Thursday, November 17, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Peña (2016)

I don't think anyone saw Last Stop on Market Street as the leading Newbery contender for 2016. If you, like me, think of A Visit to William Blake's Inn as a volume of poetry, then Last Stop on Market Street is the first traditional picture book ever to take home the Medal. Back in January, when its win was announced, Market Street seemed to me like a totally left-field Newbery choice.

As I read it again in preparation for this review, I found a lot to admire in the text. The interplay between CJ, the child protagonist, and his nana is beautifully written; I loved the way that nana challenges CJ's ways of looking at the world without coming across as argumentative or dismissive. The detailed urban setting and the interesting secondary characters (especially during the bus ride) are also points in the book's favor.

I still count myself among the unconverted to Last Stop on Market Street's Newbery win, however. It's a picture book, and as in most picture books, the interplay between the text and the illustrations is key. In at least two places, the text is something less than comprehensible without recourse to the illustrations; since the Newbery criteria clearly state that illustrations can only be considered if they "detract from the text," I continue to have questions about whether or not it makes sense to give the award to a book in which the text doesn't stand alone. It feels to me like stretching the intended purpose of the Newbery past the breaking point.

This is all only my opinion, and I should be upfront regarding how much of a traditionalist I am on this subject. Although I'm a fan of boundary-breaking books, I prefer to keep the Newbery as an award solely for merit that inheres in the text. I didn't like Flora & Ulysses winning the Newbery in 2014 because I thought too much of the book depended on the illustrations; I didn't like El Deafo being an Honor book in 2015 because naming a graphic novel didn't feel in keeping with the spirit of the award to me; and I still don't like Last Stop on Market Street as the 2016 winner. (For the record, I didn't like Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize win this year either, and I love me some Dylan.)

It's pretty clear that recent Newbery committees have been willing to push the boundaries of the Newbery, and I know more people who agree with their decisions than agree with me and my stick-in-the-mud complaints. Your personal mileage may vary. I would have rather seen the award go to some of the more "traditional" contenders (Circus Mirandus; The War That Saved My Life; Moonpenny Island; Echo). But if one considers Last Stop on Market Street as a whole, it's certainly a very fine picture book, and I'm glad that it's almost certainly going to get a wider readership.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman (2009)

Plenty of Newbery-winning authors have had thriving careers outside the confines of children's literature. Will James and Walter Edmonds were bestselling adult authors; Joseph Krumgold was an MGM scriptwriter, as well as one of the earliest filmmakers to work in the then-new nation of Israel; Laura Adams Armer and Robert Lawson were both award-winning visual artists; Esther Forbes won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for History; Sid Fleischman was a professional magician; Maia Wojciechowska was, among many other things, a professional tennis player and instructor.

However, you can make a good case that Neil Gaiman is the most famous person ever to take home the Medal. As the author of Sandman and American Gods; winner of the Hugo, the Nebula, the Eisner, the Bram Stoker Award, and the (UK) National Book Award; scriptwriter for film (Beowulf, MirrorMask), TV (Doctor Who, Babylon 5), and radio (Good Omens); occasional voice actor (The Simpsons, Jay and Silent Bob's Super Groovy Cartoon Movie); and advocate for intellectual freedom and refugee issues, he's a cultural figure recognized far beyond the children's literature world. 

Although Gaiman's interests are obviously wide-ranging, he's put out a consistent stream of children's books in and around his other projects. (I count at least 15 titles aimed primarily at children in his bewilderingly long bibliography.) He's been eligible for the Newbery since he moved to the United States in 1992, but The Graveyard Book, which took home the 2009 Medal, remains the only time that the Newbery committee has chosen to recognize his work.

The Graveyard Book follows the childhood of Nobody "Bod" Owens, a boy who, following his family's murder, is adopted by the spirits who occupy the local graveyard. The structure of the novel is largely episodic, although it's always leading up to the final confrontation between Bod and the shadowy man and organization who killed his family.

Readers familiar with Gaiman's other work will recognize the themes that so often occupy him: a group of people who protect human society, but can never take part in it; the notion that there are things so traumatic that it would be a great mercy to be able to forget them; the sense that something enormous is happening just outside of the field of human vision. As I read it now, The Graveyard Book felt to me almost like a dry run for Gaiman's 2013 adult novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which follows these threads into a darkness beyond what would be explorable in a children's book. (Interestingly, Gaiman has confirmed that the two books take place within the same universe; Liza Hempstock, the ghostly witch who befriends Bod, is related in some way to Lettie Hempstock, the heroine of Ocean.)

On a personal level, I've always admired Gaiman's work more than I've liked it; his obsessions don't match mine particularly well, and his meticulous turns of phrase sometimes feel to me too carefully manicured. Despite that, however, I recognize that he's a magnificently talented craftsman, and that his concerns do resonate with a great many readers. The Graveyard Book is a marvel of writing, and remains well-loved. The committee had an embarrassment of riches to consider for the 2009 Newbery -- in nearly any other year, Savvy, by Ingrid Law or After Tupac and D Foster, by Jacqueline Woodson would have been prohibitive favorites for the award, and of course, Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games (which, it could be argued, might have scraped the top of the Newbery age strictures) would become a worldwide cultural phenomenon. But it's almost impossible to fault their choice: The Graveyard Book seems well on its way to becoming a classic.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George

Wow. This book surprised me. I expected to enjoy it. I expected that the research about the natural world would be very good, and the research about Inupiaq culture would be much less good. As it turns out...

1. I did not enjoy it. It was maybe not as much of a slog as The Trumpeter of Krakow, but it was really boring. The pacing was off, and I don't think the structure does it any favors. It picks up a little during the second part, where we get Miyax/Julie's backstory, and it would have been helpful to have that connection to the character before we sit and stare at wolves with her for fifty pages. I think George meant to drop us RIGHT INTO THE MIDDLE OF THE ACTION, but when the action involves lying on an ice hill for hours at a time, that plan backfires. At least for this reader.

And then there's the ending. What the serious hell. In the space of three pages, Miyax decides to live with her father, learns that her father is one of the people shooting the wolves and changes her mind, and changes her mind again because her bird dies and that symbolizes the end of the "Eskimo" way of life.

Finally, there's the infamous attempted rape scene, which is not at all graphic, but it's also out of place and not essential to the narrative.

2. Everything she writes about wolf communication and culture seems plausible, but I'm no expert, and given that she gets many other things wrong about life in the Arctic, I'm inclined to view the whole thing with suspicion.

3. Well, I knew going in that the representation of "Eskimo" culture was going to be somewhere between misleading and cringe-inducing. I had a feeling I would find something about Julie of the Wolves on American Indians in Children's Literature, and I was not wrong.

Here's what puzzles me though: the Wikipedia article about the book claims that George did not feel comfortable writing sequels because she "did not know enough about the Eskimo culture." (There is a source listed for this quote, but the link is broken.) If that was the case... why did she write Julie of the Wolves in the first place?

I wonder if George's understanding of Inupiaq culture grew over time (her last book, Ice Whale, takes place in the same setting, but I don't see any reviews by Debbie Reese or other native scholars). If so, why didn't she ever put out a revised edition of Julie of the Wolves?  

4 and 5. Just a couple of infuriating extra tidbits:

  • I'm certain that this book is still blithely taught in schools, and it's not even in the top ten worst offenders on that count. I'm pretty sure my daughter had to read The Courage of Sarah Noble a couple of years ago. 
  • They were making a movie of Julie of the Wolves, and though they initially wanted to cast an Inuk or Inupiat actress, Young changed his mind because he "didn't find the person that we felt was going to breathe the right kind of feeling into the story." RAGE. LASERS OF RAGE FROM MY EYEBALLS. That article is from 2008, though, so maybe they saw reason and scrapped the whole thing. 

Going back to the "problematic old Newbery books being taught in schools" thing though... this is the problem with an award like this for children's literature. Teachers seem to think that a Newbery book's "most distinguished" status will last forever, and that the gold sticker is a carte blanche to teach it uncritically. Maybe Newbery winners should come with a caveat, or an expiration date... but that's probably the subject of a whole 'nother post.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: Missing May, by Cynthia Rylant (1993)

Several years ago, when I did my look back at the 2011 Newbery winner, Moon Over Manifest, I introduced my discussion of it by talking about a certain stereotype about books that have taken the medal:

"There's a kind of novel that we have a tendency to think of as The Newbery Book. It has a female protagonist, one right on the edge of adolescence. Invariably, she's motherless. It's set in a small town, one populated entirely with "quirky characters." It's probably historical fiction, and odds are good that it contains some life-affirming lessons about the power of literature, or art, or story."

Missing May, Cynthia Rylant's 1993 winner, hits many of these marks. Its twelve-year-old narrator, Summer, long ago lost her parents, and when the book opens, her aunt May, with whom she has been living, has also died. The book is set in the tiny town of Deep Water, West Virginia, and, although at the time of its publication it was contemporary, rather than historical fiction, many of its characters have their share of quirks. And, though Missing May isn't necessarily centered on Art or Story, those are certainly thematic elements that appear.

A noticeable distinction between Missing May and some of the other "Newbery Books" (Moon Over Manifest, The Higher Power of Lucky, Dicey's Song, etc.) is its focus, which is narrow almost to the point of insularity. May's widower, Ob, and Summer are trying to figure out how to go on with a May-shaped hole in their life, and although Summer seems at first glance to be muddling through, Ob is seriously struggling. Summer's attempts -- and those of her school acquaintance, Cletus -- to help Ob comprise most of the novel's relatively subdued plot. Outside of the quartet of Summer, Ob, Cletus, and (in flashbacks) May, I only counted three characters with speaking lines: Cletus's mother and father, who appear in one brief scene, and an unnamed man who shows up near the book's end.

In a way, it's fitting that Missing May tracks its main characters so tightly. This is a novel about the forgotten, the unwanted, the cast aside: orphans, elderly childless people, eccentrics, spiritualists. At one point, Summer describes the rest of the country's impression of West Virginia as "shut-down old coal mines and people on welfare." But in Rylant's sensitive hands, the challenges, hopes, and fears of these overlooked people take on genuine weight and power, equal to those of anyone else in fiction.

Of all the "Newbery Books" of this type that I've read, Missing May is probably my favorite. Rylant's spare, evocative prose positively sings, and its emotions are honest and clear without ever becoming sentimental or overwrought. There was plenty of competition for the 1993 Newbery: three Honor books were named (What Hearts, by Bruce Brooks; The Dark-Thirty, by Patricia McKissack; Somewhere in the Darkness, by Walter Dean Myers), and several other well-known and well-loved books didn't manage to make the list (some of the more prominent ones: The Silver Kiss, by Annette Curtis Klause; The Widow's Broom, by Chris Van Allsburg; Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, by Bruce Coville). But I think Missing May well deserves its win, and time has only served to make the novel more poignant and memorable.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: A Gathering of Days, by Joan W. Blos (1980)

Nowadays, when I think of novels in diary form for children, what comes to mind are snarkily humorous books such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Dear Dumb Diary. Indeed, although there are plenty of YA examples (I Capture the Castle, So Much to Tell You, Z for Zachariah, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, The Bunker Diary, etc.), I had a difficult time thinking of "literary" diary-novels for younger readers beyond A Gathering of Days, Catherine, Called Birdy, and Love That Dog.

And, if I'm being honest, A Gathering of Days, Joan W. Blos's 1980 Newbery winner, isn't far from being a YA book itself. The protagonist, Catherine Hall, is thirteen when the novel starts, and almost fifteen when it ends. The tone of the book is deliberately old-fashioned, however, and reminded me much more of Lucy Maud Montgomery and Laura Ingalls Wilder than of anything we'd think of as "modern" YA.

I think I might have enjoyed A Gathering of Days more if it were not in diary form, actually. Although Blos is able to use the format to drop in some intriguing slice-of-life details, such as the maple sugaring process, I felt like most of the characters were thin and underdeveloped. The diary entries aren't long -- I don't think a single one ran to three pages in my copy -- which means that the book is constantly flitting from scene to scene, and dialogue is at a minimum. The spotlight simply can't rest on any given character for long. As such, certain plot points, such as the death of Cassie, Catherine's best friend, didn't bring me the emotional power they were intended to.

It's not a spoiler, by the way, to say that Cassie eventually dies, because this information is initially conveyed on the very first page of the book. Blos elected to give the diary a brief "frame story" in the form of letters, written by a much older Catherine to her granddaughter, that open and close the book. The initial letter gives away some of the most important plot points -- not only Cassie's death, but Catherine's father's remarriage, and Catherine's eventual departure from her farm. It seemed like a baffling choice to me, since it has the effect of removing most of the dramatic tension from the novel.

It's possible that Blos simply wasn't concerned with dramatic tension. I noticed as I read that most of the events in the book didn't build to much. Catherine's friend Sophy moves away to work at a mill, but there's no real payoff; it's just a thing that happens. Even the biggest non-spoiled plot thread, involving a runaway slave in need of help, felt oddly subdued to me.

Perhaps the Newbery committee was more enthralled than I was by the unorthodox format and historical detail of A Gathering of Days. Either way, the Newbery was probably deserved; in hindsight, the 1979 publishing year was a relatively weak one for children's literature. Only one honor book was named (The Road from Home, by David Kherdian), and I'm not aware of any hidden classics that would have been eligible. I think A Gathering of Days is a minor entry on the Newbery rolls, but given the competition, it was an entirely reasonable choice for the 1980 Medal.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: A Visit to William Blake's Inn (1982)

Hello! As observant readers may have noticed, I have been silent in this space for several months. Perhaps I fell through a dimensional portal behind a Burger King, or perhaps a lot of sad things happened in my personal life, but either way, here I am. And I'm skipping ahead to the eighties, because... well, because A Visit to William Blake's Inn looked like a manageable read. Walk before I run, etc.

It also happens to be an excellent time to look back at the 1982 Newbery winner because for over thirty years it was the only book to have won both a Newbery Medal and a Caldecott Honor. This year, of course, Last Stop on Market Street duplicated that feat. Both books were total left-field choices for the Newbery, and both of them beat out some strong contenders for the gold medal (Ramona Quimby, Age 8, in the case of A Visit to William Blake's Inn).

I initially chose Visit as my 1980s selection because it's one of the few Newbery winners from the eighties that I hadn't read. Frankly, if it hadn't won the award, I wonder if it would have vanished into obscurity by now like so many other poetry books. In that sense, it's a winner very much in line with the original intent of the award: to encourage and reward excellence in American children's literature. It could be argued that it's the quirky books like this one that most need the signal boost that an award like this provides (though of course that's not a factor the committee would have taken into account).

And A Visit to William Blake's Inn is a strange little book, to be sure. It is a series of loosely connected poems about a child who goes to stay at an inn whose proprietor is the eighteenth-century poet (and painter and printmaker), William Blake. The inn is populated by the fantastical beings that Blake portrayed in his visionary creations. The verse is formal and metered, the imagery is vivid, and the tone swings back and forth between whimsy and melancholy.

Two things strike me as odd and gutsy about the idea of writing a book of children's poems inspired by William Blake. First: those are some big shoes you're trying to fill. Adult readers are necessarily going to be comparing your verse to Blake's, and that's daunting, to put it mildly. Second: it's going to be filled with allusions that your child readers will miss entirely. There is some chance the target audience (9-12-year-olds?) may have read "The Tyger," but it's unlikely they will have the familiarity with Songs of Innocence and Experience that would be required to fully appreciate this book.

And yet, it works. The poetry is not true Blake, but it's apparently good enough to have fooled a whole generation of teachers. As for the allusions? As we say so often in this field, the poems stand alone. You don't need to know the source material to appreciate these dragons, angels, tigers, and rats.

And so, though I am a huge fan of Beverly Cleary in general and Ramona in particular, I can't argue with the 1982 committee's choice. A Visit to William Blake's Inn is a rare jewel of a book, and it deserves its medal.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: M. C. Higgins, the Great, by Virginia Hamilton (1975)

Trying to figure out who the "greatest" American children's author of all time might be is an essentially impossible task. (Beverly Cleary? Dr. Seuss? Louis Sachar? Lloyd Alexander? E. B. White? Walter Dean Myers?) However, if the question is the "most decorated" American Children's author, the answer is almost certainly Virginia Hamilton. During her long career (she wrote 41 books in total), Hamilton won, in addition to the 1975 Newbery: three Newbery Honors; the Edgar Award (The House of Dies Drear, 1969); three Coretta Scott King Awards (Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, 1983; The People Could Fly, 1986; Her Stories, 1996), and six CSK Honors; three Boston Globe-Horn Book awards (M.C. Higgins, The Great, 1975; Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, 1983; Anthony Burns, 1988); the National Book Award (M.C. Higgins, the Great, 1975); the Hans Christian Andersen Award (1992); a MacArthur Fellowship (1995); the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal (1995); the de Grummond Medal (2001); and enough other awards to fill several cases.

As you can see from the above list, M.C. Higgins, the Great was THE children's book of the year when it came out. No book had ever won the Newbery, the National Book Award, and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award before; indeed, only one other book since then has managed that trifecta (Sachar's Holes, in 1998-99). The novel tells the story of two days in the life of its title character, a thirteen-year-old who lives in the wild, rural hill country of northern Kentucky, during which he encounters a nomadic young woman, a Lomax-style collector of field recordings, and the "witchy" Killburn clan, who live on a nearly-inaccessible plateau hidden in the hills.

Two things stood out to me as I read my way through M.C. Higgins. The first was its surreal, bizarre imagery, which almost felt like it would belong in an all-Appalachian version of Un Chien Andalou. Hamilton stated that the book's genesis was not in the plot, but in the initial, arresting image of Higgins greeting the sunrise, arms outstretched, with lettuce leaves attached to the rubber bands around his wrists. From there, the book moves to show us Higgins, perched on top of a 40-foot metal pole surrounded by abandoned cars; Higgins and the young woman, Lurhetta Outlaw, nearly drowning in an underwater tunnel filled with fish; the Killburn houses, connected at the second story by a gigantic cobweb of woven rope; and many more. These images are surrounded by strangely clipped, staccato prose. The total effect is misty and chimeric; the world of M.C. Higgins felt more remote to me even than that of The Bronze Bow or The High King.

I enjoyed that aspect of the book, even when I wasn't sure how well all of the images fit together. However, I didn't enjoy the book as a whole, largely because of the second thing I noticed: many modern readers are going to find some of the characters intensely dislikable.

Consider: much of the plot revolves around the interactions between M.C. and Lurhetta. However, the first time they meet is when M.C. sexually assaults her -- and if you think that's too strong a phrase, I'd like to ask what else I'm supposed to call a sequence of events in which M.C. stalks Lurhetta down in the woods ("He had lured her, like a deer caught by a delicious scent"), and then kisses her while holding her at knifepoint. I don't know how this read in 1975; in 2016, however, it struck me as a fatal error. It removed all sympathy that I had for the main character, and without that sympathy, the book simply doesn't work. Nothing that M.C. did for the rest of the book was enough for me to overcome or overlook that incident.

Additionally, the character of M.C.'s father, Jones, struck me as deeply problematic. To be fair, the relationship between M.C. and Jones is portrayed as an ambivalent one. However, Jones, with his personality that turns from charming to threatening in an instant, his unwillingness to move his family or otherwise prepare for the fact that his house is threatened with eventual destruction from a gigantic pile of waste leftover from a strip-mining operation, and his "games" that involve smacking his child in the face so that he can "make him tough," reads to me simply as a domestic abuser. Again, perhaps readers three decades ago would have thought of this differently, but I was unable to believe or accept the moment of father-son bonding that takes place at the end of the book, given what had come before.

In retrospect, the most influential book of the 1975 award year was probably Robert Cormier's downbeat classic The Chocolate War, which helped to shape the nascent YA genre. However, no one at the time that I'm aware of argued for The Chocolate War over M.C. Higgins, which possibly says something about the clarity of hindsight versus the cloudiness of the present. In the history of the Newbery, M.C. Higgins, the Great, is important. Virginia Hamilton was the first Black author to win the award, and the novel introduced underrepresented people and settings to the Newbery pantheon. However, I think M.C. Higgins has aged terribly, and I'd anticipate many young readers today finding it off-putting and odd.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: Rabbit Hill, by Robert Lawson (1945)

About half way through my reading of Rabbit Hill I had the following conversation with my fellow blogger Sam:
Me: Soooooooooo does anything ever actually happen in this book?
Him: It's been a few years since I read it but at one point I think someone gives the rabbits some lettuce. Which in this book is the equivalent of a Fast & Furious style drift race with machine guns. Rabbit Hill is basically a cross between The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Waiting for Godot.
Me: *died laughing*
Luckily Sam hired a necromancer to bring me back so I could finish the book and write this review!

Rabbit Hill is a novel written and illustrated by Robert Lawson. It's about an area in Connecticut called "Rabbit Hill" and the assortment of woodland creatures who reside there. Times have been hard for the animals of Rabbit Hill. "Folks" haven't lived in the "Big House" for years, and without humans, and the food they grow (and throw away), things have been meager. The centerpiece of the community is without a doubt little Georgie, the most precious of the rabbit children (which, if I were any of the many other rabbit children, I would take umbrage with, but I digress) and Georgie's got big news. All signs point to new folks moving into the house soon! Will they be nice folks who will plant a big garden? Or will they be mean folks with guns and traps and poison?

The day to day goings on in the life of Georgie, his family, and their friends, are pleasant, and generally unexciting. Here are the top 3 most dramatic things that happen in the book:
  • An animal gets chased by a hunting dog, but escapes by jumping about 18 ft across a creek, which is a record, but he's mostly just ashamed he got surprised by a dog in the first place.
  • An animal falls in a drainage basin, but is nursed back to health by humans.
  • An animal is hit by a vehicle, but is nursed back to health by humans. Despite the fact something like that ALREADY HAPPENED, all of the animals are still momentarily worried and mistrusting.
Honestly I think I've been ruined of all books about rabbits since I read Watership Down by Richard Adams, without a doubt the most epic book written about rabbits (and heroism, and religion, and gender roles) of all time. The woodland creatures in Watership Down face life-or-death, intense, emotional moments on nearly every page, so subconsciously I was bracing myself for little Georgie to undergo some serious trials and tribulations.

Like, ya know, this.

The good news is: here's a book for children where (spoiler alert) nothing bad happens to a single animal. The bad news is: here's a book for children where nothing much of anything happens. But that's not such a bad thing! It's refreshing to read a story about the importance of being kind to animals, and nothing else. And as a librarian it's nice to have a sweet and innocent story to suggest to young animal lovers.

I do feel the need to disclaim one thing: the folks, that is the family that moves into the house, around which most of the "action" of the book revolves, have a live-in maid/cook/servant, a "colored" woman named Sulphronia. Apparently in the original text, written before racial integration, the character is portrayed in African American stereotypes. But in every edition of the book published since the 1970's, like the copy I read, anything offensive has been edited out.

My favorite part of the book is the pictures. Lawson illustrated many well known books for children, including The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, and Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater. He won a Caldecott medal for his own book They Were Good and Strong (1941) making him the only person so far to win a Caldecott and a Newbery medal! I felt the gentle drawings in Rabbit Hill indicated affection of the part of Lawson for his characters. Of course illustrations are not (supposed to be) taken into consideration during a Newbery deliberation, unless they make the book "less effective," which these do not, in fact they arguably make the book that much more effective, because they support the text.

Onto the next decade!

(And Rachael, if Arnie lets you borrow his laptop and you're seeing this, hi!)

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: The High King, by Lloyd Alexander (1969)

Lloyd Alexander was a favorite writer of mine as a child -- in addition to the Chronicles of Prydain, I enjoyed The Cat Who Wished to Be a Man and The Wizard in the Tree -- but for whatever reason, I haven't spent much time with his work in recent years. As such, although I didn't exactly approach The High King with no preconceptions, I did feel like I was able to come to it with relatively fresh eyes at least.

One of the more interesting things to me about The High King as a Newbery winner is its place in its series: it's the fifth (and last) of the Chronicles of Prydain. Although books that were sequels had won before (The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, 1923), and would win again (Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, 1977; Dicey's Song, 1983; and A Year Down Yonder, 2001, among others), The High King marked the first time that a book further along in its sequence than first or second took the medal. Interestingly, as of this writing, it's only happened once since then: when Susan Cooper's The Grey King, the fourth book in her The Dark is Rising series, took the 1976 Newbery.

Alexander, in his author's note, claimed that The High King could be read on its own. After reading it without refreshing my memory of the others, I can tell you that this is...sort of true. It's certainly possible to follow the basic plot, and Alexander is careful to drop a bit of backstory into his descriptions of people and places in order to make sure the reader is up to speed. (Spoilers follow.) However, much of the middle of the book follows our protagonist, Taran, as he travels across Prydain gathering people to his banner in preparation for the confrontation with the forces of Arawn, the Dark Lord. The gist of what happens is that Taran is able to muster a mighty force because of the connections that he's made during his adventures in previous books. These passages lack the punch they're supposed to pack when read in isolation; they come across more as "here's someone you've never heard of! and they love Taran! they totally have so much history together!" None of this is really Alexander's fault -- and when one reads the entirety of the Prydain books, it's a weakness that completely disappears -- but it does mean that, no matter what the author's note claims, you really should start at the beginning with this series.

The general arc of The High King holds no surprises for anyone with a grounding in epic fantasy. What makes the book work is the characters -- the open-hearted and self-effacing Coll, the blusteringly good-hearted Fflewddur Flam, the ruthlessly utilitarian Pryderi. Taran himself is much more three-dimensional than many other fantasy heroes, which gives the story much more emotional heft than it might otherwise possess.

That said, he's still not the most interesting character in the book, which would be the brilliant and courageous Princess Eilonwy. I've seen a lot of memes and articles about the Harry Potter series that make the claim that it would be deeper and more satisfying if it were centered on Hermione; I think that kind of argument definitely applies to The High King. Taran is fine, but Eilonwy is amazing, and if the story were recast as her heroic journey, it might well be perfect. This feeling is strong enough that it colors my view of the ending. It makes logical sense, as the story is laid out, for Eilonwy to give up her powers as an enchantress and stay with Taran out of love, but my inner feminist wanted to see her sail off to the Summer Country as an enormously powerful, immortal, and fearless woman.

Regardless of my quibbles, I don't have a real argument against The High King taking the Newbery. The 1968 publishing year was a rich one: the Honor books were To Be a Slave and When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw and Other Stories, and the committee gave nothing to Ramona the Pest, Escape from Witch Mountain, or A Wizard of Earthsea. That's a list of classics, but The High King stands worthily with them, and is certainly a legitimate choice to put at the top.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

2017 Contenders: Ms. Bixby's Last Day, by John David Anderson

For the second time this year, we pause our series on Newbery Winners Past to participate in a Walden Pond Press blog tour. This post will be a bit different, however. Ms. Bixby's Last Day is, among other things, a book about a teacher and the students whose lives she's changed, and the good folks at WPP requested that I take some time during this entry to talk about a teacher who had that kind of impact on my own life.

With that in mind, let me tell you a story.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Houston, I had to take two American History courses as part of my core requirements. As I was talking with some of my friends about when I should fit those courses into my schedule, and which professor's section I should try to register for, one name kept coming up.

"Dr. Orson Cook. His class is really tough, but you learn a lot."

The endorsements were strong enough that I did indeed register for his class, and it remains one of the better decisions I've made.

Dr. Orson Cook -- we always thought of him using both names, since there was at the time a Dr. Cooke in the Political Science department -- had much of the affect of what I used to think of as a Southern Gentleman. He had the accent and the carefully tidy facial hair, and during all the time I spent in his class, I think he only ever referred to me as "Mr. Eddington." His comments ranged from the pithily insightful ("The enforcement of half of something is worse than the non-enforcement of all of it.") to the wryly humorous ("Think of Kansas and Nebraska. I know it's hard to do. Just imagine some badly-drawn rectangles in the middle of the country."), and as you can see, I can recite many of them from memory almost twenty years later. He was a fierce believer in the ideals of equality and justice that America claims to stand for, and also a clear-eyed and incisive critic of the times when the country hasn't lived up to those ideals. A vast portion of my knowledge of the sweep and shape of the history of the United States is directly traceable to Dr. Cook.

And yet, I don't think of any of those things as the most important lesson I learned from him. That came after the first test I took in his class.

I had studied hard for the exam, and I felt confident in my knowledge. As I wrote the various short essays that comprised the bulk of the test, I was sure that I had relayed that knowledge effectively. And yet, when the test was returned to me, it came back 83. Not terrible, not a failure, but nowhere near as good as I thought I'd done.

I was confused enough about why that I went up to Dr. Cook after class and asked him about the grade. I'll never forget what he said to me.

"You know everything that I told you in class. That's a B. If you want an A, you have to do your own research and bring that information in."

The message was perfectly clear to me. I was responsible, in the end, for my own education. People could teach me, and that would get me a lot of the way there, but if I wanted my knowledge to be exceptional -- not average, not even above average, but exceptional -- I couldn't just listen passively to what I was taught. I had to use that information as a springboard to do my own research, ask my own questions, and evaluate what I learned. Only by doing so could I really become educated.

I learned a lot during college, but there's not a single thing that was as important as that.

After I left the classroom that day -- even though in the moment I was somewhat stung by Dr. Cook's answer -- I went to the library and checked out twenty books about the historical period we were studying. I sat in my dorm room and read them for hours, trying to figure out how what I was reading fit into the information I'd learned in class. In the weeks that followed, I peppered Dr. Cook with questions, both during and after class, and to his everlasting credit, he not only answered them, but directed me to resources where I could learn more.

I did earn an A for the semester, and of all the grades I got in college, that's probably the one I'm most proud of. When I registered for the next semester's classes, I signed up for Dr. Cook's section of the other American History course, and that one was also a marvelous experience.

Thanks, Dr. Cook. Thanks for teaching me, not only about history, but about what learning and education actually can be.


As for Ms. Bixby's Last Day itself, it's the story of three sixth-graders, Topher, Brand, and Steve, and their special teacher, the titular Ms. Bixby. Within the first few pages of the book, Ms. Bixby is diagnosed with cancer, and tells the class that she won't be able to finish the school year. However, our trio of students embark on an adventure to give Ms. Bixby the sendoff she deserves and show her what she's meant to them.

In the wrong hands, this story could be sentimental mush, but John David Anderson's writing avoids those pitfalls. Every problem isn't magically resolved, and there's no deus ex machina ending, but we get a chance to spend time with real, three-dimensional characters, and to learn along with them about what has -- and will -- really made a difference in their lives. The book is one of the better novels of its type that I've read, and I feel no compunction about recommending it. (I promise that WPP doesn't actually pay me anything for these reviews; I genuinely feel strongly about this one!)

If you'd like to explore further, Walden Pond Press has a video about the book, and has also made an excerpt available online. Here also are the other stops on the blog tour if you'd like to check them out: 


Sunday, June 5, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: Roller Skates, by Ruth Sawyer (1937)

At this point you might be wondering: Weren't there two other people on this blog? Yep. Here's what we've been up to the past couple months!

Rachael and I fell accidentally through a dimensional rift, into a magical land, where we've spent all our time drinking ales at the tavern there. And listening to a lot of podcasts. And reading non-classic-Newbery books, binge-watching television shows, and fighting off existential dread. I finally found my way back through the portal, but Rachael might still be there a while.

Anyway, I started reading Roller Skates three months ago, and I just finished it now, and I have a lot of mixed feels about it, so this is probably going to be a weird review. Bear with me. (Or don't! Just skip this and keep reading Sam's eloquent and insightful reviews! I won't blame you!)

Roller Skates is a book by Ruth Sawyer. It won the Newbery medal in 1937. It's about a ten year old girl named Lucinda. A sickness of Lucinda's mother's sends her parents on a year long trip from New York City to the milder climes of Europe some time in the 1890's. Lucinda's parents send her to live with one of the teachers at her school, and her sister, the Misses Peters, while they're gone, as I'm sure most parents would do?

For Lucinda, her year long "orphanage" is the best thing that could ever happen to her. She's a tomboy with a wild side, and has been repressed by her family who expect her to act like a proper young lady. Under a relative lack of supervision from the Misses, she's free to do what she wants, which is mainly roller skate all over the City and make friends of varying levels of appropriateness. Sawyer herself came from a wealthy family, and her parents traveled abroad leaving her in the care of a beloved nanny, so it's likely some of Lucinda's misadventures are based on the author's own eventful childhood. In her Newbery acceptance speech she said "A free child is a happy child; and there is nothing more lovely; even a disagreeable child ceases to be disagreeable and is liked."

Probably the most interesting thing about the book is the time capsule feel to it. It's kind of crazy to read about a New York City of the 1890's, where a little girl could just roller skate around, on her own, and ask everyone she meets what ethnicity they are. Because that was apparently a thing in the 1890's: just talking to everyone about their ethnicity. Oh you're Irish? Have you met a fairy? Oh you're Italian? How many bambinos do you have? Yeah, there is some real cringe-worthy stuff in there. But it's also kind of fascinating to see how far we've come, in some ways for better, and some for worse. 

I actually found most of the book enjoyable. As the once and future queen of my local roller rink, I know the power of roller skates. When you're skating full speed, you might as well be flying. And I found Lucinda's jubilant energy pretty authentic. But while most of things Lucinda gets up to are perfectly delightful, like the time she stops bullies from robbing her friend's fruit stand, some of the things she does during her year of freedom are strange, like the time she stages a one-woman adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest with puppets, and some of her activities are downright questionable, like the time she has a picnic with the man who regularly digs through trash and sells things he finds there.

And then there's about the last four chapters where the book gets suddenly very dark, like the time Lucinda finds a dead body. That's a thing that happens. When her parents finally return (Remember her mom was sick? I didn't.) it's actually kind of devastating. And in the final couple paragraphs is this line: "She'd never belong to herself again--not until she married and got herself a husband, and then she'd belong to him." MAJOR BUMMER.

Roller Skates was pretty revolutionary for its time. Not many books for children were addressing controversial topics such as Lucinda's rebellious behavior, and, ya know, death. But it earned a starred review from Kirkus, and obviously the Newbery committee thought it was the most distinguished of the year. My final thoughts: I think as a bildungsroman it's really dated, and I had difficulty staying fully engaged. Obviously. 

Sam reviewed this book a few years ago. I purposely didn't read his review until now, and I'm happy to report I agree with everything he had to say!

Onto the next decade! Or back to the tavern. We'll see...

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: It's Like This, Cat, by Emily Cheney Neville (1964)

On our About the Bloggers page, all three of us list our three favorite Newbery winners. Mine -- recognizing that I haven't read my way through all of the past winners yet -- are Island of the Blue Dolphins, When You Reach Me, and Criss Cross. I stand by those choices, but I feel like I should add that, in a very, very close fourth place, I'd put Emily Cheney Neville's 1964 winner, It's Like This, Cat.

The list of Newbery winners from the 1960s includes some of the greatest crowd-pleasers in the history of the award: in addition to Island (1961), there's A Wrinkle in Time (1963), From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1968), and The High King (1969). It's Like This, Cat, however, features no abandoned islands, no travel to dystopian planets, no squatting in museums, and no sword-and-sorcery quests. It's a low-key, episodic novel of a young man in a New York City that's now gone, but not quite forgotten. The book requires the reader to stop and absorb the details of its setting, the cadence of its language, and the sharpness of its small details -- but it amply rewards the effort.

It's Like This, Cat follows Dave Mitchell, whom we meet during the tail-end of his last year of junior high, and leave almost a year later. He acquires the titular Cat in the first chapter, and Cat serves to tie the various episodes together -- becoming the point of introduction between Dave and an older boy, Tom Ransom; giving Dave and a girl named Mary something to talk about when they first meet on Coney Island; serving as a connection between Dave and Aunt Kate, the eccentric neighbor who first gives Cat to Dave. Each of these episodes is as finely-finished as a cameo engraving, and although there's little in the way of a through plot, the episodes are all linked thematically, with themes of responsibility, choice, and the nature of friendship interweaving like a motet.

Few books like It's Like This, Cat are published today. At fourteen, Dave is older than almost all middle-grade protagonists, and the book's themes may have limited resonance for most middle-grade readers. And yet, even though some weighty themes (parental abandonment and family estrangement) and unsettling incidents (the violent, senseless death of one of Aunt Kate's kittens) raise their heads, the tone of the novel is decidedly more muted and less heightened than that of most recent YA literature. The best relatively modern point of comparison might in fact be something like Criss Cross, although that one is an almost cinematic ensemble story, and It's Like This, Cat is told by a single first-person narrator. 

Two Honor books were named in 1964, neither of which is particularly well-remembered: Rascal, by Sterling North, and The Loner, by Ester Weir. Most of the other American books from that publishing year that have lasted were either picture books (Where the Wild Things Are; The Gashlycrumb Tinies; Swimmy), or were in some other way unlikely to win a literary award (Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective; Happiness is a Warm Puppy). It's Like This, Cat may be a largely overlooked title today as well, but in my opinion at least, it's a more than worthy Newbery winner.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: Secret of the Andes, by Ann Nolan Clark (1953)

Secret of the Andes is one of those Tales from Faraway Lands books, the kind brimming with descriptions of the Majestic Vistas and Proud, Noble People that fill Places You're Unlikely To Visit On Vacation. In the early days of the Newbery, this was a trope that drove winner after winner (see: Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze [1933]; Dobry [1934]; Call It Courage [1941]; etc., etc.). However, as time went on, this kind of writing fell out of favor. Indeed, Secret of the Andes was one of the last of its genre to win the Newbery -- books such as The Bronze Bow (1962) and Shadow of a Bull (1965) certainly contain similar elements, but also are starting to move, however haltingly, toward the more modern, less exoticizing style of later winners set in foreign countries, such as Number the Stars (1990) and A Single Shard (2002).

At any rate, the Faraway Land in question in Secret of the Andes is Peru. The protagonist, Cusi, is a contemporary Incan boy who lives in an isolated mountain valley with his elderly guardian, Chuto. There is a mystery surrounding Cusi's birth and destiny, and Cusi will need to visit the outside world in order to discover who he is and what he really wants.

I'll confess that I didn't find Secret of the Andes a compelling read. The mystery around Cusi's identity felt more like a shaggy dog story to me than an intriguing puzzle. I also found the plot underwhelming -- events come out of nowhere and proceed to the same location, and far too much of the second half of the book depends on impossible coincidences. (Seemingly every secondary character seems to have a copy of Cusi's detailed itinerary.) And Ann Nolan Clark's unorthodox prose style is clearly aiming for the poetic, but often felt maddeningly circular instead. Here's a sample, from chapter 13:

"Cusi and his llamas were climbing again. Mountain peaks piled upon mountain peaks. They rolled and swelled and piled higher and yet higher. They encircled the world. They towered above the world. They enclosed the world within itself. Only a brown ribbon of trail wound in and out and around them. Only a boy and his llamas moved along the winding trail."

It's possible that other readers may like that more than I did; it's certainly unlikely that they'll like it less. Especially since it's not, as far as I can tell, aiming to imitate the language or literature of Peru, it seemed mannered and artificial, and it repeatedly pulled me out of the story.

The 1953 Newbery is widely considered the biggest mistake in the history of the award; indeed, if most readers have even heard of Secret of the Andes, it's because it's the book that kept Charlotte's Web from winning. It's difficult from this distance for me to figure out what that year's Newbery committee was thinking; indeed, one of the more plausible possible explanations I've heard is that the result had to do with the fact that Ann Carroll Moore, the former head children's librarian for New York Public Library, and one of the most toweringly influential figures in children's librarianship at the time, was involved in a bitter feud with E.B. White's editor, Ursula Nordstrom. Whatever the reason, Secret of the Andes is no Charlotte's Web, and no matter how creative I get, I can't find a good way to defend this particular win.

It's okay. Mistakes happen.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, by Jean Lee Latham (1956)

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch is one of those books that occupy the nebulous space between fiction and nonfiction -- the "lightly fictionalized biography" or "documentary novel." It's a genre that I don't think about all that often, but it has a long and bright history, from books such as Amos Fortune, Free Man (the 1951 Newbery winner), on to more recent titles, like No Crystal Stair (2012) and Africa Is My Home (2013).

Our hero in Jean Lee Latham's 1956 Newbery winner is Nathaniel Bowditch, a Massachusetts polymath whose book The New American Practical Navigator (1802) revolutionized the science of navigation. We meet Bowditch when he is only six years old, and follow his life through to his return from his last sailing voyage in 1803. This choice of time frame allows Latham to focus on Bowditch's navigation and nautical exploits; the second act of his life, in which Bowditch published a number of scientific articles, and worked as a noted actuary and investment manager, goes unremarked upon. I've complained before about biographical works that only cover part of their subjects' life (looking at you here, You Never Heard of Willie Mays?!), but I think Latham made the right choice; the narrative arc comes to a logical conclusion at the point where Latham elects to end the story.

I didn't really know what to expect from Carry On, Mr. Bowditch -- it's one of those more obscure Newbery titles, and I knew almost nothing about it except for the title. It started a bit slowly, but I ended up very much enjoying this one. Bowditch is a strong, interesting protagonist, and although most of the secondary characters don't get much screen time, they come across effectively enough. The setting also works well; I felt the excitement of Salem and Boston in the early days of the United States as I read. I was sorry to see Carry On, Mr. Bowditch end.

I will confess that I cringed during the descriptions of Bowditch's interactions with the Malay people in Sumatra; I have no doubt that it's an accurate depiction of how the American sailors thought about their trading partners, but given that nowadays, we'd call that "racist," it's a bit awkward to read. I've read much worse from the time period, however; even if those passages in the book would be frowned upon now, I certainly wouldn't call Latham a bigot in the context of her era.

Three Honor books were named in 1956, the best known of which is probably The Secret River, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. The most famous eligible book that was shut out of that year's awards is almost certainly Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson. Harold is a classic, but I don't think it works at all without the illustrations, and I wouldn't have supported it for the Newbery over Carry On, Mr. Bowditch.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: Call It Courage, by Armstrong Sperry (1941)

I believe that I read Call It Courage, Armstrong Sperry's novel that took the 1941 Newbery Medal, when I was a child. However, I remembered almost nothing about it, and so when I went to read the book again for this review, I came at it with, at least for the most part, fresh eyes.

What I found within the pages was not, I don't believe, what Sperry intended to put there. In his acceptance speech for the Newbery (in and around the cringeworthy exoticism of the Polynesian Other), Sperry spoke about "that courage which, in one form or another, I have tried to communicate to the readers of my books." As far as I can tell, Sperry intended his tale to be interpreted straightforwardly: a boy is afraid, courageously confronts his fears, and through the process of overcoming them, becomes a man.

And yet that's not the way that Call It Courage comes across to me at all. It strikes me as a picture of a rigid, dysfunctional society, one that is largely unwilling to accept differences. Our hero, Mafatu, is a Polynesian boy with a deep fear of the sea. Really, he's probably a kid with PTSD -- when he was three years old, he was caught in a hurricane while out in a canoe with his mother. The storm destroyed the canoe, and Mafatu held onto his mother's neck for an entire night, surrounded by sharks and dark water, before the waves threw the pair of them up onto a nearby reef, whereupon Mafatu's mother promptly died. After all that, it strikes me as perfectly reasonable for Mafatu to be frightened of the ocean!

However, his people don't see it that way. Mafatu's father, the chief, treats his son with disappointed indifference. His peers openly mock and scorn him. Mafatu is still a perfectly useful member of society -- he becomes a skilled spear-maker and net-weaver -- but in a nifty piece of sexism, this is discounted as "woman's work." Eventually, the social pressure becomes so intense that Mafatu can no longer abide it; he takes a canoe and sails away with a half-formed plan to "win his way to a distant island." (Spoilers follow!)

What actually happens is that Mafatu runs into another storm, and is then wrecked on a quasi-deserted island. Here, he makes himself a home and another canoe, gets really good at killing things (a shark, a wild boar, a giant octopus), and, I suppose, conquers his fears. However, the sense of self-improvement seems secondary to me; Mafatu states over and over that what he really wants is the respect of his peers, and even more to the point, his father's love.

None of the larger issues that seem to me like they ought to be visible from space -- why nearly kill yourself for the love of someone who demonstrates no love for you? why is there no place within a society to work through one's problems, or to make a life for oneself that isn't within an extraordinarily narrow range of the acceptable? -- are ever addressed. No, Mafatu is able to wrench himself into being exactly what other people want out of him, which is presented to us as a triumphant victory.

My deep complaints about Call It Courage shouldn't be construed as a condemnation of actual Polynesian culture. Indeed, although Sperry actually spent a year in French Polynesia, I have a lot of questions about how well he actually understood the place on anything but a superficial level. I'm not a Polynesian studies expert in any way, shape, or form, but as far as I understand it, the actual attitude towards things like gender roles would have been much different than the way in which Sperry presents it. Frankly, the whole novel feels more like a Pacific-ized version of a snobby prep school than anything else.

Also, I haven't even mentioned the "eaters-of-men," the cannibals who threaten Mafatu (mostly through his utterly inexplicable decision not to just sail away in his fully prepared and stocked canoe when he realizes they're on the island, and instead try to sneak a peek at their ritual in progress). Suffice it to say that the "cannibal" parts of the book weren't what you'd call respectfully handled.

I should try to be fair here. The "island adventure" story dates back at least to Robinson Crusoe (1719), but most of the books in this vein haven't aged all that well; they tend to look too colonialist and imperial for a modern reader to enjoy them. Sperry's defenders, such as critic Joan McGrath, caution that "it is all too easy to lose the historical perspective that would credit him with enlightenment and objectivity, given [his books'] date of publication." I've made similar arguments myself on behalf of Laura Adams Armer and Hendrik van Loon. However, I'm not entirely convinced in Sperry's case, although maybe it's just that all of the attitudes espoused in Call It Courage rub me the wrong way, and so I'm unable to be entirely objective.

I don't know what would win the 1941 Newbery if we were to re-award it today. Four Honor books were named, the best-known of which is The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder (which has its own issues around race and culture). Call It Courage might still take the award -- and it's certainly easier to read than some of the other early Newbery winners that I've read -- but it's a book that really doesn't appeal to me.