In 1968 Chicago, thirteen year old Sam is the son of a well-known civil rights activist. His older brother becomes secretly involved in the Black Panther movement, whose ideas Sam slowly opens his eyes to as he becomes friends with a girl from the projects. What seems an untenable clash of ideas reveals itself to be more complex, as Sam learns to question those he idolizes, and how both the "rock" and the "river" have their place in the struggle.
I’m so glad that several people mentioned this book to me. Full disclosure: I’m born and raised and work in Oakland CA, the home of the Black Panther Party, and where–sadly–the struggle still continues. There are very few novels that reflect the lives that most kids in Oakland lead. Even though this is historical ficiton, it has contemporary resonance in Oakland.
But this is also an extremely well written book, and I do hope that the Newbery committee is looking at it. It’s interestingly comparable in theme to The Wednesday Wars, though I can’t think of two more different books. However, while fully engaging and compelling, with great characterization, the novel did feel…all over the place…especially towards the end; so I have to ask myself whether I really think it’s substantially distinguished under Newbery criteria.
This recalls our current debate over cultural/political assumptions as connected to or versus literary quality. I’m personally sympathetic to the assumptions and perspective of this book, so when I read in the SLJ review that "the image of the Black Panther Party is somewhat idealized," it makes me want to spend some time studying and locating my own biases. (Because the dominant view is one that would find Magoon’s story idealized, I tend to suspect it’s not. But: I don’t know enough to be certain.) Understanding how Magoon uses her characters and narrative arc to portray the movement is critical to evaluating the book’s "interpretation of theme or concept."
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not challenging this book, and I’m not really prepared or energized enough for a full on political argument on this one…especially as I’m not sure it would rise to the top of my list at this point under Newbery criteria. I do think it’s a good example with which to point for a moment to the critieria for ALSC ‘s Notable Books for Children:
Notable is defined as: Worthy of note or notice, important, distinguished, outstanding. As applied to children’s books, notable should be thought to include books of especially commendable quality, books that exhibit venturesome creativity, and books of fiction, information, poetry and pictures for all age levels (through age 14) that reflect and encourage children’s interests in exemplary ways.
The evaluative criteria to be used are:
- literary quality;
- originality of text and illustration;
- clarity and style of language;
- excellence of illustration;
- excellence of design and format;
- subject matter of interest and value to children;
- the likelihood of acceptance by children
Notice how these criteira are broader than the Newbery’s, allowing, for example, to consider "subject matter of interest and value to children." This is the criterion that I think many of us come to a book with foremost in mind, and is the reasoning I hear often from someone when I ask them why a book should be considered for the Newbery. (Note Brain Lair’s recent comment regarding The Rock and the River). But the Newbery really focusses our attention on how the author interprets and delivers that subject matter. It doesn’t mean we ignore the subject matter: it must be accurate, and it must be presented adeptly to its audience. It’s a fine line…which is what makes it interesting.