Monday, July 30, 2012

The Winner's Circle: Shen of the Sea, by Arthur Bowie Chrisman (1926)

Few Newbery-winning authors are as obscure as Arthur Bowie Chrisman, possibly because few winners of the prize had literary careers that were as slight. Chrisman's first book of short stories, Shen of the Sea, took the 1926 Newbery, but despite the fact that he lived for nearly three decades afterward, he published only three more books: two additional short story collections, both long out of print, and a local history volume about Clarke County, Virginia. For all practical purposes, Shen of the Sea is the only thing associated with Chrisman that anyone other than a serious children's lit specialist will ever encounter.

The first thing to understand is that this is probably not a book that could be written today, and it's certainly not a book that could be published today. In order to deal with it at all, we have to have that understanding up front.

Although Shen of the Sea is subtitled "Chinese Stories for Children," it has no source notes of any kind, and none of the tales are recognizable versions of any standard Chinese folktales. All of the stories, in fact, seem to be either entirely Chrisman's invention, or so wildly changed from their original form as to be unidentifiable. This is true despite the fact that a large number of the tales are porquoi stories about the origin of such things as chopsticks, china plates, tea, and kites.

Indeed, Chrisman's "China" is a sort of hazy fairyland, one constructed almost without relation to any place or time that may have really existed. Although there's a definite fondness for the idea of China in his writing, his grasp on the details of the country and culture is tenuous at best -- perhaps understandably so, given that he knew only a handful of words and phrases in the language, and, unlike Elizabeth Foreman Lewis and Elizabeth Coatsworth, never personally visited Asia. One simply can't read this book and expect to find cultural or historical accuracy.

So, it's fairly off-putting to 21st-century eyes. It fails any given test of authenticity, and it smacks of cultural imperialism, to say the least. Those are the facts, plain and simple.

And yet, Chrisman's wry humor and folk-style plotting are still effective. I found Shen of the Sea perfectly readable; it wasn't a chore to trudge through in the same way that something like Smoky, the Cowhorse was. It's more comparable to The Matchlock Gun in that the writing is perfectly fine even when the content isn't -- and if Walter Edmonds' finely-tuned prose runs circles around Chrisman's sometimes stilted English, Chrisman doesn't consistently demonize and inhumanize his non-white subjects like Edmonds does. Is that faint praise? Maybe. You certainly couldn't give Shen of the Sea to a kid without any explanation, and you might not want to give it to them at all.

But like so many of the other early Newbery winners, it's hard to definitively say that Shen wasn't the most deserving book of its year. The best-remembered titles from the 1925 publishing year weren't eligible: Emily Climbs, by L.M. Montgomery (Canadian); Gallery of Children, by A.A. Milne (British); The School at the Chalet, by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer (also British). The only Honor book was Pádraic Colum's The Voyagers: Being Legends and Romances of Atlantic Discovery, which isn't one that inspires a lot of fervor. The few other eligible books that are more or less still in print aren't necessarily ones most people would argue for either: The Adventures of Little Joe Otter, by Thornton W. Burgess; Raggedy Ann's Wishing Pebble, by Johnny Gruelle; The Lost King of Oz, one of the many inferior sequels by Ruth Plumly Thompson.

Maybe it's another reason to be grateful that the Newbery was instituted. If these early winners tend to be of...uneven quality, I don't think it can be argued that the state of American children's literature is orders of magnitude better than it was back when the award was instituted -- and of course, that's one of the main things the Newbery was supposed to encourage.

Friday, July 27, 2012

2013 Contenders: Temple Grandin, by Sy Montgomery

Temple Grandin is a fascinating woman. As Sy Montgomery points out, she is the only person to have been honored by both PETA and the Meat Industry. Her insights into the inner lives of livestock have revolutionized practices in the cattle industry, from feed lots to slaughterhouses. And she has accomplished all of it while struggling with moderate to severe autism - a condition that was even more poorly understood when Grandin was a child than it is now.

Montgomery's account of Grandin's life is intensely readable. The lively anecdotes and firsthand quotes lend it an appealing sense of immediacy, and help to paint a nuanced portrait of a complex personality. Above all, the subject of autism is treated thoughtfully. Grandin has made it quite clear that she feels her autism is a gift that allows her to see the world in a special way. Growing up with autism in the 1950's, however, she also encountered a great deal of cruelty and misunderstanding. Montgomery does an excellent job of explaining both the blessings and challenges of living with autism. That deviation from the typical "overcoming obstacles" story arc elevates this biography well above the typical disability narrative.

Montgomery also treats the livestock industry fairly. A vegetarian herself, she unflinchingly reports the cruel practices that take place in some farms and processing plants. She is equally quick, however, to acknowledge and applaud those who have made significant improvements by following Grandin's guidelines. The back matter includes an excellent list of resources on both autism and animal welfare for those who wish to do further research, as well as "Temple's Advice for Kids on the Spectrum." 

The book's one real weak point is its organization. The lack of a table of contents is disorienting, and since the narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time, the inclusion of dates would have been helpful.

Newbery? Heck, I don't know. I will openly admit that I have very little sense of what makes a good informational Newbery winner, but I suspect this isn't it. In her five-star Goodreads review, Nina Lindsay notes that there's "nothing flashy about this book," and I think that's worth noting. Though it excels in character development, I think it's too stylistically plain-spoken to catch the committee's attention. 

Published in April through Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

2013 Contenders: Postcards from Pismo, by Michael Scotto

Almost as long as there have been novels, there have been epistolary novels. It's a form that's been used by everyone from Samuel Richardson to Mary Shelley, from C.S. Lewis to Lionel Shriver, and it can, in the right hands, bring intimacy to a story, call into question the reliability of any one interpretation, and bring a setting to life.

Although there are plenty of classic adult epistolaries, and even several definitive YA works in the form (e.g. Daddy-Long-Legs, by Jean Webster; Sorcery and Cecelia, by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer; The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky; and, depending on how you think it should be filed, even Anne of Windy Poplars), there are far fewer for children that have had staying power. There's Dear Mr. Henshaw, which won the Newbery in 1984; Nothing But the Truth, which garnered Avi a Newbery Honor in 1992, and...probably some others, but none that come to mind, though Peace, Locomotion, by Jacqueline Woodson, has a chance to make that list in a few years. For whatever reason, there just aren't very many middle-grade epistolaries that have been given "classic" status.*

That doesn't mean, however, that there aren't some interesting ones being written, as this short list from NPL's Book Buddies indicates. And Postcards from Pismo, the second novel by Michael Scotto, is certainly a worthy addition to that list.

Postcards from Pismo is a monologic epistolary, meaning that we only get the letters and emails written by Felix Maldonado, the protagonist, while the precise contents of the responses he receives in return must be inferred. Felix's letters are addressed to Lt. Marcus Greene, an American soldier stationed in Afghanistan. His first letter is the result of a class project to send mail to the overseas troops, but Felix and Lt. Greene become ongoing pen pals and develop a close friendship. Felix looks to Lt. Greene for advice on subjects including dealing with school bullies; his concerns about his brother Quin, who has joined the National Guard; and how best to control his habit of worrying.

My favorite thing about Postcards is the way that it stays true to the viewpoint of its main character. Although the novel is set in the present day and deals with the war in Afghanistan, it's essentially apolitical; this is realistic, as few 10-year-old boys have nuanced political views, and the book avoids trying to shoehorn such views in. Also, on several occasions, Felix lacks the patience to wait for a response, and sends a flurry of correspondence. This rang true to me, as I remember having a hard time waiting for things when I was a 10-year-old boy myself. Felix always feels like a real person; I think the epistolary form helps, as it provides opportunities for Felix to drop in asides and personal details.

Although it's not a criterion for the Newbery, I do have to say that I'm not sold on the illustrations. The book contains a few of them, in the form of postcards and snapshots, and I think it would have been more effective to use actual photographs rather than black and white drawings.

I don't think Postcards from Pismo quite hits the heights of this year's top Newbery contenders -- the ending is a bit pat and predictable, and I'm not sure it takes full advantage of its coastal California setting. But it's genuinely engaging, and it's well worth a read.

Published by Midlandia / NNDS in May

*If you can think of any others, please mention them in the comments!

Monday, July 23, 2012

2013 Contenders: In a Glass Grimmly, by Adam Gidwitz

"We would tend to favor the grand, flawed effort over the exquisitely crafted miniature." -Michael Cunningham, "Letter from the Pulitzer Fiction Jury: What Really Happened This Year"

Yes, I'm linking to Cunningham's article again. This particular line jumped out at me because I think it points to one of the quirks of the Newbery process. After looking over the list of winners, I think that most Newbery committees have done the opposite of what Cunningham is saying: they have favored the exquisitely crafted miniature over the grand, flawed effort.

That was on my mind as I read Adam Gidwitz's latest novel. It's a companion piece to his 2010 novel, A Tale Dark and Grimm, which is still my choice for the best Newbery-eligible book of that year. And it is a grand, if highly flawed, effort.

Let's pause a moment for full disclosure, though: I have three great weaknesses in literature. 1. Anything to do with folklore. 2. Anything to do with Victoriana. 3. The grand, flawed effort. I love the Harry Potter books for being a glorious, uneven brew of adverb abuse and brilliant mythological pastiche. I love The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making for boldly using a narrative style so precious that it will make you either gag or swoon. And I love Adam Gidwitz for writing brave, funny, disgusting books. 

Unlike A Tale Dark and Grimm, which confined itself to riffing on tales collected by the Grimms, In a Glass Grimmly casts a wide net for its sources of inspiration, throwing in everything from Christina Rossetti to a Car Talk puzzler. Like the earlier novel, it takes a pair of children - Jack and Jill, in this case - and walks them in and out of a series of fairy tales. The stories are unified by an overarching theme/lesson, which is reinforced by the obnoxiously intrusive narrator.

Ultimately, I think that approach was more effective within an all-Grimm universe. By the end of In a Glass Grimmly, it felt to me as if Gidwitz's creation had gotten away from him. The tidy ending seems hastily tacked-on, and the reinforcement of the theme feels forced in some of the stories. That's too bad, because Gidwitz's imaginative vision is grand and delightful, and he's not afraid to take the reader into scary places.

(Really scary places. Like through the digestive tract of a massive salamander. I read that passage while I was eating lunch yesterday, and I wish I hadn't.)

I don't think this one is going home with a medal*, and I don't necessarily think it should. But I do think that we should applaud authors who test the boundaries of possibility in children's literature. Their grand, flawed efforts are renewing the vitality of the genre.

*I should mention, too, that nobody was really sure about the eligibility of A Tale Dark and Grimm, since it relied so heavily on non-original material, and the same questions hold true for In a Glass Grimmly. 

Publication in September through Dutton Juvenile. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

2013 Contenders: Prairie Evers, by Ellen Airgood

Sometimes, the differences between a book we enjoy and one that we don't can be so subtle that they're hard to identify. We know what we like and dislike, but trying to explain it seems more than a little difficult.

Prairie Evers is a book that made me ponder this fact. I liked it, but why? Aren't there criticisms that could be leveled at it? And in fact, aren't some of them the same criticisms that I myself aimed at Okay For Now, one of last year's most talked-about books? (Note: It's hard for me to talk about Prairie Evers without spoilers, so I'm not even going to try to avoid them here.)

Much as in Okay For Now, there's a disjunction between the first part of the book and the second. For the first half of Prairie Evers, it's a gentle New Kid In Town kind of novel, in which the titular protagonist's problems are things such as Grammy moving away, starting school for the first time, and making friends. As such, it's a surprise when the second part of the book turns out to focus on child neglect, domestic violence, and justifiable homicide. The sunniness of the ending is fitting given the first part of the book, but one could question whether or not it flows naturally from the second part.

I was frustrated by the way that Okay For Now seemed to change its own rules, going from realistic to decidedly unrealistic. But Prairie Evers has some of that as well. Although it's basically realistic fiction, I had a hard time understanding how Child Protective Services didn't become involved with Prairie's friend Ivy's family, and a tough time believing that Ivy's mom would just let her go live with Prairie; these are things that other folks have brought up on Goodreads.

So what's the difference? Why did I enjoy Prairie Evers and find Okay For Now tough going? One reason may be that Prairie Evers does limit its miracles; no one here has a wildly successful premiere of a Broadway show that's attended by their personal hero. Another reason is that, although Prairie learns about friendship and seeing things through other people's eyes, her lessons aren't all about the Power of Art, and though she does visit the library, she doesn't end up sounding like a library PSA. Those are personal pet peeves of mine, and where Okay For Now pushed those buttons, Prairie Evers didn't.

On a less comparative note, I enjoyed Airgood's writing, and found Prairie a believable and likable protagonist. I was homeschooled as a kid too, and Prairie's description of what it was like to interact with other kids upon first going to public school rang true to me. The descriptions of chicken raising also felt real and vital. Although she's had success with adult fiction, this is Airgood's first children's novel, and I hope she writes more of them.

So what of the Newbery? I don't see it happening; there are too many other competitive titles, and even if Prairie Evers is less problematic than Okay For Now, Okay For Now was shut out of the 2012 awards in a much weaker field. The committees are different, and it's a new year, but I still don't think we'll see Prairie Evers on Newbery Day. It's a book I enjoyed, however, and I look forward to more of Airgood's work.

Publication in August 2012 from Nancy Paulsen / Penguin

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Bloggers Behaving Badly

 What is up with the book blogging world lately? Just this week, we have:

1. Stop the Goodreads Bullies. I post that link with a conflicted heart, because I honestly don't want to give those people any web traffic. They appear to have decided that the proper response to ad hominem Goodreads reviews is to post personal, identifying information about the offending reviewers. This is just the latest kerfuffle in the middle school cafeteria that is the current YA book blogging world*. 

2. ChickLitGirls Threaten Author With Ridiculous Lawsuit.  To summarize: ChickLitGirls charges authors for their (exclusively positive) reviews. An author mentions this on Twitter. ChickLitGirls makes absurd legal threats.

And that's not even touching the subject of the bloggers/linebackers on the ALA exhibits floor who shove people out of the way in order to grab stacks of the latest mermaid dystopia titles.

You guys. I love the relative peace of the children's lit world. I love the fact that it's a safe space, where I can write critical reviews without worrying that Jack Gantos is going to appear on my doorstep and threaten to rub my face in the dirt.

If this kind of malarkey ever creeps into our little haven of civility, I will personally call down the ghost of Peter Sieruta to give us all a stern-yet-gentle talking-to.

(And if any of you are artistically inclined, please please please create a "Ghost of Peter Sieruta" image that we can use when discussions start to become uncivil. Many of you knew him better than I did, but I think he would have liked that?)

*Of course I'm not talking about excellent blogs like Bookshelves of Doom, which has been around long enough to hate Shadowmancer as much as I do. There are plenty of YA bloggers who don't engage in this nonsense, and I'm sorry that they have to be associated with it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Winner's Circle: The Cat Who Went to Heaven, by Elizabeth Coatsworth (1931)

In the 1920s and '30s, American literature went through a period of fascination with east Asia. The most prominent author of this trend was Pearl S. Buck, who picked up a Pulitzer in 1932 and a surprise Nobel Prize in 1938. Buck, of course, wrote primarily for adults, but plenty of children's authors worked the same vein. Three of them managed to pick up the Newbery for their efforts: Arthur Bowie Chrisman, for Shen of the Sea (1926); Elizabeth Foreman Lewis, for Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze (1933); and Elizabeth Coatsworth, for today's subject, The Cat Who Went to Heaven (1931).

American literature long ago went in a much different direction. By the time I was in college as an English major in the late '90s / early '00s, Buck was essentially a footnote; we never read any of her work, and the only time she was even mentioned was as one of the most egregious mistakes made by the Nobel committee. The children's authors have fared even worse: Chrisman is almost forgotten now, and though Lewis won the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1960, both she and Coatsworth are considered minor figures in American children's literature, known mostly to specialists in the field.

Indeed, I'll confess that, despite the fact that she published over ninety books in a career that spanned nearly half a century, I've never read any of Elizabeth Coatsworth's other titles. As such, I don't feel qualified to pass judgment on her career as a whole, other than to note that the vast majority of the books she published are out of print. However, I do feel that I can say that, if The Cat Who Went to Heaven is a neglected Newbery these days, it's not without reason. 

Set "once upon a time" in Japan, The Cat Who Went to Heaven tells the story of a nameless artist and his (also nameless) housekeeper, who adopt a cat, which they name Good Fortune. The artist has been very much down on his luck, but he soon receives a commission from the priest of the local temple to produce a painting of the death of the Buddha. This tableau includes all of the animals except the cat, who, legend has it, rejected the Buddha's teachings. However, this omission seems to depress Good Fortune, which leads the artist to relent and include the cat in the painting anyway, which leads to Good Fortune's death (from joy!), and the (literally) miraculous ending. (The ending, by the way, led Rachael to exclaim "That's not a Newbery book, that's an e-mail forward!")

It's tough going for a modern reader. The overly exoticized Orientalism and weepy sentimentality are serious turn-offs, especially in the ending. The housekeeper periodically breaks into awkward songs in which she praises her master and expresses her intense desire to serve him; the power and gender dynamic at work here is uncomfortable at best. Simply put, it's a book whose whole sensibility seems very dated, far more so than many much earlier American children's classics such as Little Women (1868-69), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), or even The Velveteen Rabbit (1922). For a child today, it could just as easily have come from the moon as anywhere else.

I didn't put The Cat Who Went to Heaven on my list of obvious Newbery mistakes because there just weren't a lot of options for the 1931 award. Although a record eight Honor books were named, it's a depressing list that mostly goes to show that the powers that be were willing to fetishize pretty much any kind of exoticism: Floating Island, The Dark Star of Itza: The Story of a Pagan Princess, Queer Person, Mountains are Free, Spice and the Devil's Cave, Meggy MacIntosh, Garram the Hunter: A Boy of the Hill Tribes, and Ood-Le-Uk the Wanderer. I couldn't find any other classic books that went unhonored, though I could have missed something.

So was it a mistake? Eh, probably not. But is it worth reading? Not at all, unless you've got a thing for outdated 1930s books, or you're a Newbery completist.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Literary Prizes, the Newbery, and Counting Mistakes

This year, the literary world experienced a moment of surprise, as the Pulitzer Prize for fiction was left unawarded. Over at the New Yorker, Michael Cunningham published a two-part letter discussing the fiction jury's thought processes and methods. It's an excellent read, and some of the things he said seemed both profound and worthy of applying to our discussion of the Newbery.

"And, finally, one must confront the most nervous-making aspect of all the jurists’ and board’s duties: those who award prizes are wrong at least as often as they’re right. There is, for instance, the fact that Pearl S. Buck went to her grave with a Nobel Prize and Nabokov did not. That Dario Fo got one but Borges didn’t. The list of past Nobel winners is formidable—those Swedish prize-givers are sharp—but a list of non-winners would be surprising and not entirely reassuring."

What of those who have awarded the Newbery, who've given their time and effort and concerted energy to find the Most Distinguished Contribution to American Literature for Children? Is it true that they've been wrong at least as often as they've been right?

With that question in mind, I went back over the list of prior winners to see how many clear mistakes I could see. I tried to eliminate ones where the answer isn't clear (was Julie of the Wolves the right choice in 1973, or should Frog and Toad Together or Tales of a 4th-Grade Nothing have been the winner?), as well as the ones where my personal opinion is a ways off from the professional consensus (I think The View from Saturday over The Thief and Frindle in 1997 was criminal, but my outrage seems to be an isolated instance), and stick to the ones where there's less argument. I consulted Rachael when making this list, but I take sole responsibility for what's on it and what's not. If you disagree with me -- and these kinds of lists are made to be disagreed with! -- I hope you'll leave me a note in the comments.

Anyway, when all is said and done, I count 14 times in the history of the Newbery that the award winner seems to me to have been clearly chosen incorrectly:

1933: Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze beats Little House in the Big Woods. I actually liked Young Fu, but its pseudo-Pearl S. Buck-ness hasn't aged well, and Big Woods is often considered Wilder's finest moment.

1942: The Matchlock Gun defeats Little Town on the Prairie and The Saturdays. The Matchlock Gun is a deeply problematic book that's barely 50 pages long, and doesn't come close to matching up here.

1953: Secret of the Andes beats Charlotte's Web. Probably the worst decision in the history of the Newbery.

1955: The Wheel on the School outpaces Half Magic, The Children of Green Knowe, and The Courage of Sarah Noble. I'm thinking the committee really liked storks.

1958: Rifles for Watie beats Gone-Away Lake. Watie is the kind of book that isn't marketed as a children's novel anymore; its protagonist is 18 at the start of the book, and is joining a regiment to fight in the Civil War. It's also dreadfully tedious; of all the Newbery winners I've read, it might have been the hardest to slog through. (It's that or Smoky, the Cowhorse.)

1960: Onion John beats My Side of the Mountain. Joseph Krumgold has two Newbery medals, and Jean Craighead George has one. Those numbers should probably have been reversed.

1965: Shadow of a Bull wins over Harriet the Spy and The Book of Three. Almost as indefensible as 1953.

1974: The Slave Dancer beats The Dark Is Rising, Socks, Summer of My German Soldier, A Day No Pigs Would Die, and The House with a Clock in its Walls. We've been over this one before, but it's also pretty egregious.

1988: Lincoln: A Photobiography takes the prize over Hatchet. I like Russell Freedman a lot, but Hatchet is an all-time classic. I also question whether a book subtitled "a photobiography" really stands on its text alone.

1996: The Midwife's Apprentice wins over The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963. Apprentice is pleasant enough, but in retrospect, The Watsons was something of a game-changer. Uma Krishnaswami recently cited it in The Horn Book as one of the first books for children to successfully use humor while talking about racial issues.

1998: Out of the Dust beats Ella Enchanted. One of the strangest choices of the late '90s.

2006: Criss-Cross defeats Princess Academy, The Penderwicks, and Each Little Bird that Sings. I'm actually a huge Criss-Cross fan and will defend it vehemently, but the weight of critical opinion is not on my side when it comes to this year's award.

2007: The Higher Power of Lucky wins out over Clementine, A Drowned Maiden's Hair, and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Again, I love and will argue for Lucky (Susan Patron signed my copy at this year's ALA!), but I'm not in the majority when it comes to its Newbery-ness.

2011: Moon Over Manifest beats One Crazy Summer and The War to End All Wars. A year hasn't helped this award look better, though who knows what ten more years will bring.

There are some hard-to-live-with choices on that list, but I think overall, we have to give credit to the Newbery committees through the years for making a worthy choice well over the half of the time that Cunningham mentions. And I think, even in those years where the mistakes are clear, we should be gentle, recognizing that the task of any committee for a literary award is somewhere between daunting and Sisyphean.

Friday, July 13, 2012

2013 Contenders: The Spindlers, by Lauren Oliver

Liza wakes up one morning to discover that her little brother has been stolen away and replaced by a sinister, dead-eyed clone. Naturally, her parents, preoccupied with matters financial, notice nothing. It's up to Liza to go Below and rescue Patrick from the Spindlers, a race of awesomely creepy spider-like beings, before they devour his soul. Along the way, she is helped and hindered by various bizarre beasties.

Sound familiar? Yeah, it's basically Coraline in the Labyrinth Wonderland. The "going into a scary place to retrieve a loved one" microgenre/myth has a long and proud history (hello, Orpheus!). It's a story arc that obviously resonates deeply with us humans, but when an author tries her hand at something that's been done so well by so many, she'd better bring something new and special to the table. I'm... not sure Lauren Oliver does.

I hate to say that, though! Because here's the thing: I loved this book. As soon as I finish writing this review, I'm putting it directly into the hand of the most voracious ten-year-old reader I know. Oliver fills her world Below with grotesqueries and wonders, from a huge, sympathetic rat to the scariest trees since Old Man Willow. It makes for a thoroughly enjoyable read.

But we're here to talk about the Newbery. "Distinguished" is the name of the game, and I'm not sure it applies in this case. Plot-wise, there are far too many convenient escapes from peril. In terms of character development, Liza spends a disappointing portion of the book just floating along, letting things happen to her. Settings are pretty magnificent, and I like Oliver's unpretentious descriptive style, but theme is addressed inconsistently. The overtly-stated lessons tacked onto the last two pages feel awkward, and I'm not sure they emerge naturally from the rest of the text.

Still, I will say again: this book is lovely. Buy it, read it, share it. And pick up Liesl and Po, if you missed that one last year.

Publication in October through HarperCollins.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

2013 Contenders: The Magician's Apprentice, by Kate Banks

There are some books that shouldn't succeed, but do anyway. Maybe the number one example of all time is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince. On its face, it sounds insufferable -- a mysteriously naive and yet truly wise space-child tells about his overtly allegorical adventures in a book full of Life Lessons and sprinkled with whimsical drawings. That it works anyway is a tribute to Saint-Exupéry's unique skill as a writer.

However, the fact that one of the all-time greats managed to pull off a seemingly impossible feat is not necessarily an invitation to try it yourself. The Magician's Apprentice, by Kate Banks, is a useful cautionary tale here, because it does almost everything wrong that The Little Prince did right.

Ostensibly, The Magician's Apprentice is the story of Baz, an apprentice weaver whose cruel master trades him for a sword to an itinerant magician. But, especially from the middle of the book on, it's one of those volumes that ends up subtitled "A Fable For All Ages," or possibly one that ends up shelved in the philosophy section. The story becomes less and less important, and it's not charming or fantastic enough to hold the reader's attention anyway, as it is in The Little Prince.

The setting, a sort of quasi-Persian landscape that seems to be entirely medieval with the glaring exception of one man's handgun, aims to be shimmering and dreamlike, but manages only a sort of sub-The Horse and His Boy exoticism. The relationship between the locations and the time and scale of the action are deliberately vague, to the point where, when one character asks where Baz is from, the book simply says that he "repeated the name of his own village," rather than giving the village a name. I know it's meant to make the book more universal, but it comes across as maddeningly coy instead.

Baz's mentor, the magician Tadis, isn't really a character at all, but some hybrid of a Magical Asian and a Canon Sue. He occupies a huge space in half of the book, and uses all of his time to philosophize in koans, creating a worldview that seems to be cobbled together from leftover bits of the Tao Te Ching and The Secret. Unity of all living things and power of intention are fine as far as they go, but Banks does a whole lot of telling and not very much showing, especially in the last fifty pages, where any pretense of this being a novel rather than a fable goes out the window. Again, to hark back to Saint-Exupéry, the Rose, the Fox, and the Little Prince himself aren't super-believable as characters either, but they somehow seem to preach less than Tadis does.

The best part of the book by far are the drawings by Peter Sís. Sís is on the record as listing The Little Prince as one of his all-time favorite books, and he does a good job of adapting his influences to his signature style. But it's not enough to fully redeem the book, alas. Banks is a capable author of picture books -- And If the Moon Could Talk won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, which is no mean feat -- but this foray into fiction for older readers makes very little impact.

Publication in August through Frances Foster Books / Farrar Straus Giroux

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

2013 Contenders: Liar & Spy, by Rebecca Stead

One of the first things I said to Rachael after picking up Liar & Spy was, "You know, I don't think you could mistake a Rebecca Stead novel for one by anyone else." Few children's authors working today have as distinctive a voice and tone. She combines a deep fondness for her urban NYC settings with a keen observational eye, a sense of mystery, and a spare prose style with an intense respect for white space. It's equal parts Emily Cheney Neville, Brian Selznick, and Ernest Hemingway, and it's utterly lovely.

Liar & Spy is the story of Georges, a seventh-grader who's been forced to move out of his childhood home and into an apartment building a few blocks away. There he meets Safer, an unusual boy who runs the Spy Club, and Candy, Safer's precocious sister. The building seems to be full of secrets, and Georges' story becomes more and more intertwined with those secrets. And does Georges have secrets of his own as well?

It's a complex story, told with exceptional skill and craft. Georges is a believable protagonist, and many of the minor characters are some of the most well-rounded that you'll see in a children's novel. The themes and images are rich enough to serve as subject matter for any number of college-level litcrit essays.

The only problem, if you want to call it that, is that the bar for Rebecca Stead novels is set almost impossibly high. I would opine that When You Reach Me was as close to a perfect book as children's literature has produced in at least the last decade, and Liar & Spy, for all its merits, isn't a perfect book. An astute reader could likely guess one of the main plot twists almost 100 pages before it happens. The book has one of those scenes where everyone gets together and hatches a plan...except that the reader doesn't get to know what the plan is, for no narrative reason other than to artificially induce some suspense. And readers with a real love of plot-driven action are much more likely to be dissatisfied by Liar & Spy than by its predecessor.

I don't think any of these are major problems; they're no more than the differences between a book that's a stone-cold classic (#11 in Betsy Bird's most recent top children's novels poll) and one that's merely very good. But I do believe that, in the competitive climate of 2012/13, they might be enough to keep Liar & Spy off the Newbery list (although I feel confident that it will make the Notables).

So no, I don't think Rebecca Stead is going to make it two Newbery-winning books in a row. What I do think is that Stead is one of the most important American children's authors currently writing, and that when she puts out her next book, I'll be first in line to read it.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

2013 Contenders: Hiss-s-s-s!, by Eric A. Kimmel

Generally speaking, when I say “overly didactic,” it’s meant as a criticism. Although I believe that art can and indeed should help us to become better people, I don’t want obvious moralizing or sermonizing in my literature – not even my literature for children. Start going down that road, and before you know it, you’re writing The Berenstain Bears and the Female Fullback.

But what of books where the message isn’t ethical, but informational? Even if the literary quality doesn’t reach the heights of, say, Moby Dick (completion of which I think qualifies one to open one’s own whaling operation), there’s still a place for such books, especially for reluctant readers.

Hiss-s-s-s!, by Eric A. Kimmel, is a good example of this kind of book**. It’s the story of Omar, a boy who wants a pet snake, and it includes at least as much information about how to care for snakes as your average pet guide for children. The information is presented as the results of Omar’s research and the guidance given to him by the dealer from whom he obtains his snake, and it didn’t feel out of place or annoying to me, even though I recognized those sections for what they were. For good measure, there’s also some content about phobias, since Omar’s mother has a powerful fear of snakes.

The book is fast-paced and fairly short. I appreciated the fact that it inhabits the world in which many present-day children live, one in which text messaging and YouTube and Spongebob Squarepants are simply facts of life, rather than that odd landscape so prevalent in much children’s literature, where trade names are nonexistent, and the most one might see with reference to technology is a generic reference to “the internet.” I understand that authors don't generally want to sound like corporate shills, but at the same time, it's hard to convey an accurate picture of modern American life without mentioning any trademarked words.

It was also nice to see Omar as a hero with an unusual ethnic background (mixed Pakistani and Lebanese) in a story where the author didn’t feel compelled to make that the main focus, but simply accepted it. It's a good-natured, even funny, book, and it seems to perfectly fit what Uma Krishnaswami was talking about in the May/June issue of The Horn Book -- a book that is capable of "mixing humor with matters of race [and] culture." For most of the novel, Omar's culture is matter-of-factly normalized, and when his mother's fear of snakes turns out to be related to past events in her home country, it doesn't feel gratuitous or tacked-on.

Is Hiss-s-s-s! great literature in the same way as Charlotte's Web or When You Reach Me or several of this year's leading Newbery contenders? Probably not. Will it win any awards? Almost certainly not. But the 10-year-old boy in me loved it, and I think it’s a title for which you could easily create an exciting booktalk, and which kids would genuinely enjoy reading. As much as we need books like The One and Only Ivan or Wonder, we need books like this too.

Publication on 9/1/12 by Holiday House.

 **It also has one of my favorite titles of its type since Jamie Gilson's It Goes Eeeeeeeeeeeee! (1994).

Monday, July 2, 2012

Back from ALA!

Well, we're back from ALA now, a bit later than most, since we took a trip to San Francisco afterward. The conference was excellent, with Susan Cooper's acceptance speech for the Margaret Edwards award being a definite highlight. The only downside was that Rachael came down with a bad case of food poisoning, which meant that we missed the Newbery / Caldecott banquet :(

We talked to a lot of publishers and brought back some great ARCs to review for the blog, so expect us to be posting some of them up shortly! We also saw several of the people we know from this electronic space, and it was wonderful to speak to you in person.

Now, back to work! We've got a lot coming up in the second half of 2012, and I'm more than a little excited to get started.