Tuesday, July 16, 2019

2020 Contenders: Indian No More, by Charlene Willing McManis with Traci Sorell

The United States historically hasn't, to put it mildly, done a great job of treating Native Americans well. Many of the worst offenses are well known to students of American history: the Trail of Tears, the Great Sioux War, the Wounded Knee Massacre. Some, however, haven't received as much attention, and remain little-known to most Americans outside of the Native American community.

The latter category includes, among others, the so-called Indian Termination Policy of the 1950s and 1960s. During this period, the Federal government unilaterally ended its recognition of over 100 Native American tribes, ceasing to recognize those tribes' reservations and land claims, and cutting off all Federal aid. Congress also passed the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, which provided some financial benefits and vocational training for Native Americans who would move from reservation land to urban centers. It did this at the cost, however, of breaking up communities, and placing Native Americans in areas where racial discrimination was often heavy; additionally, not all of the promised benefits always materialized for Native Americans who entered the program, and many participants ended up in low-wage jobs with little hope for advancement. The Termination Policy was ugly, and the Native American community had essentially no say in designing or administering it. They did, however, organize to fight back against it, and by 1968, President Lyndon Johnson was publicly calling for the policy to be ended. Though the US began re-recognizing some tribes as early as 1973, the policy wasn't officially abandoned until 1988(!).

This brings us to Indian No More, a novel that is set during the Termination period. It's narrated by Regina Petit, whose Umpqua family lives on the Oregon reservation of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. After the Grand Ronde's recognition is terminated, Regina's family moves to Los Angeles to try to take advantage of the Indian Relocation Act. Regina's father is excited by the prospect of moving to the city, but the rest of the family is less enthused -- especially Chich, Regina's grandmother. As the story progresses, opportunities and new friends do await in the city. However, so do culture shock, racism, and family tensions over preserving their Umpqua identity.

Indian No More has a fascinating, though bittersweet, genesis. Charlene Willing McManis, who was, in the words of her biographical note in the book, "of Umpqua tribal heritage and enrolled in the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde," came to a writing career late in life. This book, her only novel, was honed in a We Need Diverse Books mentorship with Margarita Engle, and picked up by Tu Books, a Lee & Low imprint. It's based on McManis's own childhood experiences; her family also moved to L.A. after her tribe's termination.

Sadly, McManis died in 2018, before the book was entirely finished. Before her passing, McManis personally asked her friend Traci Sorell to complete the manuscript. (Sorell's name may be a familiar one to our readers, as her We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga picked up a Sibert Honor this year.) Fortunately, Sorell, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, was able to fulfill this request, and bring the book to a state ready for publication.

As far as the Newbery goes, I doubt Indian No More will end up on the stand -- though the setting and the cultural research are magnificent, the plot meanders a bit, and the prose doesn't stand out as exceptional to me; in the kind of strong field we have this year, it probably won't rise to the very top. What I do hope is that libraries purchase this book and that many, many children read it, hearing a story that they probably don't know yet, but that needs to be told.


Publication in September by Tu Books / Lee & Low

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

2020 Contenders: A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata

Hanako's family spent four years in U.S. internment camps during World War II, and now they are leaving America for Japan. They will live with Hanako's paternal grandparents on a farm outside of Hiroshima. Arriving in Japan, Hanako and her family are appalled at the devastation wrought by the atomic bomb that the United States dropped on the city. At her grandparents' house Hanako is surrounded with love, but the family is very poor, and food is a constant concern. Hanako's parents and grandparents also wonder what will happen to Hanako and her younger brother Akira. In the United States, they didn't have much money, but they had options to better their lives. In Japan, they will most likely become tenant farmers, like their grandparents and many generations before them. But Hanako and Akira are still American citizens, and though their parents renounced their citizenship, there is a chance that they can get it back. Should the family try to return to America, even if that means starting over with nothing?

In this gentle book, it's the characters who really shine. Hanako's Jiichan (grandfather) and Baachan (grandmother) are the sweetest little old people ever, and I just wanted to give both of them a hug. But each member of Hanako's family is nuanced and complex, grappling with big questions. Hanako herself deals with fitting into a different culture, as one might expect from the book description, but she also struggles with her impulse to be compassionate, balanced with her own family's privations. Should she give food to a bomb-scarred war orphan? What if it means that her own little brother will go hungry that night? This concentration on emotions and morality necessitates an inward focus, so there's not a lot of action in the book's plot. In some ways, this is an ur-Newbery book: deeply contemplative historical fiction with a female protagonist, with strong character development at the expense of plot. I'm not trying to denigrate the book; just saying that it follows a venerable tradition of strong, well-written Newbery contenders.

I don't think this book is well-served by either its nondescript title or its bland brown and yellow cover, but of course, neither of those factors has any bearing on its Newbery eligibility. A Place to Belong received starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, and Booklist, and though it's up against strong competition for the Newbery, I think it has at least earned a spot at the discussion table.

Published in May by Atheneum Books

Monday, July 1, 2019

New Member of the For Those About to Mock Team: Misti Tidman

We're feeling pretty excited here at For Those About to Mock today, because we have a new blogger joining our team! Please join us in welcoming Misti Tidman to this space.

Longtime readers might already know Misti's name, as she's done three guest review for us in the past. She and I attended the Morris Seminar together back in 2014, and since then, she's done some great work over at the Guessing Geisel blog. When we were considering expanding our roster of bloggers here, Misti was the first person I thought of, and I'm ecstatic that she's elected to sign on!


Friday, June 28, 2019

2020 Contenders: My Jasper June, by Laurel Snyder

After a terrible tragedy last year, Leah finds herself in a holding pattern, distanced from her friends, her neighborhood, and her parents. One summer day, alone and restless, she takes a walk by the creek, and meets another girl, a free spirit named Jasper. Leah and Jasper quickly become inseparable -- but the tensions in Leah's life, as well as Jasper's own dark secrets, won't be denied, and eventually threaten to tear the new friends completely apart.

There are two things that I think My Jasper June does exceptionally well. The first is its respectful, honest portrayal of the inner lives of its main characters, girls at the awkward intersection of tween and teen. This was also a feature of Laurel Snyder's previous novel, Orphan Island (which won our 2017/18 Maryland Mock Newbery), and represents one of her key strengths as a writer. Leah and Jasper both felt real and recognizable to me, which helped me care about their adventures and fortunes.

The other area in which My Jasper June excels -- perhaps more so than any other book for children that I've ever read -- is in its laying bare the double bind that those grieving a traumatic loss often find themselves in. At the very moment when they need the most support, they often experience isolation, as those around them no longer know what to say to them or how to act around them, distancing themselves from the griever as a result. Without going too far into sad details from my own experience, I'll say that I've seen this dynamic and the pain it causes in real life, and Snyder does magnificent work in limning it. The scene in which Leah finally loses all patience and calls a school teacher out on this behavior at the public swimming pool is cringey in exactly the way the incident might play out in reality.

In a lot of years, My Jasper June would be my immediate choice for Newbery frontrunner. This year also features The Lost Girl and The Moon Within, so it's more complicated than that. But it's at the very least in the conversation, and I heartily recommend that you pick it up and have a look for yourself.


Publication in September by Walden Pond Press / HarperCollins

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Ones That Got Away: The Last Martin, by Jonathan Friesen

Sometime back in 2011 or 2012, I was at a library conference, wandering the exhibits, and happened by the Zonderkidz booth. Jonathan Friesen was there, signing copies of his new book, The Last Martin. He was kind enough to sign one for my daughter, and I passed the book on to her after the conference.

This is the kind of story that's happened dozens of times during the course of my library career. But this time was different, because my daughter devoured this book, returning the verdict that The Last Martin was her FAVORITE BOOK EVER. To this day, that's an opinion that she stands by. Regardless of what other books she may read in the future, I think it's safe to say that, at the very least, The Last Martin stands as one of the defining novels of her childhood.

In the wider world, Friesen is an author who's picked up a big ALA award (the 2009 Schneider Award, teen division, for Jerk, California), and The Last Martin garnered starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal. The book didn't show up in the Newbery rolls in 2012, however, nor did it make the Notables list. As of this writing, it's still in print, but doesn't seem to have attracted a significant following outside of my daughter -- the most recent reviews on Amazon and Goodreads are both from 2016.

But, that's the thing about books. Sometimes, a book simply happens to be the perfect book for a reader at a specific point in time, regardless of said book's popularity. When I think back on the books that I remember with exceptional fondness from my own childhood, that list includes well-known titles such as CorduroyThe Hobbit, and Interstellar Pig. It also includes an obscure, mostly forgotten Barbara Dillon/Chris Conover picture book, The Beast in the Bed. Ranganathan's Third Law of Library Science, after all, is "Every book its reader," and that's as true now as it was in 1931, when Ranganathan wrote it.

As for The Last Martin, it's the story of middle schooler Martin Boyle, an unassuming budding writer, who lives with his little sister, Lani, his frenzied, germophobic mother, and his father, a professional military reenactor. On an annual visit to the family cemetery, Martin makes the startling discovery that, beginning with the 1790 birth of his military hero namesake, there has always been a Martin Boyle -- and that every time a new Martin is born, the previous Martin dies. Since Martin's aunt is six months pregnant, and plans to name her new baby boy Martin, does this mean that the current Martin is cursed to die in three months? It's up to Martin and his ragtag group of friends -- his best buddy, Charley; his crush, Julia; and Poole, a Huck Finn-esque orphan who's been living in an abandoned boxcar in Martin's backyard -- to solve the mystery and end the curse before Martin's time runs out.

On a purely literary level, I can see why The Last Martin didn't win any ALA awards. The characterization is often cartoonish, some of the pacing seems occasionally off, and the prose is competent without being particularly noteworthy. But I can also see why my daughter loves it -- there's mystery, humor, romance, and a group of friends banding together to overcome a seemingly insurmountable problem.

And maybe the lesson I should take from the book is that a novel doesn't have to be "perfect" to be enjoyable. I spend a lot of time evaluating and analyzing books, enough so that I sometimes forget that a story can sweep you away and draw you in even if it doesn't check every box that a literary award-winner would. The Last Martin has plenty of flaws, but it also tells a fascinating story -- a story that has found at least one lifelong fan.

Friday, May 31, 2019

2020 Contenders: The Library of Ever, by Zeno Alexander

Lenora is extremely rich, but she isn't happy. Her parents are away traveling, and her nanny insists on dragging Lenora on various boring errands, instead of giving her a chance to explore the city. However, the nanny does have to stop at the library, and while they're there, Lenora manages to slip away...and find her way into a much, much, much larger library, one with patrons ranging from a robot from the future, to a spacefaring tardigrade, to a small boy with a missing cat. Lenora convinces Malachi, the seemingly-magical Chief Answerer, to give her a job as Fourth Assistant Apprentice Librarian. This begins a series of adventures that will take Lenora into the future, on a quasi-Fantastic Voyage journey into an ant colony, and into direct conflict with a mysterious group of people with a vendetta against the very concept of the library itself.

The easiest comparison for The Library of Ever is The Phantom Tollbooth, with its bored protagonist who finds his way into another world full of whimsical characters, surreal adventures, and paeans to knowledge and learning. Now, The Phantom Tollbooth is one of the greatest achievements in American children's literature, and it's awfully hard to write anything in a similar vein that doesn't suffer by comparison. The Library of Ever doesn't hit the heights of Tollbooth, and doesn't come particularly close. What it does do, however, is avoid embarrassing itself; if it's not the "instant classic" that the somewhat hyperactive back cover blurb on the ARC declares it to be, it's a fun, breezy read, one amply seasoned with interesting trivia and colorful details.

I think that, if I were still a child, I would have really, really enjoyed The Library of Ever and its bookworm-turned-adventure heroine. As an adult, it roused my normal suspicions about books that lean heavily on tropes about the importance of Story and Knowledge and Libraries. (Once again, let's all return to Rachael's Maxim: "Story and imagination celebrate themselves when deployed effectively.") This particular novel manages to thread that needle better than most -- I don't have the same kind of grumpiness about The Library of Ever that I did about, say, Okay For Now -- doing so mostly by steering into its conceit and not trying to pretend that it's anything other than wish fulfillment for the kind of kids who show up at the library multiple times a week.

I'm actually just guessing about the Newbery eligibility of The Library of Ever -- Zeno Alexander seems to be a Lemony Snicket-style pen name, and I haven't found any information that might indicate who the person behind the nom de plume is. I'm not sure it matters, since the novel doesn't match up all that well in a literary sense against this year's strongest books. I do think it will find its readers, and that those readers will enjoy Lenora's adventures, as well as those to come; a sequel is promised for 2020.


Published in April by Imprint/Macmillan

Thursday, May 23, 2019

2020 Contenders: For Black Girls Like Me, by Mariama J. Lockington

Eleven-year-old Makeda "Keda" Kirkland is black. Her father, mother, and sister, however, are all white, as Keda was adopted when she was a baby. Keda loves her family, but often feels like they don't understand her. Now, they're moving to New Mexico, taking Keda away from her best friend Lena, and setting her up for what will become the most challenging year of her life.

Spoilers follow, because it's nearly impossible to explain what For Black Girls Like Me does so well without giving away the plot. From the beginning, it's clear that all is not well with Keda's family. Her older sister, Eve, is a teenager whose connection with Keda is becoming strained. Their parents' relationship is showing serious cracks. And something seems...off about Mama in particular. A one-time child prodigy on the violin, Mama now almost never plays at all, and veers dramatically from being a bundle of energy with questionable forethought, to a near-comatose figure who can barely get out of bed.

There's much more to the book, including Keda's near-constant encounters with racist peers and clueless adults, and the ways in which her white family struggles to appropriately recognize and deal with these experiences (her parents, especially, are well-meaning white liberals who nevertheless aren't nearly as woke as they think they are; I winced more than once in a kind of embarrassed recognition at their words and actions). But the center of the novel, I think, lies in the breaking apart and bringing back together of the Kirkland family.

The key fracture is inside Mama herself. She is, as is eventually made explicit, suffering from bipolar II disorder. Over the course of the book, Mama becomes more and more erratic, culminating in an episode in which she drags Keda and Eve on a spontaneous trip to Colorado, and then suffers a complete breakdown that ends in a suicide attempt. Papa isn't there to prevent any of this, as he is out of the country on an orchestra tour, having convinced himself in the face of significant evidence to the contrary that Mama will be okay as the sole parent in the house for several weeks.

The way that this dynamic is portrayed seemed extremely true to life to me. I've known many people with bipolar disorder in my life, and I found the book's characterization of the disease to be thoughtful and accurate. For Black Girls Like Me treats its characters with kindness, but it doesn't shy away at all from depicting the pain and anguish that untreated mental illness of this type can cause.

And in a larger way, empathetic but unsentimental is the way that For Black Girls Like Me treats just about everything. This is the kind of middle grade novel that not only features a scene in which a particularly vicious peer calls Keda the n-word, but puts the word there on the page in all of its unredacted ugliness. In the hands of a lesser writer than Mariama J. Lockington, this would be an invitation to disaster, but Lockington effectively uses this episode to force us to confront the ways in which language can be a form of violence.

I don't think For Black Girls Like Me is quite a perfect book (the bits with the Georgia Belles, who are possibly either spirit guardians for Keda, or a certain part of her subconscious coming to the surface, felt less integrated into the larger narrative to me). I do think it's an important, vital book, one that heralds the arrival of an important new voice (this is Lockington's first book for children). That may not be enough to push it past The Moon Within or The Lost Girl in the Newbery race, but it should absolutely put it on the radar of librarians, teachers, and readers nationwide.


Publication in July through Farrar Straus Giroux


Friday, May 10, 2019

2020 Contenders: The Lost Boy's Gift, by Kimberly Willis Holt

The Lost Boy's Gift is the story of nine-year-old Daniel, who is living with his mother after his parents' divorce. The pair moves to While-a-Way Lane, in the town of Falling Star Valley, in the shadow of Pointy Mountain. Daniel begins meeting many of the other residents, including next-door-neighbor Tilda Butter, who can talk to animals; quirky postman Dewey Wonder; and Annie, the Lemonade Girl. Adventures ensue, including some involving a school production of Peter Pan, and a cloud of benevolently magical fireflies.

Really, how much you'll like Kimberly Willis Holt's latest novel comes down to how that last paragraph made you feel. Perhaps you'll think it sounds enchanting and delightful; if so, the book won't disappoint you. Personally, The Lost Boy's Gift made me feel like I'd just overdosed on Pixy Stix. I don't have a particularly high tolerance for capital-W Whimsy, and boy howdy, does this novel trade in Whimsy. (The library in Falling Star Valley has a Ferris wheel. I'd dearly love to sit in on that library's budget meetings.)

Lest you think that I'm a pure killjoy, I should note that The Lost Boy's Gift does some things very well. Daniel's character felt real and alive to me. He's the sort of kid who's got a good heart, but at the same time, he can't keep his hands off of anything, and many adults who encounter him come away from the experience deeply exhausted. I've met kids like that in real life, and Daniel could easily be any one of them. His struggles in coming to terms with the breakup of his parents' marriage also felt genuine and lived-in.

The plot is less careful; some elements felt to me like they had little payoff (Agatha Brown's secret love of the saxophone), and some felt less than wrapped up (Daniel's gift doesn't show up until the very end, and I'm not really sure what its full significance is). Younger readers may not mind this, but I think the Newbery committee may take note.

Lots of people like Holt's work: our very own Tess loved Dear Hank Williams, and When Zachary Beaver Came to Town won the National Book Award. This is the first of her novels that I've read, and I didn't particularly enjoy it. How much of that is due to my reading preferences is open to question, of course. I think the book is unlikely to show up on Newbery Day, however.


Published April 30, 2019, by Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt/Macmillan

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

2020 Contenders: Sweeping Up the Heart, by Kevin Henkes

For the first time since 2014 Newbery Honor book The Year of Billy Miller, we have another chapter book from The Henk. In Sweeping Up the Heart, we follow a week in the life of 12-year-old Amelia Albright, an aspiring clay artist with a dead mother, a grieving and emotionally unavailable father, and a new friend named Casey, the nephew of the owner of her favorite art studio. Adventures ensue when Casey claims to see a "sign" from Amelia's mother -- which may or may not be the mother herself. This being a Kevin Henkes book, however, the important adventures are interior, taking place within Amelia's heart and mind.

Sweeping Up the Heart reminded me a lot of Junonia, Henkes' 2011 novel. Both novels have female protagonists who don't feel like their vacations are going exactly as they would have wished; both deal with themes of growing up and change; and both feel hushed and subdued even during the most "action-packed" moments. If you liked Junonia, you'll almost certainly enjoy Sweeping; if you found Junonia to be a low-stakes exercise in self-pity...then I don't really agree with you, but I can definitely say that, while you might like Sweeping better, you probably won't love it.

Kevin Henkes' work has always felt strangely out of time to me, as if it were being written from a close-but-not-quite parallel universe, or being sent forward from my own childhood. Henkes legendarily writes all of his books on a typewriter that his wife owned as a teenager (and does the illustrations for his picture books on a light box that he got for Christmas as a child), and his work has a sort of "vintage" feel to it. Sweeping Up the Heart is set in 1999, and while the temporal setting does allow Casey to express his fears about Y2K, it also felt to me like it allowed Henkes to tell his story without the background distractions of cell phones, social media, and omnipresent digital cameras, all of which would have complicated the atmospheric, whisper-quiet story.

Henkes is famous for his incisive, pitch-perfect characterization; I do not believe there is another author currently working who is as capable of actually getting inside the head of a child and understanding her hopes, dreams, and fears. Amelia certainly is one of Henkes' triumphs, but every other character in the story also comes across as someone you'd recognize if you met them in the street.

It's hard for me to evaluate the Newbery chances of Sweeping Up the Heart. It's a gem of a book with perfect craftsmanship evident in every line; it's also a deeply inward-looking book in a year in which I'm not sure that will be rewarded, one that takes few risks, and doesn't break any new ground for Henkes. The Henk's legions of fans will love this one, and every library should buy a copy. The competition may be too stiff for it to take the gold medal, however.


Published March 19, 2019 by Greenwillow/HarperCollins

Monday, March 18, 2019

2020 Contenders: Birdie, by Eileen Spinelli

Amateur ornithologist Birdie Briggs is twelve years old, and her life is in flux. She's experiencing her first crush, which has consequences for the rest of her social life; her mother may have a new love interest for the first time since the death of Birdie's father, and even her grandmother, Maymee, has a new man in her life. It's a lot for Birdie to manage, and she's trying to learn how to adapt.

I felt like the best thing about Birdie, Eileen Spinelli's new verse novel, is the way it captures the shifting emotions of a not-quite-teenager. Sometimes she's elated, sometimes she's depressed, sometimes she's throbbing with inchoate anger, but Birdie's feelings all rang true to me. Being twelve is a difficult time in one's life, and Spinelli records Birdie's internal experiences with grace and sympathy.

Indeed, Birdie is a gentle novel all the way around, one where the action and conflicts are largely interior. Bad things happen in the book's world, to be sure, but they're overcome with tenderness and love. It's a story and a setting filled with warmth.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I'm not much of a verse novel fan. Trying to set that personal preference aside, I can tell you that the pacing of the book seemed effective to me. I don't think that Birdie possesses the same level of technical mastery of The Moon Within or Caminar, but it's certainly competent. I don't know if I would have made the same choice that Spinelli did in giving each of the poems a title, but that's probably just my own predilection as a reader.

You should never take your Newbery odds from me -- I'm the guy who said "no picture book will ever win the Newbery" the year that Last Stop on Market Street won, after all. That said, I'm not sure that Birdie is going to rise to the top of what's already shaping up to be a hypercompetitive field for the 2020 medal. I do think that fans of Spinelli's writing, and readers who enjoy carefully-crafted interior worlds, will enjoy Birdie very much.


Publication in April by Eerdmans

Thursday, March 7, 2019

2020 Contenders: Bat and the End of Everything, by Elana K. Arnold

Bat and the End of Everything is the third volume in the adventures of Bixby Alexander "Bat" Tam, following A Boy Called Bat (2017), and Bat and the Waiting Game (2018). It picks up essentially where Waiting Game left off, with Bat about to finish the third grade, and still caring for Thor, the orphaned skunk kit. He's full of concerns, ranging from who is going to care for the class pet, Babycakes the rabbit, to the fact that his best friend, Israel, will be spending much of the summer in Canada. And underneath it all is Bat's greatest worry -- the need to release Thor back into the wild soon, even though Bat doesn't want Thor to go.

What holds End of Everything together is the strength of its characterization. Bat remains one of the most carefully detailed characters with autism in children's literature, and his family and friends also seem poised to walk of the page at any moment. Both the conflicts and the solutions to those conflicts arise organically from who the characters are; nothing feels forced or arbitrary. This, at least in my opinion, is the most distinguished feature, not only of End of Everything, but of the Bat series as a whole.

The ending is awfully sunny, and I suppose it's possible to complain that it steps around some of the issues that have previously been raised in the story. I thought it was prepared and foreshadowed enough that it was perfectly effective, as well as fitting in with the general tone of the series, which is suffused with optimism and love. End of Everything is a bighearted book, one unafraid to conclude with the novelistic equivalent of a group hug.

I'd be surprised if the third installment of this series was where the Newbery committee decided to recognize it. Indeed, series for younger chapter book readers include some of the best-loved books in American children's literature, but for whatever reason, they don't tend to do well in the Newbery race; we cherish Ramona, Homer Price, Ruby Lu, Clementine, and Ivy and Bean, but none of them have ever taken the gold medal. Regardless, End of Everything is cozy and lovely, and anyone who's followed Bat's adventures this far won't be disappointed.


Publication on March 26, 2019, by Walden Pond/HarperCollins

Monday, February 25, 2019

2020 Contenders: The Moon Within, by Aida Salazar

Sometimes, it's hard to realize how far children's literature has come until we stop and take a look back. This is not to say that there aren't still VERY real problems in the children's lit world, or that fighting for progress isn't still necessary, because neither of those things are true. But I think it's also important to note that the efforts of many authors, publishers, teachers, and librarians to advocate for diversity, inclusion, and a general expansion of "acceptable" content haven't gone for naught.

When I first started working in public libraries, in 2007, the kerfuffle du jour involved whether or not it had been appropriate to award the Newbery to a book that used the word "scrotum" (that'd be The Higher Power of Lucky, for anyone who doesn't remember that moment in time). And as recently as 2014 or so, my requests at major library conferences for information about LGBTQ+ books for middle grade readers was met with the sum total of "Tim Federle and Jennifer Gennari."

Now, less than a decade and a half since I started my library journey, I find myself writing a review of Aida Salazar's The Moon Within, a book being put out by a major publisher (Scholastic, on its Arthur A. Levine imprint). If you had asked me even three or four years ago if I'd thought a middle grade book of this type was publishable, I would have responded with a sad shake of my head. This is a verse novel starring a main character of Mexican/Puerto Rican ancestry, and her genderfluid best friend, in which the plot not only centers on a recreated indigenous Mexica ritual celebrating a young woman's menarche, but also includes a poetic but frank discussion of women's genitals, including the purpose of the clitoris. If you thought Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret didn't pull any punches, The Moon Within has never even heard of the concept of pulling punches.

But that's not to say that The Moon Within is confrontational for the sake of being confrontational. On the contrary, it's a novel filled with sensitivity and compassion for its characters -- especially its narrator, Celi Rivera. She comes across as a living, breathing person, one who sometimes makes good decisions and sometimes makes bad ones, but who's 100% worth cheering for. I wanted positive things to happen for her, and the book's climax filled my heart with warmth. You could, I suppose, refer to this as a "problem novel," but it's better described as an authentic-feeling, character-driven book that doesn't shy away from the kinds of issues that real people in real communities run up against.

If it's not clear, I genuinely enjoyed The Moon Within, and I'm more than a little glad to see this book published. I have no clear sense of the Newbery race yet, but the mere fact that the publisher is promoting this novel heavily warms my heart. I think Aida Salazar is a fascinating talent, and this is one heckuva debut.


Published Feburary 26th by Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic

Saturday, February 2, 2019

2020 Contenders: The Lost Girl, by Anne Ursu

Yes, once more, I greet you from a stop on a Walden Press blog tour. This one, however, is, if such a thing is possible, even more exciting than usual, because this one is for The Lost Girl, the new book by Anne Ursu. Ursu happens to be my favorite active children's author (which, given how much I love so many others, is high praise indeed), to the point that, although I promise that what follows is an honest review, I'm not sure I can even pretend that it's an unbiased one.

Here's how the back cover describes The Lost Girl:

"When you’re an identical twin, your story always starts with someone else. For Iris, that means her story starts with Lark. Iris has always been the grounded, capable, and rational one; Lark has been inventive, dreamy, and brilliant—and from their first moments in the world together, they’ve never left each  other’s side. Everyone around them realized early on what the two sisters already knew: they had better outcomes when they were together.

When fifth grade arrives, however, it’s decided that Iris and Lark should be split into different  classrooms, and something breaks in them both. Iris is no longer so confident; Lark retreats into herself as she deals with challenges at school. And at the same time, something strange is happening in the city  around them: things both great and small going missing without a trace. As Iris begins to understand  that anything can be lost in the blink of an eye, she decides it’s up to her to find a way to keep her sister safe."

This is a perfectly reasonable and accurate description of the book. Along the same lines, "Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632-1675), c. 1664. Oil on canvas, 72.5 cm × 64.7 cm." is a perfectly reasonable and accurate description of The Concert.  It tells you everything there is to know about the work except for why it's so beautiful, and so special.

Mentioned, albeit cryptically, in the book, so not a purely gratuitous reference.

So why is Ursu's new book so beautiful and special? I guess I'd have to say that, in that odd way in which these words apply to a work of fiction, it's 100% true. Every character, every relationship, every detail of this world feels lived in, cared for, and real. Ursu has always excelled at this kind of truth in her writing, and The Lost Girl is as impressive a demonstration as ever.

I don't dare give too much of the meticulously-constructed plot away here. But longtime Ursu readers will recognize the overall themes that have long interested her. How do people who don't "fit into" the world nonetheless make their way in it? What does becoming a better human being cost? And what is the nature of the most dangerous destructive force in the world -- the evil (to be reductive) that we all face?

As in her previous books, Ursu seems to argue in The Lost Girl that the answer to the last question is that evil works first by fracturing the relationships between people, and then by destroying each person's sense of their true self. This was true in Breadcrumbs, it was true in The Real Boy, and it's true in this novel as well.

Though there are plenty of differences between the two books, I actually found myself thinking that The Lost Girl was what Breadcrumbs might have looked like with a radically changed underlying emotion. Where Breadcrumbs was bleakly, desperately sad, The Lost Girl is instead charged with what I can only describe as ferocity. As she makes perfectly clear in the introduction, Ursu is furious about society's treatment of women and girls, and has absolutely no patience for anyone or anything on the giving end of that treatment. Indeed, The Lost Girl is the most "of its historical moment" book Ursu has written; unlike her previous two novels, The Lost Girl does have a proper villain (though it takes a very long time for this to become clear), and at one point, that villain uses language that's either directly taken from a certain world leader's Twitter account, or so close as to make no difference.

The thing about Ursu's ferocity, however, is that it cuts both ways. She fiercely loves her protagonists, and the other supporting characters who are trying, as well as they know how, to do the right things. The climax, especially, includes a moment that's as close to a combination of a fist pump and a group hug as I think Ursu is capable of writing, and it's amazing.

If I say that The Lost Girl is not my favorite Anne Ursu book, it's only because Breadcrumbs is my favorite children's book of all time, full stop. The Lost Girl is certainly my favorite children's book I've read in a long, long time, one that feels vital, alive, necessary. You should read this book. You need to read this book. I have two copies, so I'll even loan you one of mine if you want.

*****

One other thing, which I wanted to separate from my review of/cheerleading for the book, but nonetheless wanted to write about. For longtime Ursu readers, The Lost Girl is as full of Easter eggs as a Marvel trailer, and I found them delightful. Here are a few that I found:

1) Iris and Lark attend Barnhill Elementary, and past and present teachers and staffers at Barnhill who are mentioned or make appearances include Ms. Messner, Ms. Urban, Ms. Snyder, Ms. Baptiste, and Ms. Ruby. If you know that Ursu is central to a closely-knit group of children's and YA writers who include Kelly Barnhill, Kate Messner, Linda Urban, Laurel Snyder, Tracy Baptiste, and Laura Ruby, this is utterly delightful, and feels like a loving tribute to dear friends. There's also a Mr. Anderson, whom Ursu stated is named after a beloved teacher of hers, Rod Anderson.

2) The Lost Girl features twins who live in Minnesota. Ursu is a MASSIVE baseball fan, and her team of choice is the Minnesota Twins. (Remember the signed Joe Mauer baseball that played such a key role in Breadcrumbs?). I'm sure the reference wasn't the only reason for the choice of setting and characters, but it still made me smile.

3) There is a calico cat in The Lost Girl. Ursu loves cats in general, but calico cats in particular. As evidence, I present to you this song, which was based on online conversations I had with Ursu several years ago.

"Anne Ursu Loves Our Calico Cat"

And one last bit, which made me happy. Really happy. To help explain why, here is a picture of me for reference:

The photogenic one is Senator Harriet J. Hedgington, Esq.

OMG THIS BOOK HAS A HEDGEHOG IN IT AND HIS NAME IS MR. PRICKLES AND IT IS THE BEST THING EVER.

True, Mr. Prickles is a very minor character, who advances the plot for a couple pages in the middle of the book, and then yields his space to the larger story. But he is there. And, especially since "Anne Ursu's new book has a hedgehog in it" is essentially a sentence algorithmically designed to insert joy directly into my soul, Mr. Prickles will always be there in my heart.

*****

One final addendum: here is the schedule for the full blog tour!

FRIDAY FEBRUARY 1: Teach Mentor Texts
SATURDAY FEBRUARY 2: For Those About to Mock
SUNDAY FEBRUARY 3: Novel Novice
MONDAY FEBRUARY 4: Maria’s Melange
WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 6: Bluestocking Thinking
THURSDAY FEBRUARY 7: Kirsticall.com
FRIDAY FEBRUARY 8: Unleashing Readers
SATURDAY FEBRUARY 9: Book Monsters
SUNDAY FEBRUARY 10: Fat Girl Reading
MONDAY FEBRUARY 11: Word Spelunker
TUESDAY FEBRUARY 12: Nerdy Book Club