Wednesday, March 25, 2015

2016 Contenders: Moonpenny Island, by Tricia Springstubb

Book jacket blurbs don't always tell you all that much about what's inside the covers, but sometimes who the publisher gets to say something positive about a book can be very instructive. Moonpenny Island, the new title from Tricia Springstubb, has two quotes printed on it -- one from Sheila Turnage, and one from Anne Ursu.

That's a really unusual pairing, but if you were to attempt to triangulate some middle place between those two authors, Moonpenny Island might be where you'd end up. It shares Turnage's interest in small towns with colorful characters, the mysteries and secrets that those characters keep, and the ways in which those characters view the outside world. At the same time, it has many features in common with Ursu's work -- meditations on the way friendships change, evolve, and even end; an absence of any characters that could really be considered "villains"; and a complete unwillingness to tie every element back together in a traditional, perfectly happy ending.

It's an odd combination of elements, and yet one that I found compelling. The plot concerns Flor O'Dell, an eleven-year-old girl who lives on the titular island, a tiny speck somewhere in Lake Erie. Flor's happy world is turned upside-down -- her best friend goes away to a school on the mainland, her family is coming apart at the seams, and a strange geologist and his even stranger daughter take up temporary residence on the island. Flor hardly feels qualified to deal with any of these problems, and is somewhat resentful of the fact that she even has to try, but as the book progresses, she becomes a stronger, wiser, and braver character.

The prose style may be off-putting to some, but for me, it was highly effective. The entire book is narrated in the present tense, full of rhetorical questions, fragmentary sentences, and crisp, arresting images. It's a long, long way from the style of Turnage, or other "quirky, small-town" authors such as Natalie Lloyd or Susan Patron (and much more reminiscent of Ursu, though you're unlikely to confuse the two). It does, however, give the book an otherworldly feeling that's well-matched to its subject matter.

The ending of the book is emotionally satisfying, but doesn't give a firm sense of how many of the plot elements are going to "turn out." I thought this was in keeping with the novel's central themes, but the more plot-driven reader may wish for an epilogue or sequel -- something to give more resolution than Springstubb is willing to provide.

It's still early enough in the year that I don't feel like I have a good sense of the competition for the 2016 Newbery. I can tell you, however, that Moonpenny Island is a wonderful book, and one I'll be keeping in mind as we generate our year-end shortlists.

Published in February by Balzer + Bray / HarperCollins

Friday, March 6, 2015

2016 Contenders: Random Body Parts, by Leslie Bulion

What an odd book Random Body Parts is! It's a series of poems that are also riddles, the answer to which is always a part or parts of the body. Each riddle is followed by a fact box about the poem's subject, in a manner reminiscent of some of Joyce Sidman's books. And then, at the end of the book, there's a brief note about each poem, which includes the poetic structure used, and how each one incorporates a tribute or reference to Shakespeare.

The immediate reaction may be to look at this disparate set of elements and wonder if this isn't a cynical ploy to try and hit as much of the Common Core book market as possible. However, despite the diversity of its elements, Random Body Parts actually works fairly well. In general, the poems work as poetry, and the side and end notes provide interesting information in an easy-to-understand way.

I'd definitely recommend purchasing Random Body Parts for just about any library collection, and I think it may have broader child appeal than many other poetry books. I don't, however, see it generating much awards discussion. Leslie Bulion is a solid poet, especially considering the restrictions placed on her by this book's structure. When compared to works by the top tier of current children's poets, though, Random Body Parts doesn't have the otherworldly reverence of Joyce Sidman, the quiet pensiveness of Bob Raczka, the brain-twisting cleverness of Jack Prelutsky, or the formal inventiveness of Marilyn Singer. Given that those four poets have the grand sum total of one Newbery Honor between them (which belongs to Sidman, who Honored in 2011 for Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night), it's unlikely that Random Body Parts will break through and make the Newbery rolls.

Published in March by Peachtree

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

2016 Contenders: The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Ten-year-old Ada has never left her squalid, one-room London apartment. Born with a clubfoot that her abusive and neglectful mother has left untreated, she sits in her chair and looks out the window all day. Caring for and protecting her little brother Jamie provides the only joy and meaning in her life, and ultimately motivates her to begin the painful process of teaching herself to walk. This is all taking place in the run-up to the second world war, though, and when the children of London are evacuated to the countryside, Ada's life changes in every way.

This is not the first novel that has seized on the evacuation of London's children to set its plot in motion. The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and Bedknobs and Broomsticks are two classic examples. But whereas the plots of those books rely on the benign neglect of the children's temporary guardians, The War That Saved My Life goes in the opposite direction. Only with Miss Susan Smith, their reluctant foster mother, do Ada and Jamie discover for the first time what it means to be cared for and loved.

My instinct is to be cautious in my assessment of this book, because my emotional reaction to it was strong, and because I listened to the audio version, which is narrated masterfully by the inimitable Jayne Entwistle (seriously, go listen to something she has narrated - she is just divine). After some thought, however, I feel confident in recommending it as both emotionally satisfying and finely crafted.

Ada and Susan Smith are nuanced, complex characters who grow in realistic ways throughout the course of the novel. Ada's traumatic experiences are given the narrative weight they deserve. As she begins the process of healing her psychological wounds, she runs up against the setbacks and regressions that would be inevitable for a child who has never felt safe or loved. Susan, who struggles with depression, and who is mourning the loss of her partner Becky, turns out to be the ideal parent for Ada. She approaches Ada and Jamie with patience, and with empathy born of her own experiences with parental disapproval.

If The War That Saved My Life excels in the areas of character development and emotional realism, however, I'm not sure I can say the same about the plot. The conclusion is satisfying and triumphant... as Tess Goldwasser said of Wonder, it makes you want to pump your fist in the air! As such, it stretches the bounds of credibility just a little bit. Ultimately, though, I have to forgive it that, and agree with the Horn Book's Martha Parravano that "this is a feel-good story, but an earned one." (Possibly unlike Wonder.)

It's early in the year, and there are some major challengers on the horizon (can't wait to get my hands on Gone Crazy in Alabama), but I can see The War That Saved My Life being a strong Newbery contender.

Published in January by Dial Books