Do you get a jolt sometimes on your commute, at your favorite lunch place, suddenly looking at the same mundane scene you see every day and think: “how peculiar?”
A slightly distorted lens on the world in fiction, when done well, can make the story that much more believable. Here are two titles that fit my bill, though I think ultimately both would be hard sells for the Newbery.
Several of you rooted for THE HUMMING ROOM over at Nominations. Any of you who recall my feelings about Ellen Potter’s THE KNEEBONE BOY won’t be surprised to hear how fast I opened her new THE HUMMING ROOM. So fast, in fact, that I never noticed the little type on the cover: “A Novel Inspired by THE SECRET GARDEN.” It’s not just inspired by, it truly and completely mirrors the entire story of THE SECRET GARDEN from a contemporary perspective. Potter’s quirky, detail-oriented voice is the perfect one to do this, and makes, in many ways, a better go at the story for today’s readers. Unfortunately…she’s so good at it that when I finally noticed what was happening (when sickly Phillip is discovered in his room) I stopped believing the story. Potter had set up a wonderful character and predicament with Roo on CoughRock island, and …I didn’t believe in that very-real character and narrative following that pre-written arc. I felt like Potter had made them her own, and had more in mind for them, than readers got here. However, I read this very early in the year (when I’m particularly critical, knowing the tendency to swing easy), and I felt upset by expectations, which perhaps isn’t being fair. Have any of you shared this book with young readers?
Meanwhile, the only reason I picked up Hannah Barnaby’s WONDER SHOW was because a a friend who knows my tastes mentioned it to me. Starred reviews eluded it, and thus–as often as not–no buzz (though one person did vote for it at Goodreads….now two). This one bears some very interesting comparisons to this year’s SPLENDORS & GLOOMS and WILL SPARROW’S ROAD… a melodramatic tone and setting finds Portia in a home for “wayward girls,” during the dustbowl; a frightening place where a tragedy she plays a part in leads her to run away and join a carnival…and there she eventually learns to confront her past. The characters and setting in this story to me are on par with LIAR & SPY or SPLENDORS & GLOOMS: so wildly real that we never even have to be told what year it is: I know that it’s “the dustbowl,” but that doesn’t matter; the characters don’t know their own historical context yet and it doesn’t bear on the story, only their experience of it does, and that’s what we get, palpably real: their experience of family torn apart by hardship. There is a little bit of awkwardness in Barnaby’s shifts into other voices, and from third to first…but it manages to hang together. I know that some people will dispute this story’s age-level appropriateness for Newbery, but it does sit firmly in the 12-14 year-old coming-of-age perspective that catapultes the reader just off the precipice of childhood…as, to my mind, do JACOB HAVE I LOVED or CRISS-CROSS. This is haunting, quirky, real, and my kind of book.