Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Winner's Circle: When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead (2010)

There's a statement that I've seen attributed to W.B. Yeats, in which he likens the ending of a poem to the lid of a box clicking shut. That's an aspirational statement for poetry, and it's something that is even rarer in prose. I would argue that that sort of perfect coming together of all the elements in the plot isn't necessary for a novel to succeed -- Breadcrumbs is a recent example of a book that I'd say fully succeeds despite doing precisely the opposite -- but when it happens, it's a magic thing.

And, oh, does it ever happen in When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead's novel that lapped the field and took the 2010 Newbery. So many elements come into play during the first part of the book -- mysterious notes, changing friendships, the main character Miranda's obsession with A Wrinkle in Time, Miranda's mother's intense preparation for her appearance on The $20,000 Pyramid, the crazy man on the corner, and a first job for Miranda and two of her friends are just a few of them. And then, in the last 40 pages, they all come together, in a whirlwind confluence of clues that left me, as an adult reader sitting in my apartment on my loveseat, almost gasping for breath. The plotting in this book is stunning, not just for a children's book, but for a book, period.

Not that every question is completely answered, mind you. There are glimpses of a future world that are left unexplained -- which is perfectly understandable, given that no one in the book is in a position to explain them. But these hints of the universe outside the confines of the novel aren't unnecessary to the plot, and they add atmosphere and tension to Miranda's struggle to understand the events unfolding around and through her.

The other elements of the book are also well done; the characters are well-developed and easy to identify with, and the New York City setting is clearly and vividly drawn. But I keep coming back to the stunning plotting. I don't usually do that -- I know that as a reader, I'm drawn to character and description rather than plot. But it's such an outstanding feature of When You Reach Me that I think it deserves special note.

It's my goal to read all of the Newbery books (not there yet, but making progress) and to write about each of them here (two down, 89 to go). Some of them are controversial, some haven't held up all that well, and some just aren't that well known anymore. But none of those things hold true about When You Reach Me. It's one of my favorite Newberys of all time, and one that I think best exemplifies the qualities of the award: it's not just an excellent children's book, but excellent literature, a novel that rewards close study and careful concentration while still being a gripping read. A classic, no question.

Friday, January 27, 2012

2013 Contenders: The Lions of Little Rock

 
As The Lions of Little Rock opens, Marlee Nisbett is almost literally voiceless. She suffers from acute social anxiety and speaks only to her immediate family. When Liz, the new girl in town, begins to draw Marlee out of her comfort zone, Marlee’s awareness of the world slowly begins to expand. It is 1958 in Little Rock, AK, and the governor has closed the high schools rather than obey federal orders to integrate. Marlee’s family is split on the issue, and Marlee sees a lot but says very little. Then one day she arrives at school to find that Liz has vanished, amid rumors that she was a colored girl caught passing for white. Marlee, along with the rest of the city, is forced to decide whether to speak out for justice in the face of bigotry and intimidation, or to stay silent and look the other way.

Kristin Levine knows how to take a theme – finding one’s voice, in this case – and run with it. The power of speech is a thread that runs through the novel and serves to weave together the personal and the political. The plot is elegantly structured - beginning and ending with Marlee conquered by, and then conquering, her fear of heights. The extended metaphor of the zoo lions as the voice of courage and conscience is a powerful one, and allows the setting to thematically echo the plot. Characters, for the most part, are complex and well-drawn, and skillful pacing builds suspense as historical events unfold. 

This is one to watch. Starred reviews in both School Library Journal and Kirkus.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Gender and the Newbery

There's been some interesting conversation in the listserv world about children's literature awards and gender of late, and Heather mentioned an essay by Ursula Le Guin about awards and gender in a recent comment here on the blog. (Le Guin, by the way, in a correction to the essay Heather mentioned, refers to the Newbery as a "rare example of gender equity.") So I took some time to look in detail at the Newbery awards breakdown by gender and by decade, just to see what, if anything, the history of the award says -- whether it's equitable, as Le Guin says, skewed, as some listserv folks have suggested, or some combination.


THE 1920s

The first Newbery was awarded in 1922, to a male author, Henrik Willem van Loon. And, in fact, all eight of the winners from the '20s were male. Yep, a clean sweep for the first mostly-decade of the prize.

The Honor books (or "runners up," as they were styled then) are more evenly divided. There's not actually a requirement in the Newbery critera that any Honor books have to be named, and in 1923, 1924, and 1927, there weren't, in fact, any Honors. Of the 18 Honors that were named during the decade, eight went to men and ten to women. In 1922, the five inaugural Honors went to four men and one woman, but after that first year, there was a marked shift toward female authors for the Honors.

THE 1930s

As if to atone for the previous decade, all ten of the Newbery winners in the 1930s were female. I guess that's one way to achieve parity.

The '30s were also the decade with the most Honor books, as the modern consensus that each year should have 1-5 Honors hadn't yet been reached. (There were actually a record eight Honors in 1934.) The same female-centric skew appears in the Honors of this decade, with 43 going to women and 11 to men*.

*It should be noted that I'm counting each award separately, so Hildegarde Swift, who Honored twice, counts as two, not one. Also, I'm counting each author separately for co-authored books. It doesn't change the trend of the results much either way though.

THE 1940s

This was the first and only decade to date in which the winners were evenly split by gender, 5-5. The Honors, however, were even more skewed than the 1930s: 34 female, 7 male. In the six years from 1941 through 1946, 22 honor books were named, and every single one of them had a female author. That boggles my mind, even given that '41, '42, and '45 at least had male winners. It's one of the least statistically likely things I've seen recently.

THE 1950s

Seven female winners, three male winners. Most people who like pointing out bad awards choices will tell you that it should have been 6-4, given that 1953 is The Year That Secret of the Andes Somehow Won And Charlotte's Web Didn't, but I sadly haven't been given history-rewriting powers yet.

Women still dominated the Honors as well, though it's less dramatic than in the previous two decades. 23 went to women, 17 to men (including two separate Honors for Meindert DeJong in 1954). DeJong also got Honors in 1957 and 1959, and won the award outright in 1955 for The Wheel on the School, so it was a pretty awesome decade to be Meindert.

THE 1960s

Again, seven female winners versus three male. Joseph Krumgold and Elizabeth George Speare both picked up their second wins, and E.L. Konigsburg managed to out-DeJong DeJong in 1968 by winning the Newbery for From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and getting an Honor for Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth. The moral of that story, I think, is that you should give your children's novels the longest titles possible.

For the first time ever, the Honors swung in the men's direction, 14-12. It helped that Isaac Bashevis Singer got an Honor three years in a row, something that's only ever been done by one other person, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Curiously, neither Singer nor Wilder ever actually won the medal.

THE 1970s

Eight female winners, two male. The male winners were William H. Armstrong in 1970 and Robert C. O'Brien in 1972, meaning that we got them out of the way early too. In fact, after O'Brien's win for Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, a male author wouldn't win again until Sid Fleischman took the medal for The Whipping Boy in 1987. That's fourteen -- count 'em, 14 -- consecutive female winners, including Katherine Paterson twice.

The Honors aren't quite that one-sided, but they did shift back towards the women. 19 Honors went to female authors, against eight for males.

THE 1980s

Once Sid Fleischman won in '87, the next two awards went to men as well (one of whom was Sid's son, Paul Fleischman, in '89), so the winners for the decade were 7 women and three men. The Honors were almost exactly like the previous decade: 18 women, eight men.

THE 1990s

Another eight female winners, including seven in a row from 1992 through 1998. Actually, the exact same number of Newberys were awarded in the '90s to Lois Lowry as to all male authors combined.

The Honors were closer than that, 14-12 for the women. 1991, when Jerry Spinelli won for Maniac Magee, and the only Honor went to Avi, was actually the first year with no female representation since 1969.

THE 2000s

Six female winners, four males, though I know plenty of people who would no doubt argue that Neil Gaiman should count extra. That's actually the most male winners in a decade since...the 1940s. The Honors also were much more clearly for the women this time, 23 against 10.

THE 2010s

So far, two female winners and one male, which is inconclusive. The Honors, however, are running 7-3 for the women at the moment, largely based on 2011, in which the winner and all four Honor books were written by female authors.


So...what we have, given these numbers, is an award that, especially post-1929, is a remarkably female-dominated one. Of the 91 winners, 60 -- almost two-thirds -- have been women, as have over two-thirds of the Honor winners (208 of 304).

I don't know the reasons for that -- I've heard several more or less plausible theories, but nothing that's been backed up with hard evidence. I'd be curious to look into that further. But what I do know is that, historically at least, the Newbery is one of the few major literary awards in which women vastly outnumber men among the winners and other honorees -- and have for almost the entirety of the award's existence.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Post-YMA Thoughts, by Rachael

First of all, oh em gee, it was so exciting to file past the crowds to our Arbuthnot Committee's reserved seats at the press conference. I felt like quite the fancy pants.

Schneider

Very glad they found a place for Wonderstruck, since I still believe it's one of the best of the year. The one question I had about it (whether it was plausible for Rose to write out such a long story) was answered in the affirmative by someone in my Morris Seminar discussion group.

Printz

Really happy to see Why We Broke Up honored. It's a special book, and it shows Handler's versatility as an author.

Haven't read Where Things Come Back, but Walter Mayes was freaking out about both of its wins (this and the Morris Award for a book by a debut author) in the row in front of me, so I will have to make the effort. I also ran into a committee member in the airport who was (of course) singing its praises.

Odyssey

In retrospect, this feels a little bit like a much-lauded film winning an award for editing. The analogy is not perfect - I love audiobooks and have much respect for their producers, and I heard this one is excellent - but wow, Okay for Now had a lot of buzz going in and... this was it. An Odyssey honor.

On the other hand, the medalist in this category - Rotters - sounds quite intriguing.

Arbuthnot


My committee! Unlike most of the other awards/honors announced at the YMA, the Arbuthnot lecturer is chosen at the previous year's Annual Conference. So we've been sitting on this one since last June. Our choice of lecturer - Michael Morpurgo - seemed to be well-received by the crowd.

Sibert


Of course everyone* was shocked that Amelia Lost didn't get a nod. But you know what? Just in my Morris Seminar discussion group, we found two factual errors in photo captions. We'll never know why the committee chose not to bestow their approval on it, but I'm sure they had their reasons.

*Everyone = the 10-15 people I happened to speak to.

Geisel

The medalist was a surprise, but I was so happy to see I Want My Hat Back recognized somewhere. I would have preferred Caldecott, but I think it does indeed work well as a beginning reader. It is also (as Jonathan Hunt pointed out re: I Broke My Trunk) basically a dramatic text, and hence provides an inviting read-aloud experience for the new reader.

Caldecott

These are all clearly excellent choices. No real surprises. A few of my favorites were missing, but as I said, I think 2011 was a banner year for picture books. Brother Sun, Sister Moon and Naamah and the Ark at Night, I hope you find your audiences, because you deserve much love.

It's hard to argue with A Ball for Daisy as the big winner. I wonder sometimes whether wordless books have an advantage in this category, but this one definitely uses wordlessness to full emotional effect.

Newbery 

Finally, Gantos gets the gold! Thoughts:

1. A funny** book wins the Newbery! That's weird.
2. A historical fiction, coming-of-age story with a male protagonist wins the Newbery. That's not weird.
3. Boy oh boy, am I glad that I already booked Jack Gantos for our author visit this spring.
4. This is going to be an excellent Newbery speech. Sam and I already bought our banquet tickets.

And then, of course, the honor books (only two!). Inside Out and Back Again is a solid, unsurprising choice, though verse novels are not my thing. Breaking Stalin's Nose was a total surprise, though shrewdly forecasted by the Horn Book. I can't wait to read it!

**Allegedly funny, I should say. I didn't laugh, but then I was rather humorlessly trying to work my way through a long Mock Newbery reading list, so I'll probably give it another go.


The Winner's Circle: Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos (2012)

The first time I read Dead End in Norvelt, it was as pre-reading for the Maryland Mock Newbery. And, to be entirely honest, if I hadn't been reading it as preparation for an awards discussion, it might have been the last time I thought about it, either for better or for worse. It just didn't make that much of an impression on me, as a great book, a terrible book, or a not-quite-either but fascinating one. It was pleasant enough, but not a novel I'd return to.

But this seemed to be not a typical reaction to the book at all, and even less so now that it's won the 2012 Newbery Award. I've been rolling this over in my head, and it's brought two things to mind.

ONE: COMEDY IS HARD (to judge)

It seems to me there's much more variation in opinion regarding what makes good comedy than good tragedy. It's so much of a personal choice. Charlie Chaplin, Dennis Leary, Cathy, Robin Williams, South Park, Friends, Gary Larson, and SpongeBob Squarepants all were not only popular but critically acclaimed, but I defy you to find a single human being who enjoys them all.

Several of the librarians with whom I discussed Dead End in Norvelt at the Mock Newbery thought that it was one of the most hilarious things they'd read in ages; they were practically in tears while we were talking about it. I hardly laughed at all while reading it, but I'm very hesitant to say that was because it "wasn't funny." I didn't find it particularly funny, but that's not at all the same thing.

And this brings up an important point -- how is one to critically evaluate a book that's so dependent on the reader finding it funny? Maybe that's one reason the Newbery committee has historically shied away from humorous books. And if Dead End in Norvelt isn't exactly a Daniel Pinkwater book, it still depends more on humor than almost any Newbery book in recent memory. (I found parts of The Higher Power of Lucky [2007] quite amusing, but I'm unconvinced that there's been a Newbery winner that's at its heart even a gentle comedy since maybe Ginger Pye [1952].)  It may be that congratulations are in order for this year's committee for not being afraid of a book that tries to bring a smile to readers' faces, even if it's by nature not going to affect each reader equally.

TWO: ARE THE ANTIFREEZE COMMERCIALS RIGHT? (in that, when you peak, you win)

Something else that I think is worth considering is where the book that wins an author the Newbery (or Newberys, if you're one of the five authors who can say that) fits into their career. This divides roughly into three categories:

1) Authors for whom their Newbery-winning book is the unquestioned high point of their career. Madeline L'Engle wrote lots of other books, including several that were quite good, and even one (A Ring of Endless Light) that won an Honor, but I think there's little question that A Wrinkle in Time was her finest moment. Hendrik Willem van Loon wrote a plethora of other books, but none with the staying power of The Story of Mankind.

2) Authors where it isn't so clear cut, but their Newbery winner was definitely among their best work. Was Holes Louis Sachar's best book? There's an army of Sideways Stories From Wayside School fans who'll fight you about it, but at the very least, it's up there. Plenty of people prefer Stargirl, and Wringer won an Honor, but Maniac Magee is certainly on Jerry Spinelli's list of career highlights. Lois Lenski won two Honors and has supporters of many of her other books, but Strawberry Girl is definitely one of the best moments in her work.

3) Authors who won a Newbery for a book that was without question not their career high point. I read and liked Dear Mr. Henshaw as a kid, but Beverly Cleary wrote Henry Huggins, Ramona and Her Father, and Runaway Ralph. I think it likely that Avi will be remembered as the author of The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle or The Good Dog rather than Crispin: The Cross of Lead. And I think your average reader would be surprised to find that, although Marguerite Henry did indeed win a Newbery Award, it was for King of the Wind, rather than Misty of Chincoteague.

An important addendum to number three is that sometimes this is dictated by the year of the Newbery win. To go back to Cleary's case, for example, Ramona and Her Father lost to Bridge to Terabithia in 1978. Bridge makes a lot of people's lists of the top 10 Newbery winners ever; it would have been an incredibly difficult book to beat. In 1984, the year of Dear Mr. Henshaw's victory, the closest competition was from The Sign of the Beaver, when Elizabeth George Speare already had two Newberys, and A Solitary Blue, when Cynthia Voigt had already won a Newbery the previous year for another book in the same series. Genius isn't equally distributed in time, and an author doesn't have any control over what else is published in a given year.

I wonder if it's possible that we'll view Gantos's career and the place of the Newbery Award within it as an example of the third category, if his lasting legacy will be built on Joey Pigza Loses Control (his Honor book in 2001, a crowded year that included not only the winner, A Year Down Yonder, but also Because of Winn-Dixie and The Wanderer) and Rotten Ralph, rather than on Dead End in Norvelt. There's certainly no shame in that, especially as he was an author whose possession of a legacy wasn't in question even before he took the Newbery.


A lot to think about, no doubt. But that's always the fun of the award! And now, there's another whole year in front of us, with more books to read and discussions to have!

Monday, January 23, 2012

2012 Awards: Sam's Rapid Reactions

A Few Quick Thoughts from this year's YMAs:

~ It was nice to see Wonderstruck pick up a Schneider award. It's one of those books that no one really knew what to do with because of its format -- and you knew Brian Selznick wasn't going to snare a second Caldecott -- so I'm glad they found a place to honor it.

~ Congrats to Susan Cooper for the Margaret Edwards award. I did have a moment of sadness that William Sleator, who was my hero when I was a young adult myself, and who died this past year, never picked up this award. Interstellar Pig, House of Stairs, The Green Futures of Tycho, and Singularity loom large in my teenage memories.

~ I'm not a picture book expert -- and I'm even less of one now that my daughter is out of that age range -- but I do keep up at least a little, and the Caldecott win for A Ball for Daisy took me by surprise.

~ Not the best day for some of the favorites. Amelia Lost! was completely shut out -- I was shocked it didn't pick up at least a Sibert honor. And the only award for Okay For Now was an audiobook honor.

~ Nice Arbuthnot choice in Michael Morpurgo by Rachael and the rest of the committee! That will be a popular speech.

~ Rachael looks even more like a genius because due to her efforts, Jack Gantos is already booked as our author visit for the Eastern Shore libraries this spring, and has been for months. Nice!

~ Oh, Breadcrumbs. I, at least, will always treasure you.

~And...Dead End in Norvelt. One of the two books from this last year's Maryland Mock Newbery that I didn't post about. I'll gather the rest of my thoughts and put them up here before long!

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Mysterious Case of Co-Authors

Definition 4 in the Newbery Award Terms and Criteria states that a book need not have a single author in order to be eligible for the award. It can be the product of co-authors (as well, unlike for instance, the Nobel Prize, as someone who is deceased, so long as the work hasn't been previously published). I was thinking about this because of the appearance of Patrick Ness's A Monster Calls on several Newbery shortlists, even though that's not a co-authored novel in the usual sense of things, given that, according to the jacket, it was only "inspiried by an idea from" Siobhan Dowd. (Perhaps a good thing for the book's award eligibility, given that although for seven years in the middle of her life, Dowd did in fact live in NYC, she was a British writer who spent the vast majority of her life living there.)

But regardless of how one categorizes Ness's book, it's fascinating to me that, even though 90 Newbery awards have been handed out so far, not one has ever been given to a book with more than a single author. In fact, only seven co-authored books have ever even received an Honor, and three of those were by the same two people: Mary & Conrad Buff, who got an Honor for Big Tree in 1947, The Apple and the Arrow in 1952, and Magic Maize in 1954, but never took home the big prize. Even that hasn't occurred in almost four decades, since James Lincoln Collier & Christopher Collier's My Brother Sam Is Dead snagged an Honor in 1975. (The other three co-authored Honors, for you trivia buffs out there, were Song of the Pines, by Walter & Marion Havighurst in 1950; Mr. Popper's Penguins, by Richard & Florence Atwater in 1939; and the immortal Ood-Le-Uk the Wanderer, by Alice Lide & Margaret Johansen in 1931.)

I don't really know what the reason for this is -- whether people who write the kind of books the Newbery is looking for tend to write alone, the publishing industry isn't friendly to co-authored books, or some other thing or things that are escaping me. I'd be very curious to know. But I find it fascinating that there's a specific line in the criteria for something that seems not unreasonable, but has never, ever actually happened.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

2012 Contenders: Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu

"No matter how many theories you apply to it, life presses on indifferently toward its own inscrutable ends. The fun is in asking questions. Answers are a form of defeat."
          ~Roger Ebert

*****

Ebert was talking there about the 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad, but he could just as well have been talking about Breadcrumbs. And if that isn't a moral that one expects from a children's book, it only adds to the power of a novel as hypnotic as a blizzard, as ominous as a dream, as fragmented as reality.

The plot is an extended reinterpretation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," set partly in modern-day Minnesota, and partly in The Woods, one of the most unfriendly landscapes in the history of children's fantasy. Fifth-grader Hazel Anderson's best friend Jack is missing, and she takes it upon herself to find and rescue him, even in the face of mounting evidence that he may not want to be rescued after all.

The prose is masterfully poetic, evocatively descriptive, and desperately sad. Indeed, though I've read children's books in which sadder things happened, I'm not sure I've ever read one in which the tone was so consistently haunting, melancholic, and existentially troubled. Even the book's ending, the nominal conclusion of the heroic quest, refuses to bask in happiness or allow Hazel a moment of pure joy.

The book's received decidedly mixed reviews, which I think is related to the fact that it resists so many conventions of popular literature in general and children's fantasy in particular. Even the most frightening of the characters, the Snow Queen herself, hardly qualifies as a villain, and there's no Aslan or Gandalf to help guide Hazel on her quest either. Secondary characters flit through the book half-visibly, especially in the second part; we see the portions of their stories that intersect with Hazel's, but no more. The precise meaning of several of the book's most arresting images -- the wolves, the clock in the woods, the demon with the mirror -- remains maddeningly obscure. Even though various people, including Hazel at times, want the plot to be organized as a classic good vs. evil conflict, it steadfastly refuses to go that way.

We don't expect that from our fantasy novels, especially for children. We expect archetypes, black and white, plots that tie together all the loose ends at their conclusion. But isn't a lack of those more like the way life actually operates? Existence is painted in shades of gray. There are few true villains, and fewer heroes. People come and go from our lives, often with little explanation and with seemingly important questions unresolved. Even narrative itself is an illusion, a cloak we weave from broken threads to try and keep the cold of chaos away. What, under those circumstances, is more real: an epic battle of Good and Evil, or the attempts of a flawed but determined girl to save a fracturing friendship, with results that, even at the end of the story, aren't fully visible? As the Jens Lekman song goes, "What's broken can always be fixed; what's fixed will always be broken."

Strangely, given that it's a fantasy novel, I think many people would like this book more if it were less true. But I love it for its truthfulness, its gorgeous weariness, and its (successful) attempts to find beauty and meaning in things that are not only broken, but both being fixed and breaking more all the time. I gave it five stars on Goodreads, and it's my single favorite book of the past year. It may be too divisive to win the Newbery, but if I had a vote, it's the one I'd pick.

And that's my two cents.

Morris the Third: Nonfiction

Okay! A whirlwind round-up of the last third of the titles, since my ride to the airport will be here in half an hour.

Swirl by Swirl, written by Joyce Sidman and illustrated by Beth Krommes

Wow. This is a match made in author/illustrator heaven. Krommes's exuberant scratchboard illustrations fit seamlessly with Sidman's poetic text, combining to emphasize the power, grace, and ubiquity of nature's spirals. Each page is filled with things to discover, without being too busy or overwhelming. The text is lyrical while still remaining perfectly accessible to a K-2 audience, and while still managing to impart an impressive amount of good information (expanded upon by the author's note at the end).


Possible awards? Perfectly eligible for Caldecott and Sibert, say I.

Coral Reefs, by Jason Chin

The watercolor illustrations are ingenious. The text, in comparison, is a bit pedestrian. Sam thinks the text is uneven in terms of reading level as well, but I haven't examined it closely enough, on the sentence level, to know whether I agree.

Possible awards? I'd be surprised if this placed anywhere, though the illustrations are commendable.

Amelia Lost, by Candace Fleming

Another one that's at the top of many Newbery lists, but I'm not seeing it. It does what it does very well, but I think Sam has managed to convince me that it doesn't actually rise to the level of "literature." I think if you're looking for literary nonfiction, Swirl by Swirl is actually closer to the mark.

But! It is very, very good. I can only imagine how difficult it is to create suspense in a story where the reader knows the ending going in, but Fleming does. She also deals with the less pleasant aspects of Earhart's life and personality unflinchingly, but gracefully. A perfectly paced, information-packed examination of a fascinating woman.

Possible awards? I mark it "Sibert" but maybe the Newbery committee will disagree with me.

Heart and Soul, by Kadir Nelson 

I think I have the same problem with this book that Sam has with Coral Reefs. In taking on a very ambitious project - a chronicle of all of American history through the eyes of African Americans - I think Nelson struggles to find his footing in terms of tone. The narrator's point-of-view limits - or should limit - the vocabulary she uses, so it feels awkward to me when she's telling anecdotes one moment and spitting out a page full of facts and dates the next. I think this worked better with the collective narrator of We Are the Ship.

The illustrations, of course, are gorgeous. They are also very static. This may be a deliberate choice - the creation of a sort of African-American National Portrait Gallery. Either way, it does lend the book a different feeling than more dynamic illustrations would give it.

Possible awards? Caldecott, Sibert (though is it strictly nonfiction?), Coretta Scott King.

And with that... I'm off to Dallas!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

More Morris: The Picture Books

I Want My Hat Back, by Jon Klassen

While I enjoy artistic fireworks (Brother Sun, Sister Moon is gorgeous), I'm almost more impressed by simplicity. This book says so much in such an understated way. The subtlety and static nature of the illustrations. The way they echo the deadpan humor of the text in the unchanging expressions of the characters. The emotional cue of the SUDDEN RED BACKGROUND to indicate bear's delayed, angry reaction. The way he runs "backward" through the book. The parts of the story that are told only through pictures (I can just hear the storytime crowds - "There's your hat! There!").


And the humor! The humor is timeless and appeals to both children and adults. How often do you come across a truly funny book that also feels like a classic?


Possible awards: Caldecott, please? Please? If this isn't a distinguished and primarily visual experience, I don't know what is.

Grandpa Green, by Lane Smith

This one is coming up at the top of a lot of Mock Caldecott lists, and for good reason. I am most impressed by the way the two styles of illustration both delineate between the present-day characters and the historical events, and also help to intertwine the two threads. And, of course, there is the tension between the straight narrative of the text and the fantastical interpretations of it within the topiary. The boy and the grandpa are drawn so sensitively and expressively, and the theme of building intergenerational bridges through art and story is masterfully expressed.

That last, wordless spread, with its suggestion of the tradition being carried forward, is... well, I said I liked fireworks. Even quiet, poignant ones. Wow. I think I've talked myself into liking this book even better than I did before.

Possible awards: Um, Caldecott. You know it'll be at least an honor.

The Money We'll Save, by Brock Cole

This little book is getting lots of love for both illustrations and text. Let's start with illustrations. The loose style and classic feel fit perfectly with the gentle, funny, early 20th century story, and each character is rendered distinctly and expressively. Some of the characters even border on the grotesque, in a Hogarthian way. There are lots of extra plot details to spot within the illustrations as well.

But there's plenty to love in the text too. It's stylistically charming, with lively dialogue and great pacing. It also establishes characters with impressive efficiency.

Possible awards: Heavy Medal has mentioned it as a Newbery contender, but I think too much of the textual humor is dependent on the illustrations (such as exactly why it wasn't safe to go out in the yard without an umbrella). In another year, I would bet on a Caldecott nod, but this is a strong, strong year for picture books.

Little White Rabbit, by Kevin Henkes

Oh, Kevin Henkes, you sensitive man, with your dreamy rabbits and your misunderstood ten-year-old girls. How do you do it?

Henkes uses space so well. As in Where the Wild Things Are, reality is contained within boxes here, while fantasy spreads all the way out to the edges of the page. And each of those fantastical, two-page spreads is just... joyous! You know? They're just suffused with imaginative energy. And he is a master of line as well. With the simplest of lines, he firmly establishes this story within the emotional world of a preschooler: feeling safe to explore the world because they are secure in the knowledge of parental love.

Possible awards: Maybe a Caldecott honor. Again, too strong of a year for this one to medal, I think, and it is actually quite similar to Kitten's First Full Moon in plot and theme, so not "distinguished" in that way, per se?

Next up: Morris Part Trois: Nonfiction!



2012 Contenders: Amelia Lost, by Candace Fleming

The Newbery guidelines specifically state that "the committee shall consider all forms of writing—fiction, non-fiction, and poetry," and the very first Newbery medal was, of course, awarded to a work of nonfiction, The Story of Mankind. However, in anything like recent years, it's an extreme rarity that anything other than a novel receives the top honor. In fact, since 1956, when Jean Lee Latham's lightly fictionalized biography Carry On, Mr. Bowditch won the medal, it's only happened four times: twice for poetry (A Visit to William Blake's Inn in 1982, and Joyful Noise in 1989), once for drama (Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! in 2008), and once for nonfiction (Lincoln: A Photobiography in 1988). It just doesn't happen very often.

Nonfiction may be the toughest sell of all for the Newbery. Most nonfiction, after all, is essentially informational. The kinds of adult nonfiction that we think of as making a "distinguished contribution to literature" tend to be essays or "creative" nonfiction, things written by the Annie Dillards and John McPhees and Studs Terkels of the world. Precious little of that appears for a children's audience; what's published is almost entirely "nonliterary." Heck, even, though I greatly admire Russell Freedman's work and consider him essentially the best at what he does, the only nonfiction award in the past five and a half decades still doesn't look all that good in hindsight, what with 1988 being The Year That Hatchet Didn't Win.

With that in mind, one of the books that is getting a lot of buzz in the week leading up to the Newbery is Candace Fleming's Amelia Lost: The Life And Disappearance Of Amelia Earhart. The illustrious Elizabeth Bird is even picking it as this year's winner. It was one of the candidates for the Maryland Mock Newbery, and though, for the record, it was the one I liked, I'm uncomfortable with giving it the award.

This is despite the fact that, what it sets out to do, it does very well. I find most children's biographies tiresome, especially given that they are often forced to sanitize the more problematic portions of their subjects' lives. Amelia Lost, on the other hand, is a captivating read, one that makes excellent use of chapters that intercut Amelia's life story with her disappearance and its immediate aftermath. The structure goes a long way toward keeping the story interesting for a young reader, and for this reader as well -- no mean feat, given that we already know even before picking up the book that the ending is as predetermined as that of the Titanic.

It also doesn't shy away from Amelia's downsides. She was unafraid to take risks, a champion of women's rights, and an important figure in American history; she was also a mediocre pilot, a master manipulator of the media, and prone to skimping on preparation -- which is a large part of the reason that her last flight ended in disaster. All of this is covered in the book, in a sensitive and honest manner.

I think my problem is that, though it tells a good story, it doesn't transcend the story it tells, which is what makes something -- and especially something nonfictional -- a "distinguished literary contribution" to me. It was a great biography, but it wasn't great literature, not in the way that I'd hope for in my Newbery winners. It told me the facts, and told them very well, but it didn't spend much time meditating on what the facts mean, either directly or indirectly; the last half-page was about Amelia's legacy, but that was essentially it. I contrast it with something like Amos Fortune, Free Man, the 1951 winner, in which the story of Amos Fortune's life becomes a meditation on the nature of freedom itself.

I may be alone in thinking this way, and in a year that's generally been regarded as weak and without a clear winner, Amelia Lost may well take home the medal. But while I like the book and think it's well constructed, it doesn't hit the Newbery mark for me.

And that's my two cents.

The world's most finicky book evaluation seminar!

Yes, it's true. For me, the name "Morris" has only one connotation. Suddenly I'm craving tuna. Or, you know, random bits of ground-up, nameless fish.

I leave tomorrow for ALA Midwinter, and on Friday I will have the privilege of attending the <monster truck announcer voice> INVITATIONAL BILL MORRIS SEMINAR</monster truck announcer voice>. We, the lucky few, will meet to discuss some of the year's best books. We will hone our literary finickiness. We will demand the very freshest, most odiferous illustration.

Ok. Enough with the semi-disgusting cat food metaphors. Since I'm spending the day going over the books I have to read for the seminar, I am making this Morris Seminar Prep Post in lieu of the traditional Youth Media Awards Prediction Post.

Here are my thoughts, in no particular order...

Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos

Notable elements: character. You have to be a special kind of person to name the protagonist of your novel after yourself, and you have to be a special kind of writer to then look back with unflinching self-deprecation - but also sympathy - at your own hapless youth. And he directs the same off-kilter but ultimately forgiving gaze at the rest of the cast of fully fleshed-out characters - Mom, Dad, Miss Volker, and even Spizz.

(Bunny creeps me out, though. That description of her running under tables kept making me picture her as some kind of hobbit.)

Also notable: setting. The town, of course, is a character in its own right. Voice/style: slapstick murder mysteries have been done before, but the ratio of wackiness to thoughtfulness (in the midst of all the zany happenings, Jack does quietly come of age) is fairly unique. 

Award possibilities? It's a long shot for the Newbery, I think. It would be difficult to build consensus around a book this weird. Maybe an honor?

Okay for Now, by Gary Schmidt

Well, I already told you that I don't love it, and I don't hate it either. There are certainly some distinguished elements. Voice, most notably. Doug's voice is strong and well-defined, and establishes him clearly as an unreliable narrator - lying most often, interestingly, to himself. It's also a multi-layered voice, taking on a new richness and depth as he contemplates the Audubon paintings.

The theme - as stated by Schmidt, "the power of art and story over despair and loss" - permeates the book. It's about the transformational power of art, but it's also about the stories we tell - to ourselves, about ourselves, about the world - and the way they shape not only our perception of the world, but the world itself. That's powerful, and Schmidt handles it quite well.

Award possibilities: Newbery, obviously. It's a front-runner, and at the top of many Mock Newbery lists. Not as obvious a choice as When You Reach Me was, though, so the committee could still surprise us.

Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu

I love this book, and I'm glad that Betsy Bird does too, or I would start to feel like I'm going crazy. It got a lukewarm reception in the Goodreads Mock Newbery group, and by Heavy Medal, and people really dislike the ending.

Distinguished elements: character. God, Hazel is an amazing heroine. She is a completely believable, flawed ten-year-old girl who's having a really crappy year and who reacts appropriately. That's what makes her heroic deeds amazing: she's just an ordinary girl. I've seen people argue that Harry Potter would be better if it were about Hermione - if the protagonist were not "chosen," but had to earn hero status through bravery and intelligence. Breadcrumbs should please those people.

Setting (both icy Minnesota and icy woods) and the way the structure of the book echoes the theme (the fragmented nature of the woods narrative is on purpose, y'all!) are also stellar.

Award possibilities: major long shot for the Newbery. Too sad and structurally weird to rally around.

Wonderstruck, by Brian Selznick

I think everyone agrees that this is one of the best books of the year, but no one knows what to do with it. Let's pretend we can consider both words and pictures at the same time, though.

Distinguished elements: character. Ben and Rose, obviously, and it's so interesting to see the way he develops each of their characters in parallel - one through words, the other through pictures. Also impressive is how Ben's mom - deceased throughout the book - is a real, fully present character. And Jamie (and his relationship with Ben).

Setting: who among us did not read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler as children and want to run away to a museum? Selznick takes that trope to a new museum and makes it entirely his own. And Minnesota... and the diorama(s)...

I'll stop now, but damn, Selznick! Why you gotta be so awesome?

Award possibilities: Newbery and Caldecott long shots, but you hate to restrict your appreciation to either words or pictures, you know?

Next up: Morris Part 2: The Picture Books.





Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Okay for Now: A Counterpoint

As he notes below, Sam dislikes Okay for Now. I don't love it either, but I don't feel as strongly about it as he does.

As Sam mentions, the overarching theme is that Art Can Make Everything Better. In most books with that theme, the "everything" actually has a pretty limited scope, but in this book "everything" really is everything. One boy's artistic awakening saves the spiritual life of an entire town.

In order to parse what Gary Schmidt was trying to do, I think it's instructive to read what he says about the book: "Okay for Now began in the Flint, Michigan, public library, which displays its own lovely copy of Audubon's Birds of America, and which itself affirms, through its many programs and committed librarians, the power of art and story over despair and loss." 

I think the key word in that is "story." This is not reality, it's story. It's not a realistic book about wishes coming true in implausible ways, it's a parable about the way we spin stories in the hopes that one day they will become reality. Gary Schmidt is too good of a writer to throw a luckless kid into a Broadway show, coincidentally attended by his hero, Joe Pepitone, without having a good reason for it. And though, personally, I don't think that part of the book works very well, I do think Schmidt is playing by his own rules. In story, anything can happen, so why not this? 

I find Perry Nodelman's thoughts on the subject interesting as well. 

It reminds me of Dickens, in a way. Poor, abused kid succeeds beyond his wildest dreams. And there's screaming. 


2012 Contenders: Okay for Now, by Gary Schmidt

The Mayland Mock Newbery was last week, and in preparation for it, we read five books that have received some buzz for the medal. I adored one, loved one, liked one, thought one was okay, and genuinely disliked one, which isn't a bad spread as these things go.

The winner was Gary Schmidt's Okay for Now, which has been racking up a lot of wins in various other mock Newberys as well. It also happens to be the one I genuinely disliked, and though I'm in anything but the majority, I wanted to talk a little about my reaction.

We expect fictional universes to play by a set of rules. The rules can be as close to those of reality as the form of the fiction will allow; they can be utterly fantastic; they can even, as in much of Lewis Carroll, have the sense of being constantly shifting, controlled by something that never quite becomes visible. However, once the rules are set up, the author is generally obligated to play by them.

One of my two biggest complaints about this book was that it failed to play by its own rules. It sets itself up as a sort of children's novel version of a John Prine album, a more-or-less realistic tableau of abusive parents, wary neighbors, and sundry Vietnam-era unpleasantnesses. It ends as a sort of credulity-free daydream. Nothing that happens in the last 100 pages of the book should be able to happen, given the way the first 200 have framed the story, and as a reader, I found that intensely frustrating.

The other of my major complaints is that this is the sort of self-congratulatory story that people heavily invested in the arts tend to tell. As a librarian, (amateur) musician, and author (of no renown at all), I'm all about the transformative power of the arts. But in this book, a middle-school boy a) becomes an excellent artist by studying the works of John James Audubon under the tuition of a kindly librarian, b) finally learns to really read under the tuition of a kindly schoolteacher, c) has a successful Broadway debut under the tuition of a kindly if eccentric playwright, and d) ... but nevermind. One of these things would have been more than enough. Having all of them makes the book collapse under its own weight.

There's more, such as the ridiculous and unearned change in the father's heart during the last 20 pages of the book, the fact that Doug breaks through his brother's PTSD basically by giving him a stern talking-to, and the overwrought, soap-opera-style twist that the story with Lil takes. But the upshot is that there was not any point at the book in which I was not aware of the author pulling the strings behind the scenes -- and, for my money, getting most of them tangled up. I understand why people want so much to like this book, but if you look past the Art Can Make Everything Better stuff, what's left is a bewilderingly inconsistent hodgepodge, something that I don't think succeeds as a story at all, much less one that should get an award.

And that's my two cents.

Friday, January 13, 2012

And Me! I Salute You Too!

Creating a new blog is sort of like writing an old-school rap song: it’s important that you start out by explaining who you are and what you’re here to say. So, with that in mind…

WHO I AM:

I’m Sam Eddington, and I work at the Eastern Shore Regional Library (MD) as the training coordinator, accordion player, and resident eccentric. I started my library career as the nighttime circulation supervisor at the Sacred Heart University (CT) library, where I achieved notoriety for my demands that doughnuts be saved for me on days when they were brought in the morning. After that, I worked as the library director and school librarian in Amargosa Valley (NV), the school librarian for Horizon Academy (NV), and the adult services supervisor at the Mt. Airy branch of the Carroll County (MD) library, before finding a place best suited to my “skill set.” I’m the author of a local history volume, Diamond in the Desert: A History of the Amargosa Valley Library, as well as a smattering of published poetry; additionally, I spent three years or so writing music reviews for Superstarcastic.com when the name was owned by a music blog, and it was still a going concern.

WHAT I'M HERE TO SAY:

I love discussing creative things: books, art, movies, and music. I especially love discussing children’s literature, particularly in the context of the Newbery and other major awards. Rachael and I do this all the time; we don’t always agree, but that’s half of the fun of it.

I plan on using this space to take these conversations about the Newbery to the Internet – from winners and snubs of years gone by, to books that I think may be contenders in the present and future. Most of all, I’d like to extend an open invitation to sit in with us, challenge us, laugh with us, and explore with us, as we keep going along our children’s literature journey.

Also, I like dystopia. I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.

Fan-fizzle.

I just received my copy of the January/February Horn Book, and opened it up right away to the 2011 Horn Book Fanfare spread. I did a quick browse through the picture books, where I saw the usual, excellent suspects - Naamah and the Ark at Night, The Money We'll Save, etc. In the fiction section, I noted that I should really read Anna Hibiscus and Chime. Then onto the nonfiction - but wait!

Something was missing. Aside from Dead End in Norvelt, all lonely and weird in the corner of the page, and Breaking Stalin's Nose, the list seemed awfully light on middle grade fiction. Is it possible that Roger Sutton and company felt the same way I did about this year's paucity of distinguished offerings?

Well... no. Not really. The Fanfare lists from 2010 and 2009 seem to indicate that the magazine is just picky about its middle grade fiction. But so am I, darn it, and I this is one of those years where I feel like maybe the committee shouldn't award a medal at all. Most people's front-runner - Okay for Now - always seems to be introduced with, "I loved it, but..." There's no room for "buts" in "most distinguished."

Even my favorite, Breadcrumbs, leaves me with vague misgivings about awarding it the highest honor. And the ones I feel most confident about - The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making and Wonderstruck - are long shots in terms of eligibility and format, respectively.

I'm not that excited about any of the nonfiction, picture books, or easy readers either, on the merits of text alone. Nothing jumps out at me as a Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! or a Frog and Toad. I'm just going to hope that the committee has a sleeper up its sleeve.

We Salute You

Yes. It's yet another Mock Newbery blog!

Who I Am

I am Rachael Vilmar, and I have had my professional fingers stuck in the world of children's literature for going on ten years now. First I was the Youth Services Coordinator at the Bartow County Public Library in Georgia, then I was a children's librarian at Atlanta-Fulton Public Library, and for the past five years I've been the Information Services Manager at the Eastern Shore Regional Library in Maryland. One of the best parts of my job is running the Maryland Mock Newbery every January. I'm also on this year's Arbuthnot Committee, and next week I get to attend the Bill Morris Seminar for Book Evaluation (squee!). 

What the Hell I Think I'm Doing

I usually keep my kidlit and Newbery mania to myself around my coworkers, but one year ago I hired a training coordinator who is as much of a lit geek as I am (I'll allow him to introduce himself). Since then, I have often found myself sitting in his office, debating the merits of Criss Cross vs. Princess Academy, graphic novels vs. easy readers, and other thrilling points of literary minutiae. Since this is 2012, we decided to take our ongoing conversation to the internet, where it will be preserved for posterity, or at least until the collapse of industrial society and the onset of inevitable dystopia.

We hope that you, dear readers, will join in the fun.