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Round 1, Match 6: Midwinterblood vs P.S. Be Eleven
by Marcus Sedgwick
Roaring Brook Press
|P.S. Be Eleven
by Rita Williams-Garcia
In P.S. Be Eleven, the sequel to Rita Williams-Garcia’s Newbery Honor-winning One Crazy Summer, the Gaither girls are back in Brooklyn after a few months with their mother in California. It’s the late 60s and the various cultural forces unraveling the nation are pulling at a tight-knit Bed-Stuy family. Williams-Garcia manages to cover many of the era’s movements and moments without making the Gaithers into the Zeligs. Our narrator is Delphine Gaither, eleven-going-on-twelve, thoughtful, hardheaded, and besotted with Jackie Jackson (he’s the tall one, and so’s she).
Among the cast of characters are some of the best-written adults I’ve come across in middle-grade fiction. Everybody is good and bad in ways that feel real and human. Uncle Darnell, back from Vietnam and addicted to drugs; Mr. Mwila, a stern but perceptive teacher from Zambia; Miss Marva Hendrix, the girls’ chic and progressive new stepmother—they’re all complex people with real adult lives, lives Delphine can only partly see. Big Ma is a particularly marvelous—and heartbreaking—character. She’s a loving grandmother who has internalized some of the racist values of the Jim Crow south she grew up in. Thanks to some deft narration, the reader understands Big Ma more fully than even Delphine can, and Big Ma feels fully alive.
Cecile, the Gaither girls’ mother, shows up only in letters, but even so she has a tremendous gravitational pull. Cecile is charismatic and selfish, sometimes wise, but often blind to what her daughters need. Whenever Delphine writes to her mother, she eagerly awaits Cecile’s reply, and so did I. When Delphine asks whether Cecile still loves her (Delphine’s) father, the response is searing, a litany of Cecile’s possessions—a green stucco house, palm tree, printing press—culminating with this: “My feelings about your father are mine. They are not feelings that can be understood by a young girl. They are my feelings. Mine.” Later, Delphine asks her father the same question, and although he is a gentler man, he rebuffs her too. We never do find out what happened between those two, and that feels just right: There are things kids don’t get to know about adults, even their parents.
The book’s title comes from a postscript Cecile often appends to her letters to Delphine. It’s good advice: Delphine is a serious child. She’s hard on herself and shoulders many of her family’s responsibilities. But Cecile’s admonition is more than a little tone-deaf—she’s partly responsible for the circumstances that forced Delphine to grow up fast. And so Delphine ignores her mother, and Cecile knows she will be ignored. There are things adults, even parents, don’t fully know about children, either. This novel is always nuanced and frequently, quietly, profound. Williams-Garcia has the grace to nod toward the truth instead of jabbing at it with an index finger.
The plot sometimes meanders, and the text is marred by a weakness for unwieldy metaphors (“My ears, along with everyone else’s, must have stood as straight as a Doberman pinscher’s ears.”) But these clunkers aggravate only because Williams-Garcia is capable of writing such beautiful sentences: “Principal Myers put on a good record. The kind of record that makes a boy want to dance with a girl without feeling stupid.” Or, when Delphine’s sister Vonetta uses the hi-fi for the first time: “When she found the song she wanted to play first, she gently placed the needle down. I knew she’d never be this careful with the needle again.” Williams-Garcia is not just good when she’s writing about records. She good when writing about pretty much everything in this very fine novel.
The jacket copy of Marcus Sedgwick’s unfortunately named Midwinterblood promises “a painter, a ghost, a vampire, and a Viking,” which sounds like the start of a joke my uncle tells that makes everyone uncomfortable. But Midwinterblood is a metempsychosic romance that unfolds over seven linked vignettes. Our love story begins in the future and ends up in premodern Scandinavia, as, across the millennia, two transmigrating souls seek a perfect union. Cruel twists abound in Midwinterblood, and perhaps it is stony-hearted fate that delivered this novel to a BoB judge who spent four years studying premodern Scandinavian literature.
Reading Midwinterblood, my inner beard-stroking medievalist made me an actual beard-tugging reviewer. Sedgwick dates the Icelandic sagas’ composition at least two centuries too early. A Scandinavian skald begins a poem with a word of Old English, a language neither he nor his audience would understand. A king hit in the head with a hammer exhibits an understanding of neurophysiology uncommon in Vikings, let alone men just hit on the head with hammers. All this stuff (and there’s more) reads more as careless inaccuracy than smart and cool artistic liberty. And it makes some of the big emotional set pieces—the tale of a Viking vampire (uh oh) or a faux saga about the sacrifice of a warrior—pretty tough to accept.
But Midwinterblood’s problems are bigger than my premodern-lit-weenie objections. Eric and a “more than pretty” young woman named Merle first meet in 2073, where people speak in that manner peculiar to Characters in Futuristic Novels. Sample dialog from our young lovers: “‘I believe we are not the only place that has no need for cars,’ she says. ‘I don’t know about need,’ Eric says, ‘but yes, since gas became so scarce, there are many places that use alternatives.’” Good to know!
Clichés abound. A hungry Eric “eats as if he’d never eaten before.” A dead man’s “eyes stare at the ceiling, seeing nothing.” A painter describes an inspired period when “the pictures poured out of me. Like water,” until “I had had enough. The well, if you understand, had run dry.” Oh, I understand. In fact, cliché becomes the narrative’s primary operating principle—even a catalog of an island’s abundant resources notes that there are “plenty of fish in the sea.”
And the problem with clichés, of course, is that they lack specificity. Midwinterblood is a fatally unspecific novel. Despite spending more than 1,000 years with Eric and Merle, I have no idea who they are. And worse: I have no idea what brings them together (except that they both brush hair out of their eyes quite often). Forty pages from the end, an incarnation of Merle reflects that “My way was to think, and his way was to do.” But that distinction isn’t really borne out by the novel, and anyway, well, it’s a cliché. In a not particularly passionate scene, Eric informs Merle, “Our love is forbidden.” I guess we’ll have to take his word for it.
Even Eric seems confused about the romance. Surprised by his participation in an impromptu skinny-dipping session, Eric says, “This is ridiculous.” Merle responds, “Why is it? Why is it any more ridiculous than a thousand things? That the earth spins around the sun, that water can eat a mountain away, that a salmon can swim a thousand miles across the ocean to find the very stream that it was born in. It’s not ridiculous. It’s just . . . how it is.”
And so P.S. Be Eleven wins.
— Mac Barnett
Myself being knowledgeable about Vikings, I hope I noticed the anachronism in Midwinterblood. Either way, perhaps partly because of its “Norse” aspect, I enjoyed it thoroughly. It’s not my favorite book in the competition, but it’s inventive, it’s interesting, it made me think and appreciate things in a different way. The writing and the characterization may not be altogether clear, but I got past it. Besides, it’s fantasy! To me, P.S. Be Eleven didn’t have the appeal of Midwinterblood. It didn’t make me smile like True Blue Scouts; it is a story about growing up in a harsher reality. I liked some things – Ellis Carter, the whole school scene – other things threw me off – the ending, Darrell leaving. It is almost too nuanced, if you will, for a children’s book – or at least my view of a children’s book. But while I didn’t love it, it was masterfully done, and it’ll be an interesting battle with Hokey Pokey.
– Kid Commentator RGN
THE WINNER OF ROUND 1 MATCH 6:
P.S. BE ELEVEN
About Battle Commander
The Battle Commander is the nom de guerre for children’s literature enthusiasts Monica Edinger and Roxanne Hsu Feldman, fourth grade teacher and middle school librarian at the Dalton School in New York City and Jonathan Hunt, the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. All three have served on the Newbery Committee as well as other book selection and award committees. They are also published authors of books, articles, and reviews in publications such as the New York Times, School Library Journal, and the Horn Book Magazine. You can find Monica at educating alice and on twitter as @medinger. Roxanne is at Fairrosa Cyber Library and on twitter as @fairrosa. Jonathan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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