Friday, February 28, 2014

2015 Contenders: A Less Than Perfect Peace, by Jacqueline Levering Sullivan

There's no shortage of things going on in Annie Leigh Howard's life. Her family has moved from Seattle to Tacoma; her father, a mostly blind WWII vet, is still struggling to readjust to civilian life, five years after the war's end; her uncle is in love with her art teacher; her new best friend and her first real crush are refugees from Holland; her mother has just opened her own beauty salon (and may be having an affair); and she's trying to develop her own artistic talents through after-school lessons.

That's probably two or three subplots too many for a book of just over 200 pages, and it's almost inevitable that some of them get short shrift. At times, the "show vs. tell" balance skews, as we race over major plot points without getting that much of a chance to let them sink in. The parts with the strange neighbor next door seemed especially rushed to me.

And yet, A Less Than Perfect Peace isn't without its charms. Annie is an interesting character, with both great strengths and great weaknesses. She moves through a setting that's very well presented, full of little details -- the names of programs on the radio, descriptions of advertisements, references to pop culture figures -- that breathe life into the novel.

A Less Than Perfect Peace is the sequel to Annie's War (2009), which I haven't read, but for almost all of this book's duration, I thought it stood alone perfectly well. (A few of the scenes at the end, featuring cameos from the previous novel's characters, probably would work better for readers of the first one.) It's kind of a throwback, in that, although Annie is fourteen, and many of the issues raised are weighty ones, it's definitely a J book rather than a YA one. It might be of interest for the same readers, for instance, who enjoyed last year's Hattie Ever After, a title with similar sensibilities.

And that, I think, is where I end up in my evaluation. I don't think A Less Than Perfect Peace is Newbery material, but it's the kind of book that I can see being beloved by a small but loyal group of fans.

Publication in March by Eerdmans.

Monday, February 24, 2014

2015 Contenders: Caminar, by Skila Brown

Now that's how it's done.

Caminar is a verse novel about a boy named Carlos, who lives in Guatemala during that country's interminable civil war. When his sleepy village suddenly flashes into violence, Carlos is cut off from everyone he has known and loved, and struggling, not just with survival, but with what it means to truly be an adult.

It's not a secret around this blog that I don't like verse novels. However, Skila Brown demonstrates a clear, effective understanding of the poetic aspects of the form -- her line breaks are purposeful, her typographical choices are effective, and her metaphors are inventive. The verse novel form allows Brown to explore a larger conflict through a series of perfectly-delineated moments. This is the verse novel as it was meant to be written and experienced.

Frankly, Caminar is so polished and assured that it's hard for me to believe that it's actually Brown's first book. I try to shy away from making these kinds of pronouncements, but Caminar sure looks to me like the arrival of an important new voice in children's literature. It never talks down to its audience, even when the subject matter is nuanced and difficult. Carlos is a believable, conflicted hero, and the other characters are also well-described and three-dimensional -- a place where many verse novels run into trouble.The themes are also expertly woven into the narrative, especially the bits about the nahuales, the animal spirit guides that bring protection and insight.

One could complain that the epilogue isn't really necessary, though I think it helps to bring the narrative full circle. But otherwise, I can't find much to complain about in Caminar. It's smart, precise, and vivid, and I expect to be talking about it a lot more during the rest of the year.

Publication in March through Candlewick

Thursday, February 13, 2014

2015 Contenders: Miss Emily, by Burleigh Mutén

The title character of Miss Emily is arguably the most famous bearer of that name, Emily Dickinson herself. The circus is coming to her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, and she has a plan to lead a few local children (including her niece and nephew) to watch the circus's midnight train pull in.

This is the setup for a gentle adventure, the kind that was more common in children's literature a half-century ago than it is now. The cast of characters is small, and the focus is on family and neighborhood relationships. Even the event that's the catalyst for the plot -- the arrival of the circus! -- is something of a throwback.

I'm not a scholar of Dickinson's life, but author Burleigh Mutén volunteers at the Dickinson Homestead, and the blurb on the back from Polly Longsworth (who wrote The World of Emily Dickinson) praises Miss Emily's "true-to-life plot and characterizations, and, above all, accuracy." I'm willing to accept the opinion of the experts here, and instead, focus on the questions I had about the book's format and structure.

Miss Emily is a verse novel, and as a book about a poet, that makes perfect sense. However, I don't understand the kind of verse novel it is. Dickinson was one of the most idiosyncratic poets in the history of American Literature; it's impossible to mistake one of her poems for anyone else's. The vast majority of her poems are in iambic heptameter (which simultaneously recalls many hymn texts and, as generations of snarky English majors have learned, enables nearly any Dickinson poem to be sung to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas"); she makes heavy use of slant rhymes; and her highly individual punctuation uses dashes almost as weaponry. However, Miss Emily is essentially in unrhymed free verse, and dashes are used only fitfully. Even though the book isn't narrated by Dickinson, but by Mac, the child who lives across the street, this seemed like a really strange choice to me. Why write about a poet without making any use of her instantly recognizable style?

Additionally, the children aren't very sharply differentiated, which is what would be necessary for the thin plot to work. I didn't find myself either concerned with or interested in any of them -- or with Dickinson either, as the insights offered into her character are general and superficial. Longtime readers of this blog will know that the plots of many of my favorite books can be charitably described as "understated," but Miss Emily doesn't provide the other elements necessary to make this kind of book work.

My favorite thing about the book, as it happens, isn't relevant to the Newbery discussion at all. The more I see of his work, the more Matt Phelan becomes one of my favorite illustrators working today, and his drawings here strike just the right notes of whimsy and subtlety. Bluffton was one of my favorite books of last year, and Phelan's work here shows that he continues to do very well when given an interesting historical context.

It wouldn't surprise me if Miss Emily were to attract plenty of discussion, and perhaps other reviewers will like it more than I did. For me, however, it's not really a Newbery-caliber book.

Publication in March by Candlewick

Friday, February 7, 2014

2015 Contenders: Half a Chance, by Cynthia Lord

Lucy has just moved to a picturesque lakeside home in New Hampshire, and a lot has happened all at once. Her famous photographer father is off on an extended trip, she's got her mind set on winning a photography contest that her father is judging, and she's making friends with Nate, the boy next door. But Nate is only here for the summer, and his family has problems of their own -- problems that affect Lucy as well.

Developing one's artistic talents, wildlife conservation, issues of aging, and one's relationship with one's family and peers -- all of these themes play a big role in Half a Chance. And yet, the book avoids feeling like a laundry list of issues, largely because of the strength of the characters. Lucy, Nate, and their families and friends are all fully three-dimensional, and if they're fighting more than one battle at a time, that's true of most people.

Additionally, the language is truly lovely. Lucy is a photographer*, and as such, is attuned to the details of the world around her. This means that her descriptions of the lake, the mountains, and the people around her can be poetic and finely-tuned without any of it sounding out of character. There are plenty of other very good books set in and around lakes in northern New England -- My Mixed-Up. Berry Blue Summer comes to mind as a recent example -- but I can't immediately think of another one that made me feel so strongly that I was there.

It's always hard to talk about Newbery potential for books that come out during the first few months of the year, because it's not yet clear what the field looks like. What I can say is that, at least for the early going, Half a Chance is going to be my benchmark, a marker against which to measure other books that come out. It's at least that good, whether or not it turns out to be a Newbery frontrunner by the end of the year.

*As a side note, for a book with photography as a central conceit, I don't think the cover is all that great. I mean, it's a Cynthia Lord book, so I doubt it will affect sales all that much, but it doesn't really fulfill the book's own statements about what makes a good picture.

Publication in February by Scholastic

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

2015 Contenders: Bird, by Crystal Chan

In its opening paragraphs, Bird seems to lay all of its cards on the table. On the day Jewel Campbell was born, her 4-year-old brother John, nicknamed “Bird” by their Grandpa, died jumping off a cliff, trying to fly like his namesake. Since that day, Grandpa has not spoken a word, not for all of Jewel’s twelve years.
We all know what’s going to happen. In the end, Jewel will somehow come to peace with the shadow of Bird’s death. Along the way, there will be coming-of-age tears and anger and confusion and guilt. Grandpa will speak.  There will be a boy. (It says so on the dust jacket!) We’ve read books like this before. But Bird turns out to have many more cards to play, enough to erode my confidence in where the book was going. I found myself continually changing my expectations as I read to the very end.
Cynthia Kadohata wrote one of Bird’s back cover blurbs. As with Kadohata’s The Thing About Luck, I think what readers may find most distinguished about Bird is the portrayal of older characters of cultural heritage from outside the United States. Jewel’s father and Grandpa are Jamaican, while her mother is half-white, half-Mexican. It was particularly striking to find thought-out adult characters that many readers might find superstitious to the extreme.  
I think Chan’s writing is not yet as assured as Kadohata’s, my biggest reservation being the inconsistent voice of the first-person narrator. In just the first pages we get sentences that seem like they could have come from completely different novels: authorly bits (“I watch the moon arc through the sky and listen to the whirring of the crickets or the rustling of the oak leaves or the hollow calls of the owl”) quickly followed by folksy familiarity (“Now in my small town of Caledonia, Iowa, we have one grocery store with one cashier, named Susie. . . Things here are as stable as the earth, and that’s how folks seem to like it”), followed immediately by precocious observation (“that’s one of the things about adults: The most important rules to keep are the ones they never tell you”). In the end, because of Jewel’s uncertain voice and the fact that it’s hard to love a book that has so much hurt in it, I think it unlikely Bird will become a consensus Newbery frontrunner the way The Thing About Luck did.
Today's guest reviewer is Leonard Kim. Leonard is not a librarian, though his all-time favorite job was working in a library during grad school. He is the father of three kids, ages 4-11, and has greatly enjoyed immersing himself in their literature.  

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

2015 Contenders: Five, Six, Seven, Nate!, by Tim Federle

When last we saw our hero, Nate Foster, at the conclusion of Better Nate Than Ever, he was receiving incredible news that after his daring, not-sanctioned-by-his-parents journey from the boring Pittsburgh suburb of Janksburg to the sparkle-bright-metropolis of New York City, to audition for his big Broadway break in ET: The Musical, has ended in his ACTUALLY BEING CAST. In the chorus. But also as the understudy for the title character!
This sequel, Five, Six, Seven, Nate!, begins with Natey Greaty preparing to be a for-real child actor. He’s packing up and moving to NYC to live with his Aunt Heidi, and rehearse for the show of a lifetime, ET: The Musical. What could possibly go wrong?
How about, the fact that Nate doesn’t really know how to tap dance? Or that he’s not really the understudy for ET, but the understudy for the understudy, Asella, a charismatic veteran of the stage? Or that the first time director doesn’t appear to really know what he’s doing, and seems to be caught up in a never-ending power struggle with the choreographer? Or that Nate’s having trouble not noticing all the really cute boys in the cast? (Like, seriously, he knows where they are and what they’re doing at all times during the show.) Or that he’s surprisingly homesick, at least for his best friend Libby, though he’s a bit at a loss about how much of his new life he feels comfortable sharing with her?
Young theater fans will be obsessed with this book, as it actually shows what goes on behind the scenes of a Broadway musical. For instance, I didn’t know there’s always a set of “preview” performances, before a show opens for the public, that some musicals don’t make it past!
In terms of delineation of theme, plot, character, and setting, Nate is basically a perfectly written novel. But it’s a long shot for the Newbery medal, based on its early-in-the-year publication date, and the fact that fun, funny books rarely win awards. And Nate is REALLY fun and REALLY funny. But fun and funny don’t equate to not important. This book’s sensitive treatment of Nate’s coming of age, and questioning of identity, make it a truly great piece of literature.
Tess also told me I had to put this book trailer in here somewhere.
Today's guest reviewer is Tess Goldwasser, Youth Services Librarian and Early Childhood Community Liaison, St. Mary's County Library, Maryland. Tess also writes about picture books at Kid's Book Blog.

Monday, February 3, 2014

2015 Contenders: Zane and the Hurricane, by Rodman Philbrick

Twelve-year-old Zane Dupree has been sent to visit his great-grandmother in New Orleans. He's never met her before, but it turns out that they get along well, and she is also very kind to Zane's cherished dog, Bandit. However, it's August of 2005, and Hurricane Katrina is about to unleash its full fury on the Gulf Coast. When it does, Zane finds himself struggling to survive in a city that has suddenly become a nightmare.

The descriptions of the surreal, destroyed city are the single best thing about Zane and the Hurricane. The extreme physical discomfort that everyone left in New Orleans is experiencing also comes through very strongly. The book's visceral sense of place is really what propels it forward, and it's very well done indeed.

The plotting, however, is loose at best. The book provides a formidable, unsettling villain in the drug lord Dylan Toomey, but fails to give his plot thread any kind of payoff. The ending of the book in general seemed noticeably weak to me, relying as it does on deus ex machina appearances of secondary characters, who step into a moment of crisis and wrap everything up. I also question whether the epilogue really is necessary to the book's effectiveness.

The main characters aren't particularly well-rounded either. Trudell Manning, renowned session musician and Zane's new friend Malvina's temporary guardian, is probably the best of them, a genuine New Orleans blend of flamboyance and sadness. Zane's narration, however, veers inconsistently from the highly colloquial to the poetic, and Malvina's depth is largely provided by a secret that proves not to be particularly significant.

This is Rodman Philbrick's first children's book since The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg (2009 publication, 2010 Newbery Honor), and the mere fact that he's got a new book out is cause for celebration. I don't think this one will win the same accolades as the previous one though, although it's early in the year yet.

Publication in February by The Blue Sky Press / Scholastic