Tuesday, February 28, 2012

2013 Contenders: Wonder, by R. J. Palacio

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle," said someone or other (probably Ian McLaren and not Plato.) Whoever put them together, those words kept coming to mind as I read Wonder - and not only for the most obvious reason.

Clearly, Auggie (August) Pullman is fighting a battle. His facial deformities and their associated medical complications have kept him out of school for the first ten years of his life. As the novel opens, he is set to enter fifth grade at a small private school in New York. This is a recipe for disaster, both interpersonal and literary. As many reviewers have noted, it's not easy to write a "kid with a conspicuous medical problem" novel and have it turn out anything but lurid or preachy.

Part of what keeps Wonder from that fate is the broadness and universality of its themes. At first, we see the world through Auggie's eyes - we are immersed in his battles. Then the perspective shifts, and we are in the head of his older sister, Via. Then Auggie's schoolmate, Jack. Then several other characters. With each one, we become aware that though Auggie's problems are the most conspicuous ones, he's not the only one struggling. Everyone is fighting a hard battle. Kindness given and received; courage in the face of social pressure - these themes are woven so tightly into the fabric of the book that it transcends the "problem novel" genre and becomes, like the very best books, a meditation on the nature of humanity.

That makes it sound heavier than it is, though. Palacio makes her point with humor, Magnetic Fields lyrics, and an impressively light touch. Short chapters, direct language, and skillful pacing make the book seem much shorter than its 320 pages. And the dialogue and social interactions ring true. I've taught fifth graders - in a private school, at that - and this is how they talk. This is how they act. It is also, without giving too much away, the way certain private school parents act.

Some people will say that the resolution is too neat, but I think it's appropriate for a middle-grade novel. I think the turning of the social tide is believable, and I think Auggie and Palacio earn their happy endings.

It's early in the year still, but this is at the very top of my Newbery list so far.

Knopf - February 2012.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Winner's Circle: The Matchlock Gun, by Walter D. Edmonds (1942)

Walter D. Edmonds won the Newbery in 1942, the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1960, and the National Book Award in 1976, but these days, he's mostly remembered because John Ford made a famous film adaptation of his 1936 adult novel, Drums Along the Mohawk. As Rachael noted, Meindert DeJong can sympathize with one's reputation deteriorating over time, but it's still fascinating to me how quickly someone can be relegated to the footnotes of history.

The Matchlock Gun isn't a very well-remembered Newbery, and I've had a hard time trying to figure out what to make of it. It comes billed as a novel, but it's barely a short story; my copy is 50 pages long, and though it does come with a four-page foreword by the author, it also uses somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 pages on illustrations. It's extremely brief, and it simply doesn't have the room for subplots or advanced character development.

The story, which Edmonds assures us is in its essential points a true one, takes place in 1757, "when the French were still leading Indians out of Canada against the settlers." The father of the Van Alstyne family is away on a militia defensive action, and when a group of Indians reaches the house, the only way for the rest of the family to save themselves is for Edward, a 10-year-old boy, to follow his mother's plan and use the titular firearm, a piece obsolete even at the time that is over six feet long and has no trigger.

So it's a war story -- albeit one set during the French and Indian war, which isn't one that's much remembered. My guess is that its theme of implacable invaders attacking the homes of innocent people was one with especial resonance in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, when it won the Newbery. The story is told, however, in the style of a family legend -- the sort of thing that would usually be preceded by, "Tell us again about the time great-great-grandpa Edward had to fire the matchlock gun." Its focus is so insular, indeed, that only a couple people outside the family even have speaking lines. We're being invited into the Van Alstynes' inner circle here, and so this isn't a neutral look at the events portrayed.

Edmonds was a master prose stylist. His way with metaphors and images is easily the best thing about the book; he uses them to create a sense of family warmth, as well as an atmosphere of creeping dread as the attack becomes increasingly imminent. The book is, however, highly problematic in its depections of both Native Americans and African Americans; Oyate hates it, and though I think it's a bit disingenuous to leave out the fact that the book is set during a war, the examples that they cite in their review are every bit as ugly as they're made out to be. Even given the book's extremely limited scope, its descriptions of its non-white characters are over-the-top unpleasant, and it's impossible for a modern reader to overlook. I know I was made uncomfortable by them as I was reading.

So what are we to make of a book with moments of great beauty that nonetheless contains such distasteful flaws? I don't even know, though I wouldn't recommend this to a child. It represents both the best (love of family, great personal courage) and worst (demonization of anyone "other," complete acceptance of violence) in the psyche, history, and literature of America.

As for its Newbery, the other best-remembered book of the year was probably Little Town on the Prairie. It's been ages since I've read that one, and I know that that particular series isn't unproblematic in its racial characterizations either, but it probably would have been a better choice than The Matchlock Gun. If anyone has a better suggestion though, I'd be more than glad to hear it!

The Mighty Miss Malone, by Christopher Paul Curtis

Christopher Paul Curtis is angry. He's angry about the suffering that Americans experienced during the Great Depression - especially the disproportionate suffering endured by African-Americans and children. He is even angrier about the number of children living in poverty today - "the estimated fifteen million American children who are poor, who go to bed hungry and whose parents struggle to make a dignified living to feed and care for them," as he states in the afterword.

I am angry about those things too. As a librarian, albeit one who doesn't work directly with children, I hear heartbreaking stories every day about the children and families living in my impoverished region of Maryland. As a librarian, I also know that righteous anger can fuel the creative process. It has produced some of my favorite books: Oliver Twist (and most of Dickens, come to that). Jane Eyre. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. In each of those cases, though, the anger is the energy that fuels a really, really great story.

This is not the case, I'm sorry to say, for The Mighty Miss Malone. 

As I summed it up on Facebook, this is a collection of really good sentences that don't add up to a great novel. The sentence level writing is of Curtis's usual caliber: superb. There are searing, gut-wrenching passages in this book: the overheard conversation about Deza's rotting teeth. The letter from Mrs. Malone's former employer. The description of the poorhouse, the way Deza's teachers treat her, Deza's voice (both inner and outer), etc., etc... All glorious.

Without a strong story to string them together, however, these scenes are nothing more than vignettes, and The Mighty Miss Malone is at its weakest in the area of plot. In the hands of a writer of Curtis's caliber, the transitions shouldn't be so abrupt that I find myself flipping back a few pages to see if I missed something. I kept waiting for the story to lead somewhere - to follow any kind of recognizable plot arc - but it just kept picking up threads of narrative and then letting them fall. I understand that this may have been a deliberate choice, given the fragmented lives of many families during the Depression. Still, there are ways to thematically unify even a fragmented narrative, and it doesn't happen here.

If there is a theme to The Mighty Miss Malone, it is the family motto: "We are a family on a journey to a place called Wonderful." I think Curtis intended to show the reader that love holds a family together even in the direst of circumstances. The problem is that I just didn't believe it in this case, and I don't think that Curtis did either. The entire tone of the novel works against it. By the time the motto is repeated at the end of the book, it is impossible to read it as anything but bitter irony. 

This is Curtis's first novel with a female protagonist, and Deza Malone is a memorable one. I just wish she'd been given a story more worthy of her.

By the way, if, like me, you couldn't remember the scene where Deza Malone appears in Bud, Not Buddy, Richie Partington kindly supplies it in his (much more positive) review.

Wendy Lamb Books, January 2012


Thursday, February 23, 2012

2013 Contenders: Remarkable, by Lizzie K. Foley

It's hard to be average when other people are exceptional. That's not only the subject of Remarkable, Lizzie K. Foley's debut novel, but also the reaction that I had to the book when I'd finished reading it.

Remarkable is a town in which everything and everyone is outstanding in one way or another. Well, everyone except Jane Doe, a ten-year-old with no distinguished traits of any kind, unless you want to count being the only student in town not enrolled at the School for the Remarkably Gifted. But despite her ordinariness, she finds herself being drawn into a series of adventures involving pirates, a missing composer, a bell tower, a weather machine, and a lake monster.

As I read, I found my mind drifting back to a pair of other books: The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Boy, Book 1: The Hero Revealed, William Boniface's 2006 novel, and Whales on Stilts!, M.T. Anderson's 2005 kickoff for his "Pals in Peril" series. Boniface's book was also about a main character with no special abilities in a society where that was highly unusual. However, its comic-book setting was bright and fun, and its title character was willing not only to involve himself in his own story, but to find his own unique skills -- in his case, a keenly observational mind and the ability to make careful deductions. And Anderson's book had a fascinating setting too -- a universe in which children's series fiction of all stripes is quite true -- and a heroine in Lily Gefelty whose uninteresting surface appearance gave way to complexity and discovery of her own gifts as the story went along.

Both of these, to me, stood in contrast to Remarkable. Its fabulistic setting felt oddly generic, and Jane is a frustratingly passive heroine who contributes almost nothing to the denoument of her book. Even her realization of the central plot twists, which seemed to me to come about 50 pages too late, isn't necessary --  Detective Sly and Grandpa have already figured them out as well. In fact, I think the argument can be made that Grandpa is the real hero of the book -- his kindness and sensitivity for the welfare of others shine brighter than anything about Jane, despite the fact that he's even more ordinary than she is.

This isn't to say that Remarkable is a bad book, because it isn't. Several of the supporting characters, including the gleefully chaotic Grimlet twins and the repressed savage Ms. Schnabel, are memorable indeed, and the prose is humorous and tidy. It was fine as far as it went, no question about it. I just couldn't bring myself to love it when I'd read (and could call to mind years after reading) two superior books that took the basic theme and did a much better job with it.

Publication is in April though Dial (Penguin). It's being promoted heavily by the publisher, and I think it's possible it will be a popular hit. I wouldn't Newbery-shortlist it, but I'm curious to see other critical reactions to it.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Winner's Circle: The Wheel on the School, by Meindert DeJong

Meindert DeJong is kind of an interesting figure in the history of American children's literature. He was the undisputed rock star of children's publishing in the 1950's, winning four Newbery honors, along with the medal itself. In the 60's, he was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, and the National Book Award. He was clearly in the same echelon as his fellow Harper authors E.B. White and Laura Ingalls Wilder. But whereas the others are still household names, DeJong is now remembered primarily by overly enthusiastic children's librarians. 

What happened? Could the "influential librarians"* of the 1950's have been so wrong?

My own interest in DeJong came as a result of reading Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. The legendary editor's letters to DeJong are so full of confidence in his literary abilities that some of her excitement rubbed off on me and I ran straight to my library to find a copy of The Wheel on the School. (There were no holds.)

To glean any reading pleasure from The Wheel on the School, you have to accept one premise going in: having a pair of storks nesting on the top of your one-room schoolhouse would be the best thing that could ever happen to you or your town. So good that it makes you hyperventilate a little bit just thinking about it. So good that it will inspire legless men to leave their backyards and tie themselves to dinghies for the privilege of helping your wish come true.

Despite the odd premise, The Wheel on the School is actually a very good book. The sense of place is so strong that the book probably deserves its Newbery on the strength of setting alone. It's set in a Dutch fishing village similar to the one where DeJong spent his early years, and the descriptions of storms, dikes, and fishing life are obviously drawn from experience. Characters, especially the older inhabitants of the village, are depicted with humor and sensitivity.

The plot is skillfully structured and fast-paced as well - at least for Part One (Operation Get the Wheel). Judith Hartzell wrote, in a 2006 DeJong centennial article for the Horn Book, "This is an action book, built, as the title suggests, in the shape of a wheel. It begins with the hub—Lina. Like spokes running out toward the rim, the six children go on their separate adventures, and bit by bit, through the children, the whole rim of the village comes into play. Near the end, in a celebration-of-community scene, the fathers climb the schoolhouse roof on a stormy day to put the wheel in place."**

Ah, but there's the problem. That scene (Operation Put The Wheel on the School) is not nearly close enough to the end of book for my taste. There are still 70 more pages to go (comprising Operation Get Some Storks). Maybe it's my modern sensibilities, but by the time they finally heaved the wretched birds onto the wheel I was ready to get out my shotgun and start scanning the horizon for wings.

So, despite its strengths, this is probably not a book I'd hand to most kids I meet in 2012. Unless they're really, really excited about storks. Like, Double Rainbow excited. I mean, read this passage:

"Lina sat quietly, looking down at her stork. She had to hold herself very quiet, absolutely still, or she'd burst out and scream and laugh and cry. It was so unbelievable, so wonderful, sitting in school with a stork on her lap. Storks in school, storks in Shora! She bent deep over her stork and cried a little and stroked its long white neck."

Now tell me it doesn't make you think of this:

*A phrase that always makes me laugh. 

**Hartzell, Judith. "Happy Centennial, Meindert Dejong!." Horn Book Magazine 82.2 (2006): 227. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 17 Feb. 2012.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Winner's Circle: The View from Saturday, by E.L. Konigsburg (1997)

Fairly or unfairly, I think we often judge a book by a familiar author by different standards than we do one by someone unfamiliar. We may be surprised by greatness or incompetence once, but after that, we come to expect it.

I thought about this a lot as I struggled to figure out exactly how to evaluate The View from Saturday, the 1997 Newbery winner by E.L. Konigsberg. How much of my reaction, I wondered, was based on the knowledge that this was from the hand of the same person who produced From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler?

That was a book that I read and loved for its inventive setting and clever puzzles. The View from Saturday, by comparison, I found a frustrating climb with very few handholds. Where Claudia Kincaid, the protagonist of the earlier novel, was a believable and resourceful heroine, the four children in The View from Saturday seemed like cardboard cutouts. Nadia, in particular, seemed more like a construct than a character, and as a reader, I never felt like the four sections narrated by the children were told in a child's voice, even allowing for the fact that child narrators in literature often need to display a bit more sophistication than is likely. The adults weren't a lot better -- the way that Mr. Singh shows up at the end to provide some deus ex machina insights seemed to me especially grating.

Similarly, the puzzle in From the Mixed-Up Files was fresh and interesting. In The View from Saturday, the novel's structure itself is a puzzle; it starts in media res, then intercuts the action at the Academic Bowl with stories told by the four children, before moving into flashback and then catching up to its beginning. There are reasons to play with narrative structure -- When You Reach Me is a fantastic example of a book that uses its structure to deepen the sense of mystery. But there was nothing in The View from Saturday that required a nonlinear structure, especially since the mystery at its heart -- why did Mrs. Olinski chose these four children for her team? -- never felt all that compelling to me.

Also, for a book set at an Academic Bowl, it has something of a loose grasp of trivia. The climax of the book hinges on the question, "In what work of fiction would we meet the original Humpty Dumpty, and who wrote it?" Mrs. Olinski's team, unlike their opponents, know that it is Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, as opposed to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. However, the first printed reference to Humpty Dumpty is in Gammer Gurton's Garland, an 1810 collection of songs and poems for children, and the character achieved great popularity through George L. Fox's performances in the Humpty Dumpty pantomimes in the 1860s. Carroll's book may possibly have been the first novel to feature H.D., but it seems unfair to give him credit for creating a character that has its own Roud Folk Song Index number. And if this seems like churlish nitpicking on my part, consider that Julian manages to successfully challenge the judges' ruling and assert that the word "tip" (as in gratuity) is an acronym that has entered the English language as a word (it originally standing for to insure promptness) -- despite the fact that no less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary had concluded by 1989 that this was a completely false etymology. (It's actually a word that comes into the standard language via rogues' cant, which is at least as interesting.)

Would any of this have bothered me as much if I wasn't expecting greatness out of Konigsburg? It's hard to say. But I don't think it's a particularly good book, and I certainly wouldn't have given it the Newbery, even in a year that didn't produce many "classic" titles.

Monday, February 13, 2012

2013 Contenders: Applewhites at Wit's End, by Stephanie S. Tolan

You can think of it as the jumbo-sized version of "let's put on a play and save the old school" -- let's put on a summer camp and save our family homestead! As Applewhites at Wit's End opens, the Applewhite clan -- a three-generation collective of creative types, all but one of whom are family members -- have lost all of their money due to accounting fraud, and are in danger of losing Wit's End, their combination home/studio/playhouse, which they've built from an abandoned motor lodge. In order to raise the required money, they hit on the idea of running a summer camp for creative children, even though none of them have any experience at all in doing so.

It's all a setup for a warmhearted and terrifically funny excursion, seen alternately through the eyes of E.D., a 13-year-old girl who's the only one of the Applewhites without a creative talent, and Jake, a teen with a troubled past whose luck and outlook have changed since being taken in by the Applewhites. The book works as an ensemble comedy, a paean to creativity, and even as a bit of a mystery story. The setting and references are firmly present-day, but in its spirit and tone, it reminded me of a lost classic from the past, something that would sit comfortably on a shelf alongside Pippi Longstocking, Ginger Pye, and The Story Girl. It's the kind of book that I firmly believe I would have loved as a child -- and that, even as an adult, I genuinely enjoyed reading.

The novel is a sequel to Stephanie S. Tolan's 2003 Newbery Honor book Surviving the Applewhites. I haven't read that one, but I didn't find that it mattered. The tongue-in-cheek front matter, which includes a family tree and an introduction to the "cast of characters," served well enough to acquaint me with the Applewhites, and the few plot points from the earlier book that seemed to make a difference were quickly recapped in the text. At no point when reading it did I feel that it didn't stand alone.

As a side note, it occurred to me that, if Mary Higgins Clark or John Grisham take ten years to write a sequel, people are often willing to accept that -- but if a children's author takes ten years, the original audience has grown up, and so needs to some extent to be rebuilt. Perhaps this is one reason that Tolan was so careful to make the book easy to read for someone unfamiliar with the earlier work.

Official publication is in May through HarperCollins Children's Books. I'm putting this one on my Newbery short list. I don't know if the committee will be willing to give the award to a humorous book twice in a row, but I'd be intensely surprised if it didn't at the very least make the Notables list.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Winner's Circle: Smoky, the Cowhorse, by Will James (1927)

There's a recency bias to superlatives. We all want to say that something we've just seen is "the best ever" or "the worst ever." However, in my humble opinion, if we want to talk about the worst ever winner of the Newbery medal -- or, indeed, the worst year for American children's publishing in the Newbery era, we have to go back to the year 1926, which was capped by the awarding of the 1927 Newbery Medal to Smoky, the Cowhorse, by Will James, AKA, the man keeping Jack Gantos company in the Newbery Winners Who've Served Time club.

Smoky narrates, in excruciating detail, the life of a horse. Not just an incident in the horse's life, or some condensed bit of action, but years and years of equine life. The horse is nonanthropomorphic, and lives much of his life out on the range, which means that for huge stretches of the book, there's a real limit on the number of human characters.

This can be done, and done well -- The Incredible Journey is a good example. But that book has a specific narrative arc, something that imposes structure on the silent life of animals. Smoky, a largely episodic novel with terrible pacing, has some kind of overall narrative involving Smoky and Clint, the human who eventually becomes his owner, but huge portions of the book have little or nothing to do with that.

It's also a highly problematic book in that the human villain is referred to as "a halfbreed of Mexican and other blood that's darker," or, for short, "the breed," and is given no redeeming characteristics of any kind. Overt racism is all too common in children's books from the 1920s -- there's a reason that you can't purchase an unexpurgated version of The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle, after all -- but it's extremely uncomfortable, especially since the book doesn't offer much in the way of compelling plot or characters that would give a reader reason to even try and overlook the negative racial aspects.

And yet. as truly dreadful as Smoky, the Cowhorse is, I'm hard-pressed to say what should have won the award instead. The one unquestioned classic children's book published in 1926, Winnie-the-Pooh, was written by A.A. Milne, an Englishman, and so was ineligible. Hugh Lofting churned out number eight in his series, Doctor Doolittle's Caravan, but even Lofting's fans don't remember that as one of the better titles. Margery Williams, in the stretch of her career between her 1922 breakthrough with The Velveteen Rabbit and her 1937 Newbery Honor for Winterbound, published The Apple Tree, but that's such a minor work in her career that it's all but forgotten. Most of the other major children's authors working at the time simply happened not to publish anything that year. Famously, 1927 was one of the three years in which no Honor books were named, and it appears that there may have been a good reason. (Rachael found a fascinating article that indicates that the Doctor Doolittle book and Smoky are the only two children's books published in '26 that a) were eligible for the Newbery, and b) were still in print in 2001. Given that one was still in print because it was in a famous series, and the other was in print because it won the Newbery, that's not much of an endorsement for the year.)

If I were forced to guess, I'd bet that The Apple Tree would have been a better choice for the award, simply on the theory that even a mediocre Williams title would be better than the dreck that is Smoky. But what I think requires no guessing is that there was a very real reason that the ALA thought an award to encourage publishers to print good children's books needed to be established, that reason being that American children's literature in the 1920s was Not Ready For Prime Time. The 1927 award is the one that best illustrates this point, but it's only the most obvious of several early examples. (I'm looking at you, The Cat Who Went To Heaven.)

Anyway, it's nice to be able to look back and see how far we've come, but that's about the only thing that can be said for Smoky, the Cowhorse. I can really only recommend it for people trying to read all the Newberys, and even then, I'd save it for the end.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

2013 Contenders: The Moon Over High Street, by Natalie Babbitt

Anton Boulderwall is an aging inventor and factory owner who lives in the best house on High Street, the fanciest thoroughfare in Midville, Ohio. Myra Casimir is a schoolteacher who also lives in Midville, but in a much more proletarian neighborhood. And Joe Casimir is a boy who comes to stay with Myra, his distant relative, while his grandmother is recovering from a broken hip, only to find himself the unlikely focal point of Midville's class tensions. Mr. Boulderwall wants to adopt Joe and leave him the factory -- but this would require Joe to move to High Street and turn his back on his dreams of becoming a scientist who studies the moon.

It's all fine as far as a setup goes, a sort of more fraught take on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or something of that nature. However, the execution leaves a fair amount to be desired. The theme of rich vs. working class (no one in the book is really "poor") is hammered into the ground by the dialogue and narration, and especially by Mrs. Boulderwall, a humorless shrew who exists largely to make derogatory statements about Joe such as "He's just not our kind of people" and "He's nothing but hired help to me." Even the book's title is less an indication of the setting than an unsubtle hint as to the direction in which Joe finally chooses to go. And, though Joe is the one who makes the decision, he's not the one who tells Mr. Boulderwall -- that falls to Gran, in a scene in which she and Mr. Boulderwall spend six pages trading cliches while the nominal hero of the book is offstage.

Although Mr. Boulderwall appears displeased with the result of that conversation, it's hard to see why. Mr. Boulderwall seems to have little interest in Joe as a person -- he likes Joe because of their shared Polish ancestry, and he finds it convenient that Joe's parents aren't living, but that's about it. Frankly, I found the section in which he insists that Mrs. Boulderwall set up another meeting with Joe without giving her any reason other than "I just want to see that boy again" more than a little creepy. However, Myra isn't a whole lot better; she tells Joe flat out that she sees him as some sort of substitute for the fiancee she lost in the Korean war, a man also named Joe. Only Beatrice, the girl next door, seems to have an interest in Joe that's based on anything internal to him.

Natalie Babbitt is, of course, a well-known figure in the world of children's literature; Tuck Everlasting is a minor classic, and Knee-Knock Rise won a Newbery Honor in 1971. I think this book will get a long look because of its author's track record -- many people had high hopes for it -- but I don't anticipate it showing up on any end-of-year shortlists or placing for any of the major awards.

Official publication in March through Michael Di Capua Books/Scholastic

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

2013 Contenders: Jake and Lily, by Jerry Spinelli

I hope it's not bad form to review a book that doesn't come out until May, but I couldn't wait. 

Jake and Lily are twins – the spooky kind. They hear each other's thoughts, sense when the other twin is in danger, and, most magically, sleepwalk together every year on their birthday. Lily wants to believe that they are a matched pair – alike in every way – but Jake has his doubts. In the summer of their eleventh year, Jake finally moves into his own bedroom, and the twins begin the painful process of differentiation.

I was hooked from the first chapter, which is narrated in alternating lines by the twins. The immediacy, wit, and authenticity of the language quickly establishes both the closeness of the sibling relationship and the conflict just beneath the surface. The twins take turns narrating subsequent chapters – first as a collective memoir, and then, after Jake moves out, as entries in separate journals. This structure ingeniously mirrors the plot: as Jake and Lily grow apart, so do their stories. The theme of belonging vs. differentiation is echoed in the story of their ex-hippie grandfather, Poppy, and in a tense subplot about a local bully. Vivid imagery grounds the book firmly in a sort of suburban every-town, and also amplifies the sense of wonder during the interludes of magical realism. 

I have only a couple of quibbles. First, the book seems too long by about fifty pages. It bogs down in the last third, and the slow pace combined with the urgent tone reminded me (not in a good way) of Keeper, by Kathi Appelt. I would also like to have gotten to know the parents better. Mom and Dad are written nearly identically, which is ironic, given the context. 

Overall though, Spinelli has written another winner.

HarperCollins - May 2012

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Winner's Circle: Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O'Dell (1961)

Sometimes, in literature as in life, it is after one has lost everything that one finds the greatest strength. And so it is in Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins, one of the loneliest children's books ever written -- and whose heroine, Karana, is one of the strongest protagonists in all of children's literature.

The list of obstacles Karana must overcome is stunning. Her mother is dead before the book opens, and her father and most of the men in her tribe are killed in a skirmish with the Aleuts on page 23. The rest of the tribe, including her sister, sail away for the mainland, but Karana realizes her younger brother has been left behind and swims back to shore to take care of him. However, he is killed by a pack of wild dogs seven pages later, and for almost the entire rest of the book, Karana is the only human character. Left with no companionship or assistance, needing to master skills that her culture had barred her from learning for gender reasons (such as weaponmaking), and having no timetable at all for rescue, Karana not only doesn't curl up and die, but overcomes every challenge that the world can throw at her.

And so, on the one hand, Island of the Blue Dolphins is the ultimate survival story, one more impressive than Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, and Hatchet put together. On the other, it's a meditation on transience and loss, on appreciating beautiful moments while knowing that they can't be preserved. Karana's dog, Rontu, becomes her constant companion and partner in exploration -- but he grows old and dies well before the novel's end. One summer, when the Aleuts return to hunt otters, they bring with them a girl named Tutok, who becomes Karana's secret friend -- but she leaves with the others at the end of the summer and never returns. Throughout the book, Karana comes across places and items on the island that once had significance to her people, but she doesn't know the stories that go with them and has no way of obtaining them.

There's a sadness here that extends well beyond the margins of the pages. There is a real Island of the Blue Dolphins: San Nicolas, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of California. There was a real woman who lived there in isolation for eighteen years after being left behind when the rest of her tribe evacuated the island. "Now that the white men had come back," Karana says in the last chapter, after the ship finally arrives for her, "I could not think of what I would do when I went across the sea." And we know, though Karana does not, that there is almost no answer to that question; within two months of the real Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island's rescue, she was dead of dysentery. The missionaries called her Juana Maria, but what she called herself is lost -- by the time of her rescue, all of the other members of her tribe were dead or gone, and no one who could speak her language could be found. (O'Dell's sequel to Island, Zia, does present an alternate history in which at least a few of the tribe's members survive.)

And yet, however tragic Karana's story may be, she is undefeated by it. She describes the small joys that her lonely life provides with utter sincerity, and though the novel's tone is melancholy, it never becomes bitter or nihilistic. Even when the rest of the world has abandoned her, Karana finds value in her animals, her crafts, her hand-constructed home on the headland. Her life has intrinsic meaning, which remains even when all extrinsic meaning is gone.

As for the novel's Newbery award, I'd say it's richly deserved. The best-remembered of that year's other books is probably The Cricket in Times Square, which I read as a child and enjoyed, and which remains a much-loved classic, but doesn't have the same emotional heft as Island of the Blue Dolphins. This is a powerful book, and one that more than earned its Medal.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

2013 Contenders: The Wild Book, by Margarita Engle

One of the best things about Margarita Engle in general, and The Wild Book in particular, is her keen eye for detail. The slim verse novel is loosely based on the life of Fefa, Engle's grandmother, and it's clear that Engle paid close attention to the stories that her grandmother told.

The Wild Book details the life of a girl with dyslexia in the uncertain world of 1912 Cuba, and the descriptions of the everyday details of that time and place are startlingly observant. When she speaks, for instance, of encountering during a family camping trip "the coiled tunnels / hidden in trumpet-shaped / seashells," the vividness of the imagery is undeniable. Additionally, the book creates a sympathetic and realistic portrait of a child struggling to come to terms with and overcome her learning disability when such things were poorly understood.

I did wish I had a better view of the other characters in the book. Fefa is clearly drawn, but aside from Mamá, and to some extent Fefa's brother José, the other characters seem one-dimensional or vague. Some of that is understandable, given how much of the action takes place in Fefa's head, but I did find myself wishing at times that the other people in her environment were captured with as much detail as the daily events and surroundings of Fefa's life, which were truly beautiful.

I think this is a long shot for the Newbery, though it wouldn't surprise me if it shows up on the Notables list. I do think it's a very real candidate for both the Schneider and the Belpré, and I'd keep my eye on it, especially after its official publication in March.