Friday, September 28, 2012

2013 Contenders: Crow, by Barbara Wright

The Wilmington Insurrection of 1898 is one of the lowest points in American history. It remains the only successful coup d'etat in the United States, as a group of white supremacists overthrew the democratically elected mayor and town council and installed their own local government. The local black-owned printing press was destroyed by a mob, many blacks were killed, and thousands more were driven from town. Appeals to President William McKinley and the federal government for justice were met with stone-cold silence. It would be sixty years -- sixty years! -- before anything like a restoration of black civil rights took place.

Crow follows Moses Thomas, a black youth on the cusp of adolescence, through this time period. Moses' father is an employee of the Daily Record, and a prominent leader in the community, while his mother works as a housemaid for a white family, and his grandmother takes in wash and ironing. As the Insurrection unfolds, Moses' world begins to unravel, and he learns firsthand how cruel life can be -- as well as the reality of bright spots amidst the gloom.

This is not a happy novel. Everything is not magically made right at the end -- understandably, since it spans less than two years, rather than the better part of a century. But the prose soars, and Moses emerges as an indomitable character, one who understands that ideas of justice and truth will prevail, in his own personal life, if not always in the larger community. It's a hard book, but somehow a beautiful one.

I've read a lot of books this year that touch on themes of Civil Rights and race relations, including No Crystal StairAbraham Lincoln & Frederick DouglassGlory Be, and Little Rock Girl 1957. But of them, I think Crow is the best. It's beautifully-written and harrowing, a novel that doesn't shy away from the reality of evil, but at the same time provides characters with warmth, depth, and even joy, no matter how bleak the circumstances become. I highly, highly recommend this book, and I imagine we'll be discussing it further as we start to focus in on our shortlist.

Published in January by Random House.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

2013 Contenders: Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, by Deborah Hopkinson

I don't have any particular interest in the Titanic disaster, but I found this book riveting. It reminds me of last year's Amelia Lost, in that you know perfectly well how it's going to end, but you're still on the edge of your seat. I really, really wanted them to find more lifeboats, you know?

Hopkinson achieves this effect through her masterful use of primary sources. As the title indicates, much of the text consists of eyewitness accounts from aboard the ill-fated ship. The structure is mainly chronological, with a short detour in the second chapter to describe the physical layout of the Titanic. At each phase of the journey, we follow the viewpoints of a set of passengers and crew members that includes emigrant families, socialites, children, officers, a stewardess, and a radio operator. As the mishaps and poor decisions start to mount, the reader observes their effects from every angle. At the moment of impact, we are privy to both the lighthearted joking in the first class smoking room and the panic of third class passengers as seawater begins to seep into their cabins. All of this is presented in crisp, clear third-person prose that never turns melodramatic or maudlin.

Well-placed photographs enhance the reading experience, as do telegrams, maps, and ephemera such as a first class dining menu. Sidebars are also judicially placed, adding depth to the account without interrupting the flow of the text. The back matter is truly impressive, comprising everything from a compendium of survivor letters to a table that reexamines the lifeboat launch sequence.

I have only one real complaint. The book's great strength is also its weakness: with so many characters, I kept forgetting who was who and having to flip back to the first couple of chapters. Their individual fates are recounted in a "People in this Book" section in the back, but a brief list of dramatis personae near the table of contents would have been handy.

Where does it fall in terms of Newbery criteria? In the area of presentation of information, it beats anything I've read this year, though I haven't read widely in nonfiction. I think it also excels in plot and character, and possibly style too. Another excellent 2012 title to add to the pile!

Published in April through Scholastic Press 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The wisdom of hindsight.

One thing that's difficult for account for in a Mock Newbery - and that is also incredibly frustrating to me as a reviewer on deadline for SLJ - is the way time has a sneaky way of tempering one's critical stance. I'm always glad when I can read books early in the year and then revisit them later on, because my opinion has often changed in surprising ways. Cases in point:

1. Love-love-loved Wonder when I read it, but as the emotional high has faded, the book's flaws have emerged more insistently.

2. Liked Mr. and Mrs. Bunny - Detectives Extraordinaire! just fine on initial reading, but in the last few months it has really grown on me. I keep looking back and thinking, man, that Polly Horvath is really something. (A view shared, I might add, by Jack Gantos: when he came to visit our libraries, that was the only 2012 book he specifically mentioned liking.)

And there are others that have shifted in my esteem - some falling off my Newbery radar entirely, and some creeping steadily towards my personal shortlist.

Maybe this is more of a problem for me than most people. I'll be the first to admit that I am a passionate and capricious reader - tendencies that I try to temper with good, solid, critical skills, but that still get the better of me sometimes.

If I end up on the Real Live Newbery Committee, I'll be interested to see how this plays out. I've even remarked to Sam that I almost wish we gave the award out in June instead of January, so that the committee could have time to let the initial buzz and fervor around certain titles fade away. But maybe they're really good at sequestering themselves from all of that (Moon Over Manifest, anyone?), and I imagine that the discussion, in itself, works to temper overly feverish devotion. 

Here's hoping!

2013 Contenders: What Came From the Stars, by Gary D. Schmidt

What Came From the Stars opens in the middle of an epic fantasy conflict, dropping the reader square into an alien, unfamiliar world with zero explanation. It's not particularly easy to follow, but it's clear that there is a group of people called the Valorim, that they're under siege, and that they're losing badly. Before their loss is complete, one of them forges a chain, and imbues it with the Art of the Valorim before sending it off on a journey through space. As it happens, the chain finally alights in the lunchbox of one Tommy Pepper, a sixth-grader in Plymouth, Massachussets.

Tommy is having a lot of problems. His mother has recently died in a car accident, a tragedy for which Tommy blames himself. A greedy real estate developer is angling for his family's home. And his younger sister, Patty, has stopped speaking entirely, communicating only in looks and gestures.

Once Tommy puts the chain on, strange things begin happening. Immediately, he has magical artistic talents. He says words in an unknown language, and begins to confuse his own life and world with that of the Valorim. Bizarre events begin taking place around him, starting relatively benign, but becoming increasingly malevolent. It becomes clear that someone from the other world is very interested in getting the Art back, and they're willing to do anything to obtain it.

As a plot summary, it sounds like it could be interesting indeed. But the execution is terribly muddled, and it simply doesn't cohere in a way that would make the book successful.

Two of the biggest problems were the same ones that bothered me so much about Okay for Now, Schmidt's much-discussed book from last year. One is that the central idea, that art is tremendously powerful, is compressed into a crashingly obvious metaphor -- the MacGuffin is called "the Art," and the discussions about it between the characters read more like philosophical conversations than actual dialogue. The second is that the book is jam-packed with subplot after subplot, only some of which are given adequate time, but all of which are resolved in an unsettlingly upbeat ending.

There are other issues, which I can't discuss without spoilers, so don't read on if you're averse to such things. The structure of the book is confusing to the point of completely frustrating the reader. Although the epilogue(s) help somewhat, it's terribly difficult to figure out what exactly is going on in the fantasy-world sections. It's a deliberate technique, one that does perhaps give the reader a feel for what Tommy may be experiencing, but it errs on the side of being too obtuse. This is especially true once the plot crosses over into the real world. There's a weapon, for instance, called an orlu. Tommy fights with it at one point, and several other people are around to see it. Yet it's never described, other than a statement that it's worn at the shoulder, and I still don't have any idea what it might be.

I also don't understand what's motivating Tommy at times. The plot requires the presence of a creature from the other world, an O'Mondim (which, as these things go, sounds to me less like a monster, and more like a particularly stout brand of Irish ale). Tommy makes one out of sand and more or less accidentally brings it to life, but there seems to be no reason, conscious or otherwise, for him to do it. It has to do with the Art, but how exactly the Art functions seems unclear as well. Why does Tommy forget nearly everything that's happened after the Art returns to the other world? And why, for that matter, does everyone else? And if everyone else has forgotten what's happened, how does Alice Winslow recall enough to write the glossary at the end?

Honestly, I kind of wanted the whole book to turn out to be a sort of poltergeist thing, in which the stress and trauma that Tommy has experienced start manifesting themselves in unusual and unpleasant ways. However, the book doesn't really give the reader the option of reading it that way, as there are physical artifacts from the other world that remain through the ending. You could read it as a metaphor, I guess, but I don't think it holds together enough to really make that practical.

As you may have guessed, I'm not among them, but Gary D. Schmidt has an intensely loyal and devoted following. I don't think even they are going to get behind What Came From the Stars enough to push it to any of the ALA awards, however. It's an interesting idea, but unfortunately, the novel itself is fatally flawed.

Published by Clarion / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and out now.

Friday, September 7, 2012

2013 Contenders: Breathing Room, by Marsha Hayles

Until 1946, when trials with streptomycin began, there was no effective treatment for tuberculosis. None. If you came down with the disease, the best you could do was go to a sanatorium and hope that fresh air and bed rest would improve your symptoms. It wasn't much of a hope -- some records show that half of all patients who entered a sanatorium were dead in five years -- but it was the only hope available.

Adults came seeking a cure, but children came too -- children like thirteen-year-old Evvy Hoffmeister, the narrator of Breathing Room. Separated from her (uninfected) twin brother and the rest of her family, struggling for her health, and subject to the mind-numbing tedium of the Loon Lake Sanatorium's daily routine, Evvy has to try and be brave in deeply dispiriting circumstances.

The novel infuses small scenes and brief moments with pathos and significance. Because so much of what Evvy and the other girls at Loon Lake have to endure is unbearably banal -- lying motionless in bed, not being allowed to talk, having no distractions at all from the white walls and the thoughts in one's head -- even the slightest change is exciting and meaningful. The way that the relationships between Evvy and her roommates grow and develop is beautifully handled with almost no excess words.

Breathing Room is not an easy book. It's unsparing in its depictions of the disease, indignity, and death that take place inside the sanatorium. It has precious little action, and a plot that doesn't lend itself neatly to a summary. When one of the characters dies, the others try to figure out why it happened, but their awkward, overdramatic explanations simply point out that the disease does whatever it wants, inscrutably and unstoppably. It's a quiet book, but a challenging one.

But it rewards those challenges. It's of high literary quality, particularly when it comes to its characters, its setting, and its themes. It's a masterful meditation on a time, a place, and a group of people that history has largely forgotten -- one that both captures their lives and universalizes their experiences, in the tradition of Willa Cather or Scott O'Dell.

With the possible exception of Wooden BonesBreathing Room is my favorite book of the year. I've heard little buzz about it, and I wouldn't dare predict it as the Newbery winner. But I do predict that I will be talking it up to anyone who will listen.

Published by Henry Holt / Macmillan, and out now.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

2013 Contenders: Freaky Fast Frankie Joe, by Lutricia Clifton

When Frankie Joe's mother is sent to jail, he has to leave behind his friends at the trailer park in Laredo, Texas, and move to northern Illinois with a father, stepmother, and four half-brothers that he's never met. This doesn't sit well with Frankie Joe, and he immediately begins making plans for his escape -- plans that come to include earning money through his own business, Freaky Fast Frankie Joe's Delivery Service.

I tend to expect "new kid comes to a small, quirky town" books to have a female protagonist, so Frankie Joe was something of a breath of fresh air to me. His voice, that of a twelve-year-old who's been entirely uprooted, was my favorite thing about the book. He's a living, three-dimensional character, one whose struggles and challenges became real as I turned the pages.

The ending is the book's weak point -- it's brief and somewhat rushed, and didn't seem to me to fully address the issues that had been present only three pages earlier. Indeed, the writing as a whole was broader and less nuanced than I tend to prefer, with the dialogue being a bit exaggerated and the plot turns being overly telegraphed, though some of that can be explained by the age and personality of the narrator. It still had a bit too much of a storyboard feel to me though.

Freaky Fast Frankie Joe is Lutricia Clifton's first novel, and I think her career bears watching. Between this book, Neversink, Glory Be, and Wonder, it's been a banner year for first-time authors, which is cause for celebration. Freaky Fast Frankie Joe isn't sufficiently distinguished in the Newbery categories to place in this year's awards, but it's certainly a good start.

Published by Holiday House, and out now.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Heavy Medal steps gently out.

It's that time of year again: our big sister Newbery blog, Heavy Medal, has opened for another season.

Looking forward to reading Jonathan and Nina's thoughts on this year's contenders!

For our part, Sam and I are wrapping up the "initial reviews" portion of this year. We plan to start duking it out over individual titles next month. Stay tuned!