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 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