|Tales from Outer Suburbia
by Shaun Tan
Arthur A. Levine Books
|When You Reach Me
by Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb Books
Judged by Julius Lester
Reading is subjective. What one experiences in a book, how much of a book one understands depends on what one brings to the act of reading. This is often illustrated in book reviews. One reviewer of a recent novel of mine wrote that the characters were stereotypes. Another reviewer of the same book wrote that the characters were brilliantly drawn. Book reviews often say much more about the reviewer than the book being reviewed.
This prelude is my way of saying that I am not the ideal reader of the 2010 Newbery winner, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. For me, reading is relational, an act in which I spend time with the characters in a novel and its author. Essential in creating this relationship is the voice(s) in which the story is told. The first person narrator of When You Reach Me, is Miranda, a sixth grader growing up in New York City. For whatever reasons Miranda’s voice did not engage me, and thus, neither did the story Miranda is telling. I did enjoy the descriptions of growing up on the upper West Side of Manhattan in 1979, and what it’s like to be a child growing up in such a milieu. I enjoyed that there was a black character whose race is mentioned in passing. I suspect that my inability to enter Miranda’s life has to do with two facts.
There is an element of time travel in the novel, and I don’t like books or movies in which time travel is an important element. My other limitation is that When You Reach Me has an underlying urtext, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Obviously I’ve never read it since time travel is an important element. Perhaps if I was familiar with L’Engle’s novel, When You Reach Me would have reached me and I it.
Tales from Outer Suburbia had me from the very first sentence: “when I was a kid, there was a big water buffalo living in the vacant lot at the end of our street, the one with the grass no one ever mowed.” The total absurdity of that sentence immediately put me into that imaginative realm where anything can happen, and especially those things that have no obvious relation to what we know as reality. This is a realm in which I am very comfortable.
The book consists of 15 stories, except that is not wholly true. Throughout the book are illustrations, some depict an aspect of one of the stories. However, others are stories in themselves. There are pages and pages of drawings, paintings and collages in which a reader can happily meander. The narrator of the stories remains unnamed, but it is a tender voice suffused with caring and wonder.
The difference between my reading experience of When You Reach Me and Tales from Outer Suburbia is that the former mixes an element of fantasy with everyday reality, while the latter is set entirely in a world that is real only in the imagination. The former left me confused. The latter left me exhilarated and eager to read anything and everything written by Shaun Tan.
The Winner of Round 1 Match 8 Is…
Lightning strikes twice! It’s the curse of the Newbery Medal! Well, that’s a bit of an oxymoron, isn’t it? There’s no downside to winning the Newbery (or if there is—it’s not being prematurely knocked out of the BOB), but—gee whiz!—what does a Medal book have to do to advance to the second round? If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the first round matches, it’s that when books are so wildly different (e.g. THE LAST OLYMPIAN vs. THE FROG SCIENTIST or THE STORM IN THE BARN vs. SWEETHEARTS OF RHYTHM), it can really go either way. And I certainly can’t fault Julius’s logic in defense of TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA. It’s a flawlessly executed book, a wonderfully absurd marriage of words and picture, and who knows but that WHEN YOU REACH ME won’t return from the grave for vengeance. Another thing we’ve learned: One zombie book is not enough!
– Commentator Jonathan Hunt