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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

West of the Moon and The Night Gardener

I’m trying to re-read A SNICKER OF MAGIC again to participate in that discussion, which has gotten very interesting. Meanwhile, Julie Corsaro mentioned in that comment thread a couple of spring titles I’m more interested in talking about.

Recalling Vicky Smith’s guest post this time last year, Reader Know Thyself, I had to recognize that I wasn’t a raging fan of either Deborah Wiles’ or Margi Preus’ previous works, before I approached REVOLUTION or WEST OF THE MOON with as open a mind as possible. In both cases, my appreciation for these writers has now grown significantly. But whereas I’m still not totally sold on REVOLUTION, I’m admittedly over the moon with WEST OF THE MOON. I went from “hmm, this is different,” … to “wow, this is interesting” … to “erg, I’m really liking this” … to “Yeah!”

On my second read, I was immediately struck by how much longer I’d felt the story was than it actually is, word for word. There is a dense richness in the use of prose for scene setting and storytelling that gives the reader so much, page for page, and keeps the story at just under 200 pages (we’ll compare this, later, to EGG & SPOON, which is similar in tone but goes on forever. A lovely forever…) The pacing feels just right, as we are led along by a master storyteller as if in a folktale whose ending would seem predetermined…this feeling pulling perfectly against the sense of real risk and edginess that is Astri and Greta’s life and race for survival.

I’m particularly engaged by the moral questioning in this story. It seems to take place secondarily to the action, but is really at the center of the character arc. Astri steals, lies, maims (perhaps murders?) in order to save herself and her sister, and she never takes any of these actions without questioning them, but is always able to find a way forward (not always comfortably) by situating herself within the morality of a story. The fact that a storytelling haze/tone settles beautifully over the whole story, even when the story itself is not beautiful, tells us that Astri’s survivalist storyteller instincts work, whatever the cost. Is this a folktale? Is it a tale of Astri deluding herself? Are we supposed to think this is a real story, or a sneakily satisfying one replete with possible magic and impossible coincidences? Preus asks us to accept both, and I do. This is a story that I think will feel radically different from one reader to the next, and I can imagine some intense 4th grade classroom arguments over exactly what we are supposed to think of Astri’s decisions. It’s a story that invites the reader to bring themselves to it, and, like Astri, take what they need.

THE NIGHT GARDENER is another title worthy of discussion, which many of you have mentioned and is also a popular favorite on Goodreads. Using the “niche” discussion from the SNICKER post… here’s a title that takes the spooky-magic-with-orphans genre and gives it meat. The setting, tone, and style are almost the major players here, and I think is what readers of this kind of story want most. The plot doesn’t suffer either, though in the end I felt the denouemont was a little thin (actually is reminding me of David Mithchell’s THE BONE CLOCKS, but that’s a different discussion), and for the well-done thrill of the ride, I didn’t leave the book feel feeling as surprised by or convinced of the reality of the characters and world, as I did with WEST OF THE MOON. Yet, when I compare this, for instance, to last year’s honor-winning THE DOLL BONES, I have to think that THE NIGHT GARDENER has teeth…and they are sharp, my dear.

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Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at ninalindsay@gmail.com

Comments

  1. I love The Night Gardener. It is exactly everything I’m looking for in a book, and admitting my own genre biases and preferences, it is certainly high on my list. I think it stands out in terms of characterization, plot, setting, and style. I loved Auxier’s use of language and how he built the story. And yes, it has teeth. It is exactly as creepy as it advertises.

    West of the Moon was a more difficult reading experience for me because I started it thinking I was getting what I love, a fairy tale retelling fantasy, and it turned out to be historical fiction grounded myth. And that’s great too. I readjusted my expectations and sat back to enjoy it as that. Until the end. When I came close to hurling it across the room when death suddenly showed up in a non-metaphorical way. What was that even? I will probably need to read it again to discuss it in a rational manner because I was pretty mad. I hate it when books are one thing and then they’re suddenly inexplicably something else. All I remember now when I think of this book is my frustration with the end.

    I’m interested in seeing other people’s thoughts on The Night Gardener because I will be less inclined to see flaws in that than I will other books. For me it was pretty much perfect.

    • I’m with Brandy on these two. I haven’t reread either of them and I have many others still to read, so it’s possible I’ll change my mind. The figure of Death at the end of WEST OF THE MOON really threw me. NIGHT GARDENERS is the book that even my high school students have not been able to put down.

  2. I think West of the Moon is excellent as well, and not the same old, same old, in terms of using folktales to advance the plot. I was surprised by the attempted rape early in the book, though – it almost blew it straight out of the Newbery age range for me. What did you think of that?

  3. Julie Corsaro says:

    In contrast to Brandy, I liked the concluding events of WEST OF THE MOON because they not only reveal that Astri has a talent for death, but for life, as well. It’s a story that has really stuck with me (especially those pivotal scenes), and one I started to warm to once Astri rescues Greta, whom I think acts as a balm to her older sister. Even though a respected colleague had forewarned me by saying she wasn’t sure who the audience was for the book (we later agreed that readers of Andrew Lang’s fairy books will appreciate it), the design incorporating traditional Scandinavian motifs, which remind me of a comfortable sweater, didn’t prepare me for Astri being sold into servitude and the intimations of sexual violence at the story’s beginning.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      In response to Julie and Rachel… since the experience of violence is not limited to age level, it’s not the presence of this intimation in WEST OF THE MOON that should give us pause. I’d ask, is it portrayed in a way that is respectful to its audience? I think so. Kids are plenty used to the folktale meme of an old creepy guy taking away a young maiden, and even that scary physical-too-closeness that is portrayed here. I think that Preus couches it perfectly in tone so that readers take from it only what they are comfortable with. Or, rather, what they are comfortable being just a little uncomfortable with. The reader needs to feel that he is a threat in order for Astri’s later actions to seems at all justified.

      • Julie Corsaro says:

        I agree, Nina, that the violence in the book — sexual or otherwise — is subtle enough or, at least, not exploitative, that young readers will take from it what they are ready for emotionally and intellectually. I’m not sure about spoilers here, but as an adult reader, I struggled more with the circumstances of the goat man’s death than with his maiming, which made the later revelations about what happened to Astri’s mother and sister all the more important to me.

  4. Last year I had qualms about whether Far Far Away was within the Newbery age range, but I have none of those for West of the Moon. It seems completely appropriate for the upper end of the age range. I’m interested that Nina mentioned having a conversation with 4th graders about it. I haven’t decided yet whether I’d give it to mine or not.

    West of the Moon is currently stands at number one for me Newbery-wise. Like Nina I had been pretty meh about Preus’s earlier books, but as soon as I heard about this one I was eager to read it and wasn’t disappointed. I loved folklore used as it probably was often historically, as solace, as distraction, and all sorts of things. Asti is a remarkable character; I adored her complexity. I loved the intense dilemmas and how Asti handled them. Her fierceness to take care of herself and her first sister is amazing. Whether her behavior is right or not is questionable and that is one of many reasons the book is so amazing and mind-blowing to me.

    • Julie Corsaro says:

      Regarding the upper age range under “Expanded Definitions and Examples” in the Newbery Award manual: “If a book is challenging, and suitable for 13-14-year-olds but not for younger readers, is it eligible? Yes; but it can be given an award only if it does what it sets out to do as well as or better than other, younger books that are also eligible.” If the committee determines that the book is for the upper age range, then this is a primary question with which they will have to wrestle. Since I think the book will work for middle schoolers, I’ve also wondered about it for the lower end of the age range for Printz.

  5. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Weighing in from the North Shore of Oahu (which means that my responses will be few and far between this week) . . .

    WEST OF THE MOON . . . While I liked this–and hooray for books under 200 pages!–I’m not very excited about it. Sure, lots of novels have incorporated fairy tales in some form or fashion, but that’s not where it fell down for me. I felt like I’d read this immigration story too many times before. It’s not a bad book, and I don’t dislike it, I’m just not seeing *most* distinguished here at all.

    THE NIGHT GARDENER . . . I reviewed this for Horn Book, I think, before Betsy paraded it out as a Newbery contender in her first prediction post of the year. That took me by surprise again, not because I dislike the book, it just didn’t strike me as *most* distinguished.

    I know I’m damning both of these books with faint praise, but I really don’t feel the need to pick them over. I’m sure there’s a personal taste issue involved here, but I’m also pretty certain that as good as they are THE FAMILY ROMANOV and BROWN GIRL DREAMING are better.

  6. Nina Lindsay says:

    Jonathan, whereas NIGHT GARDENER just gets flatter to me on re-reading, WEST OF THE MOON only gets more and more interesting. Have you really read this immigration story before? Told like this? I think that for a young reader, the folktale mix will make it feel entirely fresh and revolutionary. Maybe part of it is that I picture it for a pretty young audience… 9-11. Maybe a 13 year old will see through it, but I don’t think that is the audience.

  7. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Not that this is a Newbery consideration at all, but does anybody like the cover of WEST OF THE MOON? Kind of a disappointment compared to the excellent covers Preus has had on her previous two books.

    • It’s a wretched cover, which is disappointing as it may keep kids from picking it up, and I think the story is excellent. I don’t know about “most distinguished” yet (still have too many things to read, including THE NIGHT GARDENER), but I was certainly impressed.

      • I actually love the cover of West of the Moon. The moment I saw it, I knew I had to read the book. Perhaps I am in the minority on this one.

    • I haven’t read it yet, but I really like the cover of WEST OF THE MOON – it makes me want to read it!

  8. Danielle Jones says:

    I have given WEST OF THE MOON a rereading, and like Nina, on my return was surprised at how short it was, because in reflection it seemed like such a meaty novel that I was certain it was much, much longer. I am impressed how Preus got so much into this thin little novel. The story arc and bildungsroman of Astri was fantastic, and I appreciated what a flawed character she was.

    I have read many immigration stories, and I have read many books that tie in fairytales, but of both tropes, I have never read anything like this. For me, the cover drew me in, and shuffled this to the top of the to-be-read pile. It made me feel as if I was going into a fairytale world, and then I was pleasantly surprised that I remained mostly in the real world.

    I liked the darkness around the goat man; it rooted me back into a fairytale world. He was a little more caricature, but I think it worked in this sense—if her was more completely drawn it would have made him all the more threatening, directing this book to an older audience.

    My feelings for THE NIGHT GARDENER are not as strong. It was very atmospheric, and also set up like a fairytale where the plot was more predictable that WEST OF THE MOON. I liked that there was shifting POV between sister and brother, though I thought that the sister was a more rounded character than the brother. I read this following THICKETY, which was similar in the spooky story with the plucky sister with the sickly brother aspect.

    Some of my questions with this story involve the use of concrete places of England and Ireland in this imaginative world. Did it take anyone else out of the story? I felt that there was so much put into creating the atmospheric quality of the book, that I’d be taken out of the setting when real world places would come in. I didn’t feel that we were set up to have gone through a rabbit hole, that this was the world.

    I was also often taken out of the flow of the story with the inconsistent use of the father’s stutter and the brogues that would occasionally pop up.

  9. Leonard Kim says:

    I think THE NIGHT GARDENER suffers from a problem that sometimes afflicts horror. I think once the Night Gardener really enters the picture as the kind of tangible bogeyman one can stymie, run and hide from, divert, etc. the atmospheric suspense and drama of the build-up is punctured, and for the rest of the book, despite superficial excitement, one is just waiting for the rather predictable denouement to get here already.

    I have nothing bad to say about WEST OF THE MOON. For the early part of the year, it was my front-runner, before I had read some books that I’m simply more excited about now.

    • Leonard,
      I am almost finished with THE NIGHT GARDENER. Personally, I love it. Only now catching up on lots of reading so the number of titles I have completed is pretty thin, but I love it. It’s exactly my own personal kind of book.

      The reason I’m replying to you, is because the moment “the night gardener” shows up and SPOILERS — wipes sweat from the brow of the sleeping Windsors, I thought it was a creepy awesome reveal but at the same time, a damning plot twist because we “saw” him! Kind of like the movie SIGNS. I LOVED SIGNS, until the end, when the big awkward alien is standing in the living room and Joquain Phoenix beats it with a baseball bat. Same problem.

      I did like the book before that moment better than after that moment, but it’s still gonna be one of my favorites at the end of this. I can tell.

      It reminds me an awful lot of A DROWNED MAIDEN’S HAIR. That book should have taken gold in 2009! Instead it got NOTHING! I fear THE NIGHT GARDENER will follow suit because it reads like an acquired taste.

      I agree with Nina though. It’s better than DOLL BONES (I think that’s what she was saying…) and if DOLL BONES could pull out something, maybe THE NIGHT GARDENER can too!

Trackbacks

  1. […] for a Cybils in the middle grade fiction category.  I actually first got wind of this new book on the Heavy Medal Mock Newbery blog, and because I’ve enjoyed everything by Preus I’ve ever read, I naturally wanted to […]

  2. […] I very much admire what it achieves. It’s distinguished in every way and deserving of the Newbery talk I’ve been reading. Beautiful sentences, compelling and creepy plot, strong characters, a fine […]

  3. […] Discussion at Heavy Medal, the SLJ Mock-Newbery blog […]

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