Thursday, August 16, 2012

2013 Contenders: Wooden Bones, by Scott William Carter

No history of writing for children is complete without a mention of Carlo Collodi's book, The Adventures of Pinocchio. Published in its complete form in 1883 after a serial run, and translated into English in 1892, it's one of the early classics of what we think of today as children's lit, and its iconic characters still hold a special place in popular culture.

It's also extremely dark and violent, especially by today's standards. In fact, the story originally ended with the title character's death by hanging (!), and only a public outcry and the requests of Collodi's editor prompted the writing of the second half of the novel, in which Pinocchio is rescued by the Fairy with Turquoise Hair (or "Blue Fairy," if you only know the Disney version).

Scott William Carter's new novel, Wooden Bones, picks up the story after the more familiar ending, the one in which Pinocchio at last becomes a real boy. However, he sticks with the bleak, almost nightmarish tone that pervades Collodi's original, producing something that in its essence is a genuine middle-grade horror novel -- not the cartoony "scares" of R.L. Stine and his followers, but a truly unsettling book.

In Carter's book, Pinocchio -- now going by the less unwieldy moniker of Pino -- discovers that he has the talent to make wood come to life. Although he tries to use this gift to be helpful, starting by animating a figure he has created to look like Gepetto's dead wife, he instead gets himself and Gepetto run out of town by an angry mob. As the pair flee, they encounter more people, many of whom want to use Pino's gift for their own ends. Additionally, Pino discovers that he seems to be slowly turning back into a puppet himself.

Some of the people that try to take advantage of Pino are simply evil, such as Queen Elendrew. But others are just people who want something -- something that in and of itself isn't even necessarily bad -- so much that they're willing to do anything, anything to get it. Desire can destroy even the best people, as the heartbreaking subplot with the disfigured singer Olivia goes to prove. It's a powerful lesson, one that keeps being repeated in new and more disheartening ways.

The places that Carter describes are breathtaking -- a city high in the trees, a scorched and dying forest filled with wolves, a seaside port town with muddy, cruel streets. The world stretches far beyond the confines of the pages, and not everything we see gets a full explanation. Even when something is explained, as when Gepetto figures out what's happening to Pino at the end of the book, the explanations may or may not be reliable. Indeed, the closest comparison to Wooden Bones might be last year's Breadcrumbs, which also took a classic story in a moody, ambivalent direction, setting it in a world full of inexplicable images and half-seen stories.

Do I think that Wooden Bones is going to win the Newbery? No, I don't. I still think Wonder is the most likely winner, and several other books, including The One and Only Ivan, Three Times Lucky, and Liar & Spy, have a much better outside shot at the medal. But, in my personal opinion, I think Wooden Bones is the book so far that should win the Newbery. It's only 2012 children's fiction title that I've given five stars to on Goodreads as of now, and though I'll reevaluate my position when we get closer to awards time, for the moment, it's the book I'd champion.

Published in August through Simon & Schuster

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