Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Newbery Wayback Machine: The Trumpeter of Krakow (1929)

Recently, we opened a Little Free Library in the bus station with which we share a building. As I was helping to stock it, I saw a copy of The Trumpeter of Krakow in the stack of books, and I figured I'd give it a read before sending it on its Little Free way.

After Rachael's review, I wasn't expecting much from this one. Indeed, I can agree with most of her points. The characters, without exception, are two-dimensional at best. The descriptions of clothing are detailed to the point of absurdity, and I'd add that the descriptions of streets and buildings are as well. When the staircase up to the alchemist's loft was destroyed by an explosion halfway through the book, I was ecstatic, because it meant I wasn't going to have to read any more about how creaky and rickety it looked. This is a 50-page book that's padded out to 200 with endlessly detailed descriptive passages, like a 15th-century Polish version of The House of the Seven Gables.

That might not even be that bad of a thing, because the plot itself is unexciting at best. I never felt invested in the fate of the Great Tarnov Crystal, and even in the life-or-death moments, I didn't feel like much was at stake. This is the sort of book where the main characters are more or less bulletproof, and given that they don't undergo any change or development as the novel progresses, there's not much to emotionally invest in. The weirdly passive prose also undercuts any sense of suspense.

Really, the thing I enjoyed most about Trumpeter was the historical information. Jan Kanty isn't much of a character within the pages, but was a fascinating historical figure. The same goes for King Kazimir Jagiello. I did enjoy reading about the University of Krakow, and about the fortress-palace at the heart of the lively city of Krakow itself.

The best book eligible for the 1929 Newbery was, as Rachael mentioned, Millions of Cats, which did Honor. That said, as these early winners go, The Trumpeter of Krakow really isn't as bad as I perhaps make it sound. It has a plot, which puts it above the sludgy meanderings of Smoky, the Cowhorse or Waterless Mountain, and it isn't treacly glurge like The Cat Who Went to Heaven. It's more like The Dark Frigate -- a book whose praises I'd decline to sing, but which points the way to better things for American children's lit. It's a straight line from Trumpeter to, say, Crispin: The Cross of Lead, and any number of other books featuring mystery and adventure in the far-off past.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

2017 Contenders Round-Up

I did read a few books that could be considered as in the running for this year's Newbery. I haven't read nearly widely enough to know what chances they have, so I thought I would just throw them all together, higgledy-piggledy, in one blog post.

The Wild Robot, by Peter Brown

I feel like robots are having a moment, not so much in children's lit yet, but certainly in pop culture. Having just finished watching the first season of Westworld, this book made for a hopeful, if bittersweet antidote.

Travis Jonker described it as "Isaac Asimov writes Hatchet," which is probably the most perfect four word review I have ever read. After a shipwreck, Roz the robot washes up on the shore of an island wilderness. Designed to learn from her surroundings, she picks up the behaviors of the animals around her, who go from viewing her as a monster to defending her against a violent threat at the climax of the book.

Like most robot narratives, The Wild Robot is really about what it means to be human and how we should live in this world, and I found Roz the most compelling character in children's literature this year. It is, however, a book about talking animals. They speak animal languages, which Roz learns, but they are still somewhat anthropomorphized, and that will bother some readers. The episodic plot (and its inherent lazy pacing) might bother others.

Of all the middle grade novels published in 2016, though, this is the one I find myself shoving into people's hands, so it's at the top of my list.

Pax, by Sara Pennypacker

Another animal book, but this one gets more inside the brains of the animals while taking a more realistic view of their brains and behavior. A boy, forced to set his pet fox free, undertakes a journey to bring it home again. This all takes place against the backdrop of an unspecified military conflict which draws closer and closer to the area where the fox is living.

From the reviews I've seen, that nebulous setting is off-putting to some readers. Personally, I liked it. It reminded me of the film adaptation of Howl's Moving Castle, where there's a pointless, unexplained war going on behind everything else. It adds a menacing tone to the narrative, and I think the unexplained nature of the conflict is a feature, not a bug - war is always inexplicable, especially to children and animals. The sentence-level writing is gorgeous, and the themes are beautifully realized, but it's possible that some of the characters are underdeveloped.

Like many readers, I did like the fox POV chapters better than the human chapters.

The Inquisitor's Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, by Adam Gidwitz

In his previous trilogy, Gidwitz was riffing (to marvelous effect) on the Brothers Grimm. Here he takes on The Canterbury Tales (in style more than in subject matter). Multiple narrators gathered at a tavern tell the story of three remarkable children who attract the interest and eventual ire of the most powerful men and women in medieval France.

Of the books I'm covering here, I think this one has the best shot of winning a medal. Its themes are both universal and timely, dealing, as it does, with religious, racial, and class prejudices. It also has a lot, like a lot, of fart and butt jokes. In that sense, Gidwitz really nails the Chaucerian high/low tone.

The pacing is on the slow side, and I think that will put some children off, but it's really the kind of book that would make for an excellent classroom read, with lots of side projects to go along with the medieval subject matter. The audiobook, read by three narrators who each take on a multitude of voices, is excellent as well.

The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island, by Dana Alison Levy

This one was pure pleasure. I approach the Fletchers more with love than with critical distance, but this second volume of their adventures takes on more serious themes than the first one did. I think the subplot about racism on a tiny New England island works well, but I'd like to hear other thoughts on the matter. The main plot - a greedy real estate investor threatens a beloved landmark - is a tale as old as time, but drawing on the classics is fitting in a nostalgic/madcap family novel like this. Rainbow families deserve sepia-toned comfort fare too.

...and many more. 

I will be at the Youth Media Awards next week, and before then I hope to read a couple more books. At the top of my list: Ghost, by Jason Reynolds, and The Best Man, by Richard Peck. As always, I can't wait to hear what the committee chooses!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Newbery Wayback Machine: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg (1968)

Happy new year loyal Mockers!

In 2017 we will continue to focus on past Newbery winners. We will occasionally blog about current contenders, as the fancy strikes us, but we'll mainly stick to our travels in ye olde...

And today we go back to 1968. 1968 was a historic year. Apollo 8 orbited the moon, MLK and RFK were assassinated, Star Trek gave us the first interracial kiss on television, and, of course, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg won the Newbery Medal (a significant win, as Konigsburg was also a runner up that year for Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, the only double honor in Newbery history.)

It's the story of twelve year old Claudia Kincaid. Seemingly disenfranchised by an unjust lack of respect/affection/attention in her family, she decides to run away from home. She chooses to recruit her nine year old brother Jamie to accompany her because they connect intellectually in a way she doesn't connect with her other siblings, and because Jamie is independently wealthy due to the fact he regularly hustles his classmates at cards, and they'll need cash for the plan to succeed. The plan, by the way, is to run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in nearby New York City, because if you're going to run away why not do it to the home of many of the most sophisticated works of art in the world? While living in the museum Claudia becomes fascinated by a sculpture of an angel that the Met acquired for a shockingly low price considering it may be the work of famous renaissance artist Michelangelo. Claudia makes it her mission to confirm the sculpture is by Michelangelo, a quest which eventually leads her and Jamie to the Connecticut home of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the eccentric patron of the arts who sold the angel to the Met, and her mixed-up files, an archive, organized in no discernible order other than what makes sense to Mrs. Frankweiler, of secrets, including the secrets of the angel: who sculpted it, how it came to be in her possession, and why she sold it.

This book was one of my favorites when I was a child, because I was enchanted by the ideas of 1. running away to a museum, and 2. having an archive in my home when I grew up. As an adult I still love museums, and imagining where I would sleep if I ran away to one. A few years ago I had the pleasure to visit the Met, and there were many fantastic places to spend the night if one were so inclined! I also have not one but two libraries in my home, and I live in a very narrow townhouse (a homeslice, if you will) so that's really saying something about living your dreams. I was excited, but anxious to re-read From the Mixed-Up Files as an adult. Would I find it as enchanting as I did when I was a child? The answer is yes, perhaps even more so.

From the Mixed-Up Files is a treat. It's a story that appeals to children. Children love stories about running away from home. It is known. It is exciting to think about what you would do and how you would survive without the care and supervision of your parent or guardian. It is particularly exciting to read about it in a book, and live vicariously through the characters, because actually running away from home is scary and dangerous. Claudia and Jamie, thoughtful and resourceful children, are likable, relatable characters. The narrative style - the book is told from the perspective of Mrs. Frankweiler who is writing to her lawyer, Saxonberg - lends the story an inclusive, conspiratorial tone, which is fun and mysterious. But its greatest strength lies in what the book is really about: the desire all people have to feel special.

It is revealed that Claudia felt compelled to run away from home, to live in a museum, to discover the truth about the angel sculpture, because she was missing something in her life. She felt ordinary, and she wanted to feel special instead. She wanted to have a secret, to keep safe inside her, to comfort her in the assurance she was extraordinary. And it is revealed that Mrs. Frankweiler, though an accomplished, if odd, person, is also missing something. She never had grandchildren despite secretly wanting them. At the end of the novel, both of them get what they need: Claudia learns the secrets of the angel, to keep as long as she likes, and the children adopt Mrs. Frankweiler as an unofficial grandmother, with plans to continually visit her. I thought the book was perhaps making a statement about what it was like to be a woman in 1960's America, feeling wrong or uncomfortable just being yourself, to always want something more, whether or not it's attainable, but the more I think about it, the more I feel that idea, that sensation, is universal and timeless.

From the Mixed-Up Files works as a think piece and a delightful piece of literature for children, making it, in my opinion, a modern classic. I think it truly earned its Newbery Medal, as well as its place in many people's hearts as a childhood favorite. It belongs on the shelves of any respectable library collection for children, and hopefully people will continue to discover and cherish it well into the future.

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.