The State of Middle-Grade Reading
Self-consciousness for girls, adventures for boys (from the New York Times Book Review)
Here are two new novels by prizewinning authors, both set during World War II and featuring a brother in the armed services who is missing in action. Both are for middle-grade readers, though one is more or less intended for girls and the other for boys. Patricia Reilly Giff is the author of many books for children, two of which (“Lily’s Crossing” and “Pictures of Hollis Woods”) have won Newbery Honor awards. This is Clare Vanderpool’s second novel; her first, “Moon Over Manifest,” won the Newbery Medal in 2011.
Giff’s “Gingersnap” takes place in 1945 in Norman Rockwell’s America, an era Giff recreates by frequently mentioning rationing and the wartime news on the radio, along with Glenn Miller’s music and the serial “The Shadow.” An orphan, Jayna, known as Gingersnap, misses her brother Rob, who, while fighting in the Pacific, is lost at sea. She stumbles upon a recipe book in French and “an old black-and-white photo” (though, strictly speaking, it would be 15 more years before anyone would designate any photograph as “black and white”), prompting her to leave her guardian and travel to the brownstones of wartime Brooklyn in search of a bakery and her grandmother.
Everything turns out fine in the end: America wins the war. Rob returns from the Pacific to his sister, and they make a new family with Brooklyn friends. This is, after all, a story meant for middle schoolers, caught between the demands of home and allegiance to peers. Parents disappear early in these kinds of stories; the actuarial statistics are staggering. A second family, freely chosen, arises accordingly.
If much here is familiar, Giff moves in a less common way by introducing a ghost (a k a “the voice”) who speaks to Jayna. In juvenile fare, ghosts usually come in two forms: the Scold (think of Scrooge’s in “A Christmas Carol” and the Talking Cricket in “Pinocchio”) and the Surrogate Parent (Neil Gaiman’s novel “The Graveyard Book” and Virginia Hamilton’s “Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush”). But Jayna’s ghost serves no high purpose. Instead, this phantom wears Jayna’s fingernail polish and reads the girl’s mind (out loud). In other words, “the voice” is Jayna once again and another occasion for internal dialogue in a novel where the pronoun “I” receives an incredible workout and the plot often advances on a sea of question marks when Jayna debates this or that issue with herself. This heightened self-consciousness seems a reproduction of the target-audience mind-set.
If self-consciousness is conspicuous in “Gingersnap,” the hallmark of “Navigating Early” is abundant adventure. Jackie is 13 years old when his mother dies and his distant father moves him from Kansas to Morton Hill Academy for Boys, a maritime boarding school in coastal Maine. There he makes friends with Early Auden, a wonderfully named and eccentric classmate.
Early listens only to Billie Holiday when it rains; he lives in a custodian’s room in the basement rather than in a dorm; he detects a story in the numbers that are generated when pi is calculated to the nth degree — and he believes his brother Fisher, who has gone missing after an assault on the Germans, is not dead but is actually hiding out in the woods of Maine. In a concluding author’s note, Vanderpool says she had a form of high-functioning autism in mind when she created Early.
Lots of action.
The friendship between Jackie and Early and the Morton Hill Academy episodes have the flavor of Wes Anderson’s delightful summer-camp movie “Moonrise Kingdom.” But halfway through this otherwise carefully constructed and matter-of-fact story, the narrative veers in a bizarre direction. As Jackie and Early take a boat from the school for an expedition on the Kennebec River, we have reason to expect the story will continue in its largely realistic vein. Instead, the floor drops away and we suddenly find ourselves in something closer to “The Perils of Pauline” when the boys encounter pirates — yes, pirates! — in the Maine woods and a villain seemingly modeled on Bluto, Popeye’s nemesis. Adventures soon multiply at a dizzying rate.
It’s as if someone told Vanderpool that boys, those reluctant readers, like lots of action and want things going on all the time. In fact, late in the novel, the breathless author seems to congratulate herself for “a journey that included pirates, a volcano, a great white whale, a hundred-year-old woman, a lost hero, a hidden cave, a great Appalachian bear and a timber rattlesnake — in Maine!” She shortchanges herself. She forgets the skeleton, the fly-fishing, the burials, the accidental death and much more as the novel careens over hill and dale, whipsawing readers until they cry “uncle.”
Here are two stories: one about a girl who is chatty in an interior way nearly to the point of solipsism, and the other about two boys offered the literary equivalent of a dozen video games. In terms of audience, both novels are meant to be placed in the company of standards like E. L. Konigsburg’s “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” and Sid Fleischman’s “Whipping Boy.” In truth, what may be most interesting about these books is their assumption about what appeals to middle-grade readers.
Originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review (January 11, 2013). “Navigating Early” was later named a 2014 Michael L. Printz Honor Book by the American Library Association.
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