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.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

2018 Maryland Mock Newbery Reading List

After a two-year hiatus, we're once again hosting the Maryland Mock Newbery! This year's event will be held at the Kent Island branch of the Queen Anne's County Library on January 18, 2018. If you're hoping to attend, please contact me and I'll get you registered.

Our reading list for this year is:

Landscape with Invisible Hand, by M.T. Anderson
A Boy Called Bat, by Elana K. Arnold
See You in the Cosmos, by Jack Cheng
Patina, by Jason Reynolds
Orphan Island, by Laurel Snyder

I'm excited for the discussion, and to see what our group votes to the top!

Monday, December 11, 2017

2018 Contenders: Patina, by Jason Reynolds

One of the perennial questions that comes up in Newbery discussions is whether or not a given book "stands alone" -- that is, can the reader easily find their way into and out of it without having already read a book that comes before it, or needing to read another that comes afterward.

To be clear, there's nothing in the Newbery criteria that require a winner to stand alone. Indeed, the committee has, on occasion, given the gold medal to books that almost certainly don't. (The High King [1969] is probably the most obvious, but arguments can also be made about The Grey King [1976] and Dicey's Song [1983] at least.) It's something of a rarity, however.

All of this brings us to Patina, the second novel in Jason Reynolds' Track series. It follows 2016's Ghost, which I had missed, and will be followed by Sunny, which is scheduled to be published in April of next year. (One assumes that, at the very least, Lu will follow at some point thereafter.) At any rate, I approached Patina without having any background knowledge of the series, and for what it's worth, I found it difficult when separated from the rest of its series.

The Track books each follow one of the four new runners on the Defenders track team. Patina Jones, the title character of Patina, is trying to prepare to run a relay race for the first time, while also dealing with many challenges off the track. Her mother is largely disabled, and so Patina and her younger sister, Maddy, are living with their uncle and aunt. Patina, who is black, is attending a new school, an upper-class, heavily white, private academy; it's a vastly different place from her previous, more integrated, public school. She's trying to take care of herself, while at the same time looking out for her younger sister, and the pressure wears on her.

I was able to catch up to the story eventually, but the first chapter especially left me feeling ungrounded; it was full of characters I felt like I should already know, in a setting that felt like it should have been familiar. And (spoiler alert!) the novel ends with Patina running the last leg of her relay, sprinting for the finish line, and then...well, I don't know. There's no conclusion at all -- it's a pure cliffhanger, which one assumes will be resolved in the next book.

Patina has plenty of good points -- the characterization and voice, especially, are clear and strong. The pacing seemed off to me, but it's possible that problem might disappear in the context of the whole series. But make no mistake: this book demands to be read in concert with the others. I found it difficult indeed to evaluate in a vacuum. If I had to guess, the fact that Patina doesn't stand alone will probably keep it off the Newbery podium this year; I'll be curious to see how my opinion of it changes, however, when I read the whole series.

Published in August by Atheneum / Simon & Schuster

Monday, November 20, 2017

2018 Contenders: See You in the Cosmos, by Jack Cheng

Alex Petroski is an 11-year-old boy from Colorado who loves astronomy, rocketry, and cosmology in general. He has a rocket that he hopes to launch at the Southwest High-Altitude Rocket Festival; his goal is to get the rocket into outer space, where it will carry his "golden iPod" out into the universe, just like the "golden records" carried by the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes. Although his father is dead, his mother is clearly suffering from mental health problems, and his older brother is far away in Los Angeles, Alex heads off to the festival alone, planning to meet up with some of his friends from an online rocketry forum on his way there. His journey ends up taking him not only to the festival, but much further afield as well. Through it all, Alex continues to record to his iPod, and these narrations form the text of this quasi-epistolary novel.

See You in the Cosmos has received some stellar reviews, and I've heard Newbery buzz around it as well. In some senses, I can see why. Many of the supporting characters feel real and well-developed -- I'm thinking here especially of Ronnie and Terra -- and the book hits some heavy themes, especially in its second half, with an admirable open-heartedness. However, I'm not entirely sold on the novel, largely due to Alex himself, whom I was never able to fully believe in.

Alex is OBSESSED, in an all-caps kind of way, with Carl Sagan. He's intimately familiar with the original Cosmos, has seen Contact some uncountable number of times, and even owns a Sagan-style sweater. Heck, his dog's name is actually Carl Sagan. When Alex refers to Sagan, he often calls him "my hero." This isn't a passing fancy; this is integral to Alex's character and identity.

And...I just had a hard time buying it. The novel is clearly contemporary -- it's full of references to Snapchat, Yelp, and Google maps. As such, Alex would have been born in 2006 or so. And yet, the original Cosmos aired in 1980; Sagan died in 1996, and Contact came out in 1997. Alex's fixation on Sagan would have been like me being 11 and refusing to stop talking about George Gamow. I was a weird, weird kid with some off-the-wall interests, and that would have been a bridge too far even for me.

I could maybe have believed it if Alex's hero was, say, Neil DeGrasse Tyson; my stepdaughter is 11, and she not only knows who Tyson is, but likes him well enough to have expressed a desire to read his books. But, although Alex does mention Tyson once (in the context of Cosmos), that scene just reminded me of Martin Prince's opinions on Ray Bradbury:

Perhaps time has made me cynical. Perhaps there's some kid out there who could legitimately serve as a model for Alex. But I note with some unease when adult authors give child characters anachronistic interests, be they Carl Sagan, Heloise's Hints, or knowing the exact time that a network TV show airs, as if on-demand had never been invented. It usually feels to me like the authors are breaking the illusion of the fictional world they're creating, interrupting my willing suspension of disbelief. I couldn't help but compare Alex unfavorably to someone like Joey Pigza, who's much more easily recognizable as a real kid. (This is especially true since The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza deals with many of the same deep themes as See You in the Cosmos). 

However, in other ways, Alex is deeply authentic. (His paragraph-long run-on sentences, in particular, sound exactly like conversations I've had with kids that age.) Indeed, the prose itself is exemplary, and as I mentioned at the start of this review, there's a lot to like about the novel. If it's easier for you to believe in Alex's love of Sagan, you may well enjoy this book much more than I did. But this is one where, although I see why people adore it, I can't necessarily bring myself to love it myself.

Published in February by Dial/Penguin

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

2018 Contenders: Landscape with Invisible Hand, by M.T. Anderson

So, as it turns out, we were neither abducted by aliens, nor decided to decamp to some off-the-grid cabin far away from the blogosphere. Rather, a gigantic library software project has been the only thing we've had time to think about this summer, and we're just now managing to emerge, squinting, into the sunlight again. So to speak.

But enough about me. Much more interesting than my essay about How I Spent My Summer Non-Vacation is the latest M.T. Anderson book, Landscape with Invisible Hand. It's a story narrated by Adam Costello, a teenage artist living in a near-future Rhode Island. An alien race called the vuvv have made contact with Earth, bringing amazing technology, lifesaving medicine -- and completely destroying the human economy. The vast majority of jobs are now obsolete, and while a few rich people live in floating cities among the clouds, most humans live in misery, struggling to find anything to eat, drinking contaminated water, and threatening each other with physical violence over part-time food court jobs, for which there are dozens, even hundreds, of applicants.

Landscape with Invisible Hand, from its mocking, Adam Smith-referencing title to its final period, functions as a blistering satire of modern America. The vuvv are patronizing colonialists, self-congratulatory about their efforts on behalf of humanity, but either blind or indifferent to the immense suffering their arrival has inflicted. Despite the fact that there are nowhere near enough jobs remaining, humanity's leaders and rich elites blame the suffering of the majority on the majority's sloth and greed, refusing to do anything that might actually help the situation. Most art and music consists of shameless attempts to please the vuvv, whose concept of human culture is built out of  the detritus of the 1950s -- warmed-over doo-wop, uninspired still-life paintings, rockabilly clothes. Even the novel's ending casts some serious shade on the very concept of the "American Dream."

This being an M.T. Anderson book, Landscape does also have a bruised, but beating heart. Even the most odious of the core characters is recognizably human, and Adam's unbreakable desire for meaning and beauty manage to carry him through even the lowest points of the plot. I don't want to give it away here, but his monologue at the end of the chapter titled "A Small Town Under the Stars" is possibly the emotionally moving thing I've read this year.

Really, Landscape is a YA novel; I doubt it has any chance of showing up in the Newbery rolls, if only because its careful deployment of f-bombs would render all the pearl-clutching about the use of "scrotum" in The Higher Power of Lucky charmingly quaint. But the publisher's guidelines say the book is for ages 12 and up, and the Newbery is supposed to be for books for readers up to 14. I do think Landscape qualifies under the letter of the law, and it's a good enough book that, if I were on the committee, I'd urge everyone to give it a very close look.

Publication in September by Candlewick

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

2018 Contenders: Orphan Island, by Laurel Snyder

"Nine on an island, orphans all / any more the sky might fall." 

Sometimes you finish a book and you're not sure whether you've just read the best book of the year or witnessed a train wreck. It seems to happen more and more often to me. I feel like I should be getting more confident in my critical assessments as I get older, but instead I increasingly find myself going, "Huh! That sure was a book!" or, "Okay, I guess that's the kind of thing we're publishing these days?"

25753092Orphan Island is a hell of a thing. The premise is simple: nine children (each one year apart in age) live on an idyllic island. Once a year a boat comes to bring a new toddler (a Care) and takes away the oldest child (the Elder), who is approaching adolescence. It invites inevitable comparisons to Hokey Pokey, by Jerry Spinelli, of course, and for its first half Orphan Island seems to occupy that same allegorical space. We don't know how the children get there, or why, or how the island takes care of them. It just does. We do know that Jinny, the eldest child this year, is having a hard time letting go of childhood.

As an aside, Jinny is an admirably unlikable character. She feels like a real twelve-year-old. She's bratty and selfish and makes just about all of the mistakes it's possible to make on an island where nothing can go wrong.

Anyway, the book seems to be following a fairly predictable trajectory in which Jinny will grow and mature and generally get her shit together, and then she will leave the island and it will be bittersweet but necessary. But then the plot takes an unexpected turn. (Spoilers follow.)

After a pretty inauspicious year as Elder, the boat comes for Jinny, and she just... doesn't get in. She drags the thing up on the sand, collects the new Care, and determines to continue business as usual. Some of the other children warn her that she's breaking one of the very few rules that seem to hold their reality together, but Jinny doesn't care. Until reality starts to fall apart. The snakes are suddenly venomous. The winds that keep the children from falling off the cliffs are no longer functioning. The chickens stop laying. Children start getting hurt.

A lot of the reviews I've read have been frustrated with the ambiguous ending of Orphan Island. Jinny does end up leaving in the boat, along with the new Care (who is on the verge of death), but nothing is explained. Here are just a few of the things Snyder never tells us: How does the island work? Who created it, and why? Where do the children come from? Where do the children go? When Jinny leaves, will it fix the island, or is she leaving her fellow kids behind to starve? What are they supposed to do when all of the books in their little library fall apart (this one made me especially anxious)?

To those people, Laurel Snyder replies, basically: being twelve is weird and horrible and you have no idea what's happening to you or why. She wanted to replicate that experience in novel form. I'm... really not sure yet whether she has succeeded! I do know that she has created a world that is strange and vivid, populated with characters who feel like real children. I know that this is an ambitious book, and I have a feeling I will be thinking about it for a long time. It also features clear, strong, uncluttered prose - in that sense, I think it's Snyder's best work yet.

For those reasons, I would not be surprised if this one comes up for discussion at the Newbery table, but I wonder if it's too divisive to win. Either way, I plan to pass it along to my almost-twelve-year-old. Though she may refuse to read it, because she's bratty and contrary.

Published in May by Walden Pond Press.