Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Newbery Wayback Machine: The Trumpeter of Krakow (1929)

Recently, we opened a Little Free Library in the bus station with which we share a building. As I was helping to stock it, I saw a copy of The Trumpeter of Krakow in the stack of books, and I figured I'd give it a read before sending it on its Little Free way.

After Rachael's review, I wasn't expecting much from this one. Indeed, I can agree with most of her points. The characters, without exception, are two-dimensional at best. The descriptions of clothing are detailed to the point of absurdity, and I'd add that the descriptions of streets and buildings are as well. When the staircase up to the alchemist's loft was destroyed by an explosion halfway through the book, I was ecstatic, because it meant I wasn't going to have to read any more about how creaky and rickety it looked. This is a 50-page book that's padded out to 200 with endlessly detailed descriptive passages, like a 15th-century Polish version of The House of the Seven Gables.

That might not even be that bad of a thing, because the plot itself is unexciting at best. I never felt invested in the fate of the Great Tarnov Crystal, and even in the life-or-death moments, I didn't feel like much was at stake. This is the sort of book where the main characters are more or less bulletproof, and given that they don't undergo any change or development as the novel progresses, there's not much to emotionally invest in. The weirdly passive prose also undercuts any sense of suspense.

Really, the thing I enjoyed most about Trumpeter was the historical information. Jan Kanty isn't much of a character within the pages, but was a fascinating historical figure. The same goes for King Kazimir Jagiello. I did enjoy reading about the University of Krakow, and about the fortress-palace at the heart of the lively city of Krakow itself.

The best book eligible for the 1929 Newbery was, as Rachael mentioned, Millions of Cats, which did Honor. That said, as these early winners go, The Trumpeter of Krakow really isn't as bad as I perhaps make it sound. It has a plot, which puts it above the sludgy meanderings of Smoky, the Cowhorse or Waterless Mountain, and it isn't treacly glurge like The Cat Who Went to Heaven. It's more like The Dark Frigate -- a book whose praises I'd decline to sing, but which points the way to better things for American children's lit. It's a straight line from Trumpeter to, say, Crispin: The Cross of Lead, and any number of other books featuring mystery and adventure in the far-off past.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

2017 Contenders Round-Up

I did read a few books that could be considered as in the running for this year's Newbery. I haven't read nearly widely enough to know what chances they have, so I thought I would just throw them all together, higgledy-piggledy, in one blog post.

The Wild Robot, by Peter Brown

I feel like robots are having a moment, not so much in children's lit yet, but certainly in pop culture. Having just finished watching the first season of Westworld, this book made for a hopeful, if bittersweet antidote.

Travis Jonker described it as "Isaac Asimov writes Hatchet," which is probably the most perfect four word review I have ever read. After a shipwreck, Roz the robot washes up on the shore of an island wilderness. Designed to learn from her surroundings, she picks up the behaviors of the animals around her, who go from viewing her as a monster to defending her against a violent threat at the climax of the book.

Like most robot narratives, The Wild Robot is really about what it means to be human and how we should live in this world, and I found Roz the most compelling character in children's literature this year. It is, however, a book about talking animals. They speak animal languages, which Roz learns, but they are still somewhat anthropomorphized, and that will bother some readers. The episodic plot (and its inherent lazy pacing) might bother others.

Of all the middle grade novels published in 2016, though, this is the one I find myself shoving into people's hands, so it's at the top of my list.

Pax, by Sara Pennypacker

Another animal book, but this one gets more inside the brains of the animals while taking a more realistic view of their brains and behavior. A boy, forced to set his pet fox free, undertakes a journey to bring it home again. This all takes place against the backdrop of an unspecified military conflict which draws closer and closer to the area where the fox is living.

From the reviews I've seen, that nebulous setting is off-putting to some readers. Personally, I liked it. It reminded me of the film adaptation of Howl's Moving Castle, where there's a pointless, unexplained war going on behind everything else. It adds a menacing tone to the narrative, and I think the unexplained nature of the conflict is a feature, not a bug - war is always inexplicable, especially to children and animals. The sentence-level writing is gorgeous, and the themes are beautifully realized, but it's possible that some of the characters are underdeveloped.

Like many readers, I did like the fox POV chapters better than the human chapters.

The Inquisitor's Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, by Adam Gidwitz

In his previous trilogy, Gidwitz was riffing (to marvelous effect) on the Brothers Grimm. Here he takes on The Canterbury Tales (in style more than in subject matter). Multiple narrators gathered at a tavern tell the story of three remarkable children who attract the interest and eventual ire of the most powerful men and women in medieval France.

Of the books I'm covering here, I think this one has the best shot of winning a medal. Its themes are both universal and timely, dealing, as it does, with religious, racial, and class prejudices. It also has a lot, like a lot, of fart and butt jokes. In that sense, Gidwitz really nails the Chaucerian high/low tone.

The pacing is on the slow side, and I think that will put some children off, but it's really the kind of book that would make for an excellent classroom read, with lots of side projects to go along with the medieval subject matter. The audiobook, read by three narrators who each take on a multitude of voices, is excellent as well.

The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island, by Dana Alison Levy

This one was pure pleasure. I approach the Fletchers more with love than with critical distance, but this second volume of their adventures takes on more serious themes than the first one did. I think the subplot about racism on a tiny New England island works well, but I'd like to hear other thoughts on the matter. The main plot - a greedy real estate investor threatens a beloved landmark - is a tale as old as time, but drawing on the classics is fitting in a nostalgic/madcap family novel like this. Rainbow families deserve sepia-toned comfort fare too.

...and many more. 

I will be at the Youth Media Awards next week, and before then I hope to read a couple more books. At the top of my list: Ghost, by Jason Reynolds, and The Best Man, by Richard Peck. As always, I can't wait to hear what the committee chooses!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Newbery Wayback Machine: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg (1968)

Happy new year loyal Mockers!

In 2017 we will continue to focus on past Newbery winners. We will occasionally blog about current contenders, as the fancy strikes us, but we'll mainly stick to our travels in ye olde...

And today we go back to 1968. 1968 was a historic year. Apollo 8 orbited the moon, MLK and RFK were assassinated, Star Trek gave us the first interracial kiss on television, and, of course, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg won the Newbery Medal (a significant win, as Konigsburg was also a runner up that year for Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, the only double honor in Newbery history.)

It's the story of twelve year old Claudia Kincaid. Seemingly disenfranchised by an unjust lack of respect/affection/attention in her family, she decides to run away from home. She chooses to recruit her nine year old brother Jamie to accompany her because they connect intellectually in a way she doesn't connect with her other siblings, and because Jamie is independently wealthy due to the fact he regularly hustles his classmates at cards, and they'll need cash for the plan to succeed. The plan, by the way, is to run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in nearby New York City, because if you're going to run away why not do it to the home of many of the most sophisticated works of art in the world? While living in the museum Claudia becomes fascinated by a sculpture of an angel that the Met acquired for a shockingly low price considering it may be the work of famous renaissance artist Michelangelo. Claudia makes it her mission to confirm the sculpture is by Michelangelo, a quest which eventually leads her and Jamie to the Connecticut home of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the eccentric patron of the arts who sold the angel to the Met, and her mixed-up files, an archive, organized in no discernible order other than what makes sense to Mrs. Frankweiler, of secrets, including the secrets of the angel: who sculpted it, how it came to be in her possession, and why she sold it.

This book was one of my favorites when I was a child, because I was enchanted by the ideas of 1. running away to a museum, and 2. having an archive in my home when I grew up. As an adult I still love museums, and imagining where I would sleep if I ran away to one. A few years ago I had the pleasure to visit the Met, and there were many fantastic places to spend the night if one were so inclined! I also have not one but two libraries in my home, and I live in a very narrow townhouse (a homeslice, if you will) so that's really saying something about living your dreams. I was excited, but anxious to re-read From the Mixed-Up Files as an adult. Would I find it as enchanting as I did when I was a child? The answer is yes, perhaps even more so.

From the Mixed-Up Files is a treat. It's a story that appeals to children. Children love stories about running away from home. It is known. It is exciting to think about what you would do and how you would survive without the care and supervision of your parent or guardian. It is particularly exciting to read about it in a book, and live vicariously through the characters, because actually running away from home is scary and dangerous. Claudia and Jamie, thoughtful and resourceful children, are likable, relatable characters. The narrative style - the book is told from the perspective of Mrs. Frankweiler who is writing to her lawyer, Saxonberg - lends the story an inclusive, conspiratorial tone, which is fun and mysterious. But its greatest strength lies in what the book is really about: the desire all people have to feel special.

It is revealed that Claudia felt compelled to run away from home, to live in a museum, to discover the truth about the angel sculpture, because she was missing something in her life. She felt ordinary, and she wanted to feel special instead. She wanted to have a secret, to keep safe inside her, to comfort her in the assurance she was extraordinary. And it is revealed that Mrs. Frankweiler, though an accomplished, if odd, person, is also missing something. She never had grandchildren despite secretly wanting them. At the end of the novel, both of them get what they need: Claudia learns the secrets of the angel, to keep as long as she likes, and the children adopt Mrs. Frankweiler as an unofficial grandmother, with plans to continually visit her. I thought the book was perhaps making a statement about what it was like to be a woman in 1960's America, feeling wrong or uncomfortable just being yourself, to always want something more, whether or not it's attainable, but the more I think about it, the more I feel that idea, that sensation, is universal and timeless.

From the Mixed-Up Files works as a think piece and a delightful piece of literature for children, making it, in my opinion, a modern classic. I think it truly earned its Newbery Medal, as well as its place in many people's hearts as a childhood favorite. It belongs on the shelves of any respectable library collection for children, and hopefully people will continue to discover and cherish it well into the future.