plot hooks in A Friendly Town than there are resolutions, and I got the feeling that the book hardly even scratches the surface of Topsea's secrets. (This is the first in a planned series, and my ARC includes a teaser for the second book.)

That said, A Friendly Town doesn't quite have the emotional complexity of WTNV (or of its best point of comparison in children's media, the television series Gravity Falls). That's not really a knock on A Friendly Town, however, especially since the story that the book tells may come to a good stopping place, but clearly isn't finished. I also doubt that anything about the book will mitigate its appeal to its target audience -- budding horror/comedy readers and future Haunted USA viewers should be all over A Friendly Town like ants on candy.

The Newbery may be a harder hill to climb. A Friendly Town certainly has memorable characters and a fascinating setting, but it can't match the thematic power of something like The Button War, or the wistfully elegiac tone of The Penderwicks at Last. But be that as it may, I fully expect this to be a popular title at libraries, and a great title to booktalk.

Published in April by Disney/Hyperion

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

2019 Contenders: The Button War, by Avi

Patryk lives in a village in rural Poland, deep in the forest. His days are spent attending the village's tiny school, helping his father, who is a wheelwright, and engaging in hijinks with his six friends: Drugi, Makary, Raclaw, Ulryk, Wojtex, and Jurek. The village exists in near-total isolation; aside from the presence of a garrison of Russian soldiers, little from the outside world ever reaches into Patryk's life. However, two critical events change everything. First, World War I arrives with violence, beginning with a German airplane that destroys the school. Second, the darkly charismatic Jurek comes up with a dare, in which the boys have to steal "the best button" from the soldiers' uniforms. The winner will be the "Button King," to whom the other boys will have "to bow down." As the novel proceeds, the war gradually destroys their entire village, and the dare gradually destroys the boys.

That previous sentence, by the way, is not an exaggeration. This is a dark, dark book -- dark enough that I'm not sure I agree with the publisher's suggested age range of 10-14, as I'm having trouble conceiving of a 10-year-old who'd be ready for the emotional gut-punch that The Button War packs. By the novel's end, it's firmly into Joseph Conrad territory, and I don't think that's overstating the point. (Some spoilers follow.)

World War I was (in)famously one of the most opaquely motivated of major conflicts, and Avi does an excellent job of capturing that aspect of it. Though the village changes hands multiple times, and soldiers from at least four different nations make an appearance, the villagers generally regard the entire war in the same way they might think of an earthquake, or a meteor impact. Indeed, their reaction to the German soldiers' claim to have "liberated" the villagers is somewhere between bemusement and bewilderment. Like a natural disaster, the war cannot be understood or stopped. The most that one can hope for is to escape its path without losing too much in the process.

The boys' button dare is similar. The buttons have almost no intrinsic value, and even the choice of them as a prize is arbitrary, driven by a random event at the beginning of the book. Yet, even though the majority of the boys wish to back away from the whole affair, they continue -- even after multiple deaths -- until the bitter, bitter ending.

The major reason is the presence of Jurek, who's a powerful antagonist. Of all the boys, he's the one closest to the fringes of society -- his parents are both dead, and he lives in a tiny shack with his sister, who ekes out a meager living by washing the Russian soldiers' uniforms, and with whom he is constantly fighting. It's obvious from the text that he's struggling with feelings of inferiority. His initial method of compensating is to declare himself to be a descendant of King BolesÅ‚aw, and thus the true owner of the entire forest. However, he keeps pushing further and further, and by the end of the book, he's a pure sociopath, capable of anything up to and including murder.

If he were only a sociopath, Jurek would be easily dealt with. But, as I mentioned above, he's also wildly charismatic -- even when the other boys have grave doubts about his ideas, or think of him as a lunatic, or actively dangerous, they're seemingly incapable of going against him, or even just ignoring him. True charisma can be a frightening thing, because it's utterly value-neutral. Someone who has it can be Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mick Jagger, or Grigori Rasputin, or Adolf Hitler. Through the character of Jurek, Avi takes a painfully long look at this fact, and what he finds is unsettling.

Avi, of course, already has a Newbery Medal in his pocket (Crispin: The Cross of Lead, 2003). The Button War certainly excels in its setting, and in its powerful anti-war and anti-herd mentality themes. I don't know if the Newbery committee would be willing to give the award to a book this bleak -- if it were to win, I feel like it would race past Sounder and The Giver and even The Slave Dancer as the grimmest book in the Newbery canon. But its merits are sufficient to deserve a close look anyway.

Published in June by Candlewick Press

Thursday, June 28, 2018

2019 Contenders: The Parker Inheritance, by Varian Johnson

Candice Miller is not enthusiastic about spending the summer in Lambert, South Carolina, the small town where her grandmother used to live and work. It’s not just that her grandmother’s legacy as the first woman and the first African American to serve as City Manager was besmirched by a scandal, but Candice is also worried about present events in her more immediate family – her parents are divorcing, and she and her mother are in Lambert while Candice’s father fixes up their Atlanta house for sale. But when a mysterious letter leads Candice to dig deeper into the story behind her grandmother’s dismissal, the summer promises to get a whole lot more interesting. With the help of Brandon Jones, a book-loving neighbor from across the street, Candice learns about an ugly incident in the town’s history, and the reason that, years later, her grandmother thought that there might be treasure buried under the municipal tennis courts.

This book is not afraid to tackle some big issues, though it does so with a light touch. Candice and Brandon dig into the town’s history of segregation and racism, and readers get a front-row seat to a tennis match between teams from the town’s segregated high schools, and the violent aftermath. There are also present-day issues of bullying, LGBTQ rights, intolerance, and the way the past affects the present. It seems like a lot, and this book is packed pretty full of issues, but Johnson brings everything together into a cohesive whole. It’s timely, well-written, and entirely age-appropriate for middle-grade readers, without softening the harsh truth.

As a puzzle mystery, this book is a little less successful. The clues to the puzzle are all in the letter Candice finds among her grandmother’s belongings, but it’s unlikely that young readers (or even many adult readers) would be able to puzzle them out as Candice and Brandon do. There’s a reference to a mathematical concept that isn’t typically taught outside of calculus courses, plus certain mental leaps that aren’t immediately clear. Readers who want logic puzzles that they can work out along with the characters may be disappointed.

So, is this book a Newbery contender?  I think it’s a title worthy of discussion, at the very least. Will the weaknesses in the puzzle-novel conceit outweigh the strong writing, the well-defined and developed characters, the interpretation of theme, and the appropriateness of style present in this book? Only time will tell!

Published in March by Arthur A. Levine Books

Misti Tidman is the Collection Development Librarian for Youth Materials at the Mansfield/Richland County Public Library (Ohio). She is also one of the bloggers at Guessing Geisel.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Newbery Wayback Machine: A Year Down Yonder, by Richard Peck (2001)

It is 1937, and Mary Alice's father has lost his job and his apartment. While he and Mary Alice's mother move into a single room, and older brother Joey heads off to join the Civilian Conservation Corps, Mary Alice herself is shuttled away from Chicago, and down to Grandma Dowdel's home in rural Illinois. A Year Down Yonder does indeed cover nearly a year in Mary Alice's life, as she learns to navigate her new school, comes to understand the rhythms of small-town life, and bonds with her grandmother, an imposing woman whose gruff, threatening exterior conceals a caring heart.

In many ways, Richard Peck's novel, which won the 2001 Newbery Medal, was even at the time something of a throwback. Featuring a protagonist who is 15 at the book's outset, and consisting of a series of vignettes rather than a single, unified story, A Year Down Yonder reminded me of Anne of Avonlea (1909), It's Like This, Cat (1963), and similar episodic books that feature a teenage protagonist, but appeal to younger readers.

I'm unconvinced that Yonder is anything like as effective as the two novels that I mentioned, however -- although I'll also freely admit that what we may actually be looking at is my personal biases and tastes as a reader. It's a short book -- a mere 130 pages in my copy -- and I just don't feel like it has anything like enough room to develop the secondary characters sufficiently. This was especially true given the ending (spoiler alert!), in which an adult Mary Alice returns to her grandmother's house and marries Royce McNabb, who moves to town halfway through the book. But Royce has barely a dozen speaking lines in the novel, and I didn't feel like I knew him well enough for that ending to have any emotional heft.

From what I've read, a lot of the love for A Year Down Yonder (and its predecessor, A Long Way From Chicago, which Honored in 1999) comes from a love for the character of Grandma Dowdel, who is at the book's center. The thing is...I just didn't like her very much. She has a great deal of kindness towards the unfortunate and downtrodden, but she also has a streak of vindictiveness that was hard for me to deal with, and a tendency to kill mosquitoes with sledgehammers, metaphorically speaking. When the town boys are knocking down outhouses for their Halloween pranks, Grandma deals with this by...setting up a trip wire in her back yard, hiding, and then, once the lead boy has tripped on the wire and broken his nose on the concrete walk, throwing glue all over him. The whole story reminded me of nothing so much as this xkcd cartoon:

Similarly, later in the book, Grandma Dowdel's artist boarder has managed to sneak the local postmistress into the attic, and is painting her in the nude. The snake that lives in the attic falls on the postmistress, who runs screaming downstairs, and then begins to run back to her house, sans clothes. What does Grandma do? Why, she says, "That's too good a show to keep to ourselves," and goes outside and fires off her shotgun so that everyone in town will look outside to see what's happening and catch an eyeful of the postmistress. I think that's intended as comedic, but I gotta tell you, it just left me feeling icky.

A lot of people love this book, and so your take on it may be radically different from mine. But I'm not a fan, and would have preferred the Newbery to go to a different title that year -- perhaps one of the four Honor books, which included Because of Winn-Dixie and Joey Pigza Loses Control.