Mock Newbery Fantasy Contenders: Mapmaker, Ogress and Windswept
This seems like an especially rich year for children’s fantasy and we’ve had some conversation about several titles in comments from previous posts. I’ll put three on the table today as possible Newbery contenders, but also welcome input about any of the several others that fit into this broad category.
THE LAST MAPMAKER by Christina Soontornvat
A double-Honor winner in 2021 (for ALL 13 and A WISH IN THE DARK), Soontornvat clearly is not interested in writing the same kind of book twice. Like several other books from this year, THE LAST MAPMAKER doesn’t have a lot of fantasy elements. The world is imagined, but the only real magical piece (unless I’m forgetting something) is the dragon. It’s a highly involving adventure, narrated in the first person by Sai, a very strong lead character. She’s bold and ambitious, but far from perfect. As her role in the expedition becomes more prominent, her choices become more difficult and more impactful. Sai’s personal growth is intrinsically tied to the events she experiences and to the fully developed world she inhabits. Her ultimate success is convincing and very satisfying.
There’s a bit of a plot stretch around Bo: It makes sense that Sai catches him picking pockets (“Most people wouldn’t have even noticed. But most people didn’t have a world-class pickpocket for a father” (125)). But then Bo stows away, and it’s Sai who finds him, and he turns out to be the Captain’s child. But that feels okay for the plot of a grand adventure. Overall, I think this book is a complete success. My personal reaction as a reader, though, wasn’t as strong as my critical evaluation. In other words: I didn’t love the book. That statement has no value in a Newbery discussion, but it tells me I should re-read this one and try to articulate why it’s not at the top of my list when it checks so many literary element boxes.
THE OGRESS AND THE ORPHANS by Kelly Barnhill
Barnhill’s THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON was the last author to win a Newbery Medal (2017) for fantasy. Can she repeat? The playful narrative voice plays a strong role in this book, addressing us directly and clearly deciding what to tell us, and when, in order to draw us in. This approach can be fun, and funny, but can potentially lead the reader to take the events less seriously. I think Lynne Rae Perkins does it just right in VIOLET & JOBIE IN THE WILD; it didn’t work at all for me in OSMO UNKNOWN. With OGRESS, I’m kind of in between.
The narration introduces the world, the characters, and the conflict within the village nicely. It takes a while; not much really happens in present time until Cass runs away (p 161). But the storytelling set-up is still enjoyable and intriguing, and when the conflict does start happening, we’re already strongly invested in the characters and their world.
But the narrative style, and to some degree the nature of the Mayor, kind of lessens the tension. While the Mayor and the bad dragon are introduced as ominous, dangerous villains, they (actually “he,” once it’s clear to everyone that the Mayor is the dragon) shift more towards comical. As Meredith said in a comment in a previous post: “it was hard for me to take him seriously.” Maybe the book works more as satire than as straight fantasy/adventure, but for a while at least I thought it might succeed at both: keeping up the tension and reader involvement while at the same time mocking the Mayor, and by extension any real-life figures of whom the Mayor might remind us. It fell a bit short for me, but there’s still a lot to like about this book.
WINDSWEPT by Margi Preus
This is the most full-blown fantasy of the books mentioned here, with magical ribbons, kidnapping winds, spells from the pages of fairy tales, and more. In a neat variation, though, it takes place in the distant future of a world like ours, as the kids find “artifacts from the Other Times” made of metal and plastic. As in OGRESS, the fantasy is partially a vehicle to call attention to the problems of our world, such as book banning and pollution.
The storytelling approach is clever: It’s Tag telling the tale, to a group of ogres who plan to eat her, but we don’t learn that for a while. When we do, we see that her telling can turn out to be the thing that saves the day. I thought that worked well and also enjoyed the mix of fantasy, realism, and social commentary. On the other hand, the plot didn’t fully grab me. The twists and turns often seemed arbitrary and kind of distracting from the main goal of the quest. Like the bits with Shortcut the folksinger and his bus. The scene in which they disguise Puff the bus as a dragon and fool the ogres is one example where the premise was so odd that there was no real tension attached to the risky trick. The world of this story never fully comes together for me, especially in comparison to something as complete as THE LAST MAPMAKER, even though it’s strong in some areas.
I like all three of these books, but none is quite at the nomination level for me (though MAPMAKER might get there). I also rate HEALER AND WITCH by Nancy Werlin highly. A COMB OF WISHES by Lisa Stringfellow and Pam Munoz Ryan’s SOLIMAR have strengths and child appeal, but they don’t seem distinguished to me. And I didn’t finish UNKNOWN AND THE THREEPENNY WOODS by Catherynne M. Valente, so will leave others to judge. I haven’t read, but am looking forward to BLACK BIRD, BLUE ROAD, a historical graphic novel with some fantasy elements by Sofiya Pasternack Are there others that should be on our radar?
I put the three books I featured above in order of my Newbery ranking, with MAPMAKER at the top. If you read more than a couple fantasies this year, can you rank your top 2 or 3?
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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