Wednesday, December 16, 2020
Tuesday, December 8, 2020
So begins Garnet's "thimble summer," full of joyous and exciting memories. They're memories fully grounded in the time and place of the Depression-era Midwest -- accidentally getting locked in the library with her best friend Citronella, taking in a starving teenaged orphan, winning a blue ribbon at the fair for a prize pig. All of this is described in sparkling, incisive prose, which is a delight to read.
This is an episodic, low-stakes novel, but one that excels in its ability to conjure up a time and a place. The characters are also brilliantly executed -- I especially appreciated Garnet's quickly shifting moods, where sadness easily gives way to happiness, and vice versa. It felt grounded in the reality of being a child, in the way that the best children's literature does.
And, in all honesty, Thimble Summer may be my favorite of the '20s/'30s Newbery books that I've read. It's not perfect -- for example, contemporary readers will notice the book's handful of passages about Native Americans and may question the sensitivity of some of them (though, to be clear, as these things go, this isn't Caddie Woodlawn or Hitty). It does hold up better than most American children's novels of that vintage, and it seemed to me to be a particularly honest novel, both in its descriptions of setting, and in its emotional tenor.
Elizabeth Enright's storied career would, in addition to her 1939 Newbery win, net her an Honor in 1958 for Gone-Away Lake, the title she's probably most famous for now. That one was ranked #42 in School Library Journal's 2012 survey of children's novels, with two of her other books also showing up: The Saturdays (#75), and The Four-Story Mistake (#80). Five Newbery Honor books were named in 1939, the best-known of which is Richard & Florence Atwater's Mr. Popper's Penguins. It was a competitive year, which also featured Dr. Seuss's The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' The Yearling, which didn't make the Newbery list, but did win the Pulitzer Prize. Even in this storied company, I think Thimble Summer holds its own, and I'm glad for the time I spent with it.
Wednesday, December 2, 2020
Thursday, November 12, 2020
Friday, October 16, 2020
Wednesday, October 7, 2020
The title character of Ginger Pye is a fox terrier mix who belongs to ten-year-old Jerry Pye. The story covers the way they come together, and several of their ensuing adventures, until Ginger is abruptly dognapped halfway through the book. The remainder of the novel largely consists of the attempts of Jerry and his sister Rachel to locate Ginger, until the dénouement when they are reunited.
The world of Ginger Pye is a relatively small one; the scene never leaves the environs of the Pyes' hometown of Cranbury (a thinly fictionalized version of West Haven, Connecticut). That world, however, is outlined with a keen eye. I could clearly visualize the places, events, and, especially, the characters. The supporting cast, in particular, is described in ways that feel true to the ideas children have of other people. From Sam Doody, the captain of the high school basketball team, whom the Pye children look up to with barely-disguised hero worship; to the children's Uncle Bennie, who is only three years old, but worthy of profound respect, simply because he's an uncle; to Mr. Tuttle, who is one of the tallest men in town when seated, but only of average height when standing, because his height is concentrated in his torso -- they all seemed, not only like recognizable people, but those people as they might be described by elementary school-aged children.
This isn't a plot-driven novel, and the plot as it stands is probably the weakest element of Ginger Pye -- the confrontation between the Pye children and the dognapper seems like it's going to provide the climax of the book, but it never really happens. On the other hand, the plot isn't really the point; as in so many of these mid-century "family novels," the individual episodes are what the reader remembers after finishing the book.
As is often the case in books from the 1950s, there are some questionable racial attitudes in Ginger Pye. They're always mentioned more or less in passing -- I don't remember there being a single character of color on the book -- but they're there nonetheless, as when Rachel worries that that a whistle will bring a congregation of "Gypsies" around, or when she frets that a bee sting on her lip makes her "look like a Ubangi." It's the sort of thing one might want to discuss with a child reader before handing them the book.
Five Honor books were named in 1952: Americans Before Columbus, by Elizabeth Baity; Minn of the Mississippi, by Holling C. Holling; The Defender, by Nicholas Kalashnikoff; The Light at Tern Rock, by Julia Sauer; and The Apple and the Arrow, by Mary & Conrad Buff. I've never read any of them, so don't feel particularly able to talk about how they stack up to Ginger Pye, but I also note that none of them have become lasting classics. The best-known book that wasn't recognized by the Newbery committee is likely Ellen Tebbits, the second novel by Beverly Cleary. That one is well-regarded, but as far as I'm aware, isn't considered one of Cleary's top-tier titles. If parts of Ginger Pye perhaps haven't aged all that well, it was still one of the finest achievements in American children's literature for its year, and was a fine choice for the Newbery.
Thursday, September 24, 2020
Kate DiCamillo is one of the most important American children's writers of the 21st century. She had already vaulted to prominence with her debut book, Because of Winn-Dixie, which had netted her a 2001 Newbery Honor, but Despereaux, her third novel, truly cemented her place in the firmament. Despereaux features all of her trademarks: an unlikely hero; a sweet relationship between a human and an animal; and moments of gentle humor mixed in with moments of deep tenderness.
The novel's structure builds as several plot threads are introduced -- one in which the titular hero, a tiny, misfit mouse, meets and falls in love with a princess, and then is thrown into a dungeon; one in which a rat named Chiaroscuro, torn between his love of the light and the dark nature of ratly culture, accidentally causes a national catastrophe; and one in which a small girl named Miggery Sow is sold by her father into a life of hardship and abuse. All of these stories converge in the second half of the novel, culminating in an ending both thrilling and compassionate.
Monday, March 16, 2020
W. Bruce Cameron is best known for his adult work (A Dog's Purpose; 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter), but he's no stranger to the Animals in Mild Peril realm; in fact, Lily to the Rescue is a spin-off from Cameron's earlier Puppy Tales series. It's narrated by the title character, a rescue dog who works at a shelter, helping to comfort and socialize the other animals. Her special human is Maggie Rose, whose mom also works at the shelter. Lily reports what she sees and hears accurately, but her interpretations of events are often wrong, which is the source of much of the novel's gentle humor.
The plot involves Lily and Maggie Rose's rescue of an injured crow named Casey. There aren't any surprises here to anyone familiar with the genre, but the characters are warmly written, and the book's brisk pace means that it doesn't overstay its welcome. Lily to the Rescue isn't complex or powerful enough to be a real Newbery contender, but it's got more depth than most of its competition; given that it's going to be the starting point for its own series, readers who eagerly devour this sort of thing should plan on spending some time with Lily.
Publication in March by Starscape / Tom Doherty Associates / Macmillan
Thursday, February 20, 2020
I had a hard time fully engaging with Blue Skies. Part of this, if I'm being honest, was because reading about Glory Bea constantly reminded me that I'd already encountered that particular piece of wordplay in another children's novel. But more so, it was because I felt like Blue Skies never fully took flight. Many of the plot points seemed awfully familiar to me, from a child character refusing to believe that a family member who perished in WWII is actually dead, to the trauma resulting from combat service in WWII, to a child trying to break up their parent's new relationship.
A well-worn plot can, of course, be magic in the right hands, if the details, setting, and characters bring it to life. Probably the area in which Blue Skies does best is the setting -- the (fictional) town of Gladiola rang true to me, and the bits about the Merci Boxcars do a great job of highlighting a nearly-forgotten slice of American history. Overall, however, I often felt like I was having trouble remembering the book even while I was reading it.
It's possible that readers with an affection for historical fiction or mid-20th-century Americana may find and love Blue Skies. It's hard for me to imagine that it will garner a mass following though, or that it will tick enough boxes for the Newbery committee to show it some love.
Publication in March by Simon & Schuster
Wednesday, February 5, 2020
I didn't much care for Up a Road Slowly as I read it, and my assessment didn't really change after I finished it. It's a pale copy of a copy of Anne of Green Gables (1908) or Little Women (1868-69) -- heck, Julie's personal goal, to become a writer, is exactly the same as that of Anne Shirley and Jo March, and though the book mercifully ends before Julie enters the working world, she comes from a whole family of schoolteachers (which, you may remember, is the profession that both Anne Shirley and Jo March enter). But Julie is a good deal less memorable than her predecessors; I finished the book feeling like I didn't really know her all that well.
Part of the problem is that the book covers ten years in less than 200 pages (in my edition), which means that it's racing at breakneck speed through the whole process, casually mentioning events that have never been recounted, and generally telling, not showing. One of the reasons that Anne and Jo feel so alive is that we have plenty of time to linger on their adventures and learn their individual quirks -- Little Women also covers ten years, but is easily twice as long as Up a Road Slowly, and the timeline of Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea (1909) combined is only six years or so.
There are other issues too: the prose feels deliberately affected and old-fashioned, even for the time; I never really got to like Aunt Cordelia all that much; and there are some passages that feel awfully dated now. The worst of these last is probably the part where, when Julie is seven, two boys forcibly hold her arms back while a third, Danny Trevort, kisses her. After Julie, justifiably in my opinion, punches Danny in the face and gives him a black eye, Aunt Cordelia tells her "that a small boy's kiss was hardly in as poor taste as a small girl's physical violence." Though Cordelia eventually revises her opinion to admit that "the boys certainly have their share of the blame for this unfortunate episode," it just wasn't enough for me. Julie actually ends up dating Danny at the conclusion of the book, but I still came out of it wishing that I was reading about Anne and Gilbert Blythe instead. It's way funnier when Anne cracks the slate over Gilbert's head, and a good deal less rape-y to boot.
Clearly, I'm the wrong audience for Up a Road Slowly. As for the Newbery? Well, it wouldn't have been my choice, but I don't think it was an obvious mistake. The 1966 publishing year wasn't the strongest of the decade. Other than the three Honor books, The King's Fifth, by Scott O'Dell; Zlateh The Goat and Other Stories, by Isaac Bashevis Singer; and The Jazz Man, by Mary Hays Weik, the only other "classic" book from the year I can identify is Lloyd Alexander's The Castle of Llyr. The Alexander book would have been my choice, but given that he had already won a 1966 Honor for The Black Cauldron, and would later win the 1969 Newbery for The High King, his Prydain books are pretty well represented in the Newbery canon. Even if I don't think Up a Road Slowly is all that good, I can't identify anything I think was obviously slighted. All years aren't created equal.