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.

1 comment:

Mark Flowers said...

I definitely noticed the Girl Scout stuff. I also noticed that Mrs. Volker makes a reference to the Big Bang as if it is the only explanation for the beginning of the universe, when in fact it was still a very contentious theory in 1962--possibly more shades of her 21st century perspective that you mentioned.