Monday, June 15, 2015

2016 Contenders: Cody and the Fountain of Happiness, by Tricia Springstubb

Cody and the Fountain of Happiness is the second Tricia Springstubb book we've reviewed this year, after Moonpenny Island. However, while Moonpenny Island is aimed at a traditional middle-grade audience, Cody is pitched younger, more to readers currently enjoying the Clementine books, or The Year of Billy Miller.

Cody's loose plot involves the beginning of the titular character's summer vacation. She makes a new friend, Spencer, by helping him find a lost cat, and her new babysitter turns out to be Payton, the object of her brother Wyatt's affections. There's also some drama involving her mother's promotion at work. All of these elements drift in and out of the book as it meanders towards its conclusion -- while it's a quick read, it's not exactly a propulsive one.

Moonpenny Island remains my favorite book of the year so far (although there are still some contenders I need to read). Cody works a lot less well for me, possibly because, even for a book for younger children, the stakes always feel so low -- particularly for Cody herself, whose problems often take a back seat to those of her mom, Wyatt, and/or Spencer. Kevin Henkes books often have the same issue, to take one example, but part of Henkes' genius is his ability to make problems that are trivial for adults take on weight and heft in the minds of his child protagonists. Cody doesn't achieve a similar effect, nor is its protagonist as memorable as Clementine or Ramona or Junie B. Jones.

That's not to say it's not an entirely pleasant book. The prose is solid, if not as poetic as that in Moonpenny Island, and it has its moments of humor. Even for a quasi-episodic novel, however, Cody is loosely structured -- the relationship between Wyatt and Payton, for example, ends on a weirdly sour note, and it seems odd for the book to finish with the characters discussing the party that's happening that night, rather than with them attending it. It's possible that Springstubb plans on writing more books about Cody and so is leaving some plot threads deliberately unresolved, but taken on its own, the ending really did seem a bit of a let-down to me.

At any rate, especially with how strong a book Moonpenny Island is, I don't think there's going to be a lot of room at the Newbery podium for Cody. One thing I'd be very interested in, however, would be getting an actual child reader's opinion of this one; it seems entirely possible to me that its target audience might enjoy it more than I did.

Published in April by Candlewick

Thursday, June 11, 2015

2016 Contenders: The Island of Dr. Libris, by Chris Grabenstein

Billy is spending the summer at a cabin owned by  the mysterious Dr. Xiang Libris. (X Libris. Yeah. It's that kind of book.)  There's no tv, no internet, and, conveniently, no smartphone: Billy's iPhone breaks as soon as they arrive at the cabin. Oh, but do you know what there is instead? A mysterious library! Because of course there is. And do you know what happens when Billy reads the books? The characters come to life! Because of course they do.

Before long, Billy has populated the island in the middle of the lake with Hercules, Robin Hood and Friends, and even Pollyanna (because we're expected to believe that a twelve year old boy would willingly pick up and read Pollyanna). In addition to trying to deal with the mayhem caused by the fictional characters, Billy has to figure out some way to stop his parents' divorce. Because of course he does.

Are you getting that I'm not terribly impressed by this book? (Full disclosure: I listened to this one as an audiobook as well, and it was narrated by Kirby Heyborne, who is narratorial anathema to me.) I had actually been looking forward to it, since it's by the same author as Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library, which many people enjoyed. It did not live up to my expectations.

I'm probably judging The Island of Dr. Libris a bit harshly because I am emphatically not the right reader for this book. The publisher's blurb mentions that it "celebrates the power of imagination." I am tired of books that claim to celebrate "the power of imagination" or "the power of story," because they usually fail to do so. Story and imagination celebrate themselves when deployed effectively.

I am also tired of books that celebrate books, and reading itself, in heavy-handed ways. If you're trying to push this kind of message within the pages of a 242 page novel for 9-12 year olds, you're preaching to the choir. Non-readers are not reading this.

Finally, I'm super triple tired of books that pit Real Books against Evil Electronic Devices. You guys, that kind of thinking feels so crotchety. I've been spending a lot of time on Tumblr lately, and it's full of tweens and teens who see no boundary between books and screens, and who spend their time not only discussing, but also creating fan art based on their favorite fictional worlds. If you take away their iPhones, where are they going to write about all of their Harry Potter headcanons

Anyway... aside from the fact that it offends me on a fundamental level, is the book any good? I guess it's a fairly competent adventure story, and many readers will enjoy the way the fictional worlds collide (Hercules joining Robin Hood's band of Merry People, etc.). I will note that the characters are not terribly well-developed, especially Billy's mother, who manages to be the stereotypical unfun mom despite the fact that she's getting a PhD in math. 

It would probably make a fun vacation read, and if you hand it to to the literary-minded kids you know, I won't even judge you. Much. 

Published March 24th 2015 by Random House Books for Young Readers

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

2016 Contenders: Ms. Rapscott's Girls, by Elise Primavera

There is no need to apply to Great Rapscott School for the Daughters of Busy Parents. If you are among the few children whose parents are busy enough to qualify, they will fill out the application for you. They will also send you a box, into which your parents may seal you, so that the box may fly you directly to the school. The five little girls who make their way to Great Rapscott by these extraordinary means are a sad set of specimens, known for being loud, lazy, bumbling, and older/younger than their years, respectively. Fear not, though! Ms. Rapscott and her assisting corgis (Lewis and Clark) will straighten them out in no time. 

Ms. Rapscott's Girls is like a literary fusion of Roald Dahl, P.L. Travers, and an amalgamation of every boarding school novel ever written. In fact, it's so thoroughly infused with the spirit of Roald Dahl that as I listened*, I couldn't help but picture the characters as if they were drawn by Quentin Blake. Like that of Dahl, Primavera's prose is full of keen satire and sharp wit, but it lacks Dahl's fatalism. In fact, she seems to be commenting on Dahl's worldview when she allows the children to break out of the awful qualities for which they are "known," and which are actually only bad habits they've gained through their parents' neglect. 

That makes the novel sound darker and heavier than it is, though. It's really a confection of a book, filled with the aforementioned helpful corgis, bumbershoot trees, perilous parachute journeys, and wormholes that lead to the Alps. It's difficult to judge a book like this in terms of the Newbery criteria, in part because it doesn't feel like a very American book to me: this combination of satire and fancy is very British. 

So: are the characters fully developed? Not according to the terms of realistic fiction, but for this genre, yes - and they experience growth over the course of the book. The settings are likewise both ridiculous and well-realized. Stylistically, the prose is highly derivative, but also sparkling and agile. Interestingly, for a book that's working within a potentially moralistic genre, the themes of self-reliance and self-determination are imparted with a light hand. 

It feels like too slight a book to win a place in the Newbery pantheon. Also, though it's uplifting in the end, it has the kind of bite that doesn't play well in a typical Newbery book. But then again, the committees have been doing an admirable job of redefining "Newbery book," so who knows? Either way, it's lots of fun. 

Published March 10th 2015 by Dial Books

*Yes, I experienced this one, like so many others, as an audiobook. I have no idea what the illustrations look like, but I gather that it's heavily illustrated. Also, the audiobook is read by Katherine Kellgren, and it is wonderful.