Friday, January 27, 2012

Newbery Lament

So, if there are any readers out there, checking in, you'll have noticed that I struck out blindly with my Newbery predictions. Ah well. The one year I feel as if I've read a wider range than usual, and I'm smacked back to earth and proven totally out of my league! As I said, ah well. At least I'd heard of DEAD END IN NORVELT. I actually own a copy of it. It just hasn't risen to the top of my pile yet.

The two gems that I would have personally loved to see some admiration for were PIE by Sarah Weeks and ICEFALL by Matthew Kirby. ICEFALL did manage to receive a Cybill nomination this year, as well as an Edgar Award nomination, so at least it has that going for it.

Why did I like these two books so much? I don't know. PIE isn't necessarily the type of book I'd normally enjoy. Over at Heavy Medal one commenter summarized it as "light entertainment fluff". I suppose it fits that description, but it doesn't really pretend to be anything else either. It's "light entertainment fluff" done extremely well, and Weeks doesn't hide it.

I liked the mystery. I like the friendship between Alice and Charlie. I like getting to know Aunt Polly through seamless flashback scenes. I like the humor. I like that it doesn't take itself too seriously, as evidenced by the numerous jabs at the Newbery Medal (some characters in the book make it a point to go after a "Blueberry Award", which coincidentally enough has criteria eerily similar to that of the prestigious children's literature award). I like that it is kid friendly and gender neutral. My 5th grade class loved it as a read aloud.

Sure there were things that didn't make sense, like why would anyone care about a Mayoral election in a town as small as Ipswitch? And why would anyone hate their sister as much as Alice's mother hated Polly? And how could a woman as talented as Polly afford to live by giving away her labor for free? And why in the world would a woman leave a much sought after piecrust recipe to . . . well, that I better not get into.

Unlike the light, whipped mystery in PIE, Matthew Kirby's ICEFALL weaves a tale that Megan Whalen Turner herself would be proud of. The plot is fairly simple: To keep his family safe during a time of war, a Viking king sends them to hide in a glacier of sorts, and wait out the winter to return until all is safe. While in hiding however, his family and their protectors, begin to fear that someone amongst them is up to no good.

This is really a coming of age tale, set against the back drop of the Vikings' time. Solveig is the book's star, the king's ignored daughter, who has to not only get to the bottom of the treachery unfolding before her, but also learn how to question the blinding trust she's placed for so many years in those she's loved.

It's a slow start, glacier paced at best, but it adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere Kirby is after. By the time things begin to fall apart, we actually care because we feel as if we too, are trapped with this group of characters. Everyone seems to be a suspect, yet no one seems to be a suspect. It's a brilliant series of events that end in a thrilling, emotional climax. And . . . Kirby has succeeded in creating something more accessible than Megan Whalen Turner's heavier work, yet keep it in the same vein as her tales without sacrificing anything. I can't say enough about the book. Give it a read.

(Somewhat obvious by now) Final Grades:



Friday, January 20, 2012

Bold Newbery Predictions

Okay, so maybe not so bold, but some of the predictions I'm about to make are for books I haven't even read. Just heard the right amount of buzz on.

For the record, I did more reading this year than I ever have, of Newbery eligible contenders. I thought I had read at least 30 but looking back, it's closer to 25 eligible titles. Maybe closer to 30 if we count the Elephant and Piggie easy readers that Heavy Medal has been clamoring over.

Here are my predictions:

Of the books I've read, the following three titles would not surprise me in the least . . .

They would not all be my personal choices (although OKAY FOR NOW remains my favorite read of the year), but I can at least see the merits behind them and could understand them being honored in some way Monday morning.
Of the books I've read, I'm really pulling for the following three titles to receive some kind of honor, though I'm not sure their chances are anything but a long shot . . .

Now onto the bold part of my predictions, books I haven't even read yet! Last year, MOON OVER MANIFEST came out of nowhere to grab the Medal and I have a feeling, a few titles announced Monday morning will surprise folks. Maybe even the Medal again. Similar to MOON OVER MANIFEST, the following books have received just the right amount of buzz (somewhat small), have some starred reviews to their names, and just have the overall look and feel of a Newbery book, and I wouldn't be surprised in the least to see their names announced . . .

BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY was honored by none other than Apple, as their Book of the Year. BREADCRUMBS draws on classic fairy tales, much like the shortchanged A TALE DARK AND GRIMM from last year. The fact that Gidwitz's novel was left out last year gives me a gut feeling about Ursu's tale this year. YOUNG FREDLE received lots of early buzz, but was mentioned never on Heavy Medal this season. Kind of makes me wonder . . .

Both SPARROW ROAD and WITH A NAME LIKE LOVE just have plot descriptions and covers that scream Newbery to me. 

So, that's how I'm calling it. Like I said, maybe not so bold, but we'll see now Monday morning if I'm onto something.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


In 2007 the children's literature world was bowled over by Brian Selznick's THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET. It was a 500+ page, groundbreaking novel, telling its story in equal parts text and illustrations. I didn't get around to reading the book until after it won the Caldecott Medal, the following year. I found it sorely overrated. With all the hype, I expected more out of the story behind the engaging design. Now four years later, Selznick has returned to the format that made him an overnight sensation, with his latest novel WONDERSTRUCK. Fresh off of Martin Scorsese turning HUGO into a masterpiece, was Selznick looking to cash in?

WONDERSTRUCK tells two stories, one taking place in the late 1970s with words and the other taking place in the late 1920s with pictures. In Gunflint, MN 1977, Ben gets curious about his nonexistent father after his mother dies in a car accident. He's struck by lightning through a telephone, wakes up in a hospital bed with an epiphany, hops a bus to New York City and does some investigating, Basil E. Frankweiler style. Ben has difficulty hearing. In New York City 1927, Rose appears to be trapped, confined to her house by her father with the New York City skyline framed in her bedroom window. She dreams of escaping to the city and finding her favorite silent movie star. Rose is deaf.

Like HUGO CABRET, this book left me with mixed feelings. I devoured the book in two days time, which is quite the feat for this busy teacher. So obviously I was engaged and interested in the story. However I couldn't help rolling my eyes throughout and when I finally turned the book's final page, I wasn't sure I liked any of what I had just read. Like HUGO CABRET, I felt that the format tricked readers into thinking "epic", when the story was really anything but. Too many inconsistencies in Ben's story and too many unanswered questions in Rose's.

In Ben's half of the story, too many things happen that just flat out don't ring true. Too many magical coincidences occur and we're supposed to believe them, why? Because Ben is struck by lightning through the phone? Is this supposed to let us know we have to suspend our disbelief? The story isn't really "magical". It's about a boy's search for family. Forget the fact that Ben was able to connect the dots of his past by merely looking at a couple random items in his mother's bedroom. Forget the fact that Ben, who cannot hear, is able to slip out of his hospital room at night and board a bus for New York City successfully. This leap coming from a somewhat sheltered child who's idea of a dream vacation was to visit Duluth, MN a mere few hours south of Gunflint. I could forget about those inconsistencies if that's all there really was. What really irked me about Ben's story, the final straw, was the way he was able to function in New York City.

In THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER, which Selznick is obviously channeling here, the main characters lived close to the city. They were familiar with the city. They had been to the museum before. It made it all absurd, but believable. The same cannot be said for WONDERSTRUCK. Ben, who I remind you cannot hear, just hops off the bus in New York City and in a matter of minutes, he's found he's way to the exact building he was looking for. Seamlessly. No struggles. When he reaches a dead end, he follows up on another clue and once again, finds his way without difficulty. By the time he reaches the museum and decides to stay, I was so infuriated, I stopped caring. And we had really just gotten to know Ben. Very little development of character.

When the two stories converge, it's not so much a surprise as it is a plot device. And one that's been done better before. When we find out who Rose really is, it's told in a series of illustrations, that blend the two narratives together. As I said, it's not a surprise, but it's well done. However then, instead of answering Ben's questions about his father, Rose takes him on a trip across the city, telling this boy she's just met the entire story of her life, before talking about his father! Now I realize, there ended up being a good reason that she took Ben where she took him, but I couldn't help but feel that Rose's revelations in this section of the book were more for the reader's benefit than Ben's. It was Selznick's only opportunity to answer any remaining questions about Rose, whether the timing made any sense or not.

The film adaptation of HUGO CABRET may be destined for Oscar buzz, but I'm afraid the best thing WONDERSTRUCK has going for it is a Lifetime Original Movie. The characters are thinly drawn, based primarily on their deafness, and the plot is far too contrived. If it wasn't for the incredible format of the book, I'm not sure what kind of reception a story with this many holes would receive. Is it easy to forgive the book because of Selznick's talent of balancing a story between pictures and words?

Not for me.

Final Grade: C+

Monday, January 9, 2012

SLJ's Heavy Medal Shortlist Vote

Tomorrow morning, thousands of children's literature enthusiasts and regular Heavy Medal contributors and participants, will flock to the site and place their "Top 3" votes for the 10 titles on Heavy Medal's Mock Newbery shortlist. Okay, maybe not thousands but maybe hundreds . . .!

The three I will be voting for . . .

First Place: OKAY FOR NOW by Gary D. Schmidt. I read this book before I read many others this year and the bar was set very high. Troves of criticisms (many of which I personally found a bit trivial and trite) were brought to the table and upon two rereadings, the book's strengths were only strengthened in my eyes. Nothing else I've read this year even comes close in terms of style and voice. I will be enthusiastically giving this my first place vote tomorrow morning.

Second Place: THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA by Jennifer L. Holm. I fought as hard as I could to get TURTLE IN PARADISE the attention it deserved last year on Heavy Medal, that I think I approached my first reading of THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA with a little bias. Maybe I had my mind made up before I even opened the book. Rereading the book with my 5th graders confirmed that like OKAY FOR NOW, Ms. Holm's voice and character development here are as good, or in my opinion, better than any of the other shortlisted titles.

Which brings me to my third place vote . . . I really only felt strongly about my top two, and had mixed feelings about the remaining eight titles. There were some titles I could remove immediately from consideration, like THE PENDERWICKS AT POINT MOUETTE, which I finished last night. I recognized areas of strong writing, but overall, it's hard for me to argue this book's strengths when I feel that writing like this is all too often classified as "distinguished" when I'm not so sure it's not just "good".

I also can strike WONDERSTRUCK from the list (which I will get to in a whole other post). I had lots of issues with this title. At least when considering it for the Newbery Medal. In my opinion HEART AND SOUL was far too big and I can't bring myself to vote for SIR GAWAIN when I don't even feel that it's in the top 3 of books of its own kind (easy readers like THE TROUBLE WITH CHICKENS, TOYS COME HOME, and CLEMENTINE AND THE FAMILY MEETING).

That left me with four titles:

While I feel that Jonathan Hunt valiantly argued I BROKE MY TRUNK's rightful place in this discussion, I still feel like a vote for it would be settling for diversity in genre and titles and not necessarily a vote for the most distinguished text. Same with THE MONEY WE'LL SAVE, which I did find to be very smart and cleverly paced, but maybe I'm bothered by the reliance on pictures in both texts to really back either as a finalist.

Of the remaining two titles, I had to go with AMELIA LOST over A MONSTER CALLS. Patrick Ness is a brilliant writer. Parts of A MONSTER CALLS are beautiful. What tipped the scale toward Fleming's biography to me, is readability. I think the Newbery Medal should reward books that all children should read. I cannot say that A MONSTER CALLS is a book that all children should read. It's dark. Some of it's deepest themes, would mean nothing to a large population of children readers. AMELIA LOST, is a book that all children should read because it is a riveting, unique look at one of the most revered women our society has ever seen. Therefore I'd give my third place vote, to AMELIA LOST by Candace Fleming.

Can't wait to see how the results turn out.