Monday, November 26, 2012

2013 Second Takes: The Lions of Little Rock, by Kristin Levine

It was hard to pick our Mock Newbery list for the Maryland statewide event in January. Like, really hard. There's an embarrassment of riches to choose from this year, and some excellent titles had to be left off.

The Lions of Little Rock is one of those books that we ended up omitting from our list, but that's not to say it isn't an excellent book. Rachael spoke highly of it back in our very first review of a 2013-eligible book, and I agree with pretty much everything she said. There's a skillfully-evoked sense of place and time in this novel, and Marlee is a complex and sympathetic heroine.

Lions blends Civil Rights issues with the interpersonal dynamics of family and friends, and does so almost seamlessly. Indeed, it's basically the book that Glory Be aspired to be, one that fully succeeds in meditating on the changes that adolescence and maturity bring to parental, sisterly, and social relationships at the same time that it discusses race relations and civic justice. I can't think of much to fault it for, except possibly starting out a bit slowly.

As of right now, The Lions of Little Rock is probably towards the back end of my top 10 books of the year, maybe a hair behind Crow. Because the interpersonal dynamics and the plotting are so exceptional, however, it's one that I might be able to be talked into moving up on the list.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

2013 Contenders: Goblin Secrets, by William Alexander

As you may have heard, Goblin Secrets just won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. Honestly, the first I'd heard of it was when it made the shortlist. Which is vaguely frustrating. It feels like Sam and I have covered a lot of what's out there in terms of Newbery-eligible books this year, and then something like this comes along. PUBLISHERS: STOP PUBLISHING SO MANY GOOD BOOKS! Wait. Strike that; reverse it.

(Apologies in advance for the rambling, feverish nature of this review. I've been up the past three nights with a sick six-year-old.)

Anyway, back to Goblin Secrets. Two minute summary: orphan Rownie lives with a raggle-taggle group of children under the protection of a Baba-Yaga-esque witch who moves her house around at will. In their city of Zombay, where sinister automatons patrol the streets, acting has been outlawed by the mayor. Against this backdrop, Rownie finds himself drawn to a mysterious troupe of goblin performers who may hold the key to the mystery of his missing brother.

It's not a bad book. It's actually quite enjoyable, but when I start to zero in on the Newbery criteria, I don't see a lot of distinction. The characters, aside from Rownie, are not particularly well-developed. The setting is super cool, but again, I don't feel like it's described as precisely as it could be. The plotting is neatly accomplished, but not extraordinarily so.

And then there's the question of whether it stands alone. It's billed as the first in the Zombay series.We don't usually talk about the first books in series in terms of the standalone question, but I think it's relevant in this case. Alexander introduces a lot of elements (the coal-making, the automatons, the peculiar qualities of the masks) that he clearly means to develop further in later books. While that works to pique the reader's interest, it also gives Goblin Secrets a sort of foggy, incomplete quality.

Looking over the list of past NBA winners, it seems that there's been very little overlap with the Newbery Medal. I wonder how much that has to do with who's judging. The National Book Award judges are all authors, while the Newbery committee is primarily made up of librarians. Clearly, we're looking for different things in books. I wonder if a judging panel made up of authors (a panel that includes Susan Cooper and Gary Schmidt this year) gives more credit than we do for ambitious world building - which is where Goblin Secrets really shines - and for ambition and risk-taking in general. If so, good on them. As I've mentioned before, I don't think we're as good at recognizing those more nebulous elements of excellence. 

Published in March by Margaret K. McElderry Books (Simon & Schuster)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

2013 Contenders: Bomb, by Steve Sheinkin

Bomb is being talked up in many circles as perhaps the premiere nonfiction title of the year. Jonathan Hunt over at Heavy Medal has been a great champion of it, and a lot of other people agree with him.

Frankly, upon reading it, it's easy to see why. The fugue-like narrative braids three different story threads -- the American efforts to build the atomic bomb, the efforts by the Soviets to steal the designs, and the Allied attempts to keep the Germans from completing a bomb of their own -- and does so without sacrificing clarity or cohesion. It's a magnificent achievement, and one well worth praising.

A result of the narrative dexterity is that the book demands the reader's attention. I'm not the world's biggest WWII buff, but I still found that I couldn't stop reading until I'd finished Bomb. To me, that ability to draw in a reader who isn't a devotee of the topic is a hallmark of the best literary nonfiction. It's especially noteworthy that the book remains as intriguing when Robert Oppenheimer is brooding in his laboratory as it does during the commando raid on the heavy water plant in Norway. Sheinkin knows how to write action sequences, but he isn't dependent on them to keep the reader's interest -- an especially valuable skill in nonfiction, where one can't simply create an action sequence whenever one wants.

I had two possible issues with the book. One, which Nina Lindsay has covered in detail, is that, although Bomb is seriously well-researched, it's also awkwardly footnoted, and contains details that make one wonder whether they were actually present in the source material. The second is that, after reading it, I'm unsure as to how well it really fits into the Newbery age range. At best, it's for the very upper end of that range, but I think it probably slots more comfortably into the YA section. It's worth noting that Sheinkin's previous book, The Notorious Benedict Arnold, won the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults, and I think that the discussions for that award -- or even for the Printz -- might be a more appropriate place for Bomb to be considered.

Regardless, however, Bomb is an excellent book, and well worth reading. I'm curious to see if the Newbery committee decides to give it some love.

Published in September by Flash Point / Roaring Brook

Friday, November 16, 2012

2013 Second Takes: The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate

There's something magical about a book with an excellent voice, and I'm not sure I've read a book this year with a better one than The One and Only Ivan. The prose is spare and terse, but populated with arresting similes and unusual turns of phrase. Ivan, a gorilla trapped in the world's most depressing mall circus, is the narrator, and he's both elegaic and flatly sarcastic, a true wordsmith, but one who is incapable of verbally communicating with the humans in the story. It's a voice full of sublimated tension, which perfectly mirrors the narrative.

It's possible to criticize the events leading up to the book's climax as being unrealistic, or to argue that the narrative moves awfully fast at that point. But I didn't feel like one was meant to take The One and Only Ivan as a fully true-to-life tale, even if its hero is based on a real gorilla -- with its animals who talk to each other and plan to save one another, it's got a certain Charlotte's Web vibe to it. As such, I felt like the narrative played by the rules it had laid out for itself.

Rachael really liked this one, and I have to agree with her. I don't know if I prefer The One and Only Ivan to Breathing Room or Wooden Bones, but it certainly makes my Top Five of the year, at least to this point. It's on our Mock Newbery list, and I really look forward to seeing what people have to say about it at the event.

Housekeeping: The Ones We're About to Mock

We weren't going to publish this until Monday, so we're a bit ahead of the game, but Sam and I have settled on a final reading list for the Maryland Mock Newbery (to take place on January 14 at the Caroline County Public Library - register at the Maryland Library Association website, email any questions to Rachael, etc., etc.)!

For those who wish to mock with us, please run out and try to get your grubby hands on the following titles:

  1. Liar and Spy, by Rebecca Stead
  2. Mr. and Mrs. Bunny - Detectives Extraordinaire! by Polly Horvath
  3. Splendors and Glooms, by Laura Amy Schlitz
  4. The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate
  5. We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children's March, by Cynthia Levinson 
Why these five? Well, we took a couple of factors into account.

1. None of these books were published later than August. We know it can be difficult to find copies of books published later in the year, so no Twelve Kinds of Ice for us.

2. We wanted an assortment of titles that will generate the liveliest, most thoughtful discussion possible, so we chose books that represent humor and seriousness, fiction and nonfiction, and both ends of the Newbery age range.

We had to leave a lot of great titles by the wayside for various reasons. We know Wonder is at the top of many people's lists. We like it too, but both of us feel that the five titles above are even better. Hey, it's a strong year.

Conversely, these five titles do not represent the definitive Top Five of the year for either Sam or me (maybe we'll post those lists in January). We had to compromise on a couple of things in order to provide for the best possible discussion. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

2013 Second Takes: No Crystal Stair, by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

Well, Sam was the lone critical voice crying in the wilderness on this one, and I'm afraid he's going to remain that way. I agree with the rest of the universe that this is a very good book. Here's why!

Stylistically and structurally, it appeals to my tastes as a reader. I love ensemble casts and I love narratives with multiple voices. I feel that multiple perspectives, however fragmented, tell me more about a subject than a single viewpoint does.

Personal tastes aside though, I think this approach is a particularly effective one for the subject matter. Micheaux lived his life in public. He crossed paths with hundreds of people daily, and I think the multiple voices give a sense of the scope of his influence. At the same time, the man seems to have been something of an enigma, and the way Nelson uses these fictional fragments to piece together his identity acknowledges that as well. It feels almost like literary Cubism, different facets of Micheaux emerging depending on the angle from which he is viewed.

Sam also wrote that "It also seemed to me that a child reading the book would have a hard time following what was going on without some kind of encyclopedia or timeline of the Civil Rights Movement, as much of the background information felt overly elided." I'm with him on that one, but I don't think it's a flaw in the novel. I think that complexity does place it outside the Newbery range, though. In terms of reading level, it's not inaccessible to a middle school reader, but I think a high school reader is more likely to come in with the requisite background knowledge.

So, no Newbery love from me, but I think the starred reviews and awards are well-deserved.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

2013 Second Takes: Moonbird, by Phillip Hoose

Sam is very picky about his nonfiction - specifically about whether it has that ineffable spark that elevates it to literature. He thinks very highly of Moonbird - highly enough that he used the big L word (no, not that one). I'm not sure I agree.

I see where Sam is coming from in terms of Hoose bringing the personal into nonfiction. The best nature writing - some of the best literary nonfiction in general - employs that technique, but it doesn't often make its way into children's books. When's the last time you read a juvenile informational book that used the first person singular outside of the author's note? Hoose does set himself apart by weaving his own experiences into the story of B95 and the other red knots.

Does he do it in the most distinguished way, though? I don't think so. Stylistically, this book falls on the "good" side of the good/great divide. The settings are described vividly, the organization is effective, the profiles of people working in the field add texture... but none of it really thrilled me. I wasn't captivated by  B95's plot arc in the way I was while reading about the plight of the Titanic and the quiet triumphs of Temple Grandin.

And what about character? Hoose does an excellent job of turning an unassuming little shorebird, B95, into a literary hero, and thus giving the reader a point of interest to follow through the book. But how does B95 compare, as a character, with Mr. and Mrs. Bunny? With Parsefall and Lizzie? With Georges and Safer? Not very well, I would argue.

Sorry, Moonbird. If you're still alive, I hope you're not crying little Patagonian birdy tears of literary unworthiness all over the restinga. You're still the star of a very good book.  

Friday, November 9, 2012

2013 Second Takes: Breathing Room, by Marsha Hayles

Book buzz is a capricious thing. A book gets a starred review or two, a word from the right blogger, and suddenly it's the It Girl of Publishing Year 2013. Last year it was Okay for Now. This year it's Wonder. Sometimes they show up in the Newbery pantheon (oh lovely When You Reach Me), but sometimes the committee looks further afield (Moon Over what?). If this year's committee has been casting about for neglected titles (as well they should be), Breathing Room may be up for discussion.

Sam gave it a rave review, and Kirkus and Horn Book reviewed it quite favorably as well, but no one else seems to be talking about it. Personally, I don't think it's gold medal material, especially in such a strong year, but I think it's at least as good as Three Times Lucky and better than Summer of the Gypsy Moths. The writing is quietly elegant, and the story unfolds gracefully, holding my attention even as it (necessarily) lacks action. The sanatorium setting is vividly portrayed. The conflicts are all interior ones, but Evvy's development as a character is still believable and poignant.

There are flaws, of course. In a Goodreads review, one of my friends points out that some of the characters feel stock (the saintly sick girl, the rebellious sick girl, the young nice nurse, the old mean nurse, etc.). That's a fair critique, though I think they are more fleshed-out by the end. And there is the question of age level - Evvy is thirteen, and the coming-of-age narrative is pretty clearly YA - but it still falls within the Newbery range.

In any case, whether or not the committee has taken up its cause, this is a book worth noticing (if nothing else, it will fill that huge "Tuberculosis Sanatorium Fiction" gap in your collection).

Thursday, November 8, 2012

2013 Second Takes: Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, by Deborah Hopkinson

I was six years old when they found the wreckage of the Titanic, and though at that point I'd never heard of the ship, I still have distinct memories of watching the National Geographic special about it. Something about the eerie images of railings covered in cascading rust and staircases buried beneath an unthinkable amount of water struck a chord in my mind.

Titanic: Voices from the Disaster has something of the same feeling to it. It's told in straight chronological order, and as the various characters' stories show the impending catastrophe, it just gets creepier and creepier. Like Rachael said in her review, even though I knew perfectly well how the book would end, I still had a feeling of suspense, hoping that it would turn out differently. It's this tone, this sense of impending dread, that I think is the book's most distinguished feature.

I did have some of the same concerns Rachael had regarding the book's very high number of characters. I had some trouble keeping track of them all, and even though the book has a "People in this Book" section in its extensive back matter, it didn't actually include everyone discussed in its pages. (I really wanted to know more about Frederick Fleet, the lookout who first spotted the fateful iceberg.)

One of the biggest challenges in talking about books in a Newbery context is trying to separate the very good from the great. I think Titanic falls into the former category. It's solid through and through, but it doesn't quite have the near-mysticism of Moonbird, or the poetry of Hope and Tears. You should buy this book for your collection, read it, booktalk it, and recommend it, no question about it -- I just don't think it quite reaches the heights of this year's very best nonfiction titles.