Sunday, October 2, 2011

Newberry Honor 2011: One Crazy Summer

One Crazy Summer is not just a story about politics, racial equality, and estranged parents. It’s about sticking up for yourself, loving people who aren’t nice all the time, and, above all, it’s about loyalty – loyalty to a race, to a cause, to friends, and to family.

The mother/daughter theme is extraordinarily successful, but I don’t think “learning about the black panthers” was a central theme (as Rita claims in the back insert of the book).

Delphine participates in the Black Panther cause for completely non-political reasons. She says,

“It was funny how things changed. If Cecile had been arrested when we first arrived in Oakland, . . . Nothing would have made me happier than to leave Cecile and Oakland back then. But we hadn’t gotten what we came for. We didn’t really know our mother, and I couldn’t leave without knowing who she was.”

This – the desire to know her mother – seems to be Delphine’s motivation for delving into the Black Panther cause. If she can fight for her mother’s cause, she can fight for her mother. Even though she’s worried, knowing her mother is more important than staying home (or calling her Pa for that matter). Because the mother/daughter theme is the primary one, the political theme is rightly allowed to fade into sparse information.

I was also really impressed by character in this book! The fact that the plot was all emotional worked great for me, but I can see what you mean about some kids not getting it.

Cecile’s characterization made so much sense to me. I believed Cecile was selfish enough to tell her child, “Should have gone to Mexico to get rid of you when I had a chance.” I was surprised that she never truly mended her ways, but that’s not a bad thing. Usually, bad parents have a way of redeeming themselves in children’s books in a sappy-sweet nearly magical way. Cecile never redeems her wrong actions, but she does offer Delphine (and the book’s child readers) an opportunity to understand why an adult can be selfish too. Understanding other’s actions is sometimes better for a child than assuming that bad people will always change drastically for the better.

I don’t think the ending is even about Cecile coming to the point that she wants to hug her girls. It’s about the girls hugging her – they finally take charge enough to reach out physically to her. Delphine says, “How do you fly three thousand miles to meet the mother you hadn’t seen since you needed her milk, needed to be picked up, or were four going on five, and not THROW YOUR ARMS AROUNG HER, whether she wanted you to or not.” I loved that Fern, the 6/7 year old, was the one who realized they needed to physically tell Cecile they love her.

There is no confusion or faltering in Rita Williams-Garcia’s book – only beauty and straightforward motion to a satisfying finish. The only thing that concerned me was not finding out exactly why Cecile left in the first place (p.210), but that is a minor detail when so much is done right. I think One Crazy Summer is deserving of the Newberry Honor and perhaps more deserving of the Newberry Award than Moon Over Manifest.

Btw, Delphine will be returning if Rita Williams-Garcia finishes her next project. She says, “I'm also at work on the sequel for One Crazy Summer, titled P.S.: Be Eleven. I just couldn't leave Delphine, Vonetta and Fern alone! In this follow up story, the girls have just landed in New York, their father has an announcement, their Uncle Darnell will return home from Vietnam, and Delphine must face the dreaded sixth grade dance. There’s a whole lot going on!”

Friday, September 23, 2011

Newberry 2011: Moon Over Manifest

Booklist records this review of Moon Over Manifest, the 2011 Newberry Award winner: 

After a life of riding the rails with her father, 12-year-old Abilene can’t understand why he has sent her away to stay with Pastor Shady Howard in Manifest, Missouri, a town he left years earlier; but over the summer she pieces together his story. In 1936, Manifest is a town worn down by sadness, drought, and the Depression, but it is more welcoming to newcomers than it was in 1918, when it was a conglomeration of coal-mining immigrants who were kept apart by habit, company practice, and prejudice. Abilene quickly finds friends and uncovers a local mystery. Their summerlong “spy hunt” reveals deep-seated secrets and helps restore residents’ faith in the bright future once promised on the town’s sign. Abilene’s first-person narrative is intertwined with newspaper columns from 1917 to 1918 and stories told by a diviner, Miss Sadie, while letters home from a soldier fighting in WWI add yet another narrative layer. Vanderpool weaves humor and sorrow into a complex tale involving murders, orphans, bootlegging, and a mother in hiding. With believable dialogue, vocabulary and imagery appropriate to time and place, and well-developed characters, this rich and rewarding first novel is “like sucking on a butterscotch. Smooth and sweet.” Grades 5-8. --Kathleen Isaacs

[Spoilers follow!]

I have a different opinion, though. Moon Over Manifest meets many of the Newberry criteria, but not all of them. It is “ distinguished” in four areas – interpretation of theme, delineation of characters, delineation of setting, and appropriateness of style.
∗ The themes of acceptance, community, and “true places” wonderfully permeate the book.
∗ The characters are quirky, engaging, and easy to distinguish. Abilene’s voice is endearing and insightful, especially when she makes unexpected connections such as likening a messy desk to a typewriter that “tried to spell explosion and the explosion happened.”
∗ The setting is a beautiful interpretation of small town struggles during the great depression. Setting grounds the story naturally and is not intrusive.
∗ The style is inspired – the reader learns from the past how to live in the present right along with Abilene and realizing the union between the two years (1936 and 1918) was fascinating.
However, Moon Over Manifest is not so distinguished in two significant areas – organization and plot development.
∗ The organization of mysterious elements was unclear and a bit distracting. This is significantly true when dealing with the true identity of Jinx. Abilene spends so much time pining for her father, that Jinx would have no purpose in the book if he was NOT her father. The reveal of Jinx’s true identity is anticlimactic.
∗ The plot development is weak in pacing and in balance. Development of plot A was slow (a girl wandering a town for the summer), to the point of being overshadowed by the more interesting plot B (a boy carrying out various cons on unsuspecting townspeople).
While Moon Over Manifest is a good read, I cannot consider it a “ distinguished contribution.”

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Internet is Not Destroying Anything

I'm writing in response to this article at titled "Is Internet Dating Destroying Love?"

Walters seems to believe that internet dating inherently leads to the commodification of love. Profiles are like ads, availability of choice is like a customization menu, and personality/compatibility tests are "mind-dumbingly" rational. He says "love has become an object which people wish to be fully informed about, choose rationally, and not suffer any unexpected disappointments from."

The thesis is fundamentally wrong. If all people have commodified love (and that's a big IF), it's not the internet's fault; it's people's fault. People have been viewing love and marriage in business terms for centuries. There this an ancient practice of winning a good (i.e. rich) husband with your parents money (i.e. a dowry), and there were divorces over finances long before the invention of the internet. Walter does quote a critic who claims "online dating is taking society back to a pre-modern version of arranged marriages," but the historical existence of arranged marriages is proof-positive that the internet has little to do with humans' business mentality. Walter is clearly creating a false causality.

The reason this article offends me is that I met the person I love most on the internet. I did not choose to meet him in person because he had brown hair, brown eyes, taught for a living, and played guitar on the side. I choose to meet him, because when we talked, I found him funny, intelligent, and engaging. There is a horrible stigma surrounding online dating that Walters is merely perpetuating. Some think online dating is only for perverts or gold-diggers. But others, like me, believe online dating is about connection, and the individual attitudes we bring into play are not a result of the connecting medium.

But that's not what bothers me the most. The biggest issue I have with his article is the pejorative tone about informed and rational choice. I don't know about Walter, but when I meet an interesting guy/girl in person or online, I find out more about them and then make an "informed and rational choice" about whether or not to meet again. The romantic idea that rational thought has no place in love is how people end up with stale marriages, unwanted pregnancies, and even abusive relationships. When I meet anyone, no matter where, I'd like to keep my brain on, thank you very much.

As a side note, the article asserts that Facebook and other social networking sites are about "contact-less friendships . . . reduced to pokes, LOLs, and vacuous innuendos." That couldn't be farther from the truth. Yes, there are pokes, there are laughs, there are even innuendos (and since when does word-play, sexual or otherwise, occur without thought). But, those of us who grew up with facebook use it as a sophisticated form of email - a way to contact friends, plan group events, advertise for businesses, discuss life, love, & philosophy, and share articles (like this awful one about internet dating).

Perhaps, if Walters took a few moments to stop being romantic and think rationally, he could have written a better, more informed critique of internet dating.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What I learned from Life 101: First Summer at Grad School

  • Roanoke is beautiful but boring.
  • There’s an awesome band called Honor By August. Look them up. Buy their CDs.
  • A tiny room is adorable, but not great for company.
  • Cooking at home is always cheaper than eating out. Everyone should cook at home more.
  • That said, Cheddar’s is AWESOME. You should go there. Get the Veggie Plate. 
  • Talking to the people in your class makes the class easier.
  • Best stress relievers include friends, pizza rolls, risotto, visits from boyfriends, trips off campus, and wine.

What I Learned from ENG 561: Genre Study in the Craft of Writing for Children: Fantasy

  • Fantasy has subgenres. Before this class, I’d never even heard of subgenres.
  • Fantasy is the “genre ghetto.” If you write fantasy, all the “real” authors will forever consider you to be beneath them.
  • Same goes for writing for kids. Adult authors might even ask, “So when are you going to start writing real books?”
  • Every writer should try using plot-point outlines. You might love them (like me) or you might not.
  • Never be afraid to take a chance on a “crazy” idea.
  • It’s okay to be dissatisfied with your 1st draft. And your 2nd. And your . . . 5th.
  • Revision is BY FAR harder than writing.
  • You’re allowed to steal ideas. You heard me. Writers steal ideas ALL THE TIME.
  • You can write stories based on folktales, fairytales, poems, or songs without being guilty of copyright violation. An original re-telling of Hansel and Gretel would be completely legal.
  • In fact, old tales, ballads, and such are great writing prompts (i.e. Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer).

What I Learned From ENG 542: History and Criticism of Children's Literature

  • Folktales and fairytales rarely have an “original” version.
  • We often assume folktales are for children when they aren’t. Then we make the mistake of adapting them for children without analyzing them (i.e. Little Mermaid).
  • It’s important for children’s literature to remain true to who children actually are rather than idealicizing or “adultifying” them.
  • Childhood hasn’t ended. There are just fewer secrets. (See Kathleen O’Donnel, Honey We Lost the Kids)
  • Little House on the Prairie is racist but historically accurate to the author’s perspective. Books like this should be discussed instead of merely read to kids.
  • Velveteen Rabbit is about love triumphing over reason, so the “random fairy” isn’t really random.
  • There are lots of literary theories. I used new criticism in undergrad, and my favorite theories are cultural studies, queer studies, and reader response theory.
  • When analyzing a book, keep the target age in mind.
  • Online discussions take more work than physically going to class. If your teacher gives you a choice, go to class.

Friday, July 22, 2011

In Which the Name of My Blog is Explained

"Why IS a raven like a writing desk?"
Carroll himself had no answer when he wrote this riddle, but fans jumped at the opportunity to solve it for him. Favorite answers include:
  • Because the notes for which they are noted are not noted for being musical notes.
  • Because Poe wrote on both.
  • Because there is a B in both and an N in neither. (Get it?)
Thus, we come to a few reasons MY writing is like that riddle.
  • When I start writing, I almost always don't know the end (the answer).
  • My characters (my only fans so far) usually create the end for me. 
  • My writing is cool. Really, it is. (If I do say so myself.)
And the big reason the parallel doesn't work?
My writing isn't famous. (Yet.)