Monday, March 25, 2013

2014 Contenders: 33 Minutes ...Until Morgan Sturtz kicks my butt, by Todd Hasak-Lowy

In exactly 33 minutes (after social studies and lunch), Morgan Sturtz is going to kick Sam Lewis's butt. Sam knows this because yesterday, in front of several witnesses, Morgan told him, "I am totally going to kick your butt at recess tomorrow." As the minutes tick by, Sam slowly reveals to the reader the events that led up to the threat of butt-kicking, and chronicles the unraveling of his best-friendship with Morgan. Along the way, he keeps up a wry and melancholy commentary on the bleak landscape of middle school.

When I pick up a book with "butt" in the title, I expect a certain kind of book. Captain Underpants. The Day My Butt Went Psycho. In some senses, 33 Minutes delivers as expected. There are food fights, dopy teachers, and all the trappings of schoolhouse slapstick comedy. Just beneath the layer of flying tater tots, though, this is a surprisingly poignant story of lost friendship and adolescent alienation.

The tension between these two tones works primarily due to the strength of Sam's narrative voice.
He's the quintessential middle school outsider - behind his schoolmates physically and far ahead of them intellectually, he is puzzling to his peers and exasperating to many of his teachers. Since his grades and behavior are irreproachable, though, his emotional pain goes unnoticed, especially by his parents. Like many weird kids before him, he puts up a brave front of sarcasm and dry wit.

The other characters vary in complexity. Some of the teachers are caricatures, as are most of the students. We see interesting hints of Morgan's hidden depths, though all through Sam's fairly self-centered lens. Another kid, Chris, the troublemaker behind much of the Sam-Morgan strife, is basically a cipher and a plot device. We see enough of his background to guess at his motivations, but, like Julian in last year's Wonder, he's never allowed to redeem or explain himself.

Setting is disgustingly vivid. The smell of the lunch room is described as "bleach-and-tuna-fish air freshener." Descriptions of the rest of the building are comparably apt. Effectively made me not want to visit a middle school anytime soon.

33 Minutes is a surprisingly strong book, and one that will be an easy sell to reluctant readers. I'm not sure it will show up on the Newbery discussion table, but if it did, I'd have a couple of questions for it. 1. Is Sam's voice too self-aware at the end? In the last chapter, it sounds more like the hindsight of Adult Sam than the foresight of Middle School Sam. 2. Do the cartoons take away from the narrative? They felt unnecessary to me.

Published in January by Aladdin Press. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

2014 Contenders: Gingersnap, by Patricia Reilly Giff

It's 1945, and Jayna's brother Rob has gone off to war in the Pacific. Since he's her only living relative, she's staying with the landlady during his tour of duty. But a mysterious ghost and an old recipe book lead her on a quest that takes her away from upstate New York and into the heart of Brooklyn in a search for family.

It's a winning plot idea, a supernaturally-tinged take on the classic themes of books like Cynthia Voigt's Homecoming. However, the book suffers from a number of the same problems that plagued Giff's previous novel, Hunter Moran Saves the Universe. Primary among them is the fact that the book simply doesn't have the space that it needs to accomplish what it sets out to do. It clocks in at under 150 pages, and that's just not enough room.

Too many plot points simply happen, with little setup, and precious little description. Even the most heartfelt of conversations in the book, around which the entire plot hinges, are unfortunately underdone. This has the secondary effect of making it so that none of the characters other than Jayna really seem alive, or fully three-dimensional. Each of them has a defining characteristic or two, but they don't seem to go deeper than that. And the ending of the book is sapped of its emotional strength by the fact that 1) it too is minimally described, and 2) we haven't really become invested enough with the characters to care. There's also a lack of explanation of some of the supernatural events, which I think is a stylistic choice, but for me at least, it didn't make it atmospheric or clever; instead, I found it maddeningly vague. And, though the book includes plentiful recipes, none of them are actually usable, given that, for instance, quantities of ingredients are either left out altogether or given in nebulous approximations. I know that it's supposed to recreate the feeling of wartime, when many ingredients were heavily rationed or unavailable, but I don't really think it's necessary or successful.

In the end, Gingersnap felt to me like a missed opportunity. I like the set-up, but I think that the execution just isn't solid enough to make it work. Reactions have been mixed; Kirkus and The Children's War, for instance, were positive, but much of the discussion over on Goodreads hasn't been nearly as complimentary. It may well have an audience, but I don't expect to see it reach this year's awards lists.

Published in January by Wendy Lamb / Random House

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Shameless Self-Promotion

Psst. I'm on the ballot for the 2015 Newbery committee, and I sure would appreciate your vote!

(Don't you want to see Sam try to run this blog all by himself next year?)

Friday, March 15, 2013

2014 Contenders: Lincoln's Grave Robbers, by Steve Sheinkin

2012 was a really strong year for juvenile nonfiction, and the cream of the crop was Steve Sheinkin's Bomb: The Race to Build - and Steal- the World's Most Dangerous Weapon. It took a Newbery honor, made the Notables list, and won both the Sibert award and the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction.

All of those awards were well-deserved; it's a magnificent example of literary nonfiction, a symphony of details and plotlines that are all perfectly integrated. It's a book I can easily picture us still discussing in hushed tones in twenty years, and I'm glad it managed to impress so many committees.

This meant that I was really excited to read Sheinkin's newest book, Lincoln's Grave Robbers. The title is a bit lurid, maybe, but it's also accurate -- there actually was a plot to steal Lincoln's corpse, one that made it all the way to the participants having the coffin in their hands before being thwarted. Perhaps because it was, in fact, foiled, it's something of a forgotten incident now, but Sheinkin certainly makes it an interesting one to read about.

However, some of the elements that made Bomb so exceptional don't work as well in Lincoln's Grave Robbers. Bomb blended three separate plots into a unified whole, as seamlessly as a le CarrĂ© novel. Lincoln's Grave Robbers, however, falters when it tries to cover information about the 1876 presidential election, which never feels necessary. It also includes both a prologue (about a counterfeiter not otherwise involved in the book) and an epilogue (about medical corpse theft) that are only tangentially related to the main action; the links feel tenuous, and the book probably would have felt more streamlined without these parts.

Sheinkin does do a good job illustrating what a pervasive, seemingly intractable problem counterfeiting was in the mid-1800s, and he successfully shows that a true master engraver who could create plates for printing fake money was so valuable that people would do almost anything -- even plot to steal Lincoln's body and hold it for ransom -- to spring him from jail and get him back to his nefarious work. The prose is smooth and descriptive as well, just as one would expect from a Sheinkin book.

So, taken as a whole, Lincoln's Grave Robbers is perfectly serviceable, and it might even have more of that coveted "child appeal" than Bomb did. But from a literary standpoint, it's not as well constructed or as tightly written, and I think it's a definite, noticeable comedown for Sheinkin. I'd booktalk it and enjoy it, but I just don't think it's good enough to be a real Newbery contender.

Published in January by Scholastic

Digressions: Reading Out Loud

A Friday digression for you all, as I sit here with my coffee and prepare to do my taxes.

I've been reading Ginger Pye to Ella at night (Winner's Circle entry to come), and I have been pleasantly surprised by what a good read-aloud it is. It's filled with the kind of prose that rolls effortlessly off the tongue; that requires no special theatrics on the part of the speaker to infuse it with energy; that's conversational without being choppy and languid without bogging down in description.

For the life of me, though, I can't pinpoint the exact qualities that make up a good read-aloud. It's unpredictable. There are definitely some excellent books that fail this particular test (reading A Wrinkle in Time aloud was excruciating).

So, dear readers, I was hoping that you might be able to lend me your insights, especially since some of you are classroom teachers and school librarians who have more than one-on-one experience with reading novels aloud. Tell me: in your opinion, what makes a good read-aloud? 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

2014 Contenders: Navigating Early, by Clare Vanderpool

The best characters in children's literature are ones we can believe as people. We read about Ramona Quimby, or Dicey Tillerman, or Bud Caldwell, and we feel like they're living, breathing human beings, people we wouldn't be surprised to meet. This is true even in books that aren't realistic fiction -- although the adventures of Meg O'Keefe, Will Stanton, and Lyra Belacqua may be otherworldly, their personalities are still recognizable and sharply focused. And, maybe most of all, it's true of characters that are quirky, eccentric, or otherwise "different." Anne Shirley, Marcus Heilbroner, and Lucky Trimble are all strikingly, consistently out of step with their surroundings, but they still seem like real people with real hopes, fears, and dreams, people whose actions are inspired from within, rather than imposed on them by the whims of the author.

And that's my number one problem with Navigating Early, Clare Vanderpool's new novel. The book is narrated by Jack Baker, a thirteen-year-old Kansas boy who's been sent to boarding school in Maine after the death of his mother in the mid-1940s, but the real center of the story is Jack's friend Early Auden. Early is a truly strange kid, a mathematical savant who's obsessed with the number pi, turning the digits into an elaborate story about a boy's mythical quest. He also sorts jellybeans to calm down, suffers from some kind of seizures, will only listen to certain records on specific days, obsesses over a dangerous wild animal known as the Great Appalachian Bear, and is a very good boatbuilder. He's also an orphan who lives by himself in the school custodian's workshop and insists that his brother, a soldier who perished in the fighting in France, isn't actually dead.

I was never able to buy Early as a character, rather than an aggregation of literary quirks. It's much the same problem that I had with Stella and Angel in last year's Summer of the Gypsy Moths, and for me, it's enough to sink the book. I need to be able to believe in Early for the novel to work, and I simply couldn't do it.

Setting the characters aside for a minute, there's an awful lot going on in the plot, and to her credit, Vanderpool manages to link all the parts together. However, I wasn't sure how I was meant to interpret the magical realism elements as the story of Pi (no, not this one) and Jack and Early's adventures in the Maine woods intersect -- is there something supernatural going on, or is it just a bizarre set of coincidences, and does it matter? I also felt like the busyness of the plot meant that certain elements got short shrift; I expected the Steeplechase to become a major element, but it ended up as a mere footnote, and I felt like Gunnar's backstory, which got shunted to the sidelines, was one thing too many.

Maybe I'm simply immune to Clare Vanderpool's magic; I wasn't overly enthusiastic about Moon over Manifest either, and that one won the Newbery. Other reviewers, including Travis Jonker at 100 Scope Notes, like Navigating Early better than I do, and it's received several starred reviews, including ones from School Library Journal and Kirkus. But I'm not on board, and I think there are going to be many better options for this year's Newbery.

Published in January by Delacorte / Random House

Monday, March 11, 2013

2014 Contenders: One Came Home, by Amy Timberlake

“People do not give it credence that a 14-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just 14 years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.” -Charles Portis, True Grit

"So it comes to this, I remember thinking on Wednesday, June 7, 1871. The date sticks in my mind because it was the day of my sister's first funeral and I knew it wasn't her last - which is why I left. That's the long and short of it." -Amy Timberlake, One Came Home

It has been an unusually eventful springtime in Placid, Wisconsin. A tremendous flock of passenger pigeons has nested in the woods nearby, bringing business and strangers to town. When the pigeons are gone, so is Georgie Burkhardt's sister Agatha - run off with some shady pigeoners and maybe dead. A body has been found in the woods, anyway, and it was wrapped in part of Agatha's dress. Georgie isn't ready to believe the worst, though, so she grabs her Springfield single shot and her copy of The Prairie Traveler: A Hand-Book for Overland Expeditions and sets off on her sister's trail. 

Like her closest literary kin, True Grit's Mattie Ross, thirteen-year-old Georgie's voice is delightfully strong and distinct. She is plainspoken, practical, and often quick-tempered, covering up her adolescent uncertainty with bluff and bravado (this is especially effective when we are privy to the dissonance between Mattie's thoughts and her words). Timberlake doesn't fall into the common trap of making her wiser than her years, though. Mattie has loads of courage and astonishing aim with a rifle, but she has no idea how to ride a horse or plan a trip. More crucially, she doesn't know when to keep her mouth shut. In short, she's thirteen.

Timberlake is an impressive sentence-level prose stylist. Describing a cave, she has Georgie say, "There's no pretending a cave is a proper room - it's the belly of the whale, the innards of a clam, a bubble, a rock-hard belch. Everything is poured out and dried sideways or upside down." One of the difficulties of first-person narration is that all the information about setting has to come from the narrator's point-of-view. I've read a lot of books where the landscape description sounds all wrong coming from the narrator's mouth. That's not the case here - Georgie's descriptions strike just the right balance between lyrical and down-to-earth. They also give the impression that she's more poetic than she imagines herself to be, which adds depth to the character.

Where One Came Home falters is in the pacing, and I think that may stem from the disconnect between the ostensible plot and the real story of the book. On the surface, it's a book about a missing sister. In reality, (though there is plenty of action) the emotional center of the book is Georgie's inner journey. After the resolution of that thread (and it resolves beautifully), the book feels finished and the final chapters are anticlimactic. The resolution of Agatha's story almost feels like an afterthought.

This is a strong, strong book, though, with a strong, strong heroine - and (like True Grit) it doesn't require a love interest to keep it afloat.

Published in January 2013 by Random House

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Winner's Circle: Roller Skates, by Ruth Sawyer (1937)

Roller Skates is the story of ten-year-old Lucinda Wyman's year of "orphanage," as she calls it, as her parents go off to Italy for her mother's health, and she goes to stay with a pair of family friends. Freed from the shackles of her stifling upper-class home life, Lucinda and her roller skates spend the year exploring 1890s New York City, making friends with everyone from the local policeman to the Rags-an'-Bottles man.

The novel is highly episodic; though it has a strong overarching theme -- the almost Rousseauian exuberance and perceptiveness of childhood when unrestrained by the stuffy customs of adulthood -- it doesn't have much in the way of a plot. Instead, we follow Lucinda through a series of interconnected vignettes, as characters and locations are woven into a vibrant tapestry of an idealized Gilded Age city. Ruth Sawyer's prose is lovely, and the massive army of characters are for the most part excellently differentiated, especially for a book that's less than 200 pages long.

Roller Skates does suffer from a bit of period piece-ness. It has racial attitudes that, though fairly progressive for the 1930s, aren't modern, as when Lucinda fantasizes about being born an American Indian, or when everyone refers to one minor character simply as Black Susan. It's a bit alarming as well how often Lucinda simply runs off to have an adventure with some grown-up that she's only met once, though the world of Roller Skates is much more like a more urban Anne of Green Gables than one that would involve Nancy Grace.

Or at least, it is most of the time. Near the end of the book, Lucinda goes to visit one of her adult friends, a Chinese woman that (in a bit of uncomfortable exoticism) she refers to as Princess Zayda...only to find her body, stabbed to death in what it's implied was a domestic abuse incident. It's a horrifying moment, and one that's tonally very much at odds with the rest of the book. The consequences for Lucinda aren't anything like fully explored, and it strikes a jarring note.

Much better handled are the tender scenes where Trinket, the little neighbor girl who's become a close friend of Lucinda's, takes ill and dies. In particular, the passage where the family doctor takes Lucinda for a walk by the East River and tells her that Trinket is dead without using those words is gorgeous and heartbreaking.

So, it's not a perfect book, and it's one that has to be viewed through the right historical lens. It's still a great literary achievement, however, and almost certainly the best choice for the 1937 Newbery. Although Sawyer later published a sequel, The Year of Jubilo, and wrote the text for two Caldecott Honor books (The Christmas Anna Angel, ill. by Kate Seredy, 1945 Honor; Journey Cake, Ho!, ill. by Robert McCloskey, 1954 Honor), it's Roller Skates that's the primary foundation for Sawyer's reputation, and in my opinion, it's not a bad way at all to be remembered.