Friday, June 24, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: Rabbit Hill, by Robert Lawson (1945)

About half way through my reading of Rabbit Hill I had the following conversation with my fellow blogger Sam:
Me: Soooooooooo does anything ever actually happen in this book?
Him: It's been a few years since I read it but at one point I think someone gives the rabbits some lettuce. Which in this book is the equivalent of a Fast & Furious style drift race with machine guns. Rabbit Hill is basically a cross between The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Waiting for Godot.
Me: *died laughing*
Luckily Sam hired a necromancer to bring me back so I could finish the book and write this review!

Rabbit Hill is a novel written and illustrated by Robert Lawson. It's about an area in Connecticut called "Rabbit Hill" and the assortment of woodland creatures who reside there. Times have been hard for the animals of Rabbit Hill. "Folks" haven't lived in the "Big House" for years, and without humans, and the food they grow (and throw away), things have been meager. The centerpiece of the community is without a doubt little Georgie, the most precious of the rabbit children (which, if I were any of the many other rabbit children, I would take umbrage with, but I digress) and Georgie's got big news. All signs point to new folks moving into the house soon! Will they be nice folks who will plant a big garden? Or will they be mean folks with guns and traps and poison?

The day to day goings on in the life of Georgie, his family, and their friends, are pleasant, and generally unexciting. Here are the top 3 most dramatic things that happen in the book:
  • An animal gets chased by a hunting dog, but escapes by jumping about 18 ft across a creek, which is a record, but he's mostly just ashamed he got surprised by a dog in the first place.
  • An animal falls in a drainage basin, but is nursed back to health by humans.
  • An animal is hit by a vehicle, but is nursed back to health by humans. Despite the fact something like that ALREADY HAPPENED, all of the animals are still momentarily worried and mistrusting.
Honestly I think I've been ruined of all books about rabbits since I read Watership Down by Richard Adams, without a doubt the most epic book written about rabbits (and heroism, and religion, and gender roles) of all time. The woodland creatures in Watership Down face life-or-death, intense, emotional moments on nearly every page, so subconsciously I was bracing myself for little Georgie to undergo some serious trials and tribulations.

Like, ya know, this.

The good news is: here's a book for children where (spoiler alert) nothing bad happens to a single animal. The bad news is: here's a book for children where nothing much of anything happens. But that's not such a bad thing! It's refreshing to read a story about the importance of being kind to animals, and nothing else. And as a librarian it's nice to have a sweet and innocent story to suggest to young animal lovers.

I do feel the need to disclaim one thing: the folks, that is the family that moves into the house, around which most of the "action" of the book revolves, have a live-in maid/cook/servant, a "colored" woman named Sulphronia. Apparently in the original text, written before racial integration, the character is portrayed in African American stereotypes. But in every edition of the book published since the 1970's, like the copy I read, anything offensive has been edited out.

My favorite part of the book is the pictures. Lawson illustrated many well known books for children, including The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, and Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater. He won a Caldecott medal for his own book They Were Good and Strong (1941) making him the only person so far to win a Caldecott and a Newbery medal! I felt the gentle drawings in Rabbit Hill indicated affection of the part of Lawson for his characters. Of course illustrations are not (supposed to be) taken into consideration during a Newbery deliberation, unless they make the book "less effective," which these do not, in fact they arguably make the book that much more effective, because they support the text.

Onto the next decade!

(And Rachael, if Arnie lets you borrow his laptop and you're seeing this, hi!)

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: The High King, by Lloyd Alexander (1969)

Lloyd Alexander was a favorite writer of mine as a child -- in addition to the Chronicles of Prydain, I enjoyed The Cat Who Wished to Be a Man and The Wizard in the Tree -- but for whatever reason, I haven't spent much time with his work in recent years. As such, although I didn't exactly approach The High King with no preconceptions, I did feel like I was able to come to it with relatively fresh eyes at least.

One of the more interesting things to me about The High King as a Newbery winner is its place in its series: it's the fifth (and last) of the Chronicles of Prydain. Although books that were sequels had won before (The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, 1923), and would win again (Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, 1977; Dicey's Song, 1983; and A Year Down Yonder, 2001, among others), The High King marked the first time that a book further along in its sequence than first or second took the medal. Interestingly, as of this writing, it's only happened once since then: when Susan Cooper's The Grey King, the fourth book in her The Dark is Rising series, took the 1976 Newbery.

Alexander, in his author's note, claimed that The High King could be read on its own. After reading it without refreshing my memory of the others, I can tell you that this is...sort of true. It's certainly possible to follow the basic plot, and Alexander is careful to drop a bit of backstory into his descriptions of people and places in order to make sure the reader is up to speed. (Spoilers follow.) However, much of the middle of the book follows our protagonist, Taran, as he travels across Prydain gathering people to his banner in preparation for the confrontation with the forces of Arawn, the Dark Lord. The gist of what happens is that Taran is able to muster a mighty force because of the connections that he's made during his adventures in previous books. These passages lack the punch they're supposed to pack when read in isolation; they come across more as "here's someone you've never heard of! and they love Taran! they totally have so much history together!" None of this is really Alexander's fault -- and when one reads the entirety of the Prydain books, it's a weakness that completely disappears -- but it does mean that, no matter what the author's note claims, you really should start at the beginning with this series.

The general arc of The High King holds no surprises for anyone with a grounding in epic fantasy. What makes the book work is the characters -- the open-hearted and self-effacing Coll, the blusteringly good-hearted Fflewddur Flam, the ruthlessly utilitarian Pryderi. Taran himself is much more three-dimensional than many other fantasy heroes, which gives the story much more emotional heft than it might otherwise possess.

That said, he's still not the most interesting character in the book, which would be the brilliant and courageous Princess Eilonwy. I've seen a lot of memes and articles about the Harry Potter series that make the claim that it would be deeper and more satisfying if it were centered on Hermione; I think that kind of argument definitely applies to The High King. Taran is fine, but Eilonwy is amazing, and if the story were recast as her heroic journey, it might well be perfect. This feeling is strong enough that it colors my view of the ending. It makes logical sense, as the story is laid out, for Eilonwy to give up her powers as an enchantress and stay with Taran out of love, but my inner feminist wanted to see her sail off to the Summer Country as an enormously powerful, immortal, and fearless woman.

Regardless of my quibbles, I don't have a real argument against The High King taking the Newbery. The 1968 publishing year was a rich one: the Honor books were To Be a Slave and When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw and Other Stories, and the committee gave nothing to Ramona the Pest, Escape from Witch Mountain, or A Wizard of Earthsea. That's a list of classics, but The High King stands worthily with them, and is certainly a legitimate choice to put at the top.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

2017 Contenders: Ms. Bixby's Last Day, by John David Anderson

For the second time this year, we pause our series on Newbery Winners Past to participate in a Walden Pond Press blog tour. This post will be a bit different, however. Ms. Bixby's Last Day is, among other things, a book about a teacher and the students whose lives she's changed, and the good folks at WPP requested that I take some time during this entry to talk about a teacher who had that kind of impact on my own life.

With that in mind, let me tell you a story.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Houston, I had to take two American History courses as part of my core requirements. As I was talking with some of my friends about when I should fit those courses into my schedule, and which professor's section I should try to register for, one name kept coming up.

"Dr. Orson Cook. His class is really tough, but you learn a lot."

The endorsements were strong enough that I did indeed register for his class, and it remains one of the better decisions I've made.

Dr. Orson Cook -- we always thought of him using both names, since there was at the time a Dr. Cooke in the Political Science department -- had much of the affect of what I used to think of as a Southern Gentleman. He had the accent and the carefully tidy facial hair, and during all the time I spent in his class, I think he only ever referred to me as "Mr. Eddington." His comments ranged from the pithily insightful ("The enforcement of half of something is worse than the non-enforcement of all of it.") to the wryly humorous ("Think of Kansas and Nebraska. I know it's hard to do. Just imagine some badly-drawn rectangles in the middle of the country."), and as you can see, I can recite many of them from memory almost twenty years later. He was a fierce believer in the ideals of equality and justice that America claims to stand for, and also a clear-eyed and incisive critic of the times when the country hasn't lived up to those ideals. A vast portion of my knowledge of the sweep and shape of the history of the United States is directly traceable to Dr. Cook.

And yet, I don't think of any of those things as the most important lesson I learned from him. That came after the first test I took in his class.

I had studied hard for the exam, and I felt confident in my knowledge. As I wrote the various short essays that comprised the bulk of the test, I was sure that I had relayed that knowledge effectively. And yet, when the test was returned to me, it came back 83. Not terrible, not a failure, but nowhere near as good as I thought I'd done.

I was confused enough about why that I went up to Dr. Cook after class and asked him about the grade. I'll never forget what he said to me.

"You know everything that I told you in class. That's a B. If you want an A, you have to do your own research and bring that information in."

The message was perfectly clear to me. I was responsible, in the end, for my own education. People could teach me, and that would get me a lot of the way there, but if I wanted my knowledge to be exceptional -- not average, not even above average, but exceptional -- I couldn't just listen passively to what I was taught. I had to use that information as a springboard to do my own research, ask my own questions, and evaluate what I learned. Only by doing so could I really become educated.

I learned a lot during college, but there's not a single thing that was as important as that.

After I left the classroom that day -- even though in the moment I was somewhat stung by Dr. Cook's answer -- I went to the library and checked out twenty books about the historical period we were studying. I sat in my dorm room and read them for hours, trying to figure out how what I was reading fit into the information I'd learned in class. In the weeks that followed, I peppered Dr. Cook with questions, both during and after class, and to his everlasting credit, he not only answered them, but directed me to resources where I could learn more.

I did earn an A for the semester, and of all the grades I got in college, that's probably the one I'm most proud of. When I registered for the next semester's classes, I signed up for Dr. Cook's section of the other American History course, and that one was also a marvelous experience.

Thanks, Dr. Cook. Thanks for teaching me, not only about history, but about what learning and education actually can be.


As for Ms. Bixby's Last Day itself, it's the story of three sixth-graders, Topher, Brand, and Steve, and their special teacher, the titular Ms. Bixby. Within the first few pages of the book, Ms. Bixby is diagnosed with cancer, and tells the class that she won't be able to finish the school year. However, our trio of students embark on an adventure to give Ms. Bixby the sendoff she deserves and show her what she's meant to them.

In the wrong hands, this story could be sentimental mush, but John David Anderson's writing avoids those pitfalls. Every problem isn't magically resolved, and there's no deus ex machina ending, but we get a chance to spend time with real, three-dimensional characters, and to learn along with them about what has -- and will -- really made a difference in their lives. The book is one of the better novels of its type that I've read, and I feel no compunction about recommending it. (I promise that WPP doesn't actually pay me anything for these reviews; I genuinely feel strongly about this one!)

If you'd like to explore further, Walden Pond Press has a video about the book, and has also made an excerpt available online. Here also are the other stops on the blog tour if you'd like to check them out: 


Sunday, June 5, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: Roller Skates, by Ruth Sawyer (1937)

At this point you might be wondering: Weren't there two other people on this blog? Yep. Here's what we've been up to the past couple months!

Rachael and I fell accidentally through a dimensional rift, into a magical land, where we've spent all our time drinking ales at the tavern there. And listening to a lot of podcasts. And reading non-classic-Newbery books, binge-watching television shows, and fighting off existential dread. I finally found my way back through the portal, but Rachael might still be there a while.

Anyway, I started reading Roller Skates three months ago, and I just finished it now, and I have a lot of mixed feels about it, so this is probably going to be a weird review. Bear with me. (Or don't! Just skip this and keep reading Sam's eloquent and insightful reviews! I won't blame you!)

Roller Skates is a book by Ruth Sawyer. It won the Newbery medal in 1937. It's about a ten year old girl named Lucinda. A sickness of Lucinda's mother's sends her parents on a year long trip from New York City to the milder climes of Europe some time in the 1890's. Lucinda's parents send her to live with one of the teachers at her school, and her sister, the Misses Peters, while they're gone, as I'm sure most parents would do?

For Lucinda, her year long "orphanage" is the best thing that could ever happen to her. She's a tomboy with a wild side, and has been repressed by her family who expect her to act like a proper young lady. Under a relative lack of supervision from the Misses, she's free to do what she wants, which is mainly roller skate all over the City and make friends of varying levels of appropriateness. Sawyer herself came from a wealthy family, and her parents traveled abroad leaving her in the care of a beloved nanny, so it's likely some of Lucinda's misadventures are based on the author's own eventful childhood. In her Newbery acceptance speech she said "A free child is a happy child; and there is nothing more lovely; even a disagreeable child ceases to be disagreeable and is liked."

Probably the most interesting thing about the book is the time capsule feel to it. It's kind of crazy to read about a New York City of the 1890's, where a little girl could just roller skate around, on her own, and ask everyone she meets what ethnicity they are. Because that was apparently a thing in the 1890's: just talking to everyone about their ethnicity. Oh you're Irish? Have you met a fairy? Oh you're Italian? How many bambinos do you have? Yeah, there is some real cringe-worthy stuff in there. But it's also kind of fascinating to see how far we've come, in some ways for better, and some for worse. 

I actually found most of the book enjoyable. As the once and future queen of my local roller rink, I know the power of roller skates. When you're skating full speed, you might as well be flying. And I found Lucinda's jubilant energy pretty authentic. But while most of things Lucinda gets up to are perfectly delightful, like the time she stops bullies from robbing her friend's fruit stand, some of the things she does during her year of freedom are strange, like the time she stages a one-woman adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest with puppets, and some of her activities are downright questionable, like the time she has a picnic with the man who regularly digs through trash and sells things he finds there.

And then there's about the last four chapters where the book gets suddenly very dark, like the time Lucinda finds a dead body. That's a thing that happens. When her parents finally return (Remember her mom was sick? I didn't.) it's actually kind of devastating. And in the final couple paragraphs is this line: "She'd never belong to herself again--not until she married and got herself a husband, and then she'd belong to him." MAJOR BUMMER.

Roller Skates was pretty revolutionary for its time. Not many books for children were addressing controversial topics such as Lucinda's rebellious behavior, and, ya know, death. But it earned a starred review from Kirkus, and obviously the Newbery committee thought it was the most distinguished of the year. My final thoughts: I think as a bildungsroman it's really dated, and I had difficulty staying fully engaged. Obviously. 

Sam reviewed this book a few years ago. I purposely didn't read his review until now, and I'm happy to report I agree with everything he had to say!

Onto the next decade! Or back to the tavern. We'll see...

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: It's Like This, Cat, by Emily Cheney Neville (1964)

On our About the Bloggers page, all three of us list our three favorite Newbery winners. Mine -- recognizing that I haven't read my way through all of the past winners yet -- are Island of the Blue Dolphins, When You Reach Me, and Criss Cross. I stand by those choices, but I feel like I should add that, in a very, very close fourth place, I'd put Emily Cheney Neville's 1964 winner, It's Like This, Cat.

The list of Newbery winners from the 1960s includes some of the greatest crowd-pleasers in the history of the award: in addition to Island (1961), there's A Wrinkle in Time (1963), From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1968), and The High King (1969). It's Like This, Cat, however, features no abandoned islands, no travel to dystopian planets, no squatting in museums, and no sword-and-sorcery quests. It's a low-key, episodic novel of a young man in a New York City that's now gone, but not quite forgotten. The book requires the reader to stop and absorb the details of its setting, the cadence of its language, and the sharpness of its small details -- but it amply rewards the effort.

It's Like This, Cat follows Dave Mitchell, whom we meet during the tail-end of his last year of junior high, and leave almost a year later. He acquires the titular Cat in the first chapter, and Cat serves to tie the various episodes together -- becoming the point of introduction between Dave and an older boy, Tom Ransom; giving Dave and a girl named Mary something to talk about when they first meet on Coney Island; serving as a connection between Dave and Aunt Kate, the eccentric neighbor who first gives Cat to Dave. Each of these episodes is as finely-finished as a cameo engraving, and although there's little in the way of a through plot, the episodes are all linked thematically, with themes of responsibility, choice, and the nature of friendship interweaving like a motet.

Few books like It's Like This, Cat are published today. At fourteen, Dave is older than almost all middle-grade protagonists, and the book's themes may have limited resonance for most middle-grade readers. And yet, even though some weighty themes (parental abandonment and family estrangement) and unsettling incidents (the violent, senseless death of one of Aunt Kate's kittens) raise their heads, the tone of the novel is decidedly more muted and less heightened than that of most recent YA literature. The best relatively modern point of comparison might in fact be something like Criss Cross, although that one is an almost cinematic ensemble story, and It's Like This, Cat is told by a single first-person narrator. 

Two Honor books were named in 1964, neither of which is particularly well-remembered: Rascal, by Sterling North, and The Loner, by Ester Weir. Most of the other American books from that publishing year that have lasted were either picture books (Where the Wild Things Are; The Gashlycrumb Tinies; Swimmy), or were in some other way unlikely to win a literary award (Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective; Happiness is a Warm Puppy). It's Like This, Cat may be a largely overlooked title today as well, but in my opinion at least, it's a more than worthy Newbery winner.