Wednesday, March 25, 2015

2016 Contenders: Moonpenny Island, by Tricia Springstubb

Book jacket blurbs don't always tell you all that much about what's inside the covers, but sometimes who the publisher gets to say something positive about a book can be very instructive. Moonpenny Island, the new title from Tricia Springstubb, has two quotes printed on it -- one from Sheila Turnage, and one from Anne Ursu.

That's a really unusual pairing, but if you were to attempt to triangulate some middle place between those two authors, Moonpenny Island might be where you'd end up. It shares Turnage's interest in small towns with colorful characters, the mysteries and secrets that those characters keep, and the ways in which those characters view the outside world. At the same time, it has many features in common with Ursu's work -- meditations on the way friendships change, evolve, and even end; an absence of any characters that could really be considered "villains"; and a complete unwillingness to tie every element back together in a traditional, perfectly happy ending.

It's an odd combination of elements, and yet one that I found compelling. The plot concerns Flor O'Dell, an eleven-year-old girl who lives on the titular island, a tiny speck somewhere in Lake Erie. Flor's happy world is turned upside-down -- her best friend goes away to a school on the mainland, her family is coming apart at the seams, and a strange geologist and his even stranger daughter take up temporary residence on the island. Flor hardly feels qualified to deal with any of these problems, and is somewhat resentful of the fact that she even has to try, but as the book progresses, she becomes a stronger, wiser, and braver character.

The prose style may be off-putting to some, but for me, it was highly effective. The entire book is narrated in the present tense, full of rhetorical questions, fragmentary sentences, and crisp, arresting images. It's a long, long way from the style of Turnage, or other "quirky, small-town" authors such as Natalie Lloyd or Susan Patron (and much more reminiscent of Ursu, though you're unlikely to confuse the two). It does, however, give the book an otherworldly feeling that's well-matched to its subject matter.

The ending of the book is emotionally satisfying, but doesn't give a firm sense of how many of the plot elements are going to "turn out." I thought this was in keeping with the novel's central themes, but the more plot-driven reader may wish for an epilogue or sequel -- something to give more resolution than Springstubb is willing to provide.

It's still early enough in the year that I don't feel like I have a good sense of the competition for the 2016 Newbery. I can tell you, however, that Moonpenny Island is a wonderful book, and one I'll be keeping in mind as we generate our year-end shortlists.

Published in February by Balzer + Bray / HarperCollins

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