Tuesday, December 12, 2017

2018 Maryland Mock Newbery Reading List

After a two-year hiatus, we're once again hosting the Maryland Mock Newbery! This year's event will be held at the Kent Island branch of the Queen Anne's County Library on January 18, 2018. If you're hoping to attend, please contact me and I'll get you registered.

Our reading list for this year is:

Landscape with Invisible Hand, by M.T. Anderson
A Boy Called Bat, by Elana K. Arnold
See You in the Cosmos, by Jack Cheng
Patina, by Jason Reynolds
Orphan Island, by Laurel Snyder

I'm excited for the discussion, and to see what our group votes to the top!

Monday, December 11, 2017

2018 Contenders: Patina, by Jason Reynolds

One of the perennial questions that comes up in Newbery discussions is whether or not a given book "stands alone" -- that is, can the reader easily find their way into and out of it without having already read a book that comes before it, or needing to read another that comes afterward.

To be clear, there's nothing in the Newbery criteria that require a winner to stand alone. Indeed, the committee has, on occasion, given the gold medal to books that almost certainly don't. (The High King [1969] is probably the most obvious, but arguments can also be made about The Grey King [1976] and Dicey's Song [1983] at least.) It's something of a rarity, however.

All of this brings us to Patina, the second novel in Jason Reynolds' Track series. It follows 2016's Ghost, which I had missed, and will be followed by Sunny, which is scheduled to be published in April of next year. (One assumes that, at the very least, Lu will follow at some point thereafter.) At any rate, I approached Patina without having any background knowledge of the series, and for what it's worth, I found it difficult when separated from the rest of its series.

The Track books each follow one of the four new runners on the Defenders track team. Patina Jones, the title character of Patina, is trying to prepare to run a relay race for the first time, while also dealing with many challenges off the track. Her mother is largely disabled, and so Patina and her younger sister, Maddy, are living with their uncle and aunt. Patina, who is black, is attending a new school, an upper-class, heavily white, private academy; it's a vastly different place from her previous, more integrated, public school. She's trying to take care of herself, while at the same time looking out for her younger sister, and the pressure wears on her.

I was able to catch up to the story eventually, but the first chapter especially left me feeling ungrounded; it was full of characters I felt like I should already know, in a setting that felt like it should have been familiar. And (spoiler alert!) the novel ends with Patina running the last leg of her relay, sprinting for the finish line, and then...well, I don't know. There's no conclusion at all -- it's a pure cliffhanger, which one assumes will be resolved in the next book.

Patina has plenty of good points -- the characterization and voice, especially, are clear and strong. The pacing seemed off to me, but it's possible that problem might disappear in the context of the whole series. But make no mistake: this book demands to be read in concert with the others. I found it difficult indeed to evaluate in a vacuum. If I had to guess, the fact that Patina doesn't stand alone will probably keep it off the Newbery podium this year; I'll be curious to see how my opinion of it changes, however, when I read the whole series.

Published in August by Atheneum / Simon & Schuster

Monday, November 20, 2017

2018 Contenders: See You in the Cosmos, by Jack Cheng

Alex Petroski is an 11-year-old boy from Colorado who loves astronomy, rocketry, and cosmology in general. He has a rocket that he hopes to launch at the Southwest High-Altitude Rocket Festival; his goal is to get the rocket into outer space, where it will carry his "golden iPod" out into the universe, just like the "golden records" carried by the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes. Although his father is dead, his mother is clearly suffering from mental health problems, and his older brother is far away in Los Angeles, Alex heads off to the festival alone, planning to meet up with some of his friends from an online rocketry forum on his way there. His journey ends up taking him not only to the festival, but much further afield as well. Through it all, Alex continues to record to his iPod, and these narrations form the text of this quasi-epistolary novel.

See You in the Cosmos has received some stellar reviews, and I've heard Newbery buzz around it as well. In some senses, I can see why. Many of the supporting characters feel real and well-developed -- I'm thinking here especially of Ronnie and Terra -- and the book hits some heavy themes, especially in its second half, with an admirable open-heartedness. However, I'm not entirely sold on the novel, largely due to Alex himself, whom I was never able to fully believe in.

Alex is OBSESSED, in an all-caps kind of way, with Carl Sagan. He's intimately familiar with the original Cosmos, has seen Contact some uncountable number of times, and even owns a Sagan-style sweater. Heck, his dog's name is actually Carl Sagan. When Alex refers to Sagan, he often calls him "my hero." This isn't a passing fancy; this is integral to Alex's character and identity.

And...I just had a hard time buying it. The novel is clearly contemporary -- it's full of references to Snapchat, Yelp, and Google maps. As such, Alex would have been born in 2006 or so. And yet, the original Cosmos aired in 1980; Sagan died in 1996, and Contact came out in 1997. Alex's fixation on Sagan would have been like me being 11 and refusing to stop talking about George Gamow. I was a weird, weird kid with some off-the-wall interests, and that would have been a bridge too far even for me.

I could maybe have believed it if Alex's hero was, say, Neil DeGrasse Tyson; my stepdaughter is 11, and she not only knows who Tyson is, but likes him well enough to have expressed a desire to read his books. But, although Alex does mention Tyson once (in the context of Cosmos), that scene just reminded me of Martin Prince's opinions on Ray Bradbury:

Perhaps time has made me cynical. Perhaps there's some kid out there who could legitimately serve as a model for Alex. But I note with some unease when adult authors give child characters anachronistic interests, be they Carl Sagan, Heloise's Hints, or knowing the exact time that a network TV show airs, as if on-demand had never been invented. It usually feels to me like the authors are breaking the illusion of the fictional world they're creating, interrupting my willing suspension of disbelief. I couldn't help but compare Alex unfavorably to someone like Joey Pigza, who's much more easily recognizable as a real kid. (This is especially true since The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza deals with many of the same deep themes as See You in the Cosmos). 

However, in other ways, Alex is deeply authentic. (His paragraph-long run-on sentences, in particular, sound exactly like conversations I've had with kids that age.) Indeed, the prose itself is exemplary, and as I mentioned at the start of this review, there's a lot to like about the novel. If it's easier for you to believe in Alex's love of Sagan, you may well enjoy this book much more than I did. But this is one where, although I see why people adore it, I can't necessarily bring myself to love it myself.

Published in February by Dial/Penguin

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

2018 Contenders: Landscape with Invisible Hand, by M.T. Anderson

So, as it turns out, we were neither abducted by aliens, nor decided to decamp to some off-the-grid cabin far away from the blogosphere. Rather, a gigantic library software project has been the only thing we've had time to think about this summer, and we're just now managing to emerge, squinting, into the sunlight again. So to speak.

But enough about me. Much more interesting than my essay about How I Spent My Summer Non-Vacation is the latest M.T. Anderson book, Landscape with Invisible Hand. It's a story narrated by Adam Costello, a teenage artist living in a near-future Rhode Island. An alien race called the vuvv have made contact with Earth, bringing amazing technology, lifesaving medicine -- and completely destroying the human economy. The vast majority of jobs are now obsolete, and while a few rich people live in floating cities among the clouds, most humans live in misery, struggling to find anything to eat, drinking contaminated water, and threatening each other with physical violence over part-time food court jobs, for which there are dozens, even hundreds, of applicants.

Landscape with Invisible Hand, from its mocking, Adam Smith-referencing title to its final period, functions as a blistering satire of modern America. The vuvv are patronizing colonialists, self-congratulatory about their efforts on behalf of humanity, but either blind or indifferent to the immense suffering their arrival has inflicted. Despite the fact that there are nowhere near enough jobs remaining, humanity's leaders and rich elites blame the suffering of the majority on the majority's sloth and greed, refusing to do anything that might actually help the situation. Most art and music consists of shameless attempts to please the vuvv, whose concept of human culture is built out of  the detritus of the 1950s -- warmed-over doo-wop, uninspired still-life paintings, rockabilly clothes. Even the novel's ending casts some serious shade on the very concept of the "American Dream."

This being an M.T. Anderson book, Landscape does also have a bruised, but beating heart. Even the most odious of the core characters is recognizably human, and Adam's unbreakable desire for meaning and beauty manage to carry him through even the lowest points of the plot. I don't want to give it away here, but his monologue at the end of the chapter titled "A Small Town Under the Stars" is possibly the emotionally moving thing I've read this year.

Really, Landscape is a YA novel; I doubt it has any chance of showing up in the Newbery rolls, if only because its careful deployment of f-bombs would render all the pearl-clutching about the use of "scrotum" in The Higher Power of Lucky charmingly quaint. But the publisher's guidelines say the book is for ages 12 and up, and the Newbery is supposed to be for books for readers up to 14. I do think Landscape qualifies under the letter of the law, and it's a good enough book that, if I were on the committee, I'd urge everyone to give it a very close look.

Publication in September by Candlewick

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

2018 Contenders: Orphan Island, by Laurel Snyder

"Nine on an island, orphans all / any more the sky might fall." 

Sometimes you finish a book and you're not sure whether you've just read the best book of the year or witnessed a train wreck. It seems to happen more and more often to me. I feel like I should be getting more confident in my critical assessments as I get older, but instead I increasingly find myself going, "Huh! That sure was a book!" or, "Okay, I guess that's the kind of thing we're publishing these days?"

25753092Orphan Island is a hell of a thing. The premise is simple: nine children (each one year apart in age) live on an idyllic island. Once a year a boat comes to bring a new toddler (a Care) and takes away the oldest child (the Elder), who is approaching adolescence. It invites inevitable comparisons to Hokey Pokey, by Jerry Spinelli, of course, and for its first half Orphan Island seems to occupy that same allegorical space. We don't know how the children get there, or why, or how the island takes care of them. It just does. We do know that Jinny, the eldest child this year, is having a hard time letting go of childhood.

As an aside, Jinny is an admirably unlikable character. She feels like a real twelve-year-old. She's bratty and selfish and makes just about all of the mistakes it's possible to make on an island where nothing can go wrong.

Anyway, the book seems to be following a fairly predictable trajectory in which Jinny will grow and mature and generally get her shit together, and then she will leave the island and it will be bittersweet but necessary. But then the plot takes an unexpected turn. (Spoilers follow.)

After a pretty inauspicious year as Elder, the boat comes for Jinny, and she just... doesn't get in. She drags the thing up on the sand, collects the new Care, and determines to continue business as usual. Some of the other children warn her that she's breaking one of the very few rules that seem to hold their reality together, but Jinny doesn't care. Until reality starts to fall apart. The snakes are suddenly venomous. The winds that keep the children from falling off the cliffs are no longer functioning. The chickens stop laying. Children start getting hurt.

A lot of the reviews I've read have been frustrated with the ambiguous ending of Orphan Island. Jinny does end up leaving in the boat, along with the new Care (who is on the verge of death), but nothing is explained. Here are just a few of the things Snyder never tells us: How does the island work? Who created it, and why? Where do the children come from? Where do the children go? When Jinny leaves, will it fix the island, or is she leaving her fellow kids behind to starve? What are they supposed to do when all of the books in their little library fall apart (this one made me especially anxious)?

To those people, Laurel Snyder replies, basically: being twelve is weird and horrible and you have no idea what's happening to you or why. She wanted to replicate that experience in novel form. I'm... really not sure yet whether she has succeeded! I do know that she has created a world that is strange and vivid, populated with characters who feel like real children. I know that this is an ambitious book, and I have a feeling I will be thinking about it for a long time. It also features clear, strong, uncluttered prose - in that sense, I think it's Snyder's best work yet.

For those reasons, I would not be surprised if this one comes up for discussion at the Newbery table, but I wonder if it's too divisive to win. Either way, I plan to pass it along to my almost-twelve-year-old. Though she may refuse to read it, because she's bratty and contrary.

Published in May by Walden Pond Press. 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Newbery Wayback Machine: Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, by Rachel Field (1930)

Hitty, Her First Hundred Years is narrated by the titular character, a doll carved from a piece of mountain ash wood by a peddler in Maine in the early 1800s. She recounts her adventures, which took her to the South Seas, India, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and sundry other places in the hands of a succession of owners, before finally arriving at an antique shop in New York City.

I can understand why people at the time enjoyed Hitty. It's several different adventure stories at once, with a protagonist that allows the action to shift from one place to another without the usual time constraints. If you're interested in a panorama of at least some parts of 1800s and early 1900s America, Hitty might well appeal to a 1930 version of you.

I would opine, however, that, even if we adjust our standards to "1920s and 30s kidlit," Hitty is...pretty racist, actually. Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, Indians, and African Americans all come in for unflattering and exoticizing portrayals. The "dialect" conversations of the Black characters made me cringe, the descriptions of Bombay are all kinds of offensive, and although Hitty makes some attempt to show that the "Injuns" aren't really anything to be afraid of, that passage leaves many unpleasant statements unexamined. (For example, "[the Native Americans]'ve got baskets and things to sell, but he said you couldn't trust 'em round the corner.") But the South Seas section is the worst offender -- when the bone-in-the-nose islanders take Hitty and worship her as an idol, it's exactly as bad as you might fear.

Also, I have to say that I found Hitty a tiresome companion. She comes across to me as hopelessly judgmental, prone to abusing superlatives, and obsessed with her own appearance. I'd be tempted to shove her into the back of the horsehair couch too, if that's how she was going to act. There's some humor, I suppose, in a doll with all of the concerns and values of a rather unpleasant great-aunt, but a) I don't think it's intentional, and b) it's more or less impossible to sustain over 200 pages.

As much as I disliked Hitty -- and I'd rank it near the bottom of the Newbery winners I've read -- I don't have an opinion as to what should have won instead. Six Honor books were named, but I've never heard of them other than as titles on the list; I also can't think of any books left off the Newbery list that should have been chosen. It's hard for me to think of a modern reader I'd recommend Hitty to, however, unless you're a Newbery completist too.

Monday, May 8, 2017

2018 Contenders: Donald Trump: Outspoken Personality and President, by Jill Sherman

*deeeeeeeeeeeep breath*

I stopped by my local library the other day, and was browsing the shelf of new children's books. It turned out that the new batch of presidential biographies written after Donald Trump's win had arrived, and I couldn't resist taking this one home to have a look at it.

The presidential election of 2016 probably wasn't the nastiest of all time. (I've always enjoyed the tales of 1800's election, which featured, among other things, Thomas Jefferson's supporters accusing John Adams of having "a hideous hermaphroditical character," and Adams' supporters in turn spreading rumors that Jefferson had actually died, at a time when that was a lot harder to fact-check.) It was, however, the most deeply unpleasant of my lifetime, and I was curious to see how Jill Sherman would choose to address this unpleasantness in Donald Trump: Outspoken Personality and President.

The answer is that Sherman largely sidesteps the issue. She does mention that Trump's announcement of his candidacy contained statements that "immigrants can bring problems to the United States," but there's no mention of what kind of problems Trump mentioned, or of the fact that his comments specifically targeted Mexicans. There's no mention at all of Trump's Access Hollywood tape (or indeed, of any of his questionable remarks about women), of the proposed border wall, or of Trump's role in the "birther" movement. There's a bland mention that "Trump made other controversial statements that some people considered to be offensive," but that's about it. (It does, however, briefly explain the scandal about Hillary Clinton's emails.)

In fairness, I wouldn't have wished the job of writing this book on my worst enemy. At a time of deep political polarization, writing a biography about one of the most controversial candidates in the country's history is a thankless task. I'm not actually sure it's possible to write a successful version of this book; I am certain that it's impossible to write a version of it that would please everyone. I should also mention that the first part of the book, dealing with Trump's pre-political life, works better than the second part. But it's easy to see how hard Sherman is struggling to present a neutral view of her subject, and the seams, so to speak, never stop showing.

Presidential biographies do actually have a proud history in the Newbery rolls. In addition to Lincoln: A Photobiography, Russell Freedman's 1988 winner, the list of Honor books includes Leader By Destiny: George Washington, Man and Patriot (Jeanette Eaton, 1939); George Washington's WorldAbraham Lincoln's World, and George Washington (Genevieve Foster, 1942, 1945, 1950); and Abraham Lincoln, Friend of the People and Theodore Roosevelt, Fighting Patriot (Clara Ingram Judson, 1951, 1954). But there's essentially no chance of Donald Trump: Outspoken Personality and President joining them at next year's YMAs.

Published in April by Lerner Publications

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

2018 Contenders: Posted, by John David Anderson

Once more (with feeling!), we're participating in a blog tour for a new title from Walden Press. I was excited to be asked to join this one, because it meant that I got an advance copy of the new John David Anderson novel, Posted.

I wanted to read this one because I loved Anderson's book from last year, Ms. Bixby's Last Day. That one picked up four starred reviews and a fair amount of awards buzz, though it didn't end up taking anything at the YMAs. I was curious to see how Anderson would choose to follow that particular title.

Posted, as it happens, shares many of the qualities of Ms. Bixby. Both books tackle difficult questions with wide-eyed realism combined with a deep empathy; both deal with the dynamics of small groups of friends under trying circumstances; and both feature fitting, but bittersweet endings. Both books also showcase what I think of as Anderson's greatest talent as a writer: his virtuoso ability to reproduce the voice, cadence, and thoughts of middle-schoolers. To me, all of his characters sound authentic, which is easy to talk about, but fiendishly difficult to achieve.

Posted is narrated by Eric "Frost" Voss, an eighth-grader at Branton Middle School in Michigan. When cell phones are banned from school, Frost and his friends -- Deedee, Wolf, and Bench -- take to leaving sticky notes on each others' lockers in lieu of texting. This practice soon spreads, with consequences that soon spiral far beyond the control of Frost's circle. Additionally, the arrival of a new girl, Rose, puts a strain on the group's cohesiveness. The confluence of events leads to what Frost repeatedly refers to as a "war," the consequences of which are far-reaching indeed.

As I mentioned earlier, Posted gives readers a lot to like. I have a few questions about the structure of the book -- it's a little long, and I'm unconvinced that the initial two-page prologue is actually necessary. Those are quibbles, however, and it would surprise me if Posted doesn't attract positive notice from reviewers and readers. If I were still working a service desk, I'd recommend Posted to readers who enjoyed Wonder, Twerp, or Frindle, all of which explore at least some of the same themes and have similarly strong characters.

Publication in May by Walden Pond Press / HarperCollins Children's

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Newbery Wayback Machine: ...And Now Miguel, by Joseph Krumgold (1954)

Twelve-year-old Miguel Chavez's family raise sheep in New Mexico. Each summer, the men take the sheep into the pasture, high in the Sangre de Christo Mountains. More than anything, Miguel wishes to take his place among the men and join them in the mountains. However, as Miguel finds, even when wishes come true, there's a cost.

...And Now Miguel is a quiet, thoughtful book, one that succeeds largely on the strength of Miguel's first-person narration. I've read a lot of books told in the first person, but very few in which the character's personality comes through as strongly. Miguel is, in many ways, a precocious twelve-year-old, but he's still only twelve. He is frustrated by the things he doesn't understand, loses patience with others when his plans don't go as expected, and doesn't always know how to express himself so others will know what he means. But he has a big heart, fierce family loyalty, and a burning desire to figure out how the world around him works.

Miguel is always pensive, and surprised me at times with its depth. Near the end of the book, Miguel and his older brother Gabriel have a theological conversation about the ways that the Saints do -- or don't -- intervene in the world; almost any adult author would be proud to work a conversation as carefully considered into their novels. It's also noteworthy that, as in Joseph Krumgold's other Newbery winner, Onion John (1960 award), this is a book without any villains. There are only people trying to do the right thing as they understand it, who sometimes come into conflict with each other.

Miguel had a somewhat complicated genesis. Krumgold was a screenwriter, and was hired by the US State Department to produce a narrative documentary on rural Hispanic workers. The resulting hour-long film, also titled ...And Now Miguel, also came out in 1953. The committee apparently still considered the novel version an "original work" for Newbery purposes. 

I've seen the documentary, which is available in full on YouTube. Like the novel, though in a different way, it captures the wide, seemingly empty vistas of New Mexico, and the introspection that such a place can engender. The most immediately noticeable difference is that the film contains no dialogue at all -- just Miguel's narration, and some not-entirely-convincing Foley work. (My guess is that it was shot using a camera that didn't have the capability of recording audio.)

The plot, in its essentials, is the same in both the film and the novel, which leads me to another question. The film comes billed as a documentary, but the plot is so tightly constructed, and the narrative scenes in particular so obviously staged, that I can't help but wonder if the story actually happened or not. I don't know, but my library's copy of Miguel was filed in the fiction section, and that may be the best way to engage with it.

(As a side note, it's fascinating to note the way that the film plays up its patriotic message in the scene near the end with Gabriel and Miguel, while completely leaving out the theological questions that preoccupy Miguel in the book. Perhaps Krumgold felt more free to move in that direction when producing material that wouldn't be published under the aegis of the State Department.)

Five Honor books were named in 1954, including two different Meindert De Jong titles (Shadrach and Hurry Home, Candy). None of them, however, are likely to be familiar to most present-day readers. The one book from that publishing year that retains the most fans wasn't eligible -- The Silver Chair, by Irish-born British writer C.S. Lewis. ...And Now Miguel was a solid choice for the Newbery medal then, and remains readable and interesting today.

Monday, March 27, 2017

2018 Contenders: Short, by Holly Goldberg Sloan

ShortJulia is very short for her age (twelve). She's planning to spend her summer being short and missing her recently departed dog, but her mother makes her audition for a semi-professional production of The Wizard of Oz instead. To her own surprise, Julia is cast as a munchkin. The rest of the book is your typical coming of age plot with a lot of theater flavor thrown in. By the end, you will be unsurprised to learn, Julia has truly "grown."

(Ok, first of all, why would you call your book Short? Have you never been on the internet? What do you think is going to happen when someone googles "Short book review"? I couldn't even find it on Goodreads until I searched by "person who wrote Counting By 7s."


The best parts of Short are centered around the show business details of putting on a play. I'm enough of a theater nerd that I enjoyed the backstage shenanigans and technical details about costuming and wire work. There were lots of appealing secondary characters such as the aging director, the unexpectedly talented elderly neighbor, and the other adults in the cast and crew.

Then again, this is the second middle grade book I've read recently in which adult characters far outnumber child characters, and I'm not sure what I think about this trend. I suspect such books are more appealing to adults than children, because we adult readers sure do love to think about young people learning a thing or two from our fascinating lives. In my experience, if you're going to sell a kid on a book full of adults, they'd better be adult animals.

The narration in Short is first-person and I found Julia's voice funny in a believably (sometimes irritating) twelve-year-old way. She's trying to find her place in the world, and she spends a lot of time testing out reactions and humor on the people around her, which rang true. Kudos to Holly Goldberg Sloan for striking the right balance between funny and awkward with this character. No twelve-year-old is funny all the time - especially to adults.

I doubt that Short will get serious Newbery consideration, but it will definitely find its readers. I found myself wanting to recommend it to fans of Better Nate Than Ever, but I think the readership skews younger for this one. It might be a good choice for kids who are too young for Nate. 

Published in January by Dial Books

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Shiny Silver Medals: The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg, by Rodman Philbrick (2010 Honor)

The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg is a hard book to describe. For the first two-thirds of the novel, it's very much in the vein of something like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. We follow the titular protagonist as he searches for his brother, Harold, who has been forced into the Union army during the Civil War, marveling at the foibles and schemes of the adults Homer encounters, and laughing at his over-the-top lies. But then it takes a hard left turn into The Red Badge of Courage territory (even nicking that book's climactic plot point), becoming something of a meditation on the horrors of war.

The first part of Mostly True Adventures is fun and clever, but also fits into an established strain of children's literature. However, precious few children's novels are willing to go anywhere near as deep into the battlefields of the American Civil War. (Only Rifles for Watie, Harold Keith's 1958 Newbery winner, springs immediately to mind, and that one is, shall we say, a much less engaging read.) To me, the most effective and moving part of the book takes place near the end, as Homer rides desperately across the Gettysburg battlefield. It breaks into a poetic, all-caps series of brief descriptions of the horrors that Homer sees, ending with the gut punch of "THINGS TOO TERRIBLE TO WRITE, FOR FEAR THE PAGE WILL BURN. / THINGS BEST FORGOT."

Indeed, my 13-year-old daughter enjoyed the book, but opined that the contents of those last few chapters should have made Mostly True Adventures a YA book. I wouldn't go that far -- I think Homer's first-person narration keeps the book from fully tipping into YA territory -- but I certainly understand where she's coming from.

The final page is a brilliant, moving conclusion, and the novel on the whole is a true piece of art. It had no chance to win the 2010 Newbery -- nothing was going to beat When You Reach Me that year -- but the Honor it did take home is well-deserved.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Winner's Circle: The Girl Who Drank the Moon (2017)

For our fantastic three-way review of this year's Newbery winner, The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, we came up with a few burning questions each, and then asked and answered them in an online chat session, so you could bear witness to our witty repartee. Without further ado...

First, let's try to summarize the book in thirty words!

Rachael: Babies are left in the woods to be claimed by an evil witch. The baby-claiming witch is not actually evil, but there is evil afoot. Also dragons and swamp monsters.

Sam: Plutocrats, propagandists, and sadists are defeated by an Indigo Child, a failed bureaucrat, an ex-ninja nun, a witch, a swamp god, and a motley host of other characters.

Rachael: Show-off.

Tess: Creepy town ruled by totalitarian regime requires yearly infant sacrifices. One of these babies is secretly adopted by a witch, grows powerfully magical, and learns to conquer fear with love.

What did you think of Barnhill's world building?

Sam: I appreciated Barnhill's ability to mention things in passing, to give the impression that the world extends beyond the boundaries of the book covers. Her world's "creation story" is a good example of this - we get a sort of poetic form of it, but we never really get into the details of it.

Rachael: I'm not sure if that's a bug or a feature, but I agree that we only get a fuzzy idea of the parameters of this world. What I did like was the way she reveals it in sort of slow, concentric circles - first just the Protectorate, then Xan and the other towns, and then some sense of the history and origins.

Tess: For some reason, I thought the book was going to be set in east Asia, or some east Asian inspired fantasy locale. I think because the cover, which is really lovely, has paper cranes on it, and reminded me of the covers of some of Grace Lin's books. Also because the first character we meet in earnest is named Xan. And the walled city of the Protectorate reminded me of walled palaces I have visited in China and Korea. When I realized that the setting is not meant to be Asian, or Asian inspired, that the fantasy world of the novel isn't meant to be comparable to anywhere specific in our real world, I had trouble adjusting. So I guess you could say that's evidence that Barnhill's world building didn't really work for me. I found the poetic fuzziness a little distracting. Instead of just accepting Glerk is a world-creating bog monster with multiple appendages, I kept really wishing there was a more detailed description or even an illustration of him. That's just me though! I could see how it would totally work for another reader.

What did you think of the political undertones of the story?

Sam: I'm gonna be honest here and say that I thought the politics of the book gave it some of its weakest moments. I'm thinking specifically here of the Elders of the Protectorate, whose contempt for the populace and unabashed love of luxury goods and status symbols don't provide for much in the way of nuance or depth. It would be a more interesting book, I think, if its villains had more complexity.

Tess: Reading this book within the context of our current political climate, I found the political undertones of the story very intriguing. The idea of a government controlling its citizens through fear fueled by misinformation and isolationism really resonated with me. And the message that that can be combated and corrected with hope, love, and acceptance is one I think is important for readers, particularly young readers, to be exposed to.

Rachael: I found that it hit close to home as well, given our current political climate. That makes me wonder how it will age, though.

What did you think of the pacing? 

Tess: The pacing, honestly, wasn't my favorite part of the novel, but historically books where the focus shifts chapter by chapter, especially when the chapters are short, are hard for me. I felt like there were several distinct storylines going on, and not necessarily simultaneously, and the shifts in perspective from one character to another weren't seamless for me, so the pacing felt very stop-and-go, and made me feel generally impatient.

Rachael: I had the same kinds of feelings. It reminded me a little bit of Keeper [by Kathi Appelt, 2012] in that there was a constant sense of urgency, but after it didn't lead anywhere for a couple of hundred pages, I lost interest. Too much of a sense of "building to something big" without enough momentum to carry it along.

Tess: I think the "hurry up and slow down" pacing worked a little better in Keeper because the sea is a constant motif in that book, and the pacing felt a bit like the rising and falling of tides. The pacing in that book felt more purposeful than the pacing in this book.

Sam: I felt like it would have been a lot better of a book if the first 200 pages or so had been condensed down to 50. When the plot finally gets rolling, it's consistently interesting, but that doesn't really happen until everyone finally leaves the farm. I remember when I was taking poetry writing classes, I'd consistently be asked to chop off the first two stanzas of whatever it was I'd written, since that was just whatever I had to get out in order to write my way into the meat of the thing. I'm not sure we need all that backstory. The various visits to the tower and all the details of Stargirl's childhood? It's all beautifully written; I'm unconvinced it actually NEEDS to be there.

Rachael: That's the thing - the sentence-level prose is lovely. I feel like that should be mentioned.

Sam: Yeah. Any given sentence is truly wonderful. I just wanted it to meander less and just briefly hit the points that we actually need to know when we get into the meat of the plot.

What did you think about the choice to have so many adult characters in a children's novel?

Tess: Personally, as a librarian, I love books like this, where there are equally interesting adult and child characters, because I can suggest them to any age group, particularly folks looking for a "family read" that everyone in their family - little kids, big kids, parents, grandparents - could hypothetically enjoy.

Sam: I think you make really good points, Tess! I'd also add that I think part of the reason that this decision works is that Barnhill pulls the neat trick of letting us see many of the most important adult characters as children. We get scenes from Antain and Ethyne's childhood, flashbacks to Xan's, and even bits of Sister Ignatia's. I think that makes it even easier for a child reader to identify with the adult characters.

Rachael: Xan also has something of the childlike adult in her, in the tradition of Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, etc. I think that makes it work as well.

What did you think of the ending? 

Rachael: I'm of a few different minds. On one hand, I love a book with lots of threads that finally come together in a satisfying way in the conclusion. On the other hand, as we discussed in the pacing question, I think Barnhill spends too much time stringing us along so that I was worn out as a reader before we got to the finish line. One thing I did appreciate though was Luna's reunion with her mother. It was nice to see a book that didn't feel the need to leave a child motherless in order for her to grow.

Sam: I agree with you on that last point especially, Rachael. I was kind of put off by the ending as a whole though, to be honest, and it had to do with the treatment of Sister Ignatia. She's spent the whole book as this implacable presence, and then we suddenly get an explanation for what's actually driving her. But... the book drops that idea almost as soon as it picks it up, and seems almost to forget about her during the coda. I don't always expect a redemption arc - the Grand Elder doesn't get one, and that seems fitting - but the treatment of Sister Ignatia at the end seemed remarkably incurious to me.

Rachael: I agree.

Tess: I also had mixed feels. As for the eruption that was coming that only Luna's extreme magic could save everyone from? Honestly? Meh. Especially since we don't even get to see what happens, we just get a flash forward to some time afterward. But I enjoyed all the stuff about the literal fog lifting from the Protectorate as its citizens get to live free from the tyranny of Sister Ignatia and her puppet Elders. And I actually loved the stuff about how even though Luna's mother is back in her life, she still loves her adoptive family, much like the star children who eventually return to the Protectorate. Their love is described as "multiplied, not divided" which I thought was really beautiful.

If you had to pair this one with another children's book or author, what would you choose?

Sam: So, this is maybe unfair of me, but as I was reading The Girl Who Drank the Moon, one of the things I felt like I was coming to understand even more was the genius of Anne Ursu. Ursu and Barnhill are both from the same group of Minnesota children's writers; heck, Ursu is actually thanked in the notes for The Girl Who Drank the Moon. They share similar concerns, such as the place in society for people who don't quite fit in, what happens when a normal-looking world is actually terrifying just below the surface, and how it's impossible to fully understand the world and everything in it. But Ursu is, IMHO, one of the most talented and meticulous of all of our American children's writers. Ursu carefully, methodically, only ever gives you shades of gray, and Barnhill can't resist the broad stroke. Barnhill may be more of a crowd-pleaser; it's probably easier to love The Girl Who Drank the Moon than it is to love Breadcrumbs for a lot of people. But the difference between the two is the difference between a good book and one of the most jaw-dropping achievements in modern children's literature.

Tess: Those are some deep thoughts Sam. I was just thinking that generally kids at my library love books about characters who discover they have magic powers and have to learn how to use them, so my instinct is to pair this book with books like the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, and the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. But those books center on male protagonists, so I'm especially happy for this book's female representation.

Sam: You're probably thinking more like an actual children's librarian making actual recommendations to actual children than I am! And I definitely agree with you on the female representation issue.

Rachael: My mind keeps going to Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, for some reason. I think it's because I connected with this book more as a mother than as an imagined child, and there's no better portrait of motherhood in children's lit than Mrs. Frisby.

Any closing thoughts?

Sam: I think we've all learned a valuable lesson here.

Tess: LOL

Rachael: Um... I liked this book better than it sounds like I did?

Tess: There you have it folks!

Monday, March 6, 2017

2018 Contenders: A Boy Called Bat, by Elana K. Arnold

A Boy Called Bat is the latest title from Walden Pond Press, who are longtime friends of For Those About to Mock. They asked me if I'd be interested in participating in the blog tour for this book, and of course, I said yes.

As I was reading A Boy Called Bat, I asked Rachael about children's books with well-written and well-developed autistic characters. I mentioned The Real Boy, and Rachael volunteered Rain Reign. To this list, I think we can definitely add A Boy Called Bat, whose titular protagonist rings more than a little true.

Bixby Alexander Tam, whom everyone calls Bat, is an autistic boy who loves animals. His mother is a veterinarian, and when she comes home with an orphaned baby skunk, Bat immediately forms a bond with the animal. The plan is to turn the skunk over to a wild-animal shelter in a month, but Bat wants to find a way to convince his mom to let the skunk stay.

My favorite thing about A Boy Called Bat was the interaction between the members of Bat's family. Bat's love/frustration relationship with his sister, Janie, the fierce love his mother has for him, and the way his divorced father fits into the picture are all deep and real. This is a book about a skunk, but it's really a book about a family learning to love and understand each other better.

I also appreciated the fact that the book is willing to end before all of the loose ends are wrapped up. The back cover says that sequels are planned, but A Boy Called Bat works fine as a stand-alone. I didn't feel like I was being left with unanswered questions; I more felt that an emotional conclusion had been reached, and the remaining plot threads were simply indicative of the fact that life doesn't usually wrap things up with a neat little bow.

It's still too early in the year for me to feel like I have a handle on the Newbery race, so I don't know how A Boy Called Bat will fare in it. I do think that there's a lot for the Schneider committee to like here, and I'm curious to see if they will choose to recognize this novel.

Publication on March 14, 2017, by Walden Pond Press

Monday, February 27, 2017

2018 Contenders: A Rambler Steals Home, by Carter Higgins

"It is a failing of mine that I persist in bringing logic to movies where it is not wanted."
          ~Roger Ebert, review of Romeo Must Die (2000)

I'd never claim to be even a fraction of the reviewer that Ebert was, but his lament here is one I can empathize with. All the way through A Rambler Steals Home, I found myself asking questions that probably weren't entirely relevant to the story, but that nonetheless kept me from fully engaging with the plot and characters.

Rambler is narrated by Derby Christmas Clark, who lives out of the titular vehicle alongside her brother, Triple, and her father, Garland. Each summer, they return to the town of Ridge Creek, Virginia, and operate a food stand outside of the stadium of the minor-league Ridge Creek Rockskippers. This year, however, some of their Ridge Creek friends are gone, some have had life-changing experiences, and some have secrets that will soon rise to the surface.

I'm a huge baseball fan, and I enjoy attending minor league games. However, I found myself coming back again and again to the question of what kind of team the Rockskippers are. We're told at one point that "players came and went as they got good enough for the big leagues," which makes it sound like this is a minor league affiliate of a team in the majors, although no specific parent team is ever listed. The Rockskippers would have to be a low-level team, however, given that Ridge Creek seems to be a small town indeed. (For what it's worth, the town where I live has 30,000 people in it and still only has a low-A team, one step above the bottom of the organized minor leagues.) But the starting right fielder, Goose Plogger, seems to have played for the team for at least 14 or 15 years; given that he has an 11-year-old daughter born after his marriage to a town local, he's almost certainly in his early to mid-thirties anyway. Even in an independent league, the fringe-iest level of professional ball, it defies belief that a player that age would a) still be on the same team, and b) never have changed teams or advanced a level and still be starting. Maybe, maybe, this would have been possible back in the old pre-1950s Pacific Coast League, but it's simply not a thing that happens now.

Similarly, this appears to be a team that only has one groundskeeper -- a twelve-year-old boy -- and one person selling tickets. Even down at the level of my local single-A team, there are multiple ticket windows, a whole grounds crew, and a team of PR people, sales reps, and management types. I'm just not buying any of the setting here; it's like a Truman Show-level recreation of the idea of a small-town baseball team, rather than anything based in reality.

I might have spent less time thinking about this if I had had anything else to concentrate on. But the plot is an accumulation of off-the-shelf parts from The Higher Power of Lucky, and Missing May, and any number of other books about missing mothers, sorrowing fathers and daughters, and small-town secrets about loss and acceptance. I couldn't find anything here that I hadn't read elsewhere, and so the weirdness of the setting ended up occupying most of my attention.

This is Carter Higgins' first book, and I wouldn't dismiss her as an author based on it. But it's highly flawed, and I wouldn't consider it a serious Newbery contender.

Publication on February 28, 2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Newbery Wayback Machine: The Trumpeter of Krakow (1929)

Recently, we opened a Little Free Library in the bus station with which we share a building. As I was helping to stock it, I saw a copy of The Trumpeter of Krakow in the stack of books, and I figured I'd give it a read before sending it on its Little Free way.

After Rachael's review, I wasn't expecting much from this one. Indeed, I can agree with most of her points. The characters, without exception, are two-dimensional at best. The descriptions of clothing are detailed to the point of absurdity, and I'd add that the descriptions of streets and buildings are as well. When the staircase up to the alchemist's loft was destroyed by an explosion halfway through the book, I was ecstatic, because it meant I wasn't going to have to read any more about how creaky and rickety it looked. This is a 50-page book that's padded out to 200 with endlessly detailed descriptive passages, like a 15th-century Polish version of The House of the Seven Gables.

That might not even be that bad of a thing, because the plot itself is unexciting at best. I never felt invested in the fate of the Great Tarnov Crystal, and even in the life-or-death moments, I didn't feel like much was at stake. This is the sort of book where the main characters are more or less bulletproof, and given that they don't undergo any change or development as the novel progresses, there's not much to emotionally invest in. The weirdly passive prose also undercuts any sense of suspense.

Really, the thing I enjoyed most about Trumpeter was the historical information. Jan Kanty isn't much of a character within the pages, but was a fascinating historical figure. The same goes for King Kazimir Jagiello. I did enjoy reading about the University of Krakow, and about the fortress-palace at the heart of the lively city of Krakow itself.

The best book eligible for the 1929 Newbery was, as Rachael mentioned, Millions of Cats, which did Honor. That said, as these early winners go, The Trumpeter of Krakow really isn't as bad as I perhaps make it sound. It has a plot, which puts it above the sludgy meanderings of Smoky, the Cowhorse or Waterless Mountain, and it isn't treacly glurge like The Cat Who Went to Heaven. It's more like The Dark Frigate -- a book whose praises I'd decline to sing, but which points the way to better things for American children's lit. It's a straight line from Trumpeter to, say, Crispin: The Cross of Lead, and any number of other books featuring mystery and adventure in the far-off past.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

2017 Contenders Round-Up

I did read a few books that could be considered as in the running for this year's Newbery. I haven't read nearly widely enough to know what chances they have, so I thought I would just throw them all together, higgledy-piggledy, in one blog post.

The Wild Robot, by Peter Brown

I feel like robots are having a moment, not so much in children's lit yet, but certainly in pop culture. Having just finished watching the first season of Westworld, this book made for a hopeful, if bittersweet antidote.

Travis Jonker described it as "Isaac Asimov writes Hatchet," which is probably the most perfect four word review I have ever read. After a shipwreck, Roz the robot washes up on the shore of an island wilderness. Designed to learn from her surroundings, she picks up the behaviors of the animals around her, who go from viewing her as a monster to defending her against a violent threat at the climax of the book.

Like most robot narratives, The Wild Robot is really about what it means to be human and how we should live in this world, and I found Roz the most compelling character in children's literature this year. It is, however, a book about talking animals. They speak animal languages, which Roz learns, but they are still somewhat anthropomorphized, and that will bother some readers. The episodic plot (and its inherent lazy pacing) might bother others.

Of all the middle grade novels published in 2016, though, this is the one I find myself shoving into people's hands, so it's at the top of my list.

Pax, by Sara Pennypacker

Another animal book, but this one gets more inside the brains of the animals while taking a more realistic view of their brains and behavior. A boy, forced to set his pet fox free, undertakes a journey to bring it home again. This all takes place against the backdrop of an unspecified military conflict which draws closer and closer to the area where the fox is living.

From the reviews I've seen, that nebulous setting is off-putting to some readers. Personally, I liked it. It reminded me of the film adaptation of Howl's Moving Castle, where there's a pointless, unexplained war going on behind everything else. It adds a menacing tone to the narrative, and I think the unexplained nature of the conflict is a feature, not a bug - war is always inexplicable, especially to children and animals. The sentence-level writing is gorgeous, and the themes are beautifully realized, but it's possible that some of the characters are underdeveloped.

Like many readers, I did like the fox POV chapters better than the human chapters.

The Inquisitor's Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, by Adam Gidwitz

In his previous trilogy, Gidwitz was riffing (to marvelous effect) on the Brothers Grimm. Here he takes on The Canterbury Tales (in style more than in subject matter). Multiple narrators gathered at a tavern tell the story of three remarkable children who attract the interest and eventual ire of the most powerful men and women in medieval France.

Of the books I'm covering here, I think this one has the best shot of winning a medal. Its themes are both universal and timely, dealing, as it does, with religious, racial, and class prejudices. It also has a lot, like a lot, of fart and butt jokes. In that sense, Gidwitz really nails the Chaucerian high/low tone.

The pacing is on the slow side, and I think that will put some children off, but it's really the kind of book that would make for an excellent classroom read, with lots of side projects to go along with the medieval subject matter. The audiobook, read by three narrators who each take on a multitude of voices, is excellent as well.

The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island, by Dana Alison Levy

This one was pure pleasure. I approach the Fletchers more with love than with critical distance, but this second volume of their adventures takes on more serious themes than the first one did. I think the subplot about racism on a tiny New England island works well, but I'd like to hear other thoughts on the matter. The main plot - a greedy real estate investor threatens a beloved landmark - is a tale as old as time, but drawing on the classics is fitting in a nostalgic/madcap family novel like this. Rainbow families deserve sepia-toned comfort fare too.

...and many more. 

I will be at the Youth Media Awards next week, and before then I hope to read a couple more books. At the top of my list: Ghost, by Jason Reynolds, and The Best Man, by Richard Peck. As always, I can't wait to hear what the committee chooses!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Newbery Wayback Machine: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg (1968)

Happy new year loyal Mockers!

In 2017 we will continue to focus on past Newbery winners. We will occasionally blog about current contenders, as the fancy strikes us, but we'll mainly stick to our travels in ye olde...

And today we go back to 1968. 1968 was a historic year. Apollo 8 orbited the moon, MLK and RFK were assassinated, Star Trek gave us the first interracial kiss on television, and, of course, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg won the Newbery Medal (a significant win, as Konigsburg was also a runner up that year for Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, the only double honor in Newbery history.)

It's the story of twelve year old Claudia Kincaid. Seemingly disenfranchised by an unjust lack of respect/affection/attention in her family, she decides to run away from home. She chooses to recruit her nine year old brother Jamie to accompany her because they connect intellectually in a way she doesn't connect with her other siblings, and because Jamie is independently wealthy due to the fact he regularly hustles his classmates at cards, and they'll need cash for the plan to succeed. The plan, by the way, is to run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in nearby New York City, because if you're going to run away why not do it to the home of many of the most sophisticated works of art in the world? While living in the museum Claudia becomes fascinated by a sculpture of an angel that the Met acquired for a shockingly low price considering it may be the work of famous renaissance artist Michelangelo. Claudia makes it her mission to confirm the sculpture is by Michelangelo, a quest which eventually leads her and Jamie to the Connecticut home of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the eccentric patron of the arts who sold the angel to the Met, and her mixed-up files, an archive, organized in no discernible order other than what makes sense to Mrs. Frankweiler, of secrets, including the secrets of the angel: who sculpted it, how it came to be in her possession, and why she sold it.

This book was one of my favorites when I was a child, because I was enchanted by the ideas of 1. running away to a museum, and 2. having an archive in my home when I grew up. As an adult I still love museums, and imagining where I would sleep if I ran away to one. A few years ago I had the pleasure to visit the Met, and there were many fantastic places to spend the night if one were so inclined! I also have not one but two libraries in my home, and I live in a very narrow townhouse (a homeslice, if you will) so that's really saying something about living your dreams. I was excited, but anxious to re-read From the Mixed-Up Files as an adult. Would I find it as enchanting as I did when I was a child? The answer is yes, perhaps even more so.

From the Mixed-Up Files is a treat. It's a story that appeals to children. Children love stories about running away from home. It is known. It is exciting to think about what you would do and how you would survive without the care and supervision of your parent or guardian. It is particularly exciting to read about it in a book, and live vicariously through the characters, because actually running away from home is scary and dangerous. Claudia and Jamie, thoughtful and resourceful children, are likable, relatable characters. The narrative style - the book is told from the perspective of Mrs. Frankweiler who is writing to her lawyer, Saxonberg - lends the story an inclusive, conspiratorial tone, which is fun and mysterious. But its greatest strength lies in what the book is really about: the desire all people have to feel special.

It is revealed that Claudia felt compelled to run away from home, to live in a museum, to discover the truth about the angel sculpture, because she was missing something in her life. She felt ordinary, and she wanted to feel special instead. She wanted to have a secret, to keep safe inside her, to comfort her in the assurance she was extraordinary. And it is revealed that Mrs. Frankweiler, though an accomplished, if odd, person, is also missing something. She never had grandchildren despite secretly wanting them. At the end of the novel, both of them get what they need: Claudia learns the secrets of the angel, to keep as long as she likes, and the children adopt Mrs. Frankweiler as an unofficial grandmother, with plans to continually visit her. I thought the book was perhaps making a statement about what it was like to be a woman in 1960's America, feeling wrong or uncomfortable just being yourself, to always want something more, whether or not it's attainable, but the more I think about it, the more I feel that idea, that sensation, is universal and timeless.

From the Mixed-Up Files works as a think piece and a delightful piece of literature for children, making it, in my opinion, a modern classic. I think it truly earned its Newbery Medal, as well as its place in many people's hearts as a childhood favorite. It belongs on the shelves of any respectable library collection for children, and hopefully people will continue to discover and cherish it well into the future.