Monday, April 28, 2014

2015 Contenders: The Riverman, by Aaron Starmer

I was still listening to A Snicker of Magic when I picked up The Riverman. I say "picked up" rather than "started reading," because I took it off the shelf and started scanning the first page with no real intention to continue. Then I read the first line: "Every town has lost a child." Everything about the sentence was the polar opposite of A Snicker of Magic - simple and declarative where ASoM is folksy and meandering; dark where ASoM is light*. I had to read on.

The rest of the paragraph delivered on the grim promise of the first line, and so did the rest of the page, and the chapter. At some point the blurb on the back cover caught my eye, and I thought, "Oh, right: this is the one Jack Gantos blurbed." I don't know if you've noticed this, but El Gantos rarely blurbs, so when he says, "Dive into this book and you may never resurface," you can probably take him at his word.

Brandy described this as what would happen if Far Far Away and Hokey Pokey had a book baby. That's not a bad description, except that I would probably add Coraline to the mix. And maybe, like, Stand by Me? And even Twin Peaks? As Travis said: "What WAS that?"

I think part of what sets this book apart (aside from the excellent, razor-sharp prose) is that it combines a few different genres into one novel (the author even says as much in his note at the beginning). On one level, it's a book about an alternate universe, in the tradition of Alice in Wonderland, Coraline, or yes, Hokey Pokey. On another level, it's a coming of age story about two childhood friends drifting apart as they near adolescence. And on yet another, it's about the menace that lurks beneath the placid surface of eighties small town America.

That setting is a perfect fit for the "missing children" theme, by the way. If, like me, you grew up in the eighties, you probably remember the kidnapping hysteria of those years. Starmer really captures that feeling here, and he maintains a sense of tension throughout much of the novel by not spelling out whether the imaginary world is real, or whether the disappearances result from a more mundane evil. It is a testament to his strength as a writer that I really didn't know where the plot was heading until the end.

Ah, the end. It really muddies the waters of this novel's Newbery chances. I thought the ending was weirdly inconclusive, and not in keeping with the structure of the rest of the novel, until I realized that this book is the first in a planned trilogy. And I'm not sure it really stands alone... too many plot threads are left unresolved.

It is, however, brilliant, and I can't wait to read the next book. 

*The first line of ASoM is actually about a town too, and there's a question: are you the kind of reader who's drawn in by "Every town has lost a child," or by "`They say all the magic has gone up out of this place,' said Mama."

Published in March by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

2015 Contenders: The Vanishing Coin, by Kate Egan and Magician Mike Lane

Fourth grader Mike Weiss is constantly in trouble. He means well, but he has trouble concentrating, sitting still, and remembering what he's supposed to be doing. As a result, his parents won't let him be on the soccer team this year, even though both of his best friends are playing. Instead, he divides his time between reluctantly hanging out with model student Nora, and trying to avoid Jackson, the neighborhood bully. Things aren't looking very hopeful -- until a chance visit to a magic shop called the White Rabbit and a meeting with its proprietor, the mysterious Mr. Zerlin. Magic becomes Mike's number one interest; it may also be something he's genuinely good at.

I read The Vanishing Coin as a sort of palate cleanser in between more "literary" books. It's not the kind of book that's going to win any of the ALA awards, and that's as it should be. The plot is threadbare and shopworn, the prose purely functional, and the characters mostly one-dimensional. A work of fine art, it isn't.

And yet it's the kind of book that I can see at least some kids really loving. It reads quickly, and doesn't contain any excess weight. Best of all, it contains actual instructions for performing the tricks mentioned in the text. These instructions are clearly written and well illustrated; I'm pretty sure that, with a bit of practice, I could perform any of them, and I believe a child would be able to as well. (This is almost certainly due to co-author Magician Mike Lane, whose previous writing credit was 2012's Magic Mike's Miraculous Magic Tricks, published right around the time that a certain film likely prompted the small change in his nickname.)

The other author, Kate Egan, has worked on several kinds of "high-interest" books; her credits include such titles as Disney Bunnies: Thumper's First Snow, The Magic School Bus Fights Germs, and The World of The Hunger Games. She understands the importance of keeping things simple, as well as the value of a clever hook.

The book ends on a mild cliffhanger, and volume 2 (The Incredible Twisting Arm) is actually scheduled to be published on the same day. If you have a school or public library, I'd plan on snapping this series up. The Vanishing Coin may not be awards material, but it's a solid "popular" title, and sometimes, that's enough.

Publication in April by Feiwel and Friends / MacMillan

Monday, April 21, 2014

2015 Contenders: I Lived on Butterfly Hill, by Marjorie Agosín

Celeste Marconi lives on Butterfly Hill, in Valparasio, Chile. She is happy there with her loving parents, her grandmother, and her beloved Nana Delfina. However, as political currents take a turn for the worse, that happy life vanishes, and Celeste is forced to take shelter far, far away (in Maine!), waiting to be reunited with her loved ones.

It's an interesting premise -- it has some similarities to Caminar, and that's a great book. However, I Lived on Butterfly Hill has some major flaws in its execution, and as a result, I don't think it's a serious Newbery contender.

The background events are more or less based on Chile's actual history, in which a leftist president (Salvador Allende) was overthrown by a brutal dictator (Augusto Pinochet), who was, in time, succeeded by a restored democracy, which would eventually produce the country's first female president (Michelle Bachelet). However, the book not only changes the names of the historical figures, but hypercompresses the time frame. In the real world, the Pinochet coup took place in 1973, and he ruled until 1990. Bachelet was the fourth post-Pinochet president, and wasn't elected until 2006. I Lived on Butterfly Hill compresses this entire period into barely three years, so that Celeste is able to return to her home while still a young teenager.

I can understand wanting to telescope the time frame so that the whole narrative can be viewed through a single character. However, I think that the alteration is so radical that, not only does it mean that the reader doesn't actually learn much about Chile's history, but it in a way minimizes the serious disruptions that the Pinochet regime wrought. As Rachael pointed out when I was talking to her about it, making the duration that short gives false impressions about how long it can take to effect change in the world.

Maybe I'd be able to overlook that issue (though I doubt it) if the book was a gripping read, but it isn't. At more than 450 pages in my ARC, it's far too long, and the action sags throughout. The scenes seem to end arbitrarily, and many of them are questionably necessary (everything featuring Mr. Carter, the mailman, could easily be cut, for instance). The sequence with Sir Fergus is a totally different tone than the rest of the book, and the whole conclusion with Celeste entering the national essay contest feels more than a little forced.

Celeste seemed awfully mature for a 11-14-year-old as well. Her writing seems perceptive beyond her years, and I just didn't buy it. That's always a danger when an adult writer is trying to voice a child writer, and I don't think it really works here.

The thing is, Marjorie Agosín is a truly accomplished writer of international renown. However, she's an accomplished adult writer -- I Lived on Butterfly Hill is her first work for children. Writing for adults isn't the same thing as writing for children, and I think the switch trips Agosín up. I'm left with a book that tells a story that is obviously important to the author, but I can't figure out why it's important to the reader.

Published in March by Atheneum / Simon & Schuster

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

2015 Contenders, Point/Counterpoint Edition: Lord and Lady Bunny - Almost Royalty! by Mr. and Mrs. Bunny (Polly Horvath, translator)

Point: Tess Goldwasser, Rabbit Enthusiast and Children's Librarian, St. Mary's County Libary

In the thrilling sequel to Mr. and Mrs. Bunny Detectives Extraordinaire, Mrs. Bunny longs for a new hat, which, of course, means a new occupation (you’ll remember the Bunnies became detectives mainly for the fedoras). What does Mrs. Bunny want to be? Queen. Of course. So begins the laugh-after-laugh shenanigans of Lord and Lady Bunny: Almost Royalty.

In order to achieve Mrs. Bunny’s dream, our heroes must travel to England. They board a cruise ship, only to run into their dear friend Madeline! Madeline (we’ll remember) is the clever daughter of neo-hippies Flo and Mildred, who happen to also be traveling to England, as they’ve inherited a Sweet Shoppe, and Flo believes the universe wants him to spread a love of sugar as far and well as he can, after ingesting a fortuitous box of pop tarts.

And that’s not all! Along Mr. and Mrs. Bunny’s journey to almost royalty, there are appearances from most beloved characters from the first installment, like Mrs. Treaclebunny, and a certain expert in animal communication (and rare coins apparently), as well as JK Rowling, Polly Horvath herself, everybody’s favorite floss-appreciating Prince of Wales, and some extremely stuck up hedgehogs.

It all sounds ridiculous, but would we want anything less from a book about bunnies by Polly Horvath? Bottom line: the book is smart and sweet. It’s genuinely funny, and while some of it may go over kids’ heads, the Newbery basically defines “child appeal” as appealing to any child, not all, or even most, children, and I personally know a lot of savvy children who will love this book (probably many of the same who enjoyed Flora and Ulysses).

Now, I turn it over to Rachael, who will discuss the experience of listening to Bunnies on audio, (and cover any points I missed)

Counterpoint: Rachael Stein, Blog Slacker and Audiobook Listener

Devoted About to Mock readers may remember that I loved Mr. and Mrs. Bunny - Detectives Extraordinaire!  They may also remember, however, that I called it an "Only Skink," by which I meant that it was... difficult to categorize. Difficult to evaluate. Difficult to shoehorn into any given set of awards criteria. I can muster up some sympathy for the casual reader who picks up Mr. and Mrs. Bunny, not knowing what she is in for. In for what she is. For what she is in? 

If you've returned for a second helping of Horvath's lunatic lapine world, however, you deserve exactly what you get. And what do you get, exactly? More! More bunnies, more hippies, and more royalty - plus vegetable candy, uppity hedgehogs, and a trip to jolly olde England. As Mrs. Bunny notes, travel is terribly educational: “And Mrs. Treaclebunny has promised to speak English from now on as well. In fact, she said when she goes to England, that's all she speaks anyway because the animals speak English there. She says anyone who has read children's books with animals in them set in England would know that. Is The Wind in the Willows written in Mole with a little Ratty thrown in? Is Winnie-the-Pooh written in Bear? No, it's English, because that's what the animals there speak. I didn't know that before. Travel is so broadening.”

Polly Horvath narrates the Lord and Lady Bunny audiobook herself, and I'm afraid she's a bit of an Only Skink in this area as well. As a new member of the ALSC Notable Children's Recordings committee, I'm learning to evaluate audiobooks according to performance and production, rather than plot and character. With my committee member hat on, I'm forced to concede that Horvath's narration is a little breathy and her character voices are inconsistent. Compared to someone like Katherine Kellgren, she's kind of amateurish. When I put on my avid listener hat, though, I must make the argument that none of those things matter in this case! No one but Horvath could adequately narrate these books, and in its own Skinkish way, her narration is pitch-perfect. As the people who heard me laughing out loud in the grocery store can attest - not to mention Sam, who had to put up with me walking around the house saying, "I'm, like, the Dalai Lama of sugar!"

So there. 

You're not going to see this one on the Newbery list, nor, most likely, on the Notable Recordings. Oh well. As Polly Horvath's fictional counterpart says, "Life is cruel. Carry chocolate bars." 

Published in February by Schwartz and Wade and Listening Library.  

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

2015 Contenders: West of the Moon, by Margi Preus

It may be my biases as a reader speaking, but I think folklore makes an excellent vehicle for discussing the subject of immigration. Folktales and myths are full of journeys, transformations, and unpredictable dangers. Sometimes the heroine of a folktale finds that the tools that have worked in her old life are no longer useful in the dark forest or cursed castle. Just as often, however, she finds that her whole life has been preparing her to defeat this dragon - that she has been building an arsenal without even realizing it.

Astri, the Norwegian protagonist of West of the Moon, is in the latter situation. Left behind when her father emigrated to America, separated from her younger sister and sold to a surly goatherd by her greedy aunt, her situation feels hopeless. Like Westley storming the castle with a wheelbarrow and Holocaust Cloak in The Princess Bride, though, she makes the most of her limited resources - even stealing when necessary. As Astri escapes from the clutches of the goat man and toward an America that feels as mythical as the land of Soria Moria, Preus interweaves her story with the Norwegian folktale, "East of the Sun and West of the Moon." As Astri tells the tale to herself and her sister, it serves as a bridge between her past and her future, while also shedding light on the deeper meaning of her journey.

This is, unquestionably, a first-rate novel. Preus easily hits all of the Newbery criteria high points. Her prose style is clear and lively, and the first-person present-tense narration is well-suited to the urgency of the plot. Settings are especially well-delineated, and Preus includes just enough sensory details to ground the story in a strong sense of place(s) without slowing down the pace. Characters are complex for the most part, though some of the secondary ones feel stock, and Astri and her sister show significant growth and development even in the space of a relatively short novel.

The tension between myth and reality is what really makes West of the Moon "distinguished" though - in both the senses of being "individually distinct" and "made conspicuous by excellence." I don't think I've ever seen folklore used in exactly this way, and that alone is enough to make me pay attention, especially when it often feels like children's literature is constantly repeating itself. But Preus doesn't just do something new here - she does it well. In her hands, a single folktale becomes a lens through which to view not just one girl, but a moment in the life of a culture.

As I read, my main question about West of the Moon had to do with its audience. There are some events in the first half of the book - most notably an attempted rape - that made me wonder if this is really more of a young adult novel than a juvenile one. In the end, though it walks that line as precariously as Far, Far Away does, I do think Astri's naivete and the youthful optimism of the tone places it in the juvenile zone. If the Newbery committee agrees, we may well see a sticker on this one in January. 

Published in April 2014 by Amulet Books (Abrams).

Monday, April 7, 2014

2015 Contenders: A Snicker of Magic, by Natalie Lloyd

The town of Midnight Gulch, Tennessee used to be plumb full of magic, but now all that’s left are traces – a snicker of magic here and there.  When Felicity Juniper Pickle rolls into town with her family in a beat-up green van known as the Pickled Jalapeño, she’s not looking for magic, she’s looking for a place she can put down roots.  She’s hoping that Midnight Gulch, her mama’s hometown, will be the place where her mama’s wandering heart will finally settle down.  And despite the fact that, as Felicity herself says, “Making new friends, in a new place, when you’re the new girl, is harder than fractions,” she soon encounters Jonah, a sweet and generous boy who shares secrets, granola bars, and stories, and the two become fast friends.  It’s Jonah who encourages Felicity to participate in the school talent show.  Felicity has her own snicker of magic: the ability to see words representing the thoughts and feelings of people around her, and to shape those words into poems.  Unfortunately, when it comes to expressing her words in public, she becomes tongue-tied and awkward.  But if participating in the talent show will keep her family in Midnight Gulch for just a little longer, she’s willing to try it.  In the meantime, she learns about an old curse, the one that emptied the town of most of its magic, and which may have had a profound effect on her own family.  If Felicity finds a way to break the curse, will the magic come back?  And will Felicity and her family be able to stay in Midnight Gulch?

Stories like this one immediately bring to mind words like quirky and folksy, and it is both of those things.  However, the elegance of the language and the author’s brilliant ability to string words together elevates this book above other quirky, folksy Southern stories.  Consider, for instance, Felicity’s observations in the following paragraph:

“A rebel beam of sunlight pushed through the clouds, shining through the rain beads stuck to the screen and glass.  And then that strange, golden rain light shone warm and pretty over Oliver’s books.  I wondered if the sun had missed the books, had waited as long as it possibly could to shine over those spines again.  I knew how that felt, to love a story so much you didn’t just want to read it, you wanted to feel it.”

Like Felicity, this book revels in words and language.  In fact, if it has a fault, it’s that occasionally the pacing is sacrificed in favor of intricately described detail.  Characters are lovingly drawn – maybe a bit too lovingly in some cases (is wheelchair-bound Jonah a little too perfect?  Is Felicity’s little sister Frannie Jo precocious beyond believability?).  But the story never gets completely bogged down in sentiment, and there are nice, subtle touches of humor that keep the mood light.

I’m going to admit: I’m not a fan of the folksy Southern story.  So, when a book like this causes me to sit up and pay attention. I know it’s one to keep an eye on.  It’s early yet to be making predictions, but I’d be surprised if we don’t hear more buzz about this book when award season rolls around.

Published in February by Scholastic


Today's guest reviewer is Misti Tidman, Children's Librarian at the Licking County Library System (Ohio).  She is a fellow 2014 Morris Seminar participant, and blogs at Kid Lit Geek.