Monthly Archives: January 2014

Better Nate Than Ever, by Tim Federle

ImageNate is sure that he was born for Broadway, but unfortunately he was actually born in Jankburg, Pennsylvania (motto: 48.5 miles from Pittsburgh!). Nate and his friend and partner-in-crime, Libby, have been practicing and planning his big break for years, and now the time has come. When Nate’s parents leave for a marriage-healing weekend away, Nate packs up his backpack and takes off for the bus station. He blusters his way onto the bus and lands in fabulous New York City just in time for an audition for a new musical of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.

This fast-paced and uplifting novel is told in first person by the intrepid Nate himself, a short, chunky thirteen-year-old whose backside is saved more than once by his estranged Aunt Heidi. Nate is completely open about the fact that his parents constantly compare him to his older brother, Anthony, school jock and everything his father ever wanted to be. Nate is continually beaten up at school for doing socially unacceptable things like belting out show tunes in the restroom. Federle has written his sympathetic main character in a pitch-perfect voice. It’s impossible not to like and root for this plucky, determined young star.

Realism is not necessary for all novels, but Nate does get more than his share of breaks. An obviously confused young boy on the streets of New York would probably not fare as well as Nate, and one hopes that readers would understand that.

This book has been mentioned for the Newbery, but I do not think it will win for a couple of reasons. As you may have guessed, boys who are absolutely sure of all the words to Phantom of the Opera may not be as certain of their sexuality, particularly at the age of thirteen. Nate is very tuned in to the issue of homosexuality and is amazed to find out that New York, as opposed to Jankburg, is very accepting of gay relationships. While Libby is back home thrilling to the sight of Nate’s brother, Anthony, with his shirt off, Nate sees two boys kissing in a club and finds out that his aunt’s roommate dates other men. All of this is related very innocently—no sex scenes at all—but it is an important theme in the book. Since the Newbery Medal is for the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature, any sort of sexual discussion probably pushes it up out of the range, even though the upper end is fourteen. Unfortunately for Better Nate Than Ever, it is probably too young for the Printz Award, since it is for teen literature, and Nate is truly young for his age. Such a conundrum.

All that being said, awards are not everything, and if you have a child born to tread the boards, they will be fascinated by all of Nate’s suffering in front of pretentious directors and casting teams and the emotional rollercoaster of callbacks. He is quite a personable young man, and since all of his family problems are not solved in this volume— and in many ways his adventures have just begun—a sequel has just come out called Five, Six, Seven, Nate! The show must go on.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Across a Star-Swept Sea, by Diana Peterfreund

ImageLady Persis Blake appears to be nothing more than a beautiful, air-headed socialite who only cares for clothes and hairstyles. Her friend, the Princess Isla, has recently become the regent of Albion when her parents died in an accident and her brother is still a baby. Persis throws Isla’s parties and gives her fashion advice. In the neighboring kingdom of Galatea, a revolution is taking place in which the “regs” (working people of the middle class) are capturing the aristocrats and dosing them with a drug to destroy their mental faculties in revenge for the years that the aristos kept the workers “reduced” so that they could only perform manual labor.

Handsome and brilliant Justen Helo, a descendant of the revered scientist, Persistence Helo, who discovered the cure for the Reduction, runs away from his guardian in Galatea and makes his way to Albion, where he hopes to work against the terrors of the revolution. The princess concocts a public story that Justen and Persis are romantically involved, although the proud scientist Justen could never be interested in a shallow flirt like Persis. Little does he know that Persis is the true identity of the famous Wild Poppy, a spy who has been rescuing the aristocrats of Galatea and bringing them to safety in Albion. Persis does not trust Justen and has reason to believe that he is a spy, as well.

Diana Peterfreund continues her sci-fi reinterpretations of classic literature in this post-apocalyptic version of The Scarlet Pimpernel. Last year, she released the spectacular For Darkness Shows the Stars, a seemingly impossible sci-fi rendition of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. This second volume is not a sequel, but it makes much more sense if the two are read in order. Some of the same characters appear, and the world-building is much clearer in the first book. I may have read Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel at some point, but I know it best from the movie starring Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour. If you haven’t seen it, you should go put it in your Netflix queue right now. I’ll wait.

Back? OK.

I’m not sure that this is a Printz type of book, but who cares? The most amazing thing about both of these stories is that they work. What a risk, to try to rewrite beloved classics with wild technology and futuristic societal mores! There’s a bit of hard thinking, a bit of romance, and a lot of fun.

Highly recommended for teens and adults.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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2014 Newbery Picks

ImageThis season, I have read some wonderful children’s books while preparing to make predictions on the Newbery Medal. The Newbery award is given to the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature written by an author who was either born in the United States or lives in the United States at the time of publication. The book has to have been published in the previous calendar year, and must have been originally published in the United States. It has to be complete in itself, that is, not dependent on prequels or sequels. Of the twenty-ish books I’ve read particularly for the award, these five stand out to me, arranged in my idea of their audience, youngest to oldest.

  • The Year of Billy Miller, by Kevin Henkes
  • Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo
  • The Thing About Luck, by Cynthia Kadohata
  • Navigating Early, by Claire Vanderpool
  • Counting by 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan

ImageI am very conscious of the books that I did not read, most notably Jerry Spinelli’s Hokey Pokey and Rita Garcia-William’s P.S. Be Eleven [reviewed January 20, 20104]. (I did read the previous title, One Crazy Summer. Does that count?) I just could not read another children’s book! Furthermore, none of the nonfiction that I read met my idea of a Newbery winner, even though I enjoy nonfiction and usually find at least one worthy title each year. I am also well aware of the fan clubs for Far, Far Away and The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, both of which I liked, but not as much as these titles. Far, Far Away may actually be too old for Newbery, but the committee may not agree with me, and I could never connect with the characters in True Blue Scouts.

ImageI am a character-driven reader. If the author has written strong characters and I fall in love with them, the plot is not as important to me as it would be to someone whose favorite genre is more plot-driven, such as a thriller. I also treasure distinctive writing, particularly witty banter and exquisite turns of phrase. All of these five titles have strong characters whom I remember clearly and fondly. The writing was probably most distinctive in Flora & Ulysses and Navigating Early, with the best dialogue in The Thing About Luck.

ImageMy friend, Martha, who runs the Mock Newbery Club in our library system, mentioned months ago that even the very best offerings this year have flaws. I have to agree. The Thing About Luck has info-dumps about wheat harvesting, Navigating Early requires suspension of disbelief for some of its more fantastical coincidences, and Counting by 7s is partly told by adult characters and some of the plot twists seem somewhat contrived. As for these three older novels, I am most pleased to suspend disbelief for the fantasy in Navigating Early, but then I am a big fan of magical realism.

ImageFor the two younger novels, The Year of Billy Miller is probably the most flawless book I’ve read this year. It is more straightforward than the other books, too, but that is not negative, considering the age of the target audience. Flora and Ulysses has quirky characters in crazy situations, a type of book that I adore, but it may not appeal to a group that is looking for a book that will be assigned in school for decades to come. As an aside here, Kate DiCamillo has just been named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. An excellent choice! All of her books are brilliant, each in its own way.

ImageThe Newbery Committee usually chooses a book on the high end of the range, so I’m thinking that Navigating Early could be their choice. If they decide to go with a younger audience, I’d say The Year of Billy Miller. For myself, I’d be very happy with Navigating Early, and my younger choice would probably be Flora & Ulysses. However, I really love all five of these titles, and I recommend all of them highly for you or your children.

The 2014 Newbery announcement will be on January 27th, so we still have a few weeks to go. If I read something better in the meantime, I’ll be sure to let you know!

Enjoy!

Postscript: Yes, I can think of a nonfiction book that I loved! Leon Leyson’s autobiography, The Boy on the Wooden Box, was quite distinguished, and a story that children should read for generations. I don’t know why I forgot about it.

Update: I went on to read Better Nate Than Ever, by Tim Federle, reviewed on January 15, and P.S. Be Eleven, by Rita Williams-Garcia, reviewed January 20. Of these two, only P.S. Be Eleven is a strong contender. Although it is not a favorite of mine, it is quite distinguished.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Year of Billy Miller, by Kevin Henkes

ImageJust before school starts, Billy takes a fall during a family vacation, and now he has a lump on his head. He worries that he’s injured his brain, but when he asks his father if he thinks he’s smart enough for second grade, Papa says that not only is he smart enough, but he thinks that this will be the Year of Billy Miller.

Billy’s mom teaches high school English, so she leaves for work every morning, and his father is an artist, so he stays home and takes care of Billy and his three-year-old sister, Sal, who won’t go anywhere without her stuffed whales, the Drop Sisters: Raindrop, Dewdrop, Snowdrop, Gumdrop, and Lemondrop. Sometimes the Drop Sisters make them late for school because it takes them so long to go to the bathroom. In second grade, Billy and his best friend Ned learn to make habitat dioramas that turn out to be enhanced by Sal’s glitter; his teacher, Ms. Silver, wears chopsticks in her hair every day—a different color for each outfit; and as the year goes on, Billy learns to deal with his anger toward Emma Sparks, the most irritating little girl in Room 2.

Although Kevin Henkes may be best known for his beloved picture books like Chrysanthemum and Lily and the Purple Plastic Purse, he is also the Newbery-winning author of Olive’s Ocean, a middle-grade novel. The Year of Billy Miller is deceptively simple, with stories of everyday family life revealing Papa’s worries about not making enough money, or Billy realizing that, although his little sister can be incredibly silly and annoying, he really loves her very much. While completing the last project of the year, writing a poem about someone you love, Billy finds out that his mother likes all sorts of things almost as much as she loves being his mother.

If Clementine is the little girl star of chapter books, Billy Miller is the little boy counterpart. He’s not perfect, but he’s growing through all of the challenges and experiences of second grade with his terrifically supportive family and even a great babysitter. In short, the mom in me thinks he’s a sweetie pie. Though not as complex as some other Newbery contenders this year, The Year of Billy Miller is certainly in the running. More about that in my Newbery summary. Medal or not, you do not want your young readers to miss this one. For fluent readers seven and up, this is beautifully done.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions are only my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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