Wednesday, October 31, 2012

2013 Second Takes: Wonder, by R.J. Palacio

Wonder does what it does well skillfully enough to make nearly any reader stop and take notice. It's a "problem novel" -- maybe even a "message novel" -- that talks about kindness and acceptance and features a severely disfigured child as its central personality, but which manages to keep most of the characters from seeming like puppets or authorial constructs. The excellence of its characterization, as well as the fact that its anti-bullying theme is more than a little timely, seems to be why so many people keep coming back to Wonder as a serious Newbery contender.

I have to give credit where credit is due, and Wonder may feature some of the best "delineation of characters" of any Newbery-eligible book this year. However, it seems to me to have serious structural weaknesses -- serious enough to remove it from awards contention for me.

The book is told from six different perspectives, which gives the reader the chance to see that each person in the story has their own challenges and struggles. However, one of the narrators -- Justin, the boyfriend of the protagonist's sister -- seems much less integrated into the story than the other five. His section is used for an item of plot advancement, but it seems to me to be largely extraneous, moving the focus of the story too far away from its center.

(As a quibble, Justin is a musician whose main interest is in zydeco, which makes it really odd that his instrument is a hardanger fiddle, a Norwegian folk instrument that isn't used in that style. It also seems like he would know that there's no such thing as "a flatted third on a major chord," since that's just a minor chord.)

More problematic, however, is the fact that, in a book that makes room for so many narrators, Julian, the main antagonist, doesn't get a chance to tell his story. One of the primary thrusts of Wonder is that everyone is struggling with some challenge, and setting a character up as a villain and then denying him a voice dramatically undercuts that. Even if Julian is wrong -- and there's not really any question about that -- he's still a person, and his interactions with his dominating, shrewish mother indicate a possible source of his problems. He's not some abstraction of evil created in a vacuum, and the absence of his voice looms large.

To me, this last point is a fatal flaw. It's so damaging to the theme of the book that I can't overlook it, and I can't support Wonder as a Medalist or as an Honor book. I think R.J. Palacio is an author to watch, and that the book has real merits -- I just feel that the structural and thematic weaknesses take it off of the level of "distinguished contribution to American literature for children."

Friday, October 26, 2012

Individually distinct.

"Any work of art which is not a beginning, an invention, a discovery is of little worth. The very name Troubadour means a 'finder,' one who discovers." -Ezra Pound

According to the Newbery Medal terms and criteria,

“Distinguished” is defined as:
• Marked by eminence and distinction; noted for significant achievement.
• Marked by excellence in quality.
• Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence.
• Individually distinct.
 I started thinking about that last definition after writing my most recent post. Which are the individually distinct titles of the year - the ones that aren't Another Folksy Missing Mom Book or Another Victorian Thriller? The titles that are "making it new," as Pound exhorted?
  • Mr. and Mrs. Bunny. Yes, it falls firmly within a tradition of tongue-in-cheek nonsense, following in the slightly unstable footsteps of Norton Juster and Daniel Pinkwater. But it's not quite like anything else, is it? After all, it's translated from the Rabbit. 
  • Starry River of the Sky. As I noted, it's not really like anything else, except for its companion book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. Nothing else that I can think of is both folklore and meta-folklore in quite the same way. 
  • The One and Only Ivan. Children's lit is full of animal rescue stories, of course, but I can't think of one that resembles this one in tone and style - that odd, melancholy hybrid of poetry and prose that makes Ivan's voice so memorable. 
And then there are the ones that Sam has read, and I haven't yet:
  • No Crystal Stair. There are other "documentary novels," but not many, as several people have pointed out in their reviews. 
  • What Came from the Stars. It doesn't sound like it succeeds, but it was at least trying to do something new in its blend of science fiction and realism. 
Of course, being individually distinct is not, in itself, enough to win the Medal, but I always give extra points to authors who are clearly taking a risk. There's also an argument to be made that doing a really, really effective reinterpretation of an old genre/style/plot can be just as effective, but that's another post.

For now, what do you think? What titles are we missing here?   

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

2013 Second Takes: Three Times Lucky, by Sheila Turnage

Recently, Sam and I were talking about music, and which genres  we like enough to tolerate mediocrity. For him, it's Euro girl pop - he loves Girls Aloud and Kate Ryan, but he'll listen to any pale imitation thereof. For me, I can tolerate just about any run-of-the-mill world music darkwave, though Dead Can Dance will always be tops. Conversely, we each enjoy the best examples of each other's favorite genres, but the imitators leave us cold.

Does that make sense? Good. Because I think it comes into play in literature as well.

Jonathan Hunt described Three Times Lucky as part of the "Spunky/Feisty/Charming Heroine with a Southern/Country/Folksy Voice with a Dead/Missing/Absent Mother genre."  Y'all, that is a genre that leaves me cold as a li'l ole' glass of sweet tea under a live oak on a hot summer's day. I love Because of Winn-Dixie because it is a brilliant and beautiful book, but I doubt that I could name a lesser member of the genre that I can even tolerate. I prefer my Southern fiction sad and dreamy, like Missing May.

And yet, The Spindlers (a solid but undazzling example of the Girl Travels to Underground Fantasy World, Meets Weird Inhabitants, and Saves the Day genre*) is one of my favorite books of the year.  

This is all to say that I am not the right reader for Three Times Lucky. The characters, voice, and tone all made my eyeballs want to explode. That being said, it's a perfectly solid book. I agree with Monica Edinger that Dale's family is particularly well-drawn. The setting is well-realized (though I'd rather go hungry than eat PBJ and Mountain Dew for breakfast, those kinds of details do set a good scene). The plotting is pretty good, if a bit meandering. 

Still, even if I put on my eyeglasses of objectivity, I don't see anything here that elevates it to Newbery status. Some people are saying it's honor-worthy, but I disagree. I think it'll just hang around in the crowd of perfectly good, workaday, 2012 middle grade novels. Like The Spindlers.

*A genre Sam loathes, by the way. As he told me after I read him the first few pages of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, he can't deal with any book that makes use of the phrase "ever so." Frightfully short-sighted of him.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

2013 Contenders: We've Got a Job, by Cynthia Levinson

We've Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children's March does an excellent job of capturing a critical time and place in American history. It does this by choosing to focus on four individual children who participated in the marches, intercutting their stories with the larger narrative of the Civil Rights movement in general, and the city of Birmingham's struggles in particular.

Cynthia Levinson is a respected author of nonfiction articles, but this is her first book. Add her to the list of new authors to watch -- her organizational ability is superb, and her prose is clean and vigorous. Based on We've Got a Job, she has a real talent for showing how the past impacts the present, which is one of the hardest challenges of writing nonfiction.

As we've mentioned previously in this space, this year has seen the publication of a lot of Civil Rights-themed books. Of the nonfiction titles, We've Got a Job is probably the best -- I'd place it above Little Rock Girl 1957, as well as Abraham Lincoln & Frederick Douglass, which are the two others that have seen the most discussion. It does the best job, not just of telling its story, but of explaining why the story matters to children in 2012 and beyond.

Is it the best nonfiction title of the year? I wouldn't go that far, I don't think. I still feel that Moonbird is the one that I'd pick for that honor, and given the competition, I don't quite feel the need to insert We've Got a Job into the semi-final reading list for our blog. But this is a book every library should own, and a valuable contribution to children's history.

Published in February by Peachtree Publishers

Thursday, October 11, 2012

2013 Second Takes: Crow, by Barbara Wright

Crow is a singularly effective piece of historical fiction. It both captures and transcends the time and place it describes, and I think structure and pacing are key to its effectiveness.

It begins with a portent - "The buzzard knew." From there, though, it moves on to paint an episodic, leisurely portrait of a way of life that seems idyllic compared to what is to come. Moses's concerns, for the most part, are the concerns of any sixth grade boy: will he get a bicycle? Will he lose his best friend? Who's hiding the treasures near the swimming hole? As Wright takes her time setting the scene, the reader gets a vivid sense of place and of character.

Throughout the first half of the book, though, there is a trickle of race-related trouble - the slogan contest, the accidentally stolen bicycle - which gradually builds, becoming a deluge at the rally in Fayetteville. From there, the pace picks up and we are rushed from one horrific event to the next, culminating in the destruction of everything Moses and his family value. This second half would not be nearly as effective without the hopefulness of the beginning chapters, and the transition between the two is accomplished seamlessly.

I'm not sure where structure fits within the Newbery criteria, because I don't think it's plot, exactly. It's some gray area between plot and style, and possibly presentation of information. I do feel confident in saying, though, that Crow features distinguished characters and settings, and those are key to its emotional impact. The destruction of black Wilmington means something to us because Wright has shown us exactly what is being lost.

If I have a complaint about the book, it's that Moses's presence at every one of the historical events felt a bit forced - like a You Are There! tour of the Wilmington race riots. I think that's a common pitfall of historical fiction.

Sam liked a lot as well, and I'll be curious to hear how he thinks it compares to The Lions of Little Rock as a novel focused on race and civil rights.

2013 Second Takes: Mr. and Mrs. Bunny - Detectives Extraordinaire!, by Polly Horvath

It's really, really hard to describe Mr. and Mrs. Bunny - Detectives Extraordinaire! It exists in a nebulous space between Watership Down and MAD Magazine, and if that doesn't sound like a place that's even possible, I probably would have agreed with you before reading it. This is true even though Rachael's initial review of the book gave me as much of a heads-up as it was possible to provide.

And you know what? It's amazing.

Certainly, in terms of the Newbery criteria, Mrs. and Mrs. Bunny truly excels in its characters. From its questionably competent title characters, to the insufferable Mrs. Treaclebunny, to the perennially exasperated Madeline, each personage who appears in the story is impossible to forget. It's similarly exceptional in setting and style.

If you wanted to criticize the book, the place to go might be to the development of plot critereon. Yes, the book has a plot, but it helps not to think too hard about the plausibility of any given event. However, plausibility isn't the point of the book, and it would require a superlative resistance to Horvath's manic charm in order to complain too loudly on that point.

Mrs. and Mrs. Bunny is a weird, weird book, and it might be one that's not all that easy to build consensus around, especially given how notoriously hard it is to generate agreement on humor. But at the same time, it has some of the same magic that's made novels such as The Phantom Tollbooth and Sideways Stories from Wayside School lasting classics. I need to go through the rest of our semifinal list to see exactly where Mr. and Mrs. Bunny places in my final list, but it's certainly a strong and worthy contender, and a book that I'll probably buy for my daughter for Christmas.

If you have any other thoughts, please feel free to share them in the comments!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Your passport to revelry!

We interrupt this blog to report the publication of a new Cat Valente book, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There.

Doesn't sound like it stands alone, so not a Newbery contender, but it is a highly anticipated book. By me.

(Will you like it? Ask yourself, "how do I feel about that there eleven word title?" You will have your answer.)

Semi-Final Reading List: Sam Edition

It's hard for me to believe we're already at this point in the year -- and that we had almost 50 books to choose from for our shortlist. There's a couple more that we may look at when we have a chance (Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous Weapon, by Steve Sheinkin, and Twelve Kinds of Ice, by Ellen Obed come to mind), but for the most part, we're on to the Taking A Closer Look section.

Rachael has already explained the rules, so here's the list of four that she assigned me:

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny - Detectives Extraordinaire!, by Polly Horvath
The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate
Splendors and Glooms, by Laura Amy Schlitz
Wonder, by R.J. Palacio

To these, I added:

The Lions of Little Rock, by Kristin Levine
Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, by Deborah Hopkinson

All systems are go! Forward full speed!

Semi-Final Reading List: Rachael Edition

We have now reached that troublesome point in the year when it's time to start narrowing down our choices. To that end, Sam and I have each decided to "nominate" four books for the other party to read. Sam has tasked me with reading: 

Crow, by Barbara Wright
Breathing Room, by Marsha Hayles
Liar & Spy, by Rebecca Stead
Moonbird, by Phillip Hoose

Then we each chose two additional books from the other person's reading list, so I will also be reading: 

No Crystal Stair, by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
Three Times Lucky, by Sheila Turnage 

Sometime in November, when we've each read and discussed all twelve of these books, we will announce the final reading list of five books for the Maryland Mock Newbery (in Denton on January 14 - save the date!). If any of you Marylanders would like to get a head start, you can go on the assumption that the final list will be taken from among these twelve books (the six above, plus the six titles Sam is about to reveal).

And.... go!