Friday, September 6, 2013

2014 Contenders: Beholding Bee, by Kimberly Newton Fusco

So there's a book out this year that's set during World War II. Its protagonist is a girl who lives with a caretaker; said caretaker is older than her, but not by that much. When circumstances conspire to take the caretaker figure away, our main character is led onward by a ghostly presence, which may just help her find her forever home. Which book am I describing?

All right, pencils down. Did you say Gingersnap? If so, then you're correct. But if you answered Beholding Bee, the most recent title from Kimberly Newton Fusco...then you're also correct.

It's not as if we haven't had two oddly similar books come out in the same year before -- just last year, this was part of our discussion around Glory Be and The Lions of Little Rock. However, the weirdly specific plot points that Gingersnap and Beholding Bee share genuinely took me aback. The books were published only a month apart, by different imprints (though of the same publisher), so it's not a case of plagiarism or anything -- just a bizarre, bizarre coincidence.

At any rate, in much the same way that the similarities between them threw into sharp relief how much better Lions was than Glory Be, the forced comparison makes it obvious how much superior Beholding Bee is to Gingersnap. Where the characters in Gingersnap were flat and ill-defined, those in Beholding Bee are presented in much sharper focus. And, perhaps most importantly, the fact that Beholding Bee is twice as long as Gingersnap means that the ideas get a much fuller treatment in the former, as opposed to the latter book's maddening lack of detail.


This doesn't mean that all the plot threads are tied up by the end of the book. Although the supernatural elements come to a natural conclusion, and Bee has made great progress in coming to terms with the facial birthmark that has brought her so much social difficulty, several other strands are left hanging. We don't get to see Bobby's much-discussed return, we don't know what happens to Ruth Ellen's father (who seems to be missing in action somewhere in Europe), and we don't get to see the end of the standoff between Bee and the school bully, Francine. If I had to guess, I'd wager that Fusco is planning to return to this set of characters, and has thus left herself enough room for the sequel(s). I have no problem with that, but it's worth noting that a reader who expects a neat ending will be disappointed.

I quite liked Beholding Bee, and I'd love to see what happens next in the story. As I look at the Newbery criteria, however, I can think of other contenders that are a bit stronger in theme (Penny and Her Marble), presentation of information (Courage Has No Color), plot (The Water Castle), characters (The Hidden Summer), setting (Zebra Forest), and style (The Real Boy). As such, I wouldn't put Beholding Bee in my top tier of contenders, but not because it's a weak title -- just because others are especially strong.

Published in February by Alfred A. Knopf / Random House

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