Rebecca Stead won the 2010 Newbery Medal for When You Reach Me, edited by Wendy Lamb, who has her own imprint at Random House. In September Lamb will publish Dana Reinhardt’s The Things a Brother Knows, a young-adult novel about a 17-year-old boy whose older brother acts oddly after returning from deployment with the Marines in a combat zone. Reinhardt says he wrote the book after hearing mothers talk about sons who “came home different” from war. That made him think about the son who didn’t go: “the one who maybe thought that what his brother had chosen to do was a big mistake.” A review of The Things A Brother Knows will appear soon on this site, which reviews children’s books on Saturdays. Jacqueline Woodson dealt with a similar topic in her novel for preteens, Peace, Locomotion, the story of a boy whose foster brother returns from war missing a leg.
May 30, 2010
A Review of Dana Reinhardt’s Young-Adult Novel, ‘The Things a Brother Knows,’ From the Editor of the 2010 Newbery Medalist — Coming Soon
January 23, 2010
Note: I’m reading the 2010 Newbery medalist, When You Reach Me, and will review it soon. This is a repost of a review of the controversial 2007 winner.
The Higher Power of Lucky: A Novel. By Susan Patron. Illustrated by Matt Phelan. Atheneum: A Richard Jackson Book, 135 pp., $16.95. Age range: 9-11. [See further comments about these ages at the end of the review.]
By Janice Harayda
Who would have thought that the American Library Association would give its most prestigious award for children’s literature to a novel that uses the word “scrotum” on the first page? Not those of us who have observed its choices for years and have found that they tend to suffer from an excess of caution, often rewarding deserving books only after children have embraced them.
So it was, in a sense, startling that the ALA gave the 2007 Newbery Medal to Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky, which tells the story of a 10-year-old orphan named Lucky Trimble who hears what an Amazon reviewer has called “the s word” while eavesdropping on a 12-step meeting through a hole in the wall. Patron writes on the first page:
“Sammy told of the day when he had drunk half a gallon of rum listening to Johnny Cash all morning in his parked ’62 Cadillac, then fallen out of the car when he saw a rattlesnake on the passenger seat biting his dog, Roy, on the scrotum.”
This is hardly shocking language when many 3-year-olds know the words “penis” and “vagina” and psychologists routinely urge parents to introduce the medically correct terms for genitalia as soon as their children can understand them. You would think that librarians would rejoice in the arrival of a book that supports this view instead of rolling out words you are more likely to hear from children, such as “dickhead” and “butt-head” and, of course, the deathless “poopy-head.”
But some people have reacted to The Higher Power of Lucky though Patron had issued a manifesto in favor of kiddie porn. At least a few libraries have banned the novel, the New York Times reported yesterday. And a librarian in Durango, Colorado, accused Patron of using “a Howard Stern-type shock treatment” to attract attention.
All of this distracts from the more important question: How good is this book?
Answer: Not bad. I’d give it a B or B-minus, though it was far from the best work of children’s literature published last year. I haven’t read all the candidates for 2007 Newbery, including the Honor Books. But among those I have read, Patron’s novel has less literary merit than Kate DiCamillos’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane or Laura Amy Schlitz’s A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, both rumored on library listservs and elsewhere to have been contenders for the award.
But The Higher Power of Lucky does have virtues, some of which are more therapeutic than literary. Patron describes the principles of 12-step programs not just for alcoholics but for “gamblers, smokers, and overeaters.” This may help many children who have relatives in such programs and don’t understand them. And Lucky is an intrepid and often amusing heroine who defies a few female stereotypes. She loves science, has close male friends, and lives in a trailer in the Mojave Desert, which has a dramatic landscape that Patron describes vibrantly. No one could accuse this novel of fostering the rampant materialism you see in so many children’s books. The Higher Power of Lucky also has evocative black-and-white illustrations by Matt Phelan that add so much to the book that you wonder if it would have had a shot at the Newbery without them. Perhaps above all, the novel has a worthy theme: What constitutes a “family”?
So what’s not to like about the book? The writing — vivid as it can be — is at times careless or clunky. Patron confuses “lay” and “lie” in a line of dialogue on page 4, and while you could argue that this misuse is in character for the speaker, she makes similar lapses in expository passages. She tells us that a character had “a very unique way of cooking.” She does not appear to have mastered the use of the semicolon and overuses it, including in conversation, in a book for children who may themselves be struggling to figure out its purpose. She also italicizes so many words — a sign of weak writing — that her book reads at times like a children’s version of the old Cosmopolitan edited by Helen Gurley Brown.
Most of all, some aspects of the plot and Lucky’s character are thin and underdeveloped. Toward the end of the book, Lucky behaves recklessly and is also dangerously mean to a friend. And while such events might have made less difference earlier in the book, they come so late that Patron has left herself too little time to persuade us that her heroine has learned from them. Other late events are insufficiently foreshadowed to make them believable. And that brings us back to that incendiary “scrotum.”
Lucky finally does learn the meaning of the word. But it turns out to have so little relation to the rest of the plot that its use in the beginning looks gratuitous. The metaphorical gun on the wall in the first act turns out to be firing blanks. The Higher Power of Lucky is not about its heroine’s sexual development or anything else that might have justified the use of the word. Patron could have reworked the offending passage with no loss to the book. In that sense, she may have made a mistake. But libraries would be making an even more serious one if they ban a book that has much to offer children.
Best line: This book has many good descriptions of the landscape of the Mojave, such as this image of a dust storm: “Tiny twisters of sand rose up from the ground, as if miniature people were throwing handfuls in the air.”
Worst line: Clearly many people think it’s the one about the scrotum. For variety I’ll go with the ungrammatical first line of the third chapter, which includes a dangling modifier: “Out of the millions of people in America who might become Lucky’s mother if Brigitte went home to France, Lucky wondered about some way to trap and catch exactly the right one.”
Age range: The publisher recommends this book for ages 9-to-11. But The Higher Power of Lucky has a much less complex plot and smaller cast than many novels beloved by children in that age group, such as the Harry Potter novels. And its heroine is a 10-and-a-half-year-old fifth-grader, and children tend to read “up,” or prefer stories about characters who are older than they are. So this book may have much more appeal for children below its age range, including 7- and 8-year-olds, than 11-year-olds. This fact may explain much of the controversy about the book. Many librarians and teachers who would have no trouble with the word “scrotum” in a book for fifth-graders may be upset because they know that this one will end up in the hands of many second- and third-graders.
Furthermore: A reading group guide to The Higher Power of Lucky is saved in the “Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guides” category. One-Minute Book Reviews also posted an analysis of why the novel might have won the Newbery.
Published: November 2006
Furthermore: Patron’s name is pronounced “pa-TRONE.”
One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary blog created by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist and who has been book editor of the Plain Dealer and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle.
(c) 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
October 31, 2009
2010 Newbery and Caldecott Medal Winners to Be Announced at 7:45 a.m. EST on Jan. 18 – American Library Association to Give Results on Live Webcast and on Twitter
The American Library Association will announce the winners of the 2010 Caldecott and Newbery medals for children’s books on Monday, January 18, at 7:45 a.m. EST, during its Youth Media Awards ceremony in Boston. The ALA will offer a live Webcast of the event at http://alawebcast.unikron.com with limited connections available on a first-come first served basis. The organization plans also to tweet the results on Twitter at twitter.com/ALAyma and post the winners’ names at www.ala.org/yma by 9:30 a.m. EST on its Web site.
October 17, 2009
PTSD for 9-Year-Olds? Two-Time Newbery Medal Finalist Jacqueline Woodson Deals With the Consquences of War in ‘Peace, Locomotion’
A 12-year-old orphan sees the effects of war when a member of his foster family returns without a leg
Peace, Locomotion. By Jacqueline Woodson. Putnam, 136 pp., $15.99. Ages 9–12 (see further discussion below).
By Janice Harayda
Jacqueline Woodson is a spare and thoughtful writer – a bit too spare and thoughtful in this slow-moving sequel to Locomotion, a National Book Award finalist in which a sensitive orphan told his story in 60 poems. Now Lonnie Collins Motion (nicknamed Locomotion) is 12 years old and describes his life in letters to his younger sister, Lili, who lives with a different foster mother. The epistolary format may be the most interesting thing about the book.
Peace, Locomotion exemplifies a disheartening trend in children’s fiction toward novels that often read like bibliotherapy: They focus on feelings at the expense of plot, suspense and character development. This book has passages in which we don’t just hear Lonnie’s feelings: We hear his feelings about his feelings. After his teacher makes him “feel stupid,” he tells us: “I hate that feeling.” The novel has relatively little action. Lonnie likes living with his foster mother, whom he calls Miss Edna, in Brooklyn. But her son Jenkins joined the Army Reserve to earn money for college and has ended up fighting in an unnamed war – apparently, in Iraq. Jenkins loses a leg to “insurgents and a car bomb,” and when he comes home, has to use a wheelchair until he learns to walk with crutches. He also has signs of post-traumatic-stress disorder. Lonnie finds a sense of purpose in helping his foster brother and realizes that “Peace is the good stuff / That happens to all of us / Sometimes.”
Peace, Locomotion reflects a quiet pacifism that might help to disabuse some children of Rambo fantasies. But its heavy subjects clash with the lightweight treatment they receive in the novel. Jenkins doesn’t come home from the war until page 104 of a 136-page story – a timing that limits the potential for a relationship to develop between them and for transformation to occur. “Locomotion” is an odd name for a narrator whose story moves so languidly and to whom, in this book, so little happens.
Best line: “That’s what she calls old people – seniors. Like they’re about to graduate from high school or something.”
Worst line: Peace, Locomotion sticks closely to the prevailing therapeutic ideas about what’s “good” for children and is less interesting than it might have been if Woodson had taken more risks. Here is Locomotion’s foster mother speaking to her son after he comes home without a leg: “Let all the tears you have in you come on out, she kept saying. It’s good. It’s okay.”
Recommendation: School Library Journal recommends this novel for grades 4–6, but – grim subjects like PTSD notwithstanding – it has a much less complex plot than many books appeal to that age group, such as the Harry Potter novels.
Published: January 2009
About the author: Woodson was shortlisted for a National Book Award for Locomotion and Hush and for a Newbery Medal for Feathers and Show Way.
Furthermore: The letters in this book are interspersed with a scattering of poems, also written by Lonnie.
October 16, 2009
PTSD in a Book for 9-Year-Olds? Tomorrow — Two-Time Newbery Medal Finalist Jacqueline Woodson Returns With ‘Peace, Locomotion’
The themes in children’s books have been getting grittier for years, and the trend continues with Peace, Locomotion, the latest book by two-time Newbery Medal finalist Jacqueline Woodson. This novel for 9-to-12-year olds deals in part with a soldier who comes home from a war missing a leg and suffering from signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.
July 31, 2009
Kate DiCamillo’s Allegory of Christian Faith and Resurrection, ‘The Miraculous Journey of Edward to Tulane,’ With a Key to Its Biblical Parallels
This review appeared in January 2007, right after the American Library Association gave that year’s Newbery Medal to The Higher Power of Lucky instead of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, regarded as a favorite for the award.
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. By Kate DiCamillo. Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Candlewick, 200 pp., $18.99. Ages 7 and up.
By Janice Harayda
Edward Tulane spends “40 days and 40 nights” in a wilderness, is nailed to a cross, dies after a shared meal, and is resurrected and reunited with a parent figure. Sound like anybody you’ve heard of?
How about if I added that Edward is a rabbit, a symbol of Easter? And that he is loved by a girl named Maggie, which can be a nickname for Magdalene?
That’s right. Edward Tulane is a symbol of Christ, his story is a Passion narrative, and this novel is an allegory of Christian faith and resurrection.
If you’ve followed the publicity for The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, you may have heard denials of all this. So here are a couple of facts:
1) Anyone who has a financial stake in this novel may have to deny its religious motifs, even though the book includes a striking full-page picture of Edward’s crucifixion. Kate DiCamillo won the Newbery Medal for The Tale of Despereaux, and the award helped to make her books among the most popular in American schools. The Christian imagery in The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane may have cost DiCamillo 2007 Newbery Medal, which the American Library Assocation awarded to The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron. A blunt acknowledgment that Edward is a Jesus figure might also keep the book off school reading lists.
2) The religious themes in the book do not appear once or twice or in ways that might have been accidental. They appear in the title, the artwork, and throughout the story. DiCamillo is too careful a writer to insert such motifs casually, which would violate the reader’s trust and well-established dramatic principles. At the end of this review are some lines that are identical or closely parallel to lines in the Bible. In DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie, the main character’s father was a preacher.
Children can enjoy The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane without understanding its religious themes just as adults can love Animal Farm without realizing that it is an allegory for Stalinism. But some children will sense that DiCamillo’s book has more than one level of meaning. To deny this could undermine their confidence in their ability to make intelligent, multi-layered judgments about books. All children benefit from learning to grasp a story on more than one level. DiCamillo has given them a chance to do this in a moving and suspenseful novel, beautifully illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Children of any faith can enjoy its story. How unfortunate if the novel were kept out of schools because it might help them appreciate the many layers of meaning that a good book can have.
These are three of many passages in The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane that have parallels in the Bible:
DiCamillo’s lines appear below in a light-faced font. The parallel lines from the King James Version appear in bold.
Edward begins his journey by leaving “a house on Egypt Street” where he is in bondage to his inability to love. “Remember this day, in which ye came out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage …” Exodus 13:13
Edward spends “40 days and 40 nights” in a garbage dump surrounded by rotting food. “… he had fasted for 40 days and 40 nights …” Matthew 4:2 Also: “I will cause it to rain upon the earth for 40 days and 40 nights.” Genesis 7:4
A shopkeeper tells Edward: “I brought you back from the world of the dead.” “… he rose from the dead.” Acts 10:34
Many names in the book also have religious connotations. They include those of three female characters: Abilene (once a region of the Holy Land), Natalie (which means “birth of the Lord”); and Maggie (often a nickname for Magdalene).
Published: February 2006
Read an excerpt from The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane on the Candlewick Books site.
Furthermore: Kate DiCamillo’s “Mercy Watson” series for beginning readers was reviewed on this site on Feb. 10, 2007. DiCamillo’s new novel for children, The Magician’s Elephant, will be published this fall, and an excerpt appears on her Web site.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
June 27, 2009
February 13, 2009
Kathi Appelt’s Violent and Controversial 2009 Newbery and National Book Award Finalist, ‘The Underneath’
Cruelty to animals and people abounds in an acclaimed children’s novel set in an East Texas pine forest
The Underneath. By Kathi Appelt. Drawings by David Small. Atheneum, 311 pp., $19.99. Ages 8 and up.
By Janice Harayda
What were the Newbery and National Book Awards judges thinking when they named this novel a finalist for their prizes? That kids don’t see enough repulsive characters in other media and needed a book about two more? Or that they have to get their New Age twaddle early so that they’ll recognize it when they see it in The Secret?
The Underneath tells the linked stories of two hate-filled characters: a cruel gun-toting hermit and a poisonous shape-shifting serpent, who live deep in an East Texas pine forest. The hermit, known as Gar Face, avenges his abused childhood by shooting animals, getting drunk, and plotting to kill a giant alligator in a nearby bayou. He brutally mistreats his only companion, a lame bloodhound named Ranger. The serpent seethes over the loss of her daughter, who ran off with a shape-shifting hawk who changed into a handsome man. She, too, has one companion — the giant alligator that Gar Face wants to kill, “and he was not the snuggly type.” That is the closest you will find to wit in this novel.
Like the snake, Gar Face has an Ahab–like fixation on vengeance, complicated by the arrival of an abandoned calico cat, who soon has kittens. Ranger protects the cats and warns them to stay in “the Underneath” – a crawl space under the hermit’s shack — or face Gar Face’s fury. Unfortunately, kittens are hard to manage: “There is also that whole thing about curiosity.” This line is bad news for anyone who expects Newbery finalists to avoid clichéd themes like, “Curiosity killed the cat.”
The Underneath is so drenched in sorrow that while it might pain some children at any time, you wonder how it will affect those who are suffering greatly because of the recession. The scant redemption comes in the last few pages and at the cost of more violence. One hate-filled main character remains unrepentant and meets a grisly death. The other gives up on revenge and acts kindly, if belatedly. The message is: When you feel bitter, you can keep on hating or you can choose to love. A worthy idea, certainly. But the final act of kindness is so unexpected — and so little foreshadowed – that it’s as though Ahab had decided at the end of Moby-Dick to join a “Save the Whales” campaign.
In a sense, all the cruelty is beside the point: There’s plenty of cruelty to children in the novels of Charles Dickens, and they’re still worthy of readers, young and old. The problem with The Underneath is in part a lack of balance. Good children’s books may have cruel adults, but those characters tend not to predominate as in this novel: Villains share center stage with better people. The absence of good people in major roles invests The Underneath — perhaps inadvertently — with a deeply cynical view of human nature.
What, then, could the Newbery and National Book Awards judges have liked about this controversial book, apart from its love-is-good message? Above all, a rich sense of place. The Underneath reflects a strong appreciation for the landscape of the Texas-Louisiana border — the birds and fish, the trees and plants, the marshes and bayous. A sense of landscape isn’t enough to sustain a novel. But it’s not nothing when so many children’s books offer bland descriptions of classrooms and soccer fields (and, interestingly, it’s something The Underneath shares with the 2007 Newbery winner, The Higher Power of Lucky, which vividly evokes the Mojave).
Kathi Appelt also writes clearly, although her book has some inane lines like: “The pain she felt was palpable.” She weaves her several storylines together smoothly, if often repetitively, and maintains a fair amount of suspense given that two of her characters at times do little more than sit around plotting revenge.
But one aspect of The Underneath that may have appealed to judges isn’t a virtue: It touches many ideologically fashionable bases. These include the idea that animals (and, in this book, other forms of nonhuman life) are morally superior to people.
After Gar Face commits a heinous act, the book asks: “What do you call a person like that? The trees have a word: evil.” No, humans have a word, but you wouldn’t know it from this story. Later we get more on the wisdom of trees, written in pretentious tones like this:
“For trees, who see so much sorrow, so much anger, so much desperation, know love for the rare wonder of it, so they are champions of it and will do whatever the can to help it along its way.”
This is sentimental New Age goop, pitched to an age in which environmentalism often becomes substitute religion. The Underneath acknowledges that the hermit is evil. But it’s trees — not wise people — who see that he is. The best children’s books may have virtuous animals or trees, but they also have admirable humans. Charlotte’s Web has Wilbur and Fern (and part of E. B. White’s genius is that his novel has a girl named Fern, not a talking fern). In The Underneath the only good humans are part-animal shape-shifters who are not main but supporting characters. Even they die terrible deaths. Instead of hope, this bleak book offers children a variation on the cynical political axiom: If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.
Best line: “This Piney Woods forest in far East Texas is wet and steamy. Take a step and your footprint will fill with water.”
Worst line: “Humans are designed to be with other humans, even those with mixed blood.” That “mixed blood” refers to shape-shifters, creatures half-human and half-bird or -reptile. But the phrase comes across as an unintentional racial slur. Among David Small’s illustrations (which strike me as just OK): Appelt says Hawk Man has “coppery feathers in his long black hair,” but in a picture he appears to have a shaved head.
Recommendation? The Underneath has the most misleading dust-jacket copy I’ve seen on a children’s novel this year, which begins: “A calico cat, about to have kittens, hears the lonely howl of a chained-up hound deep in the backwaters of the bayou. She dares to find him in the forest, and the hound dares to befriend this cat, this feline, this creature he is supposed to hate.” Strictly speaking, that is accurate. But it gives a poor sense of what you will find in this book, which is not a sweet story about a cat and dog. Librarian Elizabeth Bird got it right when she warned that if you know children who can’t read Charlotte’s Web because they find Charlotte’s death too disturbing, “boy oh boy is this NOT the book for them.”
Editor: Caitlyn Dlouhy
Published: May 2008
Furthermore: The Underneath was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for young people’s literature. It won a 2009 Newbery Honor Book citation from the American Library Association. The Underneath is the first novel by Appelt, who has also written picture books for children.
Note: I haven’t read the 2009 Newbery winner, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, so I can’t compare it to The Underneath. If you’ve read both novels, can you suggest what it has that Appelt’s book doesn’t? Or recommend a recent Honor Book that might have more to offer 8-to-12-year-olds? Thanks. Jan
One-Minute Book Reviews is the home of the annual Delete Key awards for the year’s worst writing in books for adults or children. The 2009 finalists will be announced on Feb. 26 and the winners on March 15. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing these posts.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
‘The Underneath’ — The Violent and Controversial Newbery and National Book Award Finalist — Coming Saturday
Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath (Atheneum, 311 pp., $19.99, ages 8 and up) made the shortlist for the 2009 Newbery Medal and 2008 National Book Award for young people’s literature. But the novel lost the top prizes to Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and the Judy Blundell’s What I Saw and How I Lied. Were the judges put off by a violent plot that abounds with cruelty to people and animals? A review of the novel will appear on Saturday.
© 2009 Janice Harayda
January 26, 2009
Newbery and Caldecott Medals Don’t Determine the Long-Term Fate of a Children’s Book (Quote of the Day / Barbara Barstow)
How much difference will Newbery and Caldecott medals make to the winners named today? In the short run, a lot. Newbery and Caldecott medalists typically become bestsellers. They also gain prestige and a longer life on bookstore and library shelves.
But do medals determine the ultimate fate of a book? Not according to former Newbery judge Barbara Barstow, the retired head of youth services for the Cuyahoga County Public Library System and co-author of Beyond Picture Books: Subject Access to Best Books for Beginning Readers (Libraries Unlimited, 2007).
As the book editor of the Plain Dealer, I interviewed Barstow about children’s books that didn’t win a Newbery or Caldecott medal, including Charlotte’s Web. E.B. White’s classic earned an Honor Book citation but lost the top prize to Ann Nolan Clark’s Secret of the Andes.
“How do I feel about that?” Barstow asked. “I feel it was very tragic. But it didn’t matter ultimately because children made E. B. White immortal. Secret of the Andes is still there, and it’s like putting teeth to get a child to read it. If we make mistakes, the children rectify them.”
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.