Thursday, May 30, 2013

2014 Contenders: Call Me Oklahoma!, by Miriam Glassman

Nine-year-old Paige Turner is tired. She's tired of being scared, of being shy, and especially of being picked on by Viveca Frye, the resident bully. What she needs, she decides, is a new persona, and so she begins the school year by requesting that everyone call her Oklahoma.

What follows is a pleasant, charming story of a young girl figuring out her own identity. There are bumps along the way, to be sure -- and Paige/Oklahoma doesn't always make the best choice in every situation -- but this is a story of optimism.

Frankly, Call Me Oklahoma! is much better than I had anticipated. From the cartoony cover and the brief description, I'd expected a sort of sub-Judy Moody product, but the novel is actually a well-crafted slice of contemporary fiction. The dialogue is snappy, and Paige/Oklahoma's inner struggles are communicated clearly and with respect.

Really, Call Me Oklahoma! is more along the lines of something like Clementine, or Ramona Quimby, Age 8. It's not quite at the level of those books -- it has too many stock characters (the snotty older brother, the kindly, foreign-born piano teacher, the bratty relative), and some of the tropes are too familiar (the book ends at a talent show, which has been done so many times that it's hard to pull off effectively). Nonetheless, it's likely to be enjoyed by the kinds of readers who appreciated those classics.

In the end, Call Me Oklahoma! is closer to the level of Newbery contenders than one might think. It's short of the top tier for this year, but it might be my favorite novel of the cycle so far for the younger chapter book crowd.

Published in April by Holiday House

Thursday, May 23, 2013

2014 Contenders: Sugar, by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Ten-year-old Sugar lives on a sugar plantation in Louisiana during the turbulent, difficult years of Reconstruction. Her mother is dead, her father has never returned after being sold during the closing days of slavery, and she has to contend with the grueling challenge of planting and harvesting sugarcane. The community of plantation workers is there to help her, but change is afoot, personified by a group of Chinese workers who are hired to help work the fields. And what will become of Sugar's friendship with Billy, the son of the plantation's owner?

It's not a bad premise, and it has the advantage of covering some events that aren't particularly familiar -- I know I wasn't aware that some plantations in the South hired laborers from China during Reconstruction. Unfortunately, however, the execution doesn't really succeed.

The first thing I noticed when I picked the book up was the strangely-cadenced prose. It's unusually clipped, full of odd sentence fragments and half-sentences. It's a first-person narrative, but there's nothing in Sugar's character that made the idiosyncratic prose feel natural, especially given her devotion to storytelling. Additionally, the story is presented in the present tense. I tend not to like the present tense as a stylistic choice unless there's a very specific reason for it (e.g., the stream-of-consciousness nature of adult novels such as Ulysses or If on a winter's night a traveler), and nothing in the otherwise straightforward narrative of Sugar seemed to demand an unusual presentation. Frankly, I kind of wondered if the book might have been better as a verse novel, a format which doesn't punish those kind of stylistic choices.

Sugar also seemed to me to be heavy-handed in its themes -- characters are constantly discussing what it means to be "free," with the kind of self-consciousness that takes the reader out of the story. The opportunity for meditation on the nature of freedom is already there in the narrative without needing to call so much explicit attention to itself. The same could easily be said about the many conversations about how "the times are changing."

The characters didn't really come alive for me either. Sugar has little to distinguish her from any number of other spunky, ahead-of-their-times protagonists in historical novels, Beau is essentially just Ducks from last year's Tracks, and many of the supporting characters are far too eager to utter tired lines such as Missus Beale's: "Sugar already has too many fancies in her head. It isn't natural."

Jewell Parker Rhodes is a well-respected author whose awards include a 2011 Coretta Scott King Honor for Ninth Ward. I think it's awesome that she's chosen an unusual setting for Sugar; I just wish that the novel as a whole lived up to its promise.

Published in May by Little, Brown and Company / Hachette

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

2014 Contenders: Doll Bones, by Holly Black

Zach, Poppy, and Alice have been friends since they were little kids, and for as long as they can remember they've been playing "the game." On the surface, the game is simplistic, consisting mainly of discarded Barbies and G.I. Joes, but around these figures they have been weaving complex and ongoing stories of pirates, mermaids, and deadly quests. Now that the friends are in middle school, however, forces are conspiring to pull the childhood threesome apart. As a last gasp effort to save the game and the friendship, Poppy removes the super-creepy doll they call The Queen from her mother's china cabinet, and sets in motion a series of events that put the trio in real - and possibly supernatural - danger.

One quality I've always appreciated in Holly Black's writing - especially her young adult titles - is the gritty, realistic detail she uses to flesh out the lives of her characters. Strip malls, subway stations, and neglected latchkey kids are a staple of the urban fantasy genre, but she brings those settings to life with particular panache.

In Doll Bones, Black's signature suburban sprawl serves as a striking foil for the Victorian creepiness of the ghost story. The warring aesthetics also serve as a convenient shorthand for the underlying conflict of the book, because there are really two stories happening here. It's a haunted doll book, yes, but it's also the story of three friends trying to hold onto the magic of childhood as the grim realities of adolescence creep ever closer. Just as The Queen can't rest until they give her a proper burial, Zach, Poppy, and Alice must lay their own childhoods to rest before they can reconnect as adolescents. In order to do that, they must find a place for magic within the harsh reality of middle school life.

Where is that place, exactly? Is magic literally at work here, and are they actually being haunted by the ghost of a girl who was turned into a doll? Black leaves that question carefully and tantalizingly unanswered, suggesting that we don't need to leave magic behind as we grow up, but we all need to decide how to carry it with us. (Ex.: I kept wanting to shout at the three protagonists, "YOU'RE ROLE PLAYING GAMERS. Just go find a comic book store, and your people will joyfully welcome you into the nerd herd!")

In terms of the Newbery criteria, I think Doll Bones really shines in the areas of plot, theme, and setting. The characters are underdeveloped, though, and the prose, while workmanlike, is not what I'd call stylistically distinguished. Those shortfalls may keep it off the Newbery table. Still, this is Holly Black's best middle grade effort to date, and one of the most enjoyable books of the year so far. 

Published in May through Margaret K. McElderry (Simon & Schuster) 

P.S. - This song, by my favorite band, should obviously be the official soundtrack to this book.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Winner's Circle: Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis (2000)

Ten-year-old Bud Caldwell isn't in the best of circumstances as Bud, Not Buddy opens. His mother is dead, all of his possessions fit into a single suitcase, and he's being shipped off to yet another foster home during the heart of the Great Depression. But after things at the foster home go very wrong, Bud sets off on his own to find the father he's never known, with little to help him other than a faded flyer for a band: Herman E. Calloway and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression!!!!!!

So begins one of the modern classics of children's literature. Bud's adventures bring him into contact with a whole host of some of the best-realized characters in any children's book I've ever read. From the loathsome Todd Amos, to the jovial Lefty Lewis, and on to the enigmatic Herman E. Calloway himself, each one of them seems fully real, with personalities that extend far beyond the boundaries of the pages. Indeed, the characters are so impressively developed that Christopher Paul Curtis was later able to spin an entire novel around a minor character, Deza Malone, whose whole appearance in Bud, Not Buddy barely spans eleven pages.

The tone of Bud, Not Buddy is also truly exceptional. It's a story full of deep sadness, albeit laced with real hope -- and yet it's also very, very funny. Bud is the kind of child who's learned to laugh in order to keep from crying, and his witticisms and sharp observations buoy the novel even in its darkest moments. It's extremely difficult to balance humor and pathos, and I'm hard-pressed to think of another children's book that does it better.

With over a decade's worth of hindsight, Bud, Not Buddy appears to be an example of the Newbery committee making an unassailable choice. There were three Honor books in 2000: Getting Near to Baby, by Audrey Couloumbis; Our Only May Amelia, by Jennifer L. Holm; and 26 Fairmount Avenue, by Tommie dePaola. In most other years, Holm probably would have won the Newbery, but even as well-regarded as Our Only May Amelia remains, I haven't really heard anyone argue that it was unfairly passed over. Bud, Not Buddy also won the Coretta Scott King that year, and that too is an award with almost no complaints.

Although his list of published works isn't particularly long, Christopher Paul Curtis is unquestionably a major author. In addition to his Newbery medal, he also has two Honors, for The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 (1996 Honor), and Elijah of Buxton (2008 Honor); Elijah also won the Coretta Scott King, the Scott O'Dell, and the Canadian Library Association's Book of the Year for Children. But Bud, Not Buddy is still the cornerstone of Curtis's reputation, and a rock-solid one it is.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

2014 Contenders: My Adventures as a Young Filmmaker, by Andrew Jenks

Andrew Jenks is a reality star and documentary filmmaker, but the word that he repeatedly uses in My Adventures as a Young Filmmaker is "story." Jenks sees himself as a storyteller -- film is his medium of choice, but one gets the sense that he's more interested in the message than the medium. Perhaps that's one reason why his autobiographical book comes off better than those of many celebrities: even if print isn't Jenks's usual format, he's still telling a story.

Indeed, Jenks's distinctive voice is really what drives Adventures. He's brash, snarky, and sometimes even arrogant, but he's also painfully candid about his struggles, shortcomings, and occasional poor choices. His skill as a filmmaker and storyteller comes from his ability to empathize deeply with those around him, which comes across in his descriptions of the people at the nursing home where he shoots his first documentary, the small group of faithful friends who accompany him on his adventures, and his circle of supportive family members.

Adventures has a breezy charm, even though not all portions of the book are equally engaging. That might just be an inherent risk of the subject matter -- to me, at least, it's more interesting to read about Jenks as a failing film school student in pursuit of his left-field idea of making a movie about himself moving into a nursing home than it is to see him making docs about star musicians and going to the VIP section at clubs. Sometimes, it's the pursuit of success that holds interest, rather than the success itself.

I don't really know what the awards committees will make of My Adventures as a Young Filmmaker. It hits the upper end of the Newbery age range, but it's much more "popular" than "literary," as nonfiction goes, and I don't think it's going to receive real consideration there. The Sibert is notoriously resistant to pop culture biographies -- unless you think When Marian Sang or The Voice That Challenged a Nation counts, none have been honored in the 13-year history of the award. The YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults did name Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing as its 2011 winner, so maybe Jenks' book has a better shot there. Realistically, however, I think it's more likely that Adventures has the same fate as something like last year's Face Book, which didn't win, place, or show in any of the major awards, but did get named to the Notables list, and won a wide readership.

I can't make a good argument for putting Adventures over this year's top Newbery contenders so far, but I do hope it's recognized in some way -- or at least, that it finds its way into the hands of the readers who will enjoy it.

Published in March by Scholastic

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

This sequel to One Crazy Summer picks up exactly where the first book left off. Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are flying home after their crazy summer in Oakland, full of the confidence and maturity instilled by a month with their poet mother and the Black Panthers. When they land in New York, though, they find that their minds are not the only things that have undergone a change. Their father has a stylish new girlfriend, their uncle is on his way home from the war, and Delphine has a new teacher on exchange from Zambia. Things are changing in the larger world as well, and Delphine works through her feelings about all of this turmoil in a series of letters to her mother, Cecile, whose replies always advise her, "P.S. - be eleven!"

There's a thing that happens to me every year. Sometimes it happens in January, sometimes not until August, but every year, eventually, I pick up a middle grade book that makes me say, "YES. That is how it's done." Whatever book triggers the reaction doesn't necessarily remain my favorite for the rest of the year, but it serves a crucial function: it revives my enthusiasm for children's literature as a whole. This year, that book is P.S. Be Eleven. 

It's almost a shame that the first chapter - "A Grand Negro Spectacle" - isn't part of the first book, because it makes such an elegant foil to the first chapter of One Crazy Summer. Where Delphine was uptight and overcautious on the plane ride out to Oakland, she is now relaxed, confident and even a bit mischievous. I laughed out loud in several places as the three sisters tore through the airport, leaving havoc in their wake. Of course, Big Ma is not amused by their sassy attitudes, and the sisters have to find a way to fit their big new Oakland personalities back into their old Brooklyn lives. It is these growing pains that occupy the majority of the book.

As in the first book, setting and character are superbly drawn. Williams-Garcia has an uncanny knack for capturing the spirit of a time and place, and she weaves period details like the rise of the Jackson Five and the problems of Vietnam Vets expertly into the novel. Though Delphine is every inch a complex, flesh-and-blood eleven-year-old girl, her experience also seems to represent a subtle turning point in the African-American experience as a whole. She looks to the role models in her life for direction, and each of them represents a particular point on the philosophical compass. From Big Ma, who is always "colored" or "negro" and never black, to revolutionary poet Cecile, to Pa's liberated new girlfriend, they pull Delphine in twelve directions at once. Ultimately, though, it is Cecile's advice that resonates: be eleven, Delphine. Take your time, make your own choices, and don't grow up too fast.

There is darkness in this novel - more so than in One Crazy Summer - and it ends on a much more melancholy note than the first novel. There is hope too, though, and the thread of laughter and love that made One Crazy Summer so delightful. Ultimately, like Cecile, we as readers feel confident that Delphine will develop into a strong woman who will look back on this year with a smile. 

Publication in May through Amistad (HarperCollins)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

2014 Contenders: A Girl Called Problem, by Katie Quirk

Colonialism was a pretty bad deal for the entire continent of Africa, but all of the problems didn't end when the European powers gave up direct control of their former colonies. A Girl Called Problem is set in Tanzania in the 1960s, as the new nation was trying to find its feet. Shida, the 13-year-old eponymous protagonist of the book (her name is the word for "problem" in Swahili), is in a similar position. Her entire settlement has relocated to one of President Julius Nyerere's communal ujamaa villages, and while this gives Shida the opportunity to attend school and work as an apprentice nurse, it also stirs discontent among the community. Unfortunate events pile up on each other until the entire future of Shida's family and friends hangs in the balance.

The setting is probably the book's biggest strength. It's one that's likely to be unfamiliar to most of its audience, and yet as I was reading, I found myself easily able to visualize the dust, scrub, and oppressive heat, and the skyline dominated by enormous, oddly-shaped boulders. Katie Quirk actually lived in Tanzania for a couple years, and her direct personal experience comes through in her writing.

I found the pacing, however, problematic at best. It's more than 60 pages into this 223-page novel before we're even through the blurb on the back of the jacket, while the ending seemed overly rushed. And while it's refreshing to see a character really and honestly struggling with serious depression (Shida's mother, in this case), I'm unconvinced by the direction the character takes at the end of the book.

I'm also vaguely unsettled by the book's treatment of President Nyerere (who doesn't personally appear in the novel, but is referenced constantly). He's depicted as a sort of folk hero, a Tanzanian George Washington, if you will. While this seems to be consistent with his legacy within the country, Nyerere was, like most historical figures, a lot more complicated than that. Importantly, the relocation of the inhabitants of the outlying settlements to the ujamaa villages eventually stopped being voluntary, and the tactics used in forcibly relocating the population were harsh, abusive, and violent. The practice also had a devastating effect on Tanzania's economy. Admittedly, this happened after the timeframe of A Girl Called Problem, but it's all glossed over by two quick and nonspecific sentences in the Notes from the Author that follow the text. This may say more about me as a reader than about the book itself, but I was uncomfortable with what felt like a bowdlerization of history.

There are very few English-language books for young readers dealing with postcolonial Africa, and so it's nice to see A Girl Called Problem filling that niche. I'm not, however, sold on the execution of the book, and I think its flaws keep it from being Newbery-worthy. Other reviewers, though (notably Elizabeth Bird at Fuse #8), have been much more positive about the novel, and so I may have another look at it before the year is over.

Published in April by Eerdmans

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Digressions: Comment fail and Horn Book win

Good morning, blogland. How are ya?

Two things:

1. There seems to be some glitch in my home computer that renders it resistant to posting comments. If you've commented and I appear to be ignoring you, rest assured that I have tried to post a reply, and then have forgotten to try again when I'm at the office.

2. One more plug for my Horn Book article, in case you don't read our tweets: I wrote about the Penderwicks and bibliotherapy and such over at the venerable Hbook. If you see me at a conference, ask me to perform my party trick of reciting entire paragraphs of those books from memory.

And now I'm off to Ocean City (MD) to learn (even more) about ECRR.

Monday, May 6, 2013

2014 Contenders: The Thing About Luck, by Cynthia Kadohata

Summer's family is having a year of terrible luck. Summer recently recovered from a freak bout of malaria, her brother is a friendless oddball, and her parents just flew to Japan to care for some elderly relatives. That leaves Summer alone with her grandparents for wheat harvesting season. She's usually just along for the ride, but this year, with her grandmother's back pain worsening and her grandfather slowing down, she finds herself facing a lot more responsibility. To make things worse, she's coming down with her first bout of infatuation. And she has only her copy of A Separate Peace and her grandfather's stories to guide her through this troublesome time. 

When Louis Sachar's novel, The Cardturner, came out in 2010, I remember a lot of people saying, "Oh, it's not really a book about bridge!" So I picked it up and gave it a try, and discovered that it is, in fact, a book about bridge. Sachar himself lampshaded that fact by signaling the onset of technical bridge explanations with a whale symbol (a reference to Moby Dick and its notorious technical whaling chapters). He invited the reader to skip those sections if she so chooses. Oh, and I did. But the game of bridge was not effectively quarantined by the whales - it seeped inexorably, unbearably out into the rest of the novel. Or at least the 100 pages I managed to read.

Likewise, I can imagine a defender of  The Thing About Luck saying, "But it's not really about combines!" Honey, it is. Not much happens in this book, but what little action there is concerns itself almost exclusively with the wheat harvesting process. There is a lot of information about combines and other large farm equipment here, and, plot-wise, not a whole lot else. It makes Junonia, by Kevin Henkes, look positively action-packed.

That's a shame, because there's some really excellent writing here. The four main characters - Summer, her brother, and the two grandparents - are all expertly drawn. They are infuriating and sympathetic by turns - 
real people with real fears. The setting is so vividly described that it almost becomes a character in its own right. When I read Kadohata's descriptions of the stark beauty of the wheat fields, I was reminded of Willa Cather and her passionate portraits of the American West. Like My Antonia, this too is a book concerned about the dignity of hard work, the beauty of desolate places, and the struggle of Americans, new and old, to learn who they are and where they belong.

Unfortunately, this is a collection of wonderful characters and settings in search of a plot. I know that "appeal" is a bad word at the Newbery table, but the criteria do require the book to effectively address its intended audience. I honestly can't imagine the intrepid elementary school kid who would make it past the combines to the quiet beauty hidden in The Thing About Luck.  

Publication in June through Atheneum Books (Simon & Schuster)

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

2014 Contenders: Never Say Die, by Will Hobbs

For much of the history of children's literature, there's been a thriving subgenre of adventure novels in which the main character is an older teen or an adult, even though the intended audience is somewhat younger. From The Swiss Family Robinson (1812) and Kidnapped (1886), and on to such Newbery winners as The Dark Frigate (the 1924 medalist), Rifles for Watie (the 1958 champion), and Island of the Blue Dolphins (1961's selection) it's a niche with a rich past.

It's not, however, all that common of a subgenre today, which I think is related to the meteoric rise in the last couple decades of YA publishing. Recent adventure novels with older protagonists tend to include the kind of more mature themes that mark them as designed for an adolescent or post-adolescent audience (see, for instance, Geraldine McCaughrean's brilliant 2008 Printz winner, The White Darkness).

Will Hobbs, however, is kind of a throwback author in that sense, and Never Say Die is very much a throwback book. Despite the fact that its protagonist, Nick Thrasher, is fifteen, the publisher's suggested age range for the novel is 8-12, and as I was reading it, that seemed about right to me. The plot involves Nick and his much older half-brother Ryan's travels through the incredibly remote Ivvavik National Park in Canada's Yukon Territory. Ryan is a wildlife photographer and writer, and he's hoping to produce an article for National Geographic about climate change in the far north. Nick, who is half Inuit, is hoping to use the trip as an opportunity to get to know the brother he's never before met -- as well as to see the massive herds of caribou from his grandfather's stories. However, the trip is fraught with peril, perhaps best personified by the deadly "grolar bear" -- a freakish, aggresive polar/grizzly hybrid.

Although, in addition to the high-octane adventure, there are some weighty issues at hand (global warming, family tension, the struggle between Inuit and white culture), they're all dealt with in a way that's much more middle-grade than YA. Older readers may well enjoy Nick and Ryan's adventures -- I certainly did -- but Never Say Die isn't necessarily directed at them.

Despite having showed up on the Best Books for Young Adults list on seven occasions (most recently for his 1999 novel Jason's Gold), Will Hobbs hasn't ever been recognized by the Newbery or Printz committees. I don't think Never Say Die will be either -- the exposition dumps in the dialogue are too obvious, and the prose, while effective, isn't particularly "artistic." However, it's a grand adventure, and I hope it finds a wide audience.

Published in February by HarperCollins Children's