Monday, January 23, 2012

Newbery: What I Said Before They Won

It's incredibly difficult to review Newbery winners and honors in an objective way after you KNOW they've won. Sometimes you feel stupid about what you said earlier, after you found out they won. (Though I don't take the attitude that I was "wrong" about a book based on its win; I just figure "well, we like different stuff, then".)

I'm going to own what I said earlier. I don't know if I would do it if I didn't like what I'd said, though. These are from my Goodreads reviews and comments on Heavy Medal.

Honor, Inside Out and Back Again:

(three stars) I find it difficult to review this, just like I found it difficult to review the last novel-in-verse about a Vietnamese refugee in the 1970s that I read, All the Broken Pieces. Like anything negative I might say is me judging the immigrant experience itself. At first I didn't like this that much, but it's growing on me some after the fact. Ha reads like a more original character than many, and the thoroughly-sketched mother and sketchily-sketched brothers are all so clear to me in my mind. One heartbreaking sentence at the very end made me feel that Brother Khoi has his own fascinating book in a parallel universe. The sense of place is much greater for the scenes in and memories of Vietnam than they are for Alabama. Overall: good, but not great. I don't think it's a Newbery.

Hmm. While Inside Out and Back Again isn’t one of my top choices, nor is it one of my favorite novels in verse (a small group; I react to these with distrust and they have to win me over), I don’t find the line breaks ineffective. They feel a little more daring, innovative, than what you quote from Eddie’s War (which I haven’t read). And the style also evokes to me (I hope I can say this without sounding horribly racist) both the harshness of life depicted in the book, and the rhythm/sound/feel of what spoken Vietnamese sounds like to someone who doesn’t understand it. [ETA: I should have said "what it sounds like to me as a nonspeaker"] I felt like it added to my perception of the mother, in particular, as a living breathing character.

Honor, Breaking Stalin's Nose:

(four stars) An intriguing little book, certainly a perspective I have not read before (devoutly Communist child). Does not waste any words or any time. The ending is pretty ambiguous and I'm not convinced it will work for young readers. I don't know enough about Stalin and Communist Russia to know how much of this is realistic and how much might be propaganda. Pulls no punches.

Winner, Dead End in Norvelt:

(three stars) I got impatient with this about halfway through. Occasional moments of clever brilliance, but Newbery-wise, I can't see this standing out in a field that includes Okay For Now. Also, the punk kid with quirky elderly neighbor plot ought to be locked in the vault for the next ten years or so.

I finished Dead End in Norvelt last night. I thought there was a great sense of setting–I was interested enough to read the Wikipedia article on the town, and as I read I could picture the town I’d imagined from the book very clearly. But I agree on the plot getting lost, and I’m also iffy about most of the characters. I’m not sure whether this is intentional or not, though. Jack is a fully-realized character; Miss Volker comes close; but everyone else felt pretty muddled to me. Mrs. Gantos, in particular, I couldn’t get a handle on. I didn’t understand her or her relationship with Jack, and certainly not her relationship with her husband. But since so much of the book takes place in Jack’s head, maybe we’re seeing all the characters through his eyes without nuance. I could sort of support that.

It irritated me that there are a couple of references to Girl Scouts selling cookies to make money for themselves/their families. That’s one of those small things that shouldn’t matter and probably only matters to people with specialized Girl Scout knowledge, right? It’s a much smaller point than the Eagle Scout inaccuracies that actually affected the plot of Mockingbird last year.

Miss Volker felt like the secondary character equivalent of a Mary Sue. She always seemed to have the precise 21st-century liberal view of every issue. The teasing Harold-and-Maudey jokes about Jack being her boyfriend that people kept making did not ring true to me as being things people would really say, especially not the boy himself.

I did think there were moments of comedic brilliance. My favorite scene was the initial one with Miss Volker cooking her hands. I’m unfamiliar with Gantos’s work, so I can’t compare this to my reaction to his humor in general.

The books have a lot of similarities and it’s unfortunate that they came out in the same year; I said in my Goodreads review that I didn’t think Norvelt would get attention in Okay For Now’s year. Yet looking back on both books, after not having looked at either in quite some time, it seems like Norvelt is the more daring, risky book; Okay For Now is easier to like. It may actually be better (as was my first impression) or it may just be more comfortable.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Morris Finalists 2012: Under the Mesquite

Under the Mesquite is the story, told in free verse, of Lupita, a Mexican-American immigrant in Texas. Lupita's mother is diagnosed with cancer when Lupita is 14, and of course this drastically changes life for her family. The novel follows Lupita through her high school years, but her family life is the real center of the book.

And it's a heartbreaking tale. But the free verse didn't really work for me. I didn't see a compelling reason for it to be told in verse, besides that being what the author wanted to do (apparently it grew from a group of poems to a novel in verse). For instance, in the case of Inside Out and Back Again (a 2011 National Book Award winner), the use of verse complemented the story, which was being told by a younger child in a child's language. I felt like the use of verse also helped make the story more intense with that book. But in Under the Mesquite, I wanted more. I wanted more details; I wanted to get more inside Lupita's head and Lupita's world.

Maybe there's more to that than the use of verse. I suppose the author (Guadalupe Garcia McCall) could have gotten more in-depth while still using verse. And she did skim right through a lot of Lupita's life. It's a short book, only 144 pages (of verse, which has fewer words per page), considering the amount of time it covers and the potential depth of the story.

So while it's a good novel, I think there could have been more to it, free verse or not.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Morris Finalists 2012: The Girl of Fire and Thorns

Yes, I really did read this in between posting about Between Shades of Gray last night and right now, 24 hours later.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns is Princess Lucero-Elisa de Riqueza of Orovalle, soon to be Queen Lucero-Elisa de Vega né Riqueza of Joya d'Arena, and familiarly known as Elisa. We meet her on her wedding day, when she is to be married to King Alejandro de Vega of Joya d'Arena. It's a political match, naturally; she's given in exchange for an alliance and protection from the invading forces of Invierne.

And while the names and titles sound impressive, Elisa is actually the fat, awkward second daughter of the king of Orovalle. But she's also the chosen one of her generation: on her naming day, as a baby, a stream of light from the heavens bestowed on her a Godstone, a blue gem embedded in her navel. A child is chosen in this way every hundred years, destined to complete some great service to his or her people.

So Elisa is an unlikely heroine, about to undertake her heroine's journey in this book. And she is a heroine, though she doesn't always feel it: strong, intelligent, morally and spiritually aware, but not afraid to question. She is a leader of others; a true queen.

I enjoyed both the story and the setting. Author Rae Carson builds a world that is both strange and familiar. It's earthlike, but there is just a bit of magic, and it's made clear that this is not the first world that these people have lived on. There are references to the old world that died before God brought them here. It's also a pre-modern world -- people ride horses and camels and fight (mostly) with swords and arrows and spears.

The story moved along at a good pace and never went quite where I expected it to, especially in terms of romance.

Spirituality is an important part of Elisa's life. Neither she nor anyone else in the story ever questions the existence of God. After all, he put the stone in her belly, right in front of everyone! And she senses God through the stone when she prays or when she is involved in worship. However, Elisa does have questions about God's will and God's purpose for her. She wonders why everyone, both friend and enemy, has a different interpretation of God's will. And she wonders whether all of the killing she and her people have to do is worth it, even if it is done to protect others.

Elisa doesn't resolve these questions. She completes her mission to protect the people of Joya d'Arena and Orovalle, but people do die. And I had other unanswered questions after reading the book -- like where did the people of this world originally come from? Their religious practices do have things in common with Christianity. For instance, Elisa prays something called the Glorifica, which is similar to Mary's Magnificat (and it's entirely fitting for Elisa):
My soul glorifies God; let it rejoice in my Savior
For he has been mindful of his humble servant
Blessed am I among generations
For he lifted me from the dying world...
There's also a ceremony similar to a communion service in which people are pricked with the thorn of a rose instead of receiving communion bread (hence the thorns of the title, I suppose). Aside from these elements (and the priests and monasteries which are also in the story), there are no overt references to Christ or Christianity. So I'm interested in seeing whether anything else will develop in future books (this is apparently the first of at least 3 books).

I'd have to say this one is my favorite of the Morris finalists so far. I've got one more to read -- Under the Mesquite.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Morris Finalists 2012: Between Shades of Gray

Yes, I did read this over my holiday break! But then, well, life got in the way and I never reviewed it. And it had to go back to the library!

But I can tell you that it was well worth reading. Between Shades of Gray is the story (not based on any one true story) of 15-year-old Lina, whose family is taken by pre-KGB Soviet secret police from their home in Lithuania and sent to Siberia. Horrible things happen. The ending is not particularly happy.

This is good storytelling. Author Ruta Sepetys does a good job unfolding the events in a not-totally-predictable manner. I also liked a theme that ran through much of the book: kindness matters. Lina's mother is in the habit of being kind to people, even when they are not kind to her, and it does matter in the end, even though Lina thinks it silly.

However, I did notice that despite the really horrible things that happen in this book, emotionally, it didn't pull me in as deeply as other books have (for instance, The Birchbark House). I couldn't pinpoint exactly why; perhaps just because this story is told fairly starkly.

Between Shades of Gray takes place during World War II (it begins in 1939), but tells a different, little-known part of the war story. It would make a good companion to World War II studies in the classroom. And if you've read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, this would make a great comparison read.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Newbery is Coming

It is possible that I have completed my pre-Newbery reading for the season, with sixty books.

Sixty! That's almost as many as I had to read in order to read all the winners in the first place. I have a better-funded library system here, so I was able to read almost twice as many contenders as I was last year. (The two years before that I didn't keep track in the same way.)

Yet still, I have the nagging feeling that I'm missing something. Even though every year I've already read most of the books that get make the podium, and this year I've read so much more. I think there are always the books that don't get attention from any of the attention-makers that the committee has ferreted out. And, of course, sometimes the ways of the committee are mysterious.

My ideal Newbery results are when I have read everything on the podium except one book; it gives me a good feeling of satisfaction, but I still have something exciting to read. (Last year it was Moon Over Manifest, which I did have out of the library to read next; it hadn't escaped my notice. In 2010 it was Homer P. Figg, which I admit I still haven't read because the cover is so wildly unappealing to me. In 2009 I hadn't read The Graveyard Book, because we didn't think it was eligible, or The Surrender Tree, which would have been my own frontrunner if I'd read it.)

I don't feel invested in the results this year. There are so many books that are considered frontrunners that I don't think are good enough that none of them even particularly stand out as "ANYTHING BUT THAT". There are a lot of books that I think are pretty good. Most of all, I think the theme of this year for me is the number of books that I really enjoyed but don't think will win. They're books for readers, regardless of award podiums. Books like One Day and One Amazing Morning
on Orange Street, and Jefferson's Sons, and The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, and Akata Witch, and Icefall.

You can see my list of everything I read that has been mentioned as a possibility for the Newbery somewhere here. (You'll see only 57 books. I count 60, but I didn't include any of the three Mo Willems books that have been suggested as possibilities. I can't bring myself to believe that these books' Newbery chances are anything but manufactured by the blogosphere.)

And the Goodreads poll for Newbery winners always makes for interesting reading. I've read 50 of the 69 listed there as of today.

There are still a few books I would like to read--Wildwood, Blizzard of Glass, The Freedom Maze, Eddie's War--but looking at the hold list, I'm unlikely to get to read them before the ALA Youth Media Awards on January 23.

As soon as they're over, I'm going to read NOTHING but adult non-fiction for a solid month.