Graceling, by Kristin Cashore
My non-attendance at ALA Midwinter and non-celebrated status as a blogger leaves me with no ARCs of the exciting books everyone else seems to be reading. While I wait for the books to make their way to my library, I’m splitting my time between fun adult books and books that have fallen through my mental cracks. (And I must say, Fuse 8’s list of the top 100 chapter books is providing lots of fodder.)
I’m not really sure why I didn’t read Graceling when it came out. First everyone loved it, and then some people said it was overrated, and then I had to read a bunch of Holly Black books in preparation for her visit, and I don’t know. Somehow it slipped past me. But I fixed that over the weekend.
Anyhow, it’s great, and I’m saying that as someone with lukewarm feelings about butt-kicking heroines. It’s not that I’m against the butt-kicking, but it so often seems to be agenda-driven butt-kicking. As if the whole point of the book is to prove that butts can be kicked by girls. In Graceling, on the other hand, the butt-kicking girl has to learn that she has good qualities outside the butt-kicking arena. This angle seems much fresher, and it rings true for me. I grew up alongside plenty of jock girls who did not lack confidence in their physical prowess.
The world-building is accomplished, especially for a first novel, and the characters are compelling and fully developed (aside from Bann, who is kind of the Token Gay Proto-Scientist).
I just picked up Fire, and I am eagerly anticipating this year’s Battle of the Kids’ Books.
Skeleton Man, by Joseph Bruchac
When Molly’s parents go out to dinner one night and never return, she doesn’t panic. She doesn’t panic when a creepy man who calls himself her “great uncle” shows up to take custody of her. She doesn’t even panic when he begins to lock her into her room at night, but she does begin to plot her escape. This slight middle-grade novel interweaves an especially gruesome Mohawk legend with the more mundane horror of parental abandonment. It’s a strange, terrifying tale, but the otherworldliness of the narrative is counteracted by the heroine’s strong sense of herself. It’s a perfect readalike for Coraline fans (but be forewarned: they’ll be sleeping in your bed that night).
I’m ashamed to say that this is my first foray into Bruchac’s work, which is crazy because I love fiction that draws on folklore. I just took a quick look at his website, and apparently his author visits involve a lot of storytelling. Yes, please! I may have found next spring’s visiting author.
I have this problem where I repeatedly forget that the Newbery criteria exclude books by authors who live outside the U.S. (but non-Americans who live in the U.S. are fair game, which is weird). I’m always picking up some English or Australian book and thinking, “This is perfect!” And then I remember that it’s ineligible.
So my selective amnesia got me thinking about something. If non-American books were eligible, how different would the list of winners look? The name that springs immediately to mind as an author who would throw a wrench into things is Hilary McKay. Indigo’s Star would surely have shaken up the 2005 slate.
What about you? Which books do you think would have made a difference?
A Million Shades of Gray, by Cynthia Kadohata
I can only imagine how difficult it would be to write a book for children set in South Vietnam among the Dega people in 1975. According to an author’s note, it is estimated that half of the adult men of the Dega (which, I assume, means anyone older than twelve) were killed in the years immediately following the Vietnam War. How do you write about such horrific events in a way that children will be able to process, without minimizing the horror?
I guess you stay true to the perspective of your child protagonist, which Kadohata does faithfully in A Million Shades of Gray. Y’Tin’s voice rings true as that of a thirteen-year-old boy whose perspective has been shaped, but not wholly defined, by war. Ultimately, his affinity for the elephants he cares for guides his moral choices more powerfully than his helplessness in the face of tragedy. This trait of Y’Tin’s gives Kadohata a focus for her novel amid the chaos of war, and provides her with a way to end the novel on a hopeful note. The narrative remains firmly grounded in the development of Y’Tin as a character, which allows Kadohata to deftly navigate the complex political and moral waters of her setting.
The titular “million shades of gray” describe both this moral complexity and the many-hued skin of an elephant, and this intersection of the general and the particular allows the reader, in a small way, to make sense of the senseless. Well done.
Nothing stands out as bad, but nothing stands out as spectacular on the first reading either.
Is it distinguished?
If it has distinguished qualities, those would be in the areas of character and setting, I would say. I’m just not sure if the character development and setting are distinguished, though. Very good, yes, but… I don’t know. Maybe it’s my distrust of Serious, Important Books – I think it’s hard to judge these kinds of books on their own merits without being influenced by the seriousness of the issues. Maybe I’ll return to this one later in the year. Or see if I’m still thinking about it a few months from now – that’s always a telltale sign for me.
Throne of Jade, by Naomi Novik
On a less serious note, Naomi Novik also takes advantage of a unique perspective to tell a familiar war story in a new way. In the first book in the series, His Majesty’s Dragon, I was impressed with the way Novik flawlessly wove a dragon-based Aerial Corps into the historical events of the Napoleonic Wars. She gave English dragons and their crews a culture wholly original and yet completely familiar to fans of Horatio Hornblower and other fictional heroes of the Royal Navy. It was a great book. I came for the ingenious plotting, and stayed for the touching relationship between a man and his dragon.
In Throne of Jade she takes it a step further. Since Temeraire is a Chinese dragon of the Celestial breed, whose use is restricted to members of the Imperial family, he and Laurence must sail to China to plead their case to the emperor. Along the way, Temeraire observes the slave trade in action on the coast of Africa and fights a feral sea dragon. As he ponders the dignity of men and dragons, he begins to question the basic assumptions of the Aerial Corps.
It’s refreshing that Novik chooses to tackle themes of xenophobia and human/dragon rights head on, when she could take historical realities as a given. It’s impressive that she does it so believably, without placing anachronistic ideas in her characters’ heads or mouths. And without sacrificing the swashbuckling.
I got my first issue of the new and improved Horn Book the other day.
Now, I’ll admit: when I heard that the Horn Book was going to freshen up its look, I felt like a certain mercurial little girl in the preschool class I used to teach. When we replaced the classroom marimba with a new model, she came stomping up to me, flung the mallets on the floor, and screamed, “I DON’T LIKE CHANGE!”
New Horn Book looks good, though. The design is elegant, and I have to admit that the addition of color really adds a lot to the review section (kind of difficult to judge color illustrations in black and white). And I suppose it makes the rest of the magazine snazzier*, though I liked the stately black and white of the old days too. Grumble grumble.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter though, because the good stuff is still there. One thing that sets the Horn Book apart from similar publications is the way it straddles the boundary between professional magazine, critical journal, and leisure reading for children’s lit geeks (big boundary!). It’s like a pretty, witty little literary salon, hosted by the inimitable Roger Sutton.
I do like the new content. Leonard Marcus is a welcome addition to the regular contributors, and the “Books in the Home” feature further expands the scope of the magazine. “What Makes a Good ___” has been around for a while now, looking at old formats from fresh perspectives.
In the end, though, it all comes down to the reviews. Well-written, honest, occasionally snarky, and almost always spot-on. For a librarian, ignoring a Horn Book review is like going against Tim’s advice on Project Runway: just not a good idea.
So yes. Horn Book, you can rouge yourself up all you like. I still love the horn-tootin’ grand dame underneath.
*Caveat: I am really not visually oriented, especially when I’m reading. I have been known to forget to look at the pictures in a graphic novel.
(Last alliterative M entry, I swear.)
I always forget how little the rest of the world cares about my chosen hobbyhorse.
So, as you may have seen, the winners of the Newbery and Caldecott Medals were interviewed on The Today Show yesterday. “Interviewed” is kind of overstating it though, because they got less than 3 heavily-interrupted minutes combined. This on a show that spent seven minutes talking about what goes on in sex addiction rehab.
I’m also (a bit unaccountably) irked by the “this is important to us because we need to know what to buy” comment. I mean, that is part of what the awards are about (alerting the wider world to the best in kidlit), but it would be nice if journalists could at least pretend to care about the history of the award or the literary/artistic qualities of the books.
Or, as Heavy Medal notes, the fact that Jerry Pinkney is the first individual African-American to win the Caldecott. Seems like a reasonable talking point, huh?
It reminds me of my own, much humbler experience on the local public radio affiliate. They invited me on to talk about the award-winners last year. I went armed with all manner of Newbery and Caldecott history that they left on the editing room floor.
Oh well. Like I said: my hobbyhorse. Not theirs.
It appears that our Mock Newbery group was right on the mark! Of course, almost every one of the 20-30 Mock Newbery results I saw also listed WYRM as the winner, so it wasn’t a particularly contentious year. Still, I am pleased with the outcome, and doubly pleased that we’ve had two fantasy/sci-fi medalists in a row. Go committees!
Kudos to our own Julie Ranelli and the rest of the Caldecott Committee as well.
I finished Where the Mountain Meets the Moon on Sunday night, just in time to belatedly love it*, so I’m glad to see that it made the Honors list. I think it’s a better book than our other Mock Newbery Honor title, The Year the Swallows Came Early. As I told the group, I have a limited tolerance for quirky characters, and Swallows made my quirk-o-meter go haywire. That much quirk needs a little bit of dark humor, a la Polly Horvath, to wash it down.
Now I have typed “quirk” too many times, and it’s starting to look like a nonsense word.
Anyhow, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon has a lot to recommend it. Well-executed, intricate plot, satisfying interweaving of folklore, and quietly fantastic characters. The word that comes to mind with the prose style is “frugal”- similar to traditional folk tales in its clarity and conciseness. I had only one quibble: the Big Explanations at the end were a bit heavy-handed.
Of the other Honor books, I heartily endorse Calpurnia, and I haven’t read Homer P. Figg or Claudette Colvin. Claudette slipped through the cracks, and Homer was actually on my To Read table, but bloggers sounded lukewarm, so I kept neglecting him. See what I get for going with the flow?
Onward to the books of 2010! Of course, since I couldn’t attend Midwinter this year, I have no ARCs to give me a head start.
*In time for my three-year-old to fall in love with it too, apparently. She asked me to read her a couple of chapters, and then wanted to play “Dragon and Minli” for the rest of the weekend.
Er, actually not. Thank goodness. Dark: Read, I should say.
I just reviewed Ye Olde Newbery List and realized that The Dark is Rising got an honor, not the medal. It was The Grey King that won the medal.
A few desultory thoughts:
- MacGuffins. It has them. I almost wish I had never heard about this concept, because now every time I start reading about Rings of Power or Objects of the Light, I think, “Blah blah blah, Big Dumb Object.” It’s not so bad when the Big Dumb Object is actually a Big Dumb Symbolic Object, like the One Ring of Corrupt Power and Destructive Pride in Lord of the Rings, but Will Stanton’s Signs seem to have little purpose other than the advancement of plot. The more I read about them and their Mighty Carven Stone Mysticalness, the more I felt like I was hanging out at my local Renaissance Faire*.
- “Interpretation of the theme or concept” = distinguished. What better way to express the pain and alienation of coming of age than through the eternal battle between Light and Dark? Supernatural events are the perfect metaphor for the larger-than-life emotions of adolescence. That’s what I always loved about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it’s well executed here too.
- Great sense of place, which is crucial in a novel that zooms backwards and forwards through time so frequently. 13th century Buckinghamshire felt just as real as 20th century Buckinghamshire, and it also felt simultaneously magical and ordinary.
Now I’m starting Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, and though I haven’t read very far yet, I must say that, as an object, it is a very pretty book. Nice typeface, heavy paper, etc.
*No offense to the Ren Faire. I ❤ the Ren Faire. I’m just sayin’, if Will wants some Signs, I have a pewter shop I can show him…
Fuse #8 is compiling the top 100 chapter books of all time, and I can’t wait to see the list. Of course, I had to send in my own top ten. Interestingly, I chose these a lot more quickly than my top ten picture books, and with much less objectivity. These are the first books I loved:
1. The House With a Clock In Its Walls, by John Bellairs
2. The Black Cauldron, by Lloyd Alexander
3. The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien
4. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
5. Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh
6. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis
7. Charlotte ’s Web, by E.B. White
8. The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper
9. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brien
10. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg
And now I’m re-reading #8 because some of the child_litters were mentioning what a good snowstorm book it is. And that is correct. When I finish, I want to write about why that year’s committee might have thought it was so Distinguished (and not merely Awesome).