Concluding my series on this year’s Newbery medalist and honor books, with one exception: Joyce Sidman’s Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night. (So many books, so little time . . .) Click here and here for my previous Newbery reviews.
One gold-medal winner and four silver medals makes a sizable roundup for this years Newbery Awards (the annual prize given by the American Library Association for excellence in children’s literature). It’s always interesting to speculate why these particular books were chosen in this particular year. This year, historical fiction swept the field: all the titles except for Dark Emperor have historical settings, including the Big Kahuna (i.e., the Newbery Award winner), Moon Over Manifest. I read somewhere that in times of national stress readers turn to historical fiction out of nostaligia for a supposedly “simpler” era. One of this year’s silver-medal books is also set in the midst of the Great Depression, with similar cultural references and themes. Could that reflect anxiety about a possibly Greater Depression around the bend? Anyway, their similarities is why I’m reviewing them together. To begin:
Moon Over Manifest, by Clare Vanderpool. Delacorte, 2010, 342 pages plus historical notes. Reading/interest level, 5th-7th grades.
Abilene Tucker, age 12, has absorbed a lot of lessons from her father Gideon, an itinerant laborer. One of them is that “it’s best to get a look at a place before it gets a look at you.” That’s why, even though her ticket was to Manifest, Kansas, was bought and paid for (for a change), she jumps from the train just before it pulls into the station. Manifest is the place her daddy regards as home, though he didn’t spend that much time there: “hearing Gideon tell about it was like sucking on butterscotch. Smooth and sweet.” The real town can’t live up to expectations: it’s dusty and half-deserted, echoing with memories that Abilene soon feels called to discover. In particular: why did her father feel such warmth for the place? Where did he really come from? And why did he insist she spend the summer in Manifest, with the former bootlegger-turned-preacher Shady Howard?
Solving those mysteries is the business of the story, which shifts back and forth from Abilene’s present (narrated in first-person) to her father’s past (narrated by the mysterious Miss Sadie, a fortune-teller and conjurer). The action-packed included with prohibition coming, labor unrest already here, Klan members gathering in white hoods, and a war in Europe that would claim some precious lives. Older readers will soon grasp how Gideon Tucker (who went by another name back then) fits into all this, but Abilene only has a box of crumbling keepsakes found under the floorboards of Shady Howard’s decrepit farmhouse. With her new friends, Lettie and Ruthanne, she seeks out the provenance of these clues, in spite of occasional anonymous warnings to Leave Well Enough Alone. The warnings come from someone called The Rattler–and feel a bit tacked-on, as though the author wanted to create a sense of menace. The Rattler’s identity doesn’t add to the tension but serves more to distract the reader in an already-crowded plot and character list (the cast of characters posted at the front of the book helps a lot).
Still, Moon Over Manifest is an absorbing story with interesting characters and a time-honored kidlit theme: finding home. There’s a hovering, more adult message that may not be as well understood at this age, even though it’s spelled out: “‘Who would dream that one can love without being crushed under the weight of it?’” In other words, love is life’s highest joy, but also its greatest burden–a truth that is not likely to sink in without life experience. Christian parents may object to how Abilene gets her father back (by a con) and how so much credibility is given to the occultish Miss Sadie. Sadie is balanced somewhat by Pastor Howard, even though he is only the “interim Baptist” and preaches no specifically Christian doctrine. But, “The Lord himself knew the power of a good story. How it can reach out and wrap around a person.” Piecing together stories is the way Abilene starts making sense of life and launching a story of her own.
Possible objections: Some off-stage violence and mild swearing (e.g., “god-awful”); adult-leaning themes like labor-management conflicts that kids might not have much interest in.
Turtle in Paradise, by Jennifer Holm. Random House, 2010, 177 pages plus historical notes. Reading/interest level, 4th-6th grades.
Turtle In Paradise is a simpler, more lighthearted tale, told with a winning style. Turtle, age 11, may reveal her real name once or twice in the book, but I quickly forgot it. Her nickname comes from her hard shell; unlike her mother, she’s not one for sentimentality: “Everyone thinks children are sweet as Necco Wafers, but I’ve lived long enough to know the truth: kids are rotten. The only difference between grown-ups and kids is that grown-ups go to jail for murder. Kids get away with it.” Turtle could pass for a good Calvinist for this observation, but her softening process will soon begin. It’s 1935 and jobs are scarce in New Jersey–so, when her mother lands a position as housekeeper for a woman who doesn’t like kids, Turtle is sent to stay with her blood-kin. All the way to Key West, Florida, where Mama grew up and left under mysterious circumstances.
Times were sure different back then. To get to Florida, an auto trip that takes several days, Turtle’s mother entrusts her to a man they barely know, a traveling-salesman friend of Mama’s beau Archie. Once safely delivered, Turtle falls in with the Diaper Gang, a group of her boy cousins and their friends who earn candy by taking care of fussy babies. Their baby-sitting method is to haul the infants around in a wagon all day, parking the wagon in the shade when they want to get into mischief. (By the way, I can understand an overworked mother handing over her demanding baby to a kid she’s known all his life, but it’s hard to believe these moms don’t already know the gang’s “secret formula” for diaper rash.) Boys could be boys back then with no consequences, getting into fights and playing practical jokes and taunting pathetic old men in the street. (The difference being that in those days, they generally grew out of it.)
Those were the days when a kid could find a treasure map in a termite-riddled piece of furniture, “borrow” a rum-runner’s motor boat, and follow the map to a chest of pirate gold on a small island of the Keys. But a kid must also survive life-threatening situations, like being stranded on the island during the deadly Labor Day hurricane of 1935 “with a bunch of dumb boys,” where all Turtle can think of to lighten things up is singing “The Good Ship Lollipop.” Even though she hates that simpering Shirley Temple.
She and her cousins are rescued of course, and when Archie squires her mother all the way down to Key West for a reunion, Turtle feels a Hollywood ending coming on. News of the treasure-finding kids was in all the papers, and Archie is popping with plans for a sparkling cottage ordered from the Sears catalogue, in which they’ll settle down to being a real family. But Hollywood comes to a screeching halt when Archie is spotted boarding a boat for Cuba–alone, except for Turtle’s share of the treasure. When her mother falls apart at the news Turtle discovers her vulnerability: “I do have a soft spot. It’s Mama.”
But the story concludes on a happier, if not quite resolved, note: during the summer Turtle has acquired plenty of family who aren’t going anywhere. Key West, which looked at first “like a broken chair that’s been left out in the sun to rot” now shines like emerald and sapphire. And, by the way, some adults can be as sweet as Necco Wafers.
Possible objections: Turtle’s cynical attitude, e.g., “Kids lie. We have to or we’d never get anything. But grown-ups lie, too–they just do it differently.” Hard to argue with that observation, but it’s left unexamined. Likewise the boys’ casual cruelties and practical jokes, which are never corrected. Responsible adults can use their judgment, though–it’s not the business of fiction to teach lessons, but first to entertain (without harm), and second to explore the endless variations and possibilities of this life we’ve been given.
Questions to think about:
- What do these two books have in common (besides the Newbery award)? How are they similar in setting, characters, and themes?
- Which do you like best, and why?
- What strikes you as good about living through the Depression, if anything? How were people different back then?