Thursday, June 21, 2012

2013 Contenders: Summer of the Gypsy Moths, by Sara Pennypacker

Suppose I told you that there was a book out this year in which a pair of 11-year-old girls find their foster parent dead, and then elect to bury her in the backyard and continue on with their lives. Who would you think had written such a book? Jack Gantos? Polly Horvath? Roald Dahl, in a long-lost manuscript only recently rediscovered? What if I told you that it was actually by Sara Pennypacker, the author of Clementine, and that instead of being a black comedy, or a surreal, Daniel Pinkwater-style excursion, its closest tonal comparison was to a Hallmark Original Movie?

If you’re anything like me, your final reply was something like, “Wait…what?” And the single biggest problem with Summer of the Gypsy Moths, the Sara Pennypacker book in question, is that it never gets past that reaction, never finds a way to seem plausible or to allow for the suspension of disbelief.

Part of the issue is that the characters seem much more like a collection of overly precious quirks than like real people. Stella, the narrator and one of the aforementioned 11-year-olds, is obsessed with a newspaper household advice column called Heloise’s Hints; fills in the narratives of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books with sections about cleaning; can sense when something is wrong; and rhapsodizes in her narration like someone auditioning for a part in a Nicolas Sparks movie. Angel, the other 11-year-old, is in foster care because her mother was a singer who died in a car accident, and her father was a fisherman who drowned in an accident because his boat didn’t have enough life jackets; conducts seagulls on the beach into flight; and faithfully watches her dead foster parent’s soap opera so that she can give daily reports over the grave. There was not a single point during the book that I believed in either of them as more than authorial constructs. Kids with disrupted lives can certainly develop odd habits as coping skills, but in real life, those habits rarely look quite so much like literary devices.

But, the more I think about it, the more I think there might not have been any possible way for Summer of the Gypsy Moths to succeed, because however you look at it, it’s still a positive, life-affirming, ostensibly realistic book about a pair of preteens who bury their caretaker in the backyard. The tone and plot are so terribly mismatched that it might not have mattered if the characters were Anne Shirley and Lyra Belacqua, or if it were co-authored by Beverly Cleary and Laura Ingalls Wilder. The problem isn’t simply one of execution, but one that exists on the conceptual level itself.

I don’t think Sara Pennypacker is a bad writer – even in a book as unsuccessful as Summer of the Gypsy Moths, there’s some excellent prose, and she is, after all, still the author of Clementine. But I think the sooner she puts this one in her rear-view mirror, the better, and I don’t believe it is or should be a serious contender for any of the ALA awards.

Published in May 2012 by Balzer + Bray / HarperCollins

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Winner's Circle: The Witch of Blackbird Pond

"No, writing is not lonely. It is a profession crowded with life and sound and color. I feel privileged to have had a share in it." —Elizabeth George Speare*

A couple of chapters into The Witch of Blackbird Pond, I had to flip back to the copyright page and double check that it was actually published in 1958. That's just four years after The Wheel on the School, which, while it has some admirable qualities, can most kindly be described as quaint.  

Witch, on the other hand, with its vivid, immediate language and strong heroine, could easily have been written last year. In the fifties, it must have been a groundbreaking read. Despite the fact that it takes place over three centuries ago, it feels like a harbinger of modernity in middle grade literature. In the next ten years, Island of the Blue Dolphins, A Wrinkle in Time, and From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler would all take their place in the Newbery pantheon. Witch feels much more a part of their world than that of The Wheel on the School and Ginger Pye. 

I suppose you could argue that the focus on "who marries whom" is feministically retrograde, but in this era of Team Jacob/Edward/Peeta/Gale, that hardly stands out as old-fashioned. And realistically, this is historical fiction.  In seventeenth century New England, a girl's choice of husband really did go a long way towards deciding her fate in life. Go Team Nat!

So yes, I'd hand this book to any kid today (and I would probably play up the love triangle plot as well, because frankly, the witch trial was a bit of a letdown after all the foreshadowing). I really like the cover they're using these days too, with rosy-cheeked Kit looking all ready to start some Caribbean-style trouble. Ahead of her time, just like her creator. 

But happily, Elizabeth George Speare is not one of those authors who had to wait for the world to catch up to her talent. She won the Newbery Medal twice, as well as a Newbery Honor, the Scott O'Dell, and, in 1989, the Wilder. Wilder Committee chair Anita Silvey commented on the "vitality and energy, grace of writing, historical accuracy and tremendous feeling for place and character" of Speare's writing. That feeling for place is very much apparent in Witch, where Kit is reluctantly seduced by landscape of Speare's native New England.

Aaaand it was in that very New England that the book was challenged a mere ten years ago. For promoting witchcraft. File under "unclear on the concept."   

Travis Jonker also re-covered the novel earlier this year. He put a bird on it!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

2013 Contenders: Neversink, by Barry Wolverton

One thing I think we can all agree on: puffins are funny. With their awkward walk, missile-shaped bodies, and confrontationally bright beaks, they seem to have been designed by a team of comedians willing to do anything for a laugh.

One thing puffins are not, however, is heroic. Lockley J. Puffin is no exception, but his curiosity and his willingness to speak out against injustice force him further and further into this unwanted role despite his best efforts. His island, Neversink, is being forcibly oppressed by a group of owls, headed by a tyrannical pygmy owl named Rozbell. Most of the puffins and other auks would rather submit than resist, but Lockley, with help from a walrus named Egbert, a hummingbird named Ruby, and the Great Auk himself, is determined to make things right – and protect the safety of Lucy, his mate, and their unborn child.

The world of Neversink is a richly-realized blend of Norse mythology, surreal humor, and Watership Down-style fantasy. Creating a memorable fantasy setting is no mean feat, especially for a debut author, but Barry Wolverton manages it. The prose itself is also marvelous. The scene in which Lockley comes face to face with the sea goddess Sedna, in particular, is truly lovely, reaching a sort of prose poetry that shows up all too infrequently in children’s literature.

I did wonder if the political intrigue and historical in-jokes would be of interest to a juvenile audience, though that was more noticeable at the beginning of the book. And, while Lockley himself is a fully three-dimensional character, not everyone in the book is quite as well-rounded. Rozbell, in particular, is an effective villain, but one without much depth. The setting and the hero, however, largely make up for any such shortcomings.

With the number of excellent books that have already been published so far, I’m not sure you’ll see Neversink in the ALA awards come January. But I’d highly recommend it for any readers with interests in fantasy, animal novels, or mythology.

Published in March through Walden Pond Press / HarperCollins.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Anaheim, Anaheim, oh how you shine!

We've been a bit lean on posts lately, and that state of affairs is likely to continue until July.

On the plus side, we're both going to be in Anaheim for ALA Annual Conference in two weeks. I know some of our fellow kid lit nerds will be there too - if you see us wandering around, please say hello! (And tell us where the good ARCs are. I promise I won't knock down the poor publisher reps in my haste to seize them.)