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.

2013 Contenders: A Black Hole Is Not a Hole, by Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano

It's not the only -- or even the primary -- criterion that I use when evaluating children's books, but I get a special thrill when I see a book and think "You know, I would really have enjoyed this book as a child." A Black Hole Is Not a Hole gave me that feeling, reminding me of the first time I picked up Our Universe or The Cartoon Guide to Physics, a pair of books that loom large in my memories of growing up.

Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano's book does an excellent job of taking a difficult concept and making it accessible for younger readers. Her prose is full of funny turns of phrase ("The plasma rolls and churns like a hyper hurricane of heat, light, sound, and motion."), and she has a way of making even difficult thought experiments easily comprehensible.

The only real issue that I had involves the order in which some of the information is presented. The book starts out using Newtonian physics, and only towards the end introduces relativistic principles. The part where relativity is introduced talks about the relationship between Newtonian and relativistic frameworks, but the initial explanation of Newtonian mechanics doesn't mention that relativity will be coming. The result is that a child reader learns one explanation for what happens in a black hole, only to learn later on in the book that there's another, better explanation. As someone with a lifelong interest, if no post-high school education, in physics, I'm all for teaching both Newtonian mechanics and relativity, but I think talking about one without telling the reader that the other is coming might confuse a child.

That's not a huge point, and the rest of the book is excellent. I don't think it's a serious Newbery contender in the same way that something like Moonbird is -- it's educational and beautiful, but it doesn't transcend its subject like Moonbird does. It is, however, very good, and I'd recommend it to any child with an interest in science or space.

Published by Charlesbridge, and out now.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Winner's Circle: The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin (1979)

The Westing Game is an odd Newbery, one that exists as a kind of anomaly in the world of children's literature. Its genre, a sort of ensemble-cast mystery, bears much more resemblance to certain Agatha Christie novels than to any of its predecessors in juvenile fiction. Similarly, although there have been much-loved children's books since then that have elements of seemingly inscrutable mystery (When You Reach Me, The Puzzling World of Winston Breen) or that tie together huge casts of characters (Harry Potter, Criss-Cross), it's hard for me to think of one that really attempts anything analogous to The Westing Game.

I didn't encounter The Westing Game as a child, though it won the Newbery only a decade or so before the peak of my middle-grade fiction reading years. Reading it as an adult, I found it easier to admire than to like. The plotting is every bit as deft and intricate as its reputation would indicate; I've read precious few books for any age level that were as careful in their construction. But it felt empty somehow; though the characters were well-rounded, I had a very hard time connecting with them emotionally. It seemed like, given that there were sixteen choices, I should have been able to pick someone that I wanted to win the game. And Samuel Westing himself never fully snapped into focus for me; he seemed more like a semi-benevolent Jigsaw -- a plot device, rather than a real character.

Indeed, the tone of the book -- its full-on embrace of a rose-colored American Dream, its sentimental patriotism, its eulogizing of stock-market capitalism -- seems out of step with the post-9/11, Great Recession-scarred world of today. Its hero is the character who eventually becomes a lawyer, an MBA, and, it's hinted, the CEO of a large corporation, and yet never shares the answer to the game with anyone, not even her eventual spouse (who, it should be added, also played the game). I have a feeling that this isn't the facet of the book that most people who look back at it fondly are remembering -- and maybe I'm letting my personal views overly shape my reading of the novel -- but I found its moral center genuinely uncomfortable.

Perhaps too, I'm simply not the reader for this book. As I've mentioned before, I'm in general a character and setting reader rather than a plot reader, and so I'm in less of a place to appreciate the (genuine) merits of The Westing Game than someone else might be. It reached #9 on Betsy Bird's latest top 100 children's books poll, so there is obviously a large cadre of readers who are suitably impressed by Ellen Raskin's novel.

And, with all of that said, The Westing Game certainly wasn't a bad Newbery choice, even though its year was very crowded. The only Honor book was The Great Gilly Hopkins, by Katherine Paterson (#63 on Betsy's last poll) -- which means that the committee couldn't find room for Sideways Stories from Wayside School, by Louis Sachar; Anastasia Krupnik, by Lois Lowry; or A Swiftly Tilting Planet, by Madeline L'Engle. I probably would have chosen Sideways Stories, but I recognize that The Westing Game does what it does very well indeed, even if it wasn't a book for me.

Monday, August 20, 2012

2013 Contenders: The Brightworking, by Paul B. Thompson

A few months ago, Rachael wrote a review of Jennifer A. Nielsen's The False Prince. In it, she discussed the idea that plots -- and fantasy plots in particular -- that are "derivative and predictable" can serve a purpose. They can teach young readers about the foundational tropes and symbols of the genre, and they can create books that move quickly and keep the reader's attention.

Multiply that by 100, and you've got The Brightworking, the new book by Paul B. Thompson, who's probably best known for co-writing a slew of Dragonlance books. The novel tells the story of Mikal, who is "gleaned" from his village in a scene that makes one half expect someone else to Volunteer As Tribute, and then shipped off to serve the Guild of Constant Working (which, I have to say, is one of the best-named organizations I've heard of in a while). While there, he makes a friend named Lyra, is apprenticed to a powerful wizard of questionable morals, and becomes part of a sweeping series of events that promise to have Lasting Consequences For Everyone Involved.

The emphasis here is on action. The plot moves forward as quickly as humanly possible, and though the setting is reasonably vibrant, there's nowhere near the attention to world-building or peripheral characters that a fan of Harry Potter or The Hobbit might desire. However, it's impossible to get bored while reading The Brightworking, and Mikal and Lyra practically fly from one adventure to another. The ending is a bit of a cliffhanger; books two and three are coming soon, to the point that their ISBNs are already printed on the back cover.

The key here is probably to understand that this novel is published by Enslow, who usually puts out high-interest nonfiction series (Rebels of Rock, People to Know TodayWhen Wild Animals Attack!). This book seems designed with reluctant readers in mind, from the conceptual level down to the simple, uncomplicated prose. And for that audience, I think it's remarkably successful.

The Brightworking has a 0% chance of showing up on any ALA awards list this year, and for very valid reasons. However, it's a book that fills a valuable niche -- something simultaneously exciting and safe, something that a kid still learning the joy of reading can hold on to and love.

Published in September by Enslow.

Friday, August 17, 2012

2013 Contenders: Splendors and Glooms, by Laura Amy Schlitz

I've been having the darnedest time figuring out how to review Splendors and Glooms. I first read it back in June, I think. I gave it five stars on Goodreads, mentally filed it away as My Favorite Book So Far This Year, and planned to reread and review it later. I reread it this month - still great.

Here's the thing, though: I'm kind of a fangirl for Laura Amy Schlitz. She is by far my favorite author writing for children right now. I find that it can be difficult, however, to explain her genius to those who are not already on her bandwagon. I firmly believe that A Drowned Maiden's Hair should have won the 2007 Newbery, and I know some people love it as much as I do, but many reviews dismissed it as formulaic.

But. BUT. Therein lies Schlitz's particular talent: she takes what should be formulaic and infuses it with beauty and emotional depth. A Drowned Maiden's Hair follows the plot of a traditional melodrama, but it says True Things about love, family, and home. Similarly, The Night Fairy (another wildly underrated book) contributed a wonderfully fierce, complex character to the overstuffed ranks of fairy lit, and accomplished that within the confines of a book directed at lower elementary readers. Like a formal poet, Schlitz employs the limitations of genre to lend depth and focus to her books.

And so we come to Splendors and Glooms. Typical Victoriana with the addition of magic and marionettes. Poor little rich girl Clara Wintermute is both coddled and stifled by her parents. The long shadow of family tragedy hangs over her household and continues to shape her life. Enter plucky orphans Lizzie Rose and Parsefall, apprentices/slaves to the sinister puppeteer Gaspare Grisini, who lives under a shadow of his own. And then there is the mysterious witch with the cursed opal pendant. The three worlds collide in comic, tragic, sensational ways that make the novel's 400 pages fly by. 

Seen it before? Of course! But not like this. I would argue that Clara, Lizzie Rose, and Parsefall are the most fully realized, complex characters in any middle grade novel published this year. To invert one of the book's tropes, it's as if Schlitz has brought a set of porcelain dolls to life, and they don't always behave in the ways we expect. The secondary characters are delightful as well, especially the comically dramatic actress-cum-landlady and the oily, grasping Grisini.

All of them move within settings so real I have trouble believing that Schlitz is not hiding a time machine somewhere in her Baltimore home. The grubby London streets, the stuffy Wintermute home with its freakish Victorian mourning customs, the crumbling castle by the lake - all are painted in lurid color by Schlitz's richly layered prose. Of course, Schlitz has a gift for envisioning this particular time and place. I recently learned that she wrote the very first Regency romance I read as a teenager - A Gypsy at Almack's. I think it gave me unreasonable expectations for the whole genre.

If there is any complaint to be leveled at Splendors and Glooms, it is that the ending is unreasonably happy. Again, though, that goes along with the genre. Like Oliver Twist, Clara, Lizzie Rose, and Parsefall have been through so much that we can hardly begrudge them their hearts' desires. And I would certainly not begrudge Laura Amy Schlitz another gold medal.

Publication in August through Candlewick Press.

2013 Contenders: No Crystal Stair, by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

It's a problem that I suppose every reviewer -- maybe even every reader -- experiences at some point. What happens when your take on a book is starkly, radically different from the consensus? How does that change the way you approach your discussions of it?

As I read No Crystal Stair, I have to confess that I didn't find it very effective. Vaunda Micheaux Nelson is on the record as saying that she initially conceived of the book as a pure biography of Harlem bookseller Lewis Michaux, but was unable to make it work to her satisfaction, and switched instead to the hybrid "documentary novel." I didn't feel that it was successful either as a documentary or as a novel.

Structurally, it's chopped up into over a hundred seperate sections, none longer than two pages, and most much shorter, each from the point of view of someone in Michaux's story. I found that this strategy kept the book from developing any momentum, or developing any emotional heft. Without a consistent point of view, and without spending much time in any given part of the narrative, the book felt jumpy and fragmented. I thought it blunted the impact of Michaux's story to have him selling books from a cart, threatened with complete failure, and then a few pages later to have him and his bookstore doing well. As a novel, I just didn't think it worked.

But I didn't feel like it worked as a documentary either. Although Nelson's "About the Research" note in the back is helpful in this regard, it was very difficult while reading the book for me to tell what was fiction and what was fact. Michaux seemed like an interesting and important man, but it was hard to tell what I'd learned about Lewis Michaux the historical figure, as opposed to Lewis Michaux the character in a novel. 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.

So, if it were just me, I'd mark it as an interesting but highly flawed book with limited child appeal, maybe file Lewis Michaux as someone to find more information about later, and leave it there. But every other source that I could find rated it much more highly than that. I had trouble finding even a neutral review, and I utterly failed to find one that was negative. It got starred review after starred review in the major trade publications, earned high praise in the children's lit blogs, and won this year's Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction.

That leaves me at the very least questioning my own assessment of the book. If everyone likes No Crystal Stair but me, that seems like it might have more to do with me than with the book itself. And so, in the end, I don't really know what conclusion to draw. I feel less confident in my appraisal of No Crystal Stair than in any other opinion I've posted on this blog.

So, what of its Newbery chances? Well, since the first Boston Globe-Horn Book award was presented in 1967, there's not been much correlation between its winners and the winners of the Newbery; I counted six books that won both, with the most recent being When You Reach Me. It's hard for me to imagine it beating out some of the other serious contenders -- but again, my evaluation may not be the one you want to pay attention to here.

Published by Carolrhoda Lab/Lerner

Thursday, August 16, 2012

2013 Contenders: Wooden Bones, by Scott William Carter

No history of writing for children is complete without a mention of Carlo Collodi's book, The Adventures of Pinocchio. Published in its complete form in 1883 after a serial run, and translated into English in 1892, it's one of the early classics of what we think of today as children's lit, and its iconic characters still hold a special place in popular culture.

It's also extremely dark and violent, especially by today's standards. In fact, the story originally ended with the title character's death by hanging (!), and only a public outcry and the requests of Collodi's editor prompted the writing of the second half of the novel, in which Pinocchio is rescued by the Fairy with Turquoise Hair (or "Blue Fairy," if you only know the Disney version).

Scott William Carter's new novel, Wooden Bones, picks up the story after the more familiar ending, the one in which Pinocchio at last becomes a real boy. However, he sticks with the bleak, almost nightmarish tone that pervades Collodi's original, producing something that in its essence is a genuine middle-grade horror novel -- not the cartoony "scares" of R.L. Stine and his followers, but a truly unsettling book.

In Carter's book, Pinocchio -- now going by the less unwieldy moniker of Pino -- discovers that he has the talent to make wood come to life. Although he tries to use this gift to be helpful, starting by animating a figure he has created to look like Gepetto's dead wife, he instead gets himself and Gepetto run out of town by an angry mob. As the pair flee, they encounter more people, many of whom want to use Pino's gift for their own ends. Additionally, Pino discovers that he seems to be slowly turning back into a puppet himself.

Some of the people that try to take advantage of Pino are simply evil, such as Queen Elendrew. But others are just people who want something -- something that in and of itself isn't even necessarily bad -- so much that they're willing to do anything, anything to get it. Desire can destroy even the best people, as the heartbreaking subplot with the disfigured singer Olivia goes to prove. It's a powerful lesson, one that keeps being repeated in new and more disheartening ways.

The places that Carter describes are breathtaking -- a city high in the trees, a scorched and dying forest filled with wolves, a seaside port town with muddy, cruel streets. The world stretches far beyond the confines of the pages, and not everything we see gets a full explanation. Even when something is explained, as when Gepetto figures out what's happening to Pino at the end of the book, the explanations may or may not be reliable. Indeed, the closest comparison to Wooden Bones might be last year's Breadcrumbs, which also took a classic story in a moody, ambivalent direction, setting it in a world full of inexplicable images and half-seen stories.

Do I think that Wooden Bones is going to win the Newbery? No, I don't. I still think Wonder is the most likely winner, and several other books, including The One and Only Ivan, Three Times Lucky, and Liar & Spy, have a much better outside shot at the medal. But, in my personal opinion, I think Wooden Bones is the book so far that should win the Newbery. It's only 2012 children's fiction title that I've given five stars to on Goodreads as of now, and though I'll reevaluate my position when we get closer to awards time, for the moment, it's the book I'd champion.

Published in August through Simon & Schuster

Friday, August 10, 2012

2013 Contenders: Hunter Moran Saves the Universe, by Patricia Reilly Giff

The idea of children stumbling across a diabolical plan is one that's had special resonance through the years. From Treasure Island to this year's Liar & Spy, children's literature is full of youthful characters who have uncovered -- or at least, believe they have uncovered -- some kind of dastardly plot, something that they must prevent in order to Save The Day.

Hunter Moran is such a child. By piecing together garbled telephone conversations, mysterious notes, and other sundry clues, he and his twin brother Zack have become convinced that the local dentist, Dr. Diglio, is scheming to detonate a bomb and destroy the town. It thus falls to them to stop him, while trying to stay out of trouble at home, keep an eye on their five-year-old brother, Steadman, and help prepare for the yearly festival, Tinwitty Day.

It's certainly a promising setup, and parts of Hunter Moran Saves the Universe are suitably madcap, living up to the idea. I liked Hunter's first-person narration. However -- and this is a criticism I rarely make -- the book simply isn't long enough.

It's barely 125 pages, and yet, in addition to everything else I've mentioned, it shoehorns in three additional Moran siblings, an attempt to hack their dad's computer, an awkward "love interest" subplot, a sketchy greengrocer, Zack's cello career, an annoying dog, a priest with a green thumb, and several other things I've probably forgotten. In order to hit all the points, the book maintains a frenetic pace, skimping on detail, and throwing characters at the reader so quickly that I had difficulty keeping track of them all. Some of the plot threads, such as the twins' mock funeral for Zack's sub-par report card, never really get a resolution at all, and some of those that do rely heavily on Steadman's near-superhuman ability to be seemingly everywhere at once.

I wanted to enjoy Hunter Moran, especially since it's by Patricia Reilly Giff, a two-time Newbery Honor medalist (Lily's Crossing, 1998; Pictures of Hollis Woods, 2003), and a major figure in American children's lit. But I think there's just not enough of it to make it successful, and I would be highly surprised if it were to earn serious consideration from the Newbery committee.

Publication in September through Holiday House.

Monday, August 6, 2012

2013 Contenders: The Great Unexpected, by Sharon Creech

The Great Unexpected is one of those books that defies a plot summary. It's centered around two orphan girls, Naomi Deane and Lizzie Scatterding, who live in the small town of Blackbird Tree, but the story incorporates a vast number of other characters, and reaches far past the town limits. There are plots, and sub-plots, and it's the way that they intertwine that forms the heart of the book.

Indeed, it would probably be 500 pages, rather than 225, if it explained all of the details of each subplot; there is much that remains unsaid. In a gritty, down-to-earth book, this would be irritating, but in the magical realism world of The Great Unexpected, it merely highlights the importance of connections, rather than the details. If we're left with questions about the exact arcs taken by some of the characters as they come together, we're never left to doubt that they have come together, and that that's what actually matters.

That atmosphere, that mood of magic and wonder and community, is remarkably well-executed, and represents I think the book's strongest point. The weakest part is possibly the narrative strategy. Most of the book is told in the first person with Naomi as the narrator, which works very well; she has a strong, distinctive voice. However, it's interspersed with bits of third-person narration, most of which take place in Ireland. I felt like this disrupted the flow of the book, especially given the way those sections are cut. There's no physical narrator, no character who is, for instance, overhearing something, which means that there's no narrative reason within the story for those sections to begin or end in a specific place. Yet they tend to cut out just before some important piece of information is revealed; since the information isn't secret to the people who are talking, and the scene can run as long as the author wants it to, to omit the information is simply to try to create suspense artificially. If suspense is necessary, I believe it's more effective to stay within the point of view of a character who actually doesn't know what's going on -- that way, it's more organic, and less of a trick.

All this maybe makes the book sound weaker than it is. In fact, I genuinely enjoyed it, and I'm not generally predisposed to like books about orphans and small towns and hints of magic. I especially liked the ending, which both provides upbeat resolution and leaves so much open.

Truth be told, I could see the Newbery committee looking favorably on this one; it's so exceptional in the way that it creates and maintains a tone, and it explores themes that have traditionally had a lot of resonance for the selection committees through the years. It wouldn't be my pick, but especially if you value thematic unity over narrative consistency, you might well disagree with me.

Publication in September through Joanna Cotler Books / HarperCollins