The Thing About Debuts
It’s easy to keep track of authors from whom we expect excellence; harder to stay on top of debut authors. A pitfall of debut writing can be when it serves as a “warm-up”: a good writer, with a good idea, works that idea into a novel that…works, though sometimes the idea can feel more present than the story.
CIRCUS MIRANDUS by Cassie Beasley has been getting plenty of appreciation, but I can’t say I share in it. The promisingly spooky magical premise never fully developed to me, and seemed more the central character of the book than any of the actual characters, who remained stock and flat. I was particularly disappointed by Jenny, who seemed a token sidekick “of color,” adding no real diversity or interest to the story beyond being a foil for Micah. I think Beasley is a technically good writer, with an amazing imagination for magical imagery, but this felt like pulling teeth to make a novel out of a concept, and I never believed it was real. I’d say I was looking forward to her next book, except that it promises to be a sequel to this one.
THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH by Ali Benjamin just came out last week (yes, we are going to start straying into fall titles…) and appears on the National Book Award longlist for young people’s literature. I admit I was surprised to find it there, as I’d just finished reading it. I did find Benjamin’s writing beautifully evocative of that terrible time of being twelve, when everyone is changing in different ways at different speeds, and it’s easy to feel stranded. But the story felt overburdened to me by its conceits, the presentation of research a little overboard, and the explanation for why Suzy felt she *had* to go see the scientist in person, rather than online, seemed manipulated for the plot. I DO want to read Benjamin’s next book, I think this is fine writing, but just pushing too hard on the idea.
UNUSUAL CHICKENS FOR THE EXCEPTIONAL POULTRY FARMER is, of all of these, the most accomplished for what it sets out to do, in my book, and makes a very satisfying read for a slightly younger set. I appreciate the sense of mystery, the possible magic that is never fully proven or dis-proven, and the fully engaging main character Sophie and her triumphs, which the readers get to glory in, in a realistic way. Sophie is bicultural, and that is notable as it is hard to find. It’s handled nicely here, with her perspective wound through the narrative in ways that are simply true to her character, and rarely seem forced. I can’t say I felt this book adds any authentic Latino cultural content the canon, but I don’t think that was the point. I believe that Jones is not Latina, but that she very carefully and deliberately made her story as diverse as she could responsibly do (as she suggests in this interview). The resulting book is fun and funny, which are rarities when we talk about the Newbery. So what are my reservations? I guess the emphasis on “exceptional” poultry breeds as the concept driving the story struck me as a little trendy, potentially of more interest to grown-ups than kids, and one that may strike some chords of gentrification (city people with fancy chickens, of which I have been one) or urbanization (city people taking over rural communities). I don’t think most kid readers will notice this, and in that sense Jones has succeeded in “story over concept,” but when I consider a “contribution to American literature for children” it gives me a twinge. Still, of all of these, Jones is the author whose next book I’m most looking forward to.
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About Nina Lindsay
Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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