Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Remembering Peter D. Sieruta

As you may have heard, Peter D. Sieruta, author of the Collecting Children's Books blog, passed away suddenly the other day.

I didn't know Peter personally at all, aside from the occasional comment exchange, but he has been one of my professional heroes for several years. In addition to his many thoughtful insights about children's literature, he set a certain tone of civility, humility and kindness that deeply enriched the discourse of our community. Just in the past few months, I've turned to Sam several times to say something like, "Peter Sieruta is such a kind, gentle person."

I will miss him, and I will be thinking of him next year on "Newbery Day."

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

2013 Contenders: The Humming Room, by Ellen Potter

If you're nerd enough to be reading this blog, you probably know that Betsy Bird is redoing her Top 100 Picture and Chapter Books polls over at Fuse 8. She's counting down from 100 for both lists, and I fully expect The Secret Garden to appear within - or quite close to - the single digits of the Chapter Books list. People looooooove that book. They lurve it. They loaf it. (Myself included.)

So you'd have to have a mighty pair of ovaries in order to re-imagine Burnett's masterpiece, and that's just what Ellen Potter does with The Humming Room. In place of spoiled colonialist-spawn Mary Lennox, we have neglected trailer-dwelling Roo Fanshaw, who survives the slaughter of her parents by hiding underneath said trailer. In place of a mansion in Yorkshire, we have a former sanitarium on an island in the St. Lawrence river. And there are, of course, a sickly cousin, a grieving uncle, a wild boy, and a secret garden.

Ellen Potter writes maddeningly uneven books. I would argue that the best portions of The Humming Room are better than the best 2012 has offered so far. Roo Fanshaw is a wonderful character, and Potter is shrewd to point out that neglect happens amid both luxury and poverty. Like Mary Lennox, Roo is believably unlikeable in the early chapters, protecting herself with a habitual sullen ferocity. Then, of course, the seeds of her innate goodness germinate in the rocky soil of the island with a satisfying inevitability.

In any retelling of The Secret Garden, the setting must become a character in itself, and Potter succeeds in bringing her world to life with lyrical, Romantic prose. The St. Lawrence nourishes its inhabitants and shapes their characters in obvious and subtle ways. The house itself, formerly a sanitarium for children with tuberculosis - is appropriately creepy. And her take on the garden is fresh and delightful.

Where Potter falters a bit is in her secondary characters. Cousin Phillip, the uncle, and the wild boy are all underdeveloped, and they do not differ sufficiently from their parallels in Burnett's work. It feels like Potter spent all of her time lovingly crafting Roo and her world, and then plugged in the other necessary elements in a halfhearted 1:1 ratio. They don't stand up well beside Roo.

Still, like The Kneebone Boy before it, this is a lovely book, and I eagerly await the masterpiece that I know Ellen Potter is going to write one of these days. She's one of the best middle-grade authors we have.

Feiwel and Friends, February 2012

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Winner's Circle: Moon Over Manifest, by Clare Vanderpool (2011)

There's a kind of novel that we have a tendency to think of as The Newbery Book. It has a female protagonist, one right on the edge of adolescence. Invariably, she's motherless. It's set in a small town, one populated entirely with "quirky characters." It's probably historical fiction, and odds are good that it contains some life-affirming lessons about the power of literature, or art, or story.

Even though it's The Newbery Book, it doesn't actually win as often as it sometimes feels like. It has a proud historical tradition that includes books such as Up a Road Slowly (1967), Dicey's Song (1983), Missing May (1993), and Walk Two Moons (1995), but in the past 15 years, I only count two or three Newbery winners of this type: The Higher Power of Lucky (2007), Moon Over Manifest (2011), and maybe, depending on how you think about it, Out of the Dust (1998). Yet, for reasons of which I'm not entirely sure (maybe because they tend to be tough sells to child readers?), it's a category that continues to loom large in the minds of librarians and other kidlit folks.

At any rate, Moon Over Manifest, Clare Vanderpool's surprise 2011 winner, fits the bill perfectly. It is set during the Depression, and its heroine, 12-year-old Abilene Tucker, has been sent by her itinerant father to stay the summer in the town where he grew up: Manifest, Kansas. She stays with the local bootlegger/temporary pastor, is befriended by the plucky newpaper columnist, and does gardening for the Hungarian medium. As she searches for clues to her father's past, she finds that the history of the town seems to hinge on the events of the year 1918 -- a story that has hurt the town deeply, but also has the potential to heal it.

2011 was the first year that I was involved with the Maryland Mock Newbery, and it so happened that we had the discussion/voting meeting on the same day as the announcement of the actual Newbery. When the news came in that Moon Over Manifest had won, it was followed by...some expressions of disbelief, and some uncomfortable silences. It wasn't on our shortlist, and even most of the librarians who had heard of it hadn't read it. It truly seemed to come from nowhere to win the award.

And...after having read the book, the award still doesn't make much more sense to me than it did that day. The pacing seems herky-jerky, speeding arbitrarily through some events, and slowing way down for others. Abilene is desperate to know about her father, but her other personality traits aren't particularly well-defined. Using Ms. Sadie, the medium, to tell the vast majority of the 1918 story threatens to turn her into a Ms. Exposition, the climax of the 1918 story features a Talking Killer, and the final revalations about Ms. Sadie felt to me more appropriate to a Guiding Light episode. I never felt truly engaged with the plot. I don't think that it's because it's The Newbery Book -- I really enjoyed The Higher Power of Lucky, so I know it's possible for those titles to appeal to me -- but because it isn't fully successful at telling an effective story.

If we were to give the award out again today, the most likely candidate might be Rita Garcia-Williams' One Crazy Summer, which did pick up a Newbery Honor, the Coretta Scott King, and the Scott O'Dell. Our 2011 Mock Newbery winner was The War to End All Wars, by Russell Freedman, which is also an excellent title, and probably should have gotten more acclaim than it did.

Moon Over Manifest didn't do it for me (though my daughter loved the audiobook, so opinions do differ), and I think it very likely that this award won't age very well. But that's, as always, only one man's viewpoint.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Digressions: A Boy and a Bear in a Boat, by Dave Shelton (2012)

To be clear up front, since Dave Shelton is an English writer still happily living in Cambridge, A Boy and a Bear in a Boat isn't eligible for this year's Newbery. But it's such an unusual book that I thought I'd put up a post about it anyway, despite the fact that it's disqualified from winning any of the big ALA-sponsored awards.

Though I found it arresting, it's fiendishly hard to know how to evaluate this one. It's bold and audacious, and I don't think it entirely works, but it's hard not to admire its courage.

This is a 300-page book with only two characters. Neither is given a name; they are only referred to as Boy and Bear. The Boy, for reasons left entirely unexplained, asks the Bear to row him across an unnamed body of water, to a destination identified only as "the other side." Their attempts to reach that other side constitute the entirety of the book.

The journey, which the Boy had anticipated would be a short one, drags on for days and days. They run out of food on multiple occasions. For huge swathes of the book, nothing is happening at all; the Bear rows, and the Boy attempts to find some way in which to occupy himself.

Enough plot elements are introduced and never given a payoff to make Chekhov cry. There is a comic book in the boat, left there by a previous passenger. It is in a language the Boy doesn't know, but he looks at it over and over again anyway. And...that's it. No explanation is ever given. Similarly, the duo arrive eventually on a Mary Celeste-like abandoned ship. It seems that something is going to happen...but nothing does. The ship simply exists, at least until the Boy puts a hole in it while trying to make tea on a gas stove, and we are never told why it was there or what happened to the crew.

Parts of the book have a certain humor to them, aided by Shelton's drawings, and other parts have a hypnotic, meditative quality. The prose, in places, is beautiful. But I don't feel like it ever truly confronts its insularity, or even hints at a reason for the lack of any kind of context. I compare it to something like Anne Ursu's book Breadcrumbs, which also leaves any number of things unexplained, but does so because they're things the protagonist has no way to know. Some of the things in A Boy and a Bear in a Boat could fit into this category, such as the parts with the abandoned ship, but it's hard to figure a plausible reason why every detail behind the Boy's journey remains so obscure other than the author trying to be too artsy.

I can't finish this review without mentioning the ending, so if you're spoiler-averse, turn back now. At the climax of the book, after a storm has destroyed the rowboat, and the Boy and the Bear are left floating alone in the ocean, the Boy begins rowing the bear, with a ukelele as an oar. And...that's it. Land is never sighted. The journey is never completed. Frankly, I've never read a children's book with less of a conclusion; it makes The Giver look like the Hardy Boys. The only books of any kind that I've ever read that were comparably open-ended are things like Kafka's The Castle.

I have no idea who the audience for this book would be; nearly all middle-grade readers will likely be frustrated by the hazy, molasses-like pace and the lack of anything like an ending, and adult readers who enjoy Calvino and Kafka and the more inaccessible bits of Eco will probably find that the book doesn't explore the interior of its characters in enough depth to be interesting. But you have to give Shelton credit for trying something different, no question. I gave it three stars on Goodreads because that seemed like a reasonable compromise, given the audacious ambition and flawed execution on display.

For Those About to Mock Live Show! (MLA Conference)

For any of our readers that might be attending, Rachael (and I, as a last-minute addition) will be giving a mid-year Mock Newbery roundup at this week's Maryland Library Association conference. We'll be talking about some of this year's books, as well as other resources for other Newbery-watchers and children's book fans. Our presentation is from 11 a.m. to noon on Thursday, May 10, and we'd love to see any and all of you who will be there!

(Also, the blurb in the conference program features Rachael in a pirate hat. Which you pretty much can't beat.)

Monday, May 7, 2012

2013 Contenders: Deadweather and Sunrise, by Geoff Rodkey

In the latest issue of The Horn Book, Roger Sutton poses the question, "What Hath Harry Wrought?" His essay focuses on positive changes in our assumptions about children's reading habits, but Rowling's success hath wrought more insidious changes in the publishing industry as well. Pre-Harry, when I saw the word "chronicles" on the cover of a book, it brought me warm, fuzzy memories of Narnia and Prydain. Post-Harry, "chronicles" translates to "a series consisting of at least three volumes of at least 300 pages apiece, with derivative plots, stock characters, and probably some boring magic."

Enter the Chronicles of Egg.

In the first volume, Deadweather and Sunrise, we meet thirteen-year-old Egbert (Egg). He and his family run an ugly fruit plantation on a fetid island - Deadweather - inhabited solely by pirates and his own small household. Deadweather exists in the shadow of the much more attractive Sunrise Island, where tropical breezes cool the white sand beaches and proto-tourists roam the glittering streets. When Egbert's taciturn father finds something intriguing on their property, he sails the family to Sunrise, setting in motion a swashbuckling plot that manages to sustain suspense and momentum throughout its 288 pages.

I have to stop here and thank Monica Edinger, because I never would have picked up this book without her endorsement. Seriously. The ARC was sitting on my "Eh, probably won't bother reading" shelf, looking like a boring rehash of a million tired old tropes, and waiting to be used as a giveaway. I'm so glad I reclaimed it. 

Deadweather and Sunrise is much better than it has any right to be. The elements of the plot are not particularly original, but the author arranges them in some startling and delightful ways. There are maimed pirates working an ugly fruit plantation, the world's first passenger cruise through pirate-infested waters, and a particularly malodorous stowaway attempt. Where the book really shines, though, is in its characters.

Egg himself is an appealing hero, making lots of brave and dumb choices for believably noble reasons. The standout character, however, is his friend Millicent (who also happens to be the daughter of the villain). As well-drawn strong female fantasy characters go, it doesn't get much better than this. For once, the author has not chosen from between the two Strong Girl stock characters: Strong Like a Boy or Stunningly Brainy. Millicent is very intelligent, yes, and also brave and strong, but it's her diplomacy skills that save the day at the crucial moment. Applied knowledge FTW! (This made me realize how much female "intelligence" in fantasy novels amounts to "I read all the time and am able to regurgitate information at will.") Millicent is also bossy, spoiled, and headstrong, calling to mind another classic Strong Girl: Princess Eilonwy of Llyr.

I look forward to reading the rest of this trilogy. There are all kinds of intriguing loose ends, and I want to know more about the endearingly unstable cabin boy, Guts.

Published in May by Putnam Juvenile.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

2013 Contenders: Abraham Lincoln & Frederick Douglass, by Russell Freedman

Image courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

Let this be said -- no one writes history for children as well as Russell Freedman, and he's got a stack of awards to prove it (the Newbery Medal, three Newbery Honors, a Sibert Honor, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, and the National Humanities Medal). In his newest book, Freedman returns to the subject of his Newbery winner, Lincoln: A Photobiography, and adds nuance and insight by bringing in another key figure of the time, abolitionist leader (and former slave) Frederick Douglass.

Despite the somewhat awkward title, Abraham Lincoln & Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship is an exceptional book. Freedman is a master of using simple language to communicate with children in a way they will understand, but without talking down to them. He respects his audience, and maybe that's why his work is so successful. Here, he takes a distant, confusing moment in history and, through the intertwining narratives of his protagonists, makes it easy for his audience to understand.

I'd recommend it in a heartbeat to any kid with even a marginal interest in US History. As a Newbery contender, I'm less certain. It's been ages since the Newbery committee recognized more than one nonfiction title in any given year -- unless one chooses to think of poetry or folklore as nonfiction, I think the last time was 1951, when Elizabeth Yates won the award for Amos Fortune, Free Man, and Jeanette Eaton's Gandhi: Fighter Without a Sword, and Clara Ingram Judson's Abraham Lincoln, Friend of the People both honored. With that in mind, I don't think Abraham Lincoln & Frederick Douglass is as distinguished of a contribution to children's literature as Moonbird. You can make the argument that Freedman is a better prose stylist than Phillip Hoose, and I might even agree with you, but I felt like Moonbird did a superior job in relating its subject to the world of human emotions and experience, even though it's naturally more difficult to do that with migratory shorebirds than the civil war and the end of slavery. Indeed, if I have any criticism to make of Lincoln & Douglass, it's that I wish it had spent a little more time exploring why what these two men did 150 years ago still has resonance and significance today.

Again, this isn't to say that I don't think highly of Lincoln & Douglass, only that I think there is a stronger contender for the one "allotted" Newbery nonfiction slot. The committee may feel differently though, and the Sibert committee may find this title especially interesting as well.

Publication in June through Clarion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

2013 Contenders: Moonbird, by Phillip Hoose

Take a close look at that bird on the cover of Moonbird. It's attractive enough, but hardly spectacular. Certainly, the first thought I had when I looked at it wasn't "there goes the finest avian athlete of all time."

And yet, this particular bird, a rufa red knot whose leg band bears the label B95, is one of the most spectacular survivors in the animal kingdom. It is at least eighteen years old, and migrates each year from the Tierra del Fuego to northern Canada and back again, logging a minimum of 18,000 miles in the process. In fact, B95's nickname, "Moonbird," comes from the fact that during its lifetime, it has flown at least the distance to the moon and halfway back, and perhaps further than that.

Phillip Hoose is a big name in juvenile nonfiction, having picked up a Newbery Honor and a Sibert Honor in 2010 for Claudette Colvin, as well as a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for his previous book about endangered avians, The Race to Save the Lord God Bird. This is another winner, and I know that if someone had handed me this book as a ten-year-old boy, I would have thoroughly enjoyed it. For anyone with an eye on this year's Sibert, I'd really watch this one.

As for the Newbery, that's a harder question. Like I said in my discussion of Amelia Lost, children's nonfiction rarely hits the literary heights of the best adult nonfiction. I do think that Moonbird represents a greater contribution to literature than Amelia Lost does, and partly that's because of how it's structured. Phillip Hoose traveled to many of the important migration and feeding sites for these birds, and his own personal experiences are interspersed with vignettes of scientists who study red knots, a discussion of the birds' biology and conservation status, and a best-guess description of the life and journeys of B95 himself. This addition of the personal to the scientific is critical to the book's success; it's not just a book about birds, or even a book about a specific, exceptional bird, but a book about the interaction and relationship between the human world and the natural one, as seen through the author's own eyes.

Incidentally, most of the classic American nature authors -- Thoreau, Muir, Dillard, McPhee, etc. -- use this design, framing what they see through their own experiences. It moves the reader from the realm of facts to that of emotions and perceptions, from information to meaning, and I'd humbly submit that this is what gives a piece of nonfiction literary (as opposed to informational and scientific) value.

Is Moonbird good enough at that to win the Newbery? It's hard to say, especially because this is shaping up to be a crowded year. But it's closer to what I feel like a nonfiction Newbery winner should look like, and it's a book I very much am glad to have read.

Publication in July through Farrar Straus Giroux.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

2013 Contenders: May B and Kindred Souls

Sometimes I meet a book that's just not right for me. This month, I met two. Oddly enough, they're both about sod houses. I'm sure that's a wacky psychological profile waiting to happen. Or maybe sod houses are this year's magical boarding schools.

May B, by Caroline Starr Rose

May, whose family shares a cozy sod house on the Kansas prairie, is sent to help out on a neighbor's homestead several miles away. When the neighbor and his wife disappear, May is left to face a harsh prairie winter on her own. And she's dyslexic. But she has plenty of time to work on her reading, being snowed in on the verge of starvation and all.

Verse novels are a pretty tough sell for me. I admit that I don't really "get" them as an art form. When I read one, I feel like I should at least understand why the author chose that particular medium over another one. In the case of May B, it makes some sense - spare, unforgiving landscape begets spare, unforgiving text - but I'm still not sure it works. I prefer powerful prose to less powerful poetry.

The book does have a lot going for it, including sharp imagery and clear descriptions of May's ordeal. May herself is a strong, believable character, though I think her dyslexia is an unnecessary addition. It distracts from the main conflict and dilutes the force of the story.

Anyhow, May B received at least two starred reviews, so your mileage may vary.

Kindred Souls, by Patricia MacLachlan

The author of Sarah, Plain and Tall turns her hand to a short, plainspoken story of the love between a grandfather and a grandson on a peaceful prairie farm. Jake and his 88-year-old grandfather, Billy, are unusually close - kindred souls, in fact. When Billy falls ill, Jake knows that the one thing that will help his grandfather heal is a sod house - a replica of the one he grew up in. The whole family pitches in to build him one.

And there we have my problem with this book, in a nutshell. I keep fiddling with that summary, trying to make this book sound less ridiculous, but in the end... yeah. It's about a family who drops everything to build a sod house for a beloved elderly relative. I know it's really about the difficulty of saying goodbye to those we love, and the meaning of home, and etc., but... a whole sod house? I'm not sure my relatives would go too far beyond fluffing my pillows.

It's not that I can't appreciate a quiet, homespun story of loss. Missing May is one of my favorite Newbery winners. In that one, though, Rylant's prose is both raw and transcendent. Though MacLachlan's writing is perfectly good here, the characters feel underdeveloped, the setting is too idyllic, and the addition of an "angel dog" lends the whole enterprise an aura of Hallmark Movie-ishness.

Ah well. Maybe the sod houses caught me on a bad day.  

2013 Contenders: The Storm Makers, by Jennifer E. Smith

As Rachael mentioned, we spent last week listening to Newbery winner Jack Gantos speak to school, library, and university groups here on the Eastern Shore. It was a privilege, as he's not only a funny and enlightening speaker, but also one of the genuinely nicest people I've ever met.

One of the points on which he's adamant is that the experience we get from reading a book is highly dependent on what we personally bring to it. This resonates with me as I try to decide how exactly to frame my reactions to Jennifer E. Smith's novel, The Storm Makers. It's a terribly difficult book for me to analyze, because its strengths are deeply appealing to me, and its weaknesses are things I don't care about as much.

The Storm Makers centers on a girl named Ruby, whose family has moved from Chicago to a farm in rural Wisconsin. Life is pretty boring until evidence begins to mount that her twin brother, Simon, is developing magical powers that enable him to control the weather. His powers draw interest from the Makers of Storms Society, as well as from a group of former Society members who believe that the Society no longer serves the good of the world. These competing forces drive the conflict that propels the plot forward.

I know, as a reader, that I highly value nuanced, well-drawn characters; beautiful prose; and a sense of atmosphere and mood. The Storm Makers gets ace marks in these categories. Each sentence sparkles, and I truly appreciated that. Neither the heroes nor the villains are two-dimensional, and that was nice to read, especially in a "good vs. evil" type of plot. Smith handles those aspects very well indeed. The fraught, changing relationship between Ruby and Simon is drawn with particularly deft lines.

The book does, however, have flaws. And this isn't a Breadcrumbs situation, where I'm passionately arguing that what many people think are bugs are actually features -- these are genuine issues. The pacing can be generously described as "languid" -- this 372-page novel would probably read better at 250 pages. Additionally, as other folks on the internet have pointed out, the world-building leaves some questions unanswered, such as why a group of Storm Makers in the USA is able to essentially engage in ecoterrorism without any interference from the rest of the world.

However, my reading preferences don't place much emphasis on pacing -- I'm perfectly happy to read a book in which nothing much happens as long as the characters and prose are engaging. Additionally, though it's not like I don't appreciate the world-building of someone like Tolkien or Pullman, that's not generally the first thing I read for, even in fantasy.

The upshot of all of this is that I thoroughly enjoyed The Storm Makers, but this is one where your reaction to it will almost certainly vary depending on what you value in literature -- as well as what you can't stand. It's probably too polarizing in that way to win or place in the Newbery sweepstakes, but it may well become deeply loved among readers with a certain set of reading priorities.

Publication in April through Little, Brown & Company (Hachette)