Friday, December 20, 2013

New and Notable

I received some exciting news last week: I've been appointed to the Notable Children's Recordings Committee for the next two years. This is, in many ways, the perfect appointment for me. I prefer chummy "best of" lists to "there can be only one" awards, and I'm a total audiobook fiend. I keep having to upgrade my Audible account.

This does, however, mean that I won't be able to help Sam write this blog next year. If you would like to take pity on him and offer to write a guest post or two, I think he's more than open to the idea!

I don't think I'll be blogging about audiobooks next year, but I may change my mind. I will be writing them up over on Goodreads, though.

2014 Contenders: Counting by 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Counting by 7s is the story of Willow Chance, a precocious 12-year-old whose parents are killed in an automobile accident. It details the aftermath of this tragedy, and Willow's attempts to build a new life and a new home with a cast of other people who don't quite fit in.

The book is getting a fair amount of awards buzz, and a lot of reviewers have really positive things to say about it. Having finished it, however, I find myself unpersuaded.

The biggest problem I had is with Willow herself. I didn't believe in her for a second -- she reads like the kind of genius you see on a TV show rather than one you might actually encounter in real life. She effortlessly learns and recalls information about gardening, zoology, epidemiology, dermatology, beekeeping, astrophysics, computer hardware, legal agreements, spatial design, astronomy, network hacking, modernist poetry, and multiple foreign languages (Spanish, Latin, Vietnamese), to the point that even Marilyn Vos Savant might be hard-pressed to keep up. She aces a test that apparently not a single other child in the state of California has gotten perfect, and yet she hasn't so much as skipped a grade. As middle school prodigies go, she's slightly less realistic than Susan and Mary Test, and significantly more problematic than Early Auden, whom I've already complained about at length.

That might work if it were played for laughs, or if it were in some kind of larger-than-life tall tale, but Counting by 7s is ostensibly contemporary fiction with no fantastic elements. Willow's character kept jarring me out of that world with her impossibility.

This is even more true because the facts in the book have moments where they veer away from the truth significantly. Willow has a story she tells (and references repeatedly) about the flock of green-rumped parrots that lived by her house. However, the book is set in Bakersfield, California, and according to the Official California Bird Records, there has never been a recorded sighting of a green-rumped parrot (or parrotlet, which is what it's usually called) in California, much less a flock of them moving into someone's backyard. If she's an expert in zoology at the level at which she is presented -- and, especially since the book shifts constantly between first and third person narration, there's no reason to view Willow as an unreliable narrator -- that seems like the sort of mistake she wouldn't make.

Counting by 7s has a heartwarming plot, and the sentence-level writing is quite good, if presented in a somewhat stilted cadence. But, in the end, I'm not convinced about this one at all.

Published in August by Dial Books for Young Readers

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

2014 Contenders: Salt, by Helen Frost

Whenever I pick up a verse novel, the first thing that goes through my head is the question, "why this story in this format?" That is, what is it about this story or these characters that makes the author feel like verse would work better than prose to communicate the narrative?

Sometimes, there's a good answer. In The Wild Book, the narrator has tried writing in poetry as a way to help her dyslexia. In The One and Only Ivan (which, while not a full-on verse novel, has certain verse novel elements), the clipped, understated narration is meant to help show what it's like inside a gorilla's head.

More often, however, I can't find an answer that satisfies me. And that was probably my biggest complaint about Salt -- that I was never able to answer that question to my satisfaction. True, it allows for the book to switch quickly between its protagonists, but that's something that can be done in pure prose form too, and I think it might have benefited from that approach.

I also felt like the brief nature of all the scenes meant that the characterization wasn't particularly deep. We get a fairly good feel for James and Anikwa, the narrators, but the secondary characters end up painted in very broad strokes. Even with James and Anikwa, I felt like the characterization didn't have enough nuance for their conflict halfway through the book to really feel natural.

A lot of the language is beautiful -- anyone who loved Step Gently Out last year knows that Helen Frost is highly skilled with imagery. I'm not sure I felt like all the line breaks were purposeful enough, however, and I don't think that giving all of Anikwa's poems a specific shape on the page (one that's sort of like three stacked balls) helped with that challenge.

I did enjoy the setting -- the war of 1812 isn't a popular choice for children's books, and the portion of the conflict that didn't take place around the Chesapeake Bay even less so. I did feel like I'd spent some time in an interesting place after I'd finished the book.

The setting, however, was the only facet of the book that I felt was truly distinguished. That might be enough to get Salt on the notables list, but I'd be very surprised if it showed up in the Newbery announcement.

Published in July by Farrar Straus Giroux

Friday, December 6, 2013

2014 Contenders: Locomotive, by Brian Floca

Locomotive is another of our Morris Seminar books, and a very good one it is, too. It's by Brian Floca, who has already won two Sibert Honors as author and illustrator of Lightship (2008) and Moonshot (2010), as well as a third for his illustrations for Jan Greenberg and Sandra Johnson's Ballet for Martha (2011). His fascination with transportation continues here, in an evocative free-verse description of a trans-continental railway journey as it was in 1869.

As we've been mentioning in recent days, the strongest nonfiction of the year seems (in our collective opinion) to be concentrated in the picture book section. Locomotive is another title that deserves to be in the mix with Brave Girl, A Splash of Red, and On a Beam of Light. Interestingly, however, I think it's not as good a Newbery candidate as some of the others, because of the relationship between the text and the illustrations.

One of the ways that Floca creates continuity in Locomotive is by putting words that describe sounds in markedly different fonts from the rest of the text. This works beautifully in the context of the book as a whole, but it's a strategy that's more design than pure text. Much the same could be said of Floca's choice to put some of the lines uttered by the railway workers in speech bubbles. The line between text and illustrations gets very blurry in Locomotive, and although that's fine for the Sibert, it makes Newbery consideration highly problematic.

As a book, I like On a Beam of Light a little better than Locomotive, but I recognize that that's essentially an issue of personal taste -- I like science-y subjects, and I prefer Jennifer Berne's understated prose to Floca's whooshing, onomatopoetic poetry -- rather than any kind of pure critical judgement. However, I think On a Beam of Light does objectively fit the Newbery criteria better, mostly because there's simply more left once one removes the illustrations from consideration.

In reality, the Newbery is probably a pipe dream for both books. However, I'm starting to get really, really curious about this year's Sibert results, where Locomotive could easily carry the day.

Published in September by Atheneum.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

2014 Contenders: Imprisoned: The Betrayal of Japanese Americans during World War II, by Martin W. Sandler

This is a solid book about a topic that's seldom given the attention it deserves: the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. If I were reviewing it in detail, I would pay close attention to the way it's organized, indexed, etc.

I am not reviewing it in detail. I have been out of the office (traveling, dealing with my sickness, and then dealing with my kid's sickness) for a week and a half. I have Sam's permission to write a Short Grouchy Review (patent pending) of this one. In fact, I am going to deploy bullet points.

  • The prose is adequate, but that's all. I noted that the prose in Courage Has No Color was not up to Tanya Lee Stone's usual standard, but it's still noticeably better than the prose in this book. 
  • I mentally took away organization points for the ineffective way the full-spread sidebars were integrated into the text. I hate when I have to stop mid-sentence and decide whether to read a sidebar or mark it with my thumb and return to it later. 
  • Content-wise, it was quite comprehensive, giving ample attention to the historical background (Japanese immigration and resulting persecution) and the redress movement and ongoing ramifications. The link to 9/11 and persecution of American Muslims and Sikhs was especially welcome. 
I'm giving it four stars on Goodreads, but for someone with my reading habits (seeking out the best children's books published in any given year), there is a lot of room within that fourth star. This is a low four, compared to the mid-to-high star I gave Courage Has No Color.

Neither of them are going to win the Newbery, and, as Sam mentioned today, I'm kind of hoping that the Sibert goes to a nonfiction picture book this year. Brave Girl and A Splash of Red are both great choices, Sam loved On a Beam of Light, and I haven't been able to get my hands on The Mad Potter yet, but I'm a big fan of any Greenberg/Jordan collaboration.

Published in May by Walker Childrens

2014 Contenders: On a Beam of Light, by Jennifer Berne

Here it is -- the one that I feel is unequivocally the best nonfiction title of the year, the one that can stand with last year's best efforts, and that I'd love to see receive some serious Newbery discussion.

That last part isn't likely to happen, alas, because On a Beam of Light is not only a nonfiction title, but a picture book as well. Yet the book takes the life of Albert Einstein, a figure whose achievements aren't all that easy to explain to a child, and uses them as a framework for some of the most perceptive prose of the year. My favorite passage is on the page from which the book takes its title:

"And in his mind, right then and there, Albert was no longer on his bicycle, no longer on the country road...he was racing through space on a beam of light."

Reading lines like that, I'm on that beam of light as well.

It's not, of course, relevant to the Newbery discussion, but the illustrations by Vladimir Radunsky are the perfect counterpoint to the text, full of whimsy, poignance, and huge washes of negative space. That sort of thing is relevant to the Sibert committee, however, and Rachael and I were wondering today if this might indeed be a year when the Sibert winner is drawn from the ranks of the picture book nonfiction (as in 2012, when Balloons Over Broadway took the medal).

On a Beam of Light is one of our discussion titles for the Morris Seminar in January, and I can't wait to see what the other participants think of it. I also can't wait to talk about how much I love it!

Published in April by Chronicle Books

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

2014 Contenders: The Tapir Scientist, by Sy Montgomery

How do you go about studying an animal that a) is critical to the health of its environment, but b) is shy, nocturnal, and lives in a snarl of tangled bushes, omnipresent mosquitoes and ticks, and suffocating heat and humidity? In The Tapir Scientist, Sy Montgomery and photographer Nic Bishop get to find out firsthand, as they accompany biologist Pati Medici and her team out into the field to study the elusive tapir, the largest mammal native to South America.

As an informational text, The Tapir Scientist generally succeeds. It does a great job of showing what life on a field expedition is like: the tedium, the difficult working conditions, the disappointments -- and then the thrill of encountering a majestic animal face to face, and learning information that could help ensure its survival. It also details the place of the tapir in its natural ecosystem, and explains how the lives of the animals intersect with the people who live in the same place. Sy Montgomery is always good for an above-average book -- we loved her Temple Grandin last year -- and The Tapir Scientist certainly is that.

It's instructive, however, to compare The Tapir Scientist with something like Moonbird, another book featuring an author working with scientists in the field. In Moonbird, Phillip Hoose turned the story of a bird into a rumination on the relationship between the human and natural worlds, both honoring and transcending his ostensible subject. I don't think The Tapir Scientist achieves that level of sophistication and depth, or even really approaches it.

I'm also not entirely sold on the design of the book. Nic Bishop is a first-class photographer, and his images are excellent; I think they're often not placed in the best position respective to the text, however. The font choice also seems odd -- I had to stare at the sidebar-style sections for a while to convince myself that they weren't actually printed in Comic Sans, just something uncomfortably reminiscent of it -- and, although most of the important words are defined in the text, there's no end glossary.

In the end, The Tapir Scientist is absolutely a recommend-for-purchase title, at least in this one man's opinion. I don't expect any Sibert love for it, however, and I don't think the Newbery committee will be at all swayed in the book's direction.

Published in July by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children