Monday, November 20, 2017

2018 Contenders: See You in the Cosmos, by Jack Cheng

Alex Petroski is an 11-year-old boy from Colorado who loves astronomy, rocketry, and cosmology in general. He has a rocket that he hopes to launch at the Southwest High-Altitude Rocket Festival; his goal is to get the rocket into outer space, where it will carry his "golden iPod" out into the universe, just like the "golden records" carried by the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes. Although his father is dead, his mother is clearly suffering from mental health problems, and his older brother is far away in Los Angeles, Alex heads off to the festival alone, planning to meet up with some of his friends from an online rocketry forum on his way there. His journey ends up taking him not only to the festival, but much further afield as well. Through it all, Alex continues to record to his iPod, and these narrations form the text of this quasi-epistolary novel.

See You in the Cosmos has received some stellar reviews, and I've heard Newbery buzz around it as well. In some senses, I can see why. Many of the supporting characters feel real and well-developed -- I'm thinking here especially of Ronnie and Terra -- and the book hits some heavy themes, especially in its second half, with an admirable open-heartedness. However, I'm not entirely sold on the novel, largely due to Alex himself, whom I was never able to fully believe in.

Alex is OBSESSED, in an all-caps kind of way, with Carl Sagan. He's intimately familiar with the original Cosmos, has seen Contact some uncountable number of times, and even owns a Sagan-style sweater. Heck, his dog's name is actually Carl Sagan. When Alex refers to Sagan, he often calls him "my hero." This isn't a passing fancy; this is integral to Alex's character and identity.

And...I just had a hard time buying it. The novel is clearly contemporary -- it's full of references to Snapchat, Yelp, and Google maps. As such, Alex would have been born in 2006 or so. And yet, the original Cosmos aired in 1980; Sagan died in 1996, and Contact came out in 1997. Alex's fixation on Sagan would have been like me being 11 and refusing to stop talking about George Gamow. I was a weird, weird kid with some off-the-wall interests, and that would have been a bridge too far even for me.

I could maybe have believed it if Alex's hero was, say, Neil DeGrasse Tyson; my stepdaughter is 11, and she not only knows who Tyson is, but likes him well enough to have expressed a desire to read his books. But, although Alex does mention Tyson once (in the context of Cosmos), that scene just reminded me of Martin Prince's opinions on Ray Bradbury:


Perhaps time has made me cynical. Perhaps there's some kid out there who could legitimately serve as a model for Alex. But I note with some unease when adult authors give child characters anachronistic interests, be they Carl Sagan, Heloise's Hints, or knowing the exact time that a network TV show airs, as if on-demand had never been invented. It usually feels to me like the authors are breaking the illusion of the fictional world they're creating, interrupting my willing suspension of disbelief. I couldn't help but compare Alex unfavorably to someone like Joey Pigza, who's much more easily recognizable as a real kid. (This is especially true since The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza deals with many of the same deep themes as See You in the Cosmos). 

However, in other ways, Alex is deeply authentic. (His paragraph-long run-on sentences, in particular, sound exactly like conversations I've had with kids that age.) Indeed, the prose itself is exemplary, and as I mentioned at the start of this review, there's a lot to like about the novel. If it's easier for you to believe in Alex's love of Sagan, you may well enjoy this book much more than I did. But this is one where, although I see why people adore it, I can't necessarily bring myself to love it myself.


Published in February by Dial/Penguin

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

2018 Contenders: Landscape with Invisible Hand, by M.T. Anderson

So, as it turns out, we were neither abducted by aliens, nor decided to decamp to some off-the-grid cabin far away from the blogosphere. Rather, a gigantic library software project has been the only thing we've had time to think about this summer, and we're just now managing to emerge, squinting, into the sunlight again. So to speak.

But enough about me. Much more interesting than my essay about How I Spent My Summer Non-Vacation is the latest M.T. Anderson book, Landscape with Invisible Hand. It's a story narrated by Adam Costello, a teenage artist living in a near-future Rhode Island. An alien race called the vuvv have made contact with Earth, bringing amazing technology, lifesaving medicine -- and completely destroying the human economy. The vast majority of jobs are now obsolete, and while a few rich people live in floating cities among the clouds, most humans live in misery, struggling to find anything to eat, drinking contaminated water, and threatening each other with physical violence over part-time food court jobs, for which there are dozens, even hundreds, of applicants.

Landscape with Invisible Hand, from its mocking, Adam Smith-referencing title to its final period, functions as a blistering satire of modern America. The vuvv are patronizing colonialists, self-congratulatory about their efforts on behalf of humanity, but either blind or indifferent to the immense suffering their arrival has inflicted. Despite the fact that there are nowhere near enough jobs remaining, humanity's leaders and rich elites blame the suffering of the majority on the majority's sloth and greed, refusing to do anything that might actually help the situation. Most art and music consists of shameless attempts to please the vuvv, whose concept of human culture is built out of  the detritus of the 1950s -- warmed-over doo-wop, uninspired still-life paintings, rockabilly clothes. Even the novel's ending casts some serious shade on the very concept of the "American Dream."

This being an M.T. Anderson book, Landscape does also have a bruised, but beating heart. Even the most odious of the core characters is recognizably human, and Adam's unbreakable desire for meaning and beauty manage to carry him through even the lowest points of the plot. I don't want to give it away here, but his monologue at the end of the chapter titled "A Small Town Under the Stars" is possibly the emotionally moving thing I've read this year.

Really, Landscape is a YA novel; I doubt it has any chance of showing up in the Newbery rolls, if only because its careful deployment of f-bombs would render all the pearl-clutching about the use of "scrotum" in The Higher Power of Lucky charmingly quaint. But the publisher's guidelines say the book is for ages 12 and up, and the Newbery is supposed to be for books for readers up to 14. I do think Landscape qualifies under the letter of the law, and it's a good enough book that, if I were on the committee, I'd urge everyone to give it a very close look.



Publication in September by Candlewick

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

2018 Contenders: Orphan Island, by Laurel Snyder


"Nine on an island, orphans all / any more the sky might fall." 


Sometimes you finish a book and you're not sure whether you've just read the best book of the year or witnessed a train wreck. It seems to happen more and more often to me. I feel like I should be getting more confident in my critical assessments as I get older, but instead I increasingly find myself going, "Huh! That sure was a book!" or, "Okay, I guess that's the kind of thing we're publishing these days?"

25753092Orphan Island is a hell of a thing. The premise is simple: nine children (each one year apart in age) live on an idyllic island. Once a year a boat comes to bring a new toddler (a Care) and takes away the oldest child (the Elder), who is approaching adolescence. It invites inevitable comparisons to Hokey Pokey, by Jerry Spinelli, of course, and for its first half Orphan Island seems to occupy that same allegorical space. We don't know how the children get there, or why, or how the island takes care of them. It just does. We do know that Jinny, the eldest child this year, is having a hard time letting go of childhood.

As an aside, Jinny is an admirably unlikable character. She feels like a real twelve-year-old. She's bratty and selfish and makes just about all of the mistakes it's possible to make on an island where nothing can go wrong.

Anyway, the book seems to be following a fairly predictable trajectory in which Jinny will grow and mature and generally get her shit together, and then she will leave the island and it will be bittersweet but necessary. But then the plot takes an unexpected turn. (Spoilers follow.)

After a pretty inauspicious year as Elder, the boat comes for Jinny, and she just... doesn't get in. She drags the thing up on the sand, collects the new Care, and determines to continue business as usual. Some of the other children warn her that she's breaking one of the very few rules that seem to hold their reality together, but Jinny doesn't care. Until reality starts to fall apart. The snakes are suddenly venomous. The winds that keep the children from falling off the cliffs are no longer functioning. The chickens stop laying. Children start getting hurt.

A lot of the reviews I've read have been frustrated with the ambiguous ending of Orphan Island. Jinny does end up leaving in the boat, along with the new Care (who is on the verge of death), but nothing is explained. Here are just a few of the things Snyder never tells us: How does the island work? Who created it, and why? Where do the children come from? Where do the children go? When Jinny leaves, will it fix the island, or is she leaving her fellow kids behind to starve? What are they supposed to do when all of the books in their little library fall apart (this one made me especially anxious)?

To those people, Laurel Snyder replies, basically: being twelve is weird and horrible and you have no idea what's happening to you or why. She wanted to replicate that experience in novel form. I'm... really not sure yet whether she has succeeded! I do know that she has created a world that is strange and vivid, populated with characters who feel like real children. I know that this is an ambitious book, and I have a feeling I will be thinking about it for a long time. It also features clear, strong, uncluttered prose - in that sense, I think it's Snyder's best work yet.

For those reasons, I would not be surprised if this one comes up for discussion at the Newbery table, but I wonder if it's too divisive to win. Either way, I plan to pass it along to my almost-twelve-year-old. Though she may refuse to read it, because she's bratty and contrary.

Published in May by Walden Pond Press. 


Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Newbery Wayback Machine: Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, by Rachel Field (1930)

Hitty, Her First Hundred Years is narrated by the titular character, a doll carved from a piece of mountain ash wood by a peddler in Maine in the early 1800s. She recounts her adventures, which took her to the South Seas, India, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and sundry other places in the hands of a succession of owners, before finally arriving at an antique shop in New York City.

I can understand why people at the time enjoyed Hitty. It's several different adventure stories at once, with a protagonist that allows the action to shift from one place to another without the usual time constraints. If you're interested in a panorama of at least some parts of 1800s and early 1900s America, Hitty might well appeal to a 1930 version of you.

I would opine, however, that, even if we adjust our standards to "1920s and 30s kidlit," Hitty is...pretty racist, actually. Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, Indians, and African Americans all come in for unflattering and exoticizing portrayals. The "dialect" conversations of the Black characters made me cringe, the descriptions of Bombay are all kinds of offensive, and although Hitty makes some attempt to show that the "Injuns" aren't really anything to be afraid of, that passage leaves many unpleasant statements unexamined. (For example, "[the Native Americans]'ve got baskets and things to sell, but he said you couldn't trust 'em round the corner.") But the South Seas section is the worst offender -- when the bone-in-the-nose islanders take Hitty and worship her as an idol, it's exactly as bad as you might fear.

Also, I have to say that I found Hitty a tiresome companion. She comes across to me as hopelessly judgmental, prone to abusing superlatives, and obsessed with her own appearance. I'd be tempted to shove her into the back of the horsehair couch too, if that's how she was going to act. There's some humor, I suppose, in a doll with all of the concerns and values of a rather unpleasant great-aunt, but a) I don't think it's intentional, and b) it's more or less impossible to sustain over 200 pages.

As much as I disliked Hitty -- and I'd rank it near the bottom of the Newbery winners I've read -- I don't have an opinion as to what should have won instead. Six Honor books were named, but I've never heard of them other than as titles on the list; I also can't think of any books left off the Newbery list that should have been chosen. It's hard for me to think of a modern reader I'd recommend Hitty to, however, unless you're a Newbery completist too.

Monday, May 8, 2017

2018 Contenders: Donald Trump: Outspoken Personality and President, by Jill Sherman

*deeeeeeeeeeeep breath*

I stopped by my local library the other day, and was browsing the shelf of new children's books. It turned out that the new batch of presidential biographies written after Donald Trump's win had arrived, and I couldn't resist taking this one home to have a look at it.

The presidential election of 2016 probably wasn't the nastiest of all time. (I've always enjoyed the tales of 1800's election, which featured, among other things, Thomas Jefferson's supporters accusing John Adams of having "a hideous hermaphroditical character," and Adams' supporters in turn spreading rumors that Jefferson had actually died, at a time when that was a lot harder to fact-check.) It was, however, the most deeply unpleasant of my lifetime, and I was curious to see how Jill Sherman would choose to address this unpleasantness in Donald Trump: Outspoken Personality and President.

The answer is that Sherman largely sidesteps the issue. She does mention that Trump's announcement of his candidacy contained statements that "immigrants can bring problems to the United States," but there's no mention of what kind of problems Trump mentioned, or of the fact that his comments specifically targeted Mexicans. There's no mention at all of Trump's Access Hollywood tape (or indeed, of any of his questionable remarks about women), of the proposed border wall, or of Trump's role in the "birther" movement. There's a bland mention that "Trump made other controversial statements that some people considered to be offensive," but that's about it. (It does, however, briefly explain the scandal about Hillary Clinton's emails.)

In fairness, I wouldn't have wished the job of writing this book on my worst enemy. At a time of deep political polarization, writing a biography about one of the most controversial candidates in the country's history is a thankless task. I'm not actually sure it's possible to write a successful version of this book; I am certain that it's impossible to write a version of it that would please everyone. I should also mention that the first part of the book, dealing with Trump's pre-political life, works better than the second part. But it's easy to see how hard Sherman is struggling to present a neutral view of her subject, and the seams, so to speak, never stop showing.

Presidential biographies do actually have a proud history in the Newbery rolls. In addition to Lincoln: A Photobiography, Russell Freedman's 1988 winner, the list of Honor books includes Leader By Destiny: George Washington, Man and Patriot (Jeanette Eaton, 1939); George Washington's WorldAbraham Lincoln's World, and George Washington (Genevieve Foster, 1942, 1945, 1950); and Abraham Lincoln, Friend of the People and Theodore Roosevelt, Fighting Patriot (Clara Ingram Judson, 1951, 1954). But there's essentially no chance of Donald Trump: Outspoken Personality and President joining them at next year's YMAs.


Published in April by Lerner Publications

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

2018 Contenders: Posted, by John David Anderson

Once more (with feeling!), we're participating in a blog tour for a new title from Walden Press. I was excited to be asked to join this one, because it meant that I got an advance copy of the new John David Anderson novel, Posted.

I wanted to read this one because I loved Anderson's book from last year, Ms. Bixby's Last Day. That one picked up four starred reviews and a fair amount of awards buzz, though it didn't end up taking anything at the YMAs. I was curious to see how Anderson would choose to follow that particular title.

Posted, as it happens, shares many of the qualities of Ms. Bixby. Both books tackle difficult questions with wide-eyed realism combined with a deep empathy; both deal with the dynamics of small groups of friends under trying circumstances; and both feature fitting, but bittersweet endings. Both books also showcase what I think of as Anderson's greatest talent as a writer: his virtuoso ability to reproduce the voice, cadence, and thoughts of middle-schoolers. To me, all of his characters sound authentic, which is easy to talk about, but fiendishly difficult to achieve.

Posted is narrated by Eric "Frost" Voss, an eighth-grader at Branton Middle School in Michigan. When cell phones are banned from school, Frost and his friends -- Deedee, Wolf, and Bench -- take to leaving sticky notes on each others' lockers in lieu of texting. This practice soon spreads, with consequences that soon spiral far beyond the control of Frost's circle. Additionally, the arrival of a new girl, Rose, puts a strain on the group's cohesiveness. The confluence of events leads to what Frost repeatedly refers to as a "war," the consequences of which are far-reaching indeed.

As I mentioned earlier, Posted gives readers a lot to like. I have a few questions about the structure of the book -- it's a little long, and I'm unconvinced that the initial two-page prologue is actually necessary. Those are quibbles, however, and it would surprise me if Posted doesn't attract positive notice from reviewers and readers. If I were still working a service desk, I'd recommend Posted to readers who enjoyed Wonder, Twerp, or Frindle, all of which explore at least some of the same themes and have similarly strong characters.


Publication in May by Walden Pond Press / HarperCollins Children's



Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Newbery Wayback Machine: ...And Now Miguel, by Joseph Krumgold (1954)

Twelve-year-old Miguel Chavez's family raise sheep in New Mexico. Each summer, the men take the sheep into the pasture, high in the Sangre de Christo Mountains. More than anything, Miguel wishes to take his place among the men and join them in the mountains. However, as Miguel finds, even when wishes come true, there's a cost.

...And Now Miguel is a quiet, thoughtful book, one that succeeds largely on the strength of Miguel's first-person narration. I've read a lot of books told in the first person, but very few in which the character's personality comes through as strongly. Miguel is, in many ways, a precocious twelve-year-old, but he's still only twelve. He is frustrated by the things he doesn't understand, loses patience with others when his plans don't go as expected, and doesn't always know how to express himself so others will know what he means. But he has a big heart, fierce family loyalty, and a burning desire to figure out how the world around him works.

Miguel is always pensive, and surprised me at times with its depth. Near the end of the book, Miguel and his older brother Gabriel have a theological conversation about the ways that the Saints do -- or don't -- intervene in the world; almost any adult author would be proud to work a conversation as carefully considered into their novels. It's also noteworthy that, as in Joseph Krumgold's other Newbery winner, Onion John (1960 award), this is a book without any villains. There are only people trying to do the right thing as they understand it, who sometimes come into conflict with each other.

Miguel had a somewhat complicated genesis. Krumgold was a screenwriter, and was hired by the US State Department to produce a narrative documentary on rural Hispanic workers. The resulting hour-long film, also titled ...And Now Miguel, also came out in 1953. The committee apparently still considered the novel version an "original work" for Newbery purposes. 

I've seen the documentary, which is available in full on YouTube. Like the novel, though in a different way, it captures the wide, seemingly empty vistas of New Mexico, and the introspection that such a place can engender. The most immediately noticeable difference is that the film contains no dialogue at all -- just Miguel's narration, and some not-entirely-convincing Foley work. (My guess is that it was shot using a camera that didn't have the capability of recording audio.)

The plot, in its essentials, is the same in both the film and the novel, which leads me to another question. The film comes billed as a documentary, but the plot is so tightly constructed, and the narrative scenes in particular so obviously staged, that I can't help but wonder if the story actually happened or not. I don't know, but my library's copy of Miguel was filed in the fiction section, and that may be the best way to engage with it.

(As a side note, it's fascinating to note the way that the film plays up its patriotic message in the scene near the end with Gabriel and Miguel, while completely leaving out the theological questions that preoccupy Miguel in the book. Perhaps Krumgold felt more free to move in that direction when producing material that wouldn't be published under the aegis of the State Department.)

Five Honor books were named in 1954, including two different Meindert De Jong titles (Shadrach and Hurry Home, Candy). None of them, however, are likely to be familiar to most present-day readers. The one book from that publishing year that retains the most fans wasn't eligible -- The Silver Chair, by Irish-born British writer C.S. Lewis. ...And Now Miguel was a solid choice for the Newbery medal then, and remains readable and interesting today.