Thursday, November 17, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Peña (2016)

I don't think anyone saw Last Stop on Market Street as the leading Newbery contender for 2016. If you, like me, think of A Visit to William Blake's Inn as a volume of poetry, then Last Stop on Market Street is the first traditional picture book ever to take home the Medal. Back in January, when its win was announced, Market Street seemed to me like a totally left-field Newbery choice.

As I read it again in preparation for this review, I found a lot to admire in the text. The interplay between CJ, the child protagonist, and his nana is beautifully written; I loved the way that nana challenges CJ's ways of looking at the world without coming across as argumentative or dismissive. The detailed urban setting and the interesting secondary characters (especially during the bus ride) are also points in the book's favor.

I still count myself among the unconverted to Last Stop on Market Street's Newbery win, however. It's a picture book, and as in most picture books, the interplay between the text and the illustrations is key. In at least two places, the text is something less than comprehensible without recourse to the illustrations; since the Newbery criteria clearly state that illustrations can only be considered if they "detract from the text," I continue to have questions about whether or not it makes sense to give the award to a book in which the text doesn't stand alone. It feels to me like stretching the intended purpose of the Newbery past the breaking point.

This is all only my opinion, and I should be upfront regarding how much of a traditionalist I am on this subject. Although I'm a fan of boundary-breaking books, I prefer to keep the Newbery as an award solely for merit that inheres in the text. I didn't like Flora & Ulysses winning the Newbery in 2014 because I thought too much of the book depended on the illustrations; I didn't like El Deafo being an Honor book in 2015 because naming a graphic novel didn't feel in keeping with the spirit of the award to me; and I still don't like Last Stop on Market Street as the 2016 winner. (For the record, I didn't like Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize win this year either, and I love me some Dylan.)

It's pretty clear that recent Newbery committees have been willing to push the boundaries of the Newbery, and I know more people who agree with their decisions than agree with me and my stick-in-the-mud complaints. Your personal mileage may vary. I would have rather seen the award go to some of the more "traditional" contenders (Circus Mirandus; The War That Saved My Life; Moonpenny Island; Echo). But if one considers Last Stop on Market Street as a whole, it's certainly a very fine picture book, and I'm glad that it's almost certainly going to get a wider readership.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman (2009)

Plenty of Newbery-winning authors have had thriving careers outside the confines of children's literature. Will James and Walter Edmonds were bestselling adult authors; Joseph Krumgold was an MGM scriptwriter, as well as one of the earliest filmmakers to work in the then-new nation of Israel; Laura Adams Armer and Robert Lawson were both award-winning visual artists; Esther Forbes won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for History; Sid Fleischman was a professional magician; Maia Wojciechowska was, among many other things, a professional tennis player and instructor.

However, you can make a good case that Neil Gaiman is the most famous person ever to take home the Medal. As the author of Sandman and American Gods; winner of the Hugo, the Nebula, the Eisner, the Bram Stoker Award, and the (UK) National Book Award; scriptwriter for film (Beowulf, MirrorMask), TV (Doctor Who, Babylon 5), and radio (Good Omens); occasional voice actor (The Simpsons, Jay and Silent Bob's Super Groovy Cartoon Movie); and advocate for intellectual freedom and refugee issues, he's a cultural figure recognized far beyond the children's literature world. 

Although Gaiman's interests are obviously wide-ranging, he's put out a consistent stream of children's books in and around his other projects. (I count at least 15 titles aimed primarily at children in his bewilderingly long bibliography.) He's been eligible for the Newbery since he moved to the United States in 1992, but The Graveyard Book, which took home the 2009 Medal, remains the only time that the Newbery committee has chosen to recognize his work.

The Graveyard Book follows the childhood of Nobody "Bod" Owens, a boy who, following his family's murder, is adopted by the spirits who occupy the local graveyard. The structure of the novel is largely episodic, although it's always leading up to the final confrontation between Bod and the shadowy man and organization who killed his family.

Readers familiar with Gaiman's other work will recognize the themes that so often occupy him: a group of people who protect human society, but can never take part in it; the notion that there are things so traumatic that it would be a great mercy to be able to forget them; the sense that something enormous is happening just outside of the field of human vision. As I read it now, The Graveyard Book felt to me almost like a dry run for Gaiman's 2013 adult novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which follows these threads into a darkness beyond what would be explorable in a children's book. (Interestingly, Gaiman has confirmed that the two books take place within the same universe; Liza Hempstock, the ghostly witch who befriends Bod, is related in some way to Lettie Hempstock, the heroine of Ocean.)

On a personal level, I've always admired Gaiman's work more than I've liked it; his obsessions don't match mine particularly well, and his meticulous turns of phrase sometimes feel to me too carefully manicured. Despite that, however, I recognize that he's a magnificently talented craftsman, and that his concerns do resonate with a great many readers. The Graveyard Book is a marvel of writing, and remains well-loved. The committee had an embarrassment of riches to consider for the 2009 Newbery -- in nearly any other year, Savvy, by Ingrid Law or After Tupac and D Foster, by Jacqueline Woodson would have been prohibitive favorites for the award, and of course, Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games (which, it could be argued, might have scraped the top of the Newbery age strictures) would become a worldwide cultural phenomenon. But it's almost impossible to fault their choice: The Graveyard Book seems well on its way to becoming a classic.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George

Wow. This book surprised me. I expected to enjoy it. I expected that the research about the natural world would be very good, and the research about Inupiaq culture would be much less good. As it turns out...

1. I did not enjoy it. It was maybe not as much of a slog as The Trumpeter of Krakow, but it was really boring. The pacing was off, and I don't think the structure does it any favors. It picks up a little during the second part, where we get Miyax/Julie's backstory, and it would have been helpful to have that connection to the character before we sit and stare at wolves with her for fifty pages. I think George meant to drop us RIGHT INTO THE MIDDLE OF THE ACTION, but when the action involves lying on an ice hill for hours at a time, that plan backfires. At least for this reader.

And then there's the ending. What the serious hell. In the space of three pages, Miyax decides to live with her father, learns that her father is one of the people shooting the wolves and changes her mind, and changes her mind again because her bird dies and that symbolizes the end of the "Eskimo" way of life.

Finally, there's the infamous attempted rape scene, which is not at all graphic, but it's also out of place and not essential to the narrative.

2. Everything she writes about wolf communication and culture seems plausible, but I'm no expert, and given that she gets many other things wrong about life in the Arctic, I'm inclined to view the whole thing with suspicion.

3. Well, I knew going in that the representation of "Eskimo" culture was going to be somewhere between misleading and cringe-inducing. I had a feeling I would find something about Julie of the Wolves on American Indians in Children's Literature, and I was not wrong.

Here's what puzzles me though: the Wikipedia article about the book claims that George did not feel comfortable writing sequels because she "did not know enough about the Eskimo culture." (There is a source listed for this quote, but the link is broken.) If that was the case... why did she write Julie of the Wolves in the first place?

I wonder if George's understanding of Inupiaq culture grew over time (her last book, Ice Whale, takes place in the same setting, but I don't see any reviews by Debbie Reese or other native scholars). If so, why didn't she ever put out a revised edition of Julie of the Wolves?  

4 and 5. Just a couple of infuriating extra tidbits:

  • I'm certain that this book is still blithely taught in schools, and it's not even in the top ten worst offenders on that count. I'm pretty sure my daughter had to read The Courage of Sarah Noble a couple of years ago. 
  • They were making a movie of Julie of the Wolves, and though they initially wanted to cast an Inuk or Inupiat actress, Young changed his mind because he "didn't find the person that we felt was going to breathe the right kind of feeling into the story." RAGE. LASERS OF RAGE FROM MY EYEBALLS. That article is from 2008, though, so maybe they saw reason and scrapped the whole thing. 

Going back to the "problematic old Newbery books being taught in schools" thing though... this is the problem with an award like this for children's literature. Teachers seem to think that a Newbery book's "most distinguished" status will last forever, and that the gold sticker is a carte blanche to teach it uncritically. Maybe Newbery winners should come with a caveat, or an expiration date... but that's probably the subject of a whole 'nother post.



Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: Missing May, by Cynthia Rylant (1993)

Several years ago, when I did my look back at the 2011 Newbery winner, Moon Over Manifest, I introduced my discussion of it by talking about a certain stereotype about books that have taken the medal:

"There's a kind of novel that we have a tendency to think of as The Newbery Book. It has a female protagonist, one right on the edge of adolescence. Invariably, she's motherless. It's set in a small town, one populated entirely with "quirky characters." It's probably historical fiction, and odds are good that it contains some life-affirming lessons about the power of literature, or art, or story."

Missing May, Cynthia Rylant's 1993 winner, hits many of these marks. Its twelve-year-old narrator, Summer, long ago lost her parents, and when the book opens, her aunt May, with whom she has been living, has also died. The book is set in the tiny town of Deep Water, West Virginia, and, although at the time of its publication it was contemporary, rather than historical fiction, many of its characters have their share of quirks. And, though Missing May isn't necessarily centered on Art or Story, those are certainly thematic elements that appear.

A noticeable distinction between Missing May and some of the other "Newbery Books" (Moon Over Manifest, The Higher Power of Lucky, Dicey's Song, etc.) is its focus, which is narrow almost to the point of insularity. May's widower, Ob, and Summer are trying to figure out how to go on with a May-shaped hole in their life, and although Summer seems at first glance to be muddling through, Ob is seriously struggling. Summer's attempts -- and those of her school acquaintance, Cletus -- to help Ob comprise most of the novel's relatively subdued plot. Outside of the quartet of Summer, Ob, Cletus, and (in flashbacks) May, I only counted three characters with speaking lines: Cletus's mother and father, who appear in one brief scene, and an unnamed man who shows up near the book's end.

In a way, it's fitting that Missing May tracks its main characters so tightly. This is a novel about the forgotten, the unwanted, the cast aside: orphans, elderly childless people, eccentrics, spiritualists. At one point, Summer describes the rest of the country's impression of West Virginia as "shut-down old coal mines and people on welfare." But in Rylant's sensitive hands, the challenges, hopes, and fears of these overlooked people take on genuine weight and power, equal to those of anyone else in fiction.

Of all the "Newbery Books" of this type that I've read, Missing May is probably my favorite. Rylant's spare, evocative prose positively sings, and its emotions are honest and clear without ever becoming sentimental or overwrought. There was plenty of competition for the 1993 Newbery: three Honor books were named (What Hearts, by Bruce Brooks; The Dark-Thirty, by Patricia McKissack; Somewhere in the Darkness, by Walter Dean Myers), and several other well-known and well-loved books didn't manage to make the list (some of the more prominent ones: The Silver Kiss, by Annette Curtis Klause; The Widow's Broom, by Chris Van Allsburg; Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, by Bruce Coville). But I think Missing May well deserves its win, and time has only served to make the novel more poignant and memorable.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: A Gathering of Days, by Joan W. Blos (1980)

Nowadays, when I think of novels in diary form for children, what comes to mind are snarkily humorous books such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Dear Dumb Diary. Indeed, although there are plenty of YA examples (I Capture the Castle, So Much to Tell You, Z for Zachariah, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, The Bunker Diary, etc.), I had a difficult time thinking of "literary" diary-novels for younger readers beyond A Gathering of Days, Catherine, Called Birdy, and Love That Dog.

And, if I'm being honest, A Gathering of Days, Joan W. Blos's 1980 Newbery winner, isn't far from being a YA book itself. The protagonist, Catherine Hall, is thirteen when the novel starts, and almost fifteen when it ends. The tone of the book is deliberately old-fashioned, however, and reminded me much more of Lucy Maud Montgomery and Laura Ingalls Wilder than of anything we'd think of as "modern" YA.

I think I might have enjoyed A Gathering of Days more if it were not in diary form, actually. Although Blos is able to use the format to drop in some intriguing slice-of-life details, such as the maple sugaring process, I felt like most of the characters were thin and underdeveloped. The diary entries aren't long -- I don't think a single one ran to three pages in my copy -- which means that the book is constantly flitting from scene to scene, and dialogue is at a minimum. The spotlight simply can't rest on any given character for long. As such, certain plot points, such as the death of Cassie, Catherine's best friend, didn't bring me the emotional power they were intended to.

It's not a spoiler, by the way, to say that Cassie eventually dies, because this information is initially conveyed on the very first page of the book. Blos elected to give the diary a brief "frame story" in the form of letters, written by a much older Catherine to her granddaughter, that open and close the book. The initial letter gives away some of the most important plot points -- not only Cassie's death, but Catherine's father's remarriage, and Catherine's eventual departure from her farm. It seemed like a baffling choice to me, since it has the effect of removing most of the dramatic tension from the novel.

It's possible that Blos simply wasn't concerned with dramatic tension. I noticed as I read that most of the events in the book didn't build to much. Catherine's friend Sophy moves away to work at a mill, but there's no real payoff; it's just a thing that happens. Even the biggest non-spoiled plot thread, involving a runaway slave in need of help, felt oddly subdued to me.

Perhaps the Newbery committee was more enthralled than I was by the unorthodox format and historical detail of A Gathering of Days. Either way, the Newbery was probably deserved; in hindsight, the 1979 publishing year was a relatively weak one for children's literature. Only one honor book was named (The Road from Home, by David Kherdian), and I'm not aware of any hidden classics that would have been eligible. I think A Gathering of Days is a minor entry on the Newbery rolls, but given the competition, it was an entirely reasonable choice for the 1980 Medal.


Monday, July 25, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: A Visit to William Blake's Inn (1982)

Hello! As observant readers may have noticed, I have been silent in this space for several months. Perhaps I fell through a dimensional portal behind a Burger King, or perhaps a lot of sad things happened in my personal life, but either way, here I am. And I'm skipping ahead to the eighties, because... well, because A Visit to William Blake's Inn looked like a manageable read. Walk before I run, etc.

It also happens to be an excellent time to look back at the 1982 Newbery winner because for over thirty years it was the only book to have won both a Newbery Medal and a Caldecott Honor. This year, of course, Last Stop on Market Street duplicated that feat. Both books were total left-field choices for the Newbery, and both of them beat out some strong contenders for the gold medal (Ramona Quimby, Age 8, in the case of A Visit to William Blake's Inn).

I initially chose Visit as my 1980s selection because it's one of the few Newbery winners from the eighties that I hadn't read. Frankly, if it hadn't won the award, I wonder if it would have vanished into obscurity by now like so many other poetry books. In that sense, it's a winner very much in line with the original intent of the award: to encourage and reward excellence in American children's literature. It could be argued that it's the quirky books like this one that most need the signal boost that an award like this provides (though of course that's not a factor the committee would have taken into account).

And A Visit to William Blake's Inn is a strange little book, to be sure. It is a series of loosely connected poems about a child who goes to stay at an inn whose proprietor is the eighteenth-century poet (and painter and printmaker), William Blake. The inn is populated by the fantastical beings that Blake portrayed in his visionary creations. The verse is formal and metered, the imagery is vivid, and the tone swings back and forth between whimsy and melancholy.

Two things strike me as odd and gutsy about the idea of writing a book of children's poems inspired by William Blake. First: those are some big shoes you're trying to fill. Adult readers are necessarily going to be comparing your verse to Blake's, and that's daunting, to put it mildly. Second: it's going to be filled with allusions that your child readers will miss entirely. There is some chance the target audience (9-12-year-olds?) may have read "The Tyger," but it's unlikely they will have the familiarity with Songs of Innocence and Experience that would be required to fully appreciate this book.

And yet, it works. The poetry is not true Blake, but it's apparently good enough to have fooled a whole generation of teachers. As for the allusions? As we say so often in this field, the poems stand alone. You don't need to know the source material to appreciate these dragons, angels, tigers, and rats.

And so, though I am a huge fan of Beverly Cleary in general and Ramona in particular, I can't argue with the 1982 committee's choice. A Visit to William Blake's Inn is a rare jewel of a book, and it deserves its medal.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: M. C. Higgins, the Great, by Virginia Hamilton (1975)

Trying to figure out who the "greatest" American children's author of all time might be is an essentially impossible task. (Beverly Cleary? Dr. Seuss? Louis Sachar? Lloyd Alexander? E. B. White? Walter Dean Myers?) However, if the question is the "most decorated" American Children's author, the answer is almost certainly Virginia Hamilton. During her long career (she wrote 41 books in total), Hamilton won, in addition to the 1975 Newbery: three Newbery Honors; the Edgar Award (The House of Dies Drear, 1969); three Coretta Scott King Awards (Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, 1983; The People Could Fly, 1986; Her Stories, 1996), and six CSK Honors; three Boston Globe-Horn Book awards (M.C. Higgins, The Great, 1975; Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, 1983; Anthony Burns, 1988); the National Book Award (M.C. Higgins, the Great, 1975); the Hans Christian Andersen Award (1992); a MacArthur Fellowship (1995); the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal (1995); the de Grummond Medal (2001); and enough other awards to fill several cases.

As you can see from the above list, M.C. Higgins, the Great was THE children's book of the year when it came out. No book had ever won the Newbery, the National Book Award, and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award before; indeed, only one other book since then has managed that trifecta (Sachar's Holes, in 1998-99). The novel tells the story of two days in the life of its title character, a thirteen-year-old who lives in the wild, rural hill country of northern Kentucky, during which he encounters a nomadic young woman, a Lomax-style collector of field recordings, and the "witchy" Killburn clan, who live on a nearly-inaccessible plateau hidden in the hills.

Two things stood out to me as I read my way through M.C. Higgins. The first was its surreal, bizarre imagery, which almost felt like it would belong in an all-Appalachian version of Un Chien Andalou. Hamilton stated that the book's genesis was not in the plot, but in the initial, arresting image of Higgins greeting the sunrise, arms outstretched, with lettuce leaves attached to the rubber bands around his wrists. From there, the book moves to show us Higgins, perched on top of a 40-foot metal pole surrounded by abandoned cars; Higgins and the young woman, Lurhetta Outlaw, nearly drowning in an underwater tunnel filled with fish; the Killburn houses, connected at the second story by a gigantic cobweb of woven rope; and many more. These images are surrounded by strangely clipped, staccato prose. The total effect is misty and chimeric; the world of M.C. Higgins felt more remote to me even than that of The Bronze Bow or The High King.

I enjoyed that aspect of the book, even when I wasn't sure how well all of the images fit together. However, I didn't enjoy the book as a whole, largely because of the second thing I noticed: many modern readers are going to find some of the characters intensely dislikable.

Consider: much of the plot revolves around the interactions between M.C. and Lurhetta. However, the first time they meet is when M.C. sexually assaults her -- and if you think that's too strong a phrase, I'd like to ask what else I'm supposed to call a sequence of events in which M.C. stalks Lurhetta down in the woods ("He had lured her, like a deer caught by a delicious scent"), and then kisses her while holding her at knifepoint. I don't know how this read in 1975; in 2016, however, it struck me as a fatal error. It removed all sympathy that I had for the main character, and without that sympathy, the book simply doesn't work. Nothing that M.C. did for the rest of the book was enough for me to overcome or overlook that incident.

Additionally, the character of M.C.'s father, Jones, struck me as deeply problematic. To be fair, the relationship between M.C. and Jones is portrayed as an ambivalent one. However, Jones, with his personality that turns from charming to threatening in an instant, his unwillingness to move his family or otherwise prepare for the fact that his house is threatened with eventual destruction from a gigantic pile of waste leftover from a strip-mining operation, and his "games" that involve smacking his child in the face so that he can "make him tough," reads to me simply as a domestic abuser. Again, perhaps readers three decades ago would have thought of this differently, but I was unable to believe or accept the moment of father-son bonding that takes place at the end of the book, given what had come before.

In retrospect, the most influential book of the 1975 award year was probably Robert Cormier's downbeat classic The Chocolate War, which helped to shape the nascent YA genre. However, no one at the time that I'm aware of argued for The Chocolate War over M.C. Higgins, which possibly says something about the clarity of hindsight versus the cloudiness of the present. In the history of the Newbery, M.C. Higgins, the Great, is important. Virginia Hamilton was the first Black author to win the award, and the novel introduced underrepresented people and settings to the Newbery pantheon. However, I think M.C. Higgins has aged terribly, and I'd anticipate many young readers today finding it off-putting and odd.