Thursday, May 29, 2014

2015 Contenders: The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander

After I read the first three pages of The Crossover, I was excited. Here, perhaps, was another verse novel I could get behind. The vibrant, rhythmic poetry bounced like a basketball, and the voice of Josh Bell, the narrator, was clear and confident. I was curious to see where his story would go.

The problem is, those first three pages are the high point of the book. Maybe it wasn't possible to tell the whole story in that cadence, but I felt that -- with a few notable exceptions, most of which described on-court action -- the novel got prosier and prosier as it went along. The argument could be made that this mirrors the way Josh's swagger and confidence are shaken as the narrative moves along, but I'm not sure I would go that far. I just felt like Kwame Alexander had led with his best material.

I also had one of the problems that I almost always experience with verse novels, which is that the characters felt flat. Josh is a three-dimensional person, but even the secondary characters -- Josh's twin brother Jordan, Jordan's girlfriend Alexis, the boys' parents -- felt very one-note, and the tertiary characters barely registered for me at all.

The book already has a significant number of defenders, however (five starred reviews, plenty of positive blog notices, and cover blurbs from a laundry list of first-tier authors). To be fair, there are things it does very well. Alexander certainly knows his basketball, and anyone who's a hoops fan will be able to pick up on that right away. It's a quick read, and if the plot doesn't offer much in the way of surprises, neither did any of Matt Christopher's, and that never interfered with my enjoyment of his books. And it's nice to see characters who are so often caricatured as cruel and self-absorbed -- exceptionally skilled middle-school athletes -- treated with dignity and respect.

It's interesting to compare The Crossover with my pick for the best verse novel (and possibly the best book of any kind) of the year so far, Caminar. In purely literary terms, I think Caminar is by far the superior book, a technical tour de force with more assured verse, a much stronger protagonist, and more polished use of metaphor. I would champion it for Newbery consideration, and I would not do the same for The Crossover. And yet, I think for most readers, The Crossover will be much easier to love. It's a more accessible story, set in a more familiar environment, and I think it will be an easier book to find a reader for.

As I said, that doesn't mean I believe The Crossover should appear on the Newbery list. I do think, however, that it deserves to be noticed, and to be put into the hands of children who will find much to love about it.

Published in March by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

2015 Contenders: Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood, by Varsha Bajaj

Abby Spencer is thirteen years old and has never met her father. However, her life is turned upside down when she learns his identity -- and that he's a famous film star in Bollywood. Soon, she's on an airplane by herself to meet him in Mumbai, which is only the start of her cross-cultural adventure.

Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood is the first novel by Varsha Bajaj, whose previous work has been in the picture book format (How Many Kisses Do You Want Tonight?, T is for Taj Mahal). It's fun and breezy -- I think plenty of kids will enjoy it -- but not really Newbery material. The plot arc is too predictable, the characters too flat, the ending too tidy. It's also uneven thematically: the contrast in Mumbai between lavish wealth and crushing poverty is noted several times, but there's not much of a payoff.

And yet, I feel like this is an important book to take note of. In a year where there's been so much discussion of (the lack of) diversity in children's books, Abby Spencer, with its biracial heroine learning to embrace the South Asian part of her heritage, is more than a little timely. Varsha Bajaj is originally from Mumbai herself, and did not emigrate to the United States until she enrolled in graduate school. Her descriptions of life in India are those of an insider, and were my favorite part of the novel. It's well worth purchasing for those reasons alone.

I haven't read anything about plans for a sequel (the only forthcoming title listed on Bajaj's website is another picture book), but I'd be surprised if this is the last we see of Abby. I hope that it isn't -- and I hope that her adventures find a wide audience.

Published in March by Albert Whitman & Company

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Winner's Circle: Shadow of a Bull, by Maia Wojciechowska (1965)

Juan Olivar was a legendary bullfighter, the greatest -- and maybe the only -- pride of the small town of Arcangel, Spain. He died of a fighting injury at the peak of his career, but the town -- dominated by statues of Olivar, home of a museum honoring his legend -- has never forgotten him. Instead, it has pinned its hopes on his son, Manolo Olivar, who everyone knows will grow up to follow in his father's footsteps.

Manolo, however, knows something that no one else in town does: that he, the son of the great Juan Olivar, is a coward. How can he overcome this failing? How can he be certain that no one else knows his fear? And why must he be the one to take up his father's legacy?

Shadow of a Bull marches firmly, inexorably, from this initial setup to Manolo's moment of truth. The language of the book brilliantly captures the feeling of a dusty, impoverished country town, one that has staked its future on a child. The focus is narrow, the supporting characters few. It's particularly noteworthy that the townsfolk who take it upon themselves to supervise Manolo's bullfighting education are only ever referred to as "the six men"; they form a sort of Greek Chorus, commenting on the action while at the same time serving as a symbol of the town's willingness to strip away the individual identity of any one person in the service of its dreams.

The Newbery winners of the 1960s are a curious list. It was a time of transition in children's literature, and the Newbery was given to some books that feel decidedly modern (The Island of the Blue Dolphins, A Wrinkle in Time, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), as well as to some that clearly belong to the previous generation (Onion John, The Bronze Bow). Shadow of a Bull is more of a piece with the more "old-fashioned" books; using bullfighting as a way to talk about coming of age is a choice few children's authors would make today, and the world that Manolo inhabits is one of traditional concerns and values. In structure, theme, and "feel," if not in setting or plot specifics, the Newbery winners that it reminds me most of are books such as Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze (1933) and Call It Courage (1941).

It's fair to say, I believe, that Shadow of a Bull is not a novel that takes a lot of risks; to compare it to the other two best-known Newbery-eligible books of its year, it attempts neither the confrontational realism of Harriet the Spy nor the epic ambition of The Book of Three. The trade, however, is that Shadow does what it does almost perfectly. It's tightly-written and well-paced, a tiny jewel of a novel.

Maia Wojciechowska was, by all accounts, a fascinating woman -- a refugee from Poland who, in addition to winning the Newbery, worked as a private detective, played professional tennis, translated for Radio Free Europe, and yes, actually fought a bull in the ring. Her writing career spanned more than four decades, but Shadow of a Bull was the only one of her 19 books that took a major ALA award. If it's not the book that would win if we re-awarded the 1965 Newbery (that'd be The Book of Three, if they let me make that choice), it's still a fine novel, one that perhaps should be better-regarded than it tends to be.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Ones That Got Away: Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh (1965)

Not very many children's books get their own 50th Anniversary Special Edition of The Horn Book. That's especially true of books that didn't win any of the major ALA awards. However, though Harriet the Spy, the debut novel by Louise Fitzhugh, was shut out of the 1965 awards, it's cast a long, long shadow over the succeeding half-century of children's literature.

Harriet was a highly controversial novel at the time, and in some ways, it's remained so. Its realistic, almost brutal look at playground politics is jarring, and its often-unlikable protagonist is something of a love-her-or-hate-her proposition. The narrative arc too is unusual, given that it has much more in common with the infamous Seinfeld rule ("no hugging, no learning") than anything typical of children's literature. The setting is familiar, but treated much differently than in earlier books; Harriet felt to me like nothing so much as a dystopian version of Roller Skates.

I never came to Harriet as a child, so I inevitably view it through the lens of an adult reader. Frankly, I'm ambivalent about it. It does what it does well better than most other books dream of doing -- Fitzhugh's understanding of child psychology rivals that of Kevin Henkes, and I'd be hard-pressed to name ten children's books that equal Harriet in the excellence of their characterization. Every character in the novel feels like a living, breathing human being, from Harriet herself on down to the teachers and community members on the margins of the story. This, I think, is what people who love Harriet love most about it.

Structurally, however, Harriet is fairly loose. It's divided into three books, but the third book is much shorter than the other two, and I didn't feel like the novel ended so much as simply petered out. I don't think this is because Harriet learns very little from the story's events, since I know it's possible to make that work very well. As K.T. Horning notes in this month's Horn Book, when Fitzhugh brought Harriet to her publisher's office, it was just a series of Harriet's journal entries, and I'm not convinced Fitzhugh ever fully managed to fit her brilliant characters into a realized plot.

I'm also a bit uncomfortable about Harriet for some of the same reasons that I'm not the world's biggest fan of The Westing Game. Someone on Twitter once summarized the HBO series Girls as "white girls, money, whining," and the same argument could be made against Harriet. It's true that each person's problems are their own, and that Harriet's life falls apart almost immediately after the only truly "safe" adult in her life leaves (her parents certainly aren't much help). Yet, given her tremendous wealth and privilege, Harriet's self-centeredness and smugness render her very unattractive to me. Sport, whose problems are easier for me to relate to, is the character I would rather have spent more time with (and indeed, Fitzhugh would later give him his own book).

That, however, is me looking at the book through the eyes of a 21st-century adult, not a 20th-century child. Generations of children have adored Harriet, and it's hard to imagine much of children's literature, from Jack Gantos to Robert Cormier to Barbara Park, without Harriet M. Welsch leading the way.

What of the Newbery? The winner in 1965 was Shadow of a Bull, by Maia Wojciechowska, which, though I think it's a more successful book (and one which I'll be posting about shortly), is much more old-fashioned and much less ambitious. It's not a winner that very many people go back to. The only Honor book was Across Five Aprils, by Irene Hunt, which is also not a particularly well-remembered title.

You could certainly argue that Harriet the Spy should have won in retrospect. I'd opine, however, that a better choice would be a different novel that was snubbed that year, The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander, another genuine classic of American children's literature, and one which I think is more carefully put together.

Alexander, of course, would receive plenty of accolades for his books in the future -- a Newbery Medal (The High King, 1969), a Newbery Honor (The Black Cauldron, 1966), the National Book Award (The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian, 1971), and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award (The Fortune-Tellers, 1992), just to name a few. Fitzhugh, alas, would not. She published only three books in her lifetime (and illustrated two others) before dying of a brain aneurysm at the tragically young age of 46. Four other books were printed posthumously, but by and large, Fitzhugh lives on through Harriet the Spy.

But, as this month's Horn Book goes to show, as long as there is children's literature, there will be Harriet.

Monday, May 12, 2014

2015 Contenders: The Pilot and the Little Prince, by Peter Sís

I really don't like writing reviews that involve me disliking something that everyone else loves. Not that that's stopped me from writing such reviews repeatedly, but I get nervous every time I have to do it. It requires me to marshal my facts, and to be extremely conscious of my biases as a reader -- and even then, I usually wind up wondering if I've just missed the point.

As you've probably guessed by now, that brings me to The Pilot and the Little Prince, the newest book by Peter Sís. It's nominally a biography of the French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, but I think my main failing as a reviewer is my insistence on reading it like a biography.

The book's layout is complicated and busy. The simple main text runs along the bottom of each page, with the vast majority of each leaf devoted to illustrations, timelines, maps, and further facts. The textual information in these larger sections is integrated into the pictures, and reading the words often requires rotating the book and carefully scanning the illustrations.

What this means is that reading The Pilot and the Little Prince like a traditional nonfiction book is almost impossible. There are no standard sidebars, no index, and no source notes. My ability to follow the text was constantly interrupted by my having to scrutinize the illustrations, and trying to go back and find a particular factoid was an exercise in frustration. "Presentation of Information!" I kept saying to myself. (Because yes, I'm the kind of person who recites the Newbery criteria in his private self-conversations.)

And yet, The Pilot and the Little Prince is getting excellent reviews, which I think can be ascribed to the greater willingness of many readers to appreciate it, not as a biography, but as a singular work of art. If you consider the book as an artistic tribute to Saint-Exupéry first, and as a biography a distant second, it starts to look a whole lot better. The detailed illustrations yield more and more surprises with each examination, and the whole thing comes across as a labor of deep, genuine love. If it didn't really "work" for me, that doesn't mean it wouldn't work for a reader more willing to spend that kind of time with it.

Does that make it a Newbery contender? I don't think so, no. It's too hard to separate the text from the illustrations, and I'm not sure the words are anywhere near as effective without the pictures in any case. I also don't think it's a good Sibert contender, especially given the complete lack of back matter. However, before you accept my opinion, I'd encourage you to look at The Pilot and the Little Prince for yourself.

Publication in May by Frances Foster Books / Farrar Straus Girous / Macmillan

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

2015 Contenders: The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill, by Megan Frazer Blakemore

Hazel Kaplansky lives in Maple Hill, Vermont, at the height of the McCarthy era. Rumors are swirling that the local factory has been infiltrated by Communists, and a government investigation is underway. Since Hazel aspires to be a famous detective, she figures this is the perfect time to put her deductive skills into action. With the help of Samuel Butler, a new boy in town who may be hiding secrets of his own, Hazel sets out to get to the bottom of the nefarious communist plot, which she believes is centered around the town gravedigger.

Hazel is very clear about who she aspires to be like: Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, the Hardy Boys. Many readers will likely see connections to Harriet the Spy as well, given Hazel's propensity for writing down everything about the members of her community in her notebook. I'll confess, however, that the character Hazel reminded me most of was the titular protagonist of Stephan Pastis' Timmy Failure books. Like Timmy, Hazel believes she is a brilliant sleuth; also like Timmy, Hazel consistently misreads situations, jumps to ridiculous conclusions, and ignores any evidence that doesn't fit her theories. The difference is that Timmy's (mis)adventures are played for laughs, while Hazel's take place in a deadly serious milieu of Cold War paranoia and small town nastiness.

Megan Frazer Blakemore displays the same love of layered mysteries and hidden secrets in The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill that she did in last year's The Water Castle. Spy Catchers, however, contains no supernatural or speculative fiction elements, and I think because of that -- and because the ending is much more straightforward than that of The Water Castle -- it feels very different tonally.

Ah, that ending. (Spoiler alert!) I'm just not that sold on the last fifty or so pages of this book. Everybody's secrets finally come out, but the manner felt more than a little overwrought to me. That Samuel's father never had a funeral seems odd to me, and that no one would tell Samuel that they were finally going to have one -- after everyone has been so concerned about his "fragility" for the whole book -- just doesn't feel plausible. Also, why does the gravedigger, Mr. Jones, disappear at the end of the book? It feels weirdly unmotivated, especially given his reasons for returning to Maple Hill in the first place.

The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill was a pleasant enough read, and I think it might well find more child readers than The Water Castle, given its more "traditional" plot. However, I think we already have several more solid Newbery contenders for this year.

Publication in May by Bloomsbury Children's Books / MacMillan