Unstarred, Unlisted, Underestimated
ICEFALL is the book most often mentioned in the comments that we have never properly featured in a post. Nina read it and was unimpressed. I read the first three chapters (about fifty pages) and put it down because nothing had happened yet. Since many of you have mentioned this book is similar to Megan Whalen Turner’s books, I realize that those first three chapters could hold important clues to the plot later on, and perhaps it is silly to admit this, but it just felt like a very long-winded set-up to me. I could never understand why he needed three chapters for what would have fit very nicely in a single one. Again, go back and look at THE BOOK OF THREE and THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE and tell me that it is not possible to write this kind of story with fewer words.
Laurel Snyder’s books always get mentioned here in the comments–ANY WHICH WALL, PENNY DREADFUL, and now BIGGER THAN A BREADBOX–but we’ve also never featured them in a post. I haven’t read any of these yet, but I have at least checked out BIGGER THAN A BREADBOX; I just didn’t get it read, and I’m running out of time to do it this year. I’m going to have to make a concerted effort to read the next one early in the year. I’m going to rely on the book’s fans to sell this one to us here. Why is this one the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children?
Both Wendy and Laurie have recently mentioned this book as their pick for the Medal. Again, this is another book that I checked out, read the first couple pages, but returned before I became hooked. Choldenko certainly has a Newbery pedigree, and you’d think that if this were special, the reviews would indicate it. Instead, they are quite mixed. Booklist: Choldenko drops a few hints along the way but only fully reveals what’s happening behind this fever dream in a blistering resolution that doesn’t quite answer the dozens of questions readers may have stored up. Kirkus: But the convoluted mystery of Falling Bird isn’t revealed until the very last pages, and by then some young readers may have lost interest in trying to interpret a Kafka-esque world with too few clues and a confusing host of secondary characters. Publishers Weekly: The revelation of what really happened doesn’t quite square with a narrative told in three voices. Are these valid criticisms?
Here’s yet another one–ONE DAY AND ONE AMAZING MORNING ON ORANGE STREET by Joanne Rocklin–that I’ve checked out several times but never manage to read, but then I reread the opening paragraph, and put it on hold again. In fact, I’m picking it later this week.
It was a hot summer day on Orange Street, one of those days that seem ordinary until you look back on it. Lawn sprinklers sparkled, morning doves cooed, and the sky was an amazing blue as it always was in L.A. Even at eight A.M., the sun looked like a giant egg yolk. In fact, a few parents made a joke about the sidewalk being hot enough to fry an egg by noontime. One grumpy kid wondered aloud why anyone would be dumb enough to do that.
I was always told that my dad, Danny, loved danger. I was told that he was a bit reckless and daring. And that’s just the way he pulled the car up into the sandy driveway at my grandmother’s house in Maine. We could see the ocean below us crashing and pounding against the jagged rocks. Danny seemed to put the brakes on just at the edge of the cliff.
Elephants can sense danger. They’re able to sense an approaching tsunami or earthquake before it hits. Unfortunately, Jack did not have this talent. The day his life turned completely upside down, he was caught unaware.
If unstarred books rarely make the Newbery roster the same cannot be said for those books which get starred reviews, but fail to make any best-of-the-year lists. That’s quite common, actually. ONE AMAZING MORNING and THE ROMEO AND JULIET CODE both earned two starred reviews and fall in the favored Newbery genre of historical fiction, while SMALL AS AN ELEPHANT earned one starred review, but has shown up in a few mock election results as an honor book.
There are definitely some strong contenders that have been chucked by the wayside, so to speak, because of our single-minded focus on our own shortlist. INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN already beat out OKAY FOR NOW and CHIME for the National Book Award, and it’s also taken mock Newbery Medals in Cincinnati and Fort Wayne. I’m not convinced this one rises to the very top, but perhaps I’ve underestimated it. Tell me again with the criteria why this one is most distinguished relative to the others.
DEAD END IN NORVELT, on the other hand, is a book that I think is very much worthy of our attention. My major concerns had to do with pacing, especially in the middle, but I think it has many of the strengths of OKAY FOR NOW, but not as many weaknesses. I wish we could discuss how this one contains echoes of his entire body of work, yet still feels like he is covering new territory. And the book contains some of the funniest writing of the year. To wit: the scene where the arthitic Miss Volker, having dipped her hands in hot wax to loosen them up, fixes Jack’s perpetual nosebleeds. If that’s not funny, what is?
I’ll admit that I’m completely flummoxed by all the love for BREADCRUMBS. Like DEAD END, this is the third time we’re featuring this book in a post, but we’ve always lumped it with other books, first with LIESL & PO and THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK, and then with WONDERSTRUCK, A MONSTER CALLS, and DEAD END. On one hand, I like the cover, and I like the premise, and some of the sentence level writing is lovely. But I didn’t care for the characters, the plotting was molasses slow, and the whole thing just fell apart in the second half. What are you people smoking? Explain yourselves!
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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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