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