Oy, the book awards. Not the Nerdies, which are voted on by you the public; nor the Cybils, which have open nominations and then two panels of book bloggers as judges; and not the Maryland Black Eyed Susan Awards (nominated by school librarians, voted on by students), the Eisners, the National Book Award or the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, which I sure wish we had in the U.S.
Boy I tell you, I usually steer clear of discussions about the Newbery Medal. Mostly because the books that win are so rarely my favorites. Or even books I would intentionally read. And I'm not the only one who considers that shiny embossed sticker kind of irrelevent - lots of educators and librarians shake their heads and purse their lips when the subject is broached. "They're all girl books!" they'll protest. "Too much drama." Or, "They never pick books that kids actually like."
Case in point: I was snagging some 2011 books off the shelf the other day in preparation for an upcoming segment on award candidates on WYPR's Maryland Morning (Friday, January 13 at 9:40 AM listen for me, host Tom Hall, and teenage book reviewer Sarah Nakasone of Ink Bitten talk about picking books, reviewing books, and award favorites), and while I had no trouble locating copies of books that had appeared on several Mock Newbery shortlists, books like The Friendship Doll, Bird in a Box, and Inside Out and Back Again; I was surprised and delighted to find a copy of Storm Runners Book 2: The Surge, available for me to check out.
In other words, yeah I'll read those candidate books and even enjoy a couple of them - I've already enjoyed Bird in a Box - but I know I'm going to have to fight my ten-year-old if I want to get my hands on The Surge. And - not to jinx Roland Smith or anything, but - that's not the kind of book that's likely to get a lot of Newbery buzz next year. Sorry, Roland Smith. If it's any consolation, I read every word you publish, and pass your books along to every adrenaline junkie I know (that is, 80% of all kids under 17).
Maybe in years to come "entertaining" will get a little more credit from the Newbery Committee. Certainly in recent years we've seen Newbery Honors conferred upon books with banter, books with adventure. Heck, maybe we'll be surprised this year! But this is the sense I get from cross-referencing various Mock Newbery lists and doing some awards-minded reading of my own:
Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt.
This is the one I should be reading right now if I want to make any kind of informed Newbery prediction. It has shown up on every Mock Newbery list I've come across. But since I have only leafed and skimmed, let's boil it down to its bona fides:
- Historical fiction? Yes. Set in 1968 in a small town in the Catskills.
- Female protagonist? No. Interesting. Doug Swieteck, who was a character in the Newbery Honor book The Wednesday Wars, is the main character here.
- Nonfunctioning or absent parents? Yes. The dad is a prime dickhead and the mom keeps her head down.
- Imperiled sibling and/or best friend? Both. Brother home from Vietnam sans legs. Would-be girlfriend ill.
- Misery: tons. Redemption: TONS.
- A transformative encounter with art, literature or music? Yes, John James Audubon's Birds of America and Jane Eyre.
Nothing like reducing a nice piece of literature to a bullet point list, right? Oh well. If Gary Schmidt wins, which according to that sophisticated analysis above he has a very good chance of doing, he can whap me upside the head with his plaque. It's a shame the Newbery Award isn't a statuette, isn't it? I'd much rather get clubbed with a statuette. Plaque-whapping sounds like a sissy move, and I think Gary Schmidt could get a good wind-up with a statuette.
The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright, with drawings by Barry Moser.
The Trouble with May Amelia by Jennifer Holm.
May Amelia is the only girl in a big Finnish family living on a muddy farm in the Pacific Northwest in 1900. She's always in trouble, not least because, as a girl, she's not as "valuable" as her brothers. This book walks a pretty good line between happy-go-lucky slice-of-life historical fiction and Big Story. There's drama aplenty - amputation, bankruptcy, fire - but the book never goes hopeless and wrenching. There is a distinct feeling of Laura Ingalls Wilder-style We All Just Nearly Died But Then Jack Scared Off the Bear offhandedness. That tone really works for me in historical fiction - stoic but not self-consciously so, as if there is just so much going on, who has time to sit around and dwell?
The Trouble with May Amelia is the sequel to Our Only May Amelia, which won a Newbery Honor in 2000, so I wonder what that does to its Newbery chances this year.
Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy by Albert Marrin.
Although if a nonfiction title wins (again: cf Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village), so many people will throw up their hands. Yeah maybe it's not a book that a kid will snatch up and clutch to her heart, but it is a darn fine book that manages to weave together a lot of really interesting history and first-person accounts into a cohesive story. I reviewed this seems like ages ago and the story is still with me.
Darth Paper Strikes Back: An Origami Yoda Book by Tom Angleberger.
Another long shot that I have seen on some lists, this sequel to The Strange Case of Origami Yoda really has to be read to be believed. In addition to being very funny and keenly observed, Darth Paper is very much a book about inclusion and tolerance. My review here.
Bigger than a Bread Box by Laurel Snyder.
Has dropped off some discussion lists, but this strong, deeply felt story has Newbery Honor written all over it. The Honors seem to go to the more readable titles: Hoot got an Honor, as did Because of Winn-Dixie, Savvy, and One Crazy Summer. Eerily Similar Paula and her daughter Thespian Girl did the honors for me.
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos.
Jack, Jack, Jack. So smart. So irreverent. So willing to take a chance on kids. His writing always reminds me of something Eoin Colfer said at a Guys Read panel. Colfer used to be a teacher, and he knew the boys in his class had trouble finding books they enjoyed. So when he started writing, he would fix a boy in his mind, "Him over there - not that one, he's a bit weird - no, that kid," and write to that boy. I think Jack Gantos circles back to that one who's a bit weird, and writes to him. When the protagonist in this story walks in on his neighbor boiling her hands in a pot at the stove, some kids are going to put this book down. But the weird ones - that's when it's going to get interesting for them. Full review here.
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai.
This verse story, told from the point of view of a ten-year-old Vietnamese girl who flees Saigon with her family in 1975, is both readable and historically significant. It can be hard not to feel like verse stories are somehow cheating, especially when the poems do not follow strict poetic forms. In addition, kids see all that white space on the page and they know the book will take no time at all to read. However. The simple forms here, the descriptions that swerve between straightforward and elliptical, keep the story sketchlike, allowing it a timeless relevance. Even though Ha (and Lai) is my age and fleeing Vietnam, her story of assimilation will apply to kids coming from Eritrea, Afghanistan or Bhutan. When I was in 4th grade, our Ha was Ngoc, and I hope we were nicer to her than Ha's new classmates in Alabama.
This book won the National Book Award, and there's a very nice review here, at Stuff Asian People Like.
City of Orphans by Avi.
Rather a quick read, this Dickensian New York story is a bit action-packed compared to the usual Newbery fare, but it could happen. Avi's been to this party three times before, twice with an Honor, and once for the Medal.
Wildwood: The Wildwood Chronicles, Book I by Colin Meloy.
The Apothecary by Maile Meloy.
I'm taking these two together, as they're written by brother and sister and share a similar imaginative spirit. Also, because we listened to them back to back on CD. Amanda Plummer reads Wildwood and she gives one of the most unusual narrative performances I've ever heard. You're either going to hate her odd cadences and sometimes awkward accents and characterizations or be spellbound by her quiet, breathy, a little bit incantatory style. And lord, that poor woman who read The Apothecary. Cristin Milioti. She gets extra credit for pulling off the accents alone: American, British upper class, British lower class, Hungarian, Chinese, and Russian, and all that's before the Lapplander appears in the story. When she got to that point she must have just thrown up her hands. Very accomplished work from this actress who is just now hitting it big.
As for the books - frankly, I'd love to see either of them take the big N. We could use a little weirdness up on that podium. And there are other things to like: both books have girl protagonists, but both feature strong supporting males. Realistic parents of both the male and the female variety are present - not dead, not imperiled, not evil. The Apothecary is set in London after the end of World War II and Wildwood is set in a present-day Portland, Oregon that is only slightly more mythical than the real place really is.
These books read like the daydream adventures of a mostly well-adjusted, imaginative girl who would love for something really interesting to happen. In other words, they're what I would have been reading at age 12.
Pie by Sarah Weeks.
PIE gets special mention not because I think it's going to hit the jackpot - although it's a very worthy and sweet book, there's at least one character whose emotional reversal is a trifle abrupt - but because, in this book about pie, the award for the best baker is called The Blueberry:
The Blueberry Award was established in 1922 to celebrate the most distinguished contribution to American pie making. Each year during the month of August, people from all over the country would box up their pies and deliver them to the Blueberry committee for consideration. The committee members would carefully evaluate the pies, "Blueberry Buzz" would spread as the top contenders emerged, "Mock Blueberry" clubs would choose their own favorites, and finally on the first Monday in September, amid a great deal of fanfare, the Blueberry committee would announce the winner.
I was there last year when the "Blueberry" went to Moon Over Manifest, and I have to say, despite my cantankerosity, it was a special moment. My best wishes to everyone involved with what must be an agonizing process, and my heartfelt congratulations to every author who has put forth his or her best effort this year.
You keep up the good work, and I'll keep reading.