Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Newbery Wayback Machine: The Whipping Boy, by Sid Fleischman (1987)


The prince's real name may be Horace, but everyone thinks of him as Prince Brat. He is constantly pulling pranks and causing trouble, secure in the knowledge that he will never be punished. Rather, punishment is reserved for Jemmy, his Whipping Boy -- every time Prince Brat is in trouble, Jemmy must endure whatever corporal punishment is deemed sufficient for the offense.

Jemmy dreams of leaving the castle and returning to his previous life in the streets. What he does not expect, however, is for Prince Brat to show up in his room one night, insisting that Jemmy accompany him in running away. This sounds like a terrible idea to Jemmy, but when the prince gives an order, what is he supposed to do but obey? The unlikely pair quickly run into a whole host of complications -- greedy criminals, a bear, and royal soldiers among them -- leading to a final set piece in the sewers deep beneath the city.

All of this happens at an almost absurdly breakneck pace. The Whipping Boy is, at least in the edition that I read, a mere 90 pages. The plot is constantly in motion, with essentially no downtime. Kids who like a lot of action in their stories may find a lot to like here.

The book does strike me as an unusual Newbery choice, however. I didn't find the characters particularly compelling or well-developed, the setting is off-the-shelf quasi-medieval, and the prose is serviceable, but not more than that. That's not to say that I can't understand why The Whipping Boy was popular; words that Kirkus Reviews used to positively describe it at the time included "rollicking" and "melodrama," and both of those seem fair to me. If that's what the reader is looking for, they'll find it in this story, executed both briskly and well. But I'm still unconvinced that The Whipping Boy has many markers of the kind of literary excellence that the Newbery is supposed to recognize.

Possibly, it just wasn't considered a strong year. The three Honor books were A Fine White Dust, by Cynthia Rylant; On My Honor, by Marion Dane Bauer; and Volcano: The Eruption and Healing of Mount St. Helens, by Patricia Lauber. I know some elementary school kids end up reading On My Honor, but I don't think any of those books are considered upper-tier entries in the kidlit canon. The most highly-regarded books of the year all seemed to come from authors outside the USA -- Brian Jacques (Redwall), Diana Wynne Jones (Howl's Moving Castle), Philip Pullman (The Shadow in the North). 

Sid Fleischman was a man with a fascinating life -- he worked as a professional magician, served in World War II, wrote screenplays, and published adult novels, in addition to his work for children. Though he won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award in 1979 for Humbug Mountain, The Whipping Boy represented his only appearance on the Newbery rolls. His son, Paul Fleischman, would win the Newbery two years later for Joyful Noise, making them the only parent-child combo to ever take home the gold medal. 

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

2022 Contenders: The House That Wasn't There, by Elana K. Arnold


Plenty of our authors who write for young people produce books for different age groups. However, it's usually easy to spot a common sensibility. Even if Hole in My Life and Rotten Ralph are for widely disparate audiences, no reader is going to walk away wondering if they're actually both from the pen of Jack Gantos, for instance.

And then there's Elana K. Arnold, who might be our most chameleonic American children's author currently working. Her YA work, such as the fiery and blood-drenched Damsel and Red Hood, seems a long, long way away from the gentle coziness of A Boy Called Bat, or the low-key delight of What Riley Wore. There aren't any narrative tricks or obvious markers in the prose that serve as a common thread; if I didn't already know that all of these books were hers, I doubt I ever would have suspected that she had produced each one of them.

Since I do know that, however, it's worth digging deeper to see if there's anything that underpins all of Arnold's work. I'd argue that yes, there is a unifying theme: that it's impossible to thrive in the world unless a person can accept themselves for who they are -- and that one's true friends and real family are the people who also provide that acceptance and love. 

That's exactly the feeling I got while reading Arnold's newest middle-grade title, The House That Wasn't There. It's a story that follows two characters -- Alder, who has lived in his southern California neighborhood for his whole life, and Oak, who has just had to move from San Francisco to the house next to Alder's. Their initial encounters are rocky, as Oak's family is remodeling their new house, which results in an immediate casualty -- the beautiful old walnut tree that stands between her house and Alder's. Let's just say that this doesn't dispose Alder and his mother to think kindly of Oak and her mother.

I'm not sure it's possible to explain where the plot goes from there without giving the whole thing away. There are strong elements of magical realism at play, along with such more grounded concerns such as learning to navigate shifting friendships, caring for new pets properly, and understanding family dynamics. There's also a beautifully-executed double twist ending that I found deeply enjoyable, and a satisfying emotional arc (filled with that acceptance and love that I mentioned) for both of our protagonists.

As is sometimes the case in stories suffused with magical realism, there are several elements in the book that remain unexplained. This isn't taken to an extreme -- The House That Wasn't There isn't Orphan Island or A Boy and a Bear in a Boat, those books that seem to deliberately test the boundaries of how many unanswered questions the reader is willing to entertain. But I would caution anyone picking up The House That Wasn't There that, if they expect the novel to be a puzzle box like When You Reach Me or The Westing Game, they may want to adjust said expectations. 

Arnold's recognition from the ALA committees thus far has been for her YA work (Damsel was a Printz Honor title in 2019). As I've previously noted, I'm making no attempts to handicap the Newbery this year, but I would say that The House That Wasn't There is of a high enough quality that, should it place this year, I wouldn't be the slightest bit surprised. 

Published in March by Walden Pond Press / HarperCollins