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river between usAlong with Bull Run, Richard Peck’s The River Between Us and Patricia Beatty’s Charley Skedaddle complete the Civil War segment of the O’Dell Awards. One is set at the beginning of the war, the other near the end, and both focus on the civilian experience.

River may be Peck’s most depressing book, a far cry from his usual fare of plucky mice and witty grandmas. It uses an odd framing device whose purpose only becomes clear at the end, as a boy journeys to his grandparents’ house on the eve of World War I. In an extended flashback, Tilly, his grandmother, tells him the story of her teenage years during the Civil War. As in many of Peck’s novels, the conflict begins when a stranger comes to town: in this case, two mysterious women from New Orleans who disembark from a riverboat in rural Illinois. The glamorous Delphine and her quiet, darker companion, Calinda, set tongues wagging as Tilly’s mother invites them to board at their house. Gossip and intrigue soon turn to sorrow when Tilly’s brother Noah joins the army, and Tilly gets a close look at the ugly world beyond her small town.

As the title suggests, Charley Skedaddle is about a boy–just 12 years old–who deserts the army. Eager to join the Yankees after his brother is killed in action, Charley dreams of heroism until he pulls the trigger in the middle of battle. He flees, full of self-loathing for his “cowardice,” and finds refuge in the Blue Ridge Mountains with an eccentric old woman (Granny Bent) who could have stepped out of a Richard Peck book. It’s only through earning her trust that he begins to find his self-worth.

charley skedaddleEach novel explores the meaning of courage far from the front lines. River is full of secrets, and the act of keeping of them hidden is at least as brave as the revelations, which continue until the final page. Tilly’s family is not as it seems. Neither is Delphine, whose lazy, gauzy exterior hides tragic secrets from her past. Charley’s story is more of a traditional quest, as the hero learns to redefine his vision of bravery. The “glory” of battle and the dangers of his old street gang life pale next to his new mountain community, where subsistence farmers confront bandits, extreme weather and the occasional panther.

But both stories left me wanting more, especially from the supporting characters. Tilly’s life falls apart when a family member descends into madness. The problem comes with no warning and seems more of a plot device than something true to the character. Charley catches a glimpse of the local men hiding from conscription in the Confederate army. Their situation is such an interesting parallel to Charley’s that I would have liked to see them play a bigger role–yet they ultimately disappear into the background.

Where both books shine is their casual incorporation of historical context. In Tilly’s town, the sight of young men–neighbors–signing up for opposing armies gave me the chills. For Charley, the first shocking moment occurs when he learns that some men have enlisted multiple times to take advantage of the signing bonuses–and that the military now shoots anyone attempting this scam. Details like these fully transported me into the era, and I wish the authors had taken as much care with the secondary characters as they did with the historical facts.

Norton Juster at the BPL

(sorry--no camera on hand)

(didn’t bring the camera)

Tollbooth fans, thank Colonel Lemuel Q Snoopnagle and Juster senior for Norton Juster’s particular brand of humor. Snoopnagle, on his radio program, specialized in spoonerisms (a play on words where two opening syllables are switched) while Juster senior, an architect, would greet his oblivious young son with puns every morning.

“You’re a good kid. I’d like to see you get ahead. You need one.”

Clearly, both influences rubbed off. Light dawned on marble head and Juster has been a gunny pie ever since.

As part of this year’s “Gateway to Reading” Lowell Lecture Series, Juster visited the Boston Public Library last week in an event moderated by Megan Lambert of Simmons college. While Lambert was on a mission to coax Juster into recounting for us some stories he had told her previously over coffee, Juster mostly read some passages from his famous book, The Phantom Tollbooth and shared some stories behind the story. The event was filmed and will be available on the BPL site, but in the meantime:

  • on his writing process: “I discovered as a writer I simply could not start here, end there. I could only do bits and pieces.” So he’d put all his pieces into a drawer and come back periodically to write more bits, until he had an entire story
  • while in the Navy, Juster began sketching, and he would hang his pictures all over the boat to dry. His captain chewed him out for drawing fairies and castles and elves.
  • Milo, of course, is Juster as a boy; Tock is the perfect mentor you can trust; and because life’s not like that, Juster threw in the Humbug
  • Feiffer's portrait of Juster

    Feiffer’s portrait of Juster

    on how Jules Feiffer, a cartoonist for The Village Voice, ended up illustrating Tollbooth: since they shared an apartment at one point, Feiffer was one of the first people to read Tollbooth. He liked it so much, he began drawing little scenes for fun

  • send in the cat cavalry: Feiffer was adamant about not drawing horses, so he begged Juster to put the armies of wisdom on cats instead. Juster said no. In fact, he went out of his way to describe impossible things to draw, for example, the Three Giants of Compromise
  • Feiffer’s revenge: the Whether Man is Feiffer’s portrait of Juster in a toga
  • the one little kid that got it: usually, kids want to know where his ideas come from, or how much he makes. At one school visit, though, a boy asked Juster what was the point of school, anyway, since all he did was memorize boring facts
  • Juster replied, to make connections between the facts–a life-long process
  • the boy: and then what?
  • Juster answered, and then you die.

Juster concluded the event with a Cinderella story ripe with spoonerisms. It ended with the kicker, “if the foo shits, wear it!” (Sigh. And that’s why spoonerisms have gone out of fashion.) Commented another little boy during the Q&A: what did that story mean? It made no sense.

If he had mentioned the lack of Rhyme and Reason, he would have brought down the house.

18480314I just finished the highly-anticipated The Lord of Opium, and like Jen, I found it rather lacking. Though it was trilling to reunite with the characters, this time around the plot didn’t hang together. There were too many plot threads left virtually unexplored, including:

  • What do you do with a problem like Maria? Trap her in a convent, apparently, with the occasional wormhole conversation so she can yell at Matt about his infatuation with Waitress. So much potential, wasted. I hope she has another starring role in the next book, if Farmer writes a sequel.
  • Hearing voices no one else can isn’t a good sign, even if you’re a drug lord. If Matt can hear El Patrón in his head, that’s a big deal. Is it a chip? a memory? a sign of his mental stress? I kept waiting for Matt to take this situation seriously, but he treated it as a minor nuisance. And with the destruction of the chips, the problem seems easily solved.
  • Don’t push the magic button! Matt’s final triumph was all too easy. A single button that solves everything? It’s like something out of Doctor Who.

That said, I did appreciate the complexity of the Waitress situation, and how frustrating it was to get glimpses of her humanity without ever succeeding. (That’s why it seems like such a cop-out when Matt saves everyone else with the push of a button). I also liked the quest aspect of the book, as Matt explores the hidden places of Opium. It felt like El Patrón was playing a game from beyond the grave, laying traps and secrets and puzzles at every turn. Now that Matt has Opium figured out, I hope he’ll return for a final book, one that’s focused on his own growth above all.

Lisa’s thorough study of the “Newbery Curse,” a phenomena that seems to strike Battle of the Kids Books out of contention before they’ve even had a chance to warm up, got me thinking: how can I quantify this?

In statistics, there is a way to measure the efficacy of a test–for example, mammograms as a screen for breast cancer. It’s called the predictive value positive (PV+), the probability that a someone who tests positive for a disease actually has the disease. The closer a test’s PV+  is to one, the better it is at predicting a certain outcome based on a positive test result.

To see whether the Newbery sticker–in gold or silver–affects a book’s ability to proceed through the first round, we’ll let the sticker be our test.

I tallied up the outcomes of Battles from years past and here’s what I came up with:

Presentation1

What I found was that a Newbery sticker of either gold or silver predicts that the book won’t advance past round 1 71% of the time. Of course, these values depend on how I determined if a book was middle grade or not (I did it by age, content, and included non-fiction), but if the rate for “won’t advance” rate for all middle grade books is 56% and the “won’t advance” rate for Newbery winners and honors is 71%, maybe there is a curse after all….

 

…because based on the trailer, I’m terrified. Let us count the reasons:

1. The set design: all that glass and steel makes the movie look like a slick YA blockbuster, a derivative mix of The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game and the Divergent trailer. I’d always pictured the community as white picket fence suburbia, and I know I’m not the only one who expected part of the movie to be filmed in black and white–but everything in the trailer was in full color. They seem to be trying to drum up excitement with hovercrafts! explosions! stormtrooper police and an evil be-wigged Meryl Streep! so there goes any hope of subtlety.

2. There’s a redheaded teenage girl who I presume is Fiona. We see Jonas urging her to stop taking the medicine, to wake up and understand what the Community is missing. Presumably she listens, and at some point we see her kissing Jonas, which is ridiculous. I have no problem with an older Jonas, or even increasing Fiona’s role. But this is not the book to insert Extra Teenage Romance Angst. Save it for something where it would make sense (like Team Human, which is crying out for a campy, melodramatic adaptation). [Note: if I'm wrong, and it's actually Rosemary, that's even more messed up. Star-crossed lovers across time, yeesh]

3. The Giver hinges on the Community’s blissful ignorance: there’s no omniscient dictator suppressing his people, no nefarious plot to keep them docile. So why add Meryl Streep spouting clichéd lines about choice and freedom? You may as well replace her with President Snow or icy Kate Winslet from the Divergent trailer. The Community’s dystopia is chilling because it runs on autopilot, because the decision for Sameness was made long ago and no one is capable of understanding what Jonas and the Giver know. In the book, Jonas’ loneliness drives the plot. Make Fiona his sidekick and that tension disappears.

4. The worst possibility: we see Fiona injecting something into her wrist. I hope it’s just the daily injection. But if not, and she’s actually Released, then I have an awful feeling that watching her Release is what pushes Jonas to leave the Community. Compare that to what happens in the book, where he falls apart over the death of a baby he doesn’t even know, killed by his uncomprehending father. That compassion is kind of the point, not romantic angst…

Maybe I’m too pessimistic. Maybe the trailer is misleading us to increase controversy and publicity. But if I’m right, then the filmmakers have alienated a lot of people: those of us who grew up reading and loving The Giver, and others who’ve never read it, and now assume it’s a copycat Hunger Games thriller. Either way, that can’t be good for box office numbers. And worst of all, Lois Lowry will have to say she likes the movie, whether she does or not.

Review #2: Boxers & Saints

ad-boxersboxBoxers and Saints may be the first book on this blog to get double reviews from Jen and me. Here’s her take, and mine is below. Major spoilers ahead!

Two weeks ago I wrote about book hype and how it can raise or lower your expectations for a book. Since September, the most-hyped book on my radar has been Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang. It took months for my request to arrive at the library, so in the meantime I read a ton of reviews and grew increasingly psyched. It had everything going for it: starry-eyed praise, a chilling trailer, a historical setting I knew nothing about, and an ingenious setup–telling both sides of a conflict through a two-volume set.

Luckily, it lived up to the hype. I loved the characters, the humor (Yang gets bonus points for putting humor in a book about a bloody revolution), the art. He also avoids one of my pet peeves: too often, stories set in other countries star characters who speak broken English, which is idiotic, since they’re obviously speaking their native language even if the book is written in English. Thankfully, everyone in Boxers & Saints speaks naturally, and it’s the missionaries who butcher the grammar as they attempt to speak Mandarin to the villagers. Also, whenever we see foreign soldiers talking in their own language (French, English or German), their words look like gibberish, or drunken attempts at drawing Chinese characters (if you squint, you’ll notice how each character corresponds to a letter of the alphabet. With enough patience, you could decode what they’re saying. I managed to find “e” and “a” before my eyes crossed in dizziness).

Most importantly, Yang tells a complicated saga through compelling characters, and the story has enough complexity for me to appreciate the shades of gray. As Jen said, there are no winners in Boxers & Saints. Everybody loses. Under different circumstances, Vibiana and Little Bao might have been friends, but the pull of history–and Yang’s masterful storytelling–was too much. While each volume stands on its own, they’re infinitely better when read together (it makes the most sense to start with Boxers)–hence my insistence on calling the series a book instead of books. Yang kept the surprises coming, and I didn’t even know what I was missing until the last page of Saints. Continue Reading »

Review: Boxers & Saints

boxers saintsIt’s been over two months since I finished reading Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang, and I’m still thinking about it. Told in graphic novel format from the perspectives of two Chinese teens on opposite sides of the conflict known as the Boxer Rebellion, Volume One follows Little Bao, while Volume Two tells Four-Girl’s story. Their narratives intersect briefly as children growing up in rural China during hard times, and then dramatically in a clash of allegiances as the Boxers, a pro-nationalist movement, march towards Peking in an effort to dispel the foreign powers–and their foreign religion–from China by force.

Yang sets the scene with ease, using Little Bao’s passion for folk opera, Four-Girl’s home life, and a host of mortal and supernatural characters, to give us insight into the cultural, social, and political situation influencing China as the 19th century drew to a close. Yang also portrays Chinese culture–even its more outlandish superstitions–with sensitivity and skill. Having read other books about China, I appreciate that his characters are influenced by, but don’t embody these superstitions. Rather, they come across as fully fleshed individuals with human motivations. Continue Reading »

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