Wednesday, November 27, 2019

2020 Contenders: Blue Daisy, by Helen Frost

One day, friends Sam and Katie happen to see a dog, filthy and thin, wandering through their neighborhood. None of their neighbors, from the flower-gardening Wilson sisters to the rock-throwing Tracy twins seem inclined to show it any kindness. Sam and Katie are concerned for the dog, and want to love and help her -- but in a childish moment of weakness, they do something that makes the dog mistrust them. Now, all they want to do is make things right -- but how?

What I liked most about Blue Daisy, a brief novel for younger middle-grade readers, was the way that its protagonists seemed like real children. Sam and Katie are generally good kids, who are nonetheless capable of momentary breakdowns in impulse control. Not only does this lead them to do something they profoundly regret, but they're unable even to really voice why they did it in the first place. Development of executive function is hard work, and seemingly inexplicable lapses happen to even the most well-behaved and kindest children. I thought that Helen Frost portrayed this with sensitivity and gentleness, while still creating an accurate portrayal of the way things can suddenly go sideways for kids.

Blue Daisy is the first of Frost's books that I've read since Salt (2013). I do note that, while they're very different books, some of the reservations I had about Salt are the same ones I have about Blue Daisy. Blue Daisy is written in alternating sections, with Sam's being written in poetry, and Katie's in prose. This distinguishes the voices, to be sure -- but I'm not sure the stylistic choice works fully. Sam and Katie come across as very similar characters, and while Sam is slightly more dreamy and impulsive than Katie (and so, it could be argued, fits better in verse), the fact that each one ends up narrating some of the other's words and actions blurs the lines that separate the two. (Katie's dialogue, for instance, is in prose when she's delivering it, but in poetry when Sam is reporting it.)

I also wished the secondary characters stood out a little more. That's a big ask in a short novel, and it likely won't make a difference to the book's target readers, but it's the sort of thing that might get discussed by the Newbery committee.

Realistically, it's hard for me to imagine Blue Daisy bubbling to the top in a year with several strong Newbery candidates that take more risks and excel in more facets of storytelling. I do think, however, that the kind of kid who likes to read quieter books, and anyone who enjoys animal stories, will be won over by this novel's charm.

Published in March by Holiday House