Friday, November 22, 2013

2014 Contenders: If You Want to See a Whale, by Julie Fogliano

Every year, a picture book or two gets bandied about in the (online, publicly visible) Newbery discussions. Last year gave us Each Kindness and Step Gently Out. This year, we've had Africa Is My Home (assuming you take it as a picture book, rather than a heavily-illustrated work of short fiction); the other title that I've seen crop up in the most discussions is probably If You Want to See a Whale.

In a way, it's academic exercise, discussing these picture books. No "traditional" picture book has ever won the Newbery (though that's an assertion that assumes you agree with me on how to categorize A Visit to William Blake's Inn [1982 winner], which I think of as an illustrated collection of poetry rather than a picture book, and which is filed in the 811s in our local library system, but which did win a Caldecott Honor). The Honors list isn't much better -- aside from another poetry book, Dark Emperor (2011 Honor), the only picture books I can find are Wanda Gág's Millions of Cats (1929 Honor) and The ABC Bunny (1934 Honor), from the pre-Caldecott days. (If you can think of one I missed, leave a comment!)

And yet I feel like it's an important discussion to continue having. Even without the iconic illustrations, the texts of Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are and Horton Hears a Who are, I would argue, key parts of American children's literature. It's very hard to talk about picture books without considering the illustrations -- it feels kind of like trying to evaluate a symphony without ever mentioning the string section -- but the ones that fall within the Newbery range (which is the overwhelming majority of them) deserve our attention nonetheless.

With all that said, it seems to me that the text of If You Want to See a Whale does several things extremely well, and a few things maybe not as well. The sound of the book when read aloud is fantastic -- Julie Fogliano has a keen ear for alliteration and assonance, and lines such as the ones in which she describes clouds "in the sky that's spread out, side to side" are a joy just to say. The ending of the book in the text is also beautifully ambiguous, fading out on the lines "and wait... / and wait... / and wait..." The last of illustrator Erin E. Stead's pictures shows the whale quest coming to a successful end, but it does so wordlessly -- although she's given us a tidy ending, Fogliano as author has declined to do so.

The main thing that bothered me -- and maybe it's just from sitting through too many Creative Writing workshops back in college -- was the book's unwillingness to fully commit to its central conceit. I know that the book isn't really about whale-watching at all, but a metaphor is best when it works on both the literal and figurative levels. A window isn't helpful for watching for whales (or at least, nowhere near as helpful as being outside), and if you're on a beach or in a boat, roses and bugs aren't likely distractions. 

This doesn't mean that If You Want to See a Whale isn't a delight, but I do think it means that it's not Newbery material. When Rachael reviewed Each Kindness last year, she talked about the intense difficulty of writing a short text. One flawed line in a 300-page novel might pass by unnoticed; the same isn't true of a poem of 52 lines, several of which are only two or three words long. Surviving the scrutiny that such a short text invites is an incredibly high bar, and I'm unconvinced that Whale clears it.

Published in May by Roaring Book Press

Thursday, November 21, 2013

2014 Contenders: What the Heart Knows, by Joyce Sidman

Joyce Sidman's newest book of poetry is a strange beast indeed. The subtitle is "Chants, Charms & Blessings," and in her note to readers, Sidman talks about how humans have always "used language to try to influence the world," and encourages readers to make poems of their own and "chant them, in your own voice." She divides her book into four parts: Chants & Charms, Spells & Invocations, Laments & Remembrances, and Praise Songs & Blessings. The result is something like a poetic Book of Common Prayer (or Book of Shadows), with all of the elevated diction and heightened emotion such a mode requires. Both the subject matter and tone are widely varied among the individual poems, soaring from lost socks to the slippery nature of time, and then swooping back down to ugly sweaters, all the in the space of three pages.

I don't believe I've ever had cause to mention my religious background on this blog, or in any of my writing about children's books. In the interest of making clear the kind of reader I am, though, I think it's only fair to say that I have been a solitary Pagan, a high church Episcopalian, an enthusiastic half-Jew, a Unitarian-Universalist, and a quasi-Buddhist in my life. Like the titular character in Life of Pi, I'm spiritually profligate - I just love a good prayer. And even outside of overt spirituality, I've built my entire life around the idea that words can shape reality. This book basically speaks directly to my heart.

Even as a biased reader, though, I think it's fair to say that this is a magnificent collection of poetry. Sidman is the Kevin Henkes of children's poets: I don't know any serious children's poet who speaks so respectfully to their readers. The best poetry is always about more than what it's about, and Sidman achieves that more often than not in this collection, turning ordinary objects into metaphors for loss, transience, and comfort. She does not restrict herself to the tangible, though - occasionally the poems enter the realm of pure surrealism, as in "Song in a Strange Land," which plays out like a fever dream.

What the Heart Knows is not only distinguished thematically, though. The poems are also characterized by  razor-sharp imagery, as in "Blessing on the Smell of Dog": "May his scent seep through / perfumed shampoos / like the rich tang of mud in spring." The sound of the words themselves is deeply satisfying as well, filled with the repetition, alliteration, and insistent rhythms that characterize the tradition of sacred poetry. The fact that these are secular prayers only adds to their power, solemnizing the topics we usually dismiss.

Other reviewers have pointed out that the poems are not perfectly equal in quality, and that's fair, but there's very little filler, in my opinion. Nina also questioned whether the illustrations distract from the poetry, and I think that is actually a good question - I was so focused on the text that I barely noticed the illustrations at all. It's possible that the book would be even more effective with a simpler design. There is the age question as well - this is really aimed higher than Sidman's usual middle-grade age range, but surely not too high for the Newbery. 

Overall, it's a gorgeous piece of work - definitely in my top five books of the year - and I do hope it gets some love on Newbery day. 

Published in October by HMH Books for Young Readers

The Ones We're About to Mock

Oo-de-lally! Sam and I have settled on a final reading list for the Maryland Mock Newbery (to take place on January 6 at the Caroline County Public Library - register at the Maryland Library Association website, email any questions to Rachael, etc., etc.)!

For those who wish to mock with us, please to be seeking these titles:

1. Doll Bones, by Holly Black
2. Zebra Forest, by Adina Rishe Gewirtz
3. The Center of Everything, by Linda Urban 
4. The Real Boy, by Anne Ursu
5. P.S. Be Eleven, by Rita Williams-Garcia


6. Penny and Her Marble, by Kevin Henkes

I know. We snuck in a sixth book that wasn't even on the semifinal list.

As always, we hope that these books represent a variety of genres and styles that will make for a lively discussion in January - though not as much variety as we would like, because we didn't feel that any of the nonfiction this year could go toe to toe with the best fiction. And I would have loved to include some poetry - namely, What the Heart Knows, by Joyce Sidman.

Actually, there are a lot of books we would have loved to include but couldn't or didn't. I'm second-guessing my choice not to put Better Nate Than Ever on my semi-final list, and Sam wishes he'd included The Hidden Summer. And then there's Far, Far Away, probably my favorite book of the year, but one I read too late to add it to my list.

Since we are but a mock committee, though, our humble six will have to do, and I think they will do quite nicely. Happy reading! 

2014 Second Takes: Doll Bones, by Holly Black

Maybe ten years ago, I checked a book out of the library at the University of Houston. It was a 1958 monograph called An Investigation of Gondal, and it was an attempt by scholar William Doremus Paden to reconstruct a fictional world created and played as a sort of game by Emily and Anne Brontë. Although the sisters were teenagers when they started developing that particular world, they continued to play their game with it well into adulthood, maybe even until they died. It's the setting of some of Emily's best poetry, and the sisters even produced a prose work called The Gondal Chronicles, though that piece was never published and is now lost.

Though no child reader would be likely to know of it, Gondal is very much like "The Game" that the main characters in Doll Bones play. At least the earliest stages of the Brontës' game involved toy soldiers (which The Game also includes, along with other dolls and figures), and, like the Brontës, Poppy, Zach, and Alice produce writing about their fictional setting -- though theirs is in the form of questions and answers.

And, to be honest, Doll Bones reminded me tonally of Emily Brontë, at least. Doll Bones shares with, say, Wuthering Heights a sense of uneasy genre placement -- is it a romance? a gothic horror story? an adventure tale? a coming of age novel? Both books also share a creeping dread of the death of dreams and the pointless expectations that so often accompany adulthood. How much of growing up is a natural process, and how much of it is nothing but a set of counterproductive societal expectations?

I'm not going to make the claim that Doll Bones is a stone cold masterpiece on the level of Wuthering Heights, of course. But it's one of the most interesting children's books I've read in a long while, one that I think will stay with me in a way that not all books, even very good books, do. I think it's highly distinguished in theme and plot, and that the setting of Rust Belt decay is also very well done. In her review, Rachael expressed some reservations about the characters and prose; I think I like both better than she does. The main characters, at least, seemed perfectly three-dimensional, if maybe not as brilliantly-realized as those in The Hidden Summer or P.S. Be Eleven, and if the prose doesn't hit the heights of The Real Boy or The Center of Everything, it does avoid getting in its own way, and features some lines of great beauty.

In a Newbery discussion, I'd probably put Doll Bones in the tier just below The Real Boy and The Center of Everything, in a tightly-bunched pack that also includes Zebra Forest and The Hidden Summer. It will take me a long, long time to forget Doll Bones, however, and it's a title I can see myself coming back to over and over in the years to come.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Mock Newbery List is Coming! Plus a Scary Poster!

Hear ye! Hear ye! On the morrow next, we shall be announcing the final reading list for the Maryland Mock Newbery! Huzzah!

In the meantime, please enjoy this poster that I made for a horror movie adaptation of Rita Williams-Garcia's One Crazy Summer.

2014 Second Takes: Courage Has No Color

About this book, Sam said, "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." And that's true. The original research and primary sources alone make it an impressive offering. And, as Sam also notes, it's beautifully designed and illustrated. 

Of course, Sam also said that, "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." I think I was more troubled by both of those areas of evaluation than he was. I know that Tanya Lee Stone can write crisp, engaging prose that creates a feeling of suspense, even when she's dealing with an ultimately anticlimactic story, because she did it in Almost Astronauts. That doesn't happen here. The pacing feels off, and the prose is undistinguished.

I also know that it's possible to write a book about an ensemble cast in which each character emerges as a distinct individual, because, again, Stone did it in Almost Astronauts. That kind of careful characterization also set We've Got a Job apart from the many other excellent nonfiction books published last year. In Courage Has No Color though, I gave up trying to tell the members of the Triple Nickles apart.

Overall, I had the sense that Stone didn't have enough material on the Triple Nickles to write a complete book - or that she didn't think the material stood alone as a compelling story - because the book feels bloated with peripheral information. The digression into the Japanese experience during the war isn't long enough to do justice to the subject matter, but it feels too long for this book. Likewise, the last chapter, about post-WWII integration of the armed forces and the legacy of the Triple Nickles, feels long-winded without actually providing that much information.

I'm being pretty harsh in my evaluation of what is, after all, one of the best nonfiction titles of the year, but this seems like a weak year for nonfiction, and I don't think Courage Has No Color will be picking up a Newbery.

2014 Second Takes: The Center of Everything, by Linda Urban

The Center of Everything is like a brilliantly-constructed box -- or maybe a brilliantly-constructed torus, the shape that recurs throughout the book. Rachael mentioned in her review of the novel how well all the parts fit together, and that stood out to me too as I read the book.

It's a testament to Linda Urban's skill that she manages to produce a book that I unabashedly love out of elements that in general, I don't much care for. This is a book about a small town, filled with quirky characters, about a girl who's lost her grandmother. And yet I was riveted through the whole thing, and genuinely affected by the quiet, but emotionally rich ending.

I've enjoyed Urban's work in the past, but The Center of Everything might well be a new high for her. In the context of this year, it's the only book I've read that I feel can go toe to toe with The Real Boy. It's exceptional in characters, theme, setting, and style, and I think the plot, though low-key, is solid as well.

I'm going to have to think really, really hard about which of those two books would be my final choice (and it may be noted that I still have one book, Doll Bones, left on my Second Takes list). But the simple fact that I feel like The Center of Everything belongs in that conversation with another book that I adore is the highest compliment I know how to pay it.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

2014 Contenders: Eruption!, by Elizabeth Rusch

Last year was a true banner year for children's nonfiction, featuring such exceptional titles as Moonbird, Temple Grandin, Hope and Tears, Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, We've Got a Job, Abraham Lincoln & Frederick Douglass, and, of course, Bomb. That's an amazing list of books right there, and the fact that they came out in the same twelve-month period is nothing short of astonishing.

I guess it's not a huge surprise that this year's crop of nonfiction has generally paled in comparison. Some of that is just the vagaries of publishing -- Phillip Hoose and Gwyneth Swain, for instance, didn't have a book out this year, and Deborah Hopkinson's new one was historical fiction. Steve Sheinkin and Russell Freedman did have new ones out -- but though both books were certainly good, the general consensus seems to be that they don't quite hit the heights of their titles from last year. In fact, though I've enjoyed several nonfiction books this year (Courage Has No Color and Collector of Skies in particular), I'm not sure there's a single one that I'd put in the same category as the seven titles I listed in the first paragraph.

However, Eruption! has been getting a fair amount of good press, with Jonathan Hunt over at Heavy Medal even touting it as "arguably my favorite nonfiction title of the year." As such, I felt like I had to pick it up, and I was immediately sucked into the story of the brave and resourceful scientists of the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program. The book focuses on two of the VDAP's greatest triumphs -- their studies of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, and Mount Merapi in 2010. In both cases, the VDAP scientists accurately predicted major eruptions a few days before they occurred, enabling evacuations that saved tens of thousands of lives. Elizabeth Rusch's sentence-level writing is engaging, and I thought she did very well at bringing the reader right into the middle of the action.

I have some questions, however, about places where the style -- and, more especially, the editing -- seemed to get in the way of the Presentation of Information item in the Newbery criteria. For instance, the text mentions the technical word "fumaroles" twice, once in a chart on page 10, and in the main text on page 11, without either defining the word or explicitly referring the reader to the glossary in the back. However, when the word appears in the main text on page 15, it's defined within the sentence -- and then defined again, using almost the exact same words, on page 21. Additionally, on page 63, the text lists the name of a village as Dusun Petung, but the photo caption simply calls it Petung. The map on page 8 also misspells the name of Mount Rainier. Those are small points, to be sure, but in an informational text, I don't think we can just ignore them.

When I finished Eruption!, I was glad to have read it, and I felt like I'd learned a lot about an organization I'd never before even heard of. I don't think, however, that it has that je ne sais quoi that the best of last year's titles did, and I find the sloppy editing troubling. I'd recommend in a heartbeat that any public library purchase Eruption! for their collections, but I don't think it's a serious Newbery contender, and I still think Courage Has No Color would be a better Sibert selection.

Published in June by Houghton Mifflin

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

2014 Second Takes: Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, by Kate DiCamillo

If there's one thing that I find myself thinking about over and over in the course of writing about books, it's that comedy is terrifically hard to evaluate. And here, with Flora & Ulysses, that again comes into play. Is it funny? I thought it was hysterical, but if you're, say, the kind of person who found last year's Mr. & Mrs. Bunny - Detectives Extraordinaire! overly weird, you're unlikely to agree with me.

As Rachael mentioned in her review, the bits where Ulysses the squirrel writes his poetry are simply beautiful. There's a real emotional center to this book -- as ridiculous as a lot of it is, it isn't just a pile of jokes. That mixture of poignancy and silliness is pure DiCamillo, and though sometimes that feels manipulative to me, I think she pulls it off in Flora & Ulysses.

There was one thing that did bother me, though. I'm starting to grow weary of books that give their characters obsessions with Treasure Island, or Heloise's Hints, or that old standby, the dictionary. There are times where it's effective, but too often, it feels like a writing shortcut to give characters a memorable quirk. Flora is a huge, huge fan of a comic series starring The Amazing Incandesto (as well as its associated "bonus comics"), and I didn't feel like that was particularly effective. It would have been a better book, I think, if DiCamillo had fully trusted the humor and the poetry to carry the novel, rather than shoehorning all the comic book stuff in there too.

Anyway, I think Flora & Ulysses is still quite good, and I think it would be one of the easiest sells to a child reader of anything we've discussed on the blog this year. Even aside from the question of its illustrated nature, however, I don't think it's going to be in the running for the year's major awards.

Friday, November 8, 2013

2014 Second Takes: The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp

This book. This book, this book, this book. Friends, I have been wrestling with it since last spring, and I still don't know what the heck to do with it.

All of my discerning Goodreads friends love it. Monica Edinger loves it. Lisa Von Drasek loves it. It's on the National Book Award shortlist.

As for me? I picked it up last March or so, got thirty pages in, and promptly threw it over the cubicle wall at Sam. The folksy voice of the intrusive narrator was just nails on a chalkboard to me. Sam agreed.

But time went by, and people weren't liking it any less, so I figured I'd better put it on my list of semi-finalists and give the old girl another chance. This time I alternated between the book and the audiobook, which is read by Lyle Lovett - a great favorite of mine. I thought it might help me appreciate the charms of The True Blue Scouts.

Now, sports fans, I am an easy sell where audiobooks are concerned. The fact is, I just like to sit down and have somebody read me a story, and I hardly care what it is. My daughter is like that too, but more so.

Even so, several chapters into True Blue Scouts - chapters full of raccoonish fretting about the perils of climbing a pine tree - she turned to me and said, "Why doesn't he just climb the tree already?!"


In the end, I was forced to admit that this is probably a very good book, but Ella's question really gets at the heart of what bothers me about it. As Sam put it, "The pacing is leisurely, full of odd digressions and interludes that don't go anywhere, but the tone of the book is insistent, even alarmist, which made me feel rather like the novel was crying wolf at me for most of its duration." I didn't feel like that was as much of a liability here as it was in Keeper, but it did grate on me. Climb the tree already, Bingo. Get to the point.

I have other quibbles too - would a twelve-year-old boy really think that coffee would literally put hair on his chest? - but they're just that. Quibbles. Objectively, True Blue Scouts has a lot of distinguished features. The setting is magnificently realized, the style is both distinguished and individually distinct, and the characters (within the rules of their tall tale framework) are quite vivid. Any problems I have with it come down to a matter of taste. I'm afraid I'm just not cut out for sugar pies. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

2014 Second Takes: P.S. Be Eleven, by Rita Williams-Garcia

Rachael had a lot of good things to say in her original review of P.S. Be Eleven, and a lot of them centered on the characters and setting of the book. After reading the novel myself, I have to agree with her on those two points. The characters are strong, detailed, and well-rounded -- P.S. Be Eleven handles that particular Newbery criterion better than any book I've read this year except maybe The Hidden Summer (which, incidentally, I'm regretting leaving off our semifinal list more and more).

The New York City setting is also vibrant and clear. Plenty of children's books have ❤ed NYC over the years, but P.S. Be Eleven is among the best of them. (I like the fact that it fills in the time period between two of my all-time favorites, the early 1960s of It's Like This, Cat, and the late 1970s of When You Reach Me. Both of those, of course, won the Newbery, so maybe that's a good sign for Rita Williams-Garcia!)

I'm less sold than Rachael, however, about some of the book's other aspects. The ending felt odd to me, as if the book had almost been left unfinished. I thought, reading it, that the novel would come to some kind of sharp, climactic conclusion, but it just sort of peters out. On a similar note, the title comes from the letters that Cecile sends to Delphine, but I didn't feel like the letters were integral to the story as much as they were a device to try and tie the book back to One Crazy Summer.

Speaking of One Crazy Summer, the reader had best have read that book before going on to this one. There are various summaries of and callbacks to the events of Summer in P.S. Be Eleven, but there's simply so much backstory that I think it would be a really tough task to go into P.S. Be Eleven blind.

We have conversations every year about whether a particular book in the Newbery conversation "stands alone." That's not actually in the award criteria, and the committee has given the Newbery to books that clearly don't stand alone (see: The High King, The Grey King, possibly even Dicey's Song), but to the extent that it affects a book's "contribution to American Literature," it's something to possibly keep in mind. That said, I don't think P.S. Be Eleven does indeed "stand alone," though I don't know that it alters the book's literary merit.

At any rate, although I'd put P.S. Be Eleven extremely high on some of the Newbery criteria, I think its weaknesses in plot and construction knock it out of the top five for me. It's good -- very good -- and it what it does well, it does superlatively. I just think that there are books that are better all-around packages this year (The Real Boy, Zebra Forest, The Hidden Summer, From Norvelt to Nowhere, Follow Follow). 

However, since it will almost certainly be on our Maryland Mock Newbery shortlist, we'll get a chance to see if our group agrees with me!