Tuesday, September 29, 2015

2016 Contenders: George, by Alex Gino

Guest review by Tess Goldwasser:

There are four things I want you to know about George by Alex Gino.

1. George is an important book.

George is a book about George, a boy who is actually a girl. Simply put: George’s outside doesn’t match her inside. She’s a girl trapped, for all intents and purposes, in a boy’s body. George is transgender, and this is hard for her, as you can imagine. Her fourth grade class is performing a play of Charlotte’s Web and George wants to play Charlotte more than anything. But the part is for a girl, and the only person who knows George is really a girl… is George… for now… Dr. Jamie Campbell Naidoo once said to me: books should be mirrors and windows. Good literature should reflect our personal experiences, or offer new perspectives on the experiences of those who are different from us. George will be a mirror or a window to whomever picks it up, and this is important. Dialogue about the transgender experience is important. We should be striving to understand and accept one another.

2. George is a controversial book.

Many will question whether a book about the transgender experience is appropriate for children. It’s a valid question. Are books about slavery appropriate for children? Are books about the holocaust appropriate for children? Are books about Hurricane Katrina appropriate for children? Are books about beloved pets/friends/family members dying appropriate for children? All of these questions are up for debate. I’ll admit there were parts of George that made me uncomfortable, parts that made me wonder: Will a child get this? And if so will it upset them? Ultimately, I feel it’s okay for kids to read things they may not fully understand, and it’s okay for kids to read things that might make them upset. Reading the experiences of characters, and having feelings about them, makes a reader compassionate, and I want the world to be filled with compassionate readers. (And for the kid who is actually living the transgender experience, I believe it’s indubitably 100% appropriate.)

3. George is a painful book.

There are parts of George that are heartbreaking. The conflict between what society expects of George, and what she feels inside is visceral for any sensitive reader. I found the suspense of wondering whether or not George will come out to her loved ones, and whether or not they will accept her, to be downright spine tingling. I lost count of the times I wanted to reach into the book and give George a comforting hug. Despite the book's relatively short length, I wouldn't categorize it as a light read by any means. At one point George says she feels like the butterflies in her stomach have butterflies in their stomachs and all I could think was "YASSS GURL I KNOW!"

4. George is a joyful book.

A colleague, Paula Willey, described George to me as "this year's Wonder" (referencing the uplifting 2012 novel by R.J. Palacio) which caused me to immediately pick it up, because I love books that make you triumphantly pump your fist in the air at the end. George, against the odds, is one of these books. I don't want to spoil the ending for you, but I've never been so happy for someone going to the bathroom in my life. I don't know how authentic the ending is, how many transgender people get to have days like the days George has as she finally embraces her inner self. I hope they do because it was lovely to read, like a fairy tale come true.

I don’t know how much attention this is getting from the Newbery committee. I hope some. I presume it’s getting a lot of attention from the ALA Stonewall Book Award committee. But whether it wins any awards at all is inconsequential to me. What will be most important about this book is that it will hopefully find its way to the readers who need it. (After all, the book is dedicated to “you”)

Tess Goldwasser is a magical ukelele-playing octopus in the guise of a children's librarian. She has served on the Stonewall Book Award Committee and the GLBTRT News Committee, and she is currently chairing the GLBTRT Advocacy Committee. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

2016 Contenders: Milo Speck, Accidental Agent, by Linda Urban

Once an author has written a few books, we often tell ourselves that we know what to expect from them. A Kevin Henkes book will be an existential crisis for elementary schoolers, in the form of a lovingly detailed miniature. A new Jack Gantos title will feature a hapless protagonist in an environment inexorably spiraling out of control, laced with dark humor. Anything by Kate DiCamillo will be funny, but the kind of funny that wears its heart proudly on its sleeve, and it will likely feature at least one animal character.

I thought I had Linda Urban pegged too, as a writer of subdued, carefully-crafted contemporary realism -- someone who would fit well in a group with Cynthia Lord, Gin Phillips, and The Thing About Luck-era Cynthia Kadohata. I never did get around to reading Hound Dog True, but that seemed like a valid assessment of both A Crooked Kind of Perfect and The Center of Everything.

However, Milo Speck, Accidental Agent blows that theory completely away. It's a rollicking, funny, fantasy adventure that's bold and clever, and on the surface at least, has nothing to do with anything Urban has ever written before. In the Author's Note, Urban names Roald Dahl and Edward Eager as her primary influences, and that should give you an accurate idea of how the book reads.

The plot isn't easy to summarize, but involves the adventures of Milo Speck, who falls through a clothes dryer and into the land of Ogregon. Hijinks involving ogres, giant turkeys, secret agents, and more follow. It's the sort of inspired lunacy that often attracts young readers -- it would shock me if this doesn't end up being Urban's book with the most popular appeal.

Surprisingly -- at least to me -- Urban transitions to this mode with apparent effortlessness. Milo Speck is a charming novel that made me smile on numerous occasions. The ending sets up the possibility of a series, so this may not be the last we hear of our accidental protagonist.

I do think, just based on the way the awards committees tend to lean, that Milo Speck is much less likely to receive any accolades than Urban's previous books, even if it may well prove to be a lasting favorite with readers. It does, however, prove that sometimes, reaching beyond your comfort zone leads to unexpected success.

Published in September by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

2016 Contenders: A Handful of Stars, by Cynthia Lord

Lily Dumont lives with her grandparents in small-town Maine. The local economy relies heavily on blueberry farming, and blueberries require migrant workers to pick them. When Lily's blind dog Lucky runs away, and is caught by a migrant girl about Lily's age, Salma Santiago, an unlikely friendship forms.

There are a lot of moving parts in Cynthia Lord's most recent novel: Lily's fraying relationship with her friend Hannah; the uneasiness between the migrant workers and the locals; Lily's desire to raise money for cataract surgery for Lucky; Salma's interest in the Blueberry Queen pageant; residual angst from the absence of Lily's mother; art as a means of self-expression. It's to Lord's credit that the book manages to keep all of those metaphorical balls in the air without dropping any of them. A Handful of Stars is a well-written book, and people who enjoy Lord's ability to write difficult relationships honestly will find a lot to like here.

That being said, I don't know that A Handful of Stars stacks up particularly well against Lord's own oeuvre; I think it's a noticeably weaker book than last year's Half a Chance, and the odds of it replacing Rules (2006) as the first line in any bio of Lord aren't high. While the core pair of Lily and Salma are well-drawn, the rest of the characters didn't seem to have the same life to them. Maybe more importantly, I just didn't feel that invested or interested in the portions that dealt with Lily's mother. (Spoilers follow.)

We don't find out until a good halfway through the book that Lily's mother is actually dead. However, this is information that Lily, who narrates the book, already has, and that everyone around her except Salma already has as well. Lily does mention that she's not a huge fan of talking about it, but if the core idea is that mentioning her mother's death is simply too painful for her, it's too muted to be effective. Instead, it feels like an artificial attempt to inject tension; I felt manipulated as a reader.

The prevalence of dead, missing, or incompetent parents in children's literature is basically its own meme at this point. On one level, it's understandable -- it's hard to be off having awesome adventures or discovering yourself if someone is looking over your shoulder the whole time. On another, if you're going to use that trope, you'd better have something clever or interesting to say about it. (See: Roller Skates, The Higher Power of Lucky, Zebra Forest, The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza, etc.) In A Handful of Stars, there are some elements about Lily's mother's history as a pageant winner, and the relationship between her death and Lily's dog Lucky, but I didn't feel like the absence of parents was really necessary to drive the story. Indeed, I think I would have liked the book better if it had just focused in on Lily and Salma, and eliminated the subplots involving Lily's family.

Even given those points, A Handful of Stars is an above-average book; the recurring intertwined images of blueberries and stars alone are worth the price of admission. There are stronger books in contention for this year's Newbery, however, and Lord herself is capable of writing stronger titles.

Published in May by Scholastic

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

2016 Contenders: Watch Out for Flying Kids!, by Cynthia Levinson

I first heard rumblings about Watch Out for Flying Kids! around a year ago. I was immediately interested, since I thought Cynthia Levinson's last book, We've Got a Job, was excellent, and youth social circuses seemed like a fascinating topic for a nonfiction book. It sounded like a winning combination.

Having now finally been able to obtain and read a copy of Watch Out for Flying Kids!, it pains me to say that this title doesn't hang together as well as We've Got a Job. I think there are two main problems that prevent this one from reaching the heights of its predecessor, and I think it's useful to talk about both of them.

One of the things I really liked about We've Got a Job was the way it managed to intercut the stories of four individual children with the larger events of the Birmingham Children's March, and to do so without losing the thread of the narrative. Watch Out for Flying Kids! isn't much longer than We've Got a Job, but there are now eleven main characters (five kids from the St. Louis Arches, four from the Galilee Circus, and the adult director of each circus), as well as a host of secondary characters. I found it difficult even to keep track of the book's cast, and I felt like I didn't get to spend enough time with any of them for their stories to have weight and heft.

This is especially noticeable because, while We've Got a Job had a clear climax (the March itself), Watch Out for Flying Kids! doesn't really build to a specific moment in the same way. The personal stories of the performers could make up for that muted external narrative, but there are just too many of them, too thinly spread, for it to be effective. Similarly, although there's an overarching theme of learning to build bridges between mistrustful communities, that theme doesn't get a specific dénouement.

The second -- and in my mind, more serious -- problem has to do with the book's support apparatus. It spends four pages of the introduction on an Arabic and Hebrew pronunciation guide, but it contains no glossary of any kind. Because so much of the book is concerned with what's going on in the ring of the circus, and I don't really know the technical terms associated with circus work, that lack made the book nearly unreadable to me. Additionally, especially in the sections of the book set in Israel, there are many discussions of different towns and places, but the book doesn't contain a map. I also would have loved a quick "cast list" reference, but even though there's a sort of "where are they now" section in the afterword, it only included the "main characters."I found the book difficult going without those helps, and I think a child reader might have serious problems navigating the book without these customary aids.

It's clear that the stories of Watch Out for Flying Kids! mean a great deal to Levinson. I'm unconvinced, however, that she translates that importance so that readers can understand it. I'd love to see what Levinson does next, but I don't anticipate Watch Out for Flying Kids! showing up in the YMAs.

Published in August by Peachtree

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

2016 Second Takes: Circus Mirandus, by Cassie Beasley

Circus Mirandus.

The publisher hyped it.

Sam loved it. 

Brandy hated it.

As for me? Well, don't mess with me, folks, because I'm Mr. In Between.

I think first-time-novelist Cassie Beasley does a lot of things well in this book. Most notably, she pulls off that mothball-scented Olde Time Storyteller voice that can be magical and engaging, but is so often cloying and off-putting instead. I have spent a lot of time thinking about what it is, exactly, that makes a particular instance of this style effective or ineffective, and I've come up empty-handed. It may just boil down to personal taste. For me, it doesn't work in The Night Gardener or A Snicker of Magic. It does work in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, and it does work in Circus Mirandus. Your mileage may vary.

Also notable - possibly even more notable - is the way Beasley portrays an irredeemable character. Characters who are puuuuure eeeeeeville don't bother me, necessarily - I can appreciate a Cruella deVil - but I know that Sam hates them. So I had to ask him, after I finished Circus Mirandus: what makes Victoria different? His best answer was that she rings true as a sociopath, and I have to agree. She's less a mustache-twirling villain and more of a John Wayne Gacy. Which makes her scary as hell.

Finally: circuses. It's hard to sell me on them. The Night Circus is the first book that made me actually want to visit the circus in question, and that made me even more skeptical about Circus Mirandus. Surely The Night Circus had fully covered the Circus Acts That Rachael Might Enjoy ground, and this would only be a retread. But it's not! This circus sounds great, and if not completely original, at least charmingly re-imagined.

Maybe I only like magical circuses.

Anyway, if that all makes it sound like I liked this book a lot, well, I did. I do think it's a bit rough around the edges, though. Brandy complains about character development, and I do think that's a weak point, especially with the secondary characters. As much as I wanted to like her, Jenny never felt like a real person to me, and even Ephraim (especially older Ephraim) is more idea than person.

There are also some questionable plot choices. I don't want to spoil anything, but I didn't think the final test of the book didn't made sense in terms of the book's internal logic. Sorry to vagueblog.

In a year with The War That Saved My Life in it, as well as new Laura Amy Schlitz and Rebecca Stead novels coming out soon, I just don't think Circus Mirandus is The Most Distinguished. It is, however, a deeply satisfying novel.