One-Minute Book Reviews

January 24, 2009

Jan the Hungarian Predicts … ‘Chains’ Will Win the 2009 Newbery Medal

[Update Jan. 26, 2009: Halse Anderson won the Margaret A. Edwards award for lifetime achievement today, not the Newbery.]

The latest in a series of occasional posts that predict the winners of major awards to books for children or adults

Jan the Hungarian predicts …

Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains will win the 2009 Newbery Medal, which the American Library Association will award on Monday to “the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” Why? It’s a good book, but others I haven’t read may be better. So I’m going mostly on instinct honed by years of covering the Newbery and Caldecott medals for the Plain Dealer and this blog. But I’m not alone here: Halse Anderson was a 2008 National Book Award finalist for this historical novel about a 13-year-old slave in New York City who hopes to win her freedom by exposing a plot to kill George Washington on the eve of the American Revolution. A review of and reader’s guide to Chains appeared in separate posts on this site on Dec. 5, 2008.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 5, 2008

A 13-Year-Old Slave Seeks Her Freedom in 1776 in Laurie Halse Anderson’s ‘Chains,’ a National Book Award Finalist (Countdown to the Caldecott and Newbery Awards, #3)

A black teenager in New York City hopes to win her freedom by exposing a plot to kill George Washington

Chains (Seeds of America Series). By Laurie Halse Anderson, 316 pp., $16.99. Ages 10 and up.

By Janice Harayda

On the eve of the American Revolution, thousands of slaves lived in New York City. In Chains Laurie Halse Anderson tells the story of a fictional 13-year-old owned by a cruel Loyalist couple with a regal townhouse on Wall Street in 1776.

Isabel Finch learns of a plot to kill George Washington as she serves wine and cheese on a silver platter to the Locktons’ Tory friends, and she later sneaks away to warn Continental Army soldiers of the danger to their commander. She hopes her spying will persuade the Patriots to free her and her 5-year-old sister, Ruth, also owned by the Locktons. The soldiers have more urgent concerns after the British invade New York, and without reliable allies on either side, Isabel forms a dangerous plan to win her freedom on her own.

This well-written and beautifully designed young adult novel brims with interesting period details that serve a worthy theme: What is freedom? Why did white colonists, as they fought for independence, tolerate the enslavement of blacks?

Chains also has action so fast-paced — and at times over-the-top — that it borders on soap opera. Isabel joins the Locktons after her former owner breaks a promise to free her and her sister. She is beaten, thrown into a dungeon, hauled before a judge, put in stocks, and branded on the face with an I (for “Insolence”) after she tries to flee. She sees a hanging, the great fire of 1776, and dead bodies stacked at a prison that houses her friend Curzon, a former slave. She hears of a throat-slashing, a bayonet execution, and other atrocities.

Laurie Halse Anderson recounts all of this with an evenness of tone that robs her tale of some of its impact. Telling her story in her own voice, Isabel speaks matter-of-factly, whether she is describing her owners’ evil deeds or a rare joy such as the news that Curzon has survived a battle. Each new trauma gets the same emotional weight, a trait that places the book closer to high-quality genre fiction or a good newspaper story of long-ago events than to art. Chains describes Dickensian horrors without the Dickensian pathos. You follow Isabel’s story raptly, but you don’t feel nearly as much for her as you should.

Best line: Among the many good period details: “Madam opened an envelope and shock out two gray strips of mouse fur, each cut into an arch. Leaning toward the mirror, she glued the mouse fur onto her own eyebrows, making them bushy and think as fashion required.”

Worst line: “My bones were hollow sticks; my brainpan empty.” “My bones were hollow and my brainpan empty.” This repetition of a nearly identical line on back-to-back pages suggests a either a cutting-and-pasting oversight or that Halse Anderson couldn’t decide where to put or how to punctuate the line.

Newbery/Caldecott assessment: It will be interesting to see what the Newbery judges do with this one. Chains was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html. So it should get serious attention from the Newbery judges. But it has so much violence that, although none of it is inappropriate in context, you wonder if the judges might consider it instead for the Michael Printz Award, given to a book for older readers.

Published: October 2008. Chains is the first book in a series about Isabel that will continue with Forge.

If you like historical novels about independent girls, you might also like: A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/10/. Schlitz won the 2008 Newbery Medal for her book of monologues and dialogues Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices From a Medieval Village. A review of and reading group guide to the book appeared separate in separate posts on One-Minute Book Reviews on Jan. 26,2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/26/.

For more on the Revolutionary War era: Jean Fritz has written an excellent series of illustrated books about the American Revolution for 9-to-12-year-olds that includes Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George (Putnam,1996) and Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? (Putnam, 1997). Books by Fritz www.cbcbooks.org/cbcmagazine/meet/jeanfritz.html are available in many libraries and in stock at online bookstores and many others.

Furthermore: Laurie Halse Anderson wrote Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving and other books www.writerlady.com. She lives in Mexico, New York.

Other posts in the “Countdown to the 2009 Caldecott and Newbery Awards” appeared on May 10, 2008 (Pale Male) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/10/ and Nov. 22 (Zen Ties) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/11/22/.

Janice Harayda is a former judge for the National Book Critics Circle Awards. She has reviewed children’s books for more than a decade.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 23, 2008

2009 Newbery and Caldecott Medal Winners to Be Announced at 7:45 a.m. MDT on Jan. 26 — American Library Association to Offer Live Webcast

The American Library Association will announce the winners of the 2009 Caldecott and Newbery medals for children’s books on Monday, Jan. 26, at 7:45 a.m. MDT www.ala.org/ala/newspresscenter/mediapresscenter/presskits/alamidwintermeeting2009/Midwinter09presskit.cfm. The ALA plans to offer a live Webcast of the event from its midwinter meeting in Denver and to post the winners’ names by 10 a.m. at www.ala.org.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 1, 2008

Coming Tomorrow — A Review of ‘The Bearskinner’ by Newbery Medalist Laura Amy Schlitz

Laura Amy Schlitz won the 2008 Newbery Medal for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, a book of one- and two-person plays for ages 10 and up. Can Schlitz write for younger children? A review of her recent picture book The Bearskinner, illustrated by Max Grafe, will appear tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 24, 2008

A Review of the 2008 Newbery Medalist, Laura Amy Schlitz’s ‘Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!,’ Coming Saturday

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every weekend on One-Minute Book Reviews. Coming Saturday: A review of the book that won the 2008 Newbery Medal from the American Library Association www.ala.org, Laura Amy Schilitz’s Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! (Candlewick, $19.99) www.candlewick.com.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 16, 2008

Two Children’s Classics That Didn’t Win the Newbery — What Are the Others?

This week I was going to compile a list of 10 great children’s novels that didn’t win a Newbery Medal from the American Library Association www.ala.org, similar to my list of 10 classics that didn’t get Pulitzer (“Famous Pulitzer Losers,” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/04/16/). But I ran out of time, so I’ll just mention two:

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White. A 1953 Newbery Honor Book that lost the top prize to Ann Nolan Clark’s Secret of the Andes.

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt. Shut out of all prizes in 1976. Lost to the Newbery medalist, Susan Cooper’s The Grey King, and Honor Books The Hundred Penny Box, by Sharon Bell Mathis, and Dragonwings, by Laurence Yep.

What are the other classics – books children have enjoyed for decades — that didn’t win the Newbery?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 15, 2008

Why Did the American Library Association Snub Sherman Alexie?

Did Alexie’s young-adult novel finish out of the medals because it uses the word “boner” 12 times? Or because a character tells a vicious racial joke that includes the “n” word?

By Janice Harayda

Sherman Alexie never really had a shot at winning the 2008 Newbery Medal, which honors the most distinguished work of literature for children (specifically, for those under the age of 14). The material in his The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is too mature for many children in that age group.

But Alexie was a favorite for the American Library Association’s Michael L. Printz Award for young people’s literature, which honors a book for an older audience and went to Geraldine McCaughrean’s The White Darkness. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won a 2007 National Book Award www.nationalbook.org. And it was mentioned repeatedly in the Mock Newbery contests held by libraries in the weeks before yesterday’s awards ceremony.

So a lot of people were surprised when The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian finished out of the medals at the ALA’s midwinter meeting yesterday, receiving neither a major prize nor an honor-book designation. Did the novel lose because it uses the word “boner” 12 times? Or because a character tells a vicious racial and sexual joke that includes the “n” word and caused some students to walk out of a speech that Alexie gave at an Illinois high school in October?

Tomorrow One Minute Book Reviews will review The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian www.lb-teens.com, including comments on parts that might given pause to the ALA. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing this review. One-Minute Book Reviews normally reviews books for children and teenagers on Saturdays but may depart from this policy when books make news. Its reviews of books for adults will resume on Thursday.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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