Wednesday, June 26, 2013

2014 Contenders: Hattie Ever After, by Kirby Larson

Picking up where 2007 Newbery Honor book Hattie Big Sky left off, Hattie Ever After begins in Great Falls, Montana, where Hattie Brooks has just finished paying off her uncle's debts. A traveling theatre troupe with a fortuitous opening for a wardrobe mistress happens to be passing through town, and Hattie joins up with them long enough to tag along to San Francisco. Her real dream is to be a journalist, though, and she's willing to start at the very bottom: on the San Francisco Chronicle's overnight cleaning staff. She's plucky, bright, and determined to pursue her own goals, even if it means feeling conflicted about her romantic future and learning a few unpleasant truths along the way.

I happened to be listening to the audiobook of Neil Gaiman's breathtaking new novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, while I was reading Hattie Ever After. About halfway through both of them, something funny occurred to me. I was reading a book with a seven-year-old protagonist and a book with a seventeen-year-old protagonist, but only one of them was appropriate for children under fifteen. Can you guess which? (Hint: Neil Gaiman's not going to be winning a second Newbery this year.)

It's a funny criterion, "excellence of presentation for a child audience." How do we decide exactly what that means? In practice, it's often the publishers who decide, and occasionally it can vary from one place to another. The Book Thief was originally written for and marketed to adults in Zusak's native Australia. Here in the U.S., it was marketed to teens and snagged a Printz Honor. And then there are those weird alternative Harry Potter covers for embarrassed adult readers, but that's another story...

What of Hattie? As I noted, she's seventeen as the novel begins, which ordinarily would set off an age range warning bell, but a lot of people are putting this one on their Newbery lists, so I read on. And really, there's nothing here that wouldn't resonate with a fourteen, thirteen, even twelve-year-old reader. The historical setting helps - though there's a touch of romance, it never progresses further than two very chaste kisses. And though Hattie spends the entirety of the book working in the adult world, her dilemmas mirror those of many middle school girls who are just discovering their own passions and taking steps to pursue them.

There used to be more books like this one - back before the advent of children's publishing (not that that was a bad thing!) and increasingly fragmented marketing - and I think there's still a place for them. After all, we still shelve our Louisa May Alcott and our L.M. Montgomery in the children's section, though their heroines are well into motherhood by the time their series end. When I actually worked with the public, I had daily requests for "gentle" (read: not explicit) reads, and I would love to put thoroughly modern Hattie into their hands - along with, if not instead of, the pious March girls.

Hattie, with her strong voice and equally strong mind, is a character worthy of any reader's attention, and I think her sequel stands plausibly on its own. I haven't read the first book, and though I think it would have added some character depth, I wasn't lost without it. This book may attract new readers as well, with its well-realized urban setting and intriguing details about newspaper offices, con artists, and other highlights of the post-WWI west coast. It's not among my very favorite books of the year so far, but it's certainly a strong contender.

Published in February by Delacorte Press (Random House)

Monday, June 24, 2013

Digressions: The Longest Wait (for the Newbery)

So Rachael and I were talking the other day, and our conversation turned to when in a Newbery-winning author's career the award comes. Occasionally, a debut book wins -- I count seven of those, with Clare Vanderpool's Moon Over Manifest (2011 award) being the most recent. But what of those that have to wait...and wait, and wait some more? And whose wait has been the longest, of those who've finally claimed the medal? I decided to investigate further.

First off, since some Newbery-winning authors moved to children's books from the adult world, I figured it only made sense to start the clock from an author's first published Newbery-eligible book, rather than their first published book in general. With that in mind, here are the top five longest waits that eventually ended in victory.

5. Avi. His first children's book, a collection of "very short stories" called Things That Sometimes Happen, was published in 1970. 32 years later, he published Crispin: The Cross of Lead, which picked up the 2003 Newbery. He'd snagged Honors in the meantime for The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle (1991 honor) and Nothing But the Truth (1992 honor), but it wasn't until Crispin that he finally was the winner.

3 (tie). Carolyn Sherwin Bailey. This one requires a whole slew of caveats. Bailey's writing career spanned the time that the Newbery Medal was introduced, so it was only 23 years from the year the first Newbery was handed out to Bailey's 1947 win for Miss Hickory, a novel she'd published the previous year. Additionally, her first published book, The Peter Newell Mother Goose (1905), wouldn't have been eligible for the Newbery had the award existed, since it was largely a collection of already-existing poems. So, while it was technically 33 years from the for-all-ages The Children's Book of Games & Parties (1913) to Miss Hickory, you'll have to decide for yourself how much of that time she was actually waiting for the award.

3 (tie). Beverly Cleary. From the moment Henry Huggins was published in 1950, Cleary was a force to be reckoned with in children's literature. But, even though she picked up Honors for Ramona and Her Father (1978 honor) and Ramona Quimby, Age 8 (1982 honor), a 1981 National Book Award for Ramona and Her Mother, and enough other awards to fill up several trophy cases, it wasn't until Dear Mr. Henshaw (1983 publication, 1984 Newbery) that she finally took home the gold. The 1983 publication year was a noticeably weak one, and almost no one considers Henshaw Cleary's best book, but nonetheless, 33 years after her first book, she'd published a winner.

2. Elizabeth Borton de Treviño. Treviño started out her writing career as the person tasked with writing sequels to Eleanor Porter's Pollyanna series; her first published novel was 1931's Pollyanna in Hollywood. Although she eventually moved on to more original works, she received no notice from the Newbery committee until she won the 1966 award for 1965's I, Juan de Pareja. Even if the 34 years from her first book to her Newbery winner is only good for second place, she's easily the author who went the longest between her debut and receiving any ALA awards.

1. Jack Gantos. Admittedly, Rotten Ralph (1976) was a picture book, a format that's rarely honored by the Newbery committee. Nonetheless, it was eligible, and it kicked off Gantos' amazing career. He took an Honor in 2001 for Joey Pigza Loses Control, and received both a Printz Honor and a Sibert Honor two years later for Hole in My Life, but it wasn't until 2012 that he won a Newbery for the previous year's Dead End in Norvelt. As with Cleary's award, it came in a strange publication year -- several books that were seen as top contenders turned out to be far too divisive to win, place, or show (Okay For Now, Breadcrumbs, Junonia). Nonetheless, it ended Gantos' record-setting 35-year drought, and gave his remarkable oeuvre a fitting capstone.

The follow-up question, of course, is: are there any authors whose books we've covered this year who would make this list should they win the Newbery? The answer is yes. Should the committee decide that humorous poetry is worth a look after all, and Jack Prelutsky were to take the Newbery for Stardines Swim High Across the Sky and Other Poems, it would come for a book published a mind-boggling 46 years after his first book, 1967's A Gopher in the Garden, and Other Animal Poems. No one else is even close to that, but it's now 32 years and counting since Kevin Henkes' first book (All Alone, 1981), and 34 years since Patricia Reilly Giff debuted with Today Was a Terrible Day (1979). Will any of them break their winless streaks? We'll have to wait until January to find out!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

2014 Contenders: My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: The Official Guidebook, by Brandon T. Snider

The front cover of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic: The Official Guidebook includes a notice that the book is "20% cooler than all other books!" Having read the book, all I can say is that the Truth in Advertising folks can sleep peacefully tonight. No deceptive claims here!

All right, all right, so maybe it's a bit of an exaggeration. And, in this particular universe, MLP:FiM isn't going to win the Newbery, the Sibert, the Caldecott, the National Book Award, or pretty much anything else except the Books That Sam, A Card-Carrying Brony, Thinks Are Awesome Award. However, it's worth mentioning anyway for a couple reasons, one of which is to provide an opportunity to use this quote from show creator Lauren Faust's foreword to the book:

"If we give little girls a respectful interpretation of the things they like -- if we dare to take it as seriously as they do -- we will see for ourselves that it's not so silly at all. We can truly appreciate the merit they see in it. And, amazingly, we can enjoy it ourselves."

Include all children (not just little girls), and that's a perfect summation of the qualities that the best children's art and literature possesses. I think that, in our search for Newbery-worthy books, one of the key qualities we're looking for is that kind of respect, that sensitivity to the fact that children's hopes, dreams, and fears are as big and important to them as any adult's are to him or her. It is, I believe, a common thread that ties together so much of the art that, while originally intended for children, is loved and beloved by adults: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland; The Hobbit; Anne of Green Gables; Harry Potter; and yes, even My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

The second reason is that I've often wondered about how to evaluate these kinds of guidebooks. They're high-interest, high-circulation books in most libraries, and yet it's always been fiendishly hard for me to know how to tell a good title from a mediocre one -- a task made more difficult by the fact that there aren't, for instance, competing Disney Princess guidebooks produced by different publishers. I'd love to see some suggestions for making informed purchase decisions in this genre.

Using the evaluative skills that I do have, MLP:FiM is a pretty good title as these guidebooks go. It has numerous interviews, forewords, and sidebars from people associated with the production of the show, concept art, a summary of each of the show's episodes through season 3, and much more. Although there were a few minor details that, as an obsessive fan, I didn't think were presented entirely accurately, the book was still very well-executed. Brandon T. Snider has written a bunch of these books (The Dark Knight Manual, DC Comics Ultimate Character Guide, The Superman Guide to Life), and he clearly has a good handle on how to make the overall package attractive and easy to read.

So don't expect any awards for MLP:FiM, but if you do buy it, I imagine that children and older fans alike will put it to good use. Buy two copies, and who knows -- the fun may even be doubled.

Published in June by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

2014 Contenders: Stardines Swim High Across the Sky and Other Poems, by Jack Prelutsky

Jack Prelutsky has long had an interest in imaginary creatures with portmanteau names. Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant and Other Poems (2006) was a collection of nothing but poems about such creatures, and several pieces from Prelutsky's last poetry volume, I've Lost My Hippopotamus, also used this trope. Picking up right up where Prelutsky left off, Stardines is a collection of sixteen such poems, each one describing a creature that is a "blending of the animate and inanimate," as the jacket blurb says.

This highly specific focus works very much in the book's favor. Where Hippopotamus was sometimes inconsistent, Stardines doesn't include any pieces that are obviously second-tier. Similarly, the fact that there are only sixteen poems -- none of which is more than three stanzas -- means that the concept doesn't have time to overstay its welcome.

As we talked about in last year's discussion of Hippopotamus, one of the unwritten, yet never-broken rules of the Newbery is that Humorous Poetry Doesn't Win. As good as Stardines is, I don't foresee it being the book to break through that barrier. Even in what's shaping up to be a fairly weak year, I don't think Stardines is the leading poetry candidate (that would be Follow, Follow), and the committee is notoriously loath to honor more than one volume of poetry in any given year.

However, we still might see Stardines on awards day. In her mid-year awards post, Elizabeth Bird over at Fuse #8 argues that Carin Berger's gorgeous 3-D diorama photography makes Stardines a worthy Caldecott contender. I'm not by any means a Caldecott expert, but the illustrations are jaw-dropping, and perfectly matched to the text. I'll be very curious to see if the Caldecott committee has a positive response to the artwork.

Published in February by Greenwillow / HarperCollins

Monday, June 17, 2013

2014 Contenders: Courage Has No Color, by Tanya Lee Stone

There's a famous quotation about World War II from historian Stephen Ambrose that shows up twice in Courage Has No Color: "Soldiers were fighting the world's worst racist, Adolph Hitler, in the world's most segregated army." In the end, WWII would be a turning point in the history of race relations in the US military, but taking segregation out of the military was difficult, full of false steps and discouraging setbacks.

Few units had as much to do with this process as the "Triple Nickles," the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion. They were the first black paratroopers in the United States armed forces, formed and trained in the heart of the second world war, and then sent to the west coast, where they were pioneers in the field of smokejumping. In Courage Has No Color, Tanya Lee Stone uses personal interviews and oral histories, as well as the handful of previously published sources, to tell the story of the Triple Nickles, as well as to outline how their story fits into the story of the desegregation of America.

This is an extremely well-researched and documented book -- I doubt anyone will have any of the questions about attribution that came up in the discussions last year of Bomb. Though it's not a Newbery criterion, the book is also gorgeous to look at; the archival photographs alone are worth the purchase price. Along with the very different Collector of Skies, it's probably the cream of this year's nonfiction so far.

I hesitate to put it in the Newbery discussion, however. The prose is effective, but not particularly artful, and the panoramic nature of the book means that even the characters on whom the most time is spent, such as Walter Morris, the man most responsible for the formation of the unit, don't fully emerge as individuals (though, given my well-documented resistance to ensemble casts, that might not be as much of a problem for other readers). Additionally, the Newbery criteria mean that some of the book's strongest points -- layout and photography -- have to be set to one side.

Stone has already won a Sibert (Almost Astronauts, 2010), and that award's guidelines are much more friendly to Courage Has No Color's considerable strengths. We're only halfway through the year, but I don't think it's out of the question for Stone to become the first two-time Sibert winner.

Published in January by Candlewick.

Monday, June 10, 2013

2014 Contenders: What We Found in the Sofa and How It Saved the World, by Henry Clark

What We Found in the Sofa and How it Saved the WorldRiver, Freak and Fiona are three unlikely friends united by their outcast status and by the tragedies in their families' pasts. They are also the only kids in town who still live in the neighborhood closest to the mysterious underground coal fire known as Hellsboro. When they find a rare zucchini-colored crayon between the covers of a sofa that appears one day at their bus stop, it launches them into the midst of an intergalactic mystery. Surrounded by teleporting furniture, talking dominos, eccentric neighbors, and axe-wielding grannies, they must rely their own ingenuity and the bonds of friendship to navigate through the many dangers of Hellsboro and save the day.

I had high hopes for this book. For one thing, it has a great title. That and the wry humor of the first couple of chapters set me up for some Daniel Pinkwater-style weirdness and wit. Some of that is present, to be sure. The independent-minded sofa and the sentient Picasso painting / domino are probably worth the price of admission, as are some of the more ridiculous plot devices. Compulsive Completist Disorder? Hista Mime? Flash mobs? Delightful nonsense.

In many ways, though, this is clearly a first novel. The villains are dastardly, the pacing is uneven, and the whole thing wraps up far too neatly. I don't mind a neat ending, actually (huge Dickens fan!), but there wasn't enough groundwork laid for this one. It's nice that Freak's family problems vanish in a puff of money, but alcoholism and domestic violence are usually more entrenched than that. Those are the kinds of flaws I don't expect to see in a serious Newbery contender.

But they are excusable in a darkly funny sci-fi summer read, and that is squarely where I would place Sofa. I'll also be keeping an eye out for Henry Clark's next books - there's lots of talent and potential here. 

Publication in July through Little, Brown (Hachette)

Friday, June 7, 2013

Smart People Talking About This Year's Books

I don't imagine that we have a whole lot of readers who don't also enjoy reading the undisputed champion of the Newbery blog world, Heavy Medal. They're on hiatus right now, but over the last couple days, there's been a lively discussion in the comments of their last post before their yearly break about what people think the leading 2014 Newbery contenders are as we near the halfway point.

It's well worth reading! I'm pleased to see that we've at least hit most of the consensus high points, although I also see a few books that we'll need to cover post haste! At any rate, I strongly recommend having a look at it if you'd like to see a snapshot of the books that have captured the interest of a lot of smart people.