Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Ones That Got Away: Ramona the Pest, by Beverly Cleary

Almost every good children's book has well-developed child characters, but there are certain authors whose works seem to exhibit a truly exceptional grasp on how children act, think, and feel. I think of authors such as Kevin Henkes, Louise FitzHugh, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Jack Gantos. And I certainly think of Beverly Cleary, whose characters are so clearly-written that I half expect to look up from one of her books to see Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins, or Leigh Botts standing in front of me.

It's this quality, I think, that makes Ramona the Pest such a standout book. The novel is loosely arranged around Ramona's adventures during her first few months of kindergarten, but what makes the individual set pieces work is the richness and warmth of the characters. Perhaps even more importantly, the relationships between Ramona and the other characters feel natural and real. Ramona's sometimes-exasperated friendship with her neighbor and classmate, Howie Kemp; the mix of love and fear with which she regards her teacher, Miss Binney; the way in which Ramona interacts with her parents -- all of these are note-perfect.

Cleary wrote the Ramona series slowly, with some 44 years separating the first (Beezus and Ramona, 1955) from the last (Ramona's World, 1999). Several of the titles won major awards -- the fourth and sixth (Ramona and Her Father, 1977, and Ramona Quimby, Age 8, 1981) were Newbery Honor books, and the fifth, 1979's Ramona and Her Mother, won the National Book Award. Ramona the Pest, the second in the series, came out in 1968, but was shut out of the 1969 Newbery list.

Even if we were to re-award that year's medal today, Ramona the Pest wouldn't be likely to win; the 1969 Newbery went to Lloyd Alexander's The High King, which remains an undisputed classic. It's interesting to note, however, that the committee only named two Honor books: To Be a Slave, by Julius Lester, and When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw and Other Stories, by Isaac Bashevis Singer. If it were up to me, I'd be tempted to add Ramona the Pest to that number.

As it stands, although none of the Ramona books took the top honor, they're firmly in the pantheon of American children's literature regardless, and Cleary did eventually win the 1984 Newbery Medal, for Dear Mr. Henshaw. I suppose even every great book can't make the Newbery rolls, but I do remain in awe of Cleary's ability to honestly and gently depict the thoughts and feelings of children.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

2016 Contenders: Drowned City, by Don Brown

Hurricane Katrina was the sixth-deadliest natural disaster in the history of the United States. Even that fact possibly understates the significance of Katrina to modern history; three of the events with more fatalities happened during the 19th century (the 1889 storm that led to the Johnstown Flood, the 1893 Cheniere Caminada Hurricane, and the 1900 Galveston Hurricane), and the other two (the 1906 Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, and the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane) took place during the Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge administrations, respectively. Americans had certainly experienced mass tragedies related to war and terrorism, but no natural disaster on the scale of Katrina had occurred in the US in living memory -- or in the modern media age.

We now have ten years of perspective on Katrina, and dozens of books have been written on the subject, including titles we've reviewed here. Drowned City belongs in the very top tier of those books, and may be the best of those written with a juvenile audience in mind. It briefly but effectively sets the stage -- important, given that much of its readership is too young to remember Katrina -- and then brilliantly describes conditions inside the ruined city, as well as the responses to the tragedy, which ranged from the heroic to the unforgivably incompetent.

All of this is done in spare, poignant language; this is a book that shows, rather than tells. The few lines of dialogue are taken directly from primary sources and news reports, all noted in the carefully cited back matter. Although we can tell where Brown's sympathies as an author lie, he holds back from using words that blame, preferring instead to let his readers come to their own conclusions.

Of course, Drowned City is a nonfiction "graphic novel," and so the interplay between the words and the images is where much of the book's meaning is created. The body language of Brown's figures perfectly captures the range of emotions surrounding Katrina, and his stark wide-screen drawings of the utter devastation that followed the storm pack a visceral punch. Brown does not shy away from the hard realities of his subject; although it's all tasteful, and I maintain that the book is certainly appropriate for a middle-school reader, Drowned City includes pictures of storefronts being looted, corpses floating in the flooded streets, and people trying to break out of their attics before the water rises high enough to drown them.

Up until the last couple years, I would have assumed that Drowned City was too visual an experience to show up in the Newbery rolls; after Flora & Ulysses and El Deafo, I'm less sure. I do hope the Sibert committee notices how carefully Brown has used his sources, and how clearly he presents his information.

Published in August by HMH Books for Young Readers