Monthly Archives: August 2013

Distance

Mark,

I recently read Natalie Standiford’s new book, Boy on the Bridge. This was a book I had been watching for in any case, but just before it came out, Standiford had an article published in the New York Times‘s “Modern Love” column. The column told the story of Standiford’s own college semester in Leningrad and the Russian man she fell in love with there.
BoyonBridge
Boy on the Bridge is clearly based very closely on Standiford’s own experiences; many of the incidents she mentions in the column are fleshed out in the book, although the ending is different. Leningrad in 1982 was a grim place, both for Russians and for foreigners. In the book, Laura is 19, and studying Russian language and literature at college–fascinated by the darkness of Russia. She and a small group of other Americans are spending the spring semester in Leningrad, segregated in their own dorms (although she has a Russian roommate, who is probably there to spy on her).

She meets Alyosha, a Russian artist, and quickly falls in love with him. But this isn’t a romantic comedy, or even anything like a normal love story. Laura and Alyosha must meet in secret most of the time, and their lives and backgrounds are so different that it is sometimes hard to understand their relationship. Laura has been warned that Russians will see her and her American friends as enticing marriage prospects–as a way to get out of the Soviet Union and start a new life in the West. But she doesn’t believe that that is Alyosha’s goal.

Still, there are questions. Why does he live by himself in an apartment, when so many others are crammed into multiple-family dwellings? Why does he always seem to have American clothes, records, books? Why does he insist that she phone him from a call box far away from the school, and who is the man walking his dog who always seems to be there when Laura calls? What is the role of Laura’s roommate Ninel (Lenin spelled backwards)?

Some of these questions are Laura’s; others are really just questions that the reader might have. None of them are really resolved. And that’s all right; as we’ve discussed before, ambiguity is not necessarily a bad thing in a novel.

I have been thinking, though, about my reaction to the novel, which is mainly, though not entirely, positive. I think the hesitation I have is in the distance that Standiford sets up between her main character and her reader. Knowing (from the Times essay) that this so closely mirrors what was obviously a painful and muddled time in Standiford’s own life explains some of the distance, I think. She clearly wanted to explore the events and the issues that were raised, but I don’t think she ever quite sank into her main character. One reviewer (Valerie Stivers in the New York Times) said, “I wanted to hear more of the casual, sarcastic voice Laura uses in the personal essays she writes for school. ” And I agree. Those were the times when we weren’t kept at a distance from Laura.

But perhaps this is just Standiford’s style. I have read How to Say Goodbye in Robot and Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters, and as I was looking at Goodreads to remind myself about the plots of those books, I realized that they also were books that seemed to be set up as simple romantic comedies but instead were something darker and more troubled. I would have to re-read them to be sure, and I’m not going to do that, at least not right now.

So I’m still mulling this one over. I don’t know yet where it fits on my year’s list, but it certainly stimulated more thought than many of the books I’ve read.

Just as an aside–I don’t think 2013 is really a particularly good year in YA. At least I’m having trouble getting excited about very many books. What should I read next?

– Mom

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Eligibility Muddle

Mark,

This is an even murkier issue than you think. And let me state right up front that I don’t actually have any answers.

First, in terms of year of publication. This is the same issue that I raised regarding Yellowcake. In that book the short stories were published in various publications over a period of years, but the book itself just came out in 2013. So does that make it eligible or not? I think yes, but I don’t know what YALSA and the committee will decide. It appears that it is their call. And clearly the same would apply for Bone.

Second, the self-published question. This particular policy was only added to the Printz criteria in 2013, largely because of an increasing problem with determining eligibility on these types of items. So you can’t really apply that policy to your question about Bone, because there was no prohibition on self-published items in 2003.

There’s the question, of course, about whether the committee would have had the Bone books brought to their attention, since they weren’t published by a mainstream publisher. There’s the question about whether they would really have considered them “books” at that time.

These eligibility matters appear to be the call of the committee chair, who decides in consultation with YALSA staff. So there are several possibilities for what happened with Bone in 2002/3:

1. The committee never even considered Bone;

2. The committee considered Bone but decided it was ineligible because of previous publication;

3. The committee considered Bone but decided it didn’t meet the threshold of literary excellence.

So, as I said up front, I don’t have an answer.

Even the current policy about self-published books has the possibility of becoming problematic in future years, as the face of publishing changes. As you pointed out, if the books came out today, would Cartoon Books be considered self-published or not? I don’t know. This is totally a gut feeling, but I think if Cartoon Books only ever published Jeff Smith’s own books, I would consider that self-publishing. If they published other authors, I would consider it a publishing house. We could well see more of that sort of publishing.

– Mom

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A Question About Printz Eligibility

Mom,

Bone_Issue_1Or rather, two questions both involving the same book(s)–for you or any of our readers familiar with the Printz criteria.  In working on my What Should’ve Won series, it occurred to me that I might want to look at Jeff Smith’s Bone series of graphic novels, but I ran into a couple of issues.  First, the series was initially published in individual issues, like a comic book, and each volume of the nine-volume series represents several issues of this comic book.  So first question:

1) What is the eligibility status of a graphic novel (or a collection of short stories) which was previously published in parts, but never as a standalone volume? Does it make a difference if all of the issues in question were published in the same year as the collected volume (although I don’t think that’s the case with Bone)?

The second question is regarding self-publication. The comic books and the initial graphic novels of Bone were all published by Cartoon Books, which appears to have been created by Smith with the sole intention of publishing Bone.  The Printz criteria say “Titles that are self-published, published only in eBook format, and/or published from a publisher outside of the US will not be considered eligible until the first year the book is available in print or distributed through a US publishing house”, but the question is:

2) What constitutes self-publication? If Cartoon Books counts as self-publishing, does that mean that the Bone series was never eligible until Scholastic began republishing them in color editions in 2005?

More details about the publication history can be found on the wikipedia page, here.  So, any thoughts on Bone‘s Printz eligibility?

– Mark

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Hokey Pokey

Mom,

Have you read Hokey Pokey by Jerry Spinelli yet?  It’s been getting some of the biggest middle grade buzz of the year, and if my memory serves I actually had an e-galley of it on my computer at the end of last year or the very beginning of this one, but never got around to reading it.  Now, as you know, I have starting biking to work and California law allows me to have an earphone in one ear while I bike, so I figured I’d listen to audiobooks, and I picked up Hokey Pokey (which turns out to be an incredibly appropriate book for listening to on a bike).

hokey pokeyThe conventional wisdom seems to be that this is a book that people either love or hate, which I suppose I can see, but while I definitely didn’t love it, I didn’t really hate it either.  Rather, I just found it kind of disappointing and average.

So, the set-up, in case if you don’t know, is that Hokey Pokey is a magical land populated entirely by kids, from infants to tweens. The spend their time biking, playing ball, waiting for the Hokey Pokey man (a kind of sno-cone treat), etc.  The plot revolves around Jack, who wakes up one day to find that his bike has been stolen by a girl, Jubilee.  Jack and his “amigos,” LaJo and Dusty go looking for the bike, and Jack gradually begins to realize that this day is a pivotal one for him, and he is probably going to be leaving Hokey Pokey–no one understands what that means, but the reader of course knows it means growing up.

Now, there is a ton to love about this book, starting with the characters.  Jubilee, in particular, is well drawn.  All three amigos are fabulous, as are a whole host of side characters.  The style of the book starts out somewhat confusing (although I think we can dispense with the Joyce comparisons, which have been abundant–there is nothing formally path-breaking about the writing; it’s just a bit breathless and, as I said confusing. Nothing at all like the mind-expanding wordplay of Joyce), but as the reader adjusts it becomes quite fun.  The world building is pretty good too.

The problems lie deeply in the themes.  My goodreads review was snarky, but (imho) on point:

“Quick: how does a book about a world in which there are only children end?
If you answered, someone grows up, congratulations! You’re as original as Jerry Spinelli.”

I mean, come on–of course it’s about growing up. What else could it be about? But what’s the point of any of it?  Everyone grows up?  Um, yeah. It’s especially troubling because no one in Hokey Pokey has any conception of the adult world, and therefore what growing up entails.  So “growing up” is just a magical event that happens to Jack (and presumably other characters) at some unknown moment. Now, maybe that’s how some people experience it, but for me, growing up was something that was a constant dialectic.  I saw adults and ached to be like them at the same time that I wanted to keep being a kid.  And there was no magical day when I realized I was grown up (maybe I’m not yet?). It was a gradual process of learning more about the world, maturing physically, emotionally, and intellectually.  The metaphor of being suddenly, inexplicably plucked out of childhood really makes no sense to me.  I mean, Jack is a boy on the cusp of teenhood who has never had any sort of sexual/emotional reaction to girls (or boys) until the day the story takes place.  Again, I don’t know about other people, but that’s not how my childhood world worked.

Then there is the ending. After Jack leaves Hokey Pokey, he wakes up in the real world, where he has apparently lived all the time, excited that this is the day that he gets to re-paint his room and not be a kid anymore.  So, 1) Hokey Pokey is just a dream/fantasy/whatever, which (for me) completely undercuts the whole thing, and 2) Jack actually did want to grow up the whole time.  Maybe this is Spinelli’s way of getting at that dialectic I was discussing above, but it doesn’t feel that way–it feels like Jack is just two completely different characters, one in Hokey Pokey and one in the real world.  There is no conflict within either character, no going back and forth between wanting and not wanting to grow up.

I have much, much more to say about this book, but I’m finding it hard to be coherent in my thoughts – there’s too much.  Which is to Spinelli’s credit to some degree. He certainly went to a lot of work.  But I’ve been spending the day today reading reviews on goodreads (especially Monica Edinger’s, Betsy Bird’s, and Rachael Stein’s) and I find myself completely unmoved by all of the points they make in the book’s favor, even the ones with which I nominally agree.

So – have you read it?  What do you think?

– Mark

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One Year Old!

Mark,

Crossreferencing is one year old today! Thanks to you and thanks to our growing crowd of readers for making it possible and fun.

Today’s topic: random thoughts generated by books I have read recently.

First, I read Rump, by Liesl Shurtliff. It’s a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin. We’ve had several discussions about retellings and adaptations and we both enjoy them, for the most part. This was no exception. But it got me thinking about what it is that makes particular tale especially good for retelling and adaptation.Rump

I have read several retellings of Rumpelstiltskin in recent years, notably: A Curse Dark as Gold, by Elizabeth Bunce; The Witch’s Boy, by Michael Gruber; and The Rumpelstiltskin Problem, by Vivian Vande Velde. I think the thing that makes Rumpelstiltskin ripe for retelling is that the supposed protagonist of the tale, the miller’s daughter, is such an unappealing character. She’s a whiner, she’s lazy, she’s entitled, and–for crying out loud–she agrees to give away her child for the sake of some gold! So it’s very easy, and intriguing, to do as Shurtliff does, and turn Rumpelstiltskin into the hero instead of the villain.

Just a quick note on the book: Shurtliff has a great, breezy style. There are just enough (and not too many) “rump” jokes to appeal to kids, and she has created an interesting world in which other stories can be (and will be, as I understand) set.

My second random observation is about Jaclyn Moriarty’s A Corner of White, which we have both mentioned before: here and here. I really liked the book, for a lot of reasons. I loved the way Madeleine critiqued Elliot’s description of his own world. I liked the way the “real” world and the “fantasy” world bled into each other. (I thought it was great that Madeleine’s England had “colours” while Elliot’s Cello had “colors.”) a-corner-of-whiteAnd it wasn’t only that the fantasy world entered the real world, but that each affected the other. In particular, I loved the ending, in which the real science of color (or should I say colour?) and light solved the problem in the fantasy world. How many books have we read in which it is the magic from the fantasy world that heals someone or solves the problem in the real world? Nice flip-flop here!

And by the way: I totally agree that this is an atrocious cover. For one thing, how many boys are ever going to pick this book up? And it’s really a shame, because I think the humor and the snarkiness and the cleverness and the science would appeal to lots of boys. This one is ripe for a coverflip. How about just a street with a parking meter that has a tiny corner of white paper sticking out the edge of it?

And final random thought: I just read two new books by Cory Doctorow: Homeland, the sequel to Little  Brother, and Pirate Cinema. I enjoyed them both, although I thought Homeland was a little heavy on the exposition. (On the other hand, since I’m not an expert in all things computer, I found that the exposition was often needed for me to understand the plot, so there’s that.) I agree with my friend Sarajo’s reaction to Homeland: I’m definitely never going to go to Burning Man, and I’m starting to think I should remove the battery from my phone! The real-world NSA goings-on are a little too close to the story of Homeland for comfort. PirateCinemaI listened to the audio version of Pirate Cinema, which I thought was terrific. Doctorow really knows how to tell a great, fast-paced story that gets to some serious issues about copyright, digital rights management, and creativity.

Time to get back to my reading!

– Mom

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