Thursday, May 28, 2015

2016 Contenders: Nightbird, by Alice Hoffman

I've never read any of Alice Hoffman's YA or adult work, but every sentence of Nightbird made me understand why she's so highly regarded. The imagery is brilliant, and Hoffman's depictions of a little New England town that time passed by are both evocative and spot-on. It reminded me in some ways of reading Hawthorne, although Hoffman's tone is much more cheerful.

The problems come when trying to evaluate the book as a larger whole. Although the main character, Twig, comes through fairly clearly, I felt almost like the secondary characters -- Twig's friend Julia, Julia's sister Agnes, Twig's brother James (the quasi-title character), Twig's mother -- were placeholders, waiting to be fleshed out in the final version. The plot also seemed awfully convenient, even before the impossibly upbeat ending.

Nightbird is part of a grand tradition, where the younger generation repairs the mistakes of their forebears in a way that's at the least quasi-mystical, and often fully magical. From The Secret Garden (1911) all the way to Saving Lucas Biggs (2014), this trope has proved to be fertile ground for children's novels -- including many genuine classics.

However, the flip side of using well-worn themes is that an author runs the risk of failing to really add anything new, and I think that may be the case here in Nightbird. The whole thing felt a bit tired to me, rather than archetypally powerful, and I'm not sure the Newbery committee will feel differently enough to give Nightbird the medal.

On the other hand, the prose is so lovely that I found myself hoping that Alice Hoffman will write some more middle-grade novels. Even if this one doesn't fully work, I think that what it does well shows that Hoffman is an author whose voice is a great addition to the middle-grade world, and I hope she gifts us with another book soon.

Published in March by Wendy Lamb Books

Friday, May 15, 2015

2016 Contenders: Echo, by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Echo is proof that Pam Muñoz Ryan loves us and wants us to be happy.

It is a story about the divine and mysterious power of the harmonica.

Otto is lost in the woods. All he has with him is a book and a mouth harp he bought from gypsies that morning. In the dark, he is comforted by three women, Eins, Zwei, and Drei, princesses, lost themselves, kept in the forest by a witch. They cannot leave, but their spirits can be freed by a woodwind. Otto offers up his small instrument…

“But it’s only a harmonica”
“Oh it is much more!” said Eins. “When you play it, you breathe in and out, just as you would to keep your body alive. Have you ever considered that one person might play the mouth harp and pass along her strength and vision and knowledge?”
“So that the next musician who plays it might feel the same?” said Zwei. “It is true. When play you will see and find your way. You will have the fortitude to carry on.”
Drei nodded. “And you will be forever joined to us, to all who have played the harp, and to all who will play it, by the silken thread of destiny.”
The three lost princesses play Otto’s harmonica, and then he plays it, wandering through the pines, until somebody hears him and leads him back home. When he relays his tale, his parents wonder if he’s “affected.” They tell him he must have imagined Eins, Zwei, and Drei. He must have even imagined the gypsies who sold him a harmonica, as there have been none in the village lately…
Suddenly the novel completely shifts. New setting, new characters, new plot. You’re taken aback. Is the author really doing this? Totally dropping a story and expecting us to become invested in a new one? But that’s exactly what happens…

Friedrich is a young man living in Germany in 1933. He and his father and uncle work at the Hohner harmonica factory. They are a happy family of musicians. Friedrich is very talented, with hopes he can attend a conservatory, and one day conduct a symphony. But times are frightening. The Nazi party is beginning to take power. Everyone is concerned with being a loyal citizen. Everywhere they’re discussing the purity of the German race. Even Friedrich’s sister is active in the Hitler youth, and encourages her father to discontinue his friendship with their Jewish neighbor. He doesn’t heed her advice and one day Friedrich comes home to find all of his family’s possessions upturned by the Gestapo, and his father on his way to a work camp to be re-educated. The only thing bringing him any joy is a harmonica he found in a disused part of the factory, emblazoned with an “M,” that sounds more harmonious than any instrument he’s ever played…

The novel shifts again. New setting, new characters, new plot. But what about Friedrich? Can he and his uncle hatch a plan to have his father released from the work camp? Will his sister come to her senses and help them? Will he make it into a conservatory and become a conductor? (Come to think about it, we never found out what became of Otto!) Forget about all that for now.

Mike and his little brother Frankie are in a Pennsylvania orphanage in 1935. Mike is worried. He’s heard a rumor that the younger children at the orphanage will all soon be transferred to a state run orphanage. Not only will Mike and Frankie be separated, and they’ve never been separated, but the conditions at the state home are awful, kids worked to the bone, dying of diseases. Miraculously, two men arrive at the orphanage. They represent an heiress who wishes to adopt a child. A child who is musically inclined. And it just so happens the only two boys who can play the old piano at the orphanage are Mike and Frankie. Oh, and she wants to adopt them that very day. The brothers are whisked away to the stately home of Eunice Dow Sturbridge. But something’s not quite right. “Aunt Eunie” does not receive her wards warmly at all. In fact she seems angered by their presence despite their many attempts to win her over. Mike discovers she didn’t really want to adopt, rather it was a stipulation of her father’s will, and that she had requested a young girl, not two boys, particularly an older boy. Mike wonders if he leaves, could she learn to love Frankie at least? He learns of a traveling harmonica orchestra that are auditioning for new players. If he can join Hoxie’s Harmonica Wizards, he’d have a place to go, and Frankie could hopefully get some attention from their new mother. And he’s procured just the right instrument, a remarkable harmonica, emblazoned with an “M,” to practice on.

The novel shifts again. New setting, new characters, new plot. But what about Mike and Frankie? Will Aunt Eunie ever open her heart to them? Will Mike earn a spot in the orchestra? Wait, is that Friedrich’s harmonica? Hey, whatever happened to Friedrich? (And whatever happened to Otto?) Forget about all that for now.

Ivy Lopez is the daughter of migrant farm workers in California in 1942. Of all her classmates, she has been chosen to perform a harmonica solo on the radio and she’s so excited. It’s not to be however, because her family must abruptly move. Her father has taken a job overseeing the farm of the Yamamoto family, who’ve been unfortunately detained in a Japanese Internment camp. The Lopez family will work their land, and watch over their home, until they’re allowed to return, and if they like how they’ve kept the place, they will keep her father on as a hired hand. Their families are now linked in a way. Ivy is extremely disappointed that because her family is Latino, she must attend a separate school, an annex of the school her more privileged peers attend. Ivy plays her harmonica, a beautiful thing, emblazoned with an “M,” the music it makes transcending the injustice in the world, and hopes to rise above all the racial prejudice she’s confronted with.

The novel shifts again. But we weren’t finished with Ivy! What happens to her? How did she get Mike’s harmonica? And where did he end up? And, seriously now, did Friedrich even survive Nazi Germany? (And Otto. Dammit. Why did you even tell us about Otto?)

In the final 40 pages, Pam Muñoz Ryan beautifully ties EVERYTHING up, in a gorgeous bow, her gift to her readers, who have hung on this long, who have emotionally invested in not one, but four separate stories. We who have kept turning pages, perhaps first out of duty, but then with delight, get to figuratively open this present and see what’s become of Friedrich, Mike, Ivy, even Otto, and their families, and witness how artfully their lives were intertwined by the magic of one harmonica.

This book, in my humble opinion, is nothing short of a masterpiece. It’s a hell of a way to kick off 2015 Newbery buzz. But it’s so much more. This is a book for people of all ages to be entranced by. It is enchanting. It is wonderful. It’s honestly one of the greatest things I’ve read in a really long time (and I read a lot, people). I hope that you’ll give it a try, not just because it could win a medal, but because it is a thing to behold, a force to be reckoned with, an emotional rollercoaster that leaves you wanting nothing at the end, except maybe to hold the book to your chest, and give it a big hug. 

 Published in February by Scholastic

Today's guest reviewer is Tess Goldwasser, Youth Services Librarian, St. Mary's County Library, Maryland. Tess also writes about picture books at Kid's Book Blog.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

2016 Contenders: Smek for President, by Adam Rex

If I don't review this book RIGHT NOW, Sam is going to kill me. I actually read it in ARC form last year, but then the publication date was pushed back in order to coincide with the movie of the first book, and then I wanted to wait until I listened to the audiobook, and then I still didn't write my review because I'm lazy, etc., etc.... Suffice it to say that it would be prudent, as regards my marriage, to go ahead and write this thing.

So, Tip and J. Lo are back! It's been a year or so since they banished the Gorg, saved the planet, and gently encouraged the Boov (except J. Lo) to take up residence elsewhere. Things are quiet - too quiet for Tip, who's used to tooling around the country in her flying car with no parental supervision. In a spectacularly boneheaded move on both their parts, Tip and J. Lo take off in Slushious to pay an impromptu visit to New Boovworld. Their goal is to restore J. Lo's tarnished reputation, but when they arrive, of course, nothing goes according to plan.

Smek for President is a more thoughtful, introspective book than The True Meaning of Smekday, which feels like a strange thing to say about a novel that prominently features a form of transportation known as a "hoverbutt." In the hands of a skilled author, though, the ridiculous can exist comfortably alongside the sincere, and Rex does an excellent job of weaving genuine emotion into the fabric of his surreal humor.

Tip spends long stretches of the novel alone, working through her feelings in conversation with the (imaginary) ghost of Chief Shouting Bear. Her voice is slightly different than it was in the first book - the voice of a girl on the cusp of adolescence, seething with resentment, guilt, and confusion, and unsure of what kind of person she wants to be.

J. Lo's plot arc is somewhat grim as well - he spends a third of the book in prison - but still filled with his usual Boovish nonsense His unlikely friendship with Tip is as poignant and authentic as ever, though, even as they bicker and snipe at one another like true siblings. 

Of course, this all takes place in the context of the first-ever election for High Boov, and Rex's talent for wicked-smart political satire is on full display as he depicts the rituals of Boovish politics and the general goings-on of New Boovworld.

It's a delightful book, and if you enjoyed The True Meaning of Smekday, I doubt that I have to tell you to run out and get your copy ASAP. It's not going to win the Newbery, though. In addition to being a sequel, it's too funny and too weird. I do hope that the release of the movie, Home, will inspire more children to check it out.

I should also mention how absolutely glorious the audiobook is - Bahni Turpin's narration may be the best comedic audiobook performance I've ever heard. Among children's lit audiophiles, it's legendary. Go have a listen!

Published in February by Disney-Hyperion

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

2016 Contenders: Historical Animals, by Julia Moberg

Books that pair poetry with nonfiction facts seem to be in vogue as of late. It's a structure that I associate most with Joyce Sidman, but Historical Animals is the second non-Sidman book we've reviewed this year (Random Body Parts is the other) that also utilizes this format.

However, if Random Body Parts was no Winter Bees or Dark Emperor, Historical Animals is no Random Body Parts. The brief poems, each of which describes a famous animal from history, possess some of the most awkward meter I've read in a long time, and are filled with rhymes that are forced, or that are noticeably approximate. I can't immediately think of another volume of modern children's poetry I've read that is as technically inexpert.

The nonfiction sections are, if anything else, even more difficult to deal with. The facts are often presented with little context, to the point of being shorn of meaning. We're told, for instance, that the poet Virgil spent 800,000 sesterces on a funeral for his housefly, but not what a sesterce was, or how much one was worth. This problem is compounded by the fact that the book contains no source list, no suggestions for further reading, and no glossary.

The book also suffers from sloppy editing. Errors include writing BCE for CE (pg. 22); spelling the name of the country as "Chili" (pg. 26); and stating that Florence Nightingale wrote a book in 1959 on the same page that lists her date of death as 1910 (pg. 40). Historical Animals also features awkward constructions ("Tortoises have the same life span as humans. Some can live from ninety to one hundred and fifty years old."), disconcerting word choices ("Dolly was named after the performance artist Dolly Parton."), and questionable taste (claiming that South American penguins like "life as Latinos"). 

Even the layout and illustrations seem subpar. I couldn't understand the logic by which some of the headings carried the names of the animals themselves, while others listed the name of the person who owned them. The cartoonish pictures, credited to Jeff Albrecht Studios, may attract the eyes of younger readers, but also make errors such as giving the famed rescue dog Barry der Menschenretter the incorrect colors.

Obviously, I don't think Historical Animals should or will win anything. Charlesbridge usually puts out much better titles, and I do expect that other books that they produce will be of higher quality than this one.

Published in February by Charlesbridge / Imagine!