Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Rachael's Departure and Greatest Hits

It's with a heavy heart -- but also with a lot of gratitude -- that I announce that Rachael Stein, who co-founded this blog with me back in January 2012, will no longer be contributing in this space. She's moved to the exciting (and important!) world of correctional libraries, and won't be involved in children's services in her new position, and so she felt it was time to step away from For Those About to Mock.

I could tell you about the professional debt I owe her, how I probably wouldn't have become involved in ALSC, or participated in the Morris Seminar, or known half of what I know about children's literature without her. But instead, I'd like to invite you to take a stroll back in time to revisit some of her greatest hits.

- Rachael was (and is) a huge fan of Jeanne Birdsall's Penderwicks books. In her review of The Penderwicks in Spring, which was Rachael's most-read post of all time, she provides a thoughtful, nuanced examination of the penultimate volume in that series. Also worth a second look is her final review for this site, a discussion of the series' conclusion, The Penderwicks At Last.

- I always appreciated Rachael's ability to defend her opinions about books, even if they were a bit out of the mainstream. To take two stellar examples, witness her argue for the Newbery eligibility of Tom McNeal's Far Far Away, and then thrill to her encomium of the "only skink" in her review of Polly Horvath's Mr. and Mrs. Bunny -- Detectives Extraordinaire! 

- Rachael's writing was often at its most entertaining when she encountered a book she really didn't care for. One of my favorite instances is her review of The Island of Dr. Libris, by Chris Grabenstein ("...if you hand it to to the literary-minded kids you know, I won't even judge you. Much."). And then there's her legendary look back at Eric P. Kelly's 1929 Newbery winner, The Trumpeter of Krakow, which she at one point refers to as "Project Runway: Medieval Krakow."

Farewell from this space, Rachael! The correctional library is lucky to have you!

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Newbery Wayback Machine: Miracles on Maple Hill, by Virginia Sorensen (1957)

I'll confess: it took me a long time to get through Miracles on Maple Hill, Virginia's Sorensen's 1957 Newbery winner. Much, much longer than it should have taken to finish a breezy, episodic novel that clocks in at well under 200 pages.

Admittedly, books about the Magical Restorative Power of Country Living are a hard sell for this city kid. In Miracles, Marly, her older brother Joe, and her parents move from Pittsburgh to rural Pennsylvania, where Marly's mother once lived. Over time, this heals her family, provides her with a sense of genuine wonder, and even seems to completely cure her father's PTSD (which stems from his experiences in a POW camp, though it's never really explained what exactly happened to him, or even whether he served in WWII or Korea).

To be fair, a handful of my all-time favorite children's books are at least in part paeans to rural life (Twelve Kinds of Ice, Sarah, Plain and Tall), or feature characters whose lives are changed for the better after moving to the country (The Story Girl). But Twelve Kinds of Ice contains some of the most arresting prose I've ever read in a children's book, while Sarah, Plain and Tall and The Story Girl could be used in a master class on characterization. On the other hand, the prose in Miracles certainly has moments, but isn't consistently brilliant, and the characters often seemed one-note or flat to me -- the interactions between Marly and Joe, in particular, begin with a real grain of truth, but often seem to deteriorate into "girls and boys sure are different, aren't they?"

This last point feels like crux of the matter, because these kinds of loosely-plotted mid-century family novels live and die by the strength of their characters. When it works, you get Ramona Quimby, or Homer Price, or the Pye family. When it doesn't, there's a limit to how memorable the book can be, and I think that's a huge part of my problem with Miracles. It's not bad, but the lack of dimension to the main characters keeps the book from sticking in the mind, and even the avuncular Mr. Chris and the strangely dignified Harry the Hermit don't have enough depth to compensate.

Certainly, Miracles isn't the book from its publishing year that's best remembered; Newbery-eligible favorites from 1956 include Fred Gipson's tearjerker Old Yeller, Edward Eager's magical Knight's Castle, and Gene Zion's playful Harry the Dirty Dog, while non-eligible classics include English author Dodie Smith's The Hundred and One Dalmatians, and Irish-Englishman C.S. Lewis' final Narnia novel, The Last Battle. I don't think the selection of Miracles was indefensible -- to some extent, I mistrust my opinion of a book for which I may just be the wrong reader -- but I also doubt that it would win if we were to give out the 1957 award again. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Newbery Wayback Machine: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O'Brien (1972)

Mrs. Frisby is a mouse, raising her four children alone after the death of her husband. When her youngest, Timothy, takes ill, Mrs. Frisby tries to find a way to help him -- a task that will take her into places she didn't know existed, and eventually lead her to a group of superintelligent rats, who have mysterious ties to her husband's life.

This brief summary hardly does justice to one of the genuine classics of American children's literature. It's a treasure of a book, one that, its high concept aside, works because of the real, lived-in relationships between its characters. This holds true not only for the novel's central relationships (such as those between Mrs. Frisby and Nicodemus; Mrs. Frisby and her children; and Nicodemus and Jenner in the flashback section), but for those that are more subsidiary (Brutus and Justin; Mr. Ages and Nicodemus), and even for those that exist at the very periphery of the story (Jeremy and the Owl; Mr. Fitzgibbon and Paul).

To move one step further back, the relationships work because the characters are so carefully defined. Each figure in the story has real hopes, dreams, sorrows, and fears. The mice and rats who occupy most of the novel's space are as emotionally rich as any human character would be. It helps that they occupy a world that's open-ended -- though the plot comes to a satisfying end, many threads aren't fully tied off, and many mysteries remain.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH also reads as a surprisingly, even defiantly feminist novel. Rachael has often referred to Mrs. Frisby herself as the greatest single mother in children's literature, and I think that's a more than fair opinion. Mrs. Frisby doesn't have the genetically engineered smarts of the rats and Mr. Ages, the ancient wisdom and intimidating presence of the Owl, or the overwhelming physical superiority of Mr. Fitzgibbon and the other humans. Yet, whether comforting her children, rescuing Jeremy the crow, or risking her life in putting sleeping powder in Dragon the cat's food (the same task that killed her husband!), Mrs. Frisby shows herself repeatedly to be the bravest, fiercest, most big-hearted character in the book. The rats may have the kind of patriarchal society in which "the females sometimes went to meetings and sometimes not," but without Mrs. Frisby, they'd all be dead by the end of the story. (Mrs. Frisby has only a handful of other female characters, but I'd also point to the shrew, who is willing to stand in the doorway of Mrs. Frisby's house to protect it from an entire group of much, much larger rats, although she's mistaken in their motivations, and the rats pose no danger.)

The literary career of Robert O'Brien (whose real name was Robert Conly) was an unfortunately curtailed one. Though a journalist by profession, working for such prestigious publications as Newsweek, the Washington Times-Herald, and National Geographic, he didn't begin writing novels until his mid-forties, when he developed glaucoma, and had to move closer to his office, freeing up for writing the time he had formerly used in commuting. He published three books during his lifetime, of which Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was the second; a fourth, Z for Zachariah, was completed from his notes by his wife and daughter following his tragic death from a heart attack at 55. However, even though we have only a few pieces of fiction from O'Brien's pen, Mrs. Frisby alone would have been enough to secure his legacy.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

2019 Contenders: A Friendly Town That's Almost Always by the Ocean, by Kir Fox and M. Shelley Coats

Davy Jones and his mother have just moved to the town of Topsea, and Davy is having a hard time adjusting to his strange new surroundings. His locker at school is at the bottom of the swimming pool, the mail is delivered by seagulls, and everyone seems to believe that dogs are a myth. On top of that, Davy is trying to work through his emotions regarding the recent loss of his father. Fortunately, he's developing a group of friends who can help him through, even in the strangest of circumstances.

The closest parallel I can think of to A Friendly Town That's Almost Always by the Ocean is actually a work for adults: the podcast/book/theatrical production series Welcome to Night Vale. Both take place in universes filled with Fortean/Lovecraftian weirdness, but are actually less about their settings, and more about the bonds of friendship and love that develop and grow even in the strangest surroundings. Both also work hard to develop a sense of mystery and wonder; there are far more plot hooks in A Friendly Town than there are resolutions, and I got the feeling that the book hardly even scratches the surface of Topsea's secrets. (This is the first in a planned series, and my ARC includes a teaser for the second book.)

That said, A Friendly Town doesn't quite have the emotional complexity of WTNV (or of its best point of comparison in children's media, the television series Gravity Falls). That's not really a knock on A Friendly Town, however, especially since the story that the book tells may come to a good stopping place, but clearly isn't finished. I also doubt that anything about the book will mitigate its appeal to its target audience -- budding horror/comedy readers and future Haunted USA viewers should be all over A Friendly Town like ants on candy.

The Newbery may be a harder hill to climb. A Friendly Town certainly has memorable characters and a fascinating setting, but it can't match the thematic power of something like The Button War, or the wistfully elegiac tone of The Penderwicks at Last. But be that as it may, I fully expect this to be a popular title at libraries, and a great title to booktalk.

Published in April by Disney/Hyperion

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

2019 Contenders: The Button War, by Avi

Patryk lives in a village in rural Poland, deep in the forest. His days are spent attending the village's tiny school, helping his father, who is a wheelwright, and engaging in hijinks with his six friends: Drugi, Makary, Raclaw, Ulryk, Wojtex, and Jurek. The village exists in near-total isolation; aside from the presence of a garrison of Russian soldiers, little from the outside world ever reaches into Patryk's life. However, two critical events change everything. First, World War I arrives with violence, beginning with a German airplane that destroys the school. Second, the darkly charismatic Jurek comes up with a dare, in which the boys have to steal "the best button" from the soldiers' uniforms. The winner will be the "Button King," to whom the other boys will have "to bow down." As the novel proceeds, the war gradually destroys their entire village, and the dare gradually destroys the boys.

That previous sentence, by the way, is not an exaggeration. This is a dark, dark book -- dark enough that I'm not sure I agree with the publisher's suggested age range of 10-14, as I'm having trouble conceiving of a 10-year-old who'd be ready for the emotional gut-punch that The Button War packs. By the novel's end, it's firmly into Joseph Conrad territory, and I don't think that's overstating the point. (Some spoilers follow.)

World War I was (in)famously one of the most opaquely motivated of major conflicts, and Avi does an excellent job of capturing that aspect of it. Though the village changes hands multiple times, and soldiers from at least four different nations make an appearance, the villagers generally regard the entire war in the same way they might think of an earthquake, or a meteor impact. Indeed, their reaction to the German soldiers' claim to have "liberated" the villagers is somewhere between bemusement and bewilderment. Like a natural disaster, the war cannot be understood or stopped. The most that one can hope for is to escape its path without losing too much in the process.

The boys' button dare is similar. The buttons have almost no intrinsic value, and even the choice of them as a prize is arbitrary, driven by a random event at the beginning of the book. Yet, even though the majority of the boys wish to back away from the whole affair, they continue -- even after multiple deaths -- until the bitter, bitter ending.

The major reason is the presence of Jurek, who's a powerful antagonist. Of all the boys, he's the one closest to the fringes of society -- his parents are both dead, and he lives in a tiny shack with his sister, who ekes out a meager living by washing the Russian soldiers' uniforms, and with whom he is constantly fighting. It's obvious from the text that he's struggling with feelings of inferiority. His initial method of compensating is to declare himself to be a descendant of King BolesÅ‚aw, and thus the true owner of the entire forest. However, he keeps pushing further and further, and by the end of the book, he's a pure sociopath, capable of anything up to and including murder.

If he were only a sociopath, Jurek would be easily dealt with. But, as I mentioned above, he's also wildly charismatic -- even when the other boys have grave doubts about his ideas, or think of him as a lunatic, or actively dangerous, they're seemingly incapable of going against him, or even just ignoring him. True charisma can be a frightening thing, because it's utterly value-neutral. Someone who has it can be Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mick Jagger, or Grigori Rasputin, or Adolf Hitler. Through the character of Jurek, Avi takes a painfully long look at this fact, and what he finds is unsettling.

Avi, of course, already has a Newbery Medal in his pocket (Crispin: The Cross of Lead, 2003). The Button War certainly excels in its setting, and in its powerful anti-war and anti-herd mentality themes. I don't know if the Newbery committee would be willing to give the award to a book this bleak -- if it were to win, I feel like it would race past Sounder and The Giver and even The Slave Dancer as the grimmest book in the Newbery canon. But its merits are sufficient to deserve a close look anyway.

Published in June by Candlewick Press

Thursday, June 28, 2018

2019 Contenders: The Parker Inheritance, by Varian Johnson

Candice Miller is not enthusiastic about spending the summer in Lambert, South Carolina, the small town where her grandmother used to live and work. It’s not just that her grandmother’s legacy as the first woman and the first African American to serve as City Manager was besmirched by a scandal, but Candice is also worried about present events in her more immediate family – her parents are divorcing, and she and her mother are in Lambert while Candice’s father fixes up their Atlanta house for sale. But when a mysterious letter leads Candice to dig deeper into the story behind her grandmother’s dismissal, the summer promises to get a whole lot more interesting. With the help of Brandon Jones, a book-loving neighbor from across the street, Candice learns about an ugly incident in the town’s history, and the reason that, years later, her grandmother thought that there might be treasure buried under the municipal tennis courts.

This book is not afraid to tackle some big issues, though it does so with a light touch. Candice and Brandon dig into the town’s history of segregation and racism, and readers get a front-row seat to a tennis match between teams from the town’s segregated high schools, and the violent aftermath. There are also present-day issues of bullying, LGBTQ rights, intolerance, and the way the past affects the present. It seems like a lot, and this book is packed pretty full of issues, but Johnson brings everything together into a cohesive whole. It’s timely, well-written, and entirely age-appropriate for middle-grade readers, without softening the harsh truth.

As a puzzle mystery, this book is a little less successful. The clues to the puzzle are all in the letter Candice finds among her grandmother’s belongings, but it’s unlikely that young readers (or even many adult readers) would be able to puzzle them out as Candice and Brandon do. There’s a reference to a mathematical concept that isn’t typically taught outside of calculus courses, plus certain mental leaps that aren’t immediately clear. Readers who want logic puzzles that they can work out along with the characters may be disappointed.

So, is this book a Newbery contender?  I think it’s a title worthy of discussion, at the very least. Will the weaknesses in the puzzle-novel conceit outweigh the strong writing, the well-defined and developed characters, the interpretation of theme, and the appropriateness of style present in this book? Only time will tell!

Published in March by Arthur A. Levine Books

Misti Tidman is the Collection Development Librarian for Youth Materials at the Mansfield/Richland County Public Library (Ohio). She is also one of the bloggers at Guessing Geisel.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Newbery Wayback Machine: A Year Down Yonder, by Richard Peck (2001)

It is 1937, and Mary Alice's father has lost his job and his apartment. While he and Mary Alice's mother move into a single room, and older brother Joey heads off to join the Civilian Conservation Corps, Mary Alice herself is shuttled away from Chicago, and down to Grandma Dowdel's home in rural Illinois. A Year Down Yonder does indeed cover nearly a year in Mary Alice's life, as she learns to navigate her new school, comes to understand the rhythms of small-town life, and bonds with her grandmother, an imposing woman whose gruff, threatening exterior conceals a caring heart.

In many ways, Richard Peck's novel, which won the 2001 Newbery Medal, was even at the time something of a throwback. Featuring a protagonist who is 15 at the book's outset, and consisting of a series of vignettes rather than a single, unified story, A Year Down Yonder reminded me of Anne of Avonlea (1909), It's Like This, Cat (1963), and similar episodic books that feature a teenage protagonist, but appeal to younger readers.

I'm unconvinced that Yonder is anything like as effective as the two novels that I mentioned, however -- although I'll also freely admit that what we may actually be looking at is my personal biases and tastes as a reader. It's a short book -- a mere 130 pages in my copy -- and I just don't feel like it has anything like enough room to develop the secondary characters sufficiently. This was especially true given the ending (spoiler alert!), in which an adult Mary Alice returns to her grandmother's house and marries Royce McNabb, who moves to town halfway through the book. But Royce has barely a dozen speaking lines in the novel, and I didn't feel like I knew him well enough for that ending to have any emotional heft.

From what I've read, a lot of the love for A Year Down Yonder (and its predecessor, A Long Way From Chicago, which Honored in 1999) comes from a love for the character of Grandma Dowdel, who is at the book's center. The thing is...I just didn't like her very much. She has a great deal of kindness towards the unfortunate and downtrodden, but she also has a streak of vindictiveness that was hard for me to deal with, and a tendency to kill mosquitoes with sledgehammers, metaphorically speaking. When the town boys are knocking down outhouses for their Halloween pranks, Grandma deals with this by...setting up a trip wire in her back yard, hiding, and then, once the lead boy has tripped on the wire and broken his nose on the concrete walk, throwing glue all over him. The whole story reminded me of nothing so much as this xkcd cartoon:

Similarly, later in the book, Grandma Dowdel's artist boarder has managed to sneak the local postmistress into the attic, and is painting her in the nude. The snake that lives in the attic falls on the postmistress, who runs screaming downstairs, and then begins to run back to her house, sans clothes. What does Grandma do? Why, she says, "That's too good a show to keep to ourselves," and goes outside and fires off her shotgun so that everyone in town will look outside to see what's happening and catch an eyeful of the postmistress. I think that's intended as comedic, but I gotta tell you, it just left me feeling icky.

A lot of people love this book, and so your take on it may be radically different from mine. But I'm not a fan, and would have preferred the Newbery to go to a different title that year -- perhaps one of the four Honor books, which included Because of Winn-Dixie and Joey Pigza Loses Control.

Friday, June 1, 2018

2019 Contenders: The Penderwicks At Last, by Jeanne Birdsall

Lydia Penderwick, now eleven years old and just as exuberant as she was as a toddler in The Penderwicks in Spring, has heard tales of Arundel all her life. Now, as the Penderwick diaspora converges for a long-awaited wedding, she gets to experience the magical estate firsthand.

18498292Jeanne Birdsall walks a tricky tightrope in The Penderwicks At Last. One one hand, she has been adamant from the beginning that this series will stay middle grade, and that each entry in the series will focus on the characters that make it a middle grade book. This will be no Anne of Green Gables, following its original protagonist well into adulthood. On the other hand, the readers of the series are devoted to the four older sisters and deeply invested in their various fates. Will Skye marry Jeffrey?! (There are apparently some people on Goodreads who feel VERY STRONGLY about this.) Will Batty marry Jeffrey? (That one has been my daughter's and my prediction since the beginning.) Will Skye become an astrophysicist?

Setting the book at Arundel is a elegant way to solve the problem. Seeing a familiar place through new eyes provides a way to balance the narrative between past and present, and a wedding is a classic narrative device for assembling the whole cast of characters. And they are indeed assembled: Aunt Claire and Turon; Alec and his new dog (RIP Hoover); gardener Cagney (now a paterfamilias). Even Mrs. Tifton is (hilariously) along for the ride.

Birdsall provides enough resolution of old tensions and strong hints about future plans to satisfy fans, while keeping the focus firmly on Lydia and her concerns. Most of the drama with the older Penderwicks sisters takes place in the background, filtered through Lydia's perspective. Meanwhile, the iconic places in Arundel are recognizable, but often changed. There are sheep in the field of the enormous bull who almost trampled Batty, and the manicured lawns have been turned into meadows where bobolinks (and eleven-year-olds) can hide.

There are new inhabitants as well - mainly Cagney's family, with whom Lydia spends most of her time - but also, oddly, Batty's ex-boyfriend and his amazing three-legged great dane. It can be a risky proposition to introduce new characters in a series finale, but the new additions are as well-drawn as the old favorites. (One minor quibble: the Kirkus review mentioned the default whiteness of the book and series, and that is certainly true, but I was more disappointed by the heteronormativity. I had really headcanoned Skye as a lesbian, and possibly on the asexual spectrum. So there, Skeffrey shippers.)

The novel is as much a meditation on time as anything else. Birdsall seems to understand that we want Arundel and the Penderwicks to stay the same forever (I honestly can't even talk about this book out loud without crying), but she won't let them remain in stasis. Like Lydia, we have to prance, leap, and gambol into the future.

(As for Newbery chances: doubtful. "Doesn't have to stand alone" be damned,  the committee is not going to choose this elegiac series-ender for a gold sticker.)

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

2019 Contenders: The Key to Every Thing, by Pat Schmatz

Tash lives with her great uncle Kevin, and next door to Cap'n Jackie, an older woman who provides a sort of quasi-maternal presence in Tash's life. This summer, Tash has to go to camp, which she emphatically does not want to do. Right before she leaves, she has a huge argument with Cap'n Jackie, which comes to a climax when Tash throws a key at Cap'n Jackie -- a key that's a sort of talisman for the magic that the Cap'n believes infuses the world.

When Tash returns, Cap'n Jackie is gone -- in inpatient treatment after a terrible fall -- and the key is missing. The Key to Every Thing traces Tash's attempts to get through to a now-silent Cap'n; it also gradually reveals the story of Cap'n Jackie's life, Tash's unorthodox living situation, and the deep fears at the center of Tash's heart.

The best parts of The Key to Every Thing, in my opinion, have to do with Tash's struggles to overcome the rage and sadness inside her. The internal monologue felt real and true to me. I also enjoyed the portions in which Tash and her friend Naomi are sneaking around the rehab center, which have a bit of an E. L. Konigsburg vibe to them.

I was less enamored of the book's structure. The ending especially, which involves a Letter That Explains Everything, felt sort of cheap to me. But I think this was partly because of my other issue with the book, which is that Cap'n Jackie never quite came into focus to me as a person, rather than an aggregation of quirks and plot points. That affected my reading experience, because the Cap'n is clearly intended as the emotional center of the book. I feel like Schmatz knows who Cap'n Jackie is, but I didn't feel like the book managed to fully communicate this information to me as a reader.

Pat Schmatz's career has garnered its share of plaudits -- among others, Lizard Radio won the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award in 2015, and Bluefish made the Notables list in 2012. I'm not sure that The Key to Every Thing will make any of the ALSC lists in 2019, but I've certainly been wrong about these things before. We shall see!

Publication in May by Candlewick Press

Friday, April 13, 2018

2019 Contenders: Bob, by Wendy Mass & Rebecca Stead

Ten-year-old Livy and her family are visiting her grandmother in Australia for the first time in five years. Livy can't remember almost anything about her previous visit, but soon finds someone who remembers it very well indeed -- Bob, a strange green creature who's been living in Gran's closet, waiting for Livy's return. Although Bob remembers Livy perfectly, his memory before that is a complete blank. Against the backdrop of Gran's drought-ridden farm and town, Bob and Livy begin trying to unravel the mystery of Bob's past and identity.

I enjoyed the time I spent with Bob immensely. It's a sparkling blend of whimsy, melancholy, mystery, and magical realism. The novel is constructed of chapters in alternating voices, one from Livy's perspective, followed by one from Bob's. Both voices are strong and complex, with solid characterization. The setting -- a desiccated, half-withered rural town and its surrounding farms -- is also carefully rendered.

In reading Bob, I noted its structural similarities to Rebecca Stead's other work. Bob starts with several disparate plot strands, and then winds them ever-closer together until they whirl into a unified whole. It's the same technique that undergirds When You Reach Me and Liar & Spy, and although the target audience for Bob might be slightly younger than that of those two novels, the basic plan is no less effective. I'm much less familiar with Wendy Mass's career, but I do note that the prose in Bob is less sparse and open than Stead's usual style (and the novel is also not set in New York City), so perhaps that's Mass's doing.

At any rate, Bob is a first-rate book, and one that I'd recommend highly. It's still too early to get a sense of its Newbery chances, but I imagine that this is one that will at least get some discussion from the committee.

Publication in May by Feiwel and Friends / MacMillan

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Winner’s Circle: Hello, Universe (2018)

Sometimes, when you get Sam, Rachael, and Tess together in the same [virtual] space, it's hard to get them to focus. They might want to spitball ideas for a Newbery tribute band. (Mos' Distinguished? Newbery Kids on the Block? Newbery Manilow?) Or they might want speculate what a Garfield/Warriors crossover fanfic would entail. (Would Garfield eat those warrior cats alive, or the other way around? Or would they all just have a lasagna party and then murder Odie?) But we finally got it together long enough to collect our thoughts about this year's Newbery winner, Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly. Like for last year's winner, we came up with a few burning questions each and answered them via online chat, and awaaaay we goooo!

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

Tess: It’s just your basic boy meets girl, boy gets trapped down well, girl consults psychic medium, girl rescues boy with jump rope, boy texts girl “hello” love story for kids.

Sam: “What’s that, stray dog whose name is totally Sacred, not Lassie? Little Virgil’s fallen down the old well? Quick, let’s get the psychic medium, her sister, and Virgil’s secret crush!”

Rachael: A misunderstood boy who doesn’t know how to take proper care of his guinea pig gets brave and makes some friends. Hopefully, they can teach him about responsible pet ownership.

Which character did you most relate to?

Tess: Probably Kaori Tanaka. I’m secretly interested in “new age” topics like astrology and crystal healing. And I have the tendency to get very enthusiastic about stuff and then rook my friends into it. I could see a young Tess making a young Sam and Rachael start a psychic detective agency with her (the way grown up Tess made her friend Eric start a Twin Peaks podcast with her LOL)

Sam: I would totally have started the psychic detective agency with Rachael and Young Tesserana Jones! As for me, definitely Smaug. If someone poked me with a stick, I might well bite them too.

Rachael: I probably related most to Valencia - the quiet girl who’s a lot snarkier on the inside than people expect her to be. I aspire to be Virgil’s Lola, though, for she is a Giver of No F*cks.

Do you think it’s believable that a sensitive, intelligent kid like Virgil would not have researched guinea pigs and found out that they are social animals who need cage mates? 

Tess: Speaking as a children’s librarian, in my professional experience, the vast majority of young people research THE CRAP out of a potential pet WAY before their parent or guardian even CONSIDERS getting them such an animal, so yes, this was a bit of a plot hole. (Unless Virgil was gifted the guinea pig, or adopted it suddenly, and had to do research afterwards.)

Sam: That seemed sort of odd to me, frankly. But Virgil clearly isn’t getting much help at home with things like “what does my guinea pig need?” so I was willing to let it slide.

Rachael: I’m glad you guys thought that was weird too. I didn’t know if I was just living in a bubble of Super Well Informed Pet Owning Kids.

How do you feel about the use of the word “retarded” in context in this book? 

Tess: I feel the context is very important. No one likes the word “retarded.” But I think it was clearly portrayed as something unsavory said by an unsavory individual. It’s not presented as an appropriate thing to say. It’s vile, and Chet is vile for saying it, that was the takeaway for me.

Sam: I pretty much felt the same way. Language can be really powerful, and the slap in the face that that word carries felt like a considered, careful way to advance the author’s point. What matters is how the word is deployed by the author, and I think carries the impact Kelly intended.

Rachael: Again, same. I think it’s timely too - “retarded” is one of those words that’s just on the edge of fading out of social acceptability. People have a vague sense that it’s offensive, but, especially if it’s not being used to describe a specific person, they won’t shut it down as quickly as some other slurs.

What do you think of the mid-novel introduction of the voice of Ruby?

Tess: I don't remember Ruby. I didn't even read this that long ago! Jog my memory?

Sam: Ruby is the voice of the character from Lola's story who starts having conversations with Virgil when he's in the well.

Tess: Oooh okay. Yes, of course, now I remember. When you said "voice," I thought it was another character who chapters were focused on, and I didn't remember a Ruby!

Rachael: Me too, Tess.

Sam: It bothered me, and I’m having trouble putting my finger on exactly why. I think it might have to do with my uncertainty as to how to handle it. Is the voice actually Ruby? If so, it’s the only unambiguously supernatural event of the book, and it doesn’t come until halfway through. Is it meant to be a well-induced hallucination? Or is it supposed to be an open question as to whether or not it’s real? If it’s either of the last two, then I think it’s underwritten. I guess I didn’t feel like I knew how Kelly wanted us to interpret the voice, and that made it hard for me to enjoy those passages.

Rachael: I think it’s the weakest part of the book, or at least it stood out to me as such on my first reading. Like Sam, I wasn’t sure how to take it. Real? Symbolic? It’s the only element of magical realism in the book (aside from the overarching theme of destiny). Of course, I’m always aware that the Newbery Committee has read these books several times, and maybe it fits in better on subsequent readings. I have misgivings about that too, though: isn’t a book that takes several readings to appreciate different from a book that stands out as excellent on your first reading? How many kids are likely to read the book more than once and pick up on these things? (I almost never read books more than once, which is part of the reason I don’t want to be on the Newbery Committee. I would balk at that stuff.)

Tess: I felt indifferent to it, I guess. I saw it as a coping mechanism. If I was trapped, I might start talking to myself, or talking to characters from myths my grandmother told me, as a way to panic less, and that’s how I interpreted those parts of the book. I felt like there were actually a lot of things in the book that you could go back and forth on whether they’re “really” happening or not. For instance, when Lola had a dream about a boy swallowed by a rock, was that a premonition of Virgil becoming trapped in a stone well, or just a weird coincidence? Are Ruby or Pah “really” in that well? The book’s not clear about it, but I was okay with it.

How much do you hate Chet?

Sam: I don’t. He’s just a Philip Larkin poem in action.
“Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.”
He doesn’t have a future, and he’s awful, but I understand how he got that way. He’s a pitiful figure rather than a contemptible one to me.

Tess: You make an excellent point, Sam. I guess I don’t really hate Chet. He’s a jerk, but he’s just a kid. I really hate his dad.

Rachael: I feel a deep compassion for him conceptually that would not stop me from wanting to punch him in the face if I ever met him.

Why do you think Chet gets a series of chapters told from his perspective?

Tess: I guess because “be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle?” Because bullies often abuse because they themselves have been abused, and they often put others down because it’s the only way they can prop themselves up, because they’re that emotionally insecure, and really we should feel sorry for them. Because Chet’s a human too. But his chapters were my least favorite chapters. Because when you’re being bullied, it doesn’t really help to know your bully is hurting too, you just want them to stop hurting you. Incidentally, R.J. Palacio did not give Julian, Auggie’s bully in Wonder, his own series of chapters, which was the subject of some controversy when that book came out. Palacio claimed she didn’t want Julian’s negative backstory to hijack Auggie’s story, but later published an ebook, The Julian Chapter, where we get his perspective, which includes the character having a redemptive epiphany. As much as I would love for it to occur to Chet break the cycle of toxic masculinity and not be mean to Virgil, or anyone else, that wouldn’t be realistic, and I guess I’m glad Kelly didn’t include it.

Sam: I couldn’t help but think of The Julian Chapter too, especially since I complained about the lack of Julian’s perspective a lot when I first wrote about Wonder as well. I don’t know how I feel about this in Hello, Universe though. We get to see that Chet is awful essentially because his father is a Terrible Person, whose approval Chet craves and can’t obtain... but we never get a redemption arc, or even a hint of self-awareness. That the character with the worst backstory (and make no mistake, Chet’s home life is an order of magnitude worse than Virgil’s, for all the time that the book spends hammering home the point that Virgil doesn’t fit in with his family) ends up with the worst prospects for the future made me deeply uncomfortable, especially given how much time the book spends on the notion of “Fate.” It’s not quite “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Universe,” but it walks right up to that line.

Rachael: Remember, though, that the entire book takes place in the span of a single weekend. I don’t think the fact that Chet doesn’t have a revelation during that time period necessarily means that Kelly is casting him into the fiery pit of her disapproval. I think, in addition to showing the inner landscape of a bully, the Chet chapters serve to show how everyone is at a different point in their own personal development and willingness to confront their own demons. That’s a major theme of the book - it’s all kind of the story of Virgil reaching a turning point in his own story. This isn’t Chet’s story, and Chet is in a different place.

I was really expecting a redemption arc for Chet. How do you feel about the fact that he doesn’t get one? Do you think the seeds of redemption were sown, like, at all? 

Tess: I was also expecting a redemption arc, like maybe that he would be consumed by guilt, team up with Kaori and company to find Virgil, and end up becoming friends with them. I’m torn about the fact he doesn’t get one. Having some real life long term experience with bullies who have not changed, despite numerous opportunities to do so, it’s realistic that Chet wouldn’t change. If there are any seeds sewn at all, they might be in his beginning to question his father’s expectations of him. He talks about attempting various sports, and not being very good at them, despite desperately wanting to excel athletically, in order to win his father’s approval. If he really digs deep and thinks about why he must struggle so hard to please his father, he may start to wonder if his father is worth pleasing, and since his father is his main role model for bullying behavior, that may then be called into question. The seeds may also be sewn in the way he’s intimidated by Valencia. I think he’s interpreting it as fear of her difference, but I think it’s more likely awe of her confidence. If he can figure out that it’s the Valencias of the world that have it going on, not the Chet’s Dads of the world, there may be hope for him yet.

Sam: I found the lack of a redemption arc distracting, frankly. It wouldn’t have to be a complete arc -- and it’s possible that you’re right in the way the tentative beginnings of such an arc are there, Tess -- but we’ve spent so much time in Chet’s head that I think the incipient arc isn’t obvious enough. Again, part of the reason that this bothers me is that, for all the time the novel spends on how Virgil’s family doesn’t get him, and on how Valencia navigates her disability, Chet seemed to me like the character coming from the most impressively awful (and emotionally abusive) background. Virgil has his Lola, Kaori has Gen, and even Valencia has Sacred. Who or what does Chet have? If fate’s a real thing, it’s given Chet a pretty raw deal.

Rachael: I agree that Chet’s situation is disturbing, but this is one of the aspects of the book that emphasizes choice over fate. I agree with Tess that Chet has been given examples of strength outside of his household. It’s really going to be up to him whether he uses that as an opportunity to question his father’s messages, or doubles down on the bullying.

What did you think of the ending?

Rachael: Loved it, at the time. It made me cry, because I thought the author really communicated how much courage is required, sometimes, to reach out in the tiniest of ways. I also liked that Virgil took a while to get there, even after the big rescue. Sometimes experiences take a while to sink in, and sometimes you get a second (or third, or fourth) chance to be brave.

Tess: I liked it. I found it surprising because when I realized this was a story about a boy trapped in a well I presumed 1) that the ordeal would draw out over several days of searching for him and 2) adults would have to be involved at some point. I would have been disappointed if we got no exchange between Virgil and Valencia. When they climb up that ladder together and are finally face to face I was yelling into the book “SAY SOMETHING VIRGIL.” But I get that he needed more time, and was happy to see him communicate with her in the final moment of the book. I also liked that he stands up to Chet, tells his family how he feels about their affectionate but belittling nicknames, and adopts Sacred.

Sam: It reminded me of the end of Criss Cross, a bit, except that in that one, the deeper connection is missed, whereas here, we’re led to believe that Virgil and Valencia will likely become friends. It struck me when I was reading it as a bit sappy, but upon reflection, I think it’s just that I was in a grumpy place personally as a reader. It’s an effective ending in the context of the book.

Do you believe in fate now?

Tess: Kind of!

Rachael: No, but I believe that events sometimes line up a way that mimics it.

Sam: Not as much as I believe in observer bias.

Do you have any final thoughts about Hello, Universe? And please answer in song. 




Monday, March 12, 2018

2019 Contenders: Bat and the Waiting Game, by Elana K. Arnold

Once again, we're privileged to be a stop on a Walden Pond Press blog tour. Last year, we were introduced to Bixby Alexander "Bat" Tam and his family in A Boy Called Bat, and now comes the first sequel to that book.

It does my heart good to report that Bat and the Waiting Game is a worthy continuation of the story of Bat and his family. Bat himself remains one of the most detailed and believable children's book characters with autism that I can name, and his family and friends are also sharply drawn. I especially enjoyed getting to know Bat's best friend Israel, and watching the two of them navigate the challenges of friendship.

Waiting Game certainly features moments of entertaining action -- the climactic set piece, which takes place at Bat's sister Janie's school play, could easily have come out of a Marx Brothers movie. But the heart of the book is in its quiet passages, in the interactions between Bat and his family, as well as between Bat and Israel's family. Elana K. Arnold invests the novel with a warmth and a gentleness that feel lived-in and real. Plus, it's got a baby skunk in it, and for me at least, that's a serious selling point.

A Boy Called Bat didn't show up in the Youth Media Awards this year, and sequels are usually (though not always) harder sells for the Newbery committee. But I hope Bat and the Waiting Game finds a wide readership. I agreed to be a stop on the blog tour because I love and believe in this book, and I'm glad to have spent more time with Bat.

For those of you who'd like to hear more about this book, here's a list of the other stops on the blog tour, as well as the Twitter handles of the reviewers:

3/12 For Those About to Mock, @abouttomock (Sam Eddington)
3/15 Mrs. Knott’s Book Nook @knott_michele (Michele Knott)
3/15 @iowaamber (Amber Kuehler)
3/16 The Hiding Spot @thehidingspot (Sara Grochowski)
3/18 Educate*Empower*Inspire…Teach @guerette79 (Melissa Guerrette)
3/19 Maria’s Melange @mariaselke (Maria Selke)
3/20 Nerdy Book Club (post by Elana)
3/20 Writers Rumpus @kirsticall (Kirsti Call)
3/22 Bluestocking Thinking @bluesockgirl (Nicole Levesque)
3/28 Unleashing Readers @unleashreaders (Kellee Moye)

Publication on March 27, 2018, by Walden Pond Press

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Newbery Wayback Machine: Caddie Woodlawn, by Carol Ryrie Brink (1936)

Caddie Woodlawn, which won Carol Ryrie Brink the 1936 Newbery Medal, is based on the real-life adventures of Brink's grandmother, Caddie Woodhouse. Set in frontier Wisconsin just before and after the end of the Civil War, Caddie Woodlawn details the escapades of Caddie and her siblings as they navigate both the physical landscape of the Upper Midwest and the emotional landscape of growing up. It was immensely popular, and it spawned a sequel (Magical Melons, 1939, in print these days as Caddie Woodlawn's Family), a Brink-written 1945 radio drama, a 1989 TV movie, and even a 2011 stage musical.

It's also something of a controversial book these days. Just to take one example, a well-known piece by American Indians in Children's Literature founder and 2019 Arbuthnot Lecturer Debbie Reese talks in part about her daughter's highly negative reactions to the book's depictions of Native Americans.

And boy, those depictions are problematic. The Woodlawns' neighbors are about as racist as possible (witness their talk about a preemptive massacre against the local tribe). And although Caddie and her family are clearly presented as the most "enlightened" of the settlers -- Caddie undertakes a dangerous ride to warn her friend Indian John, and Mr. Woodlawn puts the kibosh on his neighbors' murderous plans -- that's not a particularly high bar. In perhaps the novel's most uncomfortable passage, Indian John, who is leaving the area for an unspecified period of time, leaves a treasured possession with Caddie: a scalp belt, inherited from his father. Caddie and her siblings decide that this provides them with an excellent opportunity to earn some side income, and charge admission to their school friends to see the scalp belt of "Chief Bloody Tomohawk." I kept waiting for the children to get some kind of comeuppance for this behavior...but they don't. The hired man, Robert Ireton, catches them, but is only upset that they've lit a candle in the barn, and sings an Irish folk song for the children as part of the show when they tell him what is taking place.

There are moments in Caddie Woodlawn that work -- the bit where younger brother Warren completely fails at his school recitation is almost Anne of Green Gables-esque, and older brother Tom's impromptu piece of fiction about Pee-Wee the Farmer is a piece of inspired lunacy. Overall though, I had a hard time with this one, even before the ending, which dovetails a kind of maudlin patriotism that's difficult for me to take, and a final bit that's simply an opportunity for me to repost my favorite Gary Larson cartoon*:

Weirdly, Caddie Woodlawn won the Newbery the same year that Little House on the Prairie failed to win or honor. Both books have many of the same strengths and drawbacks, and it's surprising to me that one book won while the other was shut out. The four Honor books from 1936 are ones I haven't made it to yet; all of them are lesser-known works from authors more famous for other things. (The Good Master is by Kate Seredy, who would win the 1938 Newbery for The White Stag; Young Walter Scott is by Elizabeth Janet Gray, who, after a name change to Elizabeth Gray Vining, would win the 1943 Newbery for Adam of the Road; All Sail Set is by Armstrong Sperry, who would win the 1941 Newbery for Call It Courage; and Honk, the Moose is by Phil Stong, an author mostly known for his adult works including State Fair, which was adapted into a 1945 musical film with songs by Rogers & Hammerstein.) As such, it's hard to say Caddie Woodlawn was a mistake choice, but it's not one of my favorites.

*Yes, I know Caddie Woodlawn predates The Incredible Journey by 25 years, but I'll stand by my response anyway.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Newbery Wayback Machine: Sarah, Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLachlan (1986)

As Sarah, Plain and Tall opens, Anna and Caleb are living on a farm somewhere in the endless prairies of the American west. Their Mama died the day after Caleb was born; although their Papa cares for them with kindness, he no longer sings, and their family is both smaller and sadder than before. However, Papa has placed a newspaper advertisement seeking a bride, to which the titular Sarah has responded. Her month-long trial visit with Papa and the children occupies the bulk of Patricia MacLachlan's novella, which took home the 1986 Newbery.

Sarah, Plain and Tall is a good candidate for the quietest book in the Newbery canon. The stakes are almost purely emotional, and revolve around the children's hopes for a life that includes Sarah, and their fears that she might return to her beloved Maine coast. Many of the scenes feature Sarah learning various farm tasks, which she approaches with full dedication. Other than Papa, the children, and Sarah, the only characters with any speaking lines within the book's 58 pages are a neighbor couple who come to help with some of the plowing.

And yet, at least in my opinion, Sarah is one of the crowning achievements in American children's literature. Its simply-structured prose has a numinous quality that makes it read like poetry; I've read precious few children's books that are as beautiful as Sarah. No words are wasted. The book's stunning imagery also gives us a window into the minds and hearts of the characters -- it's full of emotion, but emotion that is shown, rather than told, as creative writing instructors like to say. We feel Anna's nostalgia and hope, Caleb's frenetic dithering between joy and fear, and Papa's tender sadness as if they were our own.

At the center of it all is Sarah, who is complex and lovable and real. She contains an honest mix of loneliness, openness, and confidence. Although it's Maggie, one of the neighbors, who comes up with what is perhaps the book's central line ("There are always things to miss, no matter where you are."), it's Sarah who embodies it in both its melancholia and its comforting acceptance. If I were Caleb or Anna, I would want Sarah to stay too.

The resolution of Sarah's plot is perhaps given away by the fact that MacLachlan has written four sequels, starting with 1994's Skylark. But the plot isn't what makes Sarah -- it's the feelings of the characters, the vastness of the place, and the carefully-constructed fugue of imagery that raise the book to the level of masterpiece. Not every deeply emotional event is loud and dramatic, and MacLachlan shows tremendous respect for this fact.

The Newbery committee named two honor books in 1986: Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun, by Rhoda Blumberg, and Dogsong, by Gary Paulsen. Several other books that were eligible have become classics  -- at the very least, we have to mention The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg, The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales, by Virginia Hamilton, and The Castle in the Attic, by Elizabeth Winthrop. But despite the stiff competition, I think the committee made the right choice here. Sarah, Plain and Tall genuinely represents the best of American children's literature.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Maryland Mock Newbery 2018 Results

The Maryland Mock Newbery, sponsored by the Eastern Shore Regional Library, took place on January 18th. 11 library staff members from 7 different systems met and discussed the books on our shortlist. After the discussion, the participants voted, and our winner was...

...ORPHAN ISLAND, by Laurel Snyder!

The group also named one honor book:

PATINA, by Jason Reynolds!

Many thanks to all of our participants, to the Queen Anne's County Library for providing the meeting room space for our event, and to Natalie Lane of the Kent County Library, who served as our second discussion group leader.