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