Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Winner's Circle: The Bronze Bow, by Elizabeth George Speare (1962)

When she reviewed The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Rachael praised the book as a "harbinger of modernity." It's interesting to contrast that novel with The Bronze Bow, Elizabeth George Speare's second Newbery winner, which left a very different impression with me.

The Bronze Bow is a late example of that style of literature that gave us Ben-Hur and The Greatest Story Ever Told. It takes place in a version of the Holy Land that's based on orthodox interpretations of the Gospels, and filtered through 19th- and 20th-century Christianity. If the ending of the book especially feels like a Sunday School tract, that's because that's actually what it is -- Speare was a Sunday School teacher who was inspired to write the book by her class.

It's hard to think of a style of writing that's less in vogue today, or that feels more dated. For what it's worth, Speare does it pretty well -- the prose is as beautiful as you'd expect, and there's more depth to the characters than one might anticipate -- especially the protagonist, Daniel bar Jamin. The plot, however, always feels like it's following a template, and the moral and ethical issues are presented in terms that read as naively black and white to a modern reader. The last scene especially, where Jesus himself visits Daniel's home, was hard for me to read without an involuntary roll of the eyes.

Much like Witch, The Bronze Bow has also been the subject of challenges in recent years. Where people tried (laughably) to claim that Witch promoted the occult, however, the challenges to The Bronze Bow center on its full-throated promotion of Christianity and its denegration of Judaism, and whether those make the book inappropriate for classroom use.

That said, I don't think I'd class this as a mistake award, even as uncomfortable as the book made me, and as forced as the ending felt. You could make the case that a better choice would have been Belling the Tiger, by Mary Stoltz (which did Honor), or The Sneetches and Other Stories, by Dr. Seuss (which got nothing) -- and I think those selections would be easier on modern eyes. But in 1962, I'd guess that it was easier to see Speare's dexterousness with language and her detailed characters and settings (both of which are impressive), and a lot harder to see the book's problems. As much as we try to transcend it, we're all in the time that we're in, and if we notice things the committee in 1962 didn't, that should just encourage us to try to be that much more careful in our own reading now.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Some Post-2014 YMAs Thoughts From Sam

The very best perk of going to ALA Midwinter is probably being able to attend the Youth Media Awards in person. This is a picture of Rachael and I doing just that, albeit perhaps not with the most flattering of expressions on our faces.

I had been planning to live-tweet the awards, but I couldn't get a good enough connection on my phone to make that feasible. So instead, here are a few post-conference scattered thoughts as we finish up the awards year.

  • We have another two-time Newbery winner! Kate DiCamillo, who won in 2004 for The Tale of Despereaux, takes home the medal for Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures.
  • I'd like to go back and look at Flora & Ulysses now. Both Rachael and I had wondered if the illustrations contributed too heavily to the plot for the book to really work without them. Obviously, the committee either didn't have those same concerns or overcame them, and I'd like to read it again through that lens.
  • Speaking of things I need to read, how about Paperboy? This one flew way, way under our radar, and neither of us read or reviewed it. It also didn't get a single vote in the final round of the Heavy Medal Mock Newbery. But that's why we have the actual committee, right? I'm really interested to read it now!
  • It was not a great year to be one of my favorites. The Real Boy, The Center of Everything, The Hidden Summer, From Norvelt to Nowhere, and On a Beam of Light all came away with nothing. (Though I did really enjoy Doll Bones, and that one Honored, so there's something!)
  •  But then again, it wasn't a good year to be a favorite in general. Also nothing for The Thing About Luck, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, or Far Far Away.
  • It was really nice to see The Henk take both a Newbery Honor (for The Year of Billy Miller) and a Geisel Honor (for Penny and Her Marble).
  • This is the first time that Amy Timberlake has shown up in the ALA-sponsored awards, with her Newbery Honor for One Came Home.
  • We're having Rita Williams-Garcia for our major author visit in April, and now we can add "2014 Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner for P.S. Be Eleven" to her intro.
It was a wonderful experience to be at the YMAs, and kudos are due to every one of the committees for their hard work and fine selections!

Now, on to the 2015 awards!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

2014 Contenders: "The President Has Been Shot!", by James L. Swanson

The plan was for my review of Prisoner 88 to be my last one of 2014 Newbery contenders. However, I looked back at my Mid-Year Predictions post, and noticed that I'd never gotten around to reading "The President Has Been Shot!",  even though it was on my list of books that I felt like I ought to make sure and read before the YMAs.

Now that I've finished it, I have to say that this is probably the most impressive nonfiction book for older readers that I picked up this year. In clear, vivid language, Swanson takes us through the lives of John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald, up to the moment where they violently intersect, and through its aftermath. Much like last year's Bomb, President reads more like a thriller than a standard nonfiction book, and is the better for it.

The criticisms I do have of the book are fairly minor. The section on JFK's life and career are less nuanced than I might have liked, but given that Swanson had highly limited space, it might be as good as it can be. The book also maintains a laser-like focus on its two subjects (and, to some extent, on Jackie Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in the aftermath of the assassination), to the point that, although it mentions that Governor John Connally was also shot, the text neglects to inform us that Connally recovered from his wounds.

James L. Swanson has written two previous books for youth, Chasing Lincoln's Killer, and Bloody Times. Both of those got excellent reviews, but neither was eligible for the Newbery, as both were adaptations of Swanson's adult titles (Manhunt and Bloody Crimes, respectively). President also has an adult counterpart, End of Days. However, whether by design or by chance, President seems to have been published the month before End of Days, a bit of chronological trickery that I think may render it Newbery-eligible, since, at the time it was published, it was an "original work."

Assuming that the Newbery Committe also considers President eligible, I think this book has the best shot of any nonfiction title this year of showing up in the Newbery list. I don't think it's actually the best nonfiction title of the year -- that's still On a Beam of Light -- but it's easier to take the text of President on its own merits than that of OABOL. That said, I think the likelihood is still that no nonfiction titles show up in the Newbery rolls this year.

We'll find out in a week and a half!

Published in September by Scholastic

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Prepping for the Morris Seminar!

When Rachael attended the Invitational Morris Seminar in 2012, just after we started this blog, she mentioned in her post about it that the name "Morris" always brought to mind images of the world's most finicky cat.

For me, on the other hand, the name brings to mind images of Jack Morris, one of the most feared pitchers in baseball during my childhood, and co-holder of the record for winning World Series titles with the most different franchises (3: the 1984 Detroit Tigers, 1991 Minnesota Twins, and 1992 Toronto Blue Jays). My baseball card collection is in storage right now, but somewhere in that box is his 1989 Donruss card, shown here.

But the Morris Seminar isn't about cats or baseball players -- it's about book evaluation skills, and I'm really excited to be a part of it next week. This year's reading list is fascinating, and I'm curious to see how the discussions about these titles go.

Group I (Picture Books, more or less)

1. Mr. Wuffles!, by David Wiesner

I didn't review this one here, as it doesn't have any words, but it's simultaneously goofy and lovable, and it actually might be my favorite Wiesner that I've read, sacreligious as that may be.

2. Penny and Her Marble, by Kevin Henkes.

3. If You Want to See a Whale, by Julie Fogliano, illustrations by Erin Stead

4. Locomotive, by Brian Floca

5. On a Beam of Light, by Jennifer Berne, illustrations by Vladimir Radunsky

Group II (Books for older readers, give or take)

1. Bluffton: My Summers with Buster, by Matt Phelan

I didn't review this one because it's a graphic novel, but my oh my is it a good one. I love Phelan's art style -- I thought he was a perfect fit for The Higher Power of Lucky several years ago, and his work when he's doing the writing is just as good. I also think this book tells an affecting, powerful story, without actually explicitly stating very much.

2. Far Far Away, by Tom McNeal

Rachael reviewed this one for the blog, and declared it to be her favorite children's book of the year. I'm less sold on it, and I think it has some very real structural issues. It's worth noting, however, that I'm not the ideal reader for this novel, and Rachael is basically the perfect reader for it, so my opinion may not be the best guide.

3. P.S. Be Eleven, by Rita Williams-Garcia

4. Salt, by Helen Frost

5. Eruption!, by Elizabeth Rusch

Anyway, next week in Philadelphia, I'll have the chance to hear some amazing conversations about these titles. And maybe, a few days later, we'll see some of them show up in the YMAs!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

2014 Contenders: Prisoner 88, by Leah Pileggi

As Prisoner 88 opens, it's May of 1885, and Jake Oliver Evans has been convicted of manslaughter. He's on his way to the Idaho Territorial Penitentiary, where he will serve a five-year sentence for his crime. All of this has befallen Jake at the ripe old age of ten.

This novel, which marks Leah Pileggi's debut, takes a true event as its starting point -- a ten-year-old actually was sent to the I.T.P. in 1885 on a manslaughter conviction. The rest of the story, however, is strictly fictional. The book does an excellent job of capturing the setting -- the grim, claustrophobic interior of a late 19th-century prison, in which Jake is perhaps the ultimate fish out of water.

The characters, however, are mostly stock types, and even Jake doesn't have much more than two dimensions. A lot of time is spent on Jake's struggles in learning to read, but the payoff didn't seem to me to be worth the subplot. Most of the plot, really, is fairly thin, and the events leading up to the book's action climax seemed more than a little  forced to me.

I wish there was more depth to Prisoner 88, because the setting is so unusual. I can't think of very many other children's books set almost entirely inside a prison that aren't either fantasy novels or WWII internment camp types. I'd love to read more of Leah Pileggi's work, and I think one has to consider this a debut that shows some promise. I just can't see it showing up on Newbery day.

Published in July by Charlesbridge

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Maryland Mock Newbery Results!

Yesterday was the big day -- our fifth annual Maryland Mock Newbery! After a round of wonderful discussion, we all voted, and our winner was:

P.S. Be Eleven, by Rita Williams-Garcia

Although none of our Mock Newbery selections seemed to be poorly received, P.S. Be Eleven won by a big enough margin that we didn't name any Honor books.

Thanks to everyone who helped out and attended for making this event such a rousing success!

Special thanks are due to Rachael, who started our Mock Newbery, and has coordinated and planned it for each of the last five years. She's stepping back now, both from the Mock Newbery and from this blog, so that she can focus on her two-year appointment to the Notable Children's Recordings Committee. I'll be coordinating the 2015 Maryland Mock Newbery, and I hope I can meet the very high standard that she's set.

I plan on forging ahead with For Those About To Mock for the 2015 Newbery cycle. I'm very much in the market for guest bloggers, even if you just want to contribute a review or two. Leave us a comment, or send me an email (sam AT esrl DOT org) if you're interested in appearing in this space!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

2014 Contenders: Clementine and the Spring Trip, by Sara Pennypacker

Clementine and the Spring Trip is the sixth book featuring Clementine and her family, marking author Sara Pennypacker's return to the series after last year's stand-alone Summer of the Gypsy Moths. The novel is centered around Clementine's school visit to Plimoth Plantation, which requires our third-grade heroine to ride the olfactory disaster that is Bus Seven, and to deal with the fourth-graders' restrictive rules about making noise while eating.

There's nothing in the Newbery criteria one way or the other about books that are part of a series. In practice, however, series that produce Newbery winners are usually recognized in some way fairly early in the sequence. The two highest-number series books that have ever won the Newbery, The Grey King (1976 award, 4th book in the series) and The High King (1969 award, 5th book in the series), both belonged to series that had won Honors for their second books (The Dark is Rising and The Black Cauldron, respectively). Recent committees haven't shown much interest in sequels in general; since 1985, the only winners that weren't either a stand-alone or the first in a series have been A Year Down Yonder (2001 award) and Criss Cross (2006 award), both of which were the second books in their respective sequences.

Precedents, of course, are made to be broken, and as the disclaimer at the end of so many investment commercials reminds us, past performance is not an indicator of future results. However, considered simply on its own merits, I don't think Clementine and the Spring Trip reaches the level of this year's top contenders. Clementine, of course, is a classic character, and her family is also sharply drawn, but I don't think all the supporting characters are fully three-dimensional. Really, the book that Spring Trip reminds me the most of this year is The Year of Billy Miller. Like that book, Spring Trip excels in its descriptions of its main character and family, as well as home and school. Both novels, however, seem to me to be less crisp beyond those tight circles, in a way that isn't true of The Real Boy or The Center of Everything.

This doesn't mean I didn't really enjoy Clementine and the Spring Trip -- it's a charming, clever read, and I like the way that the ending ties together all of the threads that have been introduced throughout the book. I hope it makes the Notables list this year. I don't think it's quite Newbery material though.

Published in March by Hyperion / Disney