The OF Blog: YA
Showing posts with label YA. Show all posts
Showing posts with label YA. Show all posts

Monday, October 06, 2014

Laurie Halse Anderson, The Impossible Knife of Memory

At one level?  None of this mattered.  It was hard enough surviving day to day, both navigating the hordes at Zombie High and listening to the bomb that had started ticking inside my father's head.  A little flirting with Finn?  That wouldn't hurt.  But I concluded that it couldn't go any further.  When we met after school for precalc tutoring, I made sure that there was always a table between us.  And when I was in his car, I kept my backpack on my lap, my face turned to the window and my attitude set to the frost level of "Don't Touch."

Despite this strategy, the hordes gossiped about us.  Girls in my gym class asked me flat out what Finn was like.  That's how I found out that his family had moved to the district only a year earlier and that he had led the swim team to the state title but decided not to swim this year, and no one could figure out why.  I also learned that those same girls were pissed off; they'd assumed he was gay, because why else wouldn't he have tried to hook up with them before?

I dialed up my serial killer glare and eventually they walked away. (p. 149)

This year has seen several high-profile literary works that touch upon some aspect of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  From Joyce Carol Oates' Carthage and Cara Hoffman's Be Safe I Love You to Iraq veteran Phil Klay's 2014 National Book Award-longlisted short collection Redeployment, these stories have touched upon how the violence experienced by those returning soldiers have affected them and those that they love.  In Laurie Halse Anderson 2014 National Book Award for Young People's Literature-longlisted The Impossible Knife of Memory, the deleterious effects of PTSD are explored through the eyes of an "Army brat," Hayley Kincain, a high school senior who has been on the move for the past five years with her vet/trucker father, Andy, with each trying, seemingly futilely, to escape their issues.

The Impossible Knife of Memory follows mostly Hayley's point of view, as we see through her jaded eyes her unease about being in yet another new town, with yet another school of teen fish to navigate.  Anderson does an excellent job in capturing the vulnerability behind that cynical façade, as can be seen in the passage above.  Hayley is a very introspective character, one who observes her world around her in acute detail, except when it comes to the central traumas that affect her.  She loves her father, but in lines such as this, it is clear that Andy's struggles have become such a "normal" part of her life that it is hard for her to conceive of others being happy or free of the issues that affect her and her father:

Our living room smelled a lot like chicken wings and pizza and a little like weed when I walked in the front door.

Dad looked up from the television.  "Hey, princess," he said with a grin.  "Have a good time?"

I hung up my jacket in the closet.

"Giants are playing," he said.  "Philly, first quarter.  I saved you some pizza.  Double cheese."  He frowned.  "What's that look for?"

"You're joking, right?"

"You love double cheese."

"I'm not talking about the pizza."

"Is it the wings?  You gave up being a vegetarian two years ago."

"Are we going to play 'pretend'?"

"Vegetarians can eat double-cheese pizza."

"It's not the food," I said.

"Are you still upset about the cemetery?"


Dad muted the television.  "I was thinking about what you said.  I'll call the cemetery and find out how much those special vases cost.  Mom didn't like cut flowers, but she hated being outdone by her neighbors, and that headstone looks awful.  Good idea?"  He let Spock lick the pizza grease off his fingers.  "Why are you still wearing the pissy face?"

"Did you run Friday night through the Andy-filter so instead of looking like a total ass, you can feel like you were a hero or something?" (pp. 185-186)

This scene encapsulates many of the central conflicts of The Impossible Knife of Memory:  Andy's drug use, Hayley's mom's death, the willing blindness that Andy has toward his failure to cope with his war experiences, Hayley's frustrations with him and with her inability to stick long in a place with friends.  Anderson illustrates these conflicts through short, sharp dialogues that cut to the heart of the matter with ease.  Each argument, each time Hayley withdraws from the affections of another semi-loner, Finn, each moment of solitude feeds directly into the subsequent one, until there is a clear sense that Hayley and Andy are flailing their way toward a possible bad ending.

Yet the story does not go full-tilt toward that.  Despite the sense that something ominous is inevitable, the actual conclusion is more nuanced.  Not all failures are final and not all who are lost remain lost in the void of their tortured memories.  For some readers, this might seem like a cop-out, a weakening of the events that lead up to the denouement.  Yet after some consideration, Anderson's concluding chapters set the stage for the next part of Hayley and Andy's lives:  recovery.  This does not mean that it is a "happy" conclusion, because for traumas and addictions, recovery is a life-long process with uncertain results.  However, having a bit of hope is more than having none, and in that sense, Hayley and Andy's stories feel like they have reached a certain stage and that after the story concludes, there are a number of paths they could follow.  Imagining these in turn helps make those scenes already read all the more intimate, because they have established these characters as flawed, dynamic ones with whom we can relate.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Kelly Barnhill, The Witch's Boy

Once upon a time there were two brothers, as alike to one another as you are to your own reflection.  They had the same eyes, the same hands, the same voice, the same insatiable curiosity.  And though it was generally agreed that one was slightly quicker, slightly cleverer, slightly more wonderful than the other, no one could tell the boys apart.  and even when they thought they could, they were usually wrong.

"Which one has the scar on his nose?" people would ask.  "Which is the one with the saucy grin?  Is Ned the smar one, or is it Tam?"

Ned, some said.

Tam, said others.  They couldn't decide.  But surely, one was better.  It stood to reason. (p. 12, e-ARC)

"Once upon a time..."  That phrase still manages to captivate readers no matter how many stories they have read since that time they picked up that one special book in their nascent reading youth and were spellbound by what followed after it.  There was that sense of something past, something important, something magical, that was about to unfold.  It could be a tale of a hapless peasant who becomes a wise king or a hidden peasant beauty who becomes a princess.  Or it could be someone who just struggles against a troubled and horrid past to create something magical and wonderful in the present.  There are so many ways that these stories can go and a good storyteller can lead us readers of all ages to reminisce about those earlier "once upon a time" moments while looking forward to seeing how this iteration will turn out.

In her third novel for middle grades (ages 8-12) readers, The Witch's Boy, Kelly Barnhill begins her "once upon a time" with twin boys, full of love for each other, who confound those around them.  They do not judge each other, but that is not the case of the villagers around them, who seem determined that one is "better" than the other, despite not being able to identify them readily.  So when one of them, Tam, drowns in a tragic accident while Ned survives, the villagers begin gossiping that the "wrong boy" survived.  This, coupled with Ned's grief over losing Tam, drives Ned into a stuttering, near mute stupor for years while his father, who only managed to rescue Ned, also tumbles into depression.

This tragedy also serves as a catalyst for change, as it turns out that Ned's mother is a "witch" who has been entrusted with a special clay pot that contains old magic that predates the creation of the village and the strange, haunting woods that cut it off from the wider world.  And one day, there comes a band of bandits crashing through the woods, led by an enigmatic man with a little talisman around his neck.  The clay pot becomes a source of contention and when Ned somehow gets the magic within attached to him (literally, as words are stitched into his flesh), along with something else a bit more intimate to him, he finds himself not only battling with the bandits, but also with the willful, sometimes amoral voices within the magic.

The Witch's Boy easily could have been a tale of Ned learning how to wield this magic and how to save his village from invaders, but Barnhill introduces a second story, this of a young girl, Áine, who lives in a cottage on the woods' cusp while her father roams far and wide after the death of her mother.  She is an accomplished archer, brave and determined, yet afflicted with loneliness due to her mother's death and her father's change in mood.  Her story becomes entwined with Ned's, yet she is not a sidekick, a simple character tossed in to make it more than just a boy's tale.  Áine's past is integral to the tale and she, along with Ned, are fated to have a role in restoring the magic to its rightful owners.

Barnhill does an excellent job in developing Ned and Áine's characters, as each feels fully developed and with easily relateable situations and reactions to the world around them.  As I read this tale, I found myself thinking back to what the nine or ten-year-old me would have enjoyed reading.  That younger me certainly would have enjoyed being able to place himself within a tale, seeing the PoV characters as being extensions of his imagination.  The current me, more interested in the mechanics of the story, also found Barnhill's narrative to be appealing, as she carefully develops the situation, not foreshadowing too heavily, but also providing just enough information for the basic narrative contours to be anticipated.  There are no lags in the story; everything moves smoothly toward a satisfying conclusion.

The Witch's Boy is one of the better middle grades fiction that I have read in the past few years.  It is a story that can easily appeal to both boys and girls and if I were teaching, for example, sixth grade language arts this year, I could see having a copy of it available for enrichment would be a worthwhile investment.  It is Barnhill's best novel to date and I am curious to see what magical tale she will write next.

Monday, September 15, 2014

National Book Awards longlist for Young People's Literature announced

The four day rollout for the 2014 National Book Awards began today with the announcement of the longlist for the Young People's Literature category.  Here are the ten finalists:

Laurie Halse Anderson, The Impossible Knife of Memory 

Gail Giles, Girls Like Us

Carl Hiaasen, Skink—No Surrender

Kate Milford, Greenglass House

Eliot Schrefer, Threatened

Steve Sheinkin, The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights 

Andrew Smith, 100 Sideways Miles

John Corey Whaley, Noggin

Deborah Wiles, Revolution: The Sixties Trilogy, Book Two

Jacqueline Woodson,  Brown Girl Dreaming

While I am uncertain if I will cover the entire 10 book longlist due to a money crunch this month, I do plan on reading and reviewing the five books from this list which will make the shortlist in mid-October.  Lot of familiar names on this list (Schrefer and Sheinkin I reviewed a couple of years ago when their previous works also made the YPL shortlist).  Curious to see what others more familiar with middle grades and YA lit think of this longlist.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Best of 2013: Children's/Middle Grades/Young Adult Books

2013 Children's/Middle Grades/Young Adult Books Read

Kate DiCamillo, Flora & Ulysses
Alaya Dawn Johnson, The Summer Prince
Gene Yuen Yang, Boxers/Saints
Meg Rosoff, Picture Me Gone
Cynthia Kadohata, The Thing About Luck
Kathi Appelt, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp
Tom McNeal, Far Far Away

I have not read much in the way of children's, middle grades, or young adult literature this year (I do, however, believe it is better to divide the "YA" category into more specific categories, as a book intended for a 9 year-old will differ significantly in some aspects from one oriented more to teen readers).  In fact, all of my reading comes from the National Book Award longlist for Young People's Literature (or 7/10 of the books on that longlist), but that does not mean that I shouldn't at least acknowledge some of the excellent works released in the past year.  Almost all of these seven works I would recommend readily to young readers (the only exception is The Summer Prince, toward which I had slightly mixed reactions) and if I had the time, I would use many of them in my classroom.  While it was difficult to pare it down to three favorites that I thought were among the year's best in the field (or at least the tiny sliver of 2013 YA/MG/Ju. lit that I've read; feel free to suggest alternatives in the comments), here are the ones that moved me the most:

3.  Kate DiCamillo, Flora & Ulysses

OK, it does star a superheroic squirrel, but I could see me enjoying this work immensely if I were about 9 or 10 today.  See linked review for more on the book and why I loved it.

2.  Cynthia Kadohata, The Thing About Luck

This book about a Japanese-American farming family and their trials and tribulations was a deserving winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.  The characters and setting are fully realized and the story contains a subtle yet powerful twist toward the end that made it a joy to read.

1.  Gene Luen Yang, Boxers/Saints

Yes, Yang's graphic novel duology makes its second appearance on one of my year-end lists (and it will appear again before the 31st).  It is that good.  See linked review for more details.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Meg Rosoff, Picture Me Gone

“Translating books is an odd way to make a living. It is customary to translate from your second language into your first, but among my father’s many friends and colleagues, every possible combination of language and direction is represented.

Gil translates from Portuguese into English. Most translators grow up speaking two or three languages but some speak a ridiculous number; the most I’ve heard is twelve. They say it gets easier after the first three or four.

The people I find disturbing are those with no native language at all. Gil’s friend Nicholas had a French mother and a Dutch father. At home he spoke French, Dutch and English but he grew up in Switzerland speaking Italian and German at school. When I ask him which language he thinks in, he says: Depends what I’m thinking about.

The idea of having no native language worries me. Would you feel like a nomad inside your own head? I can’t imagine having no words that are home. A language orphan.” (pp. 45-46, iBooks on Mac edition, beginning of Ch. 9)

Meg Rosoff's most recent novel, Picture Me Gone, is hard to summarize succinctly.  Perhaps those hoary old descriptors, "coming of age" and "Bildungsroman," might capture a small facet of the story of young Mila, but the wry observations and wide-ranging perspectives of the narrator are not typically those one might expect to find in a work written for a teen audience.  No, there are certain exceptionalities within this book that defeat attempts to place it squarely within a singular category.  Certainly Picture Me Gone is not a work that should be read in a rush, as there are layers to the narrative that make a slower contemplation of the characters and their developments a rewarding exercise.

Picture Me Gone first struck me as an introspective novel about how we, especially those of us who are still developing their world-views, try to position ourselves within the larger picture(s) of life around us.  The passage quoted above, which is part of a larger series of musings on language and identity, is representative of Rosoff's excellent characterization.  Here Mila struggles to comprehend the possible rootlessness of those who possess multiple loci – in this particular case, "native" language(s) – and for whom life is less a linear journey along a personal timeline and more a series of bifurcating paths that weave in and out of others' own walks of life.  Such an observation does not come from one wedded intimately to one's own surroundings, but instead seems to belong more properly to those who question the world around them.  Another example of this occurs late in the novel, after the English-born Mila has lived some time in the US:

 “There are hundreds of channels on American TV and I flick through without paying much attention to anything on the screen. It is mostly commercials. I come to the high numbers, where a topless woman rubs her breasts and starts to ask if I want to get to know her better before I click past. I pause on a nature show where a quiet-voiced man admires a beautiful stag in a clearing, saying, Isn’t he a magnificent creature? and then raises his rifle and shoots him through the heart. The animal staggers and falls to his knees. I want to throw up.

A week ago America felt like the friendliest place in the world but I am starting to see darkness everywhere I look. The worst thing is, I don’t think it is America. I think it is me.” (Ch. 28, pp. 248-249 iBooks for Mac edition)

For someone such as myself who was born and raised in the US, the tawdry mixture of scantily-clad women and casual (hunting) violence may not cause as much consternation as it would for someone for whom such scenes are not typical late-night fare.  Mila's observation that it is not as much America but herself goes straight to the heart of the book:  the seemingly quotidian elements of contemporary life, from new schoolmates to divorces to other changes in personal milieu, seem more profound and important as one enters into a more abstract and less concrete understanding of the lives and situations around them.  Younger children may interpret shifts in relationships through concrete means:  mommy and daddy aren't in the same bed anymore and there are fewer hug times or toys for Christmas.  A preteen or a teenager, however, might conceptualize things such as divorce or death through how each relates to that person's understanding of the world and matters such as faith, justice, or a sense of fairness.  In Picture Me Gone, Rosoff captures that shift in perspective vividly.  Mila tries to puzzle out everything around her; it is all new to her.  Sometimes this can be frightening, but other times it is exhilarating. 

If there is a flaw to Picture Me Gone, it may be that Rosoff is sometimes too subtle.  The events that spark reactions from Mila sometimes lack a sense of urgency that can drive readers to move quickly to the next chapter.  The external forces that shape Mila's development are sometimes not as clearly defined as they could have been and this serves to rob the novel of some of its power.  Yet despite this, there are many interesting elements developing quietly under the narrative surface that by novel's end they emerge to provide the story a fitting conclusion.  Picture Me Gone may not contain a singularly powerful scene or element that will make an indelible impression upon the reader, but the cumulative effect of Mila's piercing introspective thoughts is that of a slowly moving narrative river whose silty character deposits build a fertile delta upon which a careful and inquisitive reader can harvest a wealth of impressions.  Worthy nominee for the 2013 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.


Sunday, November 03, 2013

Gene Luen Yang, Boxers/Saints

I remember an old, but very pointed, witticism from my days studying at the University of Tennessee that went something like this:  In studying history, we mostly were getting only one side of the story, because her story was too often ignored by those writing down events.  There is, of course, much truth to this.  History is written by the winners, written records are privileged (until recently) over oral tales.  The deeds of men were valued over those of women.  Elite culture trumped that of plebeian culture.  In each of these cases, however, there were still preserved elements, if not whole-cloth, of the "other" histories.  They might be mere whispers, barely audible even those who strain to hear them, but the voices of the downtrodden are beginning to emerge more and more in histories and historical fictions over the past generation or so.

One recent example of this is Chinese-American graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang's rendering of the 1899-1901 Boxer Rebellion in China.  A century later, this popular uprising mystifies and fascinates those who look for parallels with our own times.  There certainly are many such elements:  resistance to imperialism, both political and cultural alike; varying amounts of personal/cultural adaptation to foreign influences; infighting over what is to be preserved from one's culture and which is to be adopted from elsewhere; questions of identity and how the past and present can shape a person.  Multiple perspectives are necessary in order to understand the tumult of events such as the Boxer Rebellion.  How did it start?  Who were its targets?  In what ways did rebellion manifest itself in the people infected with a desire to purge the land of new influences?  Who resisted the call to rebellion?  Who were the victims of these purges?  How can one determine a "right" or "wrong" when it comes to what one believes and how one expresses those beliefs?

These are the questions that Yang addresses throughout the course of his two intertwined graphic novels, Boxers and Saints.  Multiple sides are presented here, with matters of "right" and "wrong" deliberately left open for interpretation.  Although the main protagonists of each book, Bao (Boxers) and Vibiana (Saints), present compelling reasons as to why their point-of-view should be most sympathetic to readers, Yang carefully illustrates, both in his drawings and in his scripts, the limits and foibles of each young protagonist.  In Boxers, we see Bao's struggle to find respect and dignity in 1890s rural China, with vivid scenes such as his father's brutal beating and maiming serving as an impetus for him to turn toward the preaching of itinerant traditionalists such as Red Lantern who urge the countryside to revolt against China's foreign oppressors and to remove the shame that has visited the country.  Inflamed with a passion to restore the glory of China's past and its "opera" gods and goddesses, Bao seeks (and at first is rebuffed due to his young age) training in the mystical ways of the Righteous Fists, where he learns how to embrace the spirits of the Chinese gods and heroes.

In contrast, Vibiana has rejected tradition and embraced Christianity after being maltreated by her family and cast out.  She, like Bao, seeks something greater than herself to anchor herself to, but instead of accepting a menial role demanded of village women at that time, she begins to explore the new faith that has been introduced in the region.  Through her views, we see some of the myriad reasons why many Chinese converted to Christianity, not all of which were noble in intent, purpose, or action.  Yang has created in these two characters interesting parallels, not all of which are immediately visible upon a first reading.  If anything, by having the two books be bound separately, the parallels are slightly obscured as the reader encounters mostly the views of one of the two protagonists (with minor appearances of the other through the eyes of each other).  This, however, does not weaken the power of the dual narratives but instead strengthens both, as the understanding one might derive in reading one book first (if it were up to me, I would read Boxers first, as it is the longer of the two and Yang scripted it first) can be deepened (and in some cases, challenged) by a quick reading of the other.  Indeed, one could even read the "chapters" in alternating fashion to create an even more composite view, although this would reveal a few narrative surprises in the process.

Bao and Vibiana are flawed young individuals, each seeking justification for his or her actions.  Things that one blithely accepts are seen by the other as atrocities.  The external forces that drive each can be seen as self-destructive when viewed through the perspective of the other narrator.  Yet taken as a whole, their twin narratives tell a powerful story that leads the reader to ask many of the questions I laid out above.  The result is a wonderfully realized retelling of an important moment in Chinese history that will engage readers from the early pages of Boxers all the way to the ending of Saints.  These two books, when read as a whole, certainly are deserving of their dual nomination for the 2013 National Book Award for Young People's Literature and they are among my favorite 2013 releases to date.  Highly, highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Kate DiCamillo, Flora & Ulysses

Not much goes on in the mind of a squirrel.

Huge portions of what is loosely termed "the squirrel brain" are given over to one thought:  food.

The average squirrel cogitation goes something like this:  I wonder what there is to eat.  This "thought" is then repeated with small variations (e.g. Where's the food?  Man, I sure am hungry.  Is that a piece of food? and Are there more pieces of food?) some six or seven thousand times a day.

All of this is to say that when the squirrel in the Tickhams' backyard got swallowed up by the Ulysses 2000X, there weren't a lot of terribly profound thoughts going through his head.

As the vacuum cleaner roared toward him, he did not (for instance), think, Here, at last, is my fate come to meet me! 

 He did not think, Oh, please give me one more chance and I will be good. 

What he thought was Man, I sure am hungry. (p. 10)

There is something magical that occurs when a child is around nine or ten years old.  The flights of fancy that inspired green skies and blue blades of grass with elongated, misshapen stick-humans populating perilously-leaning houses begins to transform into something more self-aware, something both universal and uniquely personal.  Looking back on my elementary school years in the early 1980s, 4th through 6th grade were wondrous years.  They were the years that I was introduced to Beverly Cleary's Ramona and Ralph S. Mouse, to Old Dan and Little Ann in Where the Red Fern Grows, to all the ways that one could eat worms to fulfill a bet.  Thirty years later, those stories linger like an old TV afterimage, influencing still how I decide which stories are worthy of joining my juvenile pantheon of great books.

It is tricky to write stories that speak directly to what is now termed "middle grades" (ages 8-12) readers while still maintaining a freshness of imagination.  Too often the works feel stilted, insincere, as if the adults composing them are uncertain of how to address their readers.  Perhaps the problem lies with "addressing" in the first place.  After all, few people like having someone address their opinions to them without at least some intimate connection.  Judy Blume was one of the rare few authors who could pull this off with aplomb; Margaret and Peter are vastly different characters on the surface, yet there is something about them that speaks to young boys and girls alike even decades after her most famous works were published.  Often writers settle for one of two extremes:  young, developing readers or the "young adults" of 13-21.  There is nothing wrong with writing for those audiences and several marvelous works have emerged in recent years that speak to these audiences.  However, it is a different matter when it comes to readers who are beyond basic reading but who have yet to experience the weird shifts that hormonal changes bring to the adolescent body.

Therefore, I was curious to see how Kate DiCamillo, who twice was either a finalist or winner for the Newberry Award, would tell the story of a bookish ten-year old girl, Flora, who was the only child of divorced parents.  Certainly the premise held great promise:  the introverted, comics-loving girl who discovers that a squirrel she rescues from an out-of-control vacuum cleaner has somehow gained superpowers in the process of surviving the suctioning force of the vacuum.  This is the sort of tale that I enjoyed in 4th or 5th grade, that of the inexplicable granting of anthropomorphic superpowers to an animal.  But would it ring true, or would the premise be all that is appealing about Flora & Ulysses?

For virtually the entire story, I found myself reading the story as if I were ten years old again.  Leaving aside the numerous in-jokes I have made over the years about squirrels, Ulysses (such a fitting name, that, although DiCamillo never directly references The Odyssey) is such a fascinating character in his own right.  DiCamillo has her characters make wry, sometimes witty observations without ever appearing to break the tone of the narrative.  Flora may be more of a shy violet than Cleary's Ramona ever was, but like Cleary's lovable rascal, Flora's views on her life, comics, and her parents' post-divorce lives contains a strong ring of truth to them because she never feels as though the author were talking at the target audience.  Instead, Flora's experiences, madcap as they often were in the novel (especially toward the end), are realistic even though the narrative is anything but quotidian life.  DiCamillo's slightly-skewed suburban setting (romance novel-writing mother, sadistic neighborhood cat, antique lamp shaped like a figurine) allows readers to laugh at the absurdities and to imagine themselves in such improbable events while still empathizing with the emotional aspects of the story.

Flora & Ulysses contains very few flaws.  The writing is engaging, with a sly wit that rewards those readers who have perhaps read a bit more than their peers without ever feeling as though a joke were being played outside their comprehension.  Flora and Ulysses are well-drawn characters (literally as well as figuratively, as there are some comics-like scenes where Ulysses' new superpowers are on display), but even the secondary characters (such as Flora's parents, a neighbor, and the neighbor's troubled great-nephew) shine in the limited time that they appear in the narrative.  Perhaps the story could have been even better with a more tense, drawn-out conclusion, but this is quibbling over a minor flaw.  Flora & Ulysses was recently longlisted for the National Book Award for Young Peoples' Literature and it certainly merits it, as it is one of the rare few middle grades fiction that reminds me of the voracious 9-10 year-old reader that I once was and the stories that most captivated the younger me.  Yet despite being nearly 30 years older than that reader, Flora & Ulysses contains a charm that belies its target audience.  Perhaps it will be a book that my nearly one-year-old niece will love when she is older.  I plan on finding out, as I will give this book to her when she is older.  If that is not a testament to how well-written this book this, then my words above will not serve any better to underscore this.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Best of 2012: YA/Children's Literature

2012 was an interesting year for me when it came to reading Young Adult/Juvenile/Children's Lit.  Due to a conversation I had this summer with Dunja, I re-read several childhood favorites (and reviewed some of them here) and read several that were favorites of her when she was growing up.  Most of those I enjoyed quite a bit.  Yet when it comes to 2012 releases, I only read 9 works that could readily be accepted as either children's lit or YA (I almost added Samuel Delany's Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, as the two main protagonists were teens when the story began, then I thought better of it, as there would be some irate readers ready to smack me for that ;)).  Yet I enjoyed 8 out of the 9 to some degree or another, so I thought perhaps this might make for a good list for those such as myself who would like to read something new in the field that isn't the X volume in series Y (only one is a continuation of a prior story).  So here's what I read, the five National Book Award finalists for Young People's Literature (one of which is a fantasy) and four others that would likely be classified by some as YA SF/F.

9.  Leah Bobet, Above.  Despite liking her short fiction enough to list her story "Six" for consideration for BAF 4, her debut novel, Above, was an underwhelming YA urban fantasy about a humanity divided into groups based on whether or not they lived above or below the surface.  Although there were some promising moments, the dialogue felt stilted and the story lacked the necessary cohesion to achieve its ambitious goals.

8.  William Alexander, Goblin Secrets.  See my earlier review.

7.  Steve Sheinkin, Bomb:  The Race to Build – and Steal – the World's Most Dangerous Weapon.  See my earlier review.

6.  Eliot Schrefer, Endangered.  See my earlier review.

5.  Nalo Hopkinson, The Chaos.  This is a story about self-identity and ethnicity, as the mysterious black spot that appears on the protagonist's arm can be viewed as a concrete metaphor for her troubles trying to sort out her multiracial heritage.  Well-written, with a very believable character whose conflicts will resonate with many of multiracial/ethnic heritages. 

4.  Carrie Arcos, Out of Reach.  See my earlier review.

3.  Kelly Barnhill, Iron Hearted Violet.  This second novel by Barnhill that I've read this year (The Mostly True Story of Jack being her debut novel) was a delight to read.  When my niece Adyson turns that "magical" age, say around 8 or 9, I think I'd like to lend my copy to her.  Yes, I'm going to that sort of uncle, it seems (I gave her a 50th anniversary edition of Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth for her first Christmas this week).  It is a story of a brave young princess in a world where an unspoken ancient evil is threatening to re-enslave the world and her fight to prevent that.  Traditional tropes, perhaps, but Barnhill writes very well and I think it's good to see girls/women being more than plucky sidekicks or damsels in distress.

2.  Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There.  Speaking of books for my niece, this second volume in her Fairyland series might be a good one to read aloud to her when she's in elementary school.  Valente is a very talented writer and her story, which I would judge to be good for the 9-12 year-old set and older, takes the portal fantasy and twists the "rules" a bit.  Well-done.

1.  Patricia McCormick, Never Fall Down.  See my earlier review.

Feel free to suggest other worthy 2012 releases in YA/Children's Lit that I've overlooked, as I certainly will give them consideration for the future, even if it'd be too late for me to post them in this article.  After all, since my brother and his wife aren't as avid of readers as I am, I'd like to screen new books for my niece to read in the future.  It's the least I could do as being the "creepy" uncle of the family ;)

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

2012 National Book Award finalist for Young People's Literature: Patricia McCormick, Never Fall Down

Tonight it's another meeting.  These meeting, sometime they last four hour.  Always, someone talking about Angka.  Sometime, you so tire, you fall asleep.  But you too afraid the Khmer Rouge will see, so your sleep, your eyes open.

This night one Khmer Rouge, a high-ranking guy, he take money from his pocket and rip it into shred.  I wake up for this, to see someone so crazy he tear up money.  "No need for money now," he says.  "No school, no store, no mail, no religion.  No thing from the American, from the imperialist.  In Cambodia, now it's Year Zero."

No one can talk at these meetings.  No one allowed.  But one old lady, she mutter.  "This guy is not the prince.  The prince, he's the only one who can decide; only he can say this."

I think the Khmer Rouge gonna kill her, but the man, again, he make a Buddha face.  "Angka," he says, "sees what inside your heart.  The prince, he has two eyes.  Angka, as many as a pineapple." (Ch. 2, e-book p. 20)

Patricia McCormick's National Book Award-nominated Never Fall Down straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction.  Based on two years of interviews with Cambodian refugee Arn Chorn-Pond, Never Fall Down is Chorn-Pond's tale of survival in the 1970s during Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror in Cambodia just before the Vietnamese invaded to overthrow that genocidal regime.  McCormick notes that although the main basis of the book lies in Chorn-Pond's own recollections, she conceived of it as a novel (similar to what Dave Eggers did with Valentino Achak Deng's life in What is the What) in order to "connect the dots" of Chorn-Pond's recollections with the events of the day. 

As a novel, Never Fall Down succeeds brilliantly.  McCormick chose to use Chorn-Pond's distinct use of English in order to convey a sense of loss and terror.  Too easily, this approach could have been viewed as stereotypical, yet there's a brutal honesty within this narrative that does not allow for anything other than Chorn-Pond's own voice to be used.  Considering the tale of his time as a young boy playing music for the Khmer Rouge operatives while fearing each night would be the night that he would be the next one to "disappear," there is a sense of immediacy and utter, abject fear that makes for a compelling read.

Never Fall Down's narrative is graphic and evokes a vivid sense of the sort of misery that Chorn-Pond and the other children in his group experienced.  Take for instance this description of the perils of camp life from Ch. 3:

We kids, so hungry now, we hunt for food for ourself.  Insect, frog, maybe mushroom or plant.  So many kids crawling for food all over, maybe three hundred kids still living, it's hard to find this food.  And some kids, lotta kids, eat poison plant, maybe spider, and die.  Me, I eat the tamarind fruit.  Very sour and very good.  But also give you diarrhea.  Already I have diarrhea, but I can't help it; I still eat the tamarind.  You eat some, your mouth wrinkle up inside, and you want some more.  You eat more, your stomach pain you so much, you can't stand straight.

All the kid have diarrhea now.  With this diarrhea, you feel like you have to shit a hundred times each night.  You so tired, you work all day, you almost think, maybe I can shit right here in my bed.  Some kid do.  Then Khmer Rouge get very angry, beat them.  So you don't care how tired, you get up.  You go to the latrine, and it's crawling with maggot; just one board, very slippery, over a ditch, also crawling with maggot.  Some kid so weak, they fall in.  I think they die too. (p. 25 e-book)
It is one thing to hear of the killing fields of 1970s Cambodia, but the reality of the depravity of the Khmer Rouge in their attempt to out-Mao Mao and to enforce a brutal form of peasant collectivization on Cambodia after their rise to power in the early 1970s is stomach-churning.  Chorn-Pond, through McCormick's deft weaving of his recollections with those of other camp children, had been removed from his family by the Khmer Rouge and sent to a camp in the fields.  There he made a precarious living playing music for hours for the local troops, hoping that he will be the one that when he is cook gets to cook the human livers harvested for meals rather than being the one whose liver will be fried next.

The Cambodian genocide was perhaps the second-worst genocide of the twentieth century after the Holocaust.  Estimates range that between 1-3 million people died over a four-year span from 1975-1979, out of a pre-Khmer Rouge population of 8 million.  The events narrated within Never Fall Down are brutally true to the reality, as there are references to the various ways in which the Khmer Rouge deposed of the "surplus population" that were removed from the cities, with the mass live burials (the killing fields) being the most infamous.  It was tough to read the descriptions of what happened, the callous brutality of the Khmer Rouge soldiers, the suffering of children such as Chorn-Pond, but McCormick does an outstanding job detailing just what Chorn-Pond and others experienced.  Never since I first read Elie Wiesel's Night had I read such a terribly accurate and graphic depiction of the suffering of children at the hands of a cruel government.

The only quibble I had with Never Fall Down is trying to decide what might be the best age group for reading this.  Certainly it is not an account that early middle school students would be ready to handle; perhaps high school or even beyond is best for readers who might be sensitive to such graphic depictions.  Other than that, Never Fall Down is easily the best of the 2012 Young People's Literature nominees.  It easily could have been finalist in the Fiction category, as its subject matter and the quality of McCormick's prose make it a fitting read for teens and older.  One of the best 2012 releases in any genre that I have read this year.

2012 National Book Award finalist for Young People's Literature: William Alexander, Goblin Secrets

A goblin stepped onstage.

Rownie stared.  He had never seen one of the Changed before.  This one was completely bald, and taller than Rownie thought goblins could get.  His sharp ear-tips stuck out sideways from his head, and his eyes were large and flecked with silver and brown.  His skin was green; the deep green of thick moss and riverweed.  His clothes were patched together from fabric of all different colors.

The goblin bowed.  He set two lanterns at both corners of the stage, and then stood in the center.  he held several thin clubs in one hand.  He watched the audience in a cruel and curious way, the way molekeys watch beetles before they pull off their wings and legs.

Rownie felt like he should be hiding behind something.  When the goblin moved, finally, throwing the clubs in the air with a snap of both sleeves, Rownie flinched. (p. 37 e-book, Act I, Scene IV)

I have struggled for hours trying to think of how best to approach writing a review commentary on William Alexander's National Book Award-nominated Goblin Secrets.  It is a different sort of book from the other finalists, not just because it is the only fantasy, but because its structure differs in key regards from the others.  Goblin Secrets is not a "poor" book, but it is not necessarily a work that will immediately captivate a reader and perhaps within that lies the crux of my quandary regarding how to approach discussing it.

Goblin Secrets utilizes a three act, multi-scene alternative to traditional chapters.  There are additional drama elements that can be detected within the prose:  the masks that some of the characters sport, the way in which the titular goblins (who are the only ones permitted to perform on stage) act, both in dialogue and in movement, and the rise and fall of dramatic action from the introduction to the denouement.  This approach does enliven matters to a degree, as there is a greater sense of "movement" within these scenes, as characters such as the young orphaned Rownie, in search for his older brother Rowan (who disappeared suddenly after performing in an illegal secret play), progress through the city of Zombay.

In addition to the goblins, the fantastical elements include an apparent magical connection between the masks and certain prophesied events related to the city's nearby river.  Much of the narrative is devoted to exploring these mysterious connections, which Alexander does deftly, with vividly-told (acted?) scenes that move from act to act with rare longeurs.  Usually, these elements, when done as well as Alexander does in this novel, denote a satisfying read, yet oddly this was not my experience while reading Goblin Secrets.

There is a lot that is going on within the narrative and "behind the scenes."  Almost too much, as there were times that it seemed that there was too little exposition to explain what all was transpiring.  Furthermore, the Act/Scene structure is a bit convoluted at times.  While it does generally adhere to the introduction/rising action–climax–falling action/resolution of three-act plays, in novel form the action felt a bit too unbalanced toward the former "act," with the latter two feeling less defined and vital as the first. 

The characterizations for the most part fall along certain archetypes:  the innocent orphan waif (Rownie), the mysterious lost brother (Rowan), the evil stepmother-like figure (the witch Graba) and the fulcrum-occupying goblin actors.  Yet what Alexander does well is to imbue these characters with just enough distinctive traits as to make them feel life-like while still leaving just enough "space" for readers to imagine themselves (or others they know) in certain roles.  The masks are both figurative and literal in the tale and the switching of them does change character perspectives a bit, sometimes leading to bits that were confusing upon a first read.

Goblin Secrets is a work that frustrated me when I read it, particularly the first time a few weeks ago.  It contains a lot of elements that I typically enjoy in a fantasy (unique setting, different narrative structure, decent characterizations), but it just did not mesh well here.  There was little "wonder" by novel's end, just a wish that there had been.  Compared to the other fictions on the Young People's Literature shortlist, Goblin Secrets is perhaps the most flawed and least-realized.  It is a decent book, perhaps one that readers 10-14 might enjoy more than I did, but it pales in comparison to the other finalists.

Monday, November 05, 2012

2012 National Book Award finalist for Young People's Literature: Steve Sheinkin, Bomb: The Race to Build – and Steal – the World's Most Dangerous Weapon

HARRY GOLD WAS RIGHT:  This is a big story.  It's the story of the creation – and theft – of the deadliest weapon ever invented.  The scenes speed around the world, form secret labs to commando raids to street-corner spy meetings.  But like most big stories, this one starts small.  Let's pick up the action sixteen years before FBI agents cornered Harry Gold in Philadelphia.  Let's start 3,000 miles to the west, in Berkeley, California, on a chilly night in February 1934.

On a hill high above town, a man and woman sat in a parked car.  In the driver's seat was a very thin young physics professor named Robert Oppenheimer.  Beside him sat his date, a graduate student named Melba Philipps.  The two looked out at the view of San Francisco Bay. (Beginning to Ch. 1)

Steve Sheinkin's Bomb:  The Race to Build – and Steal – the World's Most Dangerous Weapon is the only non-fiction that appears on the 2012 National Book Award shortlist for Young People's Literature.  It is difficult for me to review because as a trained historian, things that I might typically see as shortcomings in research methodology, epistemology, etc.  just are not applicable when it comes to writing an exciting narrative history that would appeal to middle school students.  So perhaps with just a caveat that I question the strength of some of his sources, I will try to focus on how this would read as a narrative for pre-teen and early teen students.

Bomb tells the story of the attempts by German, American, and British physicists in the 1930s and 1940s to construct a fission bomb, and the attempts by the Soviets to steal the plans for this bomb.  The story surrounding the construction of the world's first atomic bomb is an espionage lover's fantasy:  clandestine meetings, operatives being sent in to attack remote facilities nestled on a sea cliff, moles within the most secretive councils.  Volumes have been written about the personalities involved, people including Robert Oppenheimer, who spearheaded the Manhattan Project, and Harry Gold, who betrayed the Americans and shared what he had gathered with the Soviets.  Yet it takes more than just a recounting of what this agent or that scientist did or failed to do in order to craft a compelling tale.  It takes the twisting of this strand and a looping of this thread in order to weave a memorable tapestry and for the most part, Sheinkin does achieve this with Bomb.

The stories within Bomb unfold in a rapid, almost breathless narrative style.  Little emphasis is placed on detailing the motives of the players involved; instead, a premium is placed on creating tension between the actors and their situations.  For example, the traitor Harry Gold is introduced early:  how will his already known fate of FBI interrogation unfold?  What pitfalls will Oppenheimer and his associates face?  Will there be false accusations in light of Gold and Alger Hiss?

These questions make the reading go very swiftly, as the reader races to find out just what happened next.  Sheinkin's vocabulary, which by necessity of theme and historical material involves the usage of several technical terms, may be a bit challenging for late primary and early middle school students, but the vocabulary should be little challenge (most of the truly technical terms, like fission itself, are explained cogently in the body of the text itself) to those in the last year or two of middle school or the beginning of high school (12-14 is probably the "target audience" here, although advanced readers from 9-11 might be able to handle the material and grasp its implications).  The narrative focus is on the people involved, scientists, politicians, and spies alike and this devotion to the personal aspect of the race to acquire "the bomb" makes it easier for even younger or "slower" readers to grasp the gist of what is transpiring without feeling overwhelmed by technical jargon.

Bomb is best viewed as an "intro" level survey of the period.  Due to its intended audience and its focus on the human side of the race to "the bomb," there is a lot of background material that is either mentioned only in passing (such as the motives of the German scientists, including Heisenberg, in their haltering approach toward research into "heavy water") or neglected at all (Einstein's theories on energy/mass conversion and how that theorem and others developed from it led to postulations about the ability to create a controlled fission of uranium or plutonium atoms to create a massive energy release in the form of a devastating bomb).  Those stories too are essential to this tale and at times, Sheinkin's narrative relied too heavily on the espionage angle, leaving holes in the narrative that were barely papered over with his vivid depictions of the actors involved.

Compared to the other 2012 National Book Award finalists in Young People's Literature, Bomb is a weaker story.  Although the actual events and the people involved make for a thrilling account, the book relies too heavily on this aspect, leaving the sense that it is a shallow history that only hints at the other memorable stories that co-occurred with the espionage and scientific brainstorming sessions.  So while Bomb likely would appeal to a broad spectrum of middle grades readers, its flaws are magnified when compared to several of the other finalists, several of which are equally gripping in terms of narrative tension, yet which also possess greater depth and breadth of personages and themes.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

2012 National Book Award finalist for Young People's Literature: Carrie Arcos, Out of Reach

We entered a large white office with pictures of nature above motivational slogans like "Life is a journey, not a destination" and "Opportunity will arise when you rise the wall of change" hanging from the wall.  Metal chairs formed a circle in the center of the room.  People I did not know, except for Micah, looked up at us and nodded when we entered the room.  We were late.  The counselor or shrink, whatever he was, invited us to sit down.  His dreads flopped about when he turned his head and indicated a chair.  I sat below a picture of a sunset.  Its caption read:  "Today is the first day of the rest of your life.  Make it happen!"

The session began with the counselor leading everyone in a kind of prayer.  "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

It was weird.  I didn't know they had sent Micah to a religious thing.  My family didn't go to church, like Michelle's.  Mom was raised Catholic, so we got dressed up and went to Mass on Easter Sunday, when we'd hear sermons that were mostly the same year to year, something about death and Jesus. (pp. 7-8)

For most of the past eight years, I have worked, both as "direct care" and as an educational instructor/testing coordinator with troubled teens.  I have heard stories that would break the hearts of most, stories of confused young men and women who struggled to deal with their emotional and behavioral states.  Stories of incest survival and how difficult it was for one 17 year-old to be in the same room with any male even years after it happened.  Several turned to drugs, not just the "soft" stuff like alcohol or marijuana (soft being of course, a relative term), but to meth, heroin, X, benzine, salts, incense, and so forth.  I have had to calm some down as they went through withdrawal, feeling the shakes, worried that they had lost their one dependable security blanket in the world.  I knew of pent-up frustrations, of attempts to run away, to go find another of the opposite (and sometimes same) sex and to just fuck out their fears and desires.  Not all of them wanted help.  Not all of them, in fact I would say less than half, truly wanted help.  They were powerless before their addictions and they did not have the serenity in their lives yet to confront that fundamental weakness and to ready themselves to make an inventory of their lives.

Carrie Arcos' debut novel, Out of Reach, speaks of one of those "lost" souls, of a kid, Micah, from a "good family, who became hooked on meth.  It is too easy to conceive of a tale of someone succumbing to drug/alcohol addiction and then somehow "turning it around."  It would be a "feel good" sort of story, wouldn't it, to have the lost sheep returned to the fold, the family stronger than ever?  Unfortunately, the reality is much sadder than that.  If one is lucky, it might take 2-3 trips to rehab in order to get just enough serenity in one's life to begin recovery.  Sometimes it takes a few spells in jail or a recovery (or two) from an overdose to shock the senses enough.  Sometimes.  Other times, the disease gets the sufferer.  Families are devastated by the betrayals associated with "the habit," the lies, the (self) deceptions, the thefts, the accusations that rend families into shreds.  This is an ugly, sordid part of drug abuse/recovery that often is not presented in fiction, but in Out of Reach, Arcos attempts to shine a light on this, perhaps with a goal of helping families who are suffering through similar matters to understand just a bit more what the addict faces.

Out of Reach is told through the PoV of Micah's one-year younger sister, Rachel.  She is almost everything that he is not:  she is very smart and popular with most of her high school's social groups.  She is the "good" girl whose own frustrations (the breakup with her boyfriend and his spiteful description of her on Facebook, the peer pressure to fit in on other matters while balancing her reputation, etc.) crop up during the course of the novel.  She is the voice of those who just do not understand what drives others to use.  Arcos does an excellent job throughout the novel showing Rachel's strengths and limitations as the caring but (at first) misunderstanding younger sister who is searching for her brother after he runs away after a conflict with their dad soon after his release from a six-week residential rehab program.

The moral center of the novel is of course the absent Micah himself.  In flashbacks as Rachel and a friend of his, Tyler, search the beaches and hangouts of suburban southern California towns, we see how Micah is a sort of vaguely-present guardian angel for Rachel, a fact which she only belated comes to realize.  He is a talented musician whose turn to meth is as much about "fitting in" as it is about dropping out of a society that valued him only for the music he could create.  Yet his absence dominates the tale, as he is the enigma that Rachel (and readers) tries to crack.  As she and Tyler spend a fateful night searching for word of him among people Tyler knows (and those who know those other associates), a shadowy world begins to be revealed:  a place of handshake deals, of continual half-truths and deceptions towards those not a part of the group, of petty thefts and fights.  Yet there is also touching bonding moments, of sad nods and reminisces about music made and stories shared.  Arcos' narrative is at its strongest when Rachel recounts these encounters and how they reflect sides of her brother that she had blinded herself to as they grew up.

There are a few weak spots in the narrative, however.  Naive as Rachel is meant to be, there are still moments where her lack of comprehension feels a bit too forced, as though it strains credibility to believe that she is that sheltered from the world around here.  Less avoidable is the sense that by having a popular, middle-class female high school student as the main PoV, Arcos cannot explore some of the other facets of juvenile drug culture in detail because of the necessary focus being on the familial bonds between Micah and Rachel.  There were times that I would have loved to have heard more about certain minor characters' lives, in part because Arcos does seem to have done her research (or better, have worked with these types of youth) in regards to the social dynamics behind drug usage and addiction.

If I were still working in residential drug rehab, I would have already given a copy of Out of Reach to some of my students for their own evaluations of its message and veracity.  I suspect that most of them would take to it as the female rehab patients did with Ellen Hopkins' novels that cover a similar theme.  As someone who has worked with those who ultimately just were not ready to be "found" or to begin a true recovery, the descriptions and statements within Out of Reach ring true.  Compared to the other 2012 National Book Award finalists for Young People's Literature, it is easily one of the two best in terms of prose, characterization, and thematic exploration and with one possible exception, it might be the one that young teens would enjoy most out of the five finalists.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

2012 National Book Award finalist in Young People's Literature: Eliot Schrefer, Endangered

"The roads are so terrible that, unless they get fuel for airplanes, the combatants can't easily get around the country.  Which means the revolution is happening only in the towns and cities that they happen to hit.  The old government wasn't in touch with the rural areas, anyway – there, life is probably going on as though the attack never happened.  Some of them probably think we're still Belgian.  Some of them probably don't even know the Belgians ever came.  Any undeveloped region would be safer than here in the middle of the revolution."

Revolution.  A momentous new word for all of this.

Otto shrieked when one of the boys roughhoused him, then mounted a counterattack by standing on his hands and falling into his new playmate.  They tumbled to the ground, the boy laughing and Otto making his pleased raspy sound as he got a gloppy handful of mud and smooshed it into the kid's thigh. (pp. 139-140)

Out of the five finalists for the 2012 National Book Awards for Young People's Literature, Eliot Schrefer's Endangered appealed the least to me when I read the synopsis of a based-on-experiences fiction set in the Democratic Republic of the Congo revolving around endangered bonobos, who along with chimpanzees are the closest living genetic relatives to human beings.  Too frequently, the human aspect is simplified or distorted into this sort of "exotic geography porn," where the illusion of great breadth is created at the expense of any true depth, not to mention the distortion of complex social issues that leads to further stigmatizing of local cultures.  There are only so many "Wild Africa" stories that one can read before they all run together into this mish-mash of paternalistic attitudes that dehumanize the social/demographic pressures in the region in the attempt to create this narrative of "pristine wilderness under threat from benighted native encroachment."

Schrefer is acutely aware of this, or at least the afterword and the interview that accompany the novel part of Endangered reflect this awareness of the harm done by categorizing local cultures into this sort of threatening, primitive force.  There lurks within Endangered the seeds of another tragedy, that of the decades of civil war and its uncertain aftermath for the Congolese peoples, and while Schrefer's tale does not focus on them, it also does not neglect to note the intricacies involved in a very impoverished country where the equivalent of $50 for a dead bonobo can mean the difference between a family having the food and supplies it needs and their survival.

Endangered revolves around the growing affection that young Sophie, who reluctantly has tagged along with her mother to a bonobo sanctuary, and the young bonobo Otto (named after the Italian number "eight" rather than the German personal name).  When a revolution breaks forth and civil war sweeps the countryside, both Sophie and Otto are at grave risk, for different reasons.  The main plot of the novel focuses on their flight into the jungle and their attempt to return to civilization.

The action unfolds at a brisk clip, with an economy of words used to describe the action.  Sophie is the narrative "window" into which readers view the world around her:  a lush, mineral-rich land, where there is little need for competition among the wildlife (which some speculate might be a cause in the behavioral differences between the more pacific bonobos and the fiercer chimpanzees that live north of the broad Congo River), yet the disparate human groups fight for control of the mineral wealth of the region.  As Sophie and Otto traverse the hinterlands of the Congo, they come across people who help them despite the risk to themselves, others who see profit at the expense of humanity, and through it all, there are some rather sobering lessons about what sacrifice entails and what motivates humans (and bonobos) to act in their own fashions.

If there is a flaw to Endangered, it would be that there are times where Sophie feels too detached from the immediacy of the events around her.  In using her as a window into the fierce, tragic world of suffering humans and the bonobos that they often kill or capture in order to raise money for their families, her PoVs sometimes feel a bit too stiff and unnatural, as if she were distancing herself from  what is occurring.  While some detachment perhaps is necessary in order for the readers to understand the complexities of the events that are transpiring, this occurs too often, creating artificial lulls in the action and a distraction from the themes of sacrifice and humanity that Schrefer appears to be exploring within the novel.

Endangered is a good YA novel despite this major irritation.  It would appeal most to middle school readers, as some of the events, particularly the civil war/revolution scenes, would dovetail nicely with a 6th or 7th grade Eastern/World Geography course similar to the ones I used to teach when I taught middle grades social studies years ago in Florida.  Schrefer's mixture of fact and fiction, with the notable exception already mentioned above, would captivate those who are fascinated with both the large primates of Africa and those who appreciate a good action-packed novel of escape and discovery.  Compared to the other 2012 National Book Award finalists for Young People's Literature, however, Endangered is around the middle of the pack in terms of narrative quality and characterization, two elements that are vital for middle school readers' enjoyment.  This is not to say that it is a mediocre novel (if I were teaching a unit on Africa, I certainly would not hesitate to suggest the book as a supplement for those voracious readers who may want to read more on the wildlife of the region), but rather than in a field crowded with excellent writers, its sometimes-detached narrator may be less appealing to its target audience.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Fainna Solasko (translator) and Evgenii Rachev (illustrator), Kutkha the Raven

"Help us, Great Old Man," they pleaded.  "You've given us bright feathers, but we want to sing beautifully as well."

"That's being greedy," Apaipaiyek chided.  "That's not nice at all.  You want to have lovely feathers and beautiful songs.  That'll leave nothing for the others."

The birds talked this over among themselves and then said, "Let us exchange.  We'll give the northern lights the colors of our feathers, and you give us the northern lights' songs.  They don't need them as much as we do, because no one listens to them anyway.  When they roam the sky at night, all the beasts and all the people are sound asleep.  No one will ever change this order of things."

The birds finally had their way.  Although ever since then the northern lights have been all the colors of the rainbow, lighting up the sky at night, there is no sound to all this bright beauty.  But the plain-looking birds of the tundra sing songs that are cheerful and gay. (p. 18)

Why is the sky blue?  Why do chipmunks have stripes down their backs?  Why do some animals look so beautiful and sound so ugly?  What is the order of life?  How did we come to be?  These questions have been asked in thousands of languages ever since the raven Kutkha defecated and created the islands and continents and urinated to create the seas, rivers, and lakes.  What, you haven't heard that story before?  What about how Dog was looking for a friend, but all but Man would run away when he started to bark and howl?

In the age of video games and global releases for cinema adaptations of superhero comics, so much of our diverse treasuries of folklore and myths risk being buried in that avalanche of processed and sanitized rehashings of a certain few mythological concepts.  Already anthropomorphic animal tales have been relegated to the infant/children's section, with little thought given to the complexities or the wisdom contained within these tales.  Growing up in the American South in the late 1970s and 1980s, my generation was likely the last one to have the stories of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear read to them (both the Joel Chandler Harris version of the Uncle Remus stories and the more honest and nuanced Afro-Southern tales that Zora Neale Hurston recorded in the 1920s and 1930s); too often these are now sanitized to the point of them being nigh-meaningless to both children and adults alike.  After all, these tales contain some dangerous truths to them when considered more carefully.

Yet I was fortunate enough to have heard them and to be reminded of them in the intervening thirty years or so.  I learned that it is hard to understand a culture if you do not grasp at least some of the stories that they tell to each other and the wisdoms that they pass down to younger generations through the medium of stories.  Therefore, when Dunja made me aware a couple of weeks ago of this book of Soviet era tales, Kutkha the Raven, that retold the folklore of the peoples of the Soviet Far North (the Chukchi, Nentsi, Eskimos, and others), I had to own a copy, especially considering that even before the Gorbachev-era glasnost, this book of native "fairy tales" had already been translated into English.

 Translator Fainna Solasko appears to have taken these Chukchi, Nentsi, Eskimo, etc. tales as only the basis for short translations.  There are at times the hint of the text being sanitized somewhat, yet not to the degree that Anglo-American fairy tales have become over the past two centuries.  There are certain elements that Anglophone readers might recognize:  the fox as a trickster (along with the rabbit), the deviousness of ravens/crows, the slow-witted yet often amiable bears, but the differences outweigh the superficial similarities.  The communal values of these peoples, accentuated perhaps by the Soviet publishers, may seem a bit strange at times to Americans indoctrinated to the value of "rugged individualism," but there is much to consider here about the humor and perspectives of these native peoples.

 In stories such as "How Mouse Froze Fast," the moral message (if such a term can be applied to the majority of these stories) deals with the need to accept help when proffered, lest the one in need discover just how dire their situation truly is.  Like in other folk traditions, those who grasp for more than what they earn often find themselves on the short end of the stick, such as the first story quoted above, dealing with the snow owl and its desire to be more beautiful in both looks and sounds than their more plain brethren.  The snow owl loses its voice when it tries to steal more from the shaman Apaipaiyek; the others learn that in order to gain something of value, one first must be willing to sacrifice something in return.

 Illustrations often can make or break folklore adaptations.  Kutkha the Raven benefits from the inspired illustrations of Evgenii Rachev, whose artwork brings to life the connections between the fabled lives of these animals of the Far North and our very real human concerns.  His illustrations add greatly to the stories, reinforcing the morals contained within them while also serving as wondrous pictures that capture the attention of both children and adults alike.  His detailed portraits, pictured above and to the left, are by themselves worthy of closer attention.

If there were any real flaw to Kutkha the Raven, it would be in the brevity of these stories.  Although in the majority of the times, these 1-4 page stories capture the sense of the original storytellers' narrative approaches, there were times that it felt too abrupt, as if one were reading only the summary of an even grander tale.  Much of this is due of course to the book's purpose, but there were still a few times where it felt that the story ended too abruptly, that there was more to be learned.  Then again, that too could be a secondary point.  After all, childhood adaptations sometimes leave their readers/listeners wanting more and for those few that remember this yearning, perhaps they in time will dig deeper and discover even more riches.  In the interim, books such as Kutkha the Raven serve as gateways to traditional cultures and their concerns.  Hopefully, these portals will not close in our lifetimes, as we would lose something that is worth so much more than any blockbuster movie could ever hope to provide.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

An interesting children's book

August apparently has become a semi-official read and (eventually) review children's/juvenile/YA fiction here at the OF Blog.  The latest book to arrive was one that I ordered online last week at Dunja's suggestion.  I will read it later today, but see what you think of the cover and the copyright page:

This book, translated into English in 1981, contains illustrated stories taken from the peoples that inhabit the far northeastern part of Siberia.  These Chukchi, Nentsi, and Eskimo stories dealing with anthropomorphic animals seems promising and the illustrations are great.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Alice Vieira, Viagem à Roda do Meu Nome

Por tudo isto é que eu aviso:  a partir de agora só respondo pelo nome de Luís.  O Abílio morreu, emigrou, foi raptado, deu-lhe um ataque de bexigas doidas, o que vocês quisere, mas acabouse, e que ninguém, nunca mais, me chame tal nome.

(For all this is what I warn:  from now on I only respond to the name of Luís.  Abílio died, he emigrated, he was kidnapped, he came down with chicken pox, whatever you want, but it's over, and no one, evermore, shall call me by that name.)

Our names are the keys to our identities.  It is what others associate with us and what allows us to differentiate ourselves from others.  But sometimes, we are burdened with a "funny" name.  Whether it is something as innocuous as there being a recent surge of the use of my name, Larry, for ugly beer-drinking dogs, recastings of Ernest T. Bass in a food commercial, or that punching bag of a neighbor/friend that is too much of a wussy to defend himself in certain commercials, or if it's a name that rhymes with body parts (such as one schoolmate having a last name that rhymed with "pencil dick"), we can become sensitive to how our names stick out.  Sometimes, such as the case of my own father, initials are adopted to disguise the unusual names chosen.  Other times, we adopt nicknames as a means of discarding discretely those names that shame us.

In Portuguese writer Alice Vieira's children's novel, Viagem à Roda do Meu Nome (Journey Round My Name), young Abílio hates that his name stands out in a crowd and at school.  He wants it changed; he wants to fit in with the "normal" kids who have nondescript names like Manuel or Luís.  He resents the unusual name that his mother chose for him and he does his best to convince friends and family to call him by his chosen moniker of Luís.  Through all this, we see Abílio's daily school life and his interactions with others; some think of humoring him, while others are puzzled at why he is so adamant about being called by another name.

Vieira explores this youthful frustration and desire for social acceptance by dividing the narrative into two parts, one of which is seen in a limited third-person vantage point that focuses on Abílio's thoughts and another narrative that is more personal in scope.  It took a while (hindered by my spotty knowledge of written Portuguese) to grasp the connections between the main Abílio-centered narrative and the other narrative, but ultimately the two meshed together well.  Vieira does not condescend here; she treats Abílio's shame over his name quite seriously and in doing so, allows those readers who may have had their own past (or present) issues with their names to empathize with Abílio and to place themselves in his situation.

In reading Viagem à Roda do Meu Nome, I was reminded of Judy Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing in the direct manner in which the protagonist's concerns are presented throughout the narrative.  Although there were times that I felt that Abílio's situation was foreign to me, this was largely due to encountering descriptions of everyday Portuguese primary school life, which differs in certain key elements from the late 1970s to mid-1980s American elementary school setting of my youth (it should be noted that this book came out in 1987, as doubtless many features in both countries have changed significantly over the following generation).  This did not hinder my enjoyment much (if anything, it made me focus even more on the narrative in order to decipher the classroom dynamics), but it certainly underscored some differences between 1970s-1980s American and Portuguese life for school-age children.

On the whole, I found Vieira's book to be very well-written.  As I said above, she does not talk down to her target audience and she does an excellent job in capturing the conflicting emotions that children such as Abílio may feel.  Too often children's/YA writers can be dishonest with their audiences, not truly striving to speak to them (and perhaps for them through their characters).  Vieira does not do this in Viagem à Roda do Meu Nome.  Instead, she tells a simple, unadorned story that nevertheless is evocative because it touches upon concerns that several of us may have had in the past regarding who we are and how well we fit in with the society around us.  That does not happen enough in any genre of writing, much less children's literature, and Vieira's accomplishment here makes this novel one that should be worth reading.

Friday, August 17, 2012

More books added to the YA/Adventure reviewing challenge

Later today, I plan on writing a dual review of Kipling's Captains Courageous and Kim, which would complete the list of YA/Adventure novels that Dunja originally challenged me to read/review.  Since then, however, more books have been added to the list and it is my hope that in the following couple of weeks or so, that these too will be read and reviewed.

Rafael Sabatini, Captain Blood (already read); Scaramouche (in-progress)

Danilo Kiš, Early Sorrows

Isaac Bashevis Singer, When Shiemiel Went to Warsaw and Other Stories

Palmer Cox, The Brownies:  Their Book

In addition, two Portuguese friends of mine on Twitter got me curious enough about Alice Vieira's Viagem à Roda do Meu Nome that I added it to the list and hopefully will have this children's novel finished later this weekend.

And at some point, I will (re)read and review Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth and Wilson Rawls' Where the Red Fern Grows (even if the last might choke me up again, like it did when I first had to read to me in class at 9 and then when I read it soon afterward).

If you can think of other classic children's/YA/Adventure novels that I should investigate here, feel free to suggest in the comments.
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