I liked THE UNDERNEATH quite a bit, but I found the resolution of the stories vaguely unsatisfying. HOLES, THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX, and AMERICAN BORN CHINESE have set the bar pretty high for these kind of stories, and I just felt like something about the ending was a little bit off. Maybe a second reading would have resolved some of my concerns, but I doubt I could have supported it over THE GRAVEYARD BOOK or THE LINCOLNS. Still, it was a good choice as an honor book.
So I looked forward to reading KEEPER when it was published this past spring. Let me say that this is not my kind of book at all, and yet it completely won me over. You kind of have to respect a book that can do that.
First, the plotting is molasses-slow, and you’ll remember that I railed against THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE for the same thing, but whereas I did not find the writing style of that book particularly distinguished, I quickly fell under the mesmerizing spell of the narrative voice here. I fell in love with the characters, became enchanted by the setting, and really warmed up to the mythical and folkloric elements of the story. I still think the book is too long, and will limit the child audience, but when I was in the story I just couldn’t help myself.
Second, there is a subgenre of children’s literature which is especially prone to Newbery recognition, and while many of these books are very good–some are even favorites of mine–you sort of have to wonder when the well will run dry. Let me list some of these books and see if you can guess what I’m talking about: MISSING MAY, WALK TWO MOONS, BELLE PRATER’S BOY, BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE, and THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY. What do they all have in common? The main characters (mostly girls) are still grieving and coping with the loss or absence of a mother figure. This year, I note three books–KEEPER, ONE CRAZY SUMMER, and WHAT HAPPENED ON FOX STREET–that are variations on this theme and–surprise!–all three have been mentioned as strong Newbery contenders. How many missing mother books do we have to admit into the Newbery canon before the committee realizes it’s the same old, same old? Sheesh.
And yet so great is the pull of KEEPER that, again, I couldn’t have cared less when I was in the story. While my other top picks–A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS and SUGAR CHANGED THE WORLD–are unconventional Newbery choices and will be very difficult to build consensus around, perhaps KEEPER, being middle grade fiction, will stand a better chance. What do you think?
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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