Friday, March 30, 2012

One more poem.

Another couple spine poems

Since all the cool kids are doing it, I tried a few spine poems at home before coming to work this morning.

Here's one using one of the same titles as Rachael's from yesterday.

Because the London book is about boxing, I like to imagine Lady Audley here as a character from Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!

The last title, which is hard to read, is "What's a place like this doing to a nice girl like me?"

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Winner's Circle: The Slave Dancer, by Paula Fox (1974)

"It pretty much just borrows the ending from Moby Dick," I said.

"Don't tell me! I don't know yet how Moby Dick ends," was Rachael's answer.

"You don't know how Moby Dick ends?"

"No, although I get the feeling they don't catch the whale." this your spoiler alert, Rachael?


For those of you still reading, Moby Dick more or less ends with the destruction of the vessel on which most of the novel has taken place. Ishmael, the narrator, is the only survivor of the wreck. The Slave Dancer comes to a climax with the destruction of the vessel on which most of the novel has taken place. Jessie, the narrator of the book, is one of only two survivors of the wreck. (Ras, one of the slave boys, is the other.) Now, obviously, very few members of the target audience for The Slave Dancer are going to be familiar with the ins and outs of Melville's plot (even though the author is on the record as saying she didn't think of it as a children's book at all), but it points out the greatest flaw with Paula Fox's 1974 Newbery winner, which is a failure of imagination.

To go back to Moby Dick for just a moment, the reason that book ends the way it does is that there isn't any other way it can end. Captain Ahab's monomania has so consumed him that he's quite willing to sacrifice anything, everything, up to and including his ship, his own life, and the lives of everyone depending on him for one more shot at the white whale -- and no one is willing to step in and really stop him. It's a direct result of the way the entire book has been plotted. No other ending would suffice.

On the other hand, there isn't any particular reason The Slave Dancer needs to come to a similar dénouement. The slave ship on which Jessie has been impressed is almost home, they're spotted by an American vessel and have to flee -- and toss the slaves overboard -- and then suddenly a huge storm sweeps up, kills everyone else on board, and then sinks the ship. It's a deus ex cumulonimbus that saves the author the trouble of having to deal with the rest of the characters. You could make the argument, I suppose, that it's the result of the Captain's having trusted Benjamin Stout, who misidentifies the American ship as English until it's too late, but I don't think it flows all that organically from the rest of the book.

But then again, I don't think the book has a plot, so much as it has a series of events that happen in sequence. The passages that deal with Jessie having to play his fife for the slaves to dance, and the descriptions of the horrific conditions of the Middle Passage are certainly powerful, but they're not connected to a story of particular interest. Jessie doesn't have the resourcefulness or personality of a Jim Hawkins, and most of the crewmembers who aren't Purvis and Stout blend into each other. Ras also doesn't emerge into an important character until he's almost out of the book, and the part where he and Jessie are rescued by an escaped slave named Daniel seems rushed and forced, a coda that happens for no reason other than that Jessie has to get back to New Orleans somehow. The book does cover Big Issues, important issues, but it's not much of a novel, really.

It would be one thing if 1974 had been a weak year, but in fact, it was more than a little crowded. That year's committee somehow only selected one honor book -- Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising, and gave nothing to Socks, by Beverly Cleary; Summer of My German Soldier, by Bette Greene; A Day No Pigs Would Die, by Richard Peck; and The House with a Clock in its Walls, by John Bellairs. (Interestingly, Cooper, Cleary, and Peck would later end up winning the Newbery for other books, and Greene was given an Honor the very next year.) You could argue that The Slave Dancer grapples with the weightiest subject matter out of that group, but when one evaluates a book based purely on its message and neglects the artfulness of execution, one ends up making mistakes. Like, for instance, giving The Slave Dancer a Newbery.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

2013 Contenders: Mr. and Mrs. Bunny - Detectives Extraordinaire! by Polly Horvath

Ursula K. Le Guin recently wrote an excellent post about literary awards. The whole thing is thoughtful and thought-provoking, but this passage in particular caught my eye:

"I wish we gave literary prizes freely, the way they used to give prizes at the Pet Show at Codornices Park in Berkeley when I was a kid. Every kid in the neighborhood brought their pet, and every pet got a prize, an ad hoc, unique prize: for Soulfulness — for Loud Meowing — for Unusual Spot Placement — for Being the Only Skink…. There was no Best of Breed (in those days there were many mongrels and few breeds), and certainly no Best of Show."

I very much doubt that Mr. and Mrs. Bunny is going to win the Newbery Medal (though I could be wrong - I used to think there was an upper limit for Newbery weirdness, but then a little book about funeral homes, Hell's Angels, and geriatricidal octogenarians made the cut). If there were a literary equivalent of Being the Only Skink, though, Polly Horvath would have it in the bag.

And that gets at the heart of my ambivalence about literary awards. I disagree with Le Guin when she says that in "declaring a book as `the best,' a literary award serves that book. It does not serve literature." When Frederic Melcher and the Children's Librarians' Section created the Newbery award, their explicit intent was "to encourage original creative work in the field of books for children." To that end, I think it has met its goal. It has encouraged excellence in writing (and publishing) for children by rewarding excellence in writing for children (with prestige and increased sales).

In that sense, maybe literary awards are most effective within ghettoized genres. If no one believes there's such a thing as aesthetic greatness within children's literature (or science fiction, or romance), the establishment of an award can create a change in perception on the part of both publishers and readers. 

On the other hand, this is the age of shrinking shelf space and vanishing bookstores. Awards encourage publishers to give riskier titles a chance in the first place, but if they don't garner the Big One, how long do the books stay in print? There will always be a place on the library's shelves for Polly Horvath, but she'll be in and out of Barnes & Noble in the space of a month, if they ever stock her at all. I guess we'd better hold on to our libraries and our children's librarians: loyal defenders of Only Skinks and other oddities.

But I digress. A lot.

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny is really freaking weird, even for Polly Horvath. The fact that she is listed, on the cover, as having translated the book "from the Rabbit" should tip you off. The plot, such as it is, concerns a sensible little girl whose hippie parents have been kidnapped by some evil foxes (who also own Fox Entertainment, naturally). She enlists the help of Mr. and Mrs. Bunny, who have recently taken up detective work (mostly as an excuse to wear fedoras).

I described Polly Horvath to Sam as "Daniel Pinkwater meets Kate DiCamillo," but this one obviously has a pinch of Beatrix Potter, and possibly Kenneth Grahame, thrown in. It's hilarious, surreal, and good-natured (with a touch of bite). I will also note that it's so, so nice to see a woman writing unabashedly in the darkly humorous vein. We need more of that.

Sophie Blackall's illustrations complement the text perfectly. They make me want to buy an illustration from her etsy shop. I do worry, though, that the cute bunnies on the cover will put off the weird little boys who will otherwise love this book. Skink defenders, do your work! 

Published by Schwartz & Wade - on shelves now. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

2013 Contenders: The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate

I'm having some trouble figuring out how to write about The One and Only Ivan.

I finished the book two days ago in a little torrent of tears, so I dutifully put off writing my review for a day, in order to give my emotional reaction a chance to subside. When I looked at it again yesterday, however, the whole story was still bathed in the kind of glow that resists critical analysis.

Now it's today, and... I still can't find anything bad to say about the darned thing. So let's start with the good.

Ivan is a gorilla with an artist's soul, held captive in an incredibly depressing - and increasingly unprofitable - roadside mall-cum-circus. In order to survive, he actively suppresses his gorilla nature and refuses to fully comprehend the tragedy of his own situation. When the circus owner brings in a baby elephant to boost business, Ivan's protective silverback instincts are aroused, and he is moved to act on her behalf. 

The prose is so stark, especially for a children's book, that this almost reads as a verse novel. In fact, you could make the argument that some of the short chapters - all written from Ivan's first-person point of view - are actually prose poems. This restraint, along with the quiet dignity of Ivan's voice, focuses the story and keeps it from straying into melodrama.  "Humans speak too much," he says, on the second or third page. "They chatter like chimps, crowding the world with their noise even when they have nothing to say." The same cannot be said for Applegate's novel. Each word is essential, and deliberately chosen.

The double meaning of the title is a perfect example. It's taken from a billboard outside the mall, which advertises "The One and Only Ivan, Mighty Silverback!" Of course, Ivan is also the one and only gorilla in his strictly circumscribed world - cut off from the rest of his species since his twin sister, Tag, died shortly after their capture. Even the name of his stuffed gorilla toy - "Not-Tag" - is a poignant reminder of his solitude, and of the artificial nature of his environment.

I don't think it's giving too much away to mention that The One and Only Ivan has a happy ending. My cynical mind might have found that implausible without the author's note, which assures us that the real Ivan is now living happily in Zoo Atlanta. And I might have criticized Applegate for sugarcoating zoos themselves, but she carefully reminds us, in Ivan's voice, that "This is, after all, still a cage." Humans aren't perfect, even when we try to make amends.

The moral complexity doesn't start or end there. I refer you to Fuse 8's review, which does an excellent job of explaining why Mack, the villain, is so well-drawn. 

Even the cover is impressive. Ivan and Ruby (the baby elephant) are in the spotlight, but Ivan, our self-effacing protagonist, is facing away from the viewer, gazing sadly and defiantly back over his shoulder at us. And maybe I'm reading too much into it, but isn't it Ruby, after all, who teaches him to look backwards - to remember his animal nature?

So, yes. If I were on an official committee, I would need someone else to point out the shortcomings of this book. Because I just love it a whole bunch. With its fast pace, non-cutesy animal characters, and thorny moral questions, I think kids will love it too.

Published by HarperCollins - on shelves now.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

2013 Contenders: Three Times Lucky, by Sheila Turnage

Three Times Lucky reads like a soap opera, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. It's a novel unafraid to go completely over the top, and one has to admire its courage. An orphan washed up in a hurricane, miraculously unharmed? Check. An eccentric man who can't remember his life before a car crash? Check. Kidnapping, robbery, blackmail, murder? Check, check, check, and check.

The result is a book that's almost compulsively readable. The pacing is excellent, and I found it difficult to put down. It was wild, crazy, thrilling, and any number of other book-jacket adjectives. I'm not generally all that interested in small-town books with an ensemble cast of "quirky" characters, but this one grabbed me and didn't let go, despite my reservations about such things.

The last chapter was a bit Now We're Going To Wrap Up All The Loose Ends for me, but I suppose by that point, the reader is just about ready to finally get all the answers. According to her blog, Sheila Turnage has a sequel set for publication next year, and I'm curious to see where she goes with these characters now that many of them (though not, interestingly, the heroine, Mo) have their mysterious backstories revealed.

I had one serious reservation about this book. It's set in a Tupelo Landing, which, though it's fictional, can be placed with some accuracy on a map of North Carolina, roughly between Winston-Salem and Greensboro. And yet, as far as I can tell, the only non-white character is Mr. Li, the karate instructor, who's a very minor figure in the book. I could possibly have missed something, but unless I did, this is a book set in small-town east-central North Carolina that doesn't have a single African-American character in it -- something so unlikely as to stagger the imagination. I noticed this on several occasions, and it stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb.

At any rate though, this is a good book, and one that I expect will attract kids. It's getting excellent reviews from other sources, and I'd keep my eye on it as the year goes on.

Publication in May through Dial Books for Young Readers / Penguin

Monday, March 12, 2012

2013 Contenders: The False Prince, by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Sage is a smart-mouthed, street-smart orphan in an imaginary pseudo-medieval kingdom on the brink of civil war. He is picked up, along with three other orphan boys, by a mysterious nobleman with a risky political scheme in mind. The success or failure of the plan could decide the fate of the kingdom.


As I read The False Prince, I kept remembering something Vicky Smith said during the Morris Seminar. When Gregor the Overlander* came out, she hated it, and she ranted extensively to a colleague about its derivative, predictable plot. The colleague gently reminded her that derivative, predictable plots can be great training wheels for readers who are new to the conventions of fiction.

That kind of thing can be easy to forget.

As librarians and reviewers, we've read it before. We've read it ALL before. In this case, I had read Megan Whalen Turner before, and so I predicted the plot twist of The False Prince about twenty pages in. But this book is targeting a slightly younger audience than Turner's, so they're probably not expecting every orphan to turn out to be... well. Let's just say they have fewer expectations. And reading something like The False Prince does teach them how complicated plots work, and prepares them to take on The Thief. It's also suspenseful, fast-paced, and full of action and humor - all qualities that appeal to middle-grade readers, which encourages them to read more, which creates lifelong readers, which is, after all, what we're trying to do.

So, yes. Please booktalk and recommend The False Prince! Your readers, both boys and girls, will like it very much. Heck, I enjoyed it (in spite of) myself. But it's not breaking any new ground, and though it is deftly plotted** and features some interesting characters, I think it's ultimately too derivative to be a serious Newbery contender.

*I happen to love that book. It plays to my sympathies as a reader, with interesting concepts, atmosphere, and settings. The scene where the cockroaches worship the toddler with the poopy diaper is worth the price of admission. But "what kind of reader are you" is a question for another post.

**Though if I were really going to pick it apart, I might point out that it's hard for a first-person narrator to hide a huge secret about himself without some implausible omissions. Megan Whalen Turner pulls it off, but she is God.

Friday, March 9, 2012

2013 Contenders: I've Lost My Hippopotamus, by Jack Prelutsky

I'm always interested in the way that awards committees of any kind come to interpret their own rules. There are the rules as they are written, yes, but there are also the conventions and tendencies that aren't written down, though they're followed so closely that they might as well be.

The Newbery terms plainly state "There are no limitations as to the character of the book considered except that it be original work." Definition 1 adds, "the committee shall consider all forms of writing—fiction, non-fiction, and poetry."

However, in practice, poetry has gotten something of a short shrift. In the Newbery's 91-year history, poetry has won exactly twice: A Visit to William Blake's Inn, by Nancy Willard, in 1982, and Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, by Sid Fleischman, in 1989**. It hasn't done much better in the Honors; aside from the recent Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night, by Joyce Sidman (2011), it's hard to find an Honored volume of poetry that isn't something else too, such as a biography (Carver: A Life in Poems, by Marilyn Nelson, 2002), novel/narrative (Inside Out & Back Again, by Thanhha Lai, 2012; The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom, by Margarita Engle, 2009), book (The ABC Bunny, Wanda Gág, 1934).

But the situation becomes even more stark when one considers humorous poetry. American children's literature has produced some truly classic volumes of humorous poetry -- think Where the Sidewalk Ends, or The New Kid on the Block, or Sad Underwear and Other Complications. However, none of these books has ever so much as Honored. None. Never. No matter how "distinguished" a volume of humorous poetry may be, according to the tradition of the Newbery committees, it Just Doesn't Count.

I thought about this a lot while reading I've Lost My Hippopotamus. I loved Jack Prelutsky's work when I was a child, and so I was excited to check this new book of his out. It doesn't really break any new ground for him, but that doesn't mean it isn't entertaining and inventive. As a lover of portmanteaus (portmanteaux?), I enjoyed Prelutsky's heavy use of them in this volume -- some of my favorites were in the poems "A Dozen Buffalocusts," "Flamingoats," and "The Halibutterflies." I also appreciate the fact that Prelutsky respects the intelligence of his readers. He uses the right word for the circumstance, regardless of whether it's a word a child is likely to know at first sight, trusting that the reader will be smart enough to either determine the meaning from context, or go to a dictionary and look it up. Peregrinate, ineluctable, jocosity, dulcet, kudu -- on and on like that, but always the right word at the right time, used to be appropriate and funny, rather than as some kind of vocabulary-building exercise. I think that's something many children will respect.

I'm not sold on Jackie Urbanovic's illustrations, which seem messy and cluttered to me, and which I think will have limited child appeal. And the book does include a few clunkers in and around the entertaining poems -- it's not a perfect collection. But the excellent pieces outnumber the bad ones, and given that none of the poems extend beyond a two-page illustrated spread, it's easy just to let the momentum of the book carry you on to the next poem. My overall impression was very much a positive one.

At any rate, this won't win anything, or even be seriously considered. But I think the fact that I can say this with perfect confidence is a shame. A lot of crimes against verse are committed in the name of humorous poetry, true, but the best of it isn't any less "distinguished" than the best of any other genre, and it's too bad that the Newbery hasn't ever recognized any of these works.

Publication in March through HarperCollins Children's.

**I'm not counting Out of the Dust (1998), Karen Hesse's winning verse novel. If you want to count it, you can raise the number to three.

Friday, March 2, 2012

2013 Contenders: Glory Be, by Augusta Scattergood

    In fact, I start to wonder if what we have here   
    is really two poems, or three, or four,   
    or possibly none.
             ~Billy Collins, "Workshop"

The passage in Glory Be that most helped me make sense of how I felt about it isn't in the body of the novel at all, but rather buried towards the end of the Author's Note that serves as a postscript.

"I once thought this book was about sisters, how they grow apart and come back together. Then smart, important people showed me it was about more than sisters."

With the highest due respect for people who are probably smarter, and without a doubt more important than me, I think that maybe Augusta Scattergood should have stuck with her initial impulse. Glory Be tells the story of Glory Hemphill and her older sister Jesslyn, and the tumultuous summer of 1964, in which issues of segregation and racial equality come tearing through the sleepy town of Hanging Moss, Mississippi. However, the parts about the sisters' changing, uneasy relationship ring to me much truer -- and seem to me more profound -- than the portions that try to deal with the impact of the Civil Rights movement on a racially divided town.

Glory and Jesslyn's story is tenderly drawn, and laced with details such as the importance of the game of "junk poker," a card game in which the kinds of treasures that are special to children are used as chips -- a game that Jesslyn invented, but which she now considers herself too old to play. The Civil Rights sections, however, too often trade in stock tropes such as the unidimensional town football star/bully and the plucky, undaunted librarian.


I had two main issues with this book, and I think both of them stem from trying to graft "more than sisters" onto the story. One has to do with the subplot involving Jesslyn's relationship with Robbie, a youth who is living with his aunt in Hanging Moss after being arrested in North Carolina for participating in a sit-in. Once Glory accidentally reveals Robbie's backstory, the town bully and his friends beat Robbie up, after which he decides to leave town and does so. And...that's it. The ending to this plot seemed so abrupt that I spent the last twenty pages of the book waiting for there to be more to it, especially in its impact on Jesslyn. Maybe that absence is because Glory, not Jesslyn, is the narrator of the book -- and we do get a scene of her trying to atone to Jesslyn for her mistake -- but it still seemed unfinished to me.

The other involves Glory's Letter to the Editor about the closing of the community pool, which closing is motivated by the desire of the white residents not to be forced to swim with the black residents. I simply wasn't able to buy that it was written by a child. I've known a lot of eleven-year-olds in my life, including some that were very intelligent indeed, and I don't think any of them could produce a document with that level of rhetorical sophistication. Indeed, there's no other point in the narrative when Glory herself shows that kind of grasp of linguistic strategy. It took me completely out of the story -- and I'm not convinced that it's really an integral part of the story even if it were written more realistically.

Glory Be is by no means a poor book, and given that it's Scattergood's debut, I'd mark her as an author to watch. I just wish I could have read a book that spent all of its energy in its incisive exploration of sisterly relationships, rather than diffusing itself trying to do too much.

Scholastic, January 2012

Thursday, March 1, 2012

2013 Contenders: Tracks, by Diane Lee Wilson

The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad was one of the most important events in American history, but it's not one that has a particularly prominent place in the national psyche. One way in which this can be seen is the relative dearth of books that use that setting. It's refreshing to see a children's book make use of this chapter in history, and so I was excited to start reading Diane Lee Wilson's Tracks, which follows a youth named Malachy as he labors laying the rails.

However, I'll be honest and say that I found the book disappointing. The plot was too episodic to generate any momentum; for much of the book, it felt like it was simply ticking off historical events (an avalanche that killed several Chinese workers, the setting of the record for most track laid in a day, the events at the Maiden's Grave) without using them in the service of the overarching narrative. Malachy is reasonably well-defined, and Ducks isn't completely flat, but the other characters in the book rarely have more than one personality trait.

I also felt like the book's anti-racism message was very heavy-handed. The themes of discrimination against the Irish, and to a much greater extent, against the Chinese, seemed to me to be told much more than shown -- especially since so much of it was voiced by characters of little depth. It's perfectly possible to write an excellent novel that says something about problematic race relations -- think To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, or One Crazy Summer. But the reasons those books work is that we care about the characters, and they are involved in a story that is interesting as a story.

Now, it's important to recognize one's own biases, and I know, as a reviewer, that I'm very sensitive, maybe oversensitive, to didacticism. But I believe that, in terms of art, to simply possess a valuable or noble message isn't enough to make a work great, or even good. Plenty of terrible art espouses wonderful values. Great art requires one to work one's values into a compelling story, beautiful prose, nuanced characters -- something larger than a simple declaration of belief. And that is where, in my opinion, Tracks doesn't succeed.

Tracks is being championed by Richie Partington, among others, so feel free to disagree with me. But I wasn't a fan, and I don't see it finding a place on my short list.

Publication is in April through Margaret K. McElderry/Simon & Schuster.