A Newbery Dream… in the Sky
This week, all three of us will be posting about titles that are probably considered “too old” to even dream about being nominated for, let alone winning, the Newbery.
And yet, when a book features a godly dreamer, a citadel floating in the sky, and characters accomplishing the impossible, its contribution to the young reader’s literature must be noted. Yes, I am talking about Strange the Dreamer, hands-down my favorite book of 2017.
Laini Taylor is a master in molding words into paragraphs that delight the mind even when it receives disturbing visions. Take the Prologue of Strange the Dreamer for example. It starts with an oddly disturbing and yet morbidly beautiful scene:
On the second Sabbat of Twelfthmonth, in the city of Weep, a girl fell from the sky.
Her skin was blue, her blood was red.
She broke over an iron gate, crimping it on impact, and there she hung, impossibly arched, graceful as a temple dancer swooning on a lover’s arm. One slick finial anchored her in place. Its point, protruding from her sternum, glittered like a brooch.
In 68 words, Taylor establishes: the fantastic setting, the dark and disturbing tone, and the promise of gorgeously sculpted sentences. A reader is instantly charmed by the rhythm, the word choices, and the unswerving presentation of the gruesome. Taylor continues to deliver an emotionally affecting and powerful set-up. This is one Prologue that should not be skipped!
Sometimes, when a book is setting up for a sequel, it does not end quite satisfyingly — too heavy on the cliffhanger and not enough of a resolution. Taylor definitely stays away from that pitfall. Strange the Dreamer ends with a heart-wrenching but satisfying conclusion and offers up high anticipation for an equally amazing sequel. Its final scene, echoing the Prologue, shows the emergence of the new god. By now, readers know intimately about that girl who “fell from the sky,” care about the future relationships between humans, gods, ghosts, and monsters, and eagerly await the blurring or even erasure of the lines between awake and dreaming.
In between the beginning and the ending, Taylor builds a world that is grand in scale and rich with new kinds of magic: including the vivid and entirely believable dream/nightmare-magic that gives those with the ability a channel to alter realities. She also creates a host of well-realized characters, from the God Slayer’s sorrow, to the Ghost-Commanding, forever 6-year-old Minya’s rage, to Thyon Nero the alchemist’s all consuming envy, each leaving lingering impressions in the reader’s mind — not to mention the deep affection between two admirable main characters: Lazlo Strange the Junior Librarian, the Dreamer, and Sarai, the blue-skinned Goddess of Nightmares.
Now, how about that tragic story of the people and children suffering from the abuse of the gods? What a back story that shapes the literal landscape and communal psyche of the City of Weep! Perhaps this is why some readers would argue that Strange the Dreamer is not suited for the Newbery consideration, no matter the superb literary achievements evidenced on each and every page. Most reviewers label it High School and 15-and-up. (Is this 15-and-up designation the review journals’ way of saying, “no, not for the Newbery”?)
Because, tender readers, the abuse exacted upon the people of Weep from the monster Gods is cruelty in the form of nonconsensual sex. Even though I believe that Taylor is quite successful in never presenting unnecessarily graphic or gratuitous scenes, and thus readers in 7th and 8th grade (13/14) should be able to understand the nature of the atrocity based on their individual maturity and developmental readiness, and that either way, they will appreciate and adore the book for its many other outstanding parts, I imagine that members of the 2018 Newbery Committee would have a tough time considering this title eligible.
(It is one of the most loved 2017 books for my 7th and 8th grade fantasy readers!)
I know I would use one of my 7 allotted nominations for Strange the Dreamer even if I also know that it will most likely not get the award or even honor. I want to put it on the table, make sure that my fellow members have a chance to read it because it is nominated, and have it serve as a constant reminder during our discussion of what distinguished literary qualities look and sound like.
Have you read it? Do you feel the same as I do? Would you nominate or vote YES for it?
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Roxanne Hsu Feldman
Roxanne Hsu Feldman is the Middle School (4th to 8th grade) Librarian at the Dalton School in New York City. She served on the 2002 and 2013 Newbery Committees. Roxanne was also a member of 2008-2009 Notable Books for Children, 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults, and the 2017 Odyssey Award Committees. In 2016 Roxanne was one of the three judges for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. You can reach her at at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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