Tuesday, November 5, 2013

2014 Second Takes: P.S. Be Eleven, by Rita Williams-Garcia

Rachael had a lot of good things to say in her original review of P.S. Be Eleven, and a lot of them centered on the characters and setting of the book. After reading the novel myself, I have to agree with her on those two points. The characters are strong, detailed, and well-rounded -- P.S. Be Eleven handles that particular Newbery criterion better than any book I've read this year except maybe The Hidden Summer (which, incidentally, I'm regretting leaving off our semifinal list more and more).

The New York City setting is also vibrant and clear. Plenty of children's books have ❤ed NYC over the years, but P.S. Be Eleven is among the best of them. (I like the fact that it fills in the time period between two of my all-time favorites, the early 1960s of It's Like This, Cat, and the late 1970s of When You Reach Me. Both of those, of course, won the Newbery, so maybe that's a good sign for Rita Williams-Garcia!)

I'm less sold than Rachael, however, about some of the book's other aspects. The ending felt odd to me, as if the book had almost been left unfinished. I thought, reading it, that the novel would come to some kind of sharp, climactic conclusion, but it just sort of peters out. On a similar note, the title comes from the letters that Cecile sends to Delphine, but I didn't feel like the letters were integral to the story as much as they were a device to try and tie the book back to One Crazy Summer.

Speaking of One Crazy Summer, the reader had best have read that book before going on to this one. There are various summaries of and callbacks to the events of Summer in P.S. Be Eleven, but there's simply so much backstory that I think it would be a really tough task to go into P.S. Be Eleven blind.

We have conversations every year about whether a particular book in the Newbery conversation "stands alone." That's not actually in the award criteria, and the committee has given the Newbery to books that clearly don't stand alone (see: The High King, The Grey King, possibly even Dicey's Song), but to the extent that it affects a book's "contribution to American Literature," it's something to possibly keep in mind. That said, I don't think P.S. Be Eleven does indeed "stand alone," though I don't know that it alters the book's literary merit.

At any rate, although I'd put P.S. Be Eleven extremely high on some of the Newbery criteria, I think its weaknesses in plot and construction knock it out of the top five for me. It's good -- very good -- and it what it does well, it does superlatively. I just think that there are books that are better all-around packages this year (The Real Boy, Zebra Forest, The Hidden Summer, From Norvelt to Nowhere, Follow Follow). 

However, since it will almost certainly be on our Maryland Mock Newbery shortlist, we'll get a chance to see if our group agrees with me!

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