Friday, April 27, 2012

Bringing the Newbery to the people.

The blurry bloggers and the author.
Every year our library sponsors a children's author visit for the region. The author speaks to school groups in each of the eight county libraries we serve. Originally we had scheduled Grace Lin for this year, but she had to postpone her visit until 2013, so I needed someone witty, resourceful, and reliable who could step in. Naturally, I called Jack Gantos.

And then he won the Newbery. Ha!

This is the fifth year we've hosted this author visit, and let me tell you, it is amazing the difference a Newbery makes. In the past, my colleagues have had to beg, cajole and otherwise drag teachers and media specialists to the library. Sometimes the classes have prepared for the programs by actually reading the author's works. More often not.

This year no cajoling was required. Books were read. Students were prepared. What a powerful little medal.

As always, Jack was a glorious speaker and a gracious guest. Through four days, eight programs and several hundred miles of driving, he maintained his trademark energy and good humor. And only one kid asked that most dreaded question: has he met any more famous authors? Like... Suzanne Collins? (Answer: yes, she's nice, and her books may not have done much for writing, but enrollment in archery classes is way up!)

Thinking back to my discussion of literary awards, though, I am left feeling ambivalent once again. Jack was every bit as good a speaker when we invited him here in 2008, and we were so worried about attendance that year that we invited Pre-K kids to one of the programs. I'm glad the award won us bigger, better-informed audiences, but I wish talent itself were more of a draw.

But if Grace Lin happens to win the 2013 Newbery, I certainly won't complain.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

2013 Contenders: The Boy on Cinnamon Street, by Phoebe Stone

I'm going to make with some plot summary for this one, since I'm not seeing it mentioned much in my usual haunts.

Louise Terrace used to have lots of friends. She used to be the star of her gymnastics team. She used to have a mom and a dad and a regular life, and she used to grow (as a seventh grader, she's stalled at 4'7"). None of those things are true any more, and we readers don't know why, because Louise has "forgotten" a pivotal week of her life. Now Louise - or Thumbelina, as she wants to be called - lives with her vaguely hippie-ish grandparents on the other side of town. She has two new nerdy (but very loyal) friends. Oh, and she has a secret admirer. Unraveling the mystery behind that last one will lead her back to the week everything changed - back to Cinnamon Street.

All of the glowing reviews of this book seem to use the word "sweet." "Honey sweet," says the Bulletin for the Center for Children's books. "Achingly sweet," says Booklist. I would agree: sweet, sweet, sweet. And yet this is, at heart, a story about trauma. There are parallels with Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson - a book that, for all of its brilliance, nobody would label as sweet.

Who writes a sweet preteen romance about repressed trauma?

The same person who intersperses poignant, lyrical prose with pitch-perfect bits of preteen vernacular: "For some dumb reason, I am thinking about my mom's sky blue shoes when I place the order on my cell. My dad liked those shoes. They were the kind of shoes you had to follow across the rug because of that color. I can't remember anything else. Zippo. Squat. I'm glad that kid bought those shoes because now I won't have to see that color by mistake when I open a closet door. Lake blue. Pond blue. Dark sky blue." 

(Incidentally, Phoebe Stone seems like exactly the kind of person who could pull off that kind of magic. This is the first of her books that I've read, but I heard her speak at a library conference once. She's small, red-haired and fairy-like, and she read aloud a passage from All the Blue Moons at the Wallace Hotel that involved singing "Oh Shenandoah" a capella with an utter lack of self-consciousness. I remember it with chills.)

Stone has such affection and sympathy for her characters. Overweight Reni with her crush on Justin Bieber, beatifically nerdy Henderson and his astronomical obsessions, the grandparents with their embarrassing 60's music tastes and pet names... I wanted to know them all. And she's a master of showing rather than telling, making it possible for the reader to fit together the pieces of Louise's puzzle even as Louise herself refuses to see it. 

This, of course, may be pitched at too old of a reader to attract the eye of the Newbery committee (though it fits well within the 0-14 range). And it doesn't "feel" like a Newbery book to me - but hey, neither does Criss Cross. In any case, it made me want to read more Phoebe Stone.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Ones That Got Away: The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman (1996)

From its inception, part of the Newbery's purpose has been to encourage the American publishing industry to put out quality books for children. It's an award whose focus is national, not global, and so is specifically limited to books by authors who are citizens or residents of the US. Certainly, in 1922, when the state of American children's publishing could be charitably described as "developing," that made plenty of sense. But one of the questions that has come up repeatedly in the years since then is whether or not that particular criterion has outlived its usefulness.

As a point of comparison, there is a British equivalent to the Newbery, the Carnegie Medal in Literature, awarded by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, the UK version of ALA. When it was established in 1936, it had an analogous rule that limited winners to UK authors; however, that rule was rescinded in 1969, and authors from several foreign countries have, in fact, taken the prize. (For you trivia buffs out there, the only book to win both the Carnegie and the Newbery is The Graveyard Book, by everyone's favorite English expat, Neil Gaiman. The only other author to win both awards is Sharon Creech, who took the Newbery for Walk Two Moons and the Carnegie for Ruby Holler.)

Which model is preferable, the British or the American? I'll confess that I don't really know. What I do know, however, is that there are several occasions in the history of the Newbery where that rule has likely played a significant role in the outcome. Maybe the easiest one to take as an example is 1996, when the Carnegie was awarded to the Newbery-ineligible Philip Pullman novel Northern Lights, or, as it's known in America, The Golden Compass.

Although it was published less than two decades ago, Pullman's novel and its sequels are firmly ensconced in the pantheon of Children's Fantasy Classics, in the same rarified air as The Dark is Rising, The Chronicles of Prydain, the Earthsea books, The Chronicles of Narnia (to which Pullman's books are an explicit reply), The Hobbit, and the Harry Potter novels. It's the darkest of those books, from the paranoia of its religious figures (which earned it any number of challenges) to its horrific quasi-medical experiments that remind one of nothing so much as the WWII-era atrocities of Josef Mengele and ShirĊ Ishii. But its world-building is astounding, and its characterizations highly detailed; it's a challenging read, but one that provides rich rewards in return for its demands.

Would it have won in '96, had it been eligible? It might well have. The winner that year, Karen Cushman's The Midwife's Apprentice, isn't nearly as well-regarded today as The Golden Compass, and there weren't any snubs that indicate that year's committee wasn't friendly to fantasy. (The other best-remembered title of the year was probably The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis, which honored.) I'm unconvinced that any other children's book of that year took as many risks, much less navigated its way through them successfully. And as a result, I really believe that, if we were playing by the same rules as the Carnegie, Pullman would have a Newbery Medal to add to his shelf o' awards.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

2013 Contenders: The Fairy Ring, by Mary Losure

I was really excited about this book. I love fairies. I love hoaxes. I love fervent childhood friendships that border on the unsettling. And perhaps most of all, I love narrative nonfiction.

Here's a little confession: I'm not so good at reading straight nonfiction. Never have been. I promise you that most of what I know about European history comes from Jane Austen, Victor Hugo, and Charles Dickens. So when I saw that this book was laid out like a novel, I expected to be both informed and entertained (which is, I believe, my birthright as an American - thank you, Jon Stewart!).

I was disappointed. Maybe I've grown too accustomed to the "lead with the cliffhanger" style, as in Amelia Lost, but the straight chronological organization of the book kind of killed the suspense. The reader knows from the outset exactly how the photos are faked.

The notes at the end indicate the author's meticulous research, but I don't think the narrative form showcases that very well either. It would be difficult for a child reader to tell which details are partially imagined and which are taken from primary sources. For example, Losure describes in detail how Frances felt about her first glimpse of England, but credits no one source for this information. On the other hand, her description of Elsie's "wide beaming smile" is a direct quote.

I was even more troubled by the layout. For a book so heavily dependent on its visual elements, I thought the photographs were sloppily placed, often appearing nowhere near the text describing them. Unless I'm very confused (always a possibility), one photo of Elsie shows up an entire chapter too early.

Losure does do a very good job of characterizing Elsie and Frances sympathetically but honestly, and of explaining the historical circumstances that could allow them to perpetuate a hoax on this grand a scale. I'd put this in my library's collection, and I'd probably even booktalk it. But I wouldn't recommend it for an award.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Winner's Circle: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, by Laura Amy Schlitz (2008)

First things first -- I listened to Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! as an audiobook. I'm trying to give audiobooks more of a try, and this one seemed like a good candidate, given that it's a set of dramatic monologues (and two dialogues), written specifically for performance. This proved to be a good choice. The cast (Christina Moore and several others) is excellent, and the production and incidental music is tasteful and professional. If you have the opportunity, I'd highly recommend giving it a listen.
As for the book itself, it's quite good at what it does. Laura Amy Schlitz wrote it to be performed by students in her class who were learning about the Middle Ages, and the brief dramatic pieces put a human face (or faces) on a time and place that's more than a little foreign to a modern reader. It's excellently researched, with extra notes where applicable, and the way that several of the stories intersect, with specific events narrated from the points of view of more than one character involved, is a nice touch.
It was something of a controversial Newbery choice, however, and looking back on it with four years of perspective, I remain unconvinced it was the right one. Several excellent books were published that year, the best of which aimed for something both more universal and more personal. Schlitz stated up front that her reason for creating the book in the first place was to avoid putting on a school play that only starred one or two children, and the result of that when taken as a whole is that it's pure tableau; there's no central character or group of characters to hold one's focus. It's egalitarian, and it allows for a broad survey of what was going on historically, but the structure makes the book somewhat difficult to engage with emotionally. The work fulfils its own ambitions, but it doesn't transcend them.

As for those other titles, the Honor books in 2008 were Elijah of Buxton, by Christopher Paul Curtis; The Wednesday Wars, by Gary D. Schmidt; and Feathers, by Jacqueline Woodson. Elijah won most of the other available awards (the Coretta Scott King, the Scott O'Dell, the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children), and the Schmidt title has a near-fanatical fanbase. My personal favorite of the year was Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware, by M.T. Anderson, which has a combination of humor and emotional nakedness that's intensely rare in a children's title. Now, that one was the third in the Pals in Peril! series, and sequels can be a tough sell, but I also had strong positive feelings about A Crooked Kind of Perfect, by Linda Urban (wonderful characters!), and Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos, by R.L. LaFevers (thrilling adventure!). And all of this leaves out Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which was probably too visual of an experience to be a fair Newbery choice, but which was still fantastic (and Caldecott-winning).

As a side note, Rachael makes a passionate argument that Schlitz deserves the Newbery -- but the 2007 award (which would have been for A Drowned Maiden's Hair), rather than the 2008 one. I haven't read that book -- and I note with a bit of surprise that the professional reviews of it at the time were somewhat tepid -- but I know that she's not the only one who feels that way. (We'll come back to this discussion whenever it is that I get to blogging about The Higher Power of Lucky, or whenever Rachael decides to write a full blog post on her love of ADMH.)

One has to commend the committee for looking outside the usual Newbery box, and as the only work for the stage ever to win the award, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! was hardly a predictable choice. But, while it's certainly good, I still think there were better options.