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.



Friday, June 24, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: Rabbit Hill, by Robert Lawson (1945)

About half way through my reading of Rabbit Hill I had the following conversation with my fellow blogger Sam:
Me: Soooooooooo does anything ever actually happen in this book?
Him: It's been a few years since I read it but at one point I think someone gives the rabbits some lettuce. Which in this book is the equivalent of a Fast & Furious style drift race with machine guns. Rabbit Hill is basically a cross between The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Waiting for Godot.
Me: *died laughing*
Luckily Sam hired a necromancer to bring me back so I could finish the book and write this review!

Rabbit Hill is a novel written and illustrated by Robert Lawson. It's about an area in Connecticut called "Rabbit Hill" and the assortment of woodland creatures who reside there. Times have been hard for the animals of Rabbit Hill. "Folks" haven't lived in the "Big House" for years, and without humans, and the food they grow (and throw away), things have been meager. The centerpiece of the community is without a doubt little Georgie, the most precious of the rabbit children (which, if I were any of the many other rabbit children, I would take umbrage with, but I digress) and Georgie's got big news. All signs point to new folks moving into the house soon! Will they be nice folks who will plant a big garden? Or will they be mean folks with guns and traps and poison?

The day to day goings on in the life of Georgie, his family, and their friends, are pleasant, and generally unexciting. Here are the top 3 most dramatic things that happen in the book:
  • An animal gets chased by a hunting dog, but escapes by jumping about 18 ft across a creek, which is a record, but he's mostly just ashamed he got surprised by a dog in the first place.
  • An animal falls in a drainage basin, but is nursed back to health by humans.
  • An animal is hit by a vehicle, but is nursed back to health by humans. Despite the fact something like that ALREADY HAPPENED, all of the animals are still momentarily worried and mistrusting.
Honestly I think I've been ruined of all books about rabbits since I read Watership Down by Richard Adams, without a doubt the most epic book written about rabbits (and heroism, and religion, and gender roles) of all time. The woodland creatures in Watership Down face life-or-death, intense, emotional moments on nearly every page, so subconsciously I was bracing myself for little Georgie to undergo some serious trials and tribulations.

Like, ya know, this.

The good news is: here's a book for children where (spoiler alert) nothing bad happens to a single animal. The bad news is: here's a book for children where nothing much of anything happens. But that's not such a bad thing! It's refreshing to read a story about the importance of being kind to animals, and nothing else. And as a librarian it's nice to have a sweet and innocent story to suggest to young animal lovers.

I do feel the need to disclaim one thing: the folks, that is the family that moves into the house, around which most of the "action" of the book revolves, have a live-in maid/cook/servant, a "colored" woman named Sulphronia. Apparently in the original text, written before racial integration, the character is portrayed in African American stereotypes. But in every edition of the book published since the 1970's, like the copy I read, anything offensive has been edited out.

My favorite part of the book is the pictures. Lawson illustrated many well known books for children, including The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, and Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater. He won a Caldecott medal for his own book They Were Good and Strong (1941) making him the only person so far to win a Caldecott and a Newbery medal! I felt the gentle drawings in Rabbit Hill indicated affection of the part of Lawson for his characters. Of course illustrations are not (supposed to be) taken into consideration during a Newbery deliberation, unless they make the book "less effective," which these do not, in fact they arguably make the book that much more effective, because they support the text.


Onto the next decade!


(And Rachael, if Arnie lets you borrow his laptop and you're seeing this, hi!)

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: The High King, by Lloyd Alexander (1969)

Lloyd Alexander was a favorite writer of mine as a child -- in addition to the Chronicles of Prydain, I enjoyed The Cat Who Wished to Be a Man and The Wizard in the Tree -- but for whatever reason, I haven't spent much time with his work in recent years. As such, although I didn't exactly approach The High King with no preconceptions, I did feel like I was able to come to it with relatively fresh eyes at least.

One of the more interesting things to me about The High King as a Newbery winner is its place in its series: it's the fifth (and last) of the Chronicles of Prydain. Although books that were sequels had won before (The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, 1923), and would win again (Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, 1977; Dicey's Song, 1983; and A Year Down Yonder, 2001, among others), The High King marked the first time that a book further along in its sequence than first or second took the medal. Interestingly, as of this writing, it's only happened once since then: when Susan Cooper's The Grey King, the fourth book in her The Dark is Rising series, took the 1976 Newbery.

Alexander, in his author's note, claimed that The High King could be read on its own. After reading it without refreshing my memory of the others, I can tell you that this is...sort of true. It's certainly possible to follow the basic plot, and Alexander is careful to drop a bit of backstory into his descriptions of people and places in order to make sure the reader is up to speed. (Spoilers follow.) However, much of the middle of the book follows our protagonist, Taran, as he travels across Prydain gathering people to his banner in preparation for the confrontation with the forces of Arawn, the Dark Lord. The gist of what happens is that Taran is able to muster a mighty force because of the connections that he's made during his adventures in previous books. These passages lack the punch they're supposed to pack when read in isolation; they come across more as "here's someone you've never heard of! and they love Taran! they totally have so much history together!" None of this is really Alexander's fault -- and when one reads the entirety of the Prydain books, it's a weakness that completely disappears -- but it does mean that, no matter what the author's note claims, you really should start at the beginning with this series.

The general arc of The High King holds no surprises for anyone with a grounding in epic fantasy. What makes the book work is the characters -- the open-hearted and self-effacing Coll, the blusteringly good-hearted Fflewddur Flam, the ruthlessly utilitarian Pryderi. Taran himself is much more three-dimensional than many other fantasy heroes, which gives the story much more emotional heft than it might otherwise possess.

That said, he's still not the most interesting character in the book, which would be the brilliant and courageous Princess Eilonwy. I've seen a lot of memes and articles about the Harry Potter series that make the claim that it would be deeper and more satisfying if it were centered on Hermione; I think that kind of argument definitely applies to The High King. Taran is fine, but Eilonwy is amazing, and if the story were recast as her heroic journey, it might well be perfect. This feeling is strong enough that it colors my view of the ending. It makes logical sense, as the story is laid out, for Eilonwy to give up her powers as an enchantress and stay with Taran out of love, but my inner feminist wanted to see her sail off to the Summer Country as an enormously powerful, immortal, and fearless woman.

Regardless of my quibbles, I don't have a real argument against The High King taking the Newbery. The 1968 publishing year was a rich one: the Honor books were To Be a Slave and When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw and Other Stories, and the committee gave nothing to Ramona the Pest, Escape from Witch Mountain, or A Wizard of Earthsea. That's a list of classics, but The High King stands worthily with them, and is certainly a legitimate choice to put at the top.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

2017 Contenders: Ms. Bixby's Last Day, by John David Anderson


For the second time this year, we pause our series on Newbery Winners Past to participate in a Walden Pond Press blog tour. This post will be a bit different, however. Ms. Bixby's Last Day is, among other things, a book about a teacher and the students whose lives she's changed, and the good folks at WPP requested that I take some time during this entry to talk about a teacher who had that kind of impact on my own life.

With that in mind, let me tell you a story.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Houston, I had to take two American History courses as part of my core requirements. As I was talking with some of my friends about when I should fit those courses into my schedule, and which professor's section I should try to register for, one name kept coming up.

"Dr. Orson Cook. His class is really tough, but you learn a lot."

The endorsements were strong enough that I did indeed register for his class, and it remains one of the better decisions I've made.

Dr. Orson Cook -- we always thought of him using both names, since there was at the time a Dr. Cooke in the Political Science department -- had much of the affect of what I used to think of as a Southern Gentleman. He had the accent and the carefully tidy facial hair, and during all the time I spent in his class, I think he only ever referred to me as "Mr. Eddington." His comments ranged from the pithily insightful ("The enforcement of half of something is worse than the non-enforcement of all of it.") to the wryly humorous ("Think of Kansas and Nebraska. I know it's hard to do. Just imagine some badly-drawn rectangles in the middle of the country."), and as you can see, I can recite many of them from memory almost twenty years later. He was a fierce believer in the ideals of equality and justice that America claims to stand for, and also a clear-eyed and incisive critic of the times when the country hasn't lived up to those ideals. A vast portion of my knowledge of the sweep and shape of the history of the United States is directly traceable to Dr. Cook.

And yet, I don't think of any of those things as the most important lesson I learned from him. That came after the first test I took in his class.

I had studied hard for the exam, and I felt confident in my knowledge. As I wrote the various short essays that comprised the bulk of the test, I was sure that I had relayed that knowledge effectively. And yet, when the test was returned to me, it came back with...an 83. Not terrible, not a failure, but nowhere near as good as I thought I'd done.

I was confused enough about why that I went up to Dr. Cook after class and asked him about the grade. I'll never forget what he said to me.

"You know everything that I told you in class. That's a B. If you want an A, you have to do your own research and bring that information in."

The message was perfectly clear to me. I was responsible, in the end, for my own education. People could teach me, and that would get me a lot of the way there, but if I wanted my knowledge to be exceptional -- not average, not even above average, but exceptional -- I couldn't just listen passively to what I was taught. I had to use that information as a springboard to do my own research, ask my own questions, and evaluate what I learned. Only by doing so could I really become educated.

I learned a lot during college, but there's not a single thing that was as important as that.

After I left the classroom that day -- even though in the moment I was somewhat stung by Dr. Cook's answer -- I went to the library and checked out twenty books about the historical period we were studying. I sat in my dorm room and read them for hours, trying to figure out how what I was reading fit into the information I'd learned in class. In the weeks that followed, I peppered Dr. Cook with questions, both during and after class, and to his everlasting credit, he not only answered them, but directed me to resources where I could learn more.

I did earn an A for the semester, and of all the grades I got in college, that's probably the one I'm most proud of. When I registered for the next semester's classes, I signed up for Dr. Cook's section of the other American History course, and that one was also a marvelous experience.

Thanks, Dr. Cook. Thanks for teaching me, not only about history, but about what learning and education actually can be.

*****

As for Ms. Bixby's Last Day itself, it's the story of three sixth-graders, Topher, Brand, and Steve, and their special teacher, the titular Ms. Bixby. Within the first few pages of the book, Ms. Bixby is diagnosed with cancer, and tells the class that she won't be able to finish the school year. However, our trio of students embark on an adventure to give Ms. Bixby the sendoff she deserves and show her what she's meant to them.

In the wrong hands, this story could be sentimental mush, but John David Anderson's writing avoids those pitfalls. Every problem isn't magically resolved, and there's no deus ex machina ending, but we get a chance to spend time with real, three-dimensional characters, and to learn along with them about what has -- and will -- really made a difference in their lives. The book is one of the better novels of its type that I've read, and I feel no compunction about recommending it. (I promise that WPP doesn't actually pay me anything for these reviews; I genuinely feel strongly about this one!)


If you'd like to explore further, Walden Pond Press has a video about the book, and has also made an excerpt available online. Here also are the other stops on the blog tour if you'd like to check them out: 

BLOG TOUR LIST
6/2/2016
6/3/2016
6/6/2016
6/7/2016
6/8/2016
6/9/2016
6/10/2016
6/13/2016
6/14/2016
6/15/2016
6/16/2016
6/16/2016
6/17/2016
6/20/2016
6/21/2016
6/22/2016
6/23/2016
6/24/2016
6/27/2016
6/28/2016
6/29/2016
6/30/2016
7/1/2016