Thursday, August 28, 2014

2015 Contenders: Angel Island, by Russell Freedman

Almost everyone in the United States knows at least something about Ellis Island, the gateway for immigrants arriving from Europe. However, Ellis Island's Pacific counterpart, Angel Island, remains much more obscure. I know I couldn't have told you anything about it before reading Angel Island.

There's a certain assurance of quality that comes with Russell Freedman's name, and Angel Island more than lives up to expectations. Freedman details the racism and onerous legal restrictions that faced immigrants from China, Japan, Korea, and elsewhere in Asia, with many references to primary accounts. Scattered throughout the book are a number of achingly sad poems -- mostly anonymous pieces that were written on the walls of the Angel Island detention barracks. They're a heart-rending window into a troubled part of America's past.

The archival photographs that accompany the text, though they're outside the Newbery criteria, are excellent and well-chosen. Freedman's author's notes and acknowledgments also provide insight into the work process of one of America's foremost children's authors. It's a really well-designed book, and both Freedman and his publisher, Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), should be proud.

Despite the fact that Angel Island is an excellent book (for my money, a superior title to Freedman's previous effort, last year's Becoming Ben Franklin, and the equal of the one before that, Abraham Lincoln & Frederick Douglass), I'm not sanguine about its Newbery chances. Although the Newbery guidelines are essentially genre-neutral, the last year that more than one nonfiction book (leaving out poetry and folklore) was honored was 1951. My library hold for Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson's verse memoir, hasn't yet been filled, but it has five starred reviews that I've seen, and the other early critical opinions are uniformly brilliant, with many reviewers naming it as the Newbery front-runner. I'm not sure that Angel Island is enough of a standout to beat that, and, to go back to books I've actually read, I'm also not sure it's superior to A Woman in the House (And Senate). Freedman might conceivably be able to add another Sibert Honor to his crowded awards shelf, but that's as high as I'm willing to project for it. I would, however, consider it a must-purchase title, and a worthy addition to what's possibly the most impressive corpus of work in the history of American children's nonfiction.

Publication in October by Clarion Books / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

2015 Contenders: The Madman of Piney Woods, by Christopher Paul Curtis

 The Madman of Piney Woods comes billed prominently as "A companion to the Newbery Honor book Elijah of Buxton." Elijah, however, remains a hole in my children's literature reading -- it came out when I was working in the adult department, and I've just never gone back to read it -- and so I encountered Madman as an independent work.

In fairness, Madman is set decades later than Elijah, and simply happens to use some of the characters in the earlier work as (relatively) minor figures. The main story arc follows Benji Alston, a black boy who dreams of becoming a newspaper reporter, and Red Stockard, an Irish-Canadian boy who wants to be a scientist. Both of them have encountered a mysterious man who lives out in the woods, and both are trying to find their own places in their families, communities, and beyond.

When Rachael and I were talking about Christopher Paul Curtis's last "companion novel," The Mighty Miss Malone, she mentioned that the prose was consistently high-quality, but the book didn't really hang together fully as a novel. Any individual page is wonderful, but it's less than the sum of its parts. That's exactly the feeling I had reading The Madman of Piney Woods. It's a series of beautiful paragraphs that doesn't really produce a successful book.

One of the difficulties I had with Madman is the way it's constructed. It's told in alternating first-person narration; however, it's not until page 197 of my ARC that the two narratives intersect. Up until that point, it basically felt like reading two separate novels, and many of those early chapters have only minimal impact on what turns out to be the main plot. The prose was engaging enough to keep me reading, but the lack of interplay between the narratives and the sluggishness of the pacing was troubling. Additionally, some of the minor characters seemed to exist simply as plot devices -- Mr. Bennett is the worst offender here, but he's by no means the only one.

But really, I guess my biggest problem with Madman is that it didn't seem to contain a story that needed to be told. In Curtis's best work, this isn't an issue -- Bud, Not Buddy, for instance, is centered around a well-developed character, Bud, who has a real and pressing problem, finding his father. Although many of the characters in Madman claim to have deep and abiding wants and struggles, those urges seem to get lost on their way to the page.

I don't feel any hesitation in saying the Christopher Paul Curtis is one of the four or five most important American children's authors still writing. I do note, however, that this is his third consecutive book that's a companion or sequel (after Mr. Chickee's Messy Mission and The Mighty Miss Malone), and he hasn't published a fully original novel since 2007. I hope that he returns to the inventiveness and brilliance of his peak work, because we need his voice. The Madman of Piney Woods, however, is a second-tier book from a first-tier author, and I don't think the Newbery committee will decide to honor it.

Publication in September by Scholastic.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

2015 Contenders: Revolution, by Deborah Wiles

I listened to the bulk of Revolution on a grueling, ten hour drive from southern Maine back to my home on Maryland's Eastern Shore. I finally crossed the Delaware Memorial Bridge and turned onto Delaware Route 1 just as the sun was setting, and the loblolly pines and marsh grass were bathed in warm, amber light. Everything felt suddenly easier, and more beautiful. "Oh man," I told my daughter. "It is so good to be back on the Eastern Shore."

That feeling - that fierce pride in one's home - is a thread that runs throughout Wiles' novel, the second book in her Sixties Trilogy. It's a feeling that unites all of the stakeholders in the turbulent summer of 1964 in Greenwood, Mississippi - "Freedom Summer" - when "invaders" from outside Mississippi mount a massive black voter registration campaign throughout the state.

As in Countdown, the reader views this particular historical moment through the eyes of children.  Sunny Fairchild is a twelve-year-old white girl with a fierce love for her town - its swimming pool, its movie theatre, its library, and even its dusty courthouse. She's resistant to change, both in the town and in her own family, which has recently been invaded by a stepmother and two step-siblings.

Raymond, as a "colored" boy is, of course, barred from all of Sunny's favorite experiences, and his keen awareness of this injustice sets the plot in motion. He sneaks into the swimming pool at night on the same night that Sunny and her stepbrother have decided to go for a forbidden late-night swim. The children literally collide, and from that point forward, their paths are intertwined with one another, along with the larger stories of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), the Ku Klux Klan, and everyone else with a stake in the racial integration of the town and the state.

In her "documentary novels," Deborah Wiles begins each chapter with primary sources from the time period, including speeches, song lyrics, political slogans, and pamphlets. In the print version of the book, these take the form of a sort of collage. In the audiobook, they are presented as a sound collage, performed by a full cast. The execution is magnificent and the effect is powerful. It does, however, make me hesitant to comment on the Newbery chances of this book, because so much of my reaction to it stems from having experienced it as an audiobook. I know that Revolution affected me more powerfully than Countdown, which I read in print, and I wonder how much of that can be traced to the format.

With that caveat, I can say, with confidence, that Wiles has achieved distinction in every category mentioned in the Newbery criteria. The setting is brilliantly realized, the characters (both major and minor) are complex and vivid, and the thematic elements are handled with deftness and subtlety. Prose style is always more difficult for me to discern when I'm listening to a book, but it seemed elegant and fluid. I would love to add it to our Mock Newbery roster this year, so I can read the print edition and form a more educated opinion.

Published in May by Scholastic

2015 Contenders: The Mark of the Dragonfly, by Jaleigh Johnson

What is The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson? Is it Steampunk? Is it Sci-fi? Is it Fantasy? IT'S ALL THE THINGS.

Piper is an orphan living in Scrap Town 16. She makes a living scavenging junk found in meteor fields. She's an eerily talented machinist, and hopes to one day make enough coin to leave for better prospects in the Merrow Kingdom's capital city.

One day, after a particularly harrowing meteor shower, she happens upon a destroyed caravan, with a girl inside, who mysteriously bears the mark of the dragonfly: an intricate tattoo sported only by favorites of the King himself. Piper nurses the girl back to find she's quite a peculiar person. Anna is obsessed with order and organization, seemingly constantly preoccupied with analyzing whether things make logical sense to her, and her head is filled to the brim with information, not all of it practically useful. Before Piper can decide if she's made a huge mistake inviting this strange girl into her life, they're confronted by a man who claims to be related to Anna. Anna has no clear memory of him, and certainly bad vibes about him, so Piper and Anna flee the man, and the scrap town, aboard the 401, an old but beautiful train. Anna's dragonfly buys them passage, but not the trust of the train's head of security, Gee, a young man with a chip on his shoulder, and inhumanly green eyes.

The story takes off from here, as we try to unravel the mystery of who Anna is, and why anyone would be after her.

This book has got a bit of everything: Mythology, high speed chase scenes, cross-bow show-downs, magic, plot twists, even a little chaste romance. Also: A whole heck of a lot of GIRL POWER.

In regards to its literary merit, I found it to be well written, with dynamic characters, and a carefully constructed story line. Some may see Johnson's world building as a mish-mash of genres, but I liked it! Who says you can't mix your fantasy with your sci-fi? Probably the same fascists who don't want you mixing chocolate with peanut butter. It only makes the book more appealing, in my opinion. I can already think of a ton of kids who are going to be so hyped when I tell them about this book.

Is it a contender for the Newbery? I say why not? It's kind of "out there," but so were When You Reach Me and The Graveyard Book, and it got a starred review from Kirkus, which is typically a good sign. I think it's definitely praise-worthy, and I hope it's at least on the committee's radar. If nothing else, it gets two thumbs up from this humble librarian.


Today's guest reviewer is Tess Goldwasser, Youth Services Librarian, St. Mary's County Library, Maryland. Tess also writes about picture books at Kid's Book Blog.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

2015 Contenders: The Fourteenth Goldfish, by Jennifer Holm

Science is having a big moment right now. We effing love it! STEM is everywhere (I refuse to add the "a," because Science Technology Engineering Arts and Math is just shorthand for "everything.") Neil deGrasse Tyson is a rock star (of course, my own child has grown so tired of him that she refers to him as Neil deGrasse Buttcheek, but I digress).

In that context, it's a great time for a book like The Fourteenth Goldfish to come along - a book that not only celebrates science as a discipline, but also delves into some interesting questions about scientific ethics.

Ellie has just entered the sixth grade, and big changes are in store. Her former best friend has drifted away into volleyball, her babysitter has quit, and her mother has brought a teenage boy home to live with them. Not just any teenager boy, though: Ellie's scientist grandfather, who has managed to reverse his own aging process with the help of a rare jellyfish. Grandpa/Melvin enrolls in school along with Ellie, and as she teaches him how to navigate sixth grade, he introduces her to the world of science.

Jenni Holm's prose is so buoyant that I was surprised, when I finished the novel, to realize what weighty themes she had addressed. Early on, Ellie learns about some famous scientists - most notably Jonas Salk, Robert Oppenheimer, and Marie Curie. As the plot advances, the dilemmas faced by these figures help to frame the moral decisions that Ellie and Melvin must confront. The "fourteenth goldfish" of the title initially seems like a pointless detour, but by the time Holm reintroduces it at the end of the book, it feels both surprising and inevitable.

It's very satisfying. I love a good ending.

There are some great characters too - teenage grandpa Melvin is a great invention, and supporting characters like Ellie's new friend Raj are vivid as well.

The novel is not without its flaws. Ellie's drama teacher mom is a bit much - I used to be a drama nerd, and my directors never raided the costume closet for their daily attire. And some of Ellie's internal philosophizing feels heavy-handed and ultimately unnecessary, given the way the plot reinforces the themes on its own.

I'm not really sure about the Newbery chances of The Fourteenth Goldfish... It feels, in some ways, similar to Flora and Ulysses, which I thought was too light and quirky to win consensus, and I was wrong on that count. In any case, it's a great title to hand to fans of Cosmos, or to tie in with a STEM (not STEAM!) unit.

Expected publication: August 26th 2014 by Random House Books for Young Readers

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

2015 Contenders: Under the Egg, by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

Theodora Tenpenny's life has fallen apart as Under the Egg opens. Her grandfather, Jack, has died in an accident -- and while this would be a tragedy under any circumstances, it's worse because Jack was the one responsible adult in the Tenpenny household. Now, with almost no remaining money, a mentally ill mother to care for, and a house that's falling down around her, Theo is just trying to keep her head above water.

When Theo finds that a painting her grandfather made conceals a different painting behind it -- a painting that may in fact be an incredibly valuable Raphael -- she embarks on an adventure to try and figure out what the painting is, how her grandfather acquired it, and whether it can help save her fracturing world. An unlikely new friend named Bodhi may be able to help her, but other people are interested in the painting and its mystery as well, including the police.

The reviews of Under the Egg have name-checked some of the best-loved mystery novels in American children's literature: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, The Westing Game, Chasing Vermeer. In many ways, the comparisons are deserving. I really liked the gently satirical character of Bodhi, and if Theo isn't the most original protagonist, she's not difficult to spend time with either. The mystery of the painting takes plenty of exciting twists and turns. The setting is richly realized also -- a present-day Manhattan in which Theo's family no longer has much of a place.

The ending, however, has drawn some criticism, and I think that criticism is valid. Booklist gave Under the Egg a starred review, but still noted that the ending wasn't "wholly satisfying"; School Library Journal also lamented the book's "all-too-convenient ending." Other reviewers were more kind (Betsy Bird loved, loved, loved it), but I'd side with the critics in this instance. The wrap-up of the plot requires coincidences of Dickensian proportions, and after all the hard work that went into setting up the mystery, I couldn't help but feel a little like I'd been cheated.

If you're the kind of reader who enjoys the journey more than the destination, Under the Egg may be one of the best books of the year for you. If you prefer your puzzle-boxes to have more strict rules, you'll likely feel differently. Under the Egg wouldn't make my list of the cream of 2014, but its real strengths mean that it will probably make such lists for other folks. I expect there to be a lot of discussion about Under the Egg between now and Newbery day.

Published in March by Dial/Penguin