Thursday, August 30, 2012

Mock Newberys and Mock Apple Pie

Courtesy of Kraft: A Mock Apple Pie
 containing Ritz Crackers, lemon, and spices

What’s a Mock Newbery? Although similarly named, it’s not really analogous to mock apple pie, in which ersatz ingredients like crackers are thrown together to give one the impression of tasty apples.

Instead a Mock Newbery discussion group, list, or blog is devoted to talking over and reviewing newly published books that may, or may not, be on the radar of the actual Newbery Committee—the chosen group of librarians who hand out the real Newbery Medals.

The ingredients of both Mock and Real Newberys are the same: good books. It’s just that only the real winners end up with the gold and silver medals on their covers. 

Reading and discussing books from Mock Newbery lists can be fun, giving you the feel of having the inside track on a major award. If you’ve got time to browse, here are a few good Mock Newbery discussions/blogs:

From School Library Journal, there's Heavy Medal.
From the St. Joseph County (IN) Public Library, there's the SJCPL Mock Newbery.

I first heard that my most recent book, Hope and Tears: Ellis Island Voices, was on a Mock Newbery reading list while interviewing for a library job at an elementary school in Massachusetts. (Didn’t get the job, but reading aloud from So You Want to Be President? at the interview was a blast and so was hearing that Hope and Tears is on someone’s Newbery radar.)

Now, the book has been mentioned by Sam Eddington, librarian, musician, and Mock Newbery blogger/reviewer. Don’t really know anything more about him, except that I really like his blog post. Hope and Tears no longer has to say, “I coulda been a contender.”

It’s already on the For Those About to Mock contender list. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

In Praise of Randomness

I’m constantly berating myself for not being focused enough.

Lately I’ve seen my attention span shrink to the size of a pea. There is, however, one instance when randomness can be a virtue.

When looking for something to read, I’ve found that hopping randomly from one subject to another, or even from one age level to another, can lead to wonderful discoveries.

On the surface, the reading I’ve done this summer has been completely random. Dig a little deeper, however…

…Well, dig a little deeper and it’s still random. But it’s all been so enjoyable I don’t care.

Here’s a quick recap of the highlights:

Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson. Best known for her widely anthologized (and super-spooky) short story “The Lottery” and for her equally creepy novels, including We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson also wrote these autobiographical sketches (published in 1952) about her move with her family from the city to rural New England. Unlike her more famous books, Savages finds humor—not horror—in the everyday. Half the fun is trying to guess who the “savages” of the title really are: Jackson’s four young children or the many Vermonters she encounters. I picked up the book by chance and ended up reading it on the flight back from New England to Minnesota—just after buying a new home in Massachusetts.

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was a truly economical writer. She packed tons of meaning and emotion into very few pages. The Bookshop is no exception. I found it while unpacking boxes of books in my new small-town home. Fitzgerald tells us what happens when a well-meaning woman decides to open a bookshop in a small English village. On the face of it, this shouldn’t sound like a tragedy, but, of course, it is. Beautifully written, this is a spot-on depiction of small-town life.

Zen and the Art of Faking It by Jordan Sonnenblick. I’ve been recommending Sonnenblick’s books for years to middle school students at Twin Cities Academy where, until recently, I was the library aide. But I’d never read his novel about being the new kid in town. Where did I find it? In the town where I’m new, on a shelf at the general store (yes, there’s a general store here). Zen is a fun and fast-paced story of reinvention. A good read for the beginning of the new school year or the beginning of life in a new place.

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak. I’ve also been recommending Zusak’s books to high school students at Twin Cities Academy, based solely on the great reviews and Printz Award honors that Zusak receives on a regular basis. When I saw I Am the Messenger on the shelf of a local public library’s YA room, I decided it was time to get reading. Messenger has an interesting structure: the chapters are titled after playing cards, all the way to the final chapter “Joker.” And it has a fascinating premise: someone is sending the main character on different “missions” all over his Australian hometown. Although he’s lived in one place his whole life, he discovers new facets of this old place—and gains new insight into himself—along the way.

Your mission: choose one of the above, at random, and begin reading.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The New Kid in Town

Not that this is a News Flash or anything, but one large subgenre of middle grade and young adult fiction is the New Kid story. A few classics are Four-Story Mistake by Elizabeth Enright and Skellig by David Almond. Both of these focus on moving into a new home, taking very different approaches.

New Kid stories from the last few years seem more concerned with the emotional toll of moving and trying to fit in. Some great examples include Zen and the Art of Faking It by Jordan Sonneblick, The Big Crunch by Pete Hautman, and Bluefish by Pat Schmatz.

 As a writer, I immediately see the appeal of the New Kid subgenre, particularly when writing in the first person. All of that pesky scene setting and explanation that needs to come at the beginning of a story has a reason for being, since the narrator is seeing the new school, new home, new neighborhood for the first time.

Jordan Sonnenblick nails it in the opening lines of Zen:

“Have you ever switched schools? I have, and let me tell you—a school is a school is a school. Every middle school on God’s green earth smells exactly the same, because damp lockers, industrial cleaning fluids, and puke are universal.”

Right away we know the setting. Right away we know that our narrator is smart and  funny. And right away, we can smell the school. Not bad for three sentences.

Not having moved during childhood, I’ve never had much insight into the emotional side of moving. But now, as my kids adjust to being New Kids in their home, neighborhood, and soon-to-be middle school, I’m reading these stories more closely.

Again, Sonnenblick uses a few strokes to nail the feeling of being new—and hoping to remain under the radar—describing San Lee’s first day, first class at Harrisonville Middle School in Pennsylvania:

“I…hovered by the door until I could see which seats would be empty, and then eased my way along the wall and into a chair just as the teacher started clearing his throat to get the class quiet.”

When done well, as in Zen and the Art of Faking It, New Kid stories get at the heart of what it’s like to walk alone, to sit in the lunchroom at “the leper table,” and to have the other, more settled kids look through you, as if to say, “This new person does not matter in my little Pennsylvania world.

Writers like Sonnenblick reveal the harsh and the tender sides of moving. They draw us all into the New Kid experience by reminding us of what’s universal: the urge to fit in and the particular odor of “damp lockers, industrial cleaning fluids, and puke.”