Tuesday, February 5, 2013

2014 Contenders: The Center of Everything

When I was about halfway through The Center of Everything, I tweeted, "Reading The Center of Everything and wondering: if it won the Newbery, would it be the first Newbery winner that name checks the Newbery?" Leaving aside the issue of the Newbery name-check, what the hell am I doing wondering whether my very first 2013 read will win the Newbery? What am I comparing it to? 

Nothing. The rest of this publishing year is a black box. Could be filled with When You Reach Mes; could be filled with Smokey the Cowhorses. It makes these first reviews kind of difficult to write. I assume that's why the Newbery Committee doesn't start nominating until late in the year, and why Heavy Medal goes on hiatus until the fall. How do you know if a book is distinguished if you don't know what field of contenders it is distinguishing itself from?

Since we here at About to Mock are intrepid/stupid year-round bloggers, we just have to assume that the publishing year black box is Schrodinger's box - that it is chock full of both superstars and duds - and evaluate the books we read accordingly. Given those hypotheticals, do I consider The Center of Everything is a genuine contender? Why, yes I do. 

The Center of Everything is, in the most basic sense, another dead grandparent book. Ruby's beloved grandmother Gigi has died, and Ruby is having a hard time getting over it. Gigi was the kind of woman whose strength holds the whole town together, and nothing seems the same without her. But Ruby is convinced that when she reads her prizewinning essay at the town's annual parade, it will fix everything - including her broken friendships. She's just not sure how. 

The plot of The Center of Everything unfolds in concentric circles, switching back and forth between the day of the parade and the events leading up to it, and gradually filling in crucial details. Thematically, Linda Urban is preoccupied with circles (well, really tori, or donut shapes) as well. These manifest both symbolically - the emotional ripples of any given event, social circles of inclusion and exclusion - and literally. The town is obsessed with donuts, and Ruby, in attempting to bring about her wish, fixates on the physics of tori and begins to see them everywhere. This is a meticulously and elegantly plotted book. 

If the plotting and structure are painstaking, however, the characters feel deceptively effortless. Ruby and her friends talk and act like real kids. They're interested in things like physics, astronomy, and acting, but they are limited by a typical 12-year-old's abilities. Other characters are introduced very briefly as well, such as the woman who plans the parade each year, and the new middle school librarian tasked with introducing Ruby's speech. Urban takes a risk in shifting the entire narrative point-of-view to these characters, but I think it's an effective gamble that ultimately serves the theme. Readers understand long before Ruby does just how everything is coming together. 

Or at least they will on a second read. And whatever else happens, this book merits a second read.

Publication in March 2013 by Harcourt. 

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