Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2016 Contenders: Kiki and Jacques, by Susan Ross

On the surface, Jacques, a lifelong resident of his rural Maine town, seems to have little in common with Kiki, a Somali refugee who, with many of her family and friends, has only just arrived. However, a bond soon forms between the two, which might just help them overcome a raft of difficulties that come their way.

There's a lot going on in Susan Ross' debut novel -- probably too much. Between the arrival of the Somali refugees, the financial difficulties threatening Jacques' grandmother's bridal shop, Jacques and the captaincy of his soccer team, a girl with an obvious crush on Jacques, Jacques' alcoholic father, Kiki's desire to play soccer, the attempts by a neighborhood lout to bully Jacques into committing crime, a possible romance for Jacques' grandmother, and probably a few I've forgotten, it's an incredibly complicated plot, and given that Kiki and Jacques clocks in at a brisk 144 pages, many of the elements get a perfunctory treatment, and many of the characters don't feel completely developed.

And yet, I enjoyed reading Kiki and Jacques in spite of all that. It's never boring, and it gets a lot of mileage out of a setting (small-town Maine when Somali refugees begin settling there) that's  underused in children's lit. Especially given all of the political talk about refugees going on in the US right now, the book feels more than a little timely, and I imagine plenty of libraries will want to put Kiki and Jacques on their shelves.

I don't see it placing in the Newbery lists; it has distinguished elements in setting, but it's not the masterpiece of construction and writing that several of the year's leading contenders are. I'd certainly like to read some more from Susan Ross, however, and I hope this book brings her work to the notice of many readers.

Published in October by Holiday House.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Books We Read Because We Didn't Realize the Publication Was Pushed Back to 2017: Sondheim

I am deeply confused by this book.

The first 143 pages cover the first thirty years of Sondheim's career (1957-1987).

The last four pages cover the second twenty-eight years (1987-2015; it will be an even thirty years by the time the book is released in 2017).

I mean... I just... what?!

He has written actual shows since 1987 - granted, only five of them, compared to the fourteen he did before that (if you start with West Side Story). None of them were big hits, but Merrily We Roll Along was a notorious flop, and we got a whole chapter on that one.

*scratches head*

Anyway, the coverage of the first half of Sondheim's career is well-researched and interesting enough (it helps to be a huge theatre nerd, which I am). It doesn't exactly shine in the areas of pacing and narrative structure - The Family Romanov this ain't - but it provides a nice, detailed look at a giant of musical theatre.


Expected publication: May 2017, by Roaring Brook Press. 

(Though Goodreads also notes that it was first published November 3, 2015. No sign of that on MacMillan's site, where you can order the ebook to be delivered in 2017.)

(It's also a Neal Porter book. Curiouser and curiouser.)

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Mock Caldecott Results and Future Plans

Librarians from the Eastern Shore of Maryland (and some from the other side of the bay too) met to discuss six candidates for our Mock Caldecott medalist. When we cast our votes, the winners were...

Winner: Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, by Don Brown
Honor: Wait, by Antoinette Portis

Thanks to everyone who attended, and especially to our discussion leaders, Julie Ranelli and Natalie Lane. Special thanks to Heidi Hammond and Gail Nordstrom for their wonderful presentation on reading the art in Caldecott books. It was a fun day! 

Long-time readers of this blog may ask why we held a Mock Caldecott rather than the usual Mock Newbery. Well, we wanted to try something new. I started the Mock Newbery several years ago as a opportunity for local librarians to hone their book evaluation skills. I was really excited about it at the time, but the last couple of years I have noticed my excitement waning, so Sam and I decided it was time to get excited about something else. 

(I am always excited about art - especially picture book art - but I had never really immersed myself in the critical language of evaluating that particular medium.) 

What does that mean for the future of About to Mock? Well, we don't have any plans to close up shop (especially since we just added Tess!) but the format of the blog may change slightly next year. More on that to come. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Ones That Got Away: Ramona the Pest, by Beverly Cleary

Almost every good children's book has well-developed child characters, but there are certain authors whose works seem to exhibit a truly exceptional grasp on how children act, think, and feel. I think of authors such as Kevin Henkes, Louise FitzHugh, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Jack Gantos. And I certainly think of Beverly Cleary, whose characters are so clearly-written that I half expect to look up from one of her books to see Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins, or Leigh Botts standing in front of me.

It's this quality, I think, that makes Ramona the Pest such a standout book. The novel is loosely arranged around Ramona's adventures during her first few months of kindergarten, but what makes the individual set pieces work is the richness and warmth of the characters. Perhaps even more importantly, the relationships between Ramona and the other characters feel natural and real. Ramona's sometimes-exasperated friendship with her neighbor and classmate, Howie Kemp; the mix of love and fear with which she regards her teacher, Miss Binney; the way in which Ramona interacts with her parents -- all of these are note-perfect.

Cleary wrote the Ramona series slowly, with some 44 years separating the first (Beezus and Ramona, 1955) from the last (Ramona's World, 1999). Several of the titles won major awards -- the fourth and sixth (Ramona and Her Father, 1977, and Ramona Quimby, Age 8, 1981) were Newbery Honor books, and the fifth, 1979's Ramona and Her Mother, won the National Book Award. Ramona the Pest, the second in the series, came out in 1968, but was shut out of the 1969 Newbery list.

Even if we were to re-award that year's medal today, Ramona the Pest wouldn't be likely to win; the 1969 Newbery went to Lloyd Alexander's The High King, which remains an undisputed classic. It's interesting to note, however, that the committee only named two Honor books: To Be a Slave, by Julius Lester, and When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw and Other Stories, by Isaac Bashevis Singer. If it were up to me, I'd be tempted to add Ramona the Pest to that number.

As it stands, although none of the Ramona books took the top honor, they're firmly in the pantheon of American children's literature regardless, and Cleary did eventually win the 1984 Newbery Medal, for Dear Mr. Henshaw. I suppose even every great book can't make the Newbery rolls, but I do remain in awe of Cleary's ability to honestly and gently depict the thoughts and feelings of children.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

2016 Contenders: Drowned City, by Don Brown

Hurricane Katrina was the sixth-deadliest natural disaster in the history of the United States. Even that fact possibly understates the significance of Katrina to modern history; three of the events with more fatalities happened during the 19th century (the 1889 storm that led to the Johnstown Flood, the 1893 Cheniere Caminada Hurricane, and the 1900 Galveston Hurricane), and the other two (the 1906 Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, and the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane) took place during the Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge administrations, respectively. Americans had certainly experienced mass tragedies related to war and terrorism, but no natural disaster on the scale of Katrina had occurred in the US in living memory -- or in the modern media age.

We now have ten years of perspective on Katrina, and dozens of books have been written on the subject, including titles we've reviewed here. Drowned City belongs in the very top tier of those books, and may be the best of those written with a juvenile audience in mind. It briefly but effectively sets the stage -- important, given that much of its readership is too young to remember Katrina -- and then brilliantly describes conditions inside the ruined city, as well as the responses to the tragedy, which ranged from the heroic to the unforgivably incompetent.

All of this is done in spare, poignant language; this is a book that shows, rather than tells. The few lines of dialogue are taken directly from primary sources and news reports, all noted in the carefully cited back matter. Although we can tell where Brown's sympathies as an author lie, he holds back from using words that blame, preferring instead to let his readers come to their own conclusions.

Of course, Drowned City is a nonfiction "graphic novel," and so the interplay between the words and the images is where much of the book's meaning is created. The body language of Brown's figures perfectly captures the range of emotions surrounding Katrina, and his stark wide-screen drawings of the utter devastation that followed the storm pack a visceral punch. Brown does not shy away from the hard realities of his subject; although it's all tasteful, and I maintain that the book is certainly appropriate for a middle-school reader, Drowned City includes pictures of storefronts being looted, corpses floating in the flooded streets, and people trying to break out of their attics before the water rises high enough to drown them.

Up until the last couple years, I would have assumed that Drowned City was too visual an experience to show up in the Newbery rolls; after Flora & Ulysses and El Deafo, I'm less sure. I do hope the Sibert committee notices how carefully Brown has used his sources, and how clearly he presents his information.

Published in August by HMH Books for Young Readers

Friday, October 23, 2015

2016 Contenders: Crenshaw, by Katherine Applegate

This past weekend, I was having brunch with two of my favorite people, Sam and Rachael, and the inevitable topic of conversation among a gathering of book lovers came up: “Whatcha reading?” I told them I was reading Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate. They asked if I was liking it. I sighed. I said I didn’t know how I felt about it. I told them the basic plot, and Sam said “Oh, it’s like Harvey for kids.” And I realized he was exactly correct, and that indeed I didn’t know how I felt about a Harvey for kids.

Harvey, for those who aren’t familiar, is a play by Mary Chase, which was famously adapted to a 1950 film starring Jimmy Stewart. It’s the story of a man named Elwood P. Dowd, who has a friend named Harvey, who he says is a six foot tall walking rabbit. Elwood’s family wonders if they should have him committed. There are clues that lead you to question whether Harvey is imaginary or just invisible to everyone but Elwood, but the general consensus is that he’s suffering from a delusion, but it’s a delusion that isn’t hurting anyone, least of all kind and caring Elwood, so he is spared the sanitarium.

Crenshaw is very much a nod to Harvey. Applegate even opens the book with a quote from the play. It’s the story of a boy named Jackson. Jackson is a fifth grader who loves facts. He’s very logical, values honesty, and wants to be scientist. When he was in first grade he had an imaginary friend, a very large talking cat named Crenshaw, but that’s baby stuff, and he’s outgrown Crenshaw. Or so he thinks. Much to his chagrin, Crenshaw has shown up in his life again.

Come to find out, Jackson met Crenshaw when his family was homeless. Both his parents lost their jobs. In addition to struggling financially, Jackson’s dad was also diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. When they could no longer afford to live in their house, the entire family - Jackson, his parents, his sister Robin who was just a baby then, and their dog Aretha - moved into their minivan. Times were very hard, and having a friend helped, so Crenshaw became a part of Jackson’s life. Eventually Jackson’s parents saved enough money for an apartment and re-establish some stability.

That was years ago, but lately Jackson’s noticed some serious signs of insecurity - a distinct lack of variety of food in the pantry, frequent yard sales, his parents arguing about applying for assistance - and he’s frankly scared to be homeless again. He’s also frustrated by his parents who insist on changing the subject when it arises or feigning that things are better than they are. It’s about this time Crenshaw reappears.

There were things about Crenshaw that were problematic for me.

For one, the character of Crenshaw is kind of pompous. I mean, he’s a cat, so I suppose that’s to be expected. But there are moments I felt he was impatient with Jackson, who is befuddled by his return. He alludes to being smarter than Jackson, which I guess could be true, but isn’t very friendly, and what is an imaginary friend supposed to be if not friendly?

There are a few Harvey-esque moments where you may question whether Crenshaw is truly an invention of Jackson’s stressed imagination, or if he’s… well… something else? So I guess you could categorize the book as magical realism, and if you go into it prepared for that kind of story you may enjoy it more than I did.

Another, totally valid in my opinion, way to read Crenshaw is as a horror story.

I recently had an in-depth online conversation with several friends about whether or not Halloween, and “scary” things in general, have been too toned down, to make things “kid-friendly.” What prompted the conversation was during a twilight walk through my neighborhood I realized that Halloween here had basically turned into “orange Christmas,” with twinkling lights replacing any more menacing decorations. Even the jack-o-lanterns looked cute. Traumatizing children is a real concern, of course, and caregivers should know and respect their children enough to not expose them to things they can’t handle yet. Trick-or-treating is supposed to fun. But it’s also supposed to be scary! Is it right to throw away traditions so we won’t upset anyone? Is it wrong to spook our kids every now and then, especially when we know danger isn’t actually present? I cited Grimm fairy tales, and an Austrian Krampuslauf, as examples of safe but scary things for children. Maybe I was a weird kid, but I liked creepy stuff, like Tim Burton movies, and Alvin Schwartz books, when I was young. And I tend to believe experiencing fear through media can help children be resilient when forced to face fear in real life. Are there monsters in my closet? Definitely not. The conversation unexpectedly meandered into a discussion about what is actually scary in the world - things like war, hunger, and social injustice - and how long we ought to protect children from these things, to maintain their innocence. I had not considered a correlation between the horror of ghosts and witches and things that are realistically scary. Like becoming homeless. And I think this idea very much colored my reading of Crenshaw.

Jackson is scared of his family being homeless again. He’s scared there won’t be enough to eat. He’s also scared when his dad has to use a cane, and I think it’s safe to say he’s a bit scared of the enormous talking cat he didn’t invite back into his life, showing up all over the place, making him question his own sanity. I could see this book truly distressing a sensitive reader. I work in a public library where homelessness and hunger are not far-fetched concerns for many in our service area, and I know kids who are housing insecure and food insecure. By the way, I want to give big ups to the librarian in this book, who is helpful and non-judgmental. Way to be, fictional librarian. You are a hero.

I found the ending of Crenshaw to be a bit ambiguous. Throughout the book the reader is lead to believe Crenshaw is only present when Jackson is in need (even if he doesn’t think he is in need). When Jackson’s family’s financial troubles appear to be resolved, at least for the time being, we presume Crenshaw will go away again, but he doesn’t. I was unsatisfied by this, because I wanted Jackson to be “okay” and I’m not sure him continuing to see and hear things others cannot constitutes being okay. But if Harvey is the precedent, I suppose it’s fine to just leave the story there?

I think Crenshaw is probably under consideration for the Newbery, however I don’t know how strong a contender it is. I don’t think it's as finely crafted as Applegate’s 2013 winner The One and Only Ivan. But it is a thought-provoking, opinion-inspiring novel, so the committee will at least have a possibly rollicking, possibly raucous, discussion about it ahead of them. Let the literary throw-down commence! Oh, and...

Friday, October 9, 2015

2016 Contenders: Fuzzy Mud, by Louis Sachar

Marshall Walsh's life has steadily been getting worse for quite some time, and today, bully Chad Hilligas has promised to fight him after school. Not wanting to engage, Marshall -- along with his neighbor Tamaya Dhilwaddi, who walks to and from school with him -- takes a shortcut through the woods, even though they're not supposed to do so.

What happens next threatens the lives of all three children, as well as those of everyone else in the town of Heath Cliff, Pennsylvania -- and possibly further afield. Something has happened at SunRay Farm, a place where eccentric scientist Jonathan Fitzman has been researching alternative biofuel, and that something has terrifying repercussions.

The most obvious point of comparison for Fuzzy Mud is probably Carl Hiassen's children's novels, given their shared concern for environmental themes. The book that Fuzzy Mud most reminded me of, however, wasn't a children's book at all, but rather, The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton's 1969 techno-thriller about a deadly, mutating pathogen. Both books ask hard questions about the ways in which technological progress can accidentally have deadly results, and both are threaded with nail-biting tension. Indeed, I thought the menacing tone of Fuzzy Mud -- especially in the scenes that take place in the woods -- was its finest feature.

To address what I felt was the book's biggest weakness, it's useful to go back to the Crichton comparison. (Spoilers follow.) The plot of The Andromeda Strain starts with the scenes of horror in the small town where all but two of the inhabitants have been killed by the title infection. Once it's discovered that a pathogen is involved, the story shifts to the scientists who are trying to understand the infection and develop a cure. Fuzzy Mud pulls off the equivalent of the first part with aplomb -- the scenes in which Tamaya slowly realizes what is happening to her are stunning, and the moment where she finds a nearly-dead Chad in the woods is utterly brilliant. However, the equivalent of the second part felt perfunctory and rushed, and I think the reason is that, because Sachar doesn't want to cut away from his child protagonists for very long, and all three of them are in the hospital and incapacitated, he's essentially painted himself into a corner.

In order for the second part to feel like it's of equal weight to the first, Sachar probably would have had to add in some other child characters who might have been able to be directly involved in the search for a cure -- or, possibly, to be willing to spend more time with secondary characters like Monica or Marshall's family as they deal with the quarantine under which the town is placed. As it stands, the novel feels almost more like one of those 1950s-era short films for students, the kind that told half of a story with thorny moral and ethical problems, and then stopped to ask "What would YOU do?" This is the rare 190-page children's book that really cries out to be longer.

All that said, Fuzzy Mud is still a very good book. As far as Sachar's work goes, however, it's not on the level of Holes or Sideways Stories from Wayside School, and as far as this year's crop of books goes, I don't think it reaches the heights of Circus Mirandus or Moonpenny Island (among others), and I don't expect it to take home the Newbery Medal.

Published in August by Delacorte / Random House

Monday, October 5, 2015

2016 Contenders: Dear Hank Williams, by Kimberly Willis Holt

The year is 1948 in the small town of Rippling Creek, Louisiana (which has several creeks, none of which are particularly rippling, come to think of it). Tate P. Ellerbee’s new teacher has assigned her students to strike up a correspondence with a pen pal. Tate knows exactly who she’ll write: her favorite singer, Hank Williams, whose music career is just kicking off with a regular gig on the Louisiana Hayride radio show. Tate tells Mr. Hank Williams about how she lives with her Aunt Patty Cake and her Uncle Jolly, how she wants a dog more than anything, and how she’s secretly practicing to sing in the Rippling Creek May Festival Talent Show and (hopefully beat that spoiled brat Verbia Calhoon).

I found several things about the novel quite interesting:

1. It’s historical fiction that really skirts around the edges of the era it’s portraying, rather than tackling it head on. WWII, which has just ended, is only mentioned tangentially, and Rippling Creek’s marginalized African American community is only touched upon. These two things alone could be the subjects of their own books, but Dear Hank Williams is about Tate, who is eleven years old, and her family, who aren’t really affected by those issues, so they become backdrop to the primary drama which is centered around school, and talent shows, and listening to the radio.

2. It takes place during a golden age of music that is dear to my heart: Radio Days. A time when, if you wanted to hear your favorite artist, you had to tune into the radio, maybe at a certain time, on a certain station. A time when procuring and owning a recorded piece of music was extremely special. A time when we had to physically interact with our music (turn the dial on the radio, put the needle on the record). A time when listening to music was a social event you experienced with your friends and family. A time when you could hear someone singing and never know, or care, what they looked like. Vinyl, and independent artists, are enjoying a bit of a resurgence lately, but for the most part all of this is just gone. You can own music as fast you can click “download.” You can easily push a button and listen to it on your headphones. You can know, and judge, what the artist looks like instantaneously. In fact, many people are given record contracts for seemingly no reason besides that their image is marketable! I wonder if the children who’ll read Dear Hank Williams will appreciate this. And I wonder too if they’ll be able to put Hank Williams, an old time country singer, with a proclivity for yodeling, into the context of his time period. Tate is basically writing a pop star. She is basically writing to Justin Bieber (but 2010 Justin Bieber who was kind of adorable, not 2015 Justin Bieber who is kind of ridiculous).

3. Tate is an unreliable narrator, but the untruths she tells are told with such sincerity you forgive and forget her unreliability. It’s quite an achievement on author Kimberly Willis Holt’s part to create a character so likable that you aren’t mad at her for lying, and despite her giving you a totally justifiable reason to mistrust her, you just don’t want to.

4. The book is written in the epistolary style, and is chock full of the folksy charm that seems to automatically accompany any novel set in a small town America, which readers have been known to either love or hate, with little gray area in between. I liked it, but, to quote my favorite bloggers, Sam and Rachael, “your mileage may vary.”

5. The book tackles some tough issues. Substance abuse, abandonment, and death are all explored as Tate journals her feelings in letters to Hank Williams. Her revelations are unexpected, but not unsurprising, and the serious themes are treated with the dignity they deserve.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this book gets attention from the Newbery committee. It can be hard for a group of opinionated librarians (and honorary librarians) to agree on what’s best. I feel Dear Hank Williams could be a unifying book with its many aspects worth celebrating.

For now, let’s channel Tate Ellerbee, and listen to some of that fine music by the late, legendary Hank Williams Sr.

Friday, October 2, 2015

2016 Contenders: Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer, by Kelly Jones

I can't remember the last time I saw Daniel Pinkwater blurb a book. Of course, this one is not only about chickens (a special interest for Pinkwater) - it even name checks Pinkwater and his 1977 classic, The Hoboken Chicken Emergency. That has to be flattering. Still, Pinkwater is such a grouchy old coot that I have to believe he wouldn't praise a book unless he meant it. Of Unusual Chickens, he wrote, "Someone has finally written a real honest-to-goodness novel with chickens!  This news will excite people who like novels, people who like chickens...and chickens.  It is an unusual book!"

That it is. Sort of. On one level, the plot is a familiar one: a city girl moves to the country and struggles to fit in and make friends. In this case, the city girl, Sophie, and her mother are two of the only "brown people" in town (they are Latina), which only increases her feelings of alienation. They've left the city because Sophie's newly unemployed father has inherited a farm from his uncle, and along with it, several "unusual" chickens. 

That's where the other side of the story comes in. The chickens are not unusual in the "Martha Stewart, tiny-pastel-egg-laying" sense, but more in the "turn raccoons into stone and levitate the chicken coop" sense. Clearly, their care calls for an exceptional poultry farmer. Sophie's quest to become that farmer parallels her inner journey as she adjusts to her new surroundings. Of course, since we are dealing with supernatural chickens, there are many absurd and comedic stops along the way. 

First-time novelist Kelly Jones tells Sophie's story mostly through letters to her deceased grandmother, her great-uncle, and Agnes, the farmer who originally sold the unusual chickens. This farmer occasionally writes back, in letters whose erratic spelling and punctuation she blames on a malfunctioning typewriter (this may be a ruse - the unraveling of Agnes's mystery provides one of the more entertaining threads of this tale). The candid first-person narration allows Sophie's practical, wry, tween voice to shine through, and it is an appealing and authentic voice. There's a nice balance between supernatural comedy and real world concerns, and Katie Kath's line drawings play up the humor. 

Unusual Chickens is a small gem of a book, written with a light touch and a sensitive heart. I'll be surprised if it doesn't show up on the Notable Books list, though it's probably a long shot for the Newbery. 

Published in May 2015 by Knopf Books for Young Readers

Thursday, October 1, 2015

New Member of the For Those About to Mock Team: Tess Goldwasser

We've got an exciting announcement to make today! For the first time ever, For Those About to Mock is officially adding a new blog writer. Please join us in welcoming Tess Goldwasser to the For Those About to Mock team!

Longtime readers may recognize Tess's name, as she's already written five guest reviews for us. She's a ukulele queen, an octopus enthusiast, and a style icon. Tess is a Youth Services Librarian at the St. Mary's County Library in Maryland, and has an impressive history of professional service: she's served on the Stonewall Book Award Committee and the GLBTRT News Committee, and she is currently chairing the GLBTRT Advocacy Committee. She's a seasoned book blogger, having written for years over at Kid's Book Blog, and she's been one of our co-presenters at our annual Children's Literature: Best of the Year events for the past several years.

Basically, we can't say enough good things about Tess, and we're bouncing up and down with glee because she's joined the blog team.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

2016 Contenders: George, by Alex Gino

Guest review by Tess Goldwasser:

There are four things I want you to know about George by Alex Gino.

1. George is an important book.

George is a book about George, a boy who is actually a girl. Simply put: George’s outside doesn’t match her inside. She’s a girl trapped, for all intents and purposes, in a boy’s body. George is transgender, and this is hard for her, as you can imagine. Her fourth grade class is performing a play of Charlotte’s Web and George wants to play Charlotte more than anything. But the part is for a girl, and the only person who knows George is really a girl… is George… for now… Dr. Jamie Campbell Naidoo once said to me: books should be mirrors and windows. Good literature should reflect our personal experiences, or offer new perspectives on the experiences of those who are different from us. George will be a mirror or a window to whomever picks it up, and this is important. Dialogue about the transgender experience is important. We should be striving to understand and accept one another.

2. George is a controversial book.

Many will question whether a book about the transgender experience is appropriate for children. It’s a valid question. Are books about slavery appropriate for children? Are books about the holocaust appropriate for children? Are books about Hurricane Katrina appropriate for children? Are books about beloved pets/friends/family members dying appropriate for children? All of these questions are up for debate. I’ll admit there were parts of George that made me uncomfortable, parts that made me wonder: Will a child get this? And if so will it upset them? Ultimately, I feel it’s okay for kids to read things they may not fully understand, and it’s okay for kids to read things that might make them upset. Reading the experiences of characters, and having feelings about them, makes a reader compassionate, and I want the world to be filled with compassionate readers. (And for the kid who is actually living the transgender experience, I believe it’s indubitably 100% appropriate.)

3. George is a painful book.

There are parts of George that are heartbreaking. The conflict between what society expects of George, and what she feels inside is visceral for any sensitive reader. I found the suspense of wondering whether or not George will come out to her loved ones, and whether or not they will accept her, to be downright spine tingling. I lost count of the times I wanted to reach into the book and give George a comforting hug. Despite the book's relatively short length, I wouldn't categorize it as a light read by any means. At one point George says she feels like the butterflies in her stomach have butterflies in their stomachs and all I could think was "YASSS GURL I KNOW!"

4. George is a joyful book.

A colleague, Paula Willey, described George to me as "this year's Wonder" (referencing the uplifting 2012 novel by R.J. Palacio) which caused me to immediately pick it up, because I love books that make you triumphantly pump your fist in the air at the end. George, against the odds, is one of these books. I don't want to spoil the ending for you, but I've never been so happy for someone going to the bathroom in my life. I don't know how authentic the ending is, how many transgender people get to have days like the days George has as she finally embraces her inner self. I hope they do because it was lovely to read, like a fairy tale come true.

I don’t know how much attention this is getting from the Newbery committee. I hope some. I presume it’s getting a lot of attention from the ALA Stonewall Book Award committee. But whether it wins any awards at all is inconsequential to me. What will be most important about this book is that it will hopefully find its way to the readers who need it. (After all, the book is dedicated to “you”)

Tess Goldwasser is a magical ukelele-playing octopus in the guise of a children's librarian. She has served on the Stonewall Book Award Committee and the GLBTRT News Committee, and she is currently chairing the GLBTRT Advocacy Committee. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

2016 Contenders: Milo Speck, Accidental Agent, by Linda Urban

Once an author has written a few books, we often tell ourselves that we know what to expect from them. A Kevin Henkes book will be an existential crisis for elementary schoolers, in the form of a lovingly detailed miniature. A new Jack Gantos title will feature a hapless protagonist in an environment inexorably spiraling out of control, laced with dark humor. Anything by Kate DiCamillo will be funny, but the kind of funny that wears its heart proudly on its sleeve, and it will likely feature at least one animal character.

I thought I had Linda Urban pegged too, as a writer of subdued, carefully-crafted contemporary realism -- someone who would fit well in a group with Cynthia Lord, Gin Phillips, and The Thing About Luck-era Cynthia Kadohata. I never did get around to reading Hound Dog True, but that seemed like a valid assessment of both A Crooked Kind of Perfect and The Center of Everything.

However, Milo Speck, Accidental Agent blows that theory completely away. It's a rollicking, funny, fantasy adventure that's bold and clever, and on the surface at least, has nothing to do with anything Urban has ever written before. In the Author's Note, Urban names Roald Dahl and Edward Eager as her primary influences, and that should give you an accurate idea of how the book reads.

The plot isn't easy to summarize, but involves the adventures of Milo Speck, who falls through a clothes dryer and into the land of Ogregon. Hijinks involving ogres, giant turkeys, secret agents, and more follow. It's the sort of inspired lunacy that often attracts young readers -- it would shock me if this doesn't end up being Urban's book with the most popular appeal.

Surprisingly -- at least to me -- Urban transitions to this mode with apparent effortlessness. Milo Speck is a charming novel that made me smile on numerous occasions. The ending sets up the possibility of a series, so this may not be the last we hear of our accidental protagonist.

I do think, just based on the way the awards committees tend to lean, that Milo Speck is much less likely to receive any accolades than Urban's previous books, even if it may well prove to be a lasting favorite with readers. It does, however, prove that sometimes, reaching beyond your comfort zone leads to unexpected success.

Published in September by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

2016 Contenders: A Handful of Stars, by Cynthia Lord

Lily Dumont lives with her grandparents in small-town Maine. The local economy relies heavily on blueberry farming, and blueberries require migrant workers to pick them. When Lily's blind dog Lucky runs away, and is caught by a migrant girl about Lily's age, Salma Santiago, an unlikely friendship forms.

There are a lot of moving parts in Cynthia Lord's most recent novel: Lily's fraying relationship with her friend Hannah; the uneasiness between the migrant workers and the locals; Lily's desire to raise money for cataract surgery for Lucky; Salma's interest in the Blueberry Queen pageant; residual angst from the absence of Lily's mother; art as a means of self-expression. It's to Lord's credit that the book manages to keep all of those metaphorical balls in the air without dropping any of them. A Handful of Stars is a well-written book, and people who enjoy Lord's ability to write difficult relationships honestly will find a lot to like here.

That being said, I don't know that A Handful of Stars stacks up particularly well against Lord's own oeuvre; I think it's a noticeably weaker book than last year's Half a Chance, and the odds of it replacing Rules (2006) as the first line in any bio of Lord aren't high. While the core pair of Lily and Salma are well-drawn, the rest of the characters didn't seem to have the same life to them. Maybe more importantly, I just didn't feel that invested or interested in the portions that dealt with Lily's mother. (Spoilers follow.)

We don't find out until a good halfway through the book that Lily's mother is actually dead. However, this is information that Lily, who narrates the book, already has, and that everyone around her except Salma already has as well. Lily does mention that she's not a huge fan of talking about it, but if the core idea is that mentioning her mother's death is simply too painful for her, it's too muted to be effective. Instead, it feels like an artificial attempt to inject tension; I felt manipulated as a reader.

The prevalence of dead, missing, or incompetent parents in children's literature is basically its own meme at this point. On one level, it's understandable -- it's hard to be off having awesome adventures or discovering yourself if someone is looking over your shoulder the whole time. On another, if you're going to use that trope, you'd better have something clever or interesting to say about it. (See: Roller Skates, The Higher Power of Lucky, Zebra Forest, The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza, etc.) In A Handful of Stars, there are some elements about Lily's mother's history as a pageant winner, and the relationship between her death and Lily's dog Lucky, but I didn't feel like the absence of parents was really necessary to drive the story. Indeed, I think I would have liked the book better if it had just focused in on Lily and Salma, and eliminated the subplots involving Lily's family.

Even given those points, A Handful of Stars is an above-average book; the recurring intertwined images of blueberries and stars alone are worth the price of admission. There are stronger books in contention for this year's Newbery, however, and Lord herself is capable of writing stronger titles.

Published in May by Scholastic

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

2016 Contenders: Watch Out for Flying Kids!, by Cynthia Levinson

I first heard rumblings about Watch Out for Flying Kids! around a year ago. I was immediately interested, since I thought Cynthia Levinson's last book, We've Got a Job, was excellent, and youth social circuses seemed like a fascinating topic for a nonfiction book. It sounded like a winning combination.

Having now finally been able to obtain and read a copy of Watch Out for Flying Kids!, it pains me to say that this title doesn't hang together as well as We've Got a Job. I think there are two main problems that prevent this one from reaching the heights of its predecessor, and I think it's useful to talk about both of them.

One of the things I really liked about We've Got a Job was the way it managed to intercut the stories of four individual children with the larger events of the Birmingham Children's March, and to do so without losing the thread of the narrative. Watch Out for Flying Kids! isn't much longer than We've Got a Job, but there are now eleven main characters (five kids from the St. Louis Arches, four from the Galilee Circus, and the adult director of each circus), as well as a host of secondary characters. I found it difficult even to keep track of the book's cast, and I felt like I didn't get to spend enough time with any of them for their stories to have weight and heft.

This is especially noticeable because, while We've Got a Job had a clear climax (the March itself), Watch Out for Flying Kids! doesn't really build to a specific moment in the same way. The personal stories of the performers could make up for that muted external narrative, but there are just too many of them, too thinly spread, for it to be effective. Similarly, although there's an overarching theme of learning to build bridges between mistrustful communities, that theme doesn't get a specific dénouement.

The second -- and in my mind, more serious -- problem has to do with the book's support apparatus. It spends four pages of the introduction on an Arabic and Hebrew pronunciation guide, but it contains no glossary of any kind. Because so much of the book is concerned with what's going on in the ring of the circus, and I don't really know the technical terms associated with circus work, that lack made the book nearly unreadable to me. Additionally, especially in the sections of the book set in Israel, there are many discussions of different towns and places, but the book doesn't contain a map. I also would have loved a quick "cast list" reference, but even though there's a sort of "where are they now" section in the afterword, it only included the "main characters."I found the book difficult going without those helps, and I think a child reader might have serious problems navigating the book without these customary aids.

It's clear that the stories of Watch Out for Flying Kids! mean a great deal to Levinson. I'm unconvinced, however, that she translates that importance so that readers can understand it. I'd love to see what Levinson does next, but I don't anticipate Watch Out for Flying Kids! showing up in the YMAs.

Published in August by Peachtree

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

2016 Second Takes: Circus Mirandus, by Cassie Beasley

Circus Mirandus.

The publisher hyped it.

Sam loved it. 

Brandy hated it.

As for me? Well, don't mess with me, folks, because I'm Mr. In Between.

I think first-time-novelist Cassie Beasley does a lot of things well in this book. Most notably, she pulls off that mothball-scented Olde Time Storyteller voice that can be magical and engaging, but is so often cloying and off-putting instead. I have spent a lot of time thinking about what it is, exactly, that makes a particular instance of this style effective or ineffective, and I've come up empty-handed. It may just boil down to personal taste. For me, it doesn't work in The Night Gardener or A Snicker of Magic. It does work in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, and it does work in Circus Mirandus. Your mileage may vary.

Also notable - possibly even more notable - is the way Beasley portrays an irredeemable character. Characters who are puuuuure eeeeeeville don't bother me, necessarily - I can appreciate a Cruella deVil - but I know that Sam hates them. So I had to ask him, after I finished Circus Mirandus: what makes Victoria different? His best answer was that she rings true as a sociopath, and I have to agree. She's less a mustache-twirling villain and more of a John Wayne Gacy. Which makes her scary as hell.

Finally: circuses. It's hard to sell me on them. The Night Circus is the first book that made me actually want to visit the circus in question, and that made me even more skeptical about Circus Mirandus. Surely The Night Circus had fully covered the Circus Acts That Rachael Might Enjoy ground, and this would only be a retread. But it's not! This circus sounds great, and if not completely original, at least charmingly re-imagined.

Maybe I only like magical circuses.

Anyway, if that all makes it sound like I liked this book a lot, well, I did. I do think it's a bit rough around the edges, though. Brandy complains about character development, and I do think that's a weak point, especially with the secondary characters. As much as I wanted to like her, Jenny never felt like a real person to me, and even Ephraim (especially older Ephraim) is more idea than person.

There are also some questionable plot choices. I don't want to spoil anything, but I didn't think the final test of the book didn't made sense in terms of the book's internal logic. Sorry to vagueblog.

In a year with The War That Saved My Life in it, as well as new Laura Amy Schlitz and Rebecca Stead novels coming out soon, I just don't think Circus Mirandus is The Most Distinguished. It is, however, a deeply satisfying novel.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

2016 Contenders: The Jumbies, by Tracey Baptiste

Corinne La Mer has never believed in jumbies, the supernatural creatures that some think haunt the forests of her island. However, after she chases an agouti into the forest on All Hallows' Eve, the evidence mounts that the jumbies may be much more real than Corinne had ever believed -- and that she and her ragtag group of friends may be the only ones who can stop them.

There's a lot in The Jumbies to admire. At its heart, it's a pure folktale story, one based in a deep understanding of several strains of Caribbean lore. (Author Tracey Baptiste is originally from Trinidad, and has stated that the concept for the book was inspired by a traditional Haitian story.) Corinne is a likable protagonist, and her fellow islanders are also interesting and sympathetic -- especially the orphaned brothers, Bouki and Malik. The island setting, with the ominous shadow of the forest always hanging over everything, also comes alive within the pages.

The Jumbies isn't without flaws, however, and I think the primary one is what I usually call "the Paradise Lost problem": an antagonist who is so strongly written, and whose motives can be construed sympathetically enough, that the ostensible point of the book is undercut. The villain of The Jumbies is Severine, the ruler of the other jumbies. She despises the humans, and is willing to fight in any number of ways to control or defeat them, and Corinne is her main target.

Baptiste makes no secret of the fact that we're meant to dislike Severine; her own author's note states, "Severine is everything I expect a jumbie to be -- tricky, mean, and selfish -- with the added bonus of thinking she's better than everyone else." It's true that Severine displays these characteristics, and is a formidable opponent. On the other hand, she's someone who has lost a great deal; her sister is dead, and her island has been invaded by humans, who have no respect for the forest, and who don't even acknowledge the existence of her and her kind. Severine's methods leave something to be desired, but it's easy enough to see her as an anticolonialist leader of the mistreated indigenous inhabitants to make her demonization problematic. (Baptiste tries to deal with some of this in the ending, with a discussion of discovering "a way to live together," but by that point, the accumulated weight of the narrative is too great to be brushed quickly aside). Severine also clearly wants to have a family again, and if those desires have been twisted and warped in her head, they're still hard for me to completely discredit.

I hope many children find and enjoy The Jumbies. It's a lovely blend of the familiar and the new, and I think plenty of readers will like it. I think it's too internally conflicted to entirely succeed, however, and I think that will keep the book from rising to the top of the Newbery heap.

Published in April by Algonquin / Workman

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

2016 Contenders: What Pet Should I Get?, by Dr. Seuss

I find posthumously published works fascinating, and one of the interesting things about them is the varied states in which the original manuscripts had been left. At one end are books such as The Dark Frigate (the 1924 Newbery winner), where Charles Hawes had actually already delivered the final manuscript to his publisher before dying. At the other end would be something like Franz Kafka's Amerika, which has such an enormous unwritten hole in the middle that it's not even clear how the author intended to get the narrative to its conclusion.

What Pet Should I Get?, which finally reached publication almost two and a half decades after the death of its author, occupies a place somewhere in between those extremes. The manuscript, which was rediscovered a couple of years ago, contained 16 uncolored illustrations. The text was essentially complete, but Seuss's working method was to type the words, cut them up, and then affix them to the illustrations with tape, taping over the old words with new ones if he chose to make alterations. However, the tape had come loose, making it difficult to ascertain exactly which version of the text had been intended. (The New York Times article I linked to there is a fascinating read if you want more detail on how the book came to be.)

The reconstruction was supervised by Cathy Goldsmith, the last person left at Random House who had actually worked with Seuss, having done the design and art direction for his last handful of titles. This reconstituted version arrived on bookstore (and library!) shelves in July, providing a surprise coda to Seuss's career.

Maybe the first thing to take note of is that this isn't a late-period work that Seuss died before finishing up. Rather, it dates from sometime during his middle period, the era of The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (1958), Happy Birthday to You! (1959), and Green Eggs and Ham (1960). The design of the (unnamed) protagonists is almost identical to those of One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (1960), and one possible theory is that What Pet Should I Get? is some sort of embryonic version of or starting point for One Fish. (There are no surviving notes about what Seuss was trying to accomplish in this book -- or why he shelved it -- and so everything at this point is conjecture.)

I was excited to see What Pet Should I Get? come out, because I love Seuss's work so much, and it looms large in my formative reading experiences. However, I think that, once the publicity around the book dies down, we'll see it as an interesting footnote to his career, but no more. Seuss's loping, tongue-twisting meter is relatively easy to parody, but the final texts of his books were the result of near-inhuman levels of revision -- one reason that, although his style is often imitated, it's essentially never equaled. The rhymes and rhythms of What Pet Should I Get? felt noticeably rougher than those of the classic titles he produced during the late '50s and early '60s, and I'm not convinced he would have let the text stand as it is if he had chosen to prepare it for publication.

The ending of the book [spoiler alert!] is also somewhat odd. After running through a long list of possible pets, the siblings who serve as our protagonists make their selection -- but they don't tell us what pet they've chosen, and the final illustration simply shows the eyes of an unidentifiable shape peeking out of the basket that the children are taking home. Seuss wasn't above ending his books on a rhetorical question ("What would you do, if your mother asked you?" from The Cat in the Hat), or even a cliffhanger (the scene of the generals perched on the wall, deciding whether or not to drop their bombs on the last page of The Butter Battle Book, is about as tense of an ending as you'll see), but this ending just felt out of place to me. What Pet Should I Get? is a book written at a level more like that in Seuss's easy readers than that of his longer, more challenging works, and although you could make an argument that the ending is set up that way to allow kids to use their imaginations to finish the story, it still felt to me like running into a wall on the last page.

Although Dr. Seuss is one of the most important figures in the history of American children's literature, he didn't actually do as well in the ALSC awards as I might have thought -- three Caldecott Honors (for McElligot's Pool in 1948, Bartholomew and the Oobleck in 1950, and If I Ran the Zoo in 1951), but zero Caldecott wins, and zero mentions on the Newbery rolls. I'd love to see him win the Geisel award for this one, just for the neatness of having someone win an established award that's already named after them, but I don't think it's actually a good enough book for that to happen. The Newbery is out of the question, and given that the art had to be colorized by later editors, I doubt the Caldecott committee will go for it either. What Pet Should I Get? is a fascinating historical curiosity, but no more than that.

Published in July by Random House


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

2016 Contenders: Gone Crazy in Alabama, by Rita Williams-Garcia

This was one of my most anticipated books of the year, partly because I was lucky enough to talk with the author about it a whole year before it came out. I was looking forward to the conclusion of the Gaither sisters' story arc, as well as the southern setting and family history.

When we rejoin Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern, they are on their way to the Greyhound terminal to begin their journey to visit Big Ma and her mother, Ma Charle,s in rural Alabama. There are several potential sources of conflict, both overt and less obvious. Pa's new wife ("Mrs.") is pregnant. The friction between Delphine and Vonetta is still present, as is Vonetta's resentment towards Uncle Darnell, who's out of rehab and living with Big Ma. (It's a difficult time all around for Vonetta). And then there's the bad blood - buckets of it - between Ma Charles and her half-sister, Miss Trotter. The two sisters live on opposite sides of the same creek, but haven't spoken in decades. Oh, and the family ties to the Klan.

If you think that all makes Gone Crazy in Alabama sound like an awfully ambitious novel, then you are correct. Williams-Garcia has a lot of plot threads to weave together, a new setting and several new characters to introduce, and a trilogy to bring to a satisfying close. For the most part, she accomplishes all of it with finesse. The relationship among the three sisters, especially Delphine and Vonetta, is going through some growing pains, and the resolution of that arc is poignant, as is Vonetta's reconciliation with Uncle Darnell. The Alabama setting - lazy and idyllic on the surface, complicated underneath - is well-realized. There are several intriguing new characters, especially Ma Charles and Miss Trotter, whose mutual sniping provides much of the book's humor.

On the whole though, this is not nearly as funny a book as either of the previous two. There is a brush with tragedy that takes up several chapters, but even before that, most of the characters are going through difficult times for various reasons. That's all handled deftly enough that it doesn't weigh down the narrative, but some of the family history does slow the pace. Telling it through Ma Charles and Miss Trotter's dueling narratives is clever, but it's still a lot of history to get through, and as a reader I often felt lost. Your mileage may vary.

Taken as a whole, Gone Crazy showcases the lovely prose, sharp dialogue, and larger-than-life situations that Rita Williams-Garcia writes so well. The many fans of the Gaither sisters will find it a satisfying conclusion to the series.

Published in April by Amistad/HarperCollins 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

2016 Contenders: Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights, by Ann Bausum

It is impossible to review Ann Bausum's new chronicle of the gay rights movement without thinking about where I was one month ago today: standing on Market Street in San Francisco, watching the biggest, most joyous Pride parade I have ever witnessed. It was two days after we all woke up to learn that the Supreme Court had granted same-sex couples the right to marry in all 50 states, and the mood in the city was total jubilation. The parade itself felt incredibly uncontroversial, with every corporation you can think of trying to get in on the act and soak up some of that LGBT goodwill. The Apple employees alone took up several city blocks.

Contrast that with the way things stood on the eve of the Stonewall Riots. Marriage equality was such a distant dream that Richard Enman, representing the Mattachine Society, said, regarding the legalization of same-sex marriage, "Homosexuals don't want that." "Cross-dressing" was a criminal offense, homosexuality was listed as a mental illness in the DSM, and men trying to pick up a date might be told to "keep moving, faggot, keep moving."

Bausum does an excellent job of evoking that time and place with a chatty prologue that addresses the reader directly and invites us to walk the streets of Greenwich Village with her. She maintains that sense of immediacy through the next several chapters, quickly establishing the historical backdrop and then plunging us into a play by play of the events at the Stonewall on June 27, 1969. She combines eyewitness accounts with historical context and broader social analyses to form a full picture of the significance of the riots. And she doesn't shy away from plainspoken descriptions of the gay experience in 1969, from sex in unlocked semi-trucks previously used to haul animal carcasses, to the raunchy chants that gay teenagers shouted at the police.

While the entire first half of the book is concerned with the lead-up to and immediate aftermath of the riots, the second half touches, in less detail, on the ensuing gay rights movement, including the AIDS crisis and the fight for marriage equality. Of course, despite the fact that the publication date is May 5, 2015, the book is already out of date, because it doesn't include the recent Supreme Court decision. Sam and I were speculating about whether Viking will release an updated edition, but things are moving so quickly that it might be impossible to keep up. Just last week, several legislators introduced the Equality Act, a comprehensive federal non-discrimination bill. 

As the LGBT community continues to rack up victories, it will become ever more difficult to remember this history of brutal oppression. Bausum's book serves as an essential reminder of that history, honoring those who risked their lives to pave the way, and, I hope, providing inspiration to the next generation to continue the fight.

I think it's unlikely that Stonewall will receive Newbery recognition. Despite the immediacy of Bausum's prose, I wouldn't call it narrative nonfiction on the level of something like Bomb, and it feels like a strong year for fiction. I won't be at all surprised if it the Sibert Committee honors it, though, and it seems like a shoo-in for the Stonewall Book Award. (There's a question: has a book ever won its namesake award before?)

Published in May by Viking Books for Young Readers

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

2016 Contenders: The Story of Diva and Flea, by Mo Willems

Everyone with even a passing interest in children's literature knows Mo Willems. He's created some of the most iconic characters of the past twenty years: Elephant & Piggie, the Pigeon, Trixie and Knuffle Bunny, Cat the Cat.

What he hasn't done, at least up until now, is write a novel. Each of his books to this point has been either a picture book or an easy reader. The Story of Diva and Flea, then, is his first foray into a longer form.

That's not to say that it's a form that's particularly long in the grand scheme of things. My ARC of Diva and Flea runs a mere 67 (heavily-illustrated*) pages, and it's pitched at the same emerging readers who enjoy Kate DiCamillo's Mercy Watson books and similar fare. Perhaps it's better to refer to it as a "chapter book," as I imagine much of its readership will do.

The plot involves Diva, a tiny dog who resides in posh comfort at 11 avenue Le Play in Paris, and Flea, a large cat who considers himself a flâneur, which Willems repeatedly defines as one "who wanders the streets and bridges and alleys of the city just to see what there is to see." When they meet by chance and become friends, will Diva learn to be more adventurous? Will Flea see the benefits of domesticity?

I described the book to Rachael as "a more G-rated Lady and the Tramp," and even though she questioned whether such a thing was actually possible, I'll stand by that description. There's no romance, no baby, and no actual danger; what remains is a mismatched pair where each learns to appreciate the other's point of view and to be willing to take (minor) risks in order to do so. Even that "conflict" is subdued -- once the protagonists meet properly, there's really no clash of wills or second-act argument.

Perhaps more noticeably, the signature Willems humor is decidedly muted. There are the odd moments that brought a smile to my face, such as when Flea asks if "Breck-Fest" is a friend of Diva's, but there's nothing here that comes close being as funny as the Pigeon's tantrum in Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! or the slow-burning exasperation of There is a Bird on Your Head!

That doesn't mean Diva and Flea is anything less than pleasant, because it's perfectly serviceable. But for someone with Willems' pedigree, the expectations are sky-high, and I feel like Diva and Flea doesn't live up to them.

*(As an aside, I thought it was odd that Willems, he of the three Caldecott Honors, two Geisel Awards, and five Geisel Honors, didn't illustrate the book himself, but Tony DiTerlizzi's beautiful drawings are a perfect match for the text.)

Publication in October through Disney / Hyperion

Monday, July 20, 2015

2016 Contenders: Poet, by Don Tate

George Moses Horton was the first African-American poet to have a book published in the South (The Hope of Liberty, 1829). Amazingly, this occurred while he was still a slave. Though Horton's hope was that the money from the book would enable the purchase of his freedom, his master refused to sell him, and Horton's slavery continued until the end of the Civil War, some three and a half decades later. Through it all, Horton continued to write, producing another volume of poetry, many uncollected poems, and a brief autobiography.

Although Horton is still in print, and he retains a strong following in his home state of North Carolina, he remains much less known than other early African-American authors such as Phillis Wheatley and Jupiter Hammon. I completed an English degree at a southern university, and still never came across any of his work. I'm glad to say that Poet does an excellent job of discussing the man, his unusual life, and his writing, which may well make him a more familiar name to a younger generation.

The writing is spare, but clear. Tate made his name as an illustrator, but in his previous foray into writing (It Jes' Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw, 2012), he certainly displayed a facility with words, and he continues to exhibit that talent in Poet. I really felt Horton's determination, his crushing defeat, and his indomitable will while turning the pages.

As good as the text is, it's not going to win the Newbery -- no picture book is going to break through and take the prize, not in a year with Circus Mirandus and Echo and Moonpenny Island and The Jumbies. Some of the other committees may appreciate it, however, and I do hope there's room for it on the Notables list.

Publication in September by Peachtree.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

2016 Contenders: Nanny X Returns, by Madelyn Rosenberg

Ali, Jake, Eliza, and the rest of the gang from last year's Nanny X are back for another adventure. This time, a criminal known only as The Angler has insisted that a large sculpture of a fish be placed on the White House lawn. If this isn't done, "the nation's greatest treasures" could be in danger. The Nanny Action Patrol (N.A.P.) has been assigned to the case, and Nanny X (and her diaper bag full of secret devices) must stop The Angler, with the help of her young charges and their other friends.

Much like its predecessor, Nanny X Returns is fast-paced and very funny. One of my favorite things about it is its grasp of the Washington D.C. area; Madelyn Rosenberg lives in Arlington, Virginia, and it's clear that she knows the region inside and out. Through touches as small as what exhibits are on specific floors of the D.C. museums, the setting truly comes alive on each page.

I'm not entirely sure that some of the thematic elements are as neatly wrapped up as I'd like. Some of them, such as the incipient romantic feelings between Ali and her friend Stinky, may well be points Rosenberg is holding in reserve for another book. Others, I wished had been returned to in the last few pages -- Ali's worries about whether the N.A.P. has its doubts about Nanny X, as well as her desire to solve the mystery first, come into play repeatedly during the book, but sort of fizzle out at the end.

These questions, however, didn't much affect my enjoyment of the book. I was delighted to return to the world of Nanny X and her crew, and I do hope this isn't the last visit I'll get to pay there. I also hope this particular series finds its way into the hands of the many children that I firmly believe will enjoy it.

As for the Newbery, I highly doubt Nanny X Returns will appear there -- it's popular, not literary, and it's just not the kind of book to which the committees are sympathetic. I'm optimistic, however, that it will land on the shelves of many libraries, where the children who love quick-reading humor will be able to find it.

Publication in October through Holiday House

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

2016 Contenders: Circus Mirandus, by Cassie Beasley

The Phantom Tollbooth. The Little Prince. Breadcrumbs. The House with a Clock in its Walls. Circus Mirandus.

That's a list of books that exist in an uneasy space between pure fantasy and true realism. It's a list of books that, regardless of their varied endings, don't shy away from the world's darkness. It's a list of books that demonstrate what I'm starting to think of as Rachael's Maxim: "Story and imagination celebrate themselves when deployed effectively."

It's a list of classics.

Yes, that's a bold claim to make about Circus Mirandus, a debut novel that's hardly been out for a month, but I believe that, if we come back to this discussion in twenty years, it's a claim that will have been vindicated. There aren't many recent children's books that have made this kind of first impression on me, and I actually sat in the car after work, just so that I could finish the last five pages without having to wait another day.

Circus Mirandus is the story of Micah Tuttle, a ten-year-old boy who lives with his Grandpa Ephraim. Grandpa Ephraim, a benevolent figure whose closest point of comparison might be Grandpa Joe from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, has cared for Micah ever since he was small. He's shared with Micah the Tuttle secrets of knot-tying, and he's regaled Micah with tales of the Circus Mirandus, a magical circus that Grandpa Ephraim visited as a child during the dark days of World War II. But now Grandpa Ephraim is desperately ill, his detestable sister, Great-Aunt Gertrudis, is making Micah's life miserable, and darkness seems to be settling into this formerly happy home. The only possible lifeline is that, when Grandpa Ephraim was a boy, the Circus Mirandus' greatest magician, the Lightbender, promised him a miracle -- a miracle that Grandpa Ephraim hasn't yet requested.

So begins the adventure. It would be criminal to reveal much more of the plot, but it's a grand one that takes Micah to the heights of ecstasy and the depths of despair. Along the way, he meets a host of memorable characters -- his newfound best friend, Jenny Mendoza; Chintzy the parrot; the mysterious proprietor of the circus, Mirandus Head; and many, many more. All of them felt real and solid to me, and even the worst of them turn out to have motivations for their unpleasantness.

The prose is captivating, and the book is willing to look into some very bleak places. The scene that includes the final performance of the Amazing Amazonian Bird Woman, in particular, is one of the most devastating passages I've read in a children's novel. And yet, if all of the characters don't achieve redemption, the book still manages to end on a defiantly upbeat note.

Circus Mirandus has received a tremendous amount of hype -- Dial/Penguin must have spent the GDP of a small country on the book's promotion, and the movie rights have already been sold. But for once, the hype is entirely deserved. This one's a winner, folks.

Published in June by Dial/Penguin

Monday, June 15, 2015

2016 Contenders: Cody and the Fountain of Happiness, by Tricia Springstubb

Cody and the Fountain of Happiness is the second Tricia Springstubb book we've reviewed this year, after Moonpenny Island. However, while Moonpenny Island is aimed at a traditional middle-grade audience, Cody is pitched younger, more to readers currently enjoying the Clementine books, or The Year of Billy Miller.

Cody's loose plot involves the beginning of the titular character's summer vacation. She makes a new friend, Spencer, by helping him find a lost cat, and her new babysitter turns out to be Payton, the object of her brother Wyatt's affections. There's also some drama involving her mother's promotion at work. All of these elements drift in and out of the book as it meanders towards its conclusion -- while it's a quick read, it's not exactly a propulsive one.

Moonpenny Island remains my favorite book of the year so far (although there are still some contenders I need to read). Cody works a lot less well for me, possibly because, even for a book for younger children, the stakes always feel so low -- particularly for Cody herself, whose problems often take a back seat to those of her mom, Wyatt, and/or Spencer. Kevin Henkes books often have the same issue, to take one example, but part of Henkes' genius is his ability to make problems that are trivial for adults take on weight and heft in the minds of his child protagonists. Cody doesn't achieve a similar effect, nor is its protagonist as memorable as Clementine or Ramona or Junie B. Jones.

That's not to say it's not an entirely pleasant book. The prose is solid, if not as poetic as that in Moonpenny Island, and it has its moments of humor. Even for a quasi-episodic novel, however, Cody is loosely structured -- the relationship between Wyatt and Payton, for example, ends on a weirdly sour note, and it seems odd for the book to finish with the characters discussing the party that's happening that night, rather than with them attending it. It's possible that Springstubb plans on writing more books about Cody and so is leaving some plot threads deliberately unresolved, but taken on its own, the ending really did seem a bit of a let-down to me.

At any rate, especially with how strong a book Moonpenny Island is, I don't think there's going to be a lot of room at the Newbery podium for Cody. One thing I'd be very interested in, however, would be getting an actual child reader's opinion of this one; it seems entirely possible to me that its target audience might enjoy it more than I did.

Published in April by Candlewick

Thursday, June 11, 2015

2016 Contenders: The Island of Dr. Libris, by Chris Grabenstein

Billy is spending the summer at a cabin owned by  the mysterious Dr. Xiang Libris. (X Libris. Yeah. It's that kind of book.)  There's no tv, no internet, and, conveniently, no smartphone: Billy's iPhone breaks as soon as they arrive at the cabin. Oh, but do you know what there is instead? A mysterious library! Because of course there is. And do you know what happens when Billy reads the books? The characters come to life! Because of course they do.

Before long, Billy has populated the island in the middle of the lake with Hercules, Robin Hood and Friends, and even Pollyanna (because we're expected to believe that a twelve year old boy would willingly pick up and read Pollyanna). In addition to trying to deal with the mayhem caused by the fictional characters, Billy has to figure out some way to stop his parents' divorce. Because of course he does.

Are you getting that I'm not terribly impressed by this book? (Full disclosure: I listened to this one as an audiobook as well, and it was narrated by Kirby Heyborne, who is narratorial anathema to me.) I had actually been looking forward to it, since it's by the same author as Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library, which many people enjoyed. It did not live up to my expectations.

I'm probably judging The Island of Dr. Libris a bit harshly because I am emphatically not the right reader for this book. The publisher's blurb mentions that it "celebrates the power of imagination." I am tired of books that claim to celebrate "the power of imagination" or "the power of story," because they usually fail to do so. Story and imagination celebrate themselves when deployed effectively.

I am also tired of books that celebrate books, and reading itself, in heavy-handed ways. If you're trying to push this kind of message within the pages of a 242 page novel for 9-12 year olds, you're preaching to the choir. Non-readers are not reading this.

Finally, I'm super triple tired of books that pit Real Books against Evil Electronic Devices. You guys, that kind of thinking feels so crotchety. I've been spending a lot of time on Tumblr lately, and it's full of tweens and teens who see no boundary between books and screens, and who spend their time not only discussing, but also creating fan art based on their favorite fictional worlds. If you take away their iPhones, where are they going to write about all of their Harry Potter headcanons

Anyway... aside from the fact that it offends me on a fundamental level, is the book any good? I guess it's a fairly competent adventure story, and many readers will enjoy the way the fictional worlds collide (Hercules joining Robin Hood's band of Merry People, etc.). I will note that the characters are not terribly well-developed, especially Billy's mother, who manages to be the stereotypical unfun mom despite the fact that she's getting a PhD in math. 

It would probably make a fun vacation read, and if you hand it to to the literary-minded kids you know, I won't even judge you. Much. 

Published March 24th 2015 by Random House Books for Young Readers

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

2016 Contenders: Ms. Rapscott's Girls, by Elise Primavera

There is no need to apply to Great Rapscott School for the Daughters of Busy Parents. If you are among the few children whose parents are busy enough to qualify, they will fill out the application for you. They will also send you a box, into which your parents may seal you, so that the box may fly you directly to the school. The five little girls who make their way to Great Rapscott by these extraordinary means are a sad set of specimens, known for being loud, lazy, bumbling, and older/younger than their years, respectively. Fear not, though! Ms. Rapscott and her assisting corgis (Lewis and Clark) will straighten them out in no time. 

Ms. Rapscott's Girls is like a literary fusion of Roald Dahl, P.L. Travers, and an amalgamation of every boarding school novel ever written. In fact, it's so thoroughly infused with the spirit of Roald Dahl that as I listened*, I couldn't help but picture the characters as if they were drawn by Quentin Blake. Like that of Dahl, Primavera's prose is full of keen satire and sharp wit, but it lacks Dahl's fatalism. In fact, she seems to be commenting on Dahl's worldview when she allows the children to break out of the awful qualities for which they are "known," and which are actually only bad habits they've gained through their parents' neglect. 

That makes the novel sound darker and heavier than it is, though. It's really a confection of a book, filled with the aforementioned helpful corgis, bumbershoot trees, perilous parachute journeys, and wormholes that lead to the Alps. It's difficult to judge a book like this in terms of the Newbery criteria, in part because it doesn't feel like a very American book to me: this combination of satire and fancy is very British. 

So: are the characters fully developed? Not according to the terms of realistic fiction, but for this genre, yes - and they experience growth over the course of the book. The settings are likewise both ridiculous and well-realized. Stylistically, the prose is highly derivative, but also sparkling and agile. Interestingly, for a book that's working within a potentially moralistic genre, the themes of self-reliance and self-determination are imparted with a light hand. 

It feels like too slight a book to win a place in the Newbery pantheon. Also, though it's uplifting in the end, it has the kind of bite that doesn't play well in a typical Newbery book. But then again, the committees have been doing an admirable job of redefining "Newbery book," so who knows? Either way, it's lots of fun. 

Published March 10th 2015 by Dial Books

*Yes, I experienced this one, like so many others, as an audiobook. I have no idea what the illustrations look like, but I gather that it's heavily illustrated. Also, the audiobook is read by Katherine Kellgren, and it is wonderful.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

2016 Contenders: Nightbird, by Alice Hoffman

I've never read any of Alice Hoffman's YA or adult work, but every sentence of Nightbird made me understand why she's so highly regarded. The imagery is brilliant, and Hoffman's depictions of a little New England town that time passed by are both evocative and spot-on. It reminded me in some ways of reading Hawthorne, although Hoffman's tone is much more cheerful.

The problems come when trying to evaluate the book as a larger whole. Although the main character, Twig, comes through fairly clearly, I felt almost like the secondary characters -- Twig's friend Julia, Julia's sister Agnes, Twig's brother James (the quasi-title character), Twig's mother -- were placeholders, waiting to be fleshed out in the final version. The plot also seemed awfully convenient, even before the impossibly upbeat ending.

Nightbird is part of a grand tradition, where the younger generation repairs the mistakes of their forebears in a way that's at the least quasi-mystical, and often fully magical. From The Secret Garden (1911) all the way to Saving Lucas Biggs (2014), this trope has proved to be fertile ground for children's novels -- including many genuine classics.

However, the flip side of using well-worn themes is that an author runs the risk of failing to really add anything new, and I think that may be the case here in Nightbird. The whole thing felt a bit tired to me, rather than archetypally powerful, and I'm not sure the Newbery committee will feel differently enough to give Nightbird the medal.

On the other hand, the prose is so lovely that I found myself hoping that Alice Hoffman will write some more middle-grade novels. Even if this one doesn't fully work, I think that what it does well shows that Hoffman is an author whose voice is a great addition to the middle-grade world, and I hope she gifts us with another book soon.

Published in March by Wendy Lamb Books