Saturday, January 31, 2015

2015 Contenders: The Right Word, by Jen Bryant

Although the earliest work that could be considered a thesaurus was written almost two millennia ago (On Synonyms, a volume written by Philo of Byblos, who died in 141), the first truly modern thesaurus didn't appear until until 1852, when Peter Mark Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases was first published. Nowadays, it's hard to find a person who hasn't used a thesaurus in some form -- and yet Roget himself is a little-discussed figure in popular circles.

Full disclosure: at ALA Annual last year in Las Vegas, Rachael and I scored an invitation to a dinner that Eerdmans was hosting in celebration of Jen Bryant, Melissa Sweet, and the forthcoming release of The Right Word. I got a chance to talk to both of them at length, and they're the most wonderful people that you could hope to meet. In fact, Melissa Sweet took it upon herself to make each of us name badges, each of which contained a small fragment from a 19th-century edition of Roget's Thesaurus. Mine is hanging proudly on my cubicle wall now, and it makes me smile every time I see it.

So yes, I'm very much predisposed to like The Right Word. But even when I try to look at it with more objective eyes, I come away from it thinking that this really is an excellent book. The Right Word begins in Roget's childhood, and traces his life from there. It includes information about his many endeavors -- Roget wasn't just a thesaurus writer, but a polymath who also published important works on natural history, medicine, electricity, and optical illusions. However, the book manages to keep its center by referring back to Roget's near-obsessive list-keeping, which began when he was only eight years old, and which culminated in the publication of the Thesaurus.

Indeed, the main problem with The Right Word from a Newbery perspective is similar to the problem with El Deafo: the text and the illustrations blend together to the point that analyzing just the text is almost impossible. The dialogue bubbles -- which are not designed to be read as part of the main text -- add layer upon layer of detail to the story, and Melissa Sweet's illustrations include both drawings and collages of Roget's various lists. Even the typesetting, which includes several passages with only a word or two on each line, serves to reinforce the theme of Roget's passion for order. Simply reading The Right Word aloud doesn't do it justice, and I don't know that the Newbery committee will be able to consider it in a way that would really allow its considerable strengths to shine.

I have, however, seen The Right Word show up on several Mock Caldecott lists, and the Sibert committee may well find a lot to love here as well. I hope it wins something; it's a brilliantly-designed book that sheds a great deal of light on its quirky, important subject.

Published in September by Eerdmans

Friday, January 30, 2015

2015 Contenders: Winter Bees, by Joyce Sidman

After last year's unorthodox but effective What the Heart Knows, Joyce Sidman returns to familiar territory with Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold. As in her 2011 Newbery Honor book, Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night, Sidman produces a series of nature poems around a common theme, and pairs each one with a prose nonfiction note that elaborates on the poem in question's subject.

The book starts with "Dream of the Tundra Swan," a stunning tour de force of alliteration, assonance, and startling imagery. It's probably one of the fifteen or twenty best poems I've ever read for children; it's that good. I'm not familiar with very many books for children that come out of the gate as strongly, and the piece raises the expectations for the book sky-high.

Perhaps it's inevitable then that the remainder of the volume doesn't quite live up to that initial salvo. The book jacket indicates that "Dream of the Tundra Swan" was the first poem Sidman wrote for the collection, and that initial burst of inspiration turned out not to be entirely sustainable. Interestingly, the second-best poem in the book might well be the very next one, "Snake's Lullaby," which, if it isn't at that level, at least comes close in its incisive description of hibernating garter snakes.

That's not to say that the rest of the book is a failure by any means. Sidman is a highly-skilled poet, and her work never dips below the level of solid craftsmanship. But Winter Bees is so obviously front-loaded that the concluding impression doesn't match the initial hopes that it raises -- especially since it doesn't have a final piece that ties everything together, like Dark Emperor did.

It might have been better to finish the book with the best poem, but the schema that Sidman has chosen doesn't allow her to do that. The sequencing at least loosely follows the rhythm of the season, with the first few poems being about the onset of winter, while the last few concern its end. That's certainly a legitimate choice -- and one that's similar to the one Sidman used in Dark Emperor -- but it does place some serious constraints on her ability to move individual pieces around for maximum impact.

This maybe makes it sound like I enjoyed Winter Bees less than I did. It's an excellent book, and one that solidifies Sidman's place in the uppermost echelon of American children's poets. "Dream of the Tundra Swan" ought to be showing up in anthologies for generations to come. I'm not sure the book as a whole is as consistent as Dark Emperor, however, and given that that one was kind of a left-field honor book, I don't know that Winter Bees will duplicate its awards success.

Published in November by HMH.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

2015 Contenders: Santa Clauses, by Bob Raczka

Santa Clauses is a slim volume of 25 haiku -- one for each of the days in December leading up to Christmas. The entire book is written in character, with Santa himself as the speaker of each poem. Some of the pieces deal with preparations for the big Christmas Eve trek, while others focus on the Clauses' domestic life.

This could be the description of either a great book or a terrible one, depending on the execution. To Bob Raczka's credit, Santa Clauses ends up as the former. It's a cozy, sparkling book, one that exudes the warmth and good cheer one hopes for during the holiday season.

There's almost no poetic form easier to write in English than haiku -- and very few where writing a great one is as difficult. It's an unforgiving form, in which every word is critically important, and there's essentially no margin for error. And yet I don't think there's a bad poem in Santa Clauses, while there are several excellent ones. Raczka's eye for small but beautiful images is a keen one, and his choice not to make the entire book about Santa's "public" life pays great dividends. Poems such as "December 8th," about seeing one's shadow in the moonlight, or "December 16th," where the images of hardening icicles and baking cookies come together, transcend the framework of the book to become universal.

I'll be honest and say that I didn't expect much from Santa Clauses before reading it; the concept sounded overly cutesy, and haiku so often fail. But after finishing it, I almost couldn't wait for next December, when I can pull the book out and read it to my daughter. Additionally, Chuck Groenink's detailed illustrations have a wonderful interplay with the text; it has the feel of something I'll think of in twenty years as a holiday classic.

That doesn't mean it has a shot at the Newbery, however. We've talked at length before about how hard it is for poetry to win the medal, and there's no precedent for Christmas poetry being recognized. Indeed, although many books in the Newbery canon contain a Christmas scene, I think the only "pure" Christmas book of any kind ever to be recognized is Nicholas: A Manhattan Christmas Story, which honored way back in 1925, and is now remembered largely as a footnote in the career of its author, legendary children's librarian Anne Carroll Moore. As good as Santa Clauses is, I doubt it will break through to the Newbery rolls.

Published in December by Carolrhoda Books / Lerner

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

2015 Contenders: Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century, by Carole Boston Weatherford

Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century is a spare, poetic biography of the woman who would eventually become (according to a BBC Music critic's poll) the greatest American soprano ever to record. As remarkable a feat as that is in and of itself, the fact that Leontyne Price was a black woman from Mississippi, born in 1927, raised the degree of difficulty exponentially. This book carefully emphasizes the magnitude of Price's achievements and her indomitably sunny spirit, while also mentioning the many people who aided her along her way.

Voice of a Century is the kind of biography that only provides a brief overview of its subject's career. Indeed, it essentially ends with Price's spectacular star turn in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Il Trovatore in 1961, when almost a quarter-century of her operatic career was still in front of her. This means that most of her Grammy Awards, her Emmy Award, her Presidential Medal of Freedom, her Kennedy Center Honors, and her National Medal of Arts all fall outside of the book's time frame. In its structure, if not particularly in its content, it reminded me of last year's You Never Heard of Willie Mays?!

Nonetheless, Voice of a Century does an excellent job of chronicling Price's rise to prominence. Carole Boston Weatherford's prose is conversational without being talky, and indeed, reads in places very much like a prose poem. Readers who enjoyed Pam Muñoz Ryan and Brian Selznick's Sibert Honor book When Marian Sang might well enjoy Voice of a Century, especially since Weatherford repeatedly makes clear how much of a debt Price owed to Marian Anderson.

Raul Colón's lovely illustrations add a great deal to the book, though the Newbery committee won't be able to consider them. In honesty, I'm not sure that much Newbery love is going to come for Voice of a Century -- as we've discussed before in this space, short, heavily-illustrated biographical nonfiction tends not to show up in the Newbery rolls, regardless of how well-written it may be. 

The Sibert, however, has been much more open to these kinds of books (see: Balloons over Broadway, A Splash of Red, Ballet for Martha, and of course, When Marian Sang), and if Voice of a Century is to be recognized, that's probably the most likely place. I hope it wins something -- it's an excellent book, and I really enjoyed reading it.

Published in December by Alfred A. Knopf / Random House

Friday, January 16, 2015

2015 Contenders: Eyes Wide Open, by Paul Fleischman

Environmental issues, challenges, and disasters seem to occupy an ever-increasing percentage of the news. Clearly, we have problems, and Paul Fleischman wants to make sure that we are able to understand, analyze, and maybe even solve them.

Eyes Wide Open is a sharp, well-researched, and at times fiery book with two clear objectives: helping its readers to know what current environmental issues are, and making sure those readers have the critical thinking skills to separate fact from opinion. Fleischman talks about global warming, fracking, and renewable energy, but he also spends time discussing rhetorical strategies, cognitive defense mechanisms, and how studies and reports can be affected by who funds them. New information about the environment is always becoming available, and Fleischman wants his readers to able to evaluate it intelligently.

This means that Fleischman doesn't have a lot of patience with those whom he sees as obfuscating the truth, and he isn't shy about saying so. He explicitly mentions Republican denial of climate change, and even uses the famous quote from Stephen Colbert: "Reality has a well-known liberal bias." His tone -- cheerful, but insistent and unafraid -- reminded me of pop-science heroes like Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Fans of those thinkers will probably love Eyes Wide Open, even if it's hard for me to imagine that this book won't be challenged in at least one library somewhere.

Fleischman is equally clear that he doesn't intend for his book to be read on its own. It includes a dizzying number of links to other sources of information, and a formidable bibliography. Towards the end of the book, he even discusses some of the assumptions that he held when he began writing the book, and how, while his sources and research confirmed some, they disproved others. "Stay open to the facts, wherever they are," Fleischman says, and in some ways, that's the thesis of his book.

Paul Fleischman has, of course, won the Newbery already (Joyful Noise, 1989 award). It's unlikely to me that Eyes Wide Open will net him a second medal; not only does nonfiction rarely win the Newbery, but Eyes Wide Open is more informational than narrative, which indicates to me that it's not a top contender for a "literary" award. I'm curious to see if it draws any attention from the Sibert committee though.

Published in September by Candlewick

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

2015 Contenders: Saving Lucas Biggs, by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague

Margaret O'Malley's father, a corporate whistleblower, has been sentenced to death, wrongfully convicted of arson and murder. The trial judge, Lucas Biggs, is not only known for his harshness, but is also in the hip pocket of the Victory Corporation -- the very same company that Mr. O'Malley had taken on. Although the conviction and sentence are obviously travesties of justice, it appears that there is no way for Mr. O'Malley to escape.

However, Margaret has a secret weapon. Young people in her family, for uncounted generations, have had the ability to travel through time. They are strictly prohibited from using this ability, but with her father's life at stake, that prohibition begins to mean less to Margaret. But even if she manages to enter the past, there's still one problem: "history resists." Margaret may want to change the past, but the past may not want to be changed.

This is the setup for a lovely book, full of memorable characters and evocative prose. The promotional materials describe Saving Lucas Biggs as "When You Reach Me meets Savvy"; I also noted echoes of A Wrinkle in Time and The Water Castle. Those are some big literary shoes, and Saving Lucas Biggs tries its very hardest to fill them.

It doesn't entirely make it, I don't think -- the plot, especially in the last quarter, when some last-minute interventions make the structure come slightly loose, doesn't have the Swiss-watch precision of When You Reach Me; the climactic moments don't possess the pure force of those in A Wrinkle in Time; and the idea of a young girl with a special and unusual gift isn't as revelatory here as it was in Savvy. However, those are some of the most seminal books of American children's literature, and not quite matching them hardly makes a book a failure. Indeed, I think Saving Lucas Biggs is noticeably superior to The Water Castle, particularly in the way it ties the events of the two time periods together, and readers of this blog may remember that I liked TWC a lot. 

Marisa de los Santos has written several adult bestsellers, and David Teague wrote Franklin's Big Dreams, a picture book that got a starred review from Booklist back in 2010. This, however, represents both authors' first foray into middle-grade literature. Saving Lucas Biggs is a remarkably assured and tonally consistent novel, one I would probably have attributed to authors with more middle-grade experience than that.

In a year that features an overwhelming favorite (Brown Girl Dreaming) and several strong dark horses (Caminar, The Family Romanov, The Night Gardener, and Revolution, at the very least), the field may simply be too crowded for the Newbery committee to find room for Saving Lucas Biggs. I don't think I'd put it in my top three or four -- the competition is simply too fierce -- but it's definitely a book I'm glad to have read.

Published in May by HarperCollins