Monday, March 12, 2018

2019 Contenders: Bat and the Waiting Game, by Elana K. Arnold

Once again, we're privileged to be a stop on a Walden Pond Press blog tour. Last year, we were introduced to Bixby Alexander "Bat" Tam and his family in A Boy Called Bat, and now comes the first sequel to that book.

It does my heart good to report that Bat and the Waiting Game is a worthy continuation of the story of Bat and his family. Bat himself remains one of the most detailed and believable children's book characters with autism that I can name, and his family and friends are also sharply drawn. I especially enjoyed getting to know Bat's best friend Israel, and watching the two of them navigate the challenges of friendship.

Waiting Game certainly features moments of entertaining action -- the climactic set piece, which takes place at Bat's sister Janie's school play, could easily have come out of a Marx Brothers movie. But the heart of the book is in its quiet passages, in the interactions between Bat and his family, as well as between Bat and Israel's family. Elana K. Arnold invests the novel with a warmth and a gentleness that feel lived-in and real. Plus, it's got a baby skunk in it, and for me at least, that's a serious selling point.

A Boy Called Bat didn't show up in the Youth Media Awards this year, and sequels are usually (though not always) harder sells for the Newbery committee. But I hope Bat and the Waiting Game finds a wide readership. I agreed to be a stop on the blog tour because I love and believe in this book, and I'm glad to have spent more time with Bat.

For those of you who'd like to hear more about this book, here's a list of the other stops on the blog tour, as well as the Twitter handles of the reviewers:

3/12 For Those About to Mock, @abouttomock (Sam Eddington)
3/15 Mrs. Knott’s Book Nook @knott_michele (Michele Knott)
3/15 @iowaamber (Amber Kuehler)
3/16 The Hiding Spot @thehidingspot (Sara Grochowski)
3/18 Educate*Empower*Inspire…Teach @guerette79 (Melissa Guerrette)
3/19 Maria’s Melange @mariaselke (Maria Selke)
3/20 Nerdy Book Club (post by Elana)
3/20 Writers Rumpus @kirsticall (Kirsti Call)
3/22 Bluestocking Thinking @bluesockgirl (Nicole Levesque)
3/28 Unleashing Readers @unleashreaders (Kellee Moye)

Publication on March 27, 2018, by Walden Pond Press

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Newbery Wayback Machine: Caddie Woodlawn, by Carol Ryrie Brink (1936)

Caddie Woodlawn, which won Carol Ryrie Brink the 1936 Newbery Medal, is based on the real-life adventures of Brink's grandmother, Caddie Woodhouse. Set in frontier Wisconsin just before and after the end of the Civil War, Caddie Woodlawn details the escapades of Caddie and her siblings as they navigate both the physical landscape of the Upper Midwest and the emotional landscape of growing up. It was immensely popular, and it spawned a sequel (Magical Melons, 1939, in print these days as Caddie Woodlawn's Family), a Brink-written 1945 radio drama, a 1989 TV movie, and even a 2011 stage musical.

It's also something of a controversial book these days. Just to take one example, a well-known piece by American Indians in Children's Literature founder and 2019 Arbuthnot Lecturer Debbie Reese talks in part about her daughter's highly negative reactions to the book's depictions of Native Americans.

And boy, those depictions are problematic. The Woodlawns' neighbors are about as racist as possible (witness their talk about a preemptive massacre against the local tribe). And although Caddie and her family are clearly presented as the most "enlightened" of the settlers -- Caddie undertakes a dangerous ride to warn her friend Indian John, and Mr. Woodlawn puts the kibosh on his neighbors' murderous plans -- that's not a particularly high bar. In perhaps the novel's most uncomfortable passage, Indian John, who is leaving the area for an unspecified period of time, leaves a treasured possession with Caddie: a scalp belt, inherited from his father. Caddie and her siblings decide that this provides them with an excellent opportunity to earn some side income, and charge admission to their school friends to see the scalp belt of "Chief Bloody Tomohawk." I kept waiting for the children to get some kind of comeuppance for this behavior...but they don't. The hired man, Robert Ireton, catches them, but is only upset that they've lit a candle in the barn, and sings an Irish folk song for the children as part of the show when they tell him what is taking place.

There are moments in Caddie Woodlawn that work -- the bit where younger brother Warren completely fails at his school recitation is almost Anne of Green Gables-esque, and older brother Tom's impromptu piece of fiction about Pee-Wee the Farmer is a piece of inspired lunacy. Overall though, I had a hard time with this one, even before the ending, which dovetails a kind of maudlin patriotism that's difficult for me to take, and a final bit that's simply an opportunity for me to repost my favorite Gary Larson cartoon*:

Weirdly, Caddie Woodlawn won the Newbery the same year that Little House on the Prairie failed to win or honor. Both books have many of the same strengths and drawbacks, and it's surprising to me that one book won while the other was shut out. The four Honor books from 1936 are ones I haven't made it to yet; all of them are lesser-known works from authors more famous for other things. (The Good Master is by Kate Seredy, who would win the 1938 Newbery for The White Stag; Young Walter Scott is by Elizabeth Janet Gray, who, after a name change to Elizabeth Gray Vining, would win the 1943 Newbery for Adam of the Road; All Sail Set is by Armstrong Sperry, who would win the 1941 Newbery for Call It Courage; and Honk, the Moose is by Phil Stong, an author mostly known for his adult works including State Fair, which was adapted into a 1945 musical film with songs by Rogers & Hammerstein.) As such, it's hard to say Caddie Woodlawn was a mistake choice, but it's not one of my favorites.

*Yes, I know Caddie Woodlawn predates The Incredible Journey by 25 years, but I'll stand by my response anyway.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Newbery Wayback Machine: Sarah, Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLachlan (1986)

As Sarah, Plain and Tall opens, Anna and Caleb are living on a farm somewhere in the endless prairies of the American west. Their Mama died the day after Caleb was born; although their Papa cares for them with kindness, he no longer sings, and their family is both smaller and sadder than before. However, Papa has placed a newspaper advertisement seeking a bride, to which the titular Sarah has responded. Her month-long trial visit with Papa and the children occupies the bulk of Patricia MacLachlan's novella, which took home the 1986 Newbery.

Sarah, Plain and Tall is a good candidate for the quietest book in the Newbery canon. The stakes are almost purely emotional, and revolve around the children's hopes for a life that includes Sarah, and their fears that she might return to her beloved Maine coast. Many of the scenes feature Sarah learning various farm tasks, which she approaches with full dedication. Other than Papa, the children, and Sarah, the only characters with any speaking lines within the book's 58 pages are a neighbor couple who come to help with some of the plowing.

And yet, at least in my opinion, Sarah is one of the crowning achievements in American children's literature. Its simply-structured prose has a numinous quality that makes it read like poetry; I've read precious few children's books that are as beautiful as Sarah. No words are wasted. The book's stunning imagery also gives us a window into the minds and hearts of the characters -- it's full of emotion, but emotion that is shown, rather than told, as creative writing instructors like to say. We feel Anna's nostalgia and hope, Caleb's frenetic dithering between joy and fear, and Papa's tender sadness as if they were our own.

At the center of it all is Sarah, who is complex and lovable and real. She contains an honest mix of loneliness, openness, and confidence. Although it's Maggie, one of the neighbors, who comes up with what is perhaps the book's central line ("There are always things to miss, no matter where you are."), it's Sarah who embodies it in both its melancholia and its comforting acceptance. If I were Caleb or Anna, I would want Sarah to stay too.

The resolution of Sarah's plot is perhaps given away by the fact that MacLachlan has written four sequels, starting with 1994's Skylark. But the plot isn't what makes Sarah -- it's the feelings of the characters, the vastness of the place, and the carefully-constructed fugue of imagery that raise the book to the level of masterpiece. Not every deeply emotional event is loud and dramatic, and MacLachlan shows tremendous respect for this fact.

The Newbery committee named two honor books in 1986: Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun, by Rhoda Blumberg, and Dogsong, by Gary Paulsen. Several other books that were eligible have become classics  -- at the very least, we have to mention The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg, The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales, by Virginia Hamilton, and The Castle in the Attic, by Elizabeth Winthrop. But despite the stiff competition, I think the committee made the right choice here. Sarah, Plain and Tall genuinely represents the best of American children's literature.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Maryland Mock Newbery 2018 Results

The Maryland Mock Newbery, sponsored by the Eastern Shore Regional Library, took place on January 18th. 11 library staff members from 7 different systems met and discussed the books on our shortlist. After the discussion, the participants voted, and our winner was...

...ORPHAN ISLAND, by Laurel Snyder!

The group also named one honor book:

PATINA, by Jason Reynolds!

Many thanks to all of our participants, to the Queen Anne's County Library for providing the meeting room space for our event, and to Natalie Lane of the Kent County Library, who served as our second discussion group leader.