Tuesday, July 16, 2019

2020 Contenders: Indian No More, by Charlene Willing McManis with Traci Sorell

The United States historically hasn't, to put it mildly, done a great job of treating Native Americans well. Many of the worst offenses are well known to students of American history: the Trail of Tears, the Great Sioux War, the Wounded Knee Massacre. Some, however, haven't received as much attention, and remain little-known to most Americans outside of the Native American community.

The latter category includes, among others, the so-called Indian Termination Policy of the 1950s and 1960s. During this period, the Federal government unilaterally ended its recognition of over 100 Native American tribes, ceasing to recognize those tribes' reservations and land claims, and cutting off all Federal aid. Congress also passed the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, which provided some financial benefits and vocational training for Native Americans who would move from reservation land to urban centers. It did this at the cost, however, of breaking up communities, and placing Native Americans in areas where racial discrimination was often heavy; additionally, not all of the promised benefits always materialized for Native Americans who entered the program, and many participants ended up in low-wage jobs with little hope for advancement. The Termination Policy was ugly, and the Native American community had essentially no say in designing or administering it. They did, however, organize to fight back against it, and by 1968, President Lyndon Johnson was publicly calling for the policy to be ended. Though the US began re-recognizing some tribes as early as 1973, the policy wasn't officially abandoned until 1988(!).

This brings us to Indian No More, a novel that is set during the Termination period. It's narrated by Regina Petit, whose Umpqua family lives on the Oregon reservation of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. After the Grand Ronde's recognition is terminated, Regina's family moves to Los Angeles to try to take advantage of the Indian Relocation Act. Regina's father is excited by the prospect of moving to the city, but the rest of the family is less enthused -- especially Chich, Regina's grandmother. As the story progresses, opportunities and new friends do await in the city. However, so do culture shock, racism, and family tensions over preserving their Umpqua identity.

Indian No More has a fascinating, though bittersweet, genesis. Charlene Willing McManis, who was, in the words of her biographical note in the book, "of Umpqua tribal heritage and enrolled in the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde," came to a writing career late in life. This book, her only novel, was honed in a We Need Diverse Books mentorship with Margarita Engle, and picked up by Tu Books, a Lee & Low imprint. It's based on McManis's own childhood experiences; her family also moved to L.A. after her tribe's termination.

Sadly, McManis died in 2018, before the book was entirely finished. Before her passing, McManis personally asked her friend Traci Sorell to complete the manuscript. (Sorell's name may be a familiar one to our readers, as her We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga picked up a Sibert Honor this year.) Fortunately, Sorell, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, was able to fulfill this request, and bring the book to a state ready for publication.

As far as the Newbery goes, I doubt Indian No More will end up on the stand -- though the setting and the cultural research are magnificent, the plot meanders a bit, and the prose doesn't stand out as exceptional to me; in the kind of strong field we have this year, it probably won't rise to the very top. What I do hope is that libraries purchase this book and that many, many children read it, hearing a story that they probably don't know yet, but that needs to be told.

Publication in September by Tu Books / Lee & Low

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

2020 Contenders: A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata

Hanako's family spent four years in U.S. internment camps during World War II, and now they are leaving America for Japan. They will live with Hanako's paternal grandparents on a farm outside of Hiroshima. Arriving in Japan, Hanako and her family are appalled at the devastation wrought by the atomic bomb that the United States dropped on the city. At her grandparents' house Hanako is surrounded with love, but the family is very poor, and food is a constant concern. Hanako's parents and grandparents also wonder what will happen to Hanako and her younger brother Akira. In the United States, they didn't have much money, but they had options to better their lives. In Japan, they will most likely become tenant farmers, like their grandparents and many generations before them. But Hanako and Akira are still American citizens, and though their parents renounced their citizenship, there is a chance that they can get it back. Should the family try to return to America, even if that means starting over with nothing?

In this gentle book, it's the characters who really shine. Hanako's Jiichan (grandfather) and Baachan (grandmother) are the sweetest little old people ever, and I just wanted to give both of them a hug. But each member of Hanako's family is nuanced and complex, grappling with big questions. Hanako herself deals with fitting into a different culture, as one might expect from the book description, but she also struggles with her impulse to be compassionate, balanced with her own family's privations. Should she give food to a bomb-scarred war orphan? What if it means that her own little brother will go hungry that night? This concentration on emotions and morality necessitates an inward focus, so there's not a lot of action in the book's plot. In some ways, this is an ur-Newbery book: deeply contemplative historical fiction with a female protagonist, with strong character development at the expense of plot. I'm not trying to denigrate the book; just saying that it follows a venerable tradition of strong, well-written Newbery contenders.

I don't think this book is well-served by either its nondescript title or its bland brown and yellow cover, but of course, neither of those factors has any bearing on its Newbery eligibility. A Place to Belong received starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, and Booklist, and though it's up against strong competition for the Newbery, I think it has at least earned a spot at the discussion table.

Published in May by Atheneum Books

Monday, July 1, 2019

New Member of the For Those About to Mock Team: Misti Tidman

We're feeling pretty excited here at For Those About to Mock today, because we have a new blogger joining our team! Please join us in welcoming Misti Tidman to this space.

Longtime readers might already know Misti's name, as she's done three guest review for us in the past. She and I attended the Morris Seminar together back in 2014, and since then, she's done some great work over at the Guessing Geisel blog. When we were considering expanding our roster of bloggers here, Misti was the first person I thought of, and I'm ecstatic that she's elected to sign on!

Friday, June 28, 2019

2020 Contenders: My Jasper June, by Laurel Snyder

After a terrible tragedy last year, Leah finds herself in a holding pattern, distanced from her friends, her neighborhood, and her parents. One summer day, alone and restless, she takes a walk by the creek, and meets another girl, a free spirit named Jasper. Leah and Jasper quickly become inseparable -- but the tensions in Leah's life, as well as Jasper's own dark secrets, won't be denied, and eventually threaten to tear the new friends completely apart.

There are two things that I think My Jasper June does exceptionally well. The first is its respectful, honest portrayal of the inner lives of its main characters, girls at the awkward intersection of tween and teen. This was also a feature of Laurel Snyder's previous novel, Orphan Island (which won our 2017/18 Maryland Mock Newbery), and represents one of her key strengths as a writer. Leah and Jasper both felt real and recognizable to me, which helped me care about their adventures and fortunes.

The other area in which My Jasper June excels -- perhaps more so than any other book for children that I've ever read -- is in its laying bare the double bind that those grieving a traumatic loss often find themselves in. At the very moment when they need the most support, they often experience isolation, as those around them no longer know what to say to them or how to act around them, distancing themselves from the griever as a result. Without going too far into sad details from my own experience, I'll say that I've seen this dynamic and the pain it causes in real life, and Snyder does magnificent work in limning it. The scene in which Leah finally loses all patience and calls a school teacher out on this behavior at the public swimming pool is cringey in exactly the way the incident might play out in reality.

In a lot of years, My Jasper June would be my immediate choice for Newbery frontrunner. This year also features The Lost Girl and The Moon Within, so it's more complicated than that. But it's at the very least in the conversation, and I heartily recommend that you pick it up and have a look for yourself.

Publication in September by Walden Pond Press / HarperCollins

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Ones That Got Away: The Last Martin, by Jonathan Friesen

Sometime back in 2011 or 2012, I was at a library conference, wandering the exhibits, and happened by the Zonderkidz booth. Jonathan Friesen was there, signing copies of his new book, The Last Martin. He was kind enough to sign one for my daughter, and I passed the book on to her after the conference.

This is the kind of story that's happened dozens of times during the course of my library career. But this time was different, because my daughter devoured this book, returning the verdict that The Last Martin was her FAVORITE BOOK EVER. To this day, that's an opinion that she stands by. Regardless of what other books she may read in the future, I think it's safe to say that, at the very least, The Last Martin stands as one of the defining novels of her childhood.

In the wider world, Friesen is an author who's picked up a big ALA award (the 2009 Schneider Award, teen division, for Jerk, California), and The Last Martin garnered starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal. The book didn't show up in the Newbery rolls in 2012, however, nor did it make the Notables list. As of this writing, it's still in print, but doesn't seem to have attracted a significant following outside of my daughter -- the most recent reviews on Amazon and Goodreads are both from 2016.

But, that's the thing about books. Sometimes, a book simply happens to be the perfect book for a reader at a specific point in time, regardless of said book's popularity. When I think back on the books that I remember with exceptional fondness from my own childhood, that list includes well-known titles such as CorduroyThe Hobbit, and Interstellar Pig. It also includes an obscure, mostly forgotten Barbara Dillon/Chris Conover picture book, The Beast in the Bed. Ranganathan's Third Law of Library Science, after all, is "Every book its reader," and that's as true now as it was in 1931, when Ranganathan wrote it.

As for The Last Martin, it's the story of middle schooler Martin Boyle, an unassuming budding writer, who lives with his little sister, Lani, his frenzied, germophobic mother, and his father, a professional military reenactor. On an annual visit to the family cemetery, Martin makes the startling discovery that, beginning with the 1790 birth of his military hero namesake, there has always been a Martin Boyle -- and that every time a new Martin is born, the previous Martin dies. Since Martin's aunt is six months pregnant, and plans to name her new baby boy Martin, does this mean that the current Martin is cursed to die in three months? It's up to Martin and his ragtag group of friends -- his best buddy, Charley; his crush, Julia; and Poole, a Huck Finn-esque orphan who's been living in an abandoned boxcar in Martin's backyard -- to solve the mystery and end the curse before Martin's time runs out.

On a purely literary level, I can see why The Last Martin didn't win any ALA awards. The characterization is often cartoonish, some of the pacing seems occasionally off, and the prose is competent without being particularly noteworthy. But I can also see why my daughter loves it -- there's mystery, humor, romance, and a group of friends banding together to overcome a seemingly insurmountable problem.

And maybe the lesson I should take from the book is that a novel doesn't have to be "perfect" to be enjoyable. I spend a lot of time evaluating and analyzing books, enough so that I sometimes forget that a story can sweep you away and draw you in even if it doesn't check every box that a literary award-winner would. The Last Martin has plenty of flaws, but it also tells a fascinating story -- a story that has found at least one lifelong fan.

Friday, May 31, 2019

2020 Contenders: The Library of Ever, by Zeno Alexander

Lenora is extremely rich, but she isn't happy. Her parents are away traveling, and her nanny insists on dragging Lenora on various boring errands, instead of giving her a chance to explore the city. However, the nanny does have to stop at the library, and while they're there, Lenora manages to slip away...and find her way into a much, much, much larger library, one with patrons ranging from a robot from the future, to a spacefaring tardigrade, to a small boy with a missing cat. Lenora convinces Malachi, the seemingly-magical Chief Answerer, to give her a job as Fourth Assistant Apprentice Librarian. This begins a series of adventures that will take Lenora into the future, on a quasi-Fantastic Voyage journey into an ant colony, and into direct conflict with a mysterious group of people with a vendetta against the very concept of the library itself.

The easiest comparison for The Library of Ever is The Phantom Tollbooth, with its bored protagonist who finds his way into another world full of whimsical characters, surreal adventures, and paeans to knowledge and learning. Now, The Phantom Tollbooth is one of the greatest achievements in American children's literature, and it's awfully hard to write anything in a similar vein that doesn't suffer by comparison. The Library of Ever doesn't hit the heights of Tollbooth, and doesn't come particularly close. What it does do, however, is avoid embarrassing itself; if it's not the "instant classic" that the somewhat hyperactive back cover blurb on the ARC declares it to be, it's a fun, breezy read, one amply seasoned with interesting trivia and colorful details.

I think that, if I were still a child, I would have really, really enjoyed The Library of Ever and its bookworm-turned-adventure heroine. As an adult, it roused my normal suspicions about books that lean heavily on tropes about the importance of Story and Knowledge and Libraries. (Once again, let's all return to Rachael's Maxim: "Story and imagination celebrate themselves when deployed effectively.") This particular novel manages to thread that needle better than most -- I don't have the same kind of grumpiness about The Library of Ever that I did about, say, Okay For Now -- doing so mostly by steering into its conceit and not trying to pretend that it's anything other than wish fulfillment for the kind of kids who show up at the library multiple times a week.

I'm actually just guessing about the Newbery eligibility of The Library of Ever -- Zeno Alexander seems to be a Lemony Snicket-style pen name, and I haven't found any information that might indicate who the person behind the nom de plume is. I'm not sure it matters, since the novel doesn't match up all that well in a literary sense against this year's strongest books. I do think it will find its readers, and that those readers will enjoy Lenora's adventures, as well as those to come; a sequel is promised for 2020.

Published in April by Imprint/Macmillan

Thursday, May 23, 2019

2020 Contenders: For Black Girls Like Me, by Mariama J. Lockington

Eleven-year-old Makeda "Keda" Kirkland is black. Her father, mother, and sister, however, are all white, as Keda was adopted when she was a baby. Keda loves her family, but often feels like they don't understand her. Now, they're moving to New Mexico, taking Keda away from her best friend Lena, and setting her up for what will become the most challenging year of her life.

Spoilers follow, because it's nearly impossible to explain what For Black Girls Like Me does so well without giving away the plot. From the beginning, it's clear that all is not well with Keda's family. Her older sister, Eve, is a teenager whose connection with Keda is becoming strained. Their parents' relationship is showing serious cracks. And something seems...off about Mama in particular. A one-time child prodigy on the violin, Mama now almost never plays at all, and veers dramatically from being a bundle of energy with questionable forethought, to a near-comatose figure who can barely get out of bed.

There's much more to the book, including Keda's near-constant encounters with racist peers and clueless adults, and the ways in which her white family struggles to appropriately recognize and deal with these experiences (her parents, especially, are well-meaning white liberals who nevertheless aren't nearly as woke as they think they are; I winced more than once in a kind of embarrassed recognition at their words and actions). But the center of the novel, I think, lies in the breaking apart and bringing back together of the Kirkland family.

The key fracture is inside Mama herself. She is, as is eventually made explicit, suffering from bipolar II disorder. Over the course of the book, Mama becomes more and more erratic, culminating in an episode in which she drags Keda and Eve on a spontaneous trip to Colorado, and then suffers a complete breakdown that ends in a suicide attempt. Papa isn't there to prevent any of this, as he is out of the country on an orchestra tour, having convinced himself in the face of significant evidence to the contrary that Mama will be okay as the sole parent in the house for several weeks.

The way that this dynamic is portrayed seemed extremely true to life to me. I've known many people with bipolar disorder in my life, and I found the book's characterization of the disease to be thoughtful and accurate. For Black Girls Like Me treats its characters with kindness, but it doesn't shy away at all from depicting the pain and anguish that untreated mental illness of this type can cause.

And in a larger way, empathetic but unsentimental is the way that For Black Girls Like Me treats just about everything. This is the kind of middle grade novel that not only features a scene in which a particularly vicious peer calls Keda the n-word, but puts the word there on the page in all of its unredacted ugliness. In the hands of a lesser writer than Mariama J. Lockington, this would be an invitation to disaster, but Lockington effectively uses this episode to force us to confront the ways in which language can be a form of violence.

I don't think For Black Girls Like Me is quite a perfect book (the bits with the Georgia Belles, who are possibly either spirit guardians for Keda, or a certain part of her subconscious coming to the surface, felt less integrated into the larger narrative to me). I do think it's an important, vital book, one that heralds the arrival of an important new voice (this is Lockington's first book for children). That may not be enough to push it past The Moon Within or The Lost Girl in the Newbery race, but it should absolutely put it on the radar of librarians, teachers, and readers nationwide.

Publication in July through Farrar Straus Giroux