Friday, October 17, 2014

2015 Contenders: The Meaning of Maggie, by Megan Jean Sovern


Maggie Mayfield, a precocious sixth grader, is given a beautiful journal for her birthday - the perfect gift for an aspiring memoirist and future President of the United States! Maggie dutifully records her year: a year, it turns out, that sees her father slowly lose his faculties to multiple sclerosis. Maggie keenly observes her family dynamics while pushing herself academically and emotionally through the trials and triumphs that await her.

Maggie is a bit like a younger version of Jaclyn Moriarty’s titular character in The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie. She is an extraordinary know-it-all, a sassy lass who insinuates herself into situations without a shred of self-awareness, one whose embarrassing lack of social cues simultaneously rewards and punishes her. She’s winning her umpteenth consecutive Student of the Month award while flopping spectacularly at physical education. This is a kid who elicits cheers and groans, often within a single paragraph.

Sovern is a first-time author, and The Meaning of Maggie is reportedly a fictionalized memoir. This closeness to the source material is what initially makes the novel intriguing and enjoyable, but also what ultimately buckles the proceedings entirely.

Maggie’s narration is consistently enjoyable. As the youngest sister, she paints energetic portraits of her older siblings. Layla, the eldest, is too cool to be even vaguely aware of Maggie’s existence, and Tiffany, the shrill middle sister, approaches caricature-like status, especially in Maggie’s snarky, hilarious footnotes. “When Layla was little Dad called her Layla Hayla because he thought she was the bee’s knees. He calls me “Mags” because it sounds cool and he calls Tiffany “Tiffany” because if you call her anything else, she loses her mind” (p. 55).

As the family comes to terms with Dad’s “sleepy” limbs, Maggie’s observations become heartbreaking. She seems innocent of, even removed from, the situation’s gravity, and the family’s interactions between and among each other resonate with a sad, heavy hope. Small, simple revelations paint a family in crisis, even if Maggie remains completely and curiously unaware. Maggie’s slow understanding of the severity of her father’s condition serves as the book’s emotional crossroads, and Sovern handles the awakening with grace. Sovern’s treatment of multiple sclerosis is thoughtful, compassionate, and immediate. It’s a beautiful portrait of a family dealing with the unthinkable.

Reviewers, both for professional publications and on Goodreads, have indicated that the novel’s time period (the late 1980s) seemed flimsy and awkward. It certainly isn’t fully realized nor is it integral to the story, and Sovern unfortunately stumbles with several anachronisms. I was Maggie’s age in 1988, and, to my recollection, remember almost no discussion of medical marijuana; nor do I recall girls being referred to as “hotties." I’m fairly certain, too, that the use of full-stops as emphasis (like. doing. this.) is a more recent literary device, and that most 11-year-olds would not have employed such techniques in their journals.

Maggie, too, is a strangely inconsistent character, even when her musings are hilarious. This is a child who reads voraciously and is academically superior to her peers, yet doesn’t know what a spleen is. She’s childish and mawkish on some pages and way-beyond-her-years on others. The “precious” quotient is through the roof, and not in the way puppies are precious. More in the way that hipsters who enjoy pickling foods are precious.

Despite these flaws, the book is enjoyable and, in my school library, it has circulated like crazy. My students, especially the girls, love it, and I can understand why it is so dear to them. Maggie is a sparkplug of a character, and her wittiness will appeal to many young readers. The Meaning of Maggie, in terms of Newbery-ness, lacks any distinguishing quality, and will likely be but a blip on the radar come awards season. Although its treatment of multiple sclerosis is sensitive and uplifting, I doubt, too, that it will nab a Schneider Family Book Award (which, if I were to bet, will go to Lisa Graff’s delightful Absolutely Almost).

Sorry, Maggie. My students love you, but I don’t think the Newbery committee will.


Published in May by Chronicle Books 


*****


Today's guest reviewer is Joe Prince, Librarian at Marshall Middle School, and Chair of the North Allegheny (PA) School District Library Department. Check out his 6th Grade Mock Newbery -- it's great!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

2015 Contenders: The Family Romanov, by Candace Fleming

I have to make a confession. Though we diligently try to include at least one work of nonfiction in our Mock Newbery discussions, in my heart of hearts I rarely find it as distinguished as the fiction and poetry it's up against. There have been some very well-crafted works of narrative nonfiction in the past ten years, but, to my mind, none of them has displayed the alchemical combination of plot, character, setting, style, and theme that distinguishes the best fiction.

Until now. The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia is the first work of non-fiction that I would seriously defend as a Newbery frontrunner*. It would be difficult for me to say anything that was left unsaid by its six starred reviews, but I'll add my voice to the chorus of approval.

It seems to me that it must be very difficult to write clearly about the Romanovs; a century after their deaths, most portrayals are either fairy tales and (literal) hagiography, or demonic caricature. By shifting her narrative point of view between the claustrophobic lives of the Tsar and his family, and events "outside the palace walls," Fleming deftly walks the tightrope between these two extremes. We are privy to both tender moments between Nicholas and Alexandra and instances of their shocking callousness and indifference to the suffering of the Russian people. What emerges is a portrait of a flawed, sad, arrogant, but ultimately human set of characters.

Plot also presents a challenge in narrative nonfiction (especially when the foregone conclusion is well-known to most readers), but Fleming builds suspense through the use of expert pacing. She also immerses the reader in the setting with vivid details and primary sources - diaries, letters, memoirs - that remind of us what was at stake for every stratus of Russian society. Stylistically, she uses irony to wonderful/tragic effect - in one chapter, Nicholas plays dominoes and sips tea as Petrograd falls to mobs of hungry peasants.

I'll be recommending this one to Sam for our final Mock Newbery reading list, and I'll come to the table prepared to defend it. Whether or not our participants elect it Maryland's choice for the most distinguished contribution to American's children's literature though, I have little doubt that they will find it, along with Booklist (and me), "compulsively readable."

*Caveat: I never did get around to reading Bomb.

Published in July by Schwartz and Wade.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

2015 Contenders: The Port Chicago 50, by Steve Sheinkin

On July 17, 1944, a pair of explosions rocked the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in California. Approximately two short tons of munitions that were being loaded onto a cargo vessel accidentally detonated. The resulting blasts completely destroyed the entire loading area, sunk both ships that were docked there, killed 320 people, and injured another 390. It was the worst non-combat military disaster of World War II in the United States.

In The Port Chicago 50, Steve Sheinkin examines the conditions at Port Chicago before the catastrophe. Segregation was still the order of the day, and so all of the sailors actually doing the loading were black. They were treated poorly, given almost no training, and ordered to work with little regard for safety. Sheinkin then details the accident (insofar as is possible, given that every eyewitness was killed), and its aftermath. Specifically, he describes how, given that no changes were made in safety policies or procedures, many of the surviving sailors refused to go back to work. Some eventually did return to the job, but fifty did not, and were court-martialed for mutiny in the single largest trial in American military history. Despite the blatant racism and unfairness of the proceedings, all fifty were convicted and jailed. However, their mistreatment became a national story, and though they were never exonerated, their courage inspired many Civil Rights reforms.

Sheinkin is one of the very best juvenile nonfiction writers working today, and The Port Chicago 50 is a great showcase for his talent. It reads like a gripping thriller, but is well-documented and carefully reasoned. The book reminded me in many ways of Tanya Lee Stone's Courage Has No Color, which also covered the struggles of black service members during WWII. However, even though Stone's book was wonderful (and it made the 2014 Notables list and was a Finalist for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction, so I'm not the only person who thought so), Sheinkin's is better -- the writing is sharper, and the imagery more vivid.

That said, it's not quite as impressive as Bomb!, for the simple reason that it's less ambitious. Where Bomb! was a brilliantly-executed three-part fugue, The Port Chicago 50 has a more singular focus (though it does discuss developments in other places, such as the offices of the Secretary of the Navy and the NAACP). The Port Chicago 50 is, however, a much more tightly-constructed book than Sheinkin's effort from last year, Lincoln's Grave Robbers, which tried to maintain a Bomb!-like level of intricacy without having as many stories to tell. Here, Sheinkin's approach is a good fit for the material that he uses, even if it's less involved.

I'm not sure The Port Chicago 50 will make an appearance in the Newbery rolls -- it's not the magnum opus that Bomb! was, and there is stiff nonfiction competition from Brown Girl Dreaming and The Family Romanov, among others. It wouldn't surprise me at all if this nets a Sibert or a Sibert Honor, however.


Published in January by Roaring Brook / Macmillan

Thursday, October 9, 2014

2015 Contenders: Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir of Jacqueline Woodson's childhood, told in a sequence of poems. It begins at her birth in Ohio, covers her move to South Carolina, and another, later move to Brooklyn. The time period coincides with the heart of the Civil Rights Movement, and the tensions between Black and White, North and South, Secular and Sacred, and Old and New are notes that repeat in different combinations as the book moves forward.

What Brown Girl Dreaming does well, it does very well. Woodson's eye for arresting detail is on full display here -- the color of the dirt, the sound of playground rhymes, the taste of lemon chiffon ice cream. Her personal voice too is very strong; throughout the book, I had a firm sense of just who Woodson was as a child. The other characters are also well-drawn and described. Everyone in the book felt real, something that not even all memoirs accomplish.

I was less sold on the technical aspects of the book. Many of the more personal moments were in beautiful poetry, but the political aspects -- and, oddly enough, the parts about Woodson discovering her desire to become a writer -- felt prosy and a bit shopworn, hitting themes that have come up over and over again in children's literature of the past decade without seeming to add a particularly fresh perspective. Similarly, sometimes the line breaks worked marvelously, but sometimes I felt like they were inserted simply because the line was getting too long. And I'd echo the complaint that came up in discussions over at Heavy Medal, that the titles on the individual poems interrupt the flow of the book without adding much thematically or tonally.


Each individual poem is a sort of a vignette, and I'm unconvinced that this kaleidoscope approach works --- too many of them don't work to advance the narrative, which led me to question the editing. However, this was also a complaint that I had about No Crystal Stair, and most readers didn't agree with me then, so my opinion should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt.

Actually, No Crystal Stair isn't a bad point of comparison in general for Brown Girl Dreaming. BGD is being touted in many circles as the Newbery front-runner, and No Crystal Stair was also a highly-reviewed book (and one that ended up winning the Boston Globe-Horn Book award). I didn't like either of them nearly as much as the general consensus, and in both cases, my main criticisms were structural. It may simply be the case that, as with that previous title, I'm not necessarily the right reader for the book, and so my review shouldn't be given all that much weight.

Because the critical consensus for Brown Girl Dreaming has been so overwhelmingly positive, it's likely this will be one of the titles we choose for our Maryland Mock Newbery. I'm excited to hear the discussions about it, and I hope that listening to and participating in those discussions will help me further refine my opinions of this title.


Published in September by Nancy Paulsen Books / Penguin

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

2015 Contenders: Rotten Ralph's Rotten Family, by Jack Gantos

Being as Newbery-focused as we are around For Those About To Mock, we tend to think of Jack Gantos for Joey Pigza and the Norvelt books. However, Gantos started his career as a picture book author, and he's returned to Rotten Ralph time and time again for almost four decades now.

As is true of many popular picture book series, Ralph's later adventures have expanded to easy readers. In Rotten Ralph's Rotten Family, a suddenly introspective Ralph returns to his childhood home and family to try and discover the root of his rottenness. His memories of his younger years are decidedly rose-colored, but he quickly discovers that they may not be altogether accurate.

It's somehow fitting that, with Gantos at the helm, a lighthearted tale about a mischievous feline quickly takes a sharp turn into Cat Hands On Misery To Cat. The story has a moral, but that moral (essentially, "it's possible to rise above one's abusive childhood") is both highly unusual and abnormally dark in a genre that's pitched to six-year-olds. That it works at all is a testament to Gantos's dexterity and skill as a writer. Still, anyone who thought that the dream sequence in Penny and Her Marble was a bit bleak is probably going to be horrified by Rotten Ralph's Rotten Family.

What makes Gantos great, however, is his ability to blend the surreal and the all-too-real into a concoction that goes down smoothly despite lacking any excess sugar at all -- sort of like Roald Dahl if Dahl viewed humanity with affection instead of detestation. As such, Gantos fans will likely find Rotten Family right up their alley. I think it's too left-field to win the Geisel, much less the Newbery, but it's not as if Gantos needs any more awards for his books to find the readers that they deserve.


Published in March by Farrar Straus Giroux

Thursday, September 11, 2014

2015 Contenders: The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, by Dana Alison Levy

Back in 2005, Jeanne Birdsall did such a good job of updating the traditional "family novel" that her effort, The Penderwicks, won the National Book Award for Young People. I am, *ahem*, kind of a Penderwicks fan, but I have to give some credence to one of the most common critiques of the series: that in attempting to establish a "timeless" tone, Birdsall actually fails to create an accurate portrait of the modern world. There are cell phones and computers in Penderwickia, but they are rarely used. The sisters never play video games. I don't think they even mention tv.

Not so with the Fletchers, of Dana Alison Levy's debut novel, The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher. The Fletchers text and email (sometimes with hilarious results). They say "dude," and "sick," and "awesome," and occasionally other, less printable words* (they all contribute to a "rude word jar" when they slip up).

They are a thoroughly modern family in composition and background as well: two dads and four adopted sons (two white, one African-American, one Indian). Levy deliberately downplays the diversity of the family - letting their traits and backgrounds emerge naturally in the course of the narrative - and in doing so she makes her focus clear. This is primarily a family story, in the classic mode of All-Of-A-Kind Family, Little Women, and Ginger Pye, and the Fletchers just happen to reflect what a family might look like in the 21st century.

In her own Goodreads review of the book, Levy says, "I'll be honest, I am a sucker for `comfort food' books - you know, books you can curl up with and feel like the world is an okay place for a little while," and that is exactly what you should expect from the Fletchers: comfort. Everyone in their little Massachusetts (I think? Possibly Maine?) town seems cool with the whole gay parenting thing, and the boys worry more about being ostracized for their thespian leanings than their racial backgrounds. Is that a flaw in the book? I would argue that it's not, because one, it's reflective of the genre, and two, isn't this what we mean with the whole "we need diverse books" campaign? That we need books about all kinds of diverse characters leading all kinds of lives?

I have to admit, though, that this book is precisely my cup of tea, so I'm biased. If I were on the Newbery Committee, it would definitely be a contender for one of my nominations - great characters, lots of humor, multiple well-realized settings, etc. Once we reached the discussion stage, I'm sure one of my other committee members would help me see it through less rosy lenses.

Since I'm just armchair quarterbacking, though, I'll just sit here and bask in the Fletchers' glow (until one of you'un comes to tell me otherwise).


*And can I just say how happy that makes me? Granted, the Penderwick paterfamilias deals with the chaos of the household by retreating to his office as often as possible, but even so, you can't tell me that having four children in the house would not result in the parent(s) screaming profanity at least once a week. I mean, I only have one child, and if I had a rude word jar in my house, its earnings would probably outpace my 401K.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

2015 Contenders - The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier

As vagabond Irish immigrants in nineteenth-century England, Molly and Kip don't have a lot of employment options. That's why they're headed to the cursed "sour woods," against the advice of everyone they meet, to take up employment as domestic servants. When they arrive, it's pretty clear to the reader that the advice was sound: the house is creepy, the family appears to be suffering from some kind of wasting disease, and the whole estate is dominated by a giant, menacing tree that is actually growing into the house. As I said, though: no options. So they stay. And bad things happen.

I should like this book, and I do, I guess. I just don't love it (I started it back in April, put it down, and just recently picked it up and finished it), and I'm not really sure why. I'll try to lay it out in practical terms.


Pros






  • The setting is well-realized, at least insofar as the house and its environs are concerned. The author achieves a nebulous sense of wrongness about everything in the sour woods. 
  • The characters have some depth and complexity. Molly and Kip, as well as the members of the Windsor family, achieve some believable personal growth during the course of the narrative. Secondary characters, particularly Hazel the storyteller, added color (though the two ruffians were kind of stock).
  • Style? I don't think it was distinguished, but neither was it clunky. 
  • The tone and pacing combine to give the story a genuinely frightening edge, the likes of which we don't see often enough in juvenile fiction. The night gardener himself is a scary bastard. 

Cons


  • It's another book about the power of story. Look, I believe in the power of story. I tell stories semi-professionally. I am trained in personal story facilitation. But the "power of story" theme is wearing seriously thin with me. It's right up there with the "librarian as savior" picture books that seem to be published on an annual basis. I am in the choir, folks! There's no need to preach in this direction.
  • To put the above in Newbery terms: theme. I don't think Auxier's thematic touch is light enough. As an example: when Molly brings Kip back from near-death with a story, there were some eyes rolling in this reader's head. 

It's a good book, and I will recommend it to readers of Bellairs, Aiken, and Gaiman, but I don't think it's a great book, nor the most distinguished J Fiction I've read this year.

Published in May by Harry Abrams.