Thursday, August 27, 2015

2016 Contenders: The Jumbies, by Tracey Baptiste

Corinne La Mer has never believed in jumbies, the supernatural creatures that some think haunt the forests of her island. However, after she chases an agouti into the forest on All Hallows' Eve, the evidence mounts that the jumbies may be much more real than Corinne had ever believed -- and that she and her ragtag group of friends may be the only ones who can stop them.

There's a lot in The Jumbies to admire. At its heart, it's a pure folktale story, one based in a deep understanding of several strains of Caribbean lore. (Author Tracey Baptiste is originally from Trinidad, and has stated that the concept for the book was inspired by a traditional Haitian story.) Corinne is a likable protagonist, and her fellow islanders are also interesting and sympathetic -- especially the orphaned brothers, Bouki and Malik. The island setting, with the ominous shadow of the forest always hanging over everything, also comes alive within the pages.

The Jumbies isn't without flaws, however, and I think the primary one is what I usually call "the Paradise Lost problem": an antagonist who is so strongly written, and whose motives can be construed sympathetically enough, that the ostensible point of the book is undercut. The villain of The Jumbies is Severine, the ruler of the other jumbies. She despises the humans, and is willing to fight in any number of ways to control or defeat them, and Corinne is her main target.

Baptiste makes no secret of the fact that we're meant to dislike Severine; her own author's note states, "Severine is everything I expect a jumbie to be -- tricky, mean, and selfish -- with the added bonus of thinking she's better than everyone else." It's true that Severine displays these characteristics, and is a formidable opponent. On the other hand, she's someone who has lost a great deal; her sister is dead, and her island has been invaded by humans, who have no respect for the forest, and who don't even acknowledge the existence of her and her kind. Severine's methods leave something to be desired, but it's easy enough to see her as an anticolonialist leader of the mistreated indigenous inhabitants to make her demonization problematic. (Baptiste tries to deal with some of this in the ending, with a discussion of discovering "a way to live together," but by that point, the accumulated weight of the narrative is too great to be brushed quickly aside). Severine also clearly wants to have a family again, and if those desires have been twisted and warped in her head, they're still hard for me to completely discredit.

I hope many children find and enjoy The Jumbies. It's a lovely blend of the familiar and the new, and I think plenty of readers will like it. I think it's too internally conflicted to entirely succeed, however, and I think that will keep the book from rising to the top of the Newbery heap.

Published in April by Algonquin / Workman

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

2016 Contenders: What Pet Should I Get?, by Dr. Seuss

I find posthumously published works fascinating, and one of the interesting things about them is the varied states in which the original manuscripts had been left. At one end are books such as The Dark Frigate (the 1924 Newbery winner), where Charles Hawes had actually already delivered the final manuscript to his publisher before dying. At the other end would be something like Franz Kafka's Amerika, which has such an enormous unwritten hole in the middle that it's not even clear how the author intended to get the narrative to its conclusion.

What Pet Should I Get?, which finally reached publication almost two and a half decades after the death of its author, occupies a place somewhere in between those extremes. The manuscript, which was rediscovered a couple of years ago, contained 16 uncolored illustrations. The text was essentially complete, but Seuss's working method was to type the words, cut them up, and then affix them to the illustrations with tape, taping over the old words with new ones if he chose to make alterations. However, the tape had come loose, making it difficult to ascertain exactly which version of the text had been intended. (The New York Times article I linked to there is a fascinating read if you want more detail on how the book came to be.)

The reconstruction was supervised by Cathy Goldsmith, the last person left at Random House who had actually worked with Seuss, having done the design and art direction for his last handful of titles. This reconstituted version arrived on bookstore (and library!) shelves in July, providing a surprise coda to Seuss's career.

Maybe the first thing to take note of is that this isn't a late-period work that Seuss died before finishing up. Rather, it dates from sometime during his middle period, the era of The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (1958), Happy Birthday to You! (1959), and Green Eggs and Ham (1960). The design of the (unnamed) protagonists is almost identical to those of One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (1960), and one possible theory is that What Pet Should I Get? is some sort of embryonic version of or starting point for One Fish. (There are no surviving notes about what Seuss was trying to accomplish in this book -- or why he shelved it -- and so everything at this point is conjecture.)

I was excited to see What Pet Should I Get? come out, because I love Seuss's work so much, and it looms large in my formative reading experiences. However, I think that, once the publicity around the book dies down, we'll see it as an interesting footnote to his career, but no more. Seuss's loping, tongue-twisting meter is relatively easy to parody, but the final texts of his books were the result of near-inhuman levels of revision -- one reason that, although his style is often imitated, it's essentially never equaled. The rhymes and rhythms of What Pet Should I Get? felt noticeably rougher than those of the classic titles he produced during the late '50s and early '60s, and I'm not convinced he would have let the text stand as it is if he had chosen to prepare it for publication.

The ending of the book [spoiler alert!] is also somewhat odd. After running through a long list of possible pets, the siblings who serve as our protagonists make their selection -- but they don't tell us what pet they've chosen, and the final illustration simply shows the eyes of an unidentifiable shape peeking out of the basket that the children are taking home. Seuss wasn't above ending his books on a rhetorical question ("What would you do, if your mother asked you?" from The Cat in the Hat), or even a cliffhanger (the scene of the generals perched on the wall, deciding whether or not to drop their bombs on the last page of The Butter Battle Book, is about as tense of an ending as you'll see), but this ending just felt out of place to me. What Pet Should I Get? is a book written at a level more like that in Seuss's easy readers than that of his longer, more challenging works, and although you could make an argument that the ending is set up that way to allow kids to use their imaginations to finish the story, it still felt to me like running into a wall on the last page.

Although Dr. Seuss is one of the most important figures in the history of American children's literature, he didn't actually do as well in the ALSC awards as I might have thought -- three Caldecott Honors (for McElligot's Pool in 1948, Bartholomew and the Oobleck in 1950, and If I Ran the Zoo in 1951), but zero Caldecott wins, and zero mentions on the Newbery rolls. I'd love to see him win the Geisel award for this one, just for the neatness of having someone win an established award that's already named after them, but I don't think it's actually a good enough book for that to happen. The Newbery is out of the question, and given that the art had to be colorized by later editors, I doubt the Caldecott committee will go for it either. What Pet Should I Get? is a fascinating historical curiosity, but no more than that.

Published in July by Random House


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

2016 Contenders: Gone Crazy in Alabama, by Rita Williams-Garcia

This was one of my most anticipated books of the year, partly because I was lucky enough to talk with the author about it a whole year before it came out. I was looking forward to the conclusion of the Gaither sisters' story arc, as well as the southern setting and family history.

When we rejoin Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern, they are on their way to the Greyhound terminal to begin their journey to visit Big Ma and her mother, Ma Charle,s in rural Alabama. There are several potential sources of conflict, both overt and less obvious. Pa's new wife ("Mrs.") is pregnant. The friction between Delphine and Vonetta is still present, as is Vonetta's resentment towards Uncle Darnell, who's out of rehab and living with Big Ma. (It's a difficult time all around for Vonetta). And then there's the bad blood - buckets of it - between Ma Charles and her half-sister, Miss Trotter. The two sisters live on opposite sides of the same creek, but haven't spoken in decades. Oh, and the family ties to the Klan.

If you think that all makes Gone Crazy in Alabama sound like an awfully ambitious novel, then you are correct. Williams-Garcia has a lot of plot threads to weave together, a new setting and several new characters to introduce, and a trilogy to bring to a satisfying close. For the most part, she accomplishes all of it with finesse. The relationship among the three sisters, especially Delphine and Vonetta, is going through some growing pains, and the resolution of that arc is poignant, as is Vonetta's reconciliation with Uncle Darnell. The Alabama setting - lazy and idyllic on the surface, complicated underneath - is well-realized. There are several intriguing new characters, especially Ma Charles and Miss Trotter, whose mutual sniping provides much of the book's humor.

On the whole though, this is not nearly as funny a book as either of the previous two. There is a brush with tragedy that takes up several chapters, but even before that, most of the characters are going through difficult times for various reasons. That's all handled deftly enough that it doesn't weigh down the narrative, but some of the family history does slow the pace. Telling it through Ma Charles and Miss Trotter's dueling narratives is clever, but it's still a lot of history to get through, and as a reader I often felt lost. Your mileage may vary.

Taken as a whole, Gone Crazy showcases the lovely prose, sharp dialogue, and larger-than-life situations that Rita Williams-Garcia writes so well. The many fans of the Gaither sisters will find it a satisfying conclusion to the series.

Published in April by Amistad/HarperCollins