Monday, February 25, 2013

2014 Contenders: A Tangle of Knots, by Lisa Graff

<Movie preview voice>

IN A WORLD divided between those with special "Talents" and those who are merely "Fair," a mystery is waiting to be unraveled.

</Movie preview voice>

Eleven-year-old Cady is in the first group. Not only does she bake extraordinary cakes, she can ascertain a person's ideal variety of cake just by looking at them. She wins a lot of baking contests. Marigold Asher, on the other hand, is the only Fair member of a Talented family. She spends a lot of time looking for her Talent. And then there's the cantankerous Owner of the Lost Luggage Emporium, above which Cady and Marigold both find themselves living. And the tall stranger in the hot air balloon. And the lost woman known only as "V." And the rest of Marigold's family, and the orphanage owner, and...

Are you getting that this is an ensemble book?

A Tangle of Knots had two factors working against it for this reader:

1. People With Special Talents. They seem like this decade's middle grade equivalent of Zombie Angel Vampires.

2. Recipes Included. Polly Horvath did it well in Everything on a Waffle and spawned an army of imitators.

Despite my reservations, though, I felt myself being drawn into Graff's world. I'm a sucker for an intricate plot, and this one provides an impressive puzzle. The title is apt - I found myself frequently flipping back to previous chapters to untangle various plot points. And it's one of those books where all of the pieces fit together in the end with a satisfying click.

On the other hand, it takes time to put in place all the strands of a plot this complicated. In a middle grade book that clocks in at 229 pages, the whole thing felt overly rushed. The characters are underdeveloped, and I had no sense at all of the setting. Thematically, it raised some interesting questions (does Talent equal destiny, or is it just a distraction?) and then left them frustratingly unanswered. I was left with the sense that Graff was a Talented juggler with too many balls in the air, and all of her authorial energy went towards keeping them aloft.

It's still a terribly enjoyable book. I wouldn't call it Distinguished, but for readers who prefer plot over character or setting (and there are many), I give A Tangle of Knots an enthusiastic thumbs up.

Publication in February 2013 by Philomel Books 

Friday, February 22, 2013

2014 Contenders: The Water Castle, by Megan Frazer Blakemore

As The Water Castle begins, Ephraim Appledore-Smith's life is in a difficult place. His beloved father has suffered a stroke, and is a shell of his former self. He's stuck between his older brother, Price, a stellar athlete, and his younger sister, Brynn, an intelligent and precocious child. And on top of that, he's had to relocate from Boston to the small town of Crystal Springs, Maine, home of his family's ancestral house, the titular Water Castle.

Ephraim and his new friends, Mallory and Will -- representatives of three families with a complicated and troubled past -- begin working their way to the secrets of Crystal Springs and the Water Castle, in the hopes of finding the legendary Fountain of Youth. Ephraim's hope is that this will enable him to find a cure for his father's condition. The present-day story intertwines with another story from 1908, and other elements, such as Peary's expedition to reach the North Pole, the eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla, and mysterious levels of radioactivity in the area, start to form a sort of fugue. This is a complex, dense book, one that certainly excels in its elaborate, almost baroque plot.

For me, The Water Castle hit all the right notes. The characters are believable and three-dimensional, the themes are fascinating, and the book managed to take classic elements of children's literature -- the old house with hidden secrets, the found diary, the tantalizing map -- and recontextualize them. It's hard to say this early, but I fully expect to be discussing this novel for the rest of the year.

I think the biggest question about The Water Castle is going to be about its ending. The book presents all the necessary information to solve all of its mysteries and piece together its story in full, but there's no scene at the end where all of the parts are explicitly wrapped together. I fully expected someone to give the kind of final speech that mystery novels tend to contain, where the secrets are revealed and the motives made clear, but this isn't that kind of book. It allows the reader to have the satisfaction of putting all the parts together on their own, without confirmation. I think it's a brave strategy that works in this particular book, but I can already start to hear the arguments about it.

This is Megan Frazer Blakemore's first middle-grade novel, and I'd opine that it's a stunning one. I'd be surprised if this is the last time that you hear about The Water Castle in this space.

Published in January by Walker & Company / Bloomsbury

Thursday, February 14, 2013

World Read Aloud Day Challenge: Part One

World Read Aloud Day Blogging Challenge!

What do you think is special about reading aloud?

You know how, in fantasy novels that involve portals to other places/times/dimensions, there are always rules about bringing other people through the portal with you? Generally you have to be touching the other person in order to bring her through with you, though not always.

Well, the real world has rules like that too. In order to bring a person with you through the portal to Narnia - or to Prydain, or to Harriet M. Welsch's New York City -  you have to read the magic words aloud. I know this works, because just last night Ella and I were hanging out in The Birchbark House with Omakayas. I have whisked Sam away to The Rookery to spy on David Copperfield. One year my entire fourth grade class followed two dogs and a cat on an Incredible Journey across Canada.

In seriousness, reading aloud together is one of the only times I can think of where more than one person can participate in the co-creation of an imaginary world. You could argue that watching a movie together accomplishes something similar, but I think that's just two people alone in the dark. Reading - even solitary reading - is more active, since the reader is charged with transforming code into pictures, sounds, and feelings. And when you add a human voice and a listener (or several listeners) to the equation, something amazing happens. All of you get to see (and create!) the pictures, hear the sounds, and feel the emotions. You get to visit another place, or try out another life, and you get to do it together.

There's a reason we humans have been telling each other stories for millennia, and it's not just to improve our comprehension skills. It's the way we make sense of the world. It's the way we create meaning. 

I think that's fairly special.

Friday, February 8, 2013

2014 Contenders: Hokey Pokey, by Jerry Spinelli

Imagine, if you will, a world made out of childhood. There are no adults. There are no bedtimes. There are no toothbrushes. You spend every perfect, sunny day riding your bicycle (which you have culled from a herd of wild bicycles), watching cartoons, playing ball, and eating hokey pokey (which is apparently a sort of snow cone - I had never heard of this). You play until you're worn out, and then you collapse under the full moon, only to begin again when the sun comes up.

Such is the daring premise behind Jerry Spinelli's new novel, and the premise is not the only daring aspect of this strange little book. It has stylistic tics that start to whack you upside the head from page one. I haven't seen prose this idiosyncratic since The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Cat Valente. It's like the mutant child of James Joyce and Willy Wonka.

Now, I don't mind stilted prose. I love Cat Valente, after all. If you're going to be that odd and unnatural, though, you'd better have some substance to back it up, buddy. Your weirdness better serve a greater literary purpose. To use a visual metaphor, not everybody who throws paint at a canvas can be Jackson Pollack. With Hokey Pokey, I was pretty skeptical for the first twenty pages or so, but gradually it began to win me over. It's weird, yes, but it has internal consistency. It works.

It does more than work, actually. It's gorgeous. Its whimsical style, wistful/nostalgic tone, and allegorical plot combine to form a moving elegy to American childhood. Those elements make it difficult to evaluate according to the some of the Newbery criteria, though. Setting is murky, but that's intentional, and serves the dream-like sense of the thing. Characters are almost stock, but they are supposed to be everychildren. These elements are effective, but they don't function the way they would in most middle grade novels.

Stylistically and thematically, though, Spinelli is at the top of his game. 

Over in the comments of the very last Heavy Medal post until the fall, people are hella divided about Hokey Pokey, and I imagine that this will continue to be a love it / hate it title as we start discussing real contenders this fall. We will be discussing it, though - of that I feel certain.

Until then, I leave you with a few nagging questions about the book: 
  • Why does Jubilee have a brother? Nobody else in Hokey Pokey seems to have a sibling. Even Jack's actual sibling doesn't manifest that way in Hokey Pokey. 
  • Is the ending effective? I'm not sure if I like it, or if I would have preferred for the book to end when Jack boarded the train. Maybe that wouldn't have been as effective for the target audience, though. 
  • Speaking of which - is this a book that will be as appealing to children as it is to nostalgic adults? 
  • What about the kids whose childhoods don't look like so idyllic? Is that a killjoy question? Maybe it's just me, but I can imagine some people whose childhoods would be distilled into very dark imaginary worlds.

Published in January 2013 through Random House

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. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Magic Time, or We Heart Notable Books

The Notables are up! The Notables are up!

Can I tell you a secret? I love the ALSC Notable Children's Books list even more than I love the Newbery.

It's like Season 7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume that there there is significant crossover between children's lit aficionados and Buffy fans. If not, just bear with me for a sec.) Every week, the opening narration told us, "In every generation, there is a chosen one. She alone shall stand against the vampires, demons, and forces of darkness. She is the Slayer." It's a heavy burden to bear, being the chosen one. She gets all the glory and ballyhoo, yes, but also the sole responsibility for holding the Big Bads at bay.

In Season 7, however, we are introduced to the potential slayers: the girls who may find themselves appointed the next slayer if Buffy is killed. And at the end of Season 7, Buffy and the rest of the Scooby gang do something unprecedented: they work a magic spell that turns every potential slayer into an actual Slayer. Buffy is no longer alone.

The Notable Books are like an army of Slayers.

An ongoing problem with the Newbery (or rather, with people's misunderstanding of the award) is that the winner is expected to be everything to everyone. It's supposed to appeal to every child. It's supposed to be teachable. We want to give it to five-year-olds, fourteen-year-olds, and everyone in between. The book has not yet been written that can live up to those kinds of expectations (though I have to say, The One and Only Ivan comes close).

But in aggregate, the Notables can. Take this year's list - we've got excellent poetry (Water Sings Blue), picture books for older readers (Each Kindness), concept books (Hippoposites), and weird stuff that's difficult to categorize (Twelve Kinds of Ice). We have the kinds of beautifully designed books that tend to fall through the cracks of the other awards (Chuck Close: Face Book). And, thankfully, we have all of the excellent middle grade fiction that didn't quite make this particular Newbery committee's list (Starry River of the Sky, Liar and Spy, Wonder).

The Newbery Medal was established in order to "encourage original creative work in the field of books for children. To emphasize to the public that contributions to the literature for children deserve similar recognition to poetry, plays, or novels. To give those librarians, who make it their life work to serve children's reading interests, an opportunity to encourage good writing in this field." It continues to do all of those things, and it does them well. But it doesn't have to stand alone.

"So I say we change the rule. I say my power, should be *our* power. Tomorrow, Willow will use the essence of this scythe to change our destiny. From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer, will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Can stand up, will stand up. Slayers, every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?" (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Chosen," 2003)

We are, Buffy. We definitely are. So say we all.

2014 Contenders: The Truth of Me, by Patricia MacLachlan

Patricia MacLachlan won the Newbery in 1986 for Sarah, Plain and Tall, and that's an award that's stood the test of time. It's sort of an odd book, however, one that's almost more tone poem than novel(la). The hypnotic, understated prose and the profound sense of place make it work even though not much actually happens in the book.

In some ways, it feels like the rest of MacLachlan's career (or at least her career as a fiction writer, rather than as an author of picture books) has been an attempt to recapture the magic of Sarah. Sometimes it's worked (Skylark) and sometimes it maybe hasn't worked so much (last year's Kindred Souls). Unfortunately, her newest effort, The Truth of Me, probably falls into the latter category.

The Truth of Me follows Robbie, the only child of two prominent classical musicians. He and his dog, Ellie, go to stay with his grandmother while his parents are touring Europe. Where his parents are remote, even diffident, and firmly grounded in reality, Robbie's grandmother is a free spirit with an intense connection to nature. Robbie is drawn to her way of thinking, and struggles to reconcile these two worlds.

On the sentence and paragraph level, the writing is fantastic. The descriptions of the wild animals have a numinous quality, and the short, simple sentences read like some kind of seemingly impossible hybrid of Ernest Hemingway and Julian of Norwich. The problem comes when one steps back and looks carefully at what these beautiful pieces add up to.

Taken as a whole, The Truth of Me appears at best to be unfinished. The conflict between Robbie and his mother weighs heavily on his heart, but his mother's turnaround seems questionably warranted and underexplored. His father is a cipher, and other characters that flit around the edges of the book, such as David Chance, the unorthodox second violinist in Robbie's parents' quartet, are introduced but never really developed. The interlude with Cranky Tom features lovely writing, but doesn't go anywhere, and the whole subplot is dropped by the end of the book. Frankly, at 114 brief pages (at least in my ARC), The Truth of Me doesn't have the space to fully engage with the issues that it raises.

I'm sure some people will like The Truth of Me, and given how truly lovely many of the individual lines are, I can even understand why. I don't think it's effective as a piece of literature, however, and I'd be surprised to see it on Newbery day next year.

Publication in August through Katherine Tegen Books / HarperCollins.