Wednesday, September 2, 2015

2016 Contenders: Watch Out for Flying Kids!, by Cynthia Levinson

I first heard rumblings about Watch Out for Flying Kids! around a year ago. I was immediately interested, since I thought Cynthia Levinson's last book, We've Got a Job, was excellent, and youth social circuses seemed like a fascinating topic for a nonfiction book. It sounded like a winning combination.

Having now finally been able to obtain and read a copy of Watch Out for Flying Kids!, it pains me to say that this title doesn't hang together as well as We've Got a Job. I think there are two main problems that prevent this one from reaching the heights of its predecessor, and I think it's useful to talk about both of them.

One of the things I really liked about We've Got a Job was the way it managed to intercut the stories of four individual children with the larger events of the Birmingham Children's March, and to do so without losing the thread of the narrative. Watch Out for Flying Kids! isn't much longer than We've Got a Job, but there are now eleven main characters (five kids from the St. Louis Arches, four from the Galilee Circus, and the adult director of each circus), as well as a host of secondary characters. I found it difficult even to keep track of the book's cast, and I felt like I didn't get to spend enough time with any of them for their stories to have weight and heft.

This is especially noticeable because, while We've Got a Job had a clear climax (the March itself), Watch Out for Flying Kids! doesn't really build to a specific moment in the same way. The personal stories of the performers could make up for that muted external narrative, but there are just too many of them, too thinly spread, for it to be effective. Similarly, although there's an overarching theme of learning to build bridges between mistrustful communities, that theme doesn't get a specific dénouement.

The second -- and in my mind, more serious -- problem has to do with the book's support apparatus. It spends four pages of the introduction on an Arabic and Hebrew pronunciation guide, but it contains no glossary of any kind. Because so much of the book is concerned with what's going on in the ring of the circus, and I don't really know the technical terms associated with circus work, that lack made the book nearly unreadable to me. Additionally, especially in the sections of the book set in Israel, there are many discussions of different towns and places, but the book doesn't contain a map. I also would have loved a quick "cast list" reference, but even though there's a sort of "where are they now" section in the afterword, it only included the "main characters."I found the book difficult going without those helps, and I think a child reader might have serious problems navigating the book without these customary aids.

It's clear that the stories of Watch Out for Flying Kids! mean a great deal to Levinson. I'm unconvinced, however, that she translates that importance so that readers can understand it. I'd love to see what Levinson does next, but I don't anticipate Watch Out for Flying Kids! showing up in the YMAs.

Published in August by Peachtree

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

2016 Second Takes: Circus Mirandus, by Cassie Beasley

Circus Mirandus.

The publisher hyped it.

Sam loved it. 

Brandy hated it.

As for me? Well, don't mess with me, folks, because I'm Mr. In Between.

I think first-time-novelist Cassie Beasley does a lot of things well in this book. Most notably, she pulls off that mothball-scented Olde Time Storyteller voice that can be magical and engaging, but is so often cloying and off-putting instead. I have spent a lot of time thinking about what it is, exactly, that makes a particular instance of this style effective or ineffective, and I've come up empty-handed. It may just boil down to personal taste. For me, it doesn't work in The Night Gardener or A Snicker of Magic. It does work in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, and it does work in Circus Mirandus. Your mileage may vary.

Also notable - possibly even more notable - is the way Beasley portrays an irredeemable character. Characters who are puuuuure eeeeeeville don't bother me, necessarily - I can appreciate a Cruella deVil - but I know that Sam hates them. So I had to ask him, after I finished Circus Mirandus: what makes Victoria different? His best answer was that she rings true as a sociopath, and I have to agree. She's less a mustache-twirling villain and more of a John Wayne Gacy. Which makes her scary as hell.

Finally: circuses. It's hard to sell me on them. The Night Circus is the first book that made me actually want to visit the circus in question, and that made me even more skeptical about Circus Mirandus. Surely The Night Circus had fully covered the Circus Acts That Rachael Might Enjoy ground, and this would only be a retread. But it's not! This circus sounds great, and if not completely original, at least charmingly re-imagined.

Maybe I only like magical circuses.

Anyway, if that all makes it sound like I liked this book a lot, well, I did. I do think it's a bit rough around the edges, though. Brandy complains about character development, and I do think that's a weak point, especially with the secondary characters. As much as I wanted to like her, Jenny never felt like a real person to me, and even Ephraim (especially older Ephraim) is more idea than person.

There are also some questionable plot choices. I don't want to spoil anything, but I didn't think the final test of the book didn't made sense in terms of the book's internal logic. Sorry to vagueblog.

In a year with The War That Saved My Life in it, as well as new Laura Amy Schlitz and Rebecca Stead novels coming out soon, I just don't think Circus Mirandus is The Most Distinguished. It is, however, a deeply satisfying novel.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

2016 Contenders: The Jumbies, by Tracey Baptiste

Corinne La Mer has never believed in jumbies, the supernatural creatures that some think haunt the forests of her island. However, after she chases an agouti into the forest on All Hallows' Eve, the evidence mounts that the jumbies may be much more real than Corinne had ever believed -- and that she and her ragtag group of friends may be the only ones who can stop them.

There's a lot in The Jumbies to admire. At its heart, it's a pure folktale story, one based in a deep understanding of several strains of Caribbean lore. (Author Tracey Baptiste is originally from Trinidad, and has stated that the concept for the book was inspired by a traditional Haitian story.) Corinne is a likable protagonist, and her fellow islanders are also interesting and sympathetic -- especially the orphaned brothers, Bouki and Malik. The island setting, with the ominous shadow of the forest always hanging over everything, also comes alive within the pages.

The Jumbies isn't without flaws, however, and I think the primary one is what I usually call "the Paradise Lost problem": an antagonist who is so strongly written, and whose motives can be construed sympathetically enough, that the ostensible point of the book is undercut. The villain of The Jumbies is Severine, the ruler of the other jumbies. She despises the humans, and is willing to fight in any number of ways to control or defeat them, and Corinne is her main target.

Baptiste makes no secret of the fact that we're meant to dislike Severine; her own author's note states, "Severine is everything I expect a jumbie to be -- tricky, mean, and selfish -- with the added bonus of thinking she's better than everyone else." It's true that Severine displays these characteristics, and is a formidable opponent. On the other hand, she's someone who has lost a great deal; her sister is dead, and her island has been invaded by humans, who have no respect for the forest, and who don't even acknowledge the existence of her and her kind. Severine's methods leave something to be desired, but it's easy enough to see her as an anticolonialist leader of the mistreated indigenous inhabitants to make her demonization problematic. (Baptiste tries to deal with some of this in the ending, with a discussion of discovering "a way to live together," but by that point, the accumulated weight of the narrative is too great to be brushed quickly aside). Severine also clearly wants to have a family again, and if those desires have been twisted and warped in her head, they're still hard for me to completely discredit.

I hope many children find and enjoy The Jumbies. It's a lovely blend of the familiar and the new, and I think plenty of readers will like it. I think it's too internally conflicted to entirely succeed, however, and I think that will keep the book from rising to the top of the Newbery heap.

Published in April by Algonquin / Workman

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

2016 Contenders: What Pet Should I Get?, by Dr. Seuss

I find posthumously published works fascinating, and one of the interesting things about them is the varied states in which the original manuscripts had been left. At one end are books such as The Dark Frigate (the 1924 Newbery winner), where Charles Hawes had actually already delivered the final manuscript to his publisher before dying. At the other end would be something like Franz Kafka's Amerika, which has such an enormous unwritten hole in the middle that it's not even clear how the author intended to get the narrative to its conclusion.

What Pet Should I Get?, which finally reached publication almost two and a half decades after the death of its author, occupies a place somewhere in between those extremes. The manuscript, which was rediscovered a couple of years ago, contained 16 uncolored illustrations. The text was essentially complete, but Seuss's working method was to type the words, cut them up, and then affix them to the illustrations with tape, taping over the old words with new ones if he chose to make alterations. However, the tape had come loose, making it difficult to ascertain exactly which version of the text had been intended. (The New York Times article I linked to there is a fascinating read if you want more detail on how the book came to be.)

The reconstruction was supervised by Cathy Goldsmith, the last person left at Random House who had actually worked with Seuss, having done the design and art direction for his last handful of titles. This reconstituted version arrived on bookstore (and library!) shelves in July, providing a surprise coda to Seuss's career.

Maybe the first thing to take note of is that this isn't a late-period work that Seuss died before finishing up. Rather, it dates from sometime during his middle period, the era of The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (1958), Happy Birthday to You! (1959), and Green Eggs and Ham (1960). The design of the (unnamed) protagonists is almost identical to those of One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (1960), and one possible theory is that What Pet Should I Get? is some sort of embryonic version of or starting point for One Fish. (There are no surviving notes about what Seuss was trying to accomplish in this book -- or why he shelved it -- and so everything at this point is conjecture.)

I was excited to see What Pet Should I Get? come out, because I love Seuss's work so much, and it looms large in my formative reading experiences. However, I think that, once the publicity around the book dies down, we'll see it as an interesting footnote to his career, but no more. Seuss's loping, tongue-twisting meter is relatively easy to parody, but the final texts of his books were the result of near-inhuman levels of revision -- one reason that, although his style is often imitated, it's essentially never equaled. The rhymes and rhythms of What Pet Should I Get? felt noticeably rougher than those of the classic titles he produced during the late '50s and early '60s, and I'm not convinced he would have let the text stand as it is if he had chosen to prepare it for publication.

The ending of the book [spoiler alert!] is also somewhat odd. After running through a long list of possible pets, the siblings who serve as our protagonists make their selection -- but they don't tell us what pet they've chosen, and the final illustration simply shows the eyes of an unidentifiable shape peeking out of the basket that the children are taking home. Seuss wasn't above ending his books on a rhetorical question ("What would you do, if your mother asked you?" from The Cat in the Hat), or even a cliffhanger (the scene of the generals perched on the wall, deciding whether or not to drop their bombs on the last page of The Butter Battle Book, is about as tense of an ending as you'll see), but this ending just felt out of place to me. What Pet Should I Get? is a book written at a level more like that in Seuss's easy readers than that of his longer, more challenging works, and although you could make an argument that the ending is set up that way to allow kids to use their imaginations to finish the story, it still felt to me like running into a wall on the last page.

Although Dr. Seuss is one of the most important figures in the history of American children's literature, he didn't actually do as well in the ALSC awards as I might have thought -- three Caldecott Honors (for McElligot's Pool in 1948, Bartholomew and the Oobleck in 1950, and If I Ran the Zoo in 1951), but zero Caldecott wins, and zero mentions on the Newbery rolls. I'd love to see him win the Geisel award for this one, just for the neatness of having someone win an established award that's already named after them, but I don't think it's actually a good enough book for that to happen. The Newbery is out of the question, and given that the art had to be colorized by later editors, I doubt the Caldecott committee will go for it either. What Pet Should I Get? is a fascinating historical curiosity, but no more than that.

Published in July by Random House


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

2016 Contenders: Gone Crazy in Alabama, by Rita Williams-Garcia

This was one of my most anticipated books of the year, partly because I was lucky enough to talk with the author about it a whole year before it came out. I was looking forward to the conclusion of the Gaither sisters' story arc, as well as the southern setting and family history.

When we rejoin Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern, they are on their way to the Greyhound terminal to begin their journey to visit Big Ma and her mother, Ma Charle,s in rural Alabama. There are several potential sources of conflict, both overt and less obvious. Pa's new wife ("Mrs.") is pregnant. The friction between Delphine and Vonetta is still present, as is Vonetta's resentment towards Uncle Darnell, who's out of rehab and living with Big Ma. (It's a difficult time all around for Vonetta). And then there's the bad blood - buckets of it - between Ma Charles and her half-sister, Miss Trotter. The two sisters live on opposite sides of the same creek, but haven't spoken in decades. Oh, and the family ties to the Klan.

If you think that all makes Gone Crazy in Alabama sound like an awfully ambitious novel, then you are correct. Williams-Garcia has a lot of plot threads to weave together, a new setting and several new characters to introduce, and a trilogy to bring to a satisfying close. For the most part, she accomplishes all of it with finesse. The relationship among the three sisters, especially Delphine and Vonetta, is going through some growing pains, and the resolution of that arc is poignant, as is Vonetta's reconciliation with Uncle Darnell. The Alabama setting - lazy and idyllic on the surface, complicated underneath - is well-realized. There are several intriguing new characters, especially Ma Charles and Miss Trotter, whose mutual sniping provides much of the book's humor.

On the whole though, this is not nearly as funny a book as either of the previous two. There is a brush with tragedy that takes up several chapters, but even before that, most of the characters are going through difficult times for various reasons. That's all handled deftly enough that it doesn't weigh down the narrative, but some of the family history does slow the pace. Telling it through Ma Charles and Miss Trotter's dueling narratives is clever, but it's still a lot of history to get through, and as a reader I often felt lost. Your mileage may vary.

Taken as a whole, Gone Crazy showcases the lovely prose, sharp dialogue, and larger-than-life situations that Rita Williams-Garcia writes so well. The many fans of the Gaither sisters will find it a satisfying conclusion to the series.

Published in April by Amistad/HarperCollins 

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