Monday, April 29, 2013

2014 Contenders: Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies, by Nell Beram & Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky

It's hard for me to think of another major artist as divisive as Yoko Ono. When you combine the reactions to her work in visual and performance art, writing, and music, as well as her oft-maligned presence in later sessions by the Beatles, even Damien Hirst, Andy Warhol, and Marcel Duchamp start to look uncontroversial.

But make no mistake, Ono is a major artist. Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies makes this case eloquently, discussing her role as a progenitor of conceptual art, a pioneering feminist, and a genuinely forward-thinking musician. (Laugh at that last one if you want, but did you realize that Ono has had 10 singles hit #1 on the US Dance charts?) The book takes a straight chronological approach, which is probably a good choice, as it lets the reader follow Ono's progression from lonely child, to art-world enfant terrible, to That Lady Who Must Have Broken Up The Beatles, and on to her place now as a highly respected artistic elder stateswoman. It's not shy about detailing some of the more unpleasant moments in Ono's life either; in that respect, it reminds me a bit of Candace Fleming's refreshingly honest Amelia Lost.

The prose is clean and clear, and makes good use of liberal quotations from Ono's own work. Conceptual art isn't necessarily easy for a child reader to grasp, but Nell Beram and Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky do an excellent job of integrating needed definitions and background into the body of the text without drawing undue attention to them, or resorting to distracting sidebars. Readers who don't know Ono's work at all -- or who know it only as a punchline -- will walk away from Collector of Skies with a profound understanding and appreciation for her art.

Despite being an excellent biography, Collector of Skies probably isn't going to win anything from the Newbery committee. It's a very traditionally-structured bio, and in recent years, the nonfiction that's received Newbery love has tended to be the kind that's more deliberately literary, using techniques from fiction, or paying special attention to the way the story in question interacts with other stories (see: Hitler Youth, Claudette Colvin, Bomb). Depending on the competition, however, the Sibert committee may well find a lot to like here.

Published in January by Amulet / Abrams.

Friday, April 19, 2013

2014 Contenders: Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet, by Andrea Cheng

Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and PoetWe know comparatively little about the life of Dave, the enslaved potter. We know roughly when he was born (around 1801), when he died (around 1870), and where he lived (South Carolina). We know that he lost a leg when he was about 35 years old, and that he was a skilled potter whose works were (and are still) prized by collectors. Most notably, we know that he could read and write, because he carved his name and some short poems into the clay of his own pots. 

In a series of dramatic monologues, Andrea Cheng fleshes out these sparse details and shapes them into a poignant glimpse into the world of this remarkable artisan and poet. Writing from multiple perspectives, she gives the reader a panoramic view of the social and political realities that circumscribed the life of an enslaved man in 19th century South Carolina. In understated verse, she recreates the key moments of Dave's life, including enough sensory imagery to anchor the story without bogging it down in detail. Woodcut illustrations, also by Cheng, mesh well with the plainspoken text.

Overall, Etched in Clay is an effective and engaging verse biography. It is worth noting that Cheng takes a completely different approach than Laban Carrick Hill and Bryan Collier did in their 2011 Coretta Scott King Honor Book, Dave the Potter. Where Hill and Collier focused narrowly on Dave's work as a potter, Cheng attempts to paint a much broader portrait of the man and his times. It's an ambitious tactic, and one that leads to some pitfalls.

My biggest issue with multiple-perspective verse novels is how damnably hard it can be to distinguish among the speakers, and Etched in Clay is no exception. Without contextual clues, I think I would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between Dave and any of the other characters. Part of the problem is Cheng's decision to standardize the language for modern readers. It works well in practical terms, but since everyone is speaking modern American English, they all end up sounding the same. That creates a jarring contrast with the snippets she includes of Dave's own rough, lyrical poetry.

My other issue is with the inclusion of historical background. It's very difficult to throw in details about law and social norms within the confines of a dramatic monologue, without turning it into an instance of As You Know, Bob. That leads to clunkers like the following: "Just be forewarned / while allowing our slaves / to read is our duty / teaching them to write / is punishable / by South Carolina law."

These are relatively minor quibbles, but they will probably keep Etched in Clay from attaining the status of "most distinguished" for me. I will surprised, however, if we don't see this one on the Notables list at the very least.

Published in January be Lee and Low Books

2014 Contenders: Follow Follow, by Marilyn Singer

Good poetry is hard to write, and good formal poetry can be even harder. Follow Follow, Marilyn Singer's newest book, consists of poems in a fiendishly tricky form: the reverso, in which the poem tells a story one way, and then, when the lines are read in the reverse order, tells a different one. The only allowable changes are in punctuation and capitalization.

That this book works, and works marvelously, is a testament to Singer's skill with words. Each poem (except the first and last, which deal with the poet's craft) takes a classic fairytale or fable and looks at it from two angles. It's really stunning how different the same words can be when reversed.

My favorite example of this is "The Little Mermaid's Choice." The opening lines of the first part encourage the traditional plot of the tale: "For love, / give up your voice. / Don't / think twice." However, the same words form the cautionary closing of the second part: "Think twice! / Don't / give up your voice / for love." It's a perfect inversion, and a good sample of the craft evident in the rest of the book.

Although it's something that can't be taken into Newbery consideration, the formatting of the book is lovely. Each two-page spread features the poem, printed in two columns (one for each version), as well as a lavish full-page illustration by Josée Masse. It's beautifully done, and so much more child-friendly than many of the other poetry books for kids that I often see.

Follow Follow comes billed as a "companion to" Mirror Mirror, Singer's first book of reversos, which was a 2011 Notable. However, there's no reason that they need to be read together; it's definitely a stand-alone. Anyone who enjoyed Mirror Mirror, however, will find plenty to love here.

It's hard to judge exactly how good Follow Follow's Newbery chances are. Poetry rarely wins -- the last time it did was with Joyful Noise in 1989 -- but there have been recent honors for The Surrender Tree (2009) and Dark Emperor (2011), and at any rate, the committee is different every year. Regardless, however, I'm putting this book firmly on my "keep this one in mind to return to later in the year" list.

Published in February by Dial / Penguin Young Readers

Monday, April 15, 2013

2014 Contenders: Jinx, by Sage Blackwood

Jinx lives with his stepparents in a clearing in the middle of a big scary forest - the kind where you don't step off The Path (emphasis theirs) unless you want to be eaten by a werebear or carried off by a troll. When food gets scarce, however, that's exactly where Jinx ends up: way off The Path, as his stepfather leads him into the forest and attempts to abandon him. Fortunately (or is it!), he's purchased (well, kind of) by a passing wizard and employed as a dogsbody and eventual apprentice. And so begin Jinx's adventures in the freshest fantasy of the year so far.

I often star my books on Goodreads before I go back and organize my reviewing thoughts. In this case, I gave it four stars. Not a perfect book, but so awfully fun. Looking back over my notes, though, I see the kind of flaws that usually lead to a three star review from me. The language is occasionally jarring in its incongruousness with the fantasy setting - people being addressed as "man," "you guys," and so forth. I was reminded of Kristin Cashore's 2010 Horn Book article about writing consistent fantasy language.

In several places, the plot steps over the line of believability as well. The Bonemaster's SUPER EVIL SOURCE OF ALL POWER sure was minimally protected, wasn't it? He's cocky and overconfident, but if he were that stupid I have a hard time believing he would have amassed quite so many bones. And Jinx never would have ended up in the Bone Socket in the first place if Simon just communicated a little more effectively. Some of that is consistent with Simon's character, but some of it felt forced.

Let's back up for a moment, though: the Bone Socket! What an excellent name. There is an evil wizard named the Bone Master who lives in an evil castle called the Bone Socket, which is, in turn, in the middle of a sentient forest called the Urwald. Which is populated by witches who ride around in butter churns and curmudgeonly wizards who bake pumpkin pies. So, ultimately, who cares how Jinx gets where he goes? Certainly not your child readers. They will be too busy clamoring for the next volume in the series.

I usually care more about those things too, but tonally, this book is precisely my cup of tea. Simultaneously cozy and spooky, it calls to mind the works of  Diana Wynne-Jones, JK Rowling, and a host of other beloved British fantasy authors. We don't have a lot of authors like that in American lit - John Bellairs is the only one who comes to mind. Hence my four star rating. Jinx is not a perfect book, but its characters are so likeable (or delightfully despicable) and its world is so well-realized that it completely won me over.

Published in January by HarperCollins

Monday, April 8, 2013

2014 Contenders: Penny and Her Marble, by Kevin Henkes

Ah, Kevin Henkes and his Penny books. We spent some time with them last year, covering both Penny and Her Song and Penny and Her Doll in this space. It led to a discussion of whether or not an Easy Reader capable of winning the Newbery could possibly be written; my opinion was that the answer was probably not, not even if it was as excellent as the Penny books. And, save for my surprise when both titles were shut out of the Geisel awards, that was where I had planned on leaving the matter.

However, I was prompted to have a look at Henkes' most recent installment, because, according to at least one measure, it's the most acclaimed book of the year so far. As noted by Elizabeth Bluemle in her latest The Stars So Far, Penny and Her Marble is one of only two books this year to receive five starred reviews -- and the other, Marcus Sedgwick's Midwinterblood, is a) a YA title, and b) not eligible for any ALA awards, as it was originally published in 2011. Anything with that much buzz about it is probably worth further investigation.

In this book, Penny is taking a walk with her doll (the same one from Her Doll, in a nice bit of continuity), when she finds a marble on the neighbor's lawn. It's a beautiful marble, and so she picks it up and takes it home -- but that's when the nagging suspicion that maybe it's not really hers to take begins to eat at Penny and spoil her good mood.

It's a well-done book, certainly -- it's Kevin Henkes, who has both a Caldecott Medal (Kitten's First Full Moon, 2005) and a Newbery Honor (Olive's Ocean, 2004) to his name, and who I don't believe has ever put his name on anything that wasn't at a minimum above average. Like so much of his work, Penny and Her Marble takes a common childhood experience and invests it with poignancy, while treating a child's thoughts and concerns with profound respect. It's what the man does, and he does it as well as ever.

I'm not sure, however, why this entry in the series has gathered the most acclaim. I think the plot in Penny and Her Doll was more tightly constructed, and that Penny and Her Song did just as good a job of getting inside the head of a child dealing with a conflict. Penny and Her Marble has a more obvious moral than either of the other two, though I wouldn't by any means call it didactic -- but I'm from the school that thinks of a moral lesson as an attribute, rather than a virtue (to swipe a phrase from the late, great Roger Ebert). The other two books, wonderful as they were, weren't recognized by the Newbery committee, and it's hard for me to see how this one will be different.

Anyway, Penny and Her Marble is an awesome book, and maybe it'll be the one in this series to earn Henkes some kind of Geisel love; if it does, it will be well-earned. I don't, however, see it being a serious Newbery contender.

Published in February by Greenwillow / HarperCollins

Friday, April 5, 2013

2014 Contenders: The Canary in the Coal Mine, by Madelyn Rosenberg

Even today, coal mining isn't a job for the faint of heart, and it was a good deal more nerve-wracking during the first half of the twentieth century. Yearly mine fatalities in the USA peaked in 1907 at a mind-boggling 3,242, and it wasn't until 1946 that that number first dipped below 1,000. (For the record, there were 19 fatalities in 2012; that's still 19 too many, but it's a far cry from those four-digit numbers.)

The Canary in the Coal Mine is set in 1931, in Coalbank Hollow, West Virginia. The book centers around Bitty, one of the canaries that the miners took below ground with them to warn of the toxic gas that was a common reason for those fatal accidents.

Of course, the way a canary gives that warning is by passing out, and possibly dying. It's dangerous work -- needlessly dangerous, in Bitty's mind. The canary takes it into his head to travel to the state capital and communicate the plight of both canaries and miners to the politicians there, undeterred by the fact that communication between birds and humans is seemingly impossible.

The plot from that point won't come as too much of a surprise to anyone who's read Charlotte's Web or The One and Only Ivan. However, Bitty and his fellow animals are engaging companions for the journey, and watching the little canary grow from a brave but naive idealist to a wise, strong protagonist is enjoyable. And the fact that the whole thing is told from the animals' perspective makes the book stand out from the many other depression-era historical novels for middle-grade readers.

I don't think that The Canary in the Coal Mine stands out sufficiently from its influences to be a strong Newbery contender this year; it also can't match the technical grace of The Water Castle or the glittering prose of One Came Home. It's a good book though, and one that the talking animal fans in your libraries should take to eagerly.

Published in April by Holiday House.

2014 Contenders: The Fellowship for Alien Detection, by Kevin Emerson

Haley is the kind of eighth grader who's already trying to pad her future college applications. She applied for the Fellowship for Alien Detection on a whim, as an alternative to her usual music camps and other enriching activities. Dodger is a shy loner who already feels like a failure at age thirteen. His parents are surprised when he's awarded the Fellowship for Alien Detection, since he's not exactly scholarship material. Both kids have stumbled upon some strange occurrences. Missing time. Missing people. Radio broadcasts from towns that don't exist. When they set out to investigate, from opposite sides of the country, they're hoping for a good story for their field reports, but they have no idea how far the Fellowship will take them.

Ok, first of all: hooray for middle grade science fiction. Double hooray for middle grade science fiction with a strong female protagonist. We don't see enough of it, and I personally know a small army of tween Whovians who think it's about goram time they had some intelligent, age-appropriate sci-fi to read. Bravo, Mr. Emerson.

And this title will be an easy sell to those Whovians. It's heavy on plot, with a spooky, intricate mystery that takes most of its 400 pages to unravel. I'm inclined to look askance at middle grade novels once they pass the 300 page mark, but this one doesn't feel particularly bloated. The skillful pacing spaces out the plot twists and cliffhangers effectively enough to keep the momentum going right up to the end. Plus, it's a standalone. The door is left slightly open for a sequel, but there is a full, self-contained story here, which is refreshing in these days of endless Chronicles of This-and-That. 

This title should definitely be on your summer booktalk roster.

It will, however, probably not show up on the Newbery discussion table. The characters are inconsistently developed. Dodger's dad is complex - both infuriating and oddly sympathetic. Haley's parents and brother, on the other hand, are vague, blurry presences. Some of the settings are well-realized - especially the stark desert landscape - but some are barely noted. The best I can say for the prose style is that it's cinematic... not always in a good way, when we're measuring for literary distinction.

That same fast-paced cinematic prose makes this an excellent summer vacation book, though. I'm going to pass my copy along to a cool, smart, alien-loving eleven-year-old girl.

Published in February by Walden Pond Press