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.

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