Wednesday, September 24, 2014

2015 Contenders: Rotten Ralph's Rotten Family, by Jack Gantos

Being as Newbery-focused as we are around For Those About To Mock, we tend to think of Jack Gantos for Joey Pigza and the Norvelt books. However, Gantos started his career as a picture book author, and he's returned to Rotten Ralph time and time again for almost four decades now.

As is true of many popular picture book series, Ralph's later adventures have expanded to easy readers. In Rotten Ralph's Rotten Family, a suddenly introspective Ralph returns to his childhood home and family to try and discover the root of his rottenness. His memories of his younger years are decidedly rose-colored, but he quickly discovers that they may not be altogether accurate.

It's somehow fitting that, with Gantos at the helm, a lighthearted tale about a mischievous feline quickly takes a sharp turn into Cat Hands On Misery To Cat. The story has a moral, but that moral (essentially, "it's possible to rise above one's abusive childhood") is both highly unusual and abnormally dark in a genre that's pitched to six-year-olds. That it works at all is a testament to Gantos's dexterity and skill as a writer. Still, anyone who thought that the dream sequence in Penny and Her Marble was a bit bleak is probably going to be horrified by Rotten Ralph's Rotten Family.

What makes Gantos great, however, is his ability to blend the surreal and the all-too-real into a concoction that goes down smoothly despite lacking any excess sugar at all -- sort of like Roald Dahl if Dahl viewed humanity with affection instead of detestation. As such, Gantos fans will likely find Rotten Family right up their alley. I think it's too left-field to win the Geisel, much less the Newbery, but it's not as if Gantos needs any more awards for his books to find the readers that they deserve.

Published in March by Farrar Straus Giroux

Thursday, September 11, 2014

2015 Contenders: The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, by Dana Alison Levy

Back in 2005, Jeanne Birdsall did such a good job of updating the traditional "family novel" that her effort, The Penderwicks, won the National Book Award for Young People. I am, *ahem*, kind of a Penderwicks fan, but I have to give some credence to one of the most common critiques of the series: that in attempting to establish a "timeless" tone, Birdsall actually fails to create an accurate portrait of the modern world. There are cell phones and computers in Penderwickia, but they are rarely used. The sisters never play video games. I don't think they even mention tv.

Not so with the Fletchers, of Dana Alison Levy's debut novel, The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher. The Fletchers text and email (sometimes with hilarious results). They say "dude," and "sick," and "awesome," and occasionally other, less printable words* (they all contribute to a "rude word jar" when they slip up).

They are a thoroughly modern family in composition and background as well: two dads and four adopted sons (two white, one African-American, one Indian). Levy deliberately downplays the diversity of the family - letting their traits and backgrounds emerge naturally in the course of the narrative - and in doing so she makes her focus clear. This is primarily a family story, in the classic mode of All-Of-A-Kind Family, Little Women, and Ginger Pye, and the Fletchers just happen to reflect what a family might look like in the 21st century.

In her own Goodreads review of the book, Levy says, "I'll be honest, I am a sucker for `comfort food' books - you know, books you can curl up with and feel like the world is an okay place for a little while," and that is exactly what you should expect from the Fletchers: comfort. Everyone in their little Massachusetts (I think? Possibly Maine?) town seems cool with the whole gay parenting thing, and the boys worry more about being ostracized for their thespian leanings than their racial backgrounds. Is that a flaw in the book? I would argue that it's not, because one, it's reflective of the genre, and two, isn't this what we mean with the whole "we need diverse books" campaign? That we need books about all kinds of diverse characters leading all kinds of lives?

I have to admit, though, that this book is precisely my cup of tea, so I'm biased. If I were on the Newbery Committee, it would definitely be a contender for one of my nominations - great characters, lots of humor, multiple well-realized settings, etc. Once we reached the discussion stage, I'm sure one of my other committee members would help me see it through less rosy lenses.

Since I'm just armchair quarterbacking, though, I'll just sit here and bask in the Fletchers' glow (until one of you'un comes to tell me otherwise).

*And can I just say how happy that makes me? Granted, the Penderwick paterfamilias deals with the chaos of the household by retreating to his office as often as possible, but even so, you can't tell me that having four children in the house would not result in the parent(s) screaming profanity at least once a week. I mean, I only have one child, and if I had a rude word jar in my house, its earnings would probably outpace my 401K.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

2015 Contenders - The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier

As vagabond Irish immigrants in nineteenth-century England, Molly and Kip don't have a lot of employment options. That's why they're headed to the cursed "sour woods," against the advice of everyone they meet, to take up employment as domestic servants. When they arrive, it's pretty clear to the reader that the advice was sound: the house is creepy, the family appears to be suffering from some kind of wasting disease, and the whole estate is dominated by a giant, menacing tree that is actually growing into the house. As I said, though: no options. So they stay. And bad things happen.

I should like this book, and I do, I guess. I just don't love it (I started it back in April, put it down, and just recently picked it up and finished it), and I'm not really sure why. I'll try to lay it out in practical terms.


  • The setting is well-realized, at least insofar as the house and its environs are concerned. The author achieves a nebulous sense of wrongness about everything in the sour woods. 
  • The characters have some depth and complexity. Molly and Kip, as well as the members of the Windsor family, achieve some believable personal growth during the course of the narrative. Secondary characters, particularly Hazel the storyteller, added color (though the two ruffians were kind of stock).
  • Style? I don't think it was distinguished, but neither was it clunky. 
  • The tone and pacing combine to give the story a genuinely frightening edge, the likes of which we don't see often enough in juvenile fiction. The night gardener himself is a scary bastard. 


  • It's another book about the power of story. Look, I believe in the power of story. I tell stories semi-professionally. I am trained in personal story facilitation. But the "power of story" theme is wearing seriously thin with me. It's right up there with the "librarian as savior" picture books that seem to be published on an annual basis. I am in the choir, folks! There's no need to preach in this direction.
  • To put the above in Newbery terms: theme. I don't think Auxier's thematic touch is light enough. As an example: when Molly brings Kip back from near-death with a story, there were some eyes rolling in this reader's head. 

It's a good book, and I will recommend it to readers of Bellairs, Aiken, and Gaiman, but I don't think it's a great book, nor the most distinguished J Fiction I've read this year.

Published in May by Harry Abrams.