Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Newbery Wayback Machine: The Whipping Boy, by Sid Fleischman (1987)

 

The prince's real name may be Horace, but everyone thinks of him as Prince Brat. He is constantly pulling pranks and causing trouble, secure in the knowledge that he will never be punished. Rather, punishment is reserved for Jemmy, his Whipping Boy -- every time Prince Brat is in trouble, Jemmy must endure whatever corporal punishment is deemed sufficient for the offense.

Jemmy dreams of leaving the castle and returning to his previous life in the streets. What he does not expect, however, is for Prince Brat to show up in his room one night, insisting that Jemmy accompany him in running away. This sounds like a terrible idea to Jemmy, but when the prince gives an order, what is he supposed to do but obey? The unlikely pair quickly run into a whole host of complications -- greedy criminals, a bear, and royal soldiers among them -- leading to a final set piece in the sewers deep beneath the city.

All of this happens at an almost absurdly breakneck pace. The Whipping Boy is, at least in the edition that I read, a mere 90 pages. The plot is constantly in motion, with essentially no downtime. Kids who like a lot of action in their stories may find a lot to like here.

The book does strike me as an unusual Newbery choice, however. I didn't find the characters particularly compelling or well-developed, the setting is off-the-shelf quasi-medieval, and the prose is serviceable, but not more than that. That's not to say that I can't understand why The Whipping Boy was popular; words that Kirkus Reviews used to positively describe it at the time included "rollicking" and "melodrama," and both of those seem fair to me. If that's what the reader is looking for, they'll find it in this story, executed both briskly and well. But I'm still unconvinced that The Whipping Boy has many markers of the kind of literary excellence that the Newbery is supposed to recognize.

Possibly, it just wasn't considered a strong year. The three Honor books were A Fine White Dust, by Cynthia Rylant; On My Honor, by Marion Dane Bauer; and Volcano: The Eruption and Healing of Mount St. Helens, by Patricia Lauber. I know some elementary school kids end up reading On My Honor, but I don't think any of those books are considered upper-tier entries in the kidlit canon. The most highly-regarded books of the year all seemed to come from authors outside the USA -- Brian Jacques (Redwall), Diana Wynne Jones (Howl's Moving Castle), Philip Pullman (The Shadow in the North). 

Sid Fleischman was a man with a fascinating life -- he worked as a professional magician, served in World War II, wrote screenplays, and published adult novels, in addition to his work for children. Though he won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award in 1979 for Humbug Mountain, The Whipping Boy represented his only appearance on the Newbery rolls. His son, Paul Fleischman, would win the Newbery two years later for Joyful Noise, making them the only parent-child combo to ever take home the gold medal. 

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

2022 Contenders: The House That Wasn't There, by Elana K. Arnold

 

Plenty of our authors who write for young people produce books for different age groups. However, it's usually easy to spot a common sensibility. Even if Hole in My Life and Rotten Ralph are for widely disparate audiences, no reader is going to walk away wondering if they're actually both from the pen of Jack Gantos, for instance.

And then there's Elana K. Arnold, who might be our most chameleonic American children's author currently working. Her YA work, such as the fiery and blood-drenched Damsel and Red Hood, seems a long, long way away from the gentle coziness of A Boy Called Bat, or the low-key delight of What Riley Wore. There aren't any narrative tricks or obvious markers in the prose that serve as a common thread; if I didn't already know that all of these books were hers, I doubt I ever would have suspected that she had produced each one of them.

Since I do know that, however, it's worth digging deeper to see if there's anything that underpins all of Arnold's work. I'd argue that yes, there is a unifying theme: that it's impossible to thrive in the world unless a person can accept themselves for who they are -- and that one's true friends and real family are the people who also provide that acceptance and love. 

That's exactly the feeling I got while reading Arnold's newest middle-grade title, The House That Wasn't There. It's a story that follows two characters -- Alder, who has lived in his southern California neighborhood for his whole life, and Oak, who has just had to move from San Francisco to the house next to Alder's. Their initial encounters are rocky, as Oak's family is remodeling their new house, which results in an immediate casualty -- the beautiful old walnut tree that stands between her house and Alder's. Let's just say that this doesn't dispose Alder and his mother to think kindly of Oak and her mother.

I'm not sure it's possible to explain where the plot goes from there without giving the whole thing away. There are strong elements of magical realism at play, along with such more grounded concerns such as learning to navigate shifting friendships, caring for new pets properly, and understanding family dynamics. There's also a beautifully-executed double twist ending that I found deeply enjoyable, and a satisfying emotional arc (filled with that acceptance and love that I mentioned) for both of our protagonists.

As is sometimes the case in stories suffused with magical realism, there are several elements in the book that remain unexplained. This isn't taken to an extreme -- The House That Wasn't There isn't Orphan Island or A Boy and a Bear in a Boat, those books that seem to deliberately test the boundaries of how many unanswered questions the reader is willing to entertain. But I would caution anyone picking up The House That Wasn't There that, if they expect the novel to be a puzzle box like When You Reach Me or The Westing Game, they may want to adjust said expectations. 

Arnold's recognition from the ALA committees thus far has been for her YA work (Damsel was a Printz Honor title in 2019). As I've previously noted, I'm making no attempts to handicap the Newbery this year, but I would say that The House That Wasn't There is of a high enough quality that, should it place this year, I wouldn't be the slightest bit surprised. 


Published in March by Walden Pond Press / HarperCollins

Friday, April 30, 2021

2022 Contenders: The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy, by Anne Ursu

 

One of the great pleasures of spending time with an author's work over the course of several books is coming to understand what's closest to that author's heart, what techniques they use, and what motifs constantly recur in their writing. I love getting to explore an author's craft in depth, to see how it grows and develops -- and what stays consistent in it from novel to novel.

Longtime readers will perhaps smile at this point and note that this introduction comes attached to a review of the new Anne Ursu book, The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy. Though I can promise that I don't set out to give every Ursu novel my most glowing review of the year, it seems to happen anyway. I'm being honest in my assessments, but I'd be dissembling if I didn't point out near the top that in this case, the review is coming from inside the fan club.

Believe it or not, I haven't actually read everything Ursu has ever written (I still have yet to get to The Cronus Chronicles, and the two novels for adults). I have, however, read her previous three novels (2011's Breadcrumbs, 2013's The Real Boy, and 2019's The Lost Girl), and, when I set those alongside Dragomir Academy, certain similarities begin to emerge.

Maybe most notably, Dragomir Academy shares with its three predecessors what I've come to think of as Ursu's signature plot movement. Each of these four novels painstakingly constructs a full, rich, three-dimensional world -- and then pulls the rug out from under that world, revealing terrible truths behind a beautiful lie.[1] The protagonists then are forced to choose how to react to the blinding sight of these truths, whether to retreat in fear or to push forward no matter how much it hurts -- and Ursu never fails to remind the reader that pressing onward will hurt, even if it's a better choice than being willfully deceived. 

Dragomir Academy follows Marya Lupu, who lives in a village in the country of Illyria, where the citizens live in fear of a magical plague called the Dread, which emerges from the forests to massacre entire settlements. The Dread can only be held at bay by sorcerers -- men who can wield the necessary magic that counters and disperses it. Everyone in the village believes that Marya's brother, Luka, will become such a sorcerer, and a representative from the Sorcerers' Guild is indeed coming to test Luka for magical ability. But the visit doesn't go as planned, and soon Marya has been whisked away and sent to the titular Dragomir Academy, a sort of reform school for problem girls, which is perched high in the remote mountains.

At Dragomir, Marya does her best to fit in, to mold herself into what the school wishes her to be. But she and her new friend Elana Teitler begin to suspect that all is not as it seems, that there may be dark secrets that are woven into the very fabric of the Academy. As conditions outside Dragomir worsen, Marya and Elana's quest to know the truth may in fact be of life-or-death importance.

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy takes as its central argument what I've come to think of as the thesis of Ursu's entire oeuvre. If I may be forgiven the reviewing faux pas of quoting myself -- because I don't know how else to say it -- evil works first by fracturing the relationships between people, and then by destroying each person's sense of their true self. In Troubled Girls, that evil takes a similar form to that in which it appeared in The Lost Girl -- a brutally oppressive culture of patriarchy that poisons everything and everyone it touches.

Tonally, Dragomir Academy is also similar to The Lost Girl, in that the icy bleakness of Breadcrumbs and the looming paranoia of The Real Boy have been replaced by a white-hot rage. If anything, Dragomir Academy ratchets up that anger, to the point that I'm not sure you could actually write anything more furious and still have it function as a middle-grade novel. Its unsparing fire can perhaps be best explained by Ursu's laconic Twitter observation that Dragomir Academy is "my Kavanaugh hearing book." If you put yourself in that mindset, Dragomir Academy's approach won't surprise you,  and book's ending, in which joy, heartbreak, victory, and defeat all collapse into a massive singularity, will also feel completely lived-in. 

It's important to note here that Ursu's flame doesn't burn everything it touches. She's too careful of a writer to take the easy way out; this is not a book in which all of the men are monsters and all of the women are saints. There are male characters who recognize the societal poison of the patriarchy and work against it, and there are female characters who are working for the status quo. Additionally, no one is perfect, and even the most noble figures in Dragomir Academy make mistakes, in a way that makes them feel like real, genuine people.

On a less heavy note, even if Dragomir Academy has fewer Easter eggs than The Lost Girl did, it's not devoid of them. Some are so barely concealed that I'm not even sure they qualify; that Marya's best friend is named Elana, in a book that lists fellow fiercely feminist author Elana K. Arnold in its acknowledgments, is maybe less Easter egg than homage. On the other hand, the fact that "Illyria," which certainly sounds like a fantasy kingdom, was also an old name for portions of the Balkans -- and that "Dragomir" is a common name in that part of the world even now -- is the sort of thing that's unlikely to come to the attention of most readers, but is delightful nonetheless. 

I don't even really try to predict the Newbery anymore; I have no idea whether or not The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy will be the book that puts Ursu up on the podium. But dangit, this is an amazing novel, and I hope it finds its way to many readers. I'll be here in the Anne Ursu Fan Club box seats, cheering it on.


Publication in October by Walden Pond Press, who were kind enough to send me a review copy


[1]There are parallels here to what Ursu once wrote, "This is what writing is like--the world looks fuzzy and obscure and then in one moment, for no reason, a corner of the veil lifts and suddenly you see the stories that have been lying there the whole time." 

 

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Newbery Wayback Machine: Daniel Boone, by James Daugherty (1940)

 

Hooooooo boy.

I don't know how well it comes across, but I've tried to be fair to these early Newbery winners. While not glossing over their flaws, I've tried to show how each one fits into the emerging story of American children's literature, note the things that each one does well, and place the books in the context of their time.

My friends, all of that fails me when I come to Daniel Boone, James Daugherty's 1940 winner. It's a self-satisfied hymn to racism and Manifest Destiny, accompanied by hideously ugly (and somehow even more racist) artwork by the author. The pacing is terrible, and the prose confuses overuse of adjectives for inspiring writing. It doesn't even work very well as a biography -- it doesn't have a timeline, assumes far too much background knowledge on the part of its readers, and sometimes fails to even refer to its many poorly described characters by their full names. 

No libraries in my consortium own Daniel Boone; I had to use the statewide interlibrary loan system to even find a copy to read. It's completely out of print, a distinction that might make it unique in the Newbery canon. Even the most deeply problematic Newbery winners stay in print -- Shen of the Sea, Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, The Matchlock Gun, all are still easily available, straight from the presses. But if, for whatever reason, you want a copy of Daniel Boone, you're going to have to find it on the secondhand market, at prices that are often north of $100. 

Part of the problem is that the racism (mostly directed at Native Americans, but with jabs at African Americans as well) so thoroughly permeates the book that it would be impossible to produce an edited version, as was done for The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle and Rabbit Hill, and have more than a pamphlet left. I'm reminded of Roger Ebert, who, when speaking about software designed to remove offensive passages from DVDs, opined, "Theoretically there could be a version of Fight Club suitable for grade-schoolers, although it would be very short."

Daniel Boone himself is a complicated historical figure, and certainly one about whom a fascinating biography could be written. It's hard to get a sense of the man from Daniel Boone, however -- his personality is flattened into a caricature of a frontiersman. I don't feel like I know him much better after finishing the book than I did before I began. 

James Daugherty was well-regarded in his day, both as an author and as an illustrator -- he picked up two Caldecott Honors as well, for Andy and the Lion (1939) and Gillespie and the Guards (1957). I haven't read either of those, though I do note that Andy and the Lion at least is still in print. I can say that, at this remove, Daugherty is not a major figure in the history of children's literature. If Daniel Boone is representative of his work, it's easy for me to understand why.

The only remaining question I have is this: is Daniel Boone the worst Newbery winner ever? I think it depends on what criteria you want to use. The other real contender, in my personal view, is Smoky, the Cowhorse. Smoky is probably three times the length of Daniel Boone, and might be the single least interesting book I've ever read; from a purely technical perspective, I'd argue that it's worse than Daniel Boone. But if there's a more nauseatingly racist book among the Newberys, I certainly can't tell you what it might be; I'm unable to come up with a good ethical defense of Daniel Boone, and from that perspective, it might represent the actual bottom of the Newbery barrel. 

Friday, March 19, 2021

The White Stag, by Kate Seredy (1938)

It occurred to me while reading The White Stag that it's possible to divide those early Newbery winners into two categories. On the one hand are books that, while they'd no doubt be written differently today (and, in most cases, with a greater eye toward sensitivity on racial matters), could, on a conceptual level, pass muster with modern editors, publishers, and readers. It requires no great leap of imagination to imagine a 2021 debut, for instance, for a The Story of Mankind-style overview of world history, or a book like The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle that featured a child's adventures with a doctor who could talk to animals, or a Thimble Summer sort of novel about a child growing up in Wisconsin during the Great Depression.

On the other hand, there are books that I can't imagine a present-day author even attempting, or a publishing house in 2021 trying to put out. Who would try their hand at a piece of squirmily Orientalized glurge like The Cat Who Went to Heaven these days, or dare to make up a bunch of "Chinese folktales" like the ones that fill the pages of Shen of the Sea?

The White Stag, Kate Seredy's 1938 winner, seems to me to fall firmly into the second camp. The book is a retelling of the legend of the Huns, as they sweep inexorably across Asia and eastern Europe, on their way toward claiming their Promised Land of Hungary. They wait expectantly for the arrival of their own Joshua figure, Attila, and experience both the rewards and the wrath of their deity, Hadur (generally speaking -- the theology of the book is honestly kind of confused). All of this requires them to battle and destroy any number of other people, whose crime is essentially Being In The Way. Seredy clucks her tongue in the direction of the Huns for this, but with a level of indignation more suited to disputing a parking ticket  -- she generally seems to regard the whole affair as just One of Those Things.

Maybe I'm wrong -- maybe there's a way to retell a myth like this so that modern children could find a path into the story. There are, of course, still volumes that retell Greek and Roman mythology for children, and those stories are also remote and violent. I think it would require a totally different approach than the one The White Stag takes, however -- one that doesn't frame the events as an adventure story designed "to pay homage to a race of brave men, men whose faith in their own destiny had led them to a land they still call their own."

Honestly, it's not that great of an adventure story either -- the characters are completely flat, the setting is underutilized, and the overall plot arc doesn't have the slightest hint of suspense. Seredy does have a feel for the heightened language of myth, and the sentence-level prose is easily the best thing about the book. That language is doubly impressive when one realizes that Seredy, a native of Hungary, didn't even speak English until she was an adult -- and thought of herself more as an illustrator than an author (she would win a Caldecott Honor in 1945 for her illustrations for The Christmas Anna Angel). If I had to guess, I'd bet that it was the sparkling wordsmithing that attracted the attention of the Newbery Committee. 

A lack of competition may also have helped. The committee named three honor books, the best known of which is On the Banks of Plum Creek, number four in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series. Otherwise, the most famous American book of the year is probably And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, Dr. Seuss's first children's book (and one of the ones that the publisher just withdrew for containing offensive imagery). J.R.R. Tolkein's The Hobbit looms the largest of the children's books that came out in 1937, but it of course wasn't eligible for the Newbery. And so, The White Stag took the gold medal, though even among winners of the 1930s, it remains one of the more obscure choices.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Newbery Wayback Machine: Tales from Silver Lands, by Charles Finger (1925)

 

The Newbery Terms and Criteria loudly proclaim, "there are no limitations as to the character of the book considered except that it be original work." And indeed, over the past ninety-odd years, we've had winners representing novels, poetry, nonfiction, picture books, graphic novels, biographies, and verse novels; nearly every form has taken home the gold medal at one point or another. This includes folktale-style short stories, which have won twice -- once for Arthur Bowie Chrisman's fakelore stylings in Shen of the Sea (1926), and the year before that, when Charles Finger's Tales from Silver Lands was named the winner.

The titular "Silver Lands" are Central and South America. Unlike Chrisman's "China" tales, Finger's have at least some authenticity to them. He lived and traveled extensively in those areas during his twenties, and this book comes across as having its genesis in those times. Though Finger doesn't provide the kind of source notes we'd hope for in a book of folktales today, he does at least provide the names of his informants and the place where he learned the stories for some of the tales. (Others are given no introduction at all, and the place and culture to which they belong remains opaque.) Finger does freely admit to having heavily edited some of the stories he was told in order to make them more readable; more than once, he interrupts himself in order to complain about the discursive, meandering manner in which his informants told the tales.

Questions about authenticity aside, the stories in Tales from Silver Lands certainly have the feel of folktale collections like those of the Brothers Grimm -- eerie characters, symbolism that would make Jung proud, and a general feeling that they proceed from that state between waking and dreaming. Highlights include the Sorcerer's Apprentice-style "The Tale of the Lazy People," the trio of tales involving a pair of brothers ridding the land of three destructive giants, and the closing story, "The Cat and the Dream Man," which features the most unsettling of the villains in the book, the Fox-Faced Man, as well as an ending reminiscent of Grimm 187, "The Hare and the Hedgehog."

Two Honor books were named in 1925, Nicholas: A Manhattan Christmas Story, by Annie Carroll Moore, and The Dream Coach, by Anne & Dillwyn Parrish. Left off the list was the book that would become the most enduring American classic of the year, Gertrude Chandler Warner's The Boxcar Children. There was probably no chance that The Boxcar Children could have won, given that "children having adventures without an adult" was actually sort of controversial at the time, and the Newbery was in its Tales From Far-Off Lands period -- the only winner from 1923 to 1933 that didn't spend at least part of its plot in some exotic locale was Smoky, the Cowhorse. However, Tales from Silver Lands is certainly better than some of the other early winners, even if it hasn't become part of the kidlit canon.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Newbery Wayback Machine: Dobry, by Monica Shannon (1935)

 

Dobry is a Bulgarian boy, who lives in a Bulgarian village high in the Bulgarian mountains. He and his Bulgarian mother and grandfather tend their Bulgarian fields, raising a bountiful harvest of Bulgarian crops. Dobry has his eye on Neda, a Bulgarian girl, and makes some Bulgarian sculptures for her, as he dreams of attending Bulgarian art school. We learn about some colorful Bulgarian customs, Bulgarian folk songs, and Bulgarian stories, in this tale that positively brims with Bulgarian descriptions of Bulgarian folkways. Bulgaria!

That's not even a particularly exaggerated description of Dobry, the Monica Shannon book that took home the 1935 Newbery Medal. The book has almost nothing in the way of plot or conflict; the closest it really gets is a two-page discussion between Dobry's mom and his grandfather about whether or not Dobry should grow up to become an artist. Mom doesn't think so, Grandfather argues in favor of it, and mom resolves not to worry about it anymore, and doesn't. End scene. Back to descriptions of Bulgaria.

Dobry's nameless village is populated by characters who are more or less colorful, but none of them are villains, or even real annoyances. Indeed, the only really frightening thing involves reading about what the villagers do for fun. As the book opens, everyone is looking forward to the arrival of the "gypsy bear," who gives massages. I assumed this was just some big, strong, hairy guy -- but no, when the Romani show up a few chapters later, they have an actual bear in tow, which they've trained to walk on people's backs and give massages. Later, Grandfather is excited to try and win the Snow-Melting Games. I don't know what I expected those to be, but I did not figure that they would simply involve lying down in the snow to see whose body heat would melt the snow the fastest. And near the very end, Dobry wins the village's equivalent of a scholarship by diving into the frozen river to retrieve a golden crucifix that the priest has thrown in there, because this is a contest they hold every feast day of St. John the Baptist (Feb. 7). I'm just saying -- if these were my entertainment options, I'd probably be excited to go to art school too.

The book was apparently partly based on the early life of its illustrator, Atanas Katchamakoff. It took the Newbery ahead of three Honor books: Pageant of Chinese History, Davy Crockett, and A Day on Skates. The most famous children's books of the year were by non-US authors -- P.L. Travers' Mary Poppins and Kenji Miyazawa's Night on the Galactic Railroad -- and so weren't eligible. Even if I can't think of a single modern child I'd recommend Dobry to, it's certainly evocative of its place, and that may be enough to justify its award.