osprey_archer: (books)
What I’ve Finished Reading

I finished this year’s Newbery winner, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, which on paper sounds like exactly the sort of thing I should have like - there’s a dash of dystopia and a bit of magic and a little natural history and a very small dragon - but the thing glueing it all together was soppy sentimentality (did you know love is what makes the world go ‘round? Unless of course it’s hope!) and I just wasn’t feeling it.

However, I often prefer the Newbery Honor books to the winners themselves, so I’m excited about reading those over the course of the year.

Progress on the Unread Book Club: I finished Robin McKinley’s A Knot in the Grain, which I remained lukewarm about until the final story, which I quite liked. The first four stories in the collection take place in vaguely fairy-talish fantasy worlds, whereas the final story takes place in the real world, with just a subtle dollop of magic - chocolate sauce on the ice cream of the story, as it were.

And I felt a pleasant frisson of identification with the heroine, Annabelle, who copes with the stress of having her parents move her to a new town by rereading all her old fantasy favorites from childhood. This is exactly the sort of vaguely counterproductive thing I would have done had my parents uprooted me when I was sixteen. And I, like Annabelle, would absolutely have decided that a fellow teenager was worth befriending upon learning that one of her favorite books was The Borrowers.

What I’m Reading Now

I started Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno, on the grounds that I liked his Alice in Wonderland, only to swiftly discover that this is emphatically the wrong reason to read Sylvie and Bruno. The introduction informs me that Carroll labored for decades to ensure Sylvie and Bruno was not much like Alice at all; it attempts mightily to insist that this was all for the best and not an artistic failure at all, but I am not so sure.

What I Plan to Read Next

Mockingjay!

And the library is not going to get me The Origins of Totalitarianism swiftly enough for it to serve for my March reading challenge (“a book over 600 pages”), so I was going to fall back on Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but then I realized that I have the final Obernewtyn book sitting there staring at me right on my shelf and it’s over a thousand pages long and I really need to read that, so. Sorry, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I will read you someday!
osprey_archer: (cheers)
I was curious to get to Sylvester and the Magic Pebble on the Caldecott list, because unlike many of the other older books, I've heard of it before: it was banned because some people objected the police, in a world of anthropomorphic animals, are drawn as pigs.

They are the most sympathetic and concerned pigs in the history of forever, though, you can just tell that if they could do anything to help Sylvester's parents find him (although alas they cannot; he has accidentally turned himself into a rock with the help of a magic pebble), they would totally be all over it. This seems like one of the sillier book-bannings in history.

In other news! Today the new Caldecott and Newbery winners were announced!!! The Newbery Winner is The Girl Who Drank the Moon, which appears to be about WITCHES and FORESTS and FRIENDSHIP - super excited about this! - and the Caldecott winner is Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, which excites me somewhat less but I daresay it will be interesting.

In past years I’ve also read all the Newbery Honor books, and I am considering adding the Caldecott Honor books this year too, although really at some point one simply has to step back and stop adding mandatory books to one’s reading list. So we’ll see.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I’ve Just Finished Reading

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s The War That Saved My Life, a 2016 Newbery Honor book which I sort of wish had won the medal itself, although it certainly might have added to the Newbery’s reputation for grimness. (Although it’s not even in the same misery league as Out of the Dust. I don’t think anything can touch Out of the Dust for sheer despair.)

When World War II begins, Ada and her little brother Jamie are evacuated to the countryside from their abusive home in London. And this is not abusive in the Roald Dahl sort of way where the child abuse is a sort of slapstick background: when Matilda’s father tells her she’s an idiot, Matilda never actually believes him. Ada, on the other hand, is pretty well convinced that her clubfoot makes her worthless and unlovable, because her mother has been telling her so for her entire life.

(What makes this even worse is that even in the forties a clubfoot was a totally treatable condition, so if Ada’s mother had it treated when Ada was a baby then - well, okay, she probably would have come up with a different excuse to tell Ada she was worthless and unlovable. But at least Ada could have run away without bleeding all over the ground!)

Anyway, they’re sent to the countryside where they are boarded with an old lady who is still super depressed over her lover Becky’s death two years before (the book doesn’t 100% spell out that they were lovers, but it’s pretty obvious), and the rest of the book is about Ada learning how to cope with being treated decently and also how to ride a pony, because why not, everything is better with ponies.

What I’m Reading Now

I’ve almost finished Melanie Wallace’s The Girl in the Garden, which is well-written but bleak: the story of a lot of lonely people, living side by side, and almost all too damaged by their lives to reach out of that loneliness and connect with each other. One of them lives in a literal compound surrounded by a high concrete wall. This is a pretty good metaphor for everyone in this book.

This is another NetGalley book, and probably one I wouldn’t have read if it hadn’t been free on NetGalley. On the one hand I am glad I read it, because it is very well-written - the descriptions of the New England landscape, the ocean, the desolate winters, are very evocative - but on the other hand it reminds me why I don’t read this sort of book very often.

What I Plan to Read Next

I’m still waiting for the library to get me the new American Girl book. I am beginning to suspect that some power in the universe doesn’t want me to read this book.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I’ve Finished Reading

I finished Welcome to Night Vale: The Novel. The propulsive force in the plot did eventually grab me and drag me along, but ultimately I wasn’t too impressed with the book; I feel like Night Vale’s world-building probably works much better in radio program form than as a novel, where you have to try to get down to brass tacks about how people actually live in this bizarre and terrible town.

So I might still give the podcast a try someday? But I don’t think the novel is worth reading unless you’re a Night Vale completist or just super into the creepypasta aesthetic.

I also read Elizabeth Yates’ charming Mountain Born, a Newbery Honor book from 1944. (I have sometimes thought about trying to read all the Newbery Honor books, but there are so many! And I think it would be hard to get my hands on the older ones…)

Anyway! Mountain Born is about young Peter growing up in a mountain community and learning how to be a good shepherd, with all sorts of interesting details about sheep and shepherding folded beautifully into the narrative - it’s a bit like the parts in the Little House books where Ma is making butter or Pa is putting together a makeshift door hinge, and the fun of reading it is in learning about how people at the time did things? The success mode of infodump, basically.

Of course spoilers )

What I’m Reading Now

D. E. Stevenson’s The Four Graces, the story of the four sisters of the Grace family, all daughters of a village parson. It’s perfectly charming - all the D. E. Stevenson books I’ve read has been perfectly charming, and I am tempted to go out and get all the rest that the Indianapolis Public Library has, but on the other hand I think I ought to keep them in reserve for those times when I hit a reading drought.

Anyway, this book has the odd distinction of being a cozily charming tale of home and village life while also being set at the tail end of World War II (which is when it was written; it was published in 1946). I love World War II books (and movies. And TV shows. And superheroes), but generally speaking they are not full of coziness.

I also really liked the way that the book dealt with its religious themes - it’s not a main theme in the book by any means, but because Mr. Grace is a parson it does come up, and I was glad that Stevenson let it come up and even more pleased because she had interesting things to say. Religious experience often seems to be relegated off to the side in modern fiction, and I can understand why that’s so, but at the same time it’s such a big part of the human experience that it seems like cutting out all mention of food, say, except in books that are specifically designated Food Books and shelved in their own special part of the bookstore.

What I Plan to Read Next

Grace Lin has a new book out! When the Sea Turned to Silver, a third book in her marvelously illustrated series of chapter books loosely based on Chinese folklore. (They’re not a series in the sense that the stories build on each other; they simply share a similar sensibility, and of course the gorgeous illustrations.) I loved the first one, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, and I have high hopes that I’ll love this one just as much.
osprey_archer: (books)
I quite enjoyed Victoria Jamieson’s Roller Girl, a graphic novel about roller derby that got a Newbery Honor award this year. It’s sort of one-half sports movie (with a few knowing winks at this fact: there’s an awesome scene where Astrid brainstorms training techniques that she’s culled from sports movies, ending with “watch more sports movies”) and one-half friendship drama.

When twelve-year-old Astrid joins roller derby summer camp, she expects her best friend Nicole to follow along with her plans the way that Nicole usually does. But Nicole has other plans: she’s going to attend ballet summer camp.

I loved the sports movie half - Astrid is endearingly terrible at roller skating for pretty much the entire book, and it’s amazing watching her power through that because she wants to do roller derby so damn much - and I thought the friendship half was well done, even though it’s kind of painful to read.

Spoilers )

Also, Astrid is probably the gayest children’s book character ever. The book never comes right out and says this, but there’s a lot of evidence to support it. Astrid joins roller derby in part because she’s infatuated with one of the derby players, Rainbow Bite. She gets a Rainbow Bite poster and hangs it over her bed. She repeatedly mentions how horrible she finds Nicole’s burgeoning interest in boys (and clothes, and ballet, and other girly things, but the boy thing is most salient).

Plus, she wears frickin’ rainbow socks as part of her derby outfit. She wears rainbow socks on the book cover. Rainbow socks which Nicole bought for her. How much more clearly could Nicole say, “I love and support you even though I don’t swing that way”? NICOLE IS THE BEST FRIEND EVER AND YOU SHOULD TREASURE HER LIKE A RARE AND BEAUTIFUL JEWEL, ASTRID.
osprey_archer: (books)
Last Stop on Market Street is the picture book that won the 2016 Newbery Medal. The fact that it's a picture book gave me some pause - nothing against picture books, but you really can't pack the same complexity into a few hundred odd words as you could into a novel - but once I read it, I quite liked it, and it certainly deserves awards even if it seems like a somewhat odd fit for this particular award.

It's sweet without being cloying, which is an achievement with such a small word-count, and there's some nice images in here, too, a sense that the book is almost free-verse poetry (with occasional dips into rhyme). It starts out, for instance:

CJ pushed through the church doors, skipped down the steps.

The outside air smelled like freedom,
but it also smelled like rain,
which freckled CJ's shirt and dripped down his nose.


A vivid scene in just a few lines, and I particularly like the use of the word freckled here - the image is clear, but the word usage is unusual enough to give pleasure in itself.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I’ve Just Finished Reading

Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy, which [livejournal.com profile] evelyn_b recommended. This is actually a reread, though it’s been so many years since I read it that I’d forgotten most of it. It’s about two small girls (four/five years old) who live across the street from each other, and become best friends, and play imaginative adventure games, and it is adorable and reading it is like sinking into a warm bath.

This second one is not so much a “finished” as a “given up on,” but sometimes life is simply too short for certain books. I started Katherine Ellis Barrett’s The Wide-Awake Girls in Winsted, and it got off to a good start - if a trifle confusing, because it’s the sequel to another book, and that book is apparently about four girls becoming best buddies through penpallery, and clearly amazing - anyway. The heroine was going to found a library for her small town.

But then! The heroine took the train to another town to talk to the librarians about how to run a library, and I was all excited to learn about early twentieth century libraries - except I guess Barrett didn’t feel inclined to do any research, because rather than follow the heroine on her voyage to the library, instead the book follows the irritating tiny tag-along child who snuck onto the train to go on the trip with her, but then falls asleep and gets put off at the next station, and through some complicated series of coincidences ends up back at the proper station just in time.

WHY. WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS. And he’s such an irritating, twee, precious-in-the-bad-sense little twerp, too. He talks with that written-out ungrammatical lisp that many writers in the early twentieth century seem to have thought was an adorable evocation of toddler-speak. And he made us miss the library!

What I’m Reading Now

Betsy-Tacy and Tib, which is about the adventures of eight-year-old Betsy, Tacy, and their new friend Tib. So far they have attempted to learn how to fly by jumping off of things (Betsy chickened out at the critical moment and told a story about how they all turned into birds to distract the others from how she wasn’t jumping out of the tree) and baked a pudding… cake… thing using pretty much everything in their cupboard.

I once attempted to make a cake like this. I didn’t use everything in the cupboard, but I used a fair number of things, although IIRC neither baking powder nor baking soda, so the poor cake was just a lump.

I’m also reading Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, which I feel like should be totally my thing, but inexplicably I’m having trouble getting through it. It’s very frustrating.

What I Plan to Read Next

The rest of the Betsy-Tacy books. I read Betsy and Tacy Go over the Big Hill and Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown when I was a kid, but after that, it will all be uncharted territory for me. (I think the later books are about high school years and boys and I lost interest once it was no longer all friendship, all the time.)

Oh, and the Newbery winner for this year is out! It’s Matt de la Pena’s Last Stop on Market Street, which is… a picture book, I guess? Well, that’s something different; I don’t think there are any other picture book Newbery winners. Last year I read the Newbery Honor books as well as the winner itself, and that turned out well, so I may do that again this year.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I’ve Just Finished Reading

I finished Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, which I liked more than I expected per last week’s review. Of course it helped that there are a couple essays near the middle of the book about Truth & Beauty and the controversy that erupted when the book was assigned as summer reading for incoming freshman at Clemson University. (Some of the parents thought the book was way too gay - it talks about two women being best friends and stuff! Clearly a front for homosexuality! - and also referenced drug usage and extramarital sex and OMG, how could this be required reading???)

I also read Cece Bell’s El Deafo, which is a comic book memoir about growing up deaf. El Deafo was the name Bell gave her superheroine alter ego, who got superpowers from her amazing Phonic Ear and later from a glasses. It’s cute and sweet and not very memorable, although I did particularly like it’s portrayal of Cece’s first best friend, a girl who always insisted on doing what she wanted to do, exactly how she wanted to do it.

I had a friend like this is sixth grade. It was exactly as exasperating as Bell describes it: she came up with good ideas just often enough that it’s hard to extricate yourself, but it’s still extremely grating to have the games fall apart every time you assert your own opinions on things. (“How about the imaginary game we’re creating together doesn’t revolve around your princess character, hmm?”)

And finally, this year’s Newbery Winner, Alexander Kwame’s The Crossover, which like Brown Girl Dreaming is a book in verse. Another verse from the book:

Basketball Rule #10

A loss is inevitable,
like snow in winter.
True champions
learn
to dance
through
the storm.

Spoilers )

What I’m Reading Now

Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, which is an expansion of his article “Is Google making us stupid?” and, like many books that are expanded forms of magazine articles, doesn’t seem to have quite enough to say to make writing a whole book worthwhile. Carr argues that internet usage atrophies our attention spans: that, as we get used to digesting text and images in small chunks and jumping from one thing to another, we lose the ability to concentrate deeply that is central to reading books. I think he has a point, but I am somewhat doubtful that he needs 224 pages to make it.

I’ve also started Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman, which has not grabbed me so far, but I’m only a little ways in.

What I Plan to Read Next

I’ve finally gotten Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park from the library, which I’ve been meaning to do since I read Fangirl.

I’m also waiting for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch.
osprey_archer: (art)
The Second Half
by Kwame Alexander (from The Crossover)

Vondie strips the ball
at center court,
shoots a short pass
to JB, who
skips
           
downtown

zips
           
around,
then double dips
it in the bowl.
SWOOSH
Man, that was cold.
We're up by two.
These cats are BALLING.
JB is on fire,
taking the score
higher and higher,
and the team
and Coach
and Alexis
and me...
we're his choir.
WILDCATS! WILDCATS!
My brother is
Superman tonight,
Sliding
and Gliding
into rare air,
lighting up the sky
and the scoreboard.
Saving the world
and our chance
at a championship.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I’ve Just Finished Reading

Nancy Jo Sales’ The Bling Ring: How a Gang of Fame-Obsessed Teens Ripped of Hollywood and Shocked the World, which disappointed me terribly. I thought Sales might use the case to get an interesting new viewpoint on the cult of celebrity and reality TV, the way that historical true crime writers use cases as windows on their time periods, and, well, she does use it as a viewpoint. It’s just not interesting or new. She echoes the thousands of other indictments of our cultural obsession with fame at any price - incidentally, I find it hard to think of any lower-hanging fruit; everyone loves to hate reality TV and celebrity obsessions - and adds nothing interesting or new.

She also has a source problem: the case involved seven suspects who were formally charged (and a few other possible suspects who never were charged), but most of them (including Rachel Lee, whom the others generally fingered as the instigator) refused to speak to her. In the end the book is based heavily on the testimony of just one of the burglars: Nicholas Prugo, who confessed everything to the police, and tended to paint himself as a sad, lonely, anxious boy, led astray by his glamorous mean girl friends and their obsession with celebrity.

Prugo seems painfully honest - his confession was the only reason the police had enough evidence to charge him - so I have no doubt he told the truth as he saw it. But Sales basically ends up accepting his story as the truth, full stop, because it fits nicely with the indictment of celebrity culture and reality TV that she wants to write.

Has anyone seen Sofia Coppola’s movie take on the case, which is also called The Bling Ring?? I think Coppola probably brings a more interesting perspective to the case than Sales did, so I’m curious if it’s worth watching. I did like her Marie Antoinette; it’s rather surreal and dreamlike and odd, very different from anything else I’ve seen. A lot of that movie is simply a deluge of stuff, and I feel like that would be a good approach to this story.

What I’m Reading Now

The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600, which rather turned me off by beginning with an impassioned defense of experimental prose, which is apparently the only way that a novel can be “art.” Three-dimensional characters or a well-paced plot are mere “entertainment” - and the author swears he doesn’t mean this dichotomy as a value judgement, but dude, if you didn’t mean it as a value judgement you would have chosen different words.

This is in the introduction. I’m hoping that he’s gotten it out of his system and will not let this argument besmirch his actual book, because I really am curious about the ancient tradition of novels. We’ll see.

What I Plan to Read Next

The 2015 Newbery winner has been announced! The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander. So obviously I will be reading that.

I might also read the Newbery Honor winners this year: Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson, and El Deafo, by Cece Bell.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I’ve Just Finished Reading

Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic, which is about the memory of the Civil War in the South. It’s interesting, particularly the parts about Civil War reenactors and the lengths to which they’ll go for the hardcore experience - Horwitz falls in with a group that likes to do ten-mile marches at least partially barefoot - but rather shallow; Horwitz covers a lot of ground but doesn’t get very in-depth with it.

Also Kate DiCamillo’s Floyd and Ulysses, which won the 2014 Newbery Medal. I find this baffling. It’s not a bad book, but it’s awfully slight, and most of the characters are so broadly drawn as to feel slightly unreal.

And why does DiCamillo keep writing books about rodents who fall in love with humans? First the mouse in The Tale of Despereaux and now the squirrel in Floyd and Ulysses. It’s such an odd and specific theme.

What I’m Reading Now

Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. The plot by itself probably wouldn’t grab me, but such plot as there is exists mostly as a hanger for the Night Circus itself, and given that I would happily wander around the Night Circus for hours, that’s just as well. It’s almost painful to realize that this place, described in all this loving and dreamlike detail, doesn’t actually exist and can’t be visited.

The Narrator from Pushing Daisies narrates the audiobook of The Night Circus, which is pretty perfect. The Night Circus doesn’t have the same aesthetic as Pushing Daisies, but it is similar in that it’s a strongly aestheticized story, where the aesthetic is at times purposefully at odds with the underlying grimness.

(I’m contemplating having a Night Circus tea. The aesthetic would make it easy to decorate for: black table cloth, white table runner, crimson cookie tin as a centerpiece…)

I’ve also started Eva Rice’s The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp as my new book to read a chapter a night. So far, we’ve been introduced to Tara’s large family and Tara’s late childhood habit of sneaking into the neighboring estate to ride horses in the pre-dawn light. This seems most promising.

What I Plan to Read Next

I’m thinking about reading the rest of Pamela Dean’s books. She only wrote six, but getting my hands on them may be tricky. The local library has The Dubious Hills and Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary, but not the Secret Country trilogy…

I need to stop picking up new authors whose work is hard to get a hold of. This is getting a little ridiculous.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I’ve Just Finished Reading

Flora’s Fury, the third (and most recent, although likely not the last) Flora Segunda book. This book is charming in much the way the first two books were charming, but I do feel that in a series books ought to build on each other, and that in this case, that’s not really happening. I’ll probably still read the fourth book when it comes out, though.

Also, Bianca Turetsky’s The Time-Traveling Fashionista on Board the Titanic and The Time-Traveling Fashionista at the Palace of Marie Antoinette, because the covers are lovely and eye-catching and the books are shot through with illustrations of the same style. These are immensely, immensely fluffy reads: our heroine, Louise, travels back in time through the power of vintage clothes and has brisk and amusing adventures. Sometimes you just need something totally fluffy to read.

What I’m Reading Now

Still Ben Hur. This book is infinitely long, you guys. The movie is four hours long, and they still cut out tons of stuff, like the part where Ben Hur trains an army in Galilee and then follows Jesus around with it in order to be on hand when Jesus starts revolting against the Romans. Ben Hur is clearly destined for disappointment.

Also Tam Lin. The end is nigh! I'm getting the impression that Thomas knows all about his impending sacrifice to the lords of fairy and is casting about for a girlfriend to accidentally-on-purpose impregnate, which seems like a skeevy plan. Although I guess he couldn't just explain about the "sacrifice to the lords of fairy" thing, because who would believe him?

What I Plan to Read Next

Kate diCamillo’s Flora and Ulysses, the 2014 Newbery award winner.

And probably The Time-Traveling Fashionista and Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile. If only to discover how Louise got her hands on one of Cleopatra’s dresses! (I’m hoping for museum heist.)
osprey_archer: (books)
One last Newbery post, and then I’m done posting about the Newbery Award - at least till they pick the 2014 winner. This time, my theme is “My Favorite Newbery Winners.”

...it turns out that I’ve already written reviews of all of these already. Still, it’s good to have them gathered in one place! Also I’ve tried to be selective, because if I listed everything (Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH! Dead End in Norvelt!) that I enjoyed (A Single Shard! Caddie Woodlawn! Ginger Pye!) then the list would be really quite long.

As a general rule, I’ve tended to enjoy the more recent books more. I don’t think this reflects a change in quality per se, just that writing styles change over time. Still, some of my favorites were older books...

First, the books that I read as a child.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare. Generally speaking, I was firmly anti-romance as a child, but Nat and Kit’s verbal sparring (and Kit’s general disastrous impulsiveness - yes, Kit, teach the Puritan children at your dame school to act out Bible stories! Bring the theater to New England!) was so charming that I loved them despite myself.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg. Because who doesn’t want to run away and live in a museum for a week? That would be totally awesome.

Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry. I took a Spanish class the summer after second grade, and the teacher handed out copies of this book (in English) as prizes. I was the youngest student in the class and never won anything, so he invented a job for me reorganizing a bookshelf purely so he could give me a copy.

I proceeded to read it more or less to death. This book has everything: friendship, history, meditations on the nature of good and evil - even a fairy tale retelling.

And second, the books that I read as part of my project this summer.

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village, by Laura Ann Schlitz. Have I plugged this book enough yet? It’s far and away my favorite of the Newbery books that I read this summer. The poems are spare and clear, each line packed with story and with history.

The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate. Because the narrator is a gorilla, and he has an elephant friend - in fact, two elephant friends! - and I love elephants. And, more generally, it’s an interesting meditation on the way that we treat animals.
osprey_archer: (books)
Drumroll, please! For I have completed the final book in the Newbery project: Avi’s Crispin: The Cross of Lead!!!!

This is exciting because the project is done, but otherwise the book is pretty underwhelming. Possibly I would have liked it more if I hadn’t read it so soon after Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, which evokes the medieval period with twice the grace and ten times the economy. (And in poetry, too!)

Indeed, I find a lot of Avi’s work underwhelming. I had to read Nothing But the Truth in sixth grade and I am still, still indignant about the ultimate hollow pointlessness of that book, in which a horrid little boy wrecks his teacher’s career by claiming she won’t let him say the Pledge of Allegiance, but it turns out he doesn’t even know the words. Oh it made me so mad!

So, fair warning, I am clearly biased against Avi’s work. But Crispin isn’t unfair or infuriating, just...well, it has a lot of tics that annoy me in historical fiction. There’s some clunky exposition, like the scene where Crispin looks down on his village from a hilltop and is all, “Let me explain the layout of my village and also medieval farming practices,” and some even clunkier important life lessons about Freedom.

Characters in children’s historical fiction frequently learn important life lessons about Racism (bad), Sexism (bad), or Freedom (good) - as if these are discreet things that one can learn about all at once and never worry about again. Racism is not like smallpox, it’s not like you get an inoculation and then are safe from ever catching it again.

Admittedly, Crispin learns a lesson about Freedom and not Racism, but the sequel - there is a whole Crispin trilogy - is called Crispin: At the Edge of the World, so I daresay he will learn an important lesson about xenophobia if not racism.

And, again, this is something that Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! does much better: one of the vignettes involves a Jewish boy and a Christian girl who meet unexpectedly on opposite sides of a stream. She raises her arm to cast a stone at him, but ends up skipping the stone instead; they skip stones together, remember themselves, and leave in a hurry.

They haven’t learned an important lesson about anti-Semitism: they’re just left a little uneasy about the way that society works. It’s much more subtle and less sledge-hammery.

In summary: read Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! instead of Crispin.
osprey_archer: (books)
One of my concerns when starting the Newbery project was that it was going to be a super depressing reading list, Newbery books being famously deathtastic. However, it seems that the Newbery committee only fell in love with All Death, All the Time during the 1990s, during which decade three of the winning books were literally all about death - Missing May, Walk Two Moons, and Out of the Dust

And Out of the Dust is just generally one of the most depressing books of all time. Let me summarize this book to you in all its glorious misery, it may be even more depressing than Kate diCamillo's The Tiger Rising )

Books that take Death as a major theme: 12

And then I broke down the death books into categories.

Death in Warfare: 3 (Johnny Tremain, Rifles for Watie, Moon Over Manifest)
Super Depressing Books about Death: 4 (Bridge to Terabithia, Walk Two Moons, Out of the Dust, Kira-Kira)
Surprisingly Not-Depressing Books about Death: 3 (Missing May, The Graveyard Book, Dead End in Norvelt)
Books about Death whose misery quotient I cannot now recall: 1 (Roller Skates)
Books Where a Pet Dies: 1 (Sounder)

Billie Jo’s unfortunate kerosene accident also reminded me of another Newbery theme, which turns out to be only slightly less pervasive than death: books that take disability as a major theme. There are ten of them, three with a disabled protagonist and seven with an important disabled secondary character.

Protagonists
Johnny Tremain: hero burns his hand and can no longer work as silversmith
The Door in the Wall: hero loses most use of his legs to unnamed ailment
Out of the Dust: heroine burns her hands with kerosene. What is it with the Newberys and people burning their hands?

Secondary characters
Miracles on Maple Hill: father with severe PTSD from World War II
The Bronze Bow: sister with - agoraphobia? PTSD? It’s set in ancient Israel under Roman occupation, we don’t get an exact diagnosis. She was traumatized after seeing a crucifixion as a small child.
Summer of the Swans: brother with intellectual disabilities
The View from Saturday: teacher with wheelchair
A Single Shard: foster father with one leg (or possibly only one usable leg, I was never quite clear on this)
When You Reach Me: friend with epilepsy
Dead End in Norvelt: elderly friend with terrible arthritis
osprey_archer: (books)
The 1920s were a pretty terrible time in American race relations (then again, when isn’t a terrible time in American race relations?), so it should come as no surprise that this is reflected in many of the early Newbery Medal winners. The winners between 1922 (when the award was founded) and, oh, the 1960s or 70s are all a bit read-at-your-own-risk - and this doesn’t mean that the later books are completely racism free, just that they’re less likely to have “Whoa, was that a completely unnecessarily racist stereotype that you just threw in our faces for literally no reason?” moments.

Of course, not all the earlier books have these moments. (Often they avoid them by being entirely about white people.)

At any rate, I’ve compiled a list of the books that struck me as really the most egregious. Please note that this does not mean that all the other Newbery Medal books are pure and clean, just that these are the ones that made me cringe. (Please also note that I couldn’t get The Story of Mankind or Daniel Boone, so who knows what they’ve got going on.)

- The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle
- Smoky, the Cowhorse
- Hitty, Her First Hundred Years (which is unfortunate, because it’s otherwise an interesting book, following the adventures of a doll through American history.)
- Secret of the Andes (let me repeat: Incan conspiracy. It’s a conspiracy of good, but still. Incan conspiracy.)

Possibly I’m being unfair to Secret of the Andes: I found it dull and thought its “Yay blind obedience” message offensive for its own sake, so I’m not inclined to cut it any slack. Laura Adams Armer’s Waterless Mountain or Elizabeth Lewis’s Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze (or, hell, even Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins) - all also books by white people about people of color - might be just as problematic; they’re just not as badly written.
osprey_archer: (books)
Now that I’ve done the Gender and the Newbery’s posts, it’s time for a Race and the Newbery’s post. This one is focused entirely on the contents of the book; in the interest of completeness I should probably do a post about the race of the authors, too. But I have a strong suspicion that the numbers for that are dismal.

Race of protagonist
White: 59
Black: 6
Asian: 5
Hispanic/Latin American: 1 (And Now Miguel)
Native American: 2 or 3 (Waterless Mountain, Julie of the Wolves, and perhaps Secret of the Andes, because Cusi is descended from, like, an Incan conspiracy? I’m not saying it’s a good representation.)
Pacific Islander: 2 (Call It Courage, Island of the Blue Dolphins)
Multiple protagonists of different races: 2 (The Westing Game, The View from Saturday)
Mixed race protagonist: 1 (Walk Two Moons)
N/A (the book is nonfiction or poetry, or the hero is an animal or a doll): 13

Now, time to compare the numbers with census data! The first number is percentage of US population by race, 2010 census data; the second is percentage of Newbery books with a protagonist of that race (not counting the books that have no protagonist or have an animal protagonist).

White: 63.4%
Medal Winners: 75%

Black: 13%
Medal Winners: 7%

Asian: 5%
Medal Winners: 6%

Hispanic: 16%
Medal Winners: 1% (!)

Native American: 1.2%
Medal Winners: 4%

Pacific Islander: 0.4%
Medal Winners: 3%

Mixed Race: 3%
Medal Winners: 1%

I didn’t expect the award numbers to track the census data as closely as for American Girl, given that the Newbery Award has been around since 1922. Not only US attitudes toward race but population percentages by race have changed quite a lot since then*. Given that the award only picks one book a year it can only change its percentages rather slowly, even assuming that they dropped all other criteria to make racial balance their top priority, which I tend to think would be a bad idea.

(American Girl, in contrast, could solve most of their representation problems simply by introducing an Asian American Girl.)

But nonetheless - the number of books with Hispanic protagonists still seems awfully low.


*US census data by race, 1920
White: 89.7%
Black: 9.9%
Native American: 0.2%
Asian or Pacific Islander: 0.2%
osprey_archer: (books)
E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler has but one flaw: she told the story of two runaway children living in a museum so well that no one since has dared to touch the topic. I want a whole genre of stories about children living in museums, damn it!

But this unfortunate side effect of its flawlessness is the only thing I can criticize about the book, because otherwise it is 100% pure distilled awesome. Claudia and her little brother Jamie run away from home to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

(Have I mentioned before that I think there is a children’s book conspiracy designed to teach young readers that high culture is totally awesome? I’m pretty sure there is. Blue Balliett may be the newest member.)

On that note: how much do I love that Claudia runs away from home in search of educational opportunity? She’s like, “We’re living in a museum! We’re going to use this time wisely and learn things!” Jamie is at first appalled, but eventually he gets as much into the museum as Claudia does - especially after they team up to figure out whether the Met’s new sculpture really is a Michelangelo.

I love the friendship that grows between Claudia and Jamie. At the beginning of the book, they’ve always taken each other for granted - they’re siblings, the other is just always there, and they’ve never been close. But once they run away together, and especially once they’ve got a project, they become a team.

And how cool is Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the crotchety yet awesome old lady who narrates the book? Her voice only intrudes occasionally, as we’re mostly focusing on the adventures of Claudia and Jamie, but she’s always incisive and hilarious. She’s the first amazing old lady that I remember reading about, and I’ve loved that sort of character ever since.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I’ve Just Finished Reading

Lynne Rae Perkins’ Criss Cross, a meandering series of vignettes about a loose group of friends growing up in the sixties. It’s pleasant, but I can’t help thinking that it won the Newbery Medal partly because the committee felt overcome with nostalgia as they read. “That’s exactly what it was like growing up in the sixties!” I imagine them saying, their eyes misty as they recall their youthful days. “Exactly what it was like!”

What I’m Reading Now

Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, a novel about Hemingway’s first wife, which is good but, as you might expect in a book about two depressed people, quite depressing. I put it down every few chapters and test myself to make sure it isn’t infecting me. “True or false," I say. "The world is a terrible place full of sad, lonely people, who will always be sad and lonely because human connection is a myth.”

When I start answering “TRUE, SO TRUE,” then I know that the book is getting to me and I’ve read enough for the day.

And then I listen to Edward Eager’s Half Magic, which is quite soothing. I haven’t actually read E. Nesbit, but given that Eager’s book kicks off with the children reading Nesbit and pining for Nesbittean adventures, I’m pretty sure what he’s going for is “E. Nesbit, American style.”

What I’m Reading Next

It was going to be Avi’s Crispin: The Cross of Lead, which is the last of the Newbery books. But the library copy is missing its final disk, so not so much with that. I could always listen to some E. Nesbit...

My friend Micky suggested A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I’ve heard is rather grim. But it can’t be too bad, surely, if Micky likes it; she’s the one who introduced me to Alcott and the original Winnie the Pooh. Has anyone read it? Thoughts on its grimness quotient?
osprey_archer: (books)
More Newbery statistics! This time, I’ve broken down the books by gender of author and gender of protagonist.

Medal winners written by men: 31
Medal winners written by women: 61

(Some authors won multiple medals. As this would be a pain to count, I counted by book rather than author.)

Someone infinitely more dedicated than I am has crunched the Newbery numbers - not only for winners, but for nominees! - decade by decade for author gender: Gender Statistics and the Newberys. Brief summary: in the 1920s, all the winning books were written by men; in the 1930s, all winning books were written by women (possibly the committee felt a bit guilty about the twenties numbers?), and after that it settles into a pattern women consistently win a little more than twice as often.

I don’t know how this tracks on publishing industry statistics as a whole - if there are, in fact, twice as many female children’s book authors as male.

Male Protagonist: 49

Female Protagonist: 27

(Well, those are kind of appalling numbers.)

Co-protagonists/Multiple protagonists: 8 (I counted Ginger Pye, The Wheel on the School, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler - sidenote, I love that book - Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, The Westing Game, The View from Saturday, Criss Cross, and Moon Over Manifest. This is rather subjective, so other people might have a different count.)

No protagonist (the book is poetry or folktales or general nonfiction or what-have-you, although probably The Story of Man ought to count as a male protagonist): 6

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