Friday, March 27, 2015

Getting at the Truth


The heroine of David Arnold's Mosquitoland, 16-year-old Mary Iris Malone, gives readers a limited amount of information. She is an unreliable narrator. Yet she is smart and charming, and we want to believe her as she sets out to save her mother.

We learn that Mim's father married on the rebound, that Mim has not spoken with her mother in months, where she once spoke with her daily, that Mim has been prescribed a drug used to treat psychosis, and that there's a history of it in her family. Readers must piece together the truth between Mim's narrative of her journey, and flashbacks to the past.

Another recent and unforgettable unreliable narrator is Cadence in We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, and a classic is Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. Usually it's because there are things the narrator doesn't want to see, other times it's because the narrator needs to construct his or her reality in order to survive.

We as readers must rely upon the author's skill to toggle between the objective truth and the narrator's truth to make the constructed world of the novel hang together. We need to believe that both could be plausible, so that when they come together at the book's end (the narrator's version and the objective truth), we are satisfied. Mosquitoland does that. Quite a feat for a first novel.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Three Tales in One

Pam Muñoz Ryan
Photo: Ryan Publicity

Pam Muñoz Ryan's epic novel Echo began as a way to write about a little-known court case, Roberto Alvarez v. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District. Her research led her to a school yearbook photo in which half the students were barefoot and each kid was holding a Hohner Marine Band harmonica. 

That discovery took her on a journey involving three children's stories, all with a Hohner Marine Band harmonica at the center: 12-year-old Friedrich Schmidt in 1933 Germany, as the Nazi Party gains momentum; orphaned 11-year-old Mike Flannery in 1935 Philadelphia during the Depression; and Ivy Maria Lopez living in Southern California in 1942 as World War II rages. I got to interview Ryan for School Library Journal's Curriculum Connections. Here are a few highlights.

One of my favorite lines in Friedrich’s story is when he anticipates his audition for the conservatory: “How could he want something and fear it so much at the same time?”

Friedrich’s story is so much about the disillusionment of dreams. In his mind, he thought that he could have maybe gone to the conservatory, but he would still have stayed there in his town. His biggest worry was the audition, but there’s something larger [Hitler] that jeopardizes his entire existence.

In Mike’s story, [the adoptive mother] is the one who’s completely disillusioned  about the circumstances of her life—there’s another subtle theme about women being repressed. A lot of societal issues [were addressed in the book], and I had to present them matter-of-factly.

There’s the wonderful quote in Mike’s story as the boy goes through the music store that seems to reverberate with the harmonica’s journey: “Isn’t it wonderful! Music is just waiting to escape from all these instruments.”

There was the idea, as far back as my book The Dreamer (Scholastic, 2010) about Pablo Neruda. His premise was that your tangible essence travels with your tools, with anything that you’ve used with your hands. I love the idea that the harmonica carried something positive and self-affirming with it from [person to person]…that sense of euphoric well-being. It sounded so beautiful. I wanted that idea to carry that through the book.

Tell us about the fairy tale as a frame for the three stories.

From the moment they learn about Otto, the three sisters, and the witch’s curse, I wanted readers to suspend disbelief. By couching the three stories within a traditional fairy tale, I was saying to readers, “Come with me and believe…there’s some scary, hard stuff coming. The book is a dark forest, but we’ll make it to the end….”

Friday, March 13, 2015

Blended Families

Kathi Appelt

Few books handle blended families from a young child's point of view with such honest feeling as When Otis Courted Mama by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Jill McElmurry. Because the main character is a coyote pup, children can experience his emotions from a safe distance.

The desert setting allows for sizzling vocabulary words such as jalapeño flapjacks, prickly pear pudding, and playing "Zig-the-Zag" across the sand. Even though Cardell's parents are divorced, we see that he maintains a close relationship with each of them, including his father's new wife and their pup.

Yet Cardell is protective of his mother (with good reason, by his recollections of her former dates). Readers see right away that Cardell's new neighbor, Otis, is different from his mother's former callers. Otis is kind and gentle, courting both Mama and Cardell in his way, and he gives Cardell time and space to warm up to the idea of Mama and Otis dating. The picture book offers hope to children attempting to make sense of unfamiliar family arrangements and also to the idea of "sharing" a parent with someone else.

Two other recent titles about separated parents include Monday, Wednesday, and Every Other Weekend, written and illustrated by Karen Stanton, and for slightly older readers, Emily's Blue Period by Cathleen Daly, illustrated by Lisa Brown, offers a more complex emotional response to parents separating.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Preschool Preoccupations

Kevin Henkes

Kevin Henkes has tackled such early childhood preoccupations as a new sibling (Julius, the Baby of the World), a new school (Chrysanthemum) and anxieties large and small (Wemberly Worried). In Little White Rabbit, Henkes focuses on a child's curiosity and imagination.

His pastel palette of green and blue, with touches of pink and the occasional browns for a tree trunk or log (plus the gray of a menacing cat), allows little white rabbit to stand out against his surroundings. As he hops along, he imagines himself a part of everything he sees. In the high grass, he wonders what it would be like to be green. Then in a wordless spread, Henkes gives readers a window into little white rabbit's imagination. He is as green as the grasshopper perched on a bending blade of grass. All of the animals are shown in profile, so preschoolers only see one wide eye of each creature. When little white rabbit imagines himself tall, like the fir trees, Henkes depicts the rabbit's pink nose high in the air like the pink birds in flight just above his head; his feet are firmly planted beneath the fir tree, with a host of rabbits near, contrasting actual size with the hero, giant-size.

When little white rabbit hops over a rock and "wondered what it would be like not to be able to move," we can imagine preschoolers imitating the hero and staying stone-still, as little white rabbit imagines himself doing through sun, rain and darkness. One of the most glorious transitions occurs as the rabbit hero imagines "what it would be like to flutter through the air," as butterflies do. Henkes creates markings on the butterflies' wings that echo the pink inside the rabbit's white ears, so when he imagines himself in flight, his ears act as wings, and he appears to be migrating with them.

A moment of tension (the appearance of a cat) causes the hero to hop home "as fast as he could," where a loving mother awaits him ("[H]e didn't wonder who loved him"). How well Henkes knows that as much as little ones want to test their independence, they also want to know that their family is near. With only one line of text per spread (except for the wordless ones), this is a deceptively simple story that will launch a flight of fancy for youngest book lovers.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Who Was Malcolm X?

Sunny Hostin, Ilyasah Shabazz, and Kekla Magoon (l. to r.)

Last month at New York's 92nd Street Y, co-authors Ilyasah Shabazz (the third daughter of Malcolm X) and Kekla Magoon joined Sunny Hostin, a legal analyst and host on CNN, for a conversation about the legendary civil rights leader and their book, X: A Novel. They explained why they felt it was important to write about Malcolm X's youth.

Shabazz told Hostin that this book is important because "many people had the wrong impression of Malcolm." She said people think her father went to prison and "miraculously" became Malcolm X.

X: A Novel focuses on Malcolm Little growing up in Lansing, Mich. His parents were Marcus Garvey followers and suspected targets of the Black Legion (an offshoot of the KKK). Malcolm's father was killed on the streetcar tracks and his mother shipped off to a state hospital.

While The Autobiography of Malcolm X was written when Malcolm X was an adult who knew how his story turned out, Magoon explained, "putting it in the context of a novel allows teens to connect to it." Malcolm tried to run away from his parents' legacy, she added, "As a teen, he rediscovered his potential." Magoon felt that this story needed to be told in the present. "He was living each day like this is the only day," she said. "Teens can see themselves in that story."

Hostin asked the authors about their decision to use "the n word" in the book, a word she chooses not to use herself. Magoon pointed out that Malcolm X used the word in his own writings, and that the use of "the n word" by his history teacher, Mr. Ostrowski, was a turning point in Malcolm's life. When the teacher asked Malcolm Little, who got the best marks in Mr. Ostrowski's overwhelmingly white classroom, what he wanted to be, Malcolm answered, "A lawyer." The man responded, "This is the real world, boy.... Be as good as you want in the classroom, but out there, you're just a n-----." The scene appears nearly verbatim in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. "That was a throwaway moment for Mr. Ostrowski," Magoon pointed out. "That says a lot about how much power there is in words like that. Malcolm internalized it. He had to fight against that to rise back up. For Malcolm, it was years of making bad choices."

At various points in the conversation, Hostin, Shabazz and Magoon referred to recent protests in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York. One member of the audience asked how they could "channel that activism into a change in policy." He  wondered how we could keep this energy going. There were no easy answers. "The kids protesting today could read Malcolm's speeches and feel resonance with them now," said Magoon.

When Hostin asked Magoon what she'd like readers to take from X: A Novel, she hoped most of all that they'd enjoy it. Then Magoon added, "You can be anyone you want to be. Look how bad Malcolm's life was at certain moments, and look what he did. We all have that potential--that's something Malcolm X repeated over and over in his own ministry."

This is excerpted from a longer article that first ran in Shelf Awareness.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Rhythms and Layers


Kwame Alexander wrote his 2015 Newbery-winning novel The Crossover in poems that slip off the tongue effortlessly. The emphasis of the all caps and the line breaks assure even those who hesitate to read passages aloud that they will read (and sometimes shout) the lines properly from the start.

2015 Newbery winner Kwame Alexander
Photo: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
As with any great long poem, the novel's multiple meanings begin to emerge as the story progresses. The crossover move ("in which a player dribbles/ the ball quickly/ from one hand/ to the other./ As in: When done right,/ a crossover can break/ an opponent's ankles"), narrator Josh's signature play, takes on diverse aspects of crossing a threshold (from childhood to adulthood, life and death) over the course of the novel. The 10 rules of basketball that twins Josh and JB's father reinforce in them apply as much to life as they do to the game. The dreadlock incident (in which JB bets Josh that if JB can score the last basket of the game, he can cut off Josh's dreads--Josh agrees to one, JB cuts five, then their mother makes Josh slash the rest) hits Josh nearly as hard as it did Samson. The incident begins an escalation of his sense of loss and betrayal.

As Josh's rift widens with JB, who's not just his identical twin, but also his best friend, Josh is in danger of a spiral downward, and his parents won't allow it. Kwame Alexander told Karin Snelson in an interview for Shelf Awareness that he almost didn't keep the parents in the book. "In a lot of middle-grade and YA fiction the parents are done away with so that you can focus on the kids," he said. "My familial bonds were always extremely important, so that was my frame of mind at first. But as I wrote the book, I got caught up in this notion that the parents can't be that instrumental. And so the parents were introduced in the book, but they were just sort of there. I told myself, you have a loaded gun, but you haven't fired it. What's the point of introducing these strong parents if you aren't going to utilize that strength to make the story even more powerful? And once I decided that, I thought, well, that's the kind of house you grew up in, you can draw on your own relationship with your family."

So the final layer is art imitating life. There's no doubt of the emotional truth that informs this novel in verse.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Imaginary Friends

Dan Santat

Not every child invents an imaginary friend like the star of The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat, winner of the 2015 Caldecott Medal. And the ones who do, says author-artist Santat, don't "pick imaginary friends based on anything in particular."

Santat himself didn't have an imaginary friend, he told us when we interviewed him for Shelf Awareness after his Caldecott Medal was announced. "If I played make-believe, it was referenced by something I knew. I was going on an adventure with a Ghostbuster or Pac Man," he explained. "Talking with kids, not a lot of their imaginary friends reflected their interests or anything in particular about them." The imaginary friends in Beekle, however, share a great deal with the children who created them.

Q: You characterize both Beekle and his child, Alice, as relatively friendless--or at least incomplete--before they meet. 

Dan Santat: For the message of making a friend, I found it to be important to find two halves to a whole. To have Alice find--not because she's an introvert or shy--to find a friend in a world created by her, fills that void. It's like having that "a-ha" moment when all the pieces are coming together. I didn't want the imaginary friend to sound clichéd--hairy monsters with horns and stripes that didn't reflect anything. I wanted them to reflect these children and their interests. You can tell a lot about these children without any dialogue in the book.

Q: How did you come up with that setting--a kind of island of misfit toys with imaginary friends in limbo until they meet their child?

DS: It's funny that you call it limbo, because for a while the island's name was Limbo. The imaginary friends serve a function, but they don't know what it is yet. If you look on the endpapers, there's a monster that plays the drums for a child who loves music [and other examples]; they're not aware of the other half that completes them. With Beekle, my struggle was to make him in such a way that he didn't give away his purpose. He's the only pure white character in the entire book; he represents a blank canvas.

Q: Your Beekle-eye view of the subway is so spot on. Did you think of the sailing ship and the subway as a kind of journey to transition from his island of imaginary friends to the world of humans?

DS: The spread that really communicates the journey well is when he's lost in a sea of commuters walking, and you don't see their faces, just a sea of legs. I was trying to portray a child's experience. It's not as intimidating to meet people eye to eye as it is when you see these giants. If you're little and you're sitting on a couch, your legs are dangling off the edge of the chair. That's evident in the scene in the subway. Every year I go to New York to meet with my publisher, and people on the subway have their faces in books or they're sleeping. They don't really make contact or look around or reach out to anyone. There's a sense of a loss of magic when you're an adult. Things don't seem spectacular because you've gotten a bit cynical with the world.

You see that in the cake and the strawberries, the music notes of the accordion; those are the bright colors. It was important to me to separate these two worlds--the childlike innocence from the reality of how the world is to an adult.

This excerpt is taken from an interview that first appeared in Shelf Awareness.