Monday, September 30, 2013

Semi-Final Reading List: Sam Edition

Once again, it's that time of year -- the time when, in the interest of both thoroughness and preparing for the Maryland Mock Newbery, Rachael and I turn a closer eye to some of what seem to be this year's top contenders. There are a few more that we really want to read when we have a chance (Far Far Away, by Tom McNeal, and From Norvelt to Nowhere, by Jack Gantos, are high on that list), but for the most part, we're on to the Taking A Closer Look section.

Rachael has already explained the rules, so here's the list of four that she assigned me:
Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, by Kate DiCamillo
The Year of Billy Miller, by Kevin Henkes
P.S. Be Eleven, by Rita Williams-Garcia
The Center of Everything, by Linda Urban

 To these I added:

Doll Bones, by Holly Black
The Thing About Luck, by Cynthia Kadohata

Probably something about torpedoes! Start reading when ready, Gridley!

Semi-Final Reading List 2013: Rachael Edition

We have now reached that point in the year when it's time to start narrowing down our choices. To that end, Sam and I have each "nominated" four books for the other party to read. Sam has tasked me with reading: 

The Water Castle, by Megan Frazer Blakemore
Zebra Forest, Adina Rishe Gewirtz
The Real Boy, by Anne Ursu
Courage Has No Color, by Tanya Lee Stone

Then we each chose two additional books from the other person's reading list, so I will also be reading: 

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, by Kathi Appelt
Navigating Early, by Clare Vanderpool

Sometime in November, when we've each read and discussed all twelve of these books, we will announce the final reading list of five books for the Maryland Mock Newbery (in Denton on January 6 - save the date!). If any of you Marylanders would like to get a head start, you can go on the assumption that the final list will be taken from among these twelve books (the six above, plus the six titles Sam is about to reveal).

And.... go!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

National Book Awards Longlist

The National Book Awards have published a longlist for the first time, and here are the Young People's Literature contenders.

A couple of thoughts.

1. The Thing About Luck is shaping up to be one of those books that everyone else likes more than I do. At the same time, I can't argue with the idea that its characters, settings, and style are all distinguished. Probably theme too. But... so many combines.

2. The Real Boy! Great to get some vindication here, because I'm not seeing our love for this title reflected in the greater blogosphere or even review-journalosphere. (Except Colby Sharp, and his top choice did just  fine last year.)

3. Glad to see Flora and Ulysses there too. Books that are not super serious and weighty don't get enough award love.

I haven't read Far, Far Away yet, so I guess I need to get on that. The more clearly YA titles will have to wait until January (my designated YA Reading Month).

Friday, September 13, 2013

2014 Contenders: Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, by Kate DiCamillo

16052012Last spring, Jack Gantos and I were hangin’ out, shootin’ the breeze*, and talking about which new kids’ books we liked. He said that he really liked Mr. and Mrs. Bunny –Detectives Extraordinaire, partly because Horvath’s animals are smart. He remarked that just because your characters are animals doesn’t mean that they have to be dull-witted. I think he actually used a funnier word than that, but it’s been too long and I don’t remember what it was. If you see him around, ask him about stupid animal stories. 

Anyway, I think that’s what turns a lot of people off about talking animal stories – they associate the genre with cutesiness, preciousness, and simpleminded characters. That stereotype has a basis in reality, of course, especially in picture books. There are some authors who seem to think that if your story stinks, moving it to the animal kingdom will disguise the smell. 
Needless to say, Polly Horvath doesn’t fall into that trap, and neither does Kate DiCamillo. I thought of Horvath’s bunnies when I was reading DiCamillo’s newest, Flora and Ulysses, because the two books share a certain sensibility. As the Horn Book review of Mr. and Mrs. Bunny advised, “Look not for logic; this is a romp.” That advice holds true for Flora and Ulysses, whose plot is set into motion when a giant, multi-terrain vacuum cleaner sucks up an ordinary squirrel. Ulysses the squirrel, when resuscitated by Flora, retains extraordinary non-squirrellish powers (mainly flying, understanding human speech, and typing).

It is in the content of Ulysses’s typed compositions, however, that the novel diverges from the “madcap romp” genre. This wouldn’t be a Kate DiCamillo novel if it didn’t whack you in the head with pure beauty when you’re least expecting it. So what does a squirrel write, in DiCamillo’s world, when awakened from his dumb animal nature and presented with a typewriter? Why, he looks around at the trees and sky he loves, and at his new friend, and he writes poetry : “I love your round head / the brilliant green / the watching blue, / these letters, / this world, you.”

And then, because this is still a comic novel, he adds a postscript: “I am very, very hungry.” 

Until that poem appeared, I thought this novel was just okay, but that’s just so exactly the kind of poem a newly reverent squirrel would write that, once again, I found that Kate DiCamillo had totally pwned my heart.

I think this one may have a hard time at the Newbery table. It has those gorgeous DiCamillo moments – Ulysses’ poems, Flora’s struggles with her feelings, her father’s loneliness and awkwardness… But it’s also a comedy, and it doesn’t have the kind of character development you see in, say, The Year of Billy Miller. In Flora and Ulysses, the characters are cartoonish, and I think that’s an appropriate stylistic choice here, but it may count against them when it’s time to vote. Then, too, I’m not sure the sentence-level writing is all that special, for the most part, when compared to Billy Miller or Hokey Pokey. Neither are the settings. Thematically, it shines, but that may not be enough. 

And I should mention the illustrations. These are the “illuminated” adventures of Flora and Ulysses, meaning that some of the plot is advanced by comic strips drawn by K.G. Campbell. They tie in thematically with Flora’s interest in comics and superheroes, but they mean that the book could fall into the same liminal space occupied by Brian Selznick, though not to the same extent.

In any case, I like it a whole lot, and I think Jack Gantos would too.

*Okay, fine. He was here for an author visit and we were waiting for a class to arrive. 

Publication in September by Candlewick Press

Friday, September 6, 2013

2014 Contenders: Beholding Bee, by Kimberly Newton Fusco

So there's a book out this year that's set during World War II. Its protagonist is a girl who lives with a caretaker; said caretaker is older than her, but not by that much. When circumstances conspire to take the caretaker figure away, our main character is led onward by a ghostly presence, which may just help her find her forever home. Which book am I describing?

All right, pencils down. Did you say Gingersnap? If so, then you're correct. But if you answered Beholding Bee, the most recent title from Kimberly Newton Fusco...then you're also correct.

It's not as if we haven't had two oddly similar books come out in the same year before -- just last year, this was part of our discussion around Glory Be and The Lions of Little Rock. However, the weirdly specific plot points that Gingersnap and Beholding Bee share genuinely took me aback. The books were published only a month apart, by different imprints (though of the same publisher), so it's not a case of plagiarism or anything -- just a bizarre, bizarre coincidence.

At any rate, in much the same way that the similarities between them threw into sharp relief how much better Lions was than Glory Be, the forced comparison makes it obvious how much superior Beholding Bee is to Gingersnap. Where the characters in Gingersnap were flat and ill-defined, those in Beholding Bee are presented in much sharper focus. And, perhaps most importantly, the fact that Beholding Bee is twice as long as Gingersnap means that the ideas get a much fuller treatment in the former, as opposed to the latter book's maddening lack of detail.


This doesn't mean that all the plot threads are tied up by the end of the book. Although the supernatural elements come to a natural conclusion, and Bee has made great progress in coming to terms with the facial birthmark that has brought her so much social difficulty, several other strands are left hanging. We don't get to see Bobby's much-discussed return, we don't know what happens to Ruth Ellen's father (who seems to be missing in action somewhere in Europe), and we don't get to see the end of the standoff between Bee and the school bully, Francine. If I had to guess, I'd wager that Fusco is planning to return to this set of characters, and has thus left herself enough room for the sequel(s). I have no problem with that, but it's worth noting that a reader who expects a neat ending will be disappointed.

I quite liked Beholding Bee, and I'd love to see what happens next in the story. As I look at the Newbery criteria, however, I can think of other contenders that are a bit stronger in theme (Penny and Her Marble), presentation of information (Courage Has No Color), plot (The Water Castle), characters (The Hidden Summer), setting (Zebra Forest), and style (The Real Boy). As such, I wouldn't put Beholding Bee in my top tier of contenders, but not because it's a weak title -- just because others are especially strong.

Published in February by Alfred A. Knopf / Random House

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

2014 Contenders: Barbed Wire Baseball, by Marissa Moss

The mass internment of Japanese Americans (and others, including those of German, Italian, and Hungarian descent) during World War II is a low point in the history of the USA. One of the thousands sent to the internment camps was Kenichi Zenimura, a brilliant baseball player and manager whose career had included playing in and organizing barnstorming tours with the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Biz Mackey.

Barbed Wire Baseball spends a few pages on Zenimura's early life, but most of the book takes place during his internment. In the harsh desert landscape of the Gila River (Arizona) camp, Zenimura decided to help the other prisoners (who included his wife and two sons) in the way he knew best -- by building a baseball field. It wasn't just any field either, as the book goes to great lengths to show the care and love that Zenimura showered on the facility, which included a carefully manicured infield, grass landscaping, and bleachers for the spectators.

It's an inspiring story, no doubt about it, especially when you take into account some of the information in the appendix, which indicates that Zenimura was able to create a 32-team league within the camp, and also notes that both of Zenimura's sons went on to play professionally in Japan. (In a poetic touch, both played their careers for the team based in Hiroshima.)

The book's text makes some choices I'm not sure I agree with, however. Throughout, it only refers to Zenimura as "Zeni," to the point that it's only by reading the appendix that the reader can even find out the full name of the story's main character. I'm also not sure the decision to include so few details about Zenimura's pre-internment career -- and to confine all information about his life after the first game played on the field at Gila River to a couple pages in the appendix -- serves the subject particularly well. The man meant so much to his sport that he earned the nickname "The Father of Japanese American Baseball," and even if the picture book treatment necessitates brevity, the focus of Barbed Wire Baseball is so narrow that I'm not sure readers will come away understanding Zenimura's importance.

Barbed Wire Baseball is a joy to look at. I love Yuko Shimizu's illustrations, which, astoundingly, are the first she's ever done for a picture book -- I hope we see more from her in the coming years. The book fills a valuable niche, and, quibbles aside, will at least merit consideration from the Notables committee. I think it's clearly a lesser work than the similarly-structured You Never Heard of Willie Mays?!, however, and since I didn't posit any Newbery love for that one, I highly doubt we'll see any for Barbed Wire Baseball.

Published in April by Abrams.