Friday, December 21, 2012

2013 Contenders: Will Sparrow's Road, by Karen Cushman

By the end of the first page of Will Sparrow's Road, it's established beyond question that twelve-year-old Will Sparrow has had a hard life, and that it's made him hard in return. Sold by his father, and about to be sold again by the innkeeper for whom he has worked, Will makes his escape and runs away. Where is he going? Will has no idea, only that he wants to be as far as possible from everywhere he's ever been.

Along the way, Will is repeatedly forced to ask himself questions about trust. Can you trust anyone? Should you try? And what if the people you think you can trust and the people you actually can trust aren't the same?

There's a long tradition in the Newbery of books that follow a boy traveling through a medieval world, from Elizabeth Janet Gray's 1943 winner, Adam of the Road, on to Avi's 2003 titleist, Crispin: The Cross of Lead. Although Will Sparrow's Road is certainly a solid book, I don't think it quite has the sense of youthful adventure of the former title, or the atmosphere of danger and paranoia that permeates the latter. By choosing this genre and setting, Karen Cushman has set a high bar for herself, and I'm not certain that she clears it.

Nor am I convinced that Will Sparrow's Road manages to pull itself above the more general pack of this year's books. Will himself is an engaging protagonist, but none of the supporting cast feels particularly deep -- particularly not if we're comparing them to the supporting characters in Wonder or Liar & Spy. The Elizabethan British setting is well-drawn, but doesn't come to life as vividly as the New England snowscape of Twelve Kinds of Ice, the quietly sterile hallways of Breathing Room, or the soot-covered streets of Splendors and Glooms. And even though the themes of trust and belonging are consistent and carefully explored, I don't think they're examined as thoroughly as the meaning of freedom and humanity in The One and Only Ivan, or the poisonous nature of power in Wooden Bones.

This all maybe makes Will Sparrow's Road sound worse than it is. It's a Karen Cushman novel, and as a member of the select group of active authors with both a Newbery Medal (The Midwife's Apprentice, 1996) and an Honor (Catherine, Called Birdy, 1995), she probably can't write a book that's less than above average. Kids who like historical fiction, or even who are interested in low fantasy, will likely take eagerly to Will Sparrow's Road. There's a good chance it will show up on the Notables list; I just don't think it quite has enough to make it out of the field for this year's Newbery.

Published in November by Clarion / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

P.S. Rachael and I are both off work until after the new year, so we'll catch you in January. Have a wonderful holiday season everyone!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

2013 Contenders: My Mixed-Up, Berry Blue Summer, by Jennifer Gennari

Twelve-year-old June Farrell's life isn't complicated. She swims and boats in Lake Champlain with her friend Luke, helps her mom at the Stillwater Marina Shop, and plans to win this year's pie-baking contest at the Champlain Valley Fair. However, when her mom's girlfriend Eva moves in, June finds herself unwillingly drawn into the controversy over Vermont's new civil union law -- a controversy that divides communities, families, and even June's own mind.

Set in the summer of 2000, when the Vermont law went into effect, My Mixed-Up, Berry Blue Summer tackles a tough issue head-on. June is a sympathetic character, fierce in her love for her mother, uncertain how to deal with some of her neighbors, and pained by the realization that her dreams of having a father are destined to go unfulfilled. Jennifer Gennari used to live in Vermont, and she fills the book with small but beautiful details about the setting -- the rocky cliffs where the best berries grow, the way different weather affects the look of the lake, the noise of the hungry seagulls.

In honesty, those details made me wish the book were longer. At 119 pages, it simply doesn't have time to fully explore all its subplots, or to render its supporting characters entirely three-dimensional. The novel's brevity also means that the events of the last third of the book feel like they pile on top of each other too quickly, giving it an almost soap opera-esque tone that I don't think helps the story.

Those flaws mean that My Mixed-Up, Berry Blue Summer is highly unlikely to show up on the Newbery list. However, it's still a pleasant, engaging read. Even more than that, it's good to see another middle-grade novel from a major publisher that takes on LBGTQ issues and yet isn't solely a heavy-handed polemic. This is Gennari's first novel, and I'm really interested to see what she decides to write next.

Published in May by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

2013 Second Takes: Splendors and Glooms, by Laura Amy Schlitz

Splendors and Glooms requires my single least-favorite kind of review to write. It's fun to write about books that I love, or even about books that I hate. Even writing about books that are interesting but flawed can lead to discussions about what makes a book work or not work. But what of a book where the reaction is "it's perfectly fine, I'm just the wrong reader for it?"

I think of Laura Amy Schlitz as both the most British and the most 19th-century of our contemporary American authors. In Splendors and Glooms, she manages a pitch-perfect homage/update to the Victorian Gothic, with heavy doses of Charles Dickens mixed in. The characters are real and vivid, and the settings -- both the grime of London and the wild beauty of Windermere -- are detailed and well-described. It's distinguised writing, no question of that.

The book's flaws are the kind common to the source genre, and some readers will probably think of them as features. The pacing is phlegmatic, and the narrative takes a long time to get going, and even longer to wind down. Despite the fact that it's a book with an action-oriented plot structure, it's not the kind of thing you enjoy if you're in a hurry to get where you're going. The more you enjoy spending time in the world that Splendors and Glooms creates, the more you'll enjoy the winding road through it.

As for me, I'm not a big fan of Victoriana, and I prefer my fantastical adventure novels either more introspective or more unsettling. Rachael is much closer to the optimal reader for Splendors and Glooms, and her review of it was highly positive. Monica Edinger and Nina Lindsay were also lavish in their praise. Nina did observe, "This seems to be a “love it or hate it” title, and if you’re not loving it, it asks a lot of you." I'm not loving it, and I felt like in the end, it asked too much of me. However, that's a function of the intersection between book and reader, not of any overt problems with the book itself. It actually fits the Newbery criteria quite well, especially in "delineation of a setting" and "delineation of characters." I don't think it's as exceptional as Mr. & Mrs. Bunny, The One and Only Ivan, or Twelve Kinds of Ice, but that's not at all to label it as bad or unworthy. It's quite good -- it's just that it's quite good for Someone Else.

Monday, December 10, 2012

2013 Contenders: Shadow on the Mountain, by Margi Preus

It was fascinating to read Shadow on the Mountain so soon after Bomb. A key point in Bomb is the destruction of the Vemork heavy water plant in Norway in a mission by British-trained Norwegian resistance fighters. Shadow on the Mountain takes us further into the world of the WWII Norwegian underground, a world of espionage, subterfuge, and secrecy, where old friends may end up on opposite sides, and the slightest misstep may mean death.

As the novel opens, fourteen-year-old Espen is just entering the resistance movement, distributing illegal newspapers that dare to carry anti-Nazi stories. The story proceeds to follow him as he becomes more and more involved -- and his missions become more and more dangerous. Several of his old soccer teammates, his sister Ingrid, and his girlfriend Solveig also join the resistance; however, always lurking in the shadows are Espen's former best friend Kjell, who has been blinded by Nazi propaganda, and Aksel, another old soccer teammate, who now works for the secret police.

Most of the elements in Shadow on the Mountain are based on true events. Epsen himself is largely modeled after Erling Storrusten, whose career in the resistance is described in the excellent back matter. This lends the book an authenticity that I think many readers will find exciting. Each scene is written with precision and suspense, and I know that I found myself drawn into the struggles of Espen and his friends as I was reading.

The other side of that, however, is that the book is episodic perhaps to a fault. When the Nazis take over Espen's soccer team just before the championship game, for instance, he and his friends quit; however, they declare that they're going to play the game in secret against the other team, whose members have also quit. But there's no scene of the secret championship, and in fact, it's never mentioned again.

Spoiler alert: I also need to talk about the ending of the book. After Espen's cover is blown, he flees to Sweden, which is not under Nazi control. After a harrowing struggle, he makes it...and that's the end. Although it's stated that the war is turning against the Nazis, we don't get to see it end; nor do we get to see whether Espen and Solveig are able to get back together, or what happens to Ingrid. The back matter does discuss what happened to Erling Storrusten, and so one can make inferences, but it's still quite an abrupt ending.

Even though Espen is fourteen when the book starts and nineteen when it ends, Shadow on the Mountain reads more as an upper middle school book than a YA title; the copy I read had indeed been catalogued in Juvenile Fiction. What it does well, that sense of immediacy and historical fidelity, it does well indeed, and I think it will find many well-deserved readers. However, it does have flaws, and I don't think in this publishing year that it's quite good enough to take home the Newbery.

Published in September by Amulet Books/Abrams

Friday, December 7, 2012

2013 Contenders: Twelve Kinds of Ice, by Ellen Obed

Ah, the elusive Twelve Kinds of Ice. Betsy Bird stepped out of her time machine and started talking it up way back in spring, and then reviewed it in July.  The rest of us have been hoping for a glimpse ever since, but ARCs were scarce as hen's teeth, so this reviewer had to wait until she could ILL it from a neighboring library last month.

(Yes, last month. I apologize for the radio silence, but every germ north of the equator descended upon my immune system a couple of weeks ago. It's been like a Michael Crichton novel up in here.)

In case you haven't been lucky enough to put your hands on it yet, Twelve Kinds of Ice is a sort of love letter to to an idyllic winter spent on ice skates. As the temperature drops, the narrator and her siblings watch for the first kind of ice - a thin layer on the top of the milking pail. From then on, it's a countdown until they can build their neighborhood skating pond. As spring creeps in, the pond shrinks and shrinks until only "dream ice" is left.

(And that there prosy description does it so little justice that it's basically like saying that Moby Dick is about some grouchy old guy looking for a whale.)

So, what is it? Where does it belong? Roger Sutton and his Horn Book crew had a hard time deciding. The copy I read was cataloged as juvenile fiction, but it's clearly a memoir too, and given the crystalline precision of the language, you could easily call the whole thing a prose poem.

It's not stuffy, though. It's not one of those dreaded books that appeals to librarians more than children. If I may, just this once, drag out the "my kid liked it" argument, um, my kid loved this book. I read it to her one night, all in one sitting, and then I basically had to restrain her from looking up property in Maine. It has such immediacy, such energy, and such joy that, despite its quaintness, it hits you like a gust of frosty air.

Can you tell that I love this book? It's almost perfect, and when I say "almost," the bug I'm thinking of may, as they say, be a feature. My feminist hackles were raised by the fact that the girls all go figure skating, the boys all play hockey, and there is no gender crossover whatsoever. I think that's a function of the autobiographical nature of the book, but it would be nice if that were made more clear in some way. A subtitle, perhaps? A Memoir of My Childhood, When Girls Didn't Play Hockey? 

As for the Newbery? I'd be hard-pressed to name a more deserving book this year. It has been a long time since I've seen prose this beautiful. Stylistically distinguished all the way.

P.S. - Sam lurves it too.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

2013 Contenders: Face Book, by Chuck Close

First things first: Face Book has no shot at the Newbery, given that without the illustrations, the whole thing falls apart. But I wanted to talk about it anyway, because it's a kind of book that I think often slips through the awards cracks, despite its value.

As is fitting, given its subject, Face Book is heavily illustrated, not only with photographs of Close's artwork, but also with pictures of him in his studio, as well as personal photos. The book's centerpiece is actually a set of fourteen of Close's self-portraits, cut into thirds so that they can be mixed up, sort of like those old playground toys that let you put the head of a giraffe on a lion's body and an ostrich's feet. (The front cover shows one possible combination.) It's an excellent tool that lets children see how different art media can be used.

It's also, however, the sort of tool that often gets considered "gimmicky." Nonfiction books that test the boundaries of what a book can do don't tend to be recognized for the major awards. Often, that's a wise choice, but sometimes, I think it lets something genuinely useful go unrecognized.

Face Book is structured as an interview with Close, and the acknowledgments state that the book is based on an actual interview in which several 5th-graders were able to ask Close some questions. As such, most of the words are Close's, and he's listed as the author, but it's clear that the book was compiled and put together by someone else (the names Joan Sommers, Amanda Freymann, and Ascha Drake show up in the fine print of the copyright notice). Literary awards selectors don't generally like authorship by committee, so that's a second strike against Face Book being recognized right there.

Nonetheless, Face Book does a great job of getting inside an artist's head, explaining how Close chooses his subjects, discussing why he uses so many different media, and even giving readers an inside look into the process of overcoming his disability (Close suffered a spinal artery collapse in 1988, and lost much of the use of his legs and arms). I think the interview format and the liberal use of Close's art will make this a highly accessible book for young readers. Of all the children's biographies of artists that I've read, it's certainly the one that gets the closest (no pun intended!) to its subject.

So, despite the fact that it's constructed in a way that essentially precludes it from awards consideration, Face Book is a highly successful work. I'd recommend it in a trice to anyone with an interest in modern art.

Published in April by Abrams Books for Young Readers

Monday, November 26, 2012

2013 Second Takes: The Lions of Little Rock, by Kristin Levine

It was hard to pick our Mock Newbery list for the Maryland statewide event in January. Like, really hard. There's an embarrassment of riches to choose from this year, and some excellent titles had to be left off.

The Lions of Little Rock is one of those books that we ended up omitting from our list, but that's not to say it isn't an excellent book. Rachael spoke highly of it back in our very first review of a 2013-eligible book, and I agree with pretty much everything she said. There's a skillfully-evoked sense of place and time in this novel, and Marlee is a complex and sympathetic heroine.

Lions blends Civil Rights issues with the interpersonal dynamics of family and friends, and does so almost seamlessly. Indeed, it's basically the book that Glory Be aspired to be, one that fully succeeds in meditating on the changes that adolescence and maturity bring to parental, sisterly, and social relationships at the same time that it discusses race relations and civic justice. I can't think of much to fault it for, except possibly starting out a bit slowly.

As of right now, The Lions of Little Rock is probably towards the back end of my top 10 books of the year, maybe a hair behind Crow. Because the interpersonal dynamics and the plotting are so exceptional, however, it's one that I might be able to be talked into moving up on the list.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

2013 Contenders: Goblin Secrets, by William Alexander

As you may have heard, Goblin Secrets just won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. Honestly, the first I'd heard of it was when it made the shortlist. Which is vaguely frustrating. It feels like Sam and I have covered a lot of what's out there in terms of Newbery-eligible books this year, and then something like this comes along. PUBLISHERS: STOP PUBLISHING SO MANY GOOD BOOKS! Wait. Strike that; reverse it.

(Apologies in advance for the rambling, feverish nature of this review. I've been up the past three nights with a sick six-year-old.)

Anyway, back to Goblin Secrets. Two minute summary: orphan Rownie lives with a raggle-taggle group of children under the protection of a Baba-Yaga-esque witch who moves her house around at will. In their city of Zombay, where sinister automatons patrol the streets, acting has been outlawed by the mayor. Against this backdrop, Rownie finds himself drawn to a mysterious troupe of goblin performers who may hold the key to the mystery of his missing brother.

It's not a bad book. It's actually quite enjoyable, but when I start to zero in on the Newbery criteria, I don't see a lot of distinction. The characters, aside from Rownie, are not particularly well-developed. The setting is super cool, but again, I don't feel like it's described as precisely as it could be. The plotting is neatly accomplished, but not extraordinarily so.

And then there's the question of whether it stands alone. It's billed as the first in the Zombay series.We don't usually talk about the first books in series in terms of the standalone question, but I think it's relevant in this case. Alexander introduces a lot of elements (the coal-making, the automatons, the peculiar qualities of the masks) that he clearly means to develop further in later books. While that works to pique the reader's interest, it also gives Goblin Secrets a sort of foggy, incomplete quality.

Looking over the list of past NBA winners, it seems that there's been very little overlap with the Newbery Medal. I wonder how much that has to do with who's judging. The National Book Award judges are all authors, while the Newbery committee is primarily made up of librarians. Clearly, we're looking for different things in books. I wonder if a judging panel made up of authors (a panel that includes Susan Cooper and Gary Schmidt this year) gives more credit than we do for ambitious world building - which is where Goblin Secrets really shines - and for ambition and risk-taking in general. If so, good on them. As I've mentioned before, I don't think we're as good at recognizing those more nebulous elements of excellence. 

Published in March by Margaret K. McElderry Books (Simon & Schuster)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

2013 Contenders: Bomb, by Steve Sheinkin

Bomb is being talked up in many circles as perhaps the premiere nonfiction title of the year. Jonathan Hunt over at Heavy Medal has been a great champion of it, and a lot of other people agree with him.

Frankly, upon reading it, it's easy to see why. The fugue-like narrative braids three different story threads -- the American efforts to build the atomic bomb, the efforts by the Soviets to steal the designs, and the Allied attempts to keep the Germans from completing a bomb of their own -- and does so without sacrificing clarity or cohesion. It's a magnificent achievement, and one well worth praising.

A result of the narrative dexterity is that the book demands the reader's attention. I'm not the world's biggest WWII buff, but I still found that I couldn't stop reading until I'd finished Bomb. To me, that ability to draw in a reader who isn't a devotee of the topic is a hallmark of the best literary nonfiction. It's especially noteworthy that the book remains as intriguing when Robert Oppenheimer is brooding in his laboratory as it does during the commando raid on the heavy water plant in Norway. Sheinkin knows how to write action sequences, but he isn't dependent on them to keep the reader's interest -- an especially valuable skill in nonfiction, where one can't simply create an action sequence whenever one wants.

I had two possible issues with the book. One, which Nina Lindsay has covered in detail, is that, although Bomb is seriously well-researched, it's also awkwardly footnoted, and contains details that make one wonder whether they were actually present in the source material. The second is that, after reading it, I'm unsure as to how well it really fits into the Newbery age range. At best, it's for the very upper end of that range, but I think it probably slots more comfortably into the YA section. It's worth noting that Sheinkin's previous book, The Notorious Benedict Arnold, won the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults, and I think that the discussions for that award -- or even for the Printz -- might be a more appropriate place for Bomb to be considered.

Regardless, however, Bomb is an excellent book, and well worth reading. I'm curious to see if the Newbery committee decides to give it some love.

Published in September by Flash Point / Roaring Brook

Friday, November 16, 2012

2013 Second Takes: The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate

There's something magical about a book with an excellent voice, and I'm not sure I've read a book this year with a better one than The One and Only Ivan. The prose is spare and terse, but populated with arresting similes and unusual turns of phrase. Ivan, a gorilla trapped in the world's most depressing mall circus, is the narrator, and he's both elegaic and flatly sarcastic, a true wordsmith, but one who is incapable of verbally communicating with the humans in the story. It's a voice full of sublimated tension, which perfectly mirrors the narrative.

It's possible to criticize the events leading up to the book's climax as being unrealistic, or to argue that the narrative moves awfully fast at that point. But I didn't feel like one was meant to take The One and Only Ivan as a fully true-to-life tale, even if its hero is based on a real gorilla -- with its animals who talk to each other and plan to save one another, it's got a certain Charlotte's Web vibe to it. As such, I felt like the narrative played by the rules it had laid out for itself.

Rachael really liked this one, and I have to agree with her. I don't know if I prefer The One and Only Ivan to Breathing Room or Wooden Bones, but it certainly makes my Top Five of the year, at least to this point. It's on our Mock Newbery list, and I really look forward to seeing what people have to say about it at the event.

Housekeeping: The Ones We're About to Mock

We weren't going to publish this until Monday, so we're a bit ahead of the game, but Sam and I have settled on a final reading list for the Maryland Mock Newbery (to take place on January 14 at the Caroline County Public Library - register at the Maryland Library Association website, email any questions to Rachael, etc., etc.)!

For those who wish to mock with us, please run out and try to get your grubby hands on the following titles:

  1. Liar and Spy, by Rebecca Stead
  2. Mr. and Mrs. Bunny - Detectives Extraordinaire! by Polly Horvath
  3. Splendors and Glooms, by Laura Amy Schlitz
  4. The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate
  5. We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children's March, by Cynthia Levinson 
Why these five? Well, we took a couple of factors into account.

1. None of these books were published later than August. We know it can be difficult to find copies of books published later in the year, so no Twelve Kinds of Ice for us.

2. We wanted an assortment of titles that will generate the liveliest, most thoughtful discussion possible, so we chose books that represent humor and seriousness, fiction and nonfiction, and both ends of the Newbery age range.

We had to leave a lot of great titles by the wayside for various reasons. We know Wonder is at the top of many people's lists. We like it too, but both of us feel that the five titles above are even better. Hey, it's a strong year.

Conversely, these five titles do not represent the definitive Top Five of the year for either Sam or me (maybe we'll post those lists in January). We had to compromise on a couple of things in order to provide for the best possible discussion. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

2013 Second Takes: No Crystal Stair, by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

Well, Sam was the lone critical voice crying in the wilderness on this one, and I'm afraid he's going to remain that way. I agree with the rest of the universe that this is a very good book. Here's why!

Stylistically and structurally, it appeals to my tastes as a reader. I love ensemble casts and I love narratives with multiple voices. I feel that multiple perspectives, however fragmented, tell me more about a subject than a single viewpoint does.

Personal tastes aside though, I think this approach is a particularly effective one for the subject matter. Micheaux lived his life in public. He crossed paths with hundreds of people daily, and I think the multiple voices give a sense of the scope of his influence. At the same time, the man seems to have been something of an enigma, and the way Nelson uses these fictional fragments to piece together his identity acknowledges that as well. It feels almost like literary Cubism, different facets of Micheaux emerging depending on the angle from which he is viewed.

Sam also wrote that "It also seemed to me that a child reading the book would have a hard time following what was going on without some kind of encyclopedia or timeline of the Civil Rights Movement, as much of the background information felt overly elided." I'm with him on that one, but I don't think it's a flaw in the novel. I think that complexity does place it outside the Newbery range, though. In terms of reading level, it's not inaccessible to a middle school reader, but I think a high school reader is more likely to come in with the requisite background knowledge.

So, no Newbery love from me, but I think the starred reviews and awards are well-deserved.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

2013 Second Takes: Moonbird, by Phillip Hoose

Sam is very picky about his nonfiction - specifically about whether it has that ineffable spark that elevates it to literature. He thinks very highly of Moonbird - highly enough that he used the big L word (no, not that one). I'm not sure I agree.

I see where Sam is coming from in terms of Hoose bringing the personal into nonfiction. The best nature writing - some of the best literary nonfiction in general - employs that technique, but it doesn't often make its way into children's books. When's the last time you read a juvenile informational book that used the first person singular outside of the author's note? Hoose does set himself apart by weaving his own experiences into the story of B95 and the other red knots.

Does he do it in the most distinguished way, though? I don't think so. Stylistically, this book falls on the "good" side of the good/great divide. The settings are described vividly, the organization is effective, the profiles of people working in the field add texture... but none of it really thrilled me. I wasn't captivated by  B95's plot arc in the way I was while reading about the plight of the Titanic and the quiet triumphs of Temple Grandin.

And what about character? Hoose does an excellent job of turning an unassuming little shorebird, B95, into a literary hero, and thus giving the reader a point of interest to follow through the book. But how does B95 compare, as a character, with Mr. and Mrs. Bunny? With Parsefall and Lizzie? With Georges and Safer? Not very well, I would argue.

Sorry, Moonbird. If you're still alive, I hope you're not crying little Patagonian birdy tears of literary unworthiness all over the restinga. You're still the star of a very good book.  

Friday, November 9, 2012

2013 Second Takes: Breathing Room, by Marsha Hayles

Book buzz is a capricious thing. A book gets a starred review or two, a word from the right blogger, and suddenly it's the It Girl of Publishing Year 2013. Last year it was Okay for Now. This year it's Wonder. Sometimes they show up in the Newbery pantheon (oh lovely When You Reach Me), but sometimes the committee looks further afield (Moon Over what?). If this year's committee has been casting about for neglected titles (as well they should be), Breathing Room may be up for discussion.

Sam gave it a rave review, and Kirkus and Horn Book reviewed it quite favorably as well, but no one else seems to be talking about it. Personally, I don't think it's gold medal material, especially in such a strong year, but I think it's at least as good as Three Times Lucky and better than Summer of the Gypsy Moths. The writing is quietly elegant, and the story unfolds gracefully, holding my attention even as it (necessarily) lacks action. The sanatorium setting is vividly portrayed. The conflicts are all interior ones, but Evvy's development as a character is still believable and poignant.

There are flaws, of course. In a Goodreads review, one of my friends points out that some of the characters feel stock (the saintly sick girl, the rebellious sick girl, the young nice nurse, the old mean nurse, etc.). That's a fair critique, though I think they are more fleshed-out by the end. And there is the question of age level - Evvy is thirteen, and the coming-of-age narrative is pretty clearly YA - but it still falls within the Newbery range.

In any case, whether or not the committee has taken up its cause, this is a book worth noticing (if nothing else, it will fill that huge "Tuberculosis Sanatorium Fiction" gap in your collection).

Thursday, November 8, 2012

2013 Second Takes: Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, by Deborah Hopkinson

I was six years old when they found the wreckage of the Titanic, and though at that point I'd never heard of the ship, I still have distinct memories of watching the National Geographic special about it. Something about the eerie images of railings covered in cascading rust and staircases buried beneath an unthinkable amount of water struck a chord in my mind.

Titanic: Voices from the Disaster has something of the same feeling to it. It's told in straight chronological order, and as the various characters' stories show the impending catastrophe, it just gets creepier and creepier. Like Rachael said in her review, even though I knew perfectly well how the book would end, I still had a feeling of suspense, hoping that it would turn out differently. It's this tone, this sense of impending dread, that I think is the book's most distinguished feature.

I did have some of the same concerns Rachael had regarding the book's very high number of characters. I had some trouble keeping track of them all, and even though the book has a "People in this Book" section in its extensive back matter, it didn't actually include everyone discussed in its pages. (I really wanted to know more about Frederick Fleet, the lookout who first spotted the fateful iceberg.)

One of the biggest challenges in talking about books in a Newbery context is trying to separate the very good from the great. I think Titanic falls into the former category. It's solid through and through, but it doesn't quite have the near-mysticism of Moonbird, or the poetry of Hope and Tears. You should buy this book for your collection, read it, booktalk it, and recommend it, no question about it -- I just don't think it quite reaches the heights of this year's very best nonfiction titles.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

2013 Second Takes: Wonder, by R.J. Palacio

Wonder does what it does well skillfully enough to make nearly any reader stop and take notice. It's a "problem novel" -- maybe even a "message novel" -- that talks about kindness and acceptance and features a severely disfigured child as its central personality, but which manages to keep most of the characters from seeming like puppets or authorial constructs. The excellence of its characterization, as well as the fact that its anti-bullying theme is more than a little timely, seems to be why so many people keep coming back to Wonder as a serious Newbery contender.

I have to give credit where credit is due, and Wonder may feature some of the best "delineation of characters" of any Newbery-eligible book this year. However, it seems to me to have serious structural weaknesses -- serious enough to remove it from awards contention for me.

The book is told from six different perspectives, which gives the reader the chance to see that each person in the story has their own challenges and struggles. However, one of the narrators -- Justin, the boyfriend of the protagonist's sister -- seems much less integrated into the story than the other five. His section is used for an item of plot advancement, but it seems to me to be largely extraneous, moving the focus of the story too far away from its center.

(As a quibble, Justin is a musician whose main interest is in zydeco, which makes it really odd that his instrument is a hardanger fiddle, a Norwegian folk instrument that isn't used in that style. It also seems like he would know that there's no such thing as "a flatted third on a major chord," since that's just a minor chord.)

More problematic, however, is the fact that, in a book that makes room for so many narrators, Julian, the main antagonist, doesn't get a chance to tell his story. One of the primary thrusts of Wonder is that everyone is struggling with some challenge, and setting a character up as a villain and then denying him a voice dramatically undercuts that. Even if Julian is wrong -- and there's not really any question about that -- he's still a person, and his interactions with his dominating, shrewish mother indicate a possible source of his problems. He's not some abstraction of evil created in a vacuum, and the absence of his voice looms large.

To me, this last point is a fatal flaw. It's so damaging to the theme of the book that I can't overlook it, and I can't support Wonder as a Medalist or as an Honor book. I think R.J. Palacio is an author to watch, and that the book has real merits -- I just feel that the structural and thematic weaknesses take it off of the level of "distinguished contribution to American literature for children."

Friday, October 26, 2012

Individually distinct.

"Any work of art which is not a beginning, an invention, a discovery is of little worth. The very name Troubadour means a 'finder,' one who discovers." -Ezra Pound

According to the Newbery Medal terms and criteria,

“Distinguished” is defined as:
• Marked by eminence and distinction; noted for significant achievement.
• Marked by excellence in quality.
• Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence.
• Individually distinct.
 I started thinking about that last definition after writing my most recent post. Which are the individually distinct titles of the year - the ones that aren't Another Folksy Missing Mom Book or Another Victorian Thriller? The titles that are "making it new," as Pound exhorted?
  • Mr. and Mrs. Bunny. Yes, it falls firmly within a tradition of tongue-in-cheek nonsense, following in the slightly unstable footsteps of Norton Juster and Daniel Pinkwater. But it's not quite like anything else, is it? After all, it's translated from the Rabbit. 
  • Starry River of the Sky. As I noted, it's not really like anything else, except for its companion book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. Nothing else that I can think of is both folklore and meta-folklore in quite the same way. 
  • The One and Only Ivan. Children's lit is full of animal rescue stories, of course, but I can't think of one that resembles this one in tone and style - that odd, melancholy hybrid of poetry and prose that makes Ivan's voice so memorable. 
And then there are the ones that Sam has read, and I haven't yet:
  • No Crystal Stair. There are other "documentary novels," but not many, as several people have pointed out in their reviews. 
  • What Came from the Stars. It doesn't sound like it succeeds, but it was at least trying to do something new in its blend of science fiction and realism. 
Of course, being individually distinct is not, in itself, enough to win the Medal, but I always give extra points to authors who are clearly taking a risk. There's also an argument to be made that doing a really, really effective reinterpretation of an old genre/style/plot can be just as effective, but that's another post.

For now, what do you think? What titles are we missing here?   

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

2013 Second Takes: Three Times Lucky, by Sheila Turnage

Recently, Sam and I were talking about music, and which genres  we like enough to tolerate mediocrity. For him, it's Euro girl pop - he loves Girls Aloud and Kate Ryan, but he'll listen to any pale imitation thereof. For me, I can tolerate just about any run-of-the-mill world music darkwave, though Dead Can Dance will always be tops. Conversely, we each enjoy the best examples of each other's favorite genres, but the imitators leave us cold.

Does that make sense? Good. Because I think it comes into play in literature as well.

Jonathan Hunt described Three Times Lucky as part of the "Spunky/Feisty/Charming Heroine with a Southern/Country/Folksy Voice with a Dead/Missing/Absent Mother genre."  Y'all, that is a genre that leaves me cold as a li'l ole' glass of sweet tea under a live oak on a hot summer's day. I love Because of Winn-Dixie because it is a brilliant and beautiful book, but I doubt that I could name a lesser member of the genre that I can even tolerate. I prefer my Southern fiction sad and dreamy, like Missing May.

And yet, The Spindlers (a solid but undazzling example of the Girl Travels to Underground Fantasy World, Meets Weird Inhabitants, and Saves the Day genre*) is one of my favorite books of the year.  

This is all to say that I am not the right reader for Three Times Lucky. The characters, voice, and tone all made my eyeballs want to explode. That being said, it's a perfectly solid book. I agree with Monica Edinger that Dale's family is particularly well-drawn. The setting is well-realized (though I'd rather go hungry than eat PBJ and Mountain Dew for breakfast, those kinds of details do set a good scene). The plotting is pretty good, if a bit meandering. 

Still, even if I put on my eyeglasses of objectivity, I don't see anything here that elevates it to Newbery status. Some people are saying it's honor-worthy, but I disagree. I think it'll just hang around in the crowd of perfectly good, workaday, 2012 middle grade novels. Like The Spindlers.

*A genre Sam loathes, by the way. As he told me after I read him the first few pages of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, he can't deal with any book that makes use of the phrase "ever so." Frightfully short-sighted of him.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

2013 Contenders: We've Got a Job, by Cynthia Levinson

We've Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children's March does an excellent job of capturing a critical time and place in American history. It does this by choosing to focus on four individual children who participated in the marches, intercutting their stories with the larger narrative of the Civil Rights movement in general, and the city of Birmingham's struggles in particular.

Cynthia Levinson is a respected author of nonfiction articles, but this is her first book. Add her to the list of new authors to watch -- her organizational ability is superb, and her prose is clean and vigorous. Based on We've Got a Job, she has a real talent for showing how the past impacts the present, which is one of the hardest challenges of writing nonfiction.

As we've mentioned previously in this space, this year has seen the publication of a lot of Civil Rights-themed books. Of the nonfiction titles, We've Got a Job is probably the best -- I'd place it above Little Rock Girl 1957, as well as Abraham Lincoln & Frederick Douglass, which are the two others that have seen the most discussion. It does the best job, not just of telling its story, but of explaining why the story matters to children in 2012 and beyond.

Is it the best nonfiction title of the year? I wouldn't go that far, I don't think. I still feel that Moonbird is the one that I'd pick for that honor, and given the competition, I don't quite feel the need to insert We've Got a Job into the semi-final reading list for our blog. But this is a book every library should own, and a valuable contribution to children's history.

Published in February by Peachtree Publishers

Thursday, October 11, 2012

2013 Second Takes: Crow, by Barbara Wright

Crow is a singularly effective piece of historical fiction. It both captures and transcends the time and place it describes, and I think structure and pacing are key to its effectiveness.

It begins with a portent - "The buzzard knew." From there, though, it moves on to paint an episodic, leisurely portrait of a way of life that seems idyllic compared to what is to come. Moses's concerns, for the most part, are the concerns of any sixth grade boy: will he get a bicycle? Will he lose his best friend? Who's hiding the treasures near the swimming hole? As Wright takes her time setting the scene, the reader gets a vivid sense of place and of character.

Throughout the first half of the book, though, there is a trickle of race-related trouble - the slogan contest, the accidentally stolen bicycle - which gradually builds, becoming a deluge at the rally in Fayetteville. From there, the pace picks up and we are rushed from one horrific event to the next, culminating in the destruction of everything Moses and his family value. This second half would not be nearly as effective without the hopefulness of the beginning chapters, and the transition between the two is accomplished seamlessly.

I'm not sure where structure fits within the Newbery criteria, because I don't think it's plot, exactly. It's some gray area between plot and style, and possibly presentation of information. I do feel confident in saying, though, that Crow features distinguished characters and settings, and those are key to its emotional impact. The destruction of black Wilmington means something to us because Wright has shown us exactly what is being lost.

If I have a complaint about the book, it's that Moses's presence at every one of the historical events felt a bit forced - like a You Are There! tour of the Wilmington race riots. I think that's a common pitfall of historical fiction.

Sam liked a lot as well, and I'll be curious to hear how he thinks it compares to The Lions of Little Rock as a novel focused on race and civil rights.

2013 Second Takes: Mr. and Mrs. Bunny - Detectives Extraordinaire!, by Polly Horvath

It's really, really hard to describe Mr. and Mrs. Bunny - Detectives Extraordinaire! It exists in a nebulous space between Watership Down and MAD Magazine, and if that doesn't sound like a place that's even possible, I probably would have agreed with you before reading it. This is true even though Rachael's initial review of the book gave me as much of a heads-up as it was possible to provide.

And you know what? It's amazing.

Certainly, in terms of the Newbery criteria, Mrs. and Mrs. Bunny truly excels in its characters. From its questionably competent title characters, to the insufferable Mrs. Treaclebunny, to the perennially exasperated Madeline, each personage who appears in the story is impossible to forget. It's similarly exceptional in setting and style.

If you wanted to criticize the book, the place to go might be to the development of plot critereon. Yes, the book has a plot, but it helps not to think too hard about the plausibility of any given event. However, plausibility isn't the point of the book, and it would require a superlative resistance to Horvath's manic charm in order to complain too loudly on that point.

Mrs. and Mrs. Bunny is a weird, weird book, and it might be one that's not all that easy to build consensus around, especially given how notoriously hard it is to generate agreement on humor. But at the same time, it has some of the same magic that's made novels such as The Phantom Tollbooth and Sideways Stories from Wayside School lasting classics. I need to go through the rest of our semifinal list to see exactly where Mr. and Mrs. Bunny places in my final list, but it's certainly a strong and worthy contender, and a book that I'll probably buy for my daughter for Christmas.

If you have any other thoughts, please feel free to share them in the comments!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Your passport to revelry!

We interrupt this blog to report the publication of a new Cat Valente book, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There.

Doesn't sound like it stands alone, so not a Newbery contender, but it is a highly anticipated book. By me.

(Will you like it? Ask yourself, "how do I feel about that there eleven word title?" You will have your answer.)

Semi-Final Reading List: Sam Edition

It's hard for me to believe we're already at this point in the year -- and that we had almost 50 books to choose from for our shortlist. There's a couple more that we may look at when we have a chance (Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous Weapon, by Steve Sheinkin, and Twelve Kinds of Ice, by Ellen Obed come to mind), but for the most part, we're on to the Taking A Closer Look section.

Rachael has already explained the rules, so here's the list of four that she assigned me:

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny - Detectives Extraordinaire!, by Polly Horvath
The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate
Splendors and Glooms, by Laura Amy Schlitz
Wonder, by R.J. Palacio

To these, I added:

The Lions of Little Rock, by Kristin Levine
Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, by Deborah Hopkinson

All systems are go! Forward full speed!

Semi-Final Reading List: Rachael Edition

We have now reached that troublesome point in the year when it's time to start narrowing down our choices. To that end, Sam and I have each decided to "nominate" four books for the other party to read. Sam has tasked me with reading: 

Crow, by Barbara Wright
Breathing Room, by Marsha Hayles
Liar & Spy, by Rebecca Stead
Moonbird, by Phillip Hoose

Then we each chose two additional books from the other person's reading list, so I will also be reading: 

No Crystal Stair, by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
Three Times Lucky, by Sheila Turnage 

Sometime in November, when we've each read and discussed all twelve of these books, we will announce the final reading list of five books for the Maryland Mock Newbery (in Denton on January 14 - save the date!). If any of you Marylanders would like to get a head start, you can go on the assumption that the final list will be taken from among these twelve books (the six above, plus the six titles Sam is about to reveal).

And.... go!

Friday, September 28, 2012

2013 Contenders: Crow, by Barbara Wright

The Wilmington Insurrection of 1898 is one of the lowest points in American history. It remains the only successful coup d'etat in the United States, as a group of white supremacists overthrew the democratically elected mayor and town council and installed their own local government. The local black-owned printing press was destroyed by a mob, many blacks were killed, and thousands more were driven from town. Appeals to President William McKinley and the federal government for justice were met with stone-cold silence. It would be sixty years -- sixty years! -- before anything like a restoration of black civil rights took place.

Crow follows Moses Thomas, a black youth on the cusp of adolescence, through this time period. Moses' father is an employee of the Daily Record, and a prominent leader in the community, while his mother works as a housemaid for a white family, and his grandmother takes in wash and ironing. As the Insurrection unfolds, Moses' world begins to unravel, and he learns firsthand how cruel life can be -- as well as the reality of bright spots amidst the gloom.

This is not a happy novel. Everything is not magically made right at the end -- understandably, since it spans less than two years, rather than the better part of a century. But the prose soars, and Moses emerges as an indomitable character, one who understands that ideas of justice and truth will prevail, in his own personal life, if not always in the larger community. It's a hard book, but somehow a beautiful one.

I've read a lot of books this year that touch on themes of Civil Rights and race relations, including No Crystal StairAbraham Lincoln & Frederick DouglassGlory Be, and Little Rock Girl 1957. But of them, I think Crow is the best. It's beautifully-written and harrowing, a novel that doesn't shy away from the reality of evil, but at the same time provides characters with warmth, depth, and even joy, no matter how bleak the circumstances become. I highly, highly recommend this book, and I imagine we'll be discussing it further as we start to focus in on our shortlist.

Published in January by Random House.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

2013 Contenders: Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, by Deborah Hopkinson

I don't have any particular interest in the Titanic disaster, but I found this book riveting. It reminds me of last year's Amelia Lost, in that you know perfectly well how it's going to end, but you're still on the edge of your seat. I really, really wanted them to find more lifeboats, you know?

Hopkinson achieves this effect through her masterful use of primary sources. As the title indicates, much of the text consists of eyewitness accounts from aboard the ill-fated ship. The structure is mainly chronological, with a short detour in the second chapter to describe the physical layout of the Titanic. At each phase of the journey, we follow the viewpoints of a set of passengers and crew members that includes emigrant families, socialites, children, officers, a stewardess, and a radio operator. As the mishaps and poor decisions start to mount, the reader observes their effects from every angle. At the moment of impact, we are privy to both the lighthearted joking in the first class smoking room and the panic of third class passengers as seawater begins to seep into their cabins. All of this is presented in crisp, clear third-person prose that never turns melodramatic or maudlin.

Well-placed photographs enhance the reading experience, as do telegrams, maps, and ephemera such as a first class dining menu. Sidebars are also judicially placed, adding depth to the account without interrupting the flow of the text. The back matter is truly impressive, comprising everything from a compendium of survivor letters to a table that reexamines the lifeboat launch sequence.

I have only one real complaint. The book's great strength is also its weakness: with so many characters, I kept forgetting who was who and having to flip back to the first couple of chapters. Their individual fates are recounted in a "People in this Book" section in the back, but a brief list of dramatis personae near the table of contents would have been handy.

Where does it fall in terms of Newbery criteria? In the area of presentation of information, it beats anything I've read this year, though I haven't read widely in nonfiction. I think it also excels in plot and character, and possibly style too. Another excellent 2012 title to add to the pile!

Published in April through Scholastic Press 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The wisdom of hindsight.

One thing that's difficult for account for in a Mock Newbery - and that is also incredibly frustrating to me as a reviewer on deadline for SLJ - is the way time has a sneaky way of tempering one's critical stance. I'm always glad when I can read books early in the year and then revisit them later on, because my opinion has often changed in surprising ways. Cases in point:

1. Love-love-loved Wonder when I read it, but as the emotional high has faded, the book's flaws have emerged more insistently.

2. Liked Mr. and Mrs. Bunny - Detectives Extraordinaire! just fine on initial reading, but in the last few months it has really grown on me. I keep looking back and thinking, man, that Polly Horvath is really something. (A view shared, I might add, by Jack Gantos: when he came to visit our libraries, that was the only 2012 book he specifically mentioned liking.)

And there are others that have shifted in my esteem - some falling off my Newbery radar entirely, and some creeping steadily towards my personal shortlist.

Maybe this is more of a problem for me than most people. I'll be the first to admit that I am a passionate and capricious reader - tendencies that I try to temper with good, solid, critical skills, but that still get the better of me sometimes.

If I end up on the Real Live Newbery Committee, I'll be interested to see how this plays out. I've even remarked to Sam that I almost wish we gave the award out in June instead of January, so that the committee could have time to let the initial buzz and fervor around certain titles fade away. But maybe they're really good at sequestering themselves from all of that (Moon Over Manifest, anyone?), and I imagine that the discussion, in itself, works to temper overly feverish devotion. 

Here's hoping!

2013 Contenders: What Came From the Stars, by Gary D. Schmidt

What Came From the Stars opens in the middle of an epic fantasy conflict, dropping the reader square into an alien, unfamiliar world with zero explanation. It's not particularly easy to follow, but it's clear that there is a group of people called the Valorim, that they're under siege, and that they're losing badly. Before their loss is complete, one of them forges a chain, and imbues it with the Art of the Valorim before sending it off on a journey through space. As it happens, the chain finally alights in the lunchbox of one Tommy Pepper, a sixth-grader in Plymouth, Massachussets.

Tommy is having a lot of problems. His mother has recently died in a car accident, a tragedy for which Tommy blames himself. A greedy real estate developer is angling for his family's home. And his younger sister, Patty, has stopped speaking entirely, communicating only in looks and gestures.

Once Tommy puts the chain on, strange things begin happening. Immediately, he has magical artistic talents. He says words in an unknown language, and begins to confuse his own life and world with that of the Valorim. Bizarre events begin taking place around him, starting relatively benign, but becoming increasingly malevolent. It becomes clear that someone from the other world is very interested in getting the Art back, and they're willing to do anything to obtain it.

As a plot summary, it sounds like it could be interesting indeed. But the execution is terribly muddled, and it simply doesn't cohere in a way that would make the book successful.

Two of the biggest problems were the same ones that bothered me so much about Okay for Now, Schmidt's much-discussed book from last year. One is that the central idea, that art is tremendously powerful, is compressed into a crashingly obvious metaphor -- the MacGuffin is called "the Art," and the discussions about it between the characters read more like philosophical conversations than actual dialogue. The second is that the book is jam-packed with subplot after subplot, only some of which are given adequate time, but all of which are resolved in an unsettlingly upbeat ending.

There are other issues, which I can't discuss without spoilers, so don't read on if you're averse to such things. The structure of the book is confusing to the point of completely frustrating the reader. Although the epilogue(s) help somewhat, it's terribly difficult to figure out what exactly is going on in the fantasy-world sections. It's a deliberate technique, one that does perhaps give the reader a feel for what Tommy may be experiencing, but it errs on the side of being too obtuse. This is especially true once the plot crosses over into the real world. There's a weapon, for instance, called an orlu. Tommy fights with it at one point, and several other people are around to see it. Yet it's never described, other than a statement that it's worn at the shoulder, and I still don't have any idea what it might be.

I also don't understand what's motivating Tommy at times. The plot requires the presence of a creature from the other world, an O'Mondim (which, as these things go, sounds to me less like a monster, and more like a particularly stout brand of Irish ale). Tommy makes one out of sand and more or less accidentally brings it to life, but there seems to be no reason, conscious or otherwise, for him to do it. It has to do with the Art, but how exactly the Art functions seems unclear as well. Why does Tommy forget nearly everything that's happened after the Art returns to the other world? And why, for that matter, does everyone else? And if everyone else has forgotten what's happened, how does Alice Winslow recall enough to write the glossary at the end?

Honestly, I kind of wanted the whole book to turn out to be a sort of poltergeist thing, in which the stress and trauma that Tommy has experienced start manifesting themselves in unusual and unpleasant ways. However, the book doesn't really give the reader the option of reading it that way, as there are physical artifacts from the other world that remain through the ending. You could read it as a metaphor, I guess, but I don't think it holds together enough to really make that practical.

As you may have guessed, I'm not among them, but Gary D. Schmidt has an intensely loyal and devoted following. I don't think even they are going to get behind What Came From the Stars enough to push it to any of the ALA awards, however. It's an interesting idea, but unfortunately, the novel itself is fatally flawed.

Published by Clarion / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and out now.

Friday, September 7, 2012

2013 Contenders: Breathing Room, by Marsha Hayles

Until 1946, when trials with streptomycin began, there was no effective treatment for tuberculosis. None. If you came down with the disease, the best you could do was go to a sanatorium and hope that fresh air and bed rest would improve your symptoms. It wasn't much of a hope -- some records show that half of all patients who entered a sanatorium were dead in five years -- but it was the only hope available.

Adults came seeking a cure, but children came too -- children like thirteen-year-old Evvy Hoffmeister, the narrator of Breathing Room. Separated from her (uninfected) twin brother and the rest of her family, struggling for her health, and subject to the mind-numbing tedium of the Loon Lake Sanatorium's daily routine, Evvy has to try and be brave in deeply dispiriting circumstances.

The novel infuses small scenes and brief moments with pathos and significance. Because so much of what Evvy and the other girls at Loon Lake have to endure is unbearably banal -- lying motionless in bed, not being allowed to talk, having no distractions at all from the white walls and the thoughts in one's head -- even the slightest change is exciting and meaningful. The way that the relationships between Evvy and her roommates grow and develop is beautifully handled with almost no excess words.

Breathing Room is not an easy book. It's unsparing in its depictions of the disease, indignity, and death that take place inside the sanatorium. It has precious little action, and a plot that doesn't lend itself neatly to a summary. When one of the characters dies, the others try to figure out why it happened, but their awkward, overdramatic explanations simply point out that the disease does whatever it wants, inscrutably and unstoppably. It's a quiet book, but a challenging one.

But it rewards those challenges. It's of high literary quality, particularly when it comes to its characters, its setting, and its themes. It's a masterful meditation on a time, a place, and a group of people that history has largely forgotten -- one that both captures their lives and universalizes their experiences, in the tradition of Willa Cather or Scott O'Dell.

With the possible exception of Wooden BonesBreathing Room is my favorite book of the year. I've heard little buzz about it, and I wouldn't dare predict it as the Newbery winner. But I do predict that I will be talking it up to anyone who will listen.

Published by Henry Holt / Macmillan, and out now.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

2013 Contenders: Freaky Fast Frankie Joe, by Lutricia Clifton

When Frankie Joe's mother is sent to jail, he has to leave behind his friends at the trailer park in Laredo, Texas, and move to northern Illinois with a father, stepmother, and four half-brothers that he's never met. This doesn't sit well with Frankie Joe, and he immediately begins making plans for his escape -- plans that come to include earning money through his own business, Freaky Fast Frankie Joe's Delivery Service.

I tend to expect "new kid comes to a small, quirky town" books to have a female protagonist, so Frankie Joe was something of a breath of fresh air to me. His voice, that of a twelve-year-old who's been entirely uprooted, was my favorite thing about the book. He's a living, three-dimensional character, one whose struggles and challenges became real as I turned the pages.

The ending is the book's weak point -- it's brief and somewhat rushed, and didn't seem to me to fully address the issues that had been present only three pages earlier. Indeed, the writing as a whole was broader and less nuanced than I tend to prefer, with the dialogue being a bit exaggerated and the plot turns being overly telegraphed, though some of that can be explained by the age and personality of the narrator. It still had a bit too much of a storyboard feel to me though.

Freaky Fast Frankie Joe is Lutricia Clifton's first novel, and I think her career bears watching. Between this book, Neversink, Glory Be, and Wonder, it's been a banner year for first-time authors, which is cause for celebration. Freaky Fast Frankie Joe isn't sufficiently distinguished in the Newbery categories to place in this year's awards, but it's certainly a good start.

Published by Holiday House, and out now.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Heavy Medal steps gently out.

It's that time of year again: our big sister Newbery blog, Heavy Medal, has opened for another season.

Looking forward to reading Jonathan and Nina's thoughts on this year's contenders!

For our part, Sam and I are wrapping up the "initial reviews" portion of this year. We plan to start duking it out over individual titles next month. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

2013 Contenders: Hope and Tears: Ellis Island Voices, by Gwenyth Swain

Even though I'm not sure it was the best Newbery contender of its year, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! was an excellent book. Its use of fictional monologues and dialogues to bring to life a historical place and time was effective, and gave encouragement to anyone else who wanted to use drama to talk about history.

I don't know if Gwenyth Swain drew specific inspiration from GM!SL!, but her book, Hope and Tears: Ellis Island Voices, uses a nearly identical format to illuminate the story of America's most famous immigration station. The thirty-odd brief dramatic pieces are told by characters that span the whole recorded history of the island, from a 16th-century Lenni Lenape boy gathering oysters, to a National Park Service worker in the present day. There are also periodic sections of a page or two that provide background information about the island and its story.

I found Hope and Tears to be very good at what it does. In the voices of immigrants, station officials, aid workers, doctors, construction workers, students, and more, it provides a well-rounded picture of the complex history of Ellis Island. And, although it's not a criterion for the Newbery, it should be noted that the book is brilliantly illustrated with a wide variety of historical photographs, which add depth and life to the pages. It's a beautiful book to look at; the designers and the publisher should be proud.

I don't see another GM!SL!-style upset sweeping Hope and Tears to the Newbery this year; I know I've said it before, but there are just too many other amazing books that are competing, and that are equally, or even more distinguished. I do wonder if the Sibert committee will find it of interest. Given the fictionalized voices that make up the bulk of the book, it's not textbook nonfiction, but seeing as how the Sibert has already been awarded to, for instance, We Are the Ship, that may not be an issue. Whatever happens, I hope Hope and Tears finds readers, because it certainly deserves them.

Published by Calkins Creek / Boyds Mills Press, and out now.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

2013 Contenders: Starry River of the Sky, by Grace Lin

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is an excellent book. Grace Lin basically used it to invent a new genre, or at least bring an existing genre to a new audience. Seriously - I've been thinking about this a lot, and I can't think of any other Juvenile Folktale Fantasy novels. There's Adam Gidwitz's work and there's Breadcrumbs, but in both of those cases all of the action takes place within the tales themselves. There are Cat Valente's Orphan's Tales, but those are (very much) for adults. There's American Born Chinese, but that's a graphic novel for teens. I can't name any other children's novelists who are using Lin's intricate structure of tales within tales, all of which eventually converge both thematically and narratively.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon also happened to be published in 2010, the same year that When You Reach Me was the biggest Newbery shoo-in of the millennium so far. Hence, Mountain (or "Dragon and Minli," as my daughter calls it) earned a well-deserved Honor, but no gold medal.

With Starry River of the Sky, Lin continues to refine her fledgling genre. It takes place in the same universe as Mountain, with some of the same characters, but it's very much a companion book and not a sequel. As the novel opens, we are plunged into the midst of a mystery. A boy named Rendi has run away from home, and he finds himself stranded in the remote Village of Clear Sky. The reader initially knows nothing about Rendi or about the village's odd inhabitants, partly because both the boy and the village are trying their best to forget about the past. As in Mountain, though, the only way forward is to go back - to piece together the truth from scattered fragments of Story.

As a storyteller myself, I'm pretty receptive to the idea that we are healed by stories. Preacher, meet choir.

There is a quality of timeless elegance about Grace Lin's prose. It reminds me of a very different series of books - The Penderwicks - in that it is suffused with that ineffable "classic" feel. That's a difficult style to pull off without sounding precious or forced, but Grace Lin accomplishes it quite... gracefully (sorry). In terms of setting and character, it's difficult to compare Starry River of the Sky to other juvenile fiction books, because both of those elements are marked by the stylistic remoteness of of the traditional tale. That's not a critique, but it does make it harder to compare Starry River to something like Liar and Spy. They're just not trying to accomplish the same things. Plot, theme, and the intersection thereof, however, are indubitably distinguished.

I have only two complaints:

1. Not enough dragons.

2. My ARC doesn't have the full-color art that will grace (sorry! again!) the pages of the published book.

Publication in October through Little, Brown.