Guess what I'm doing? I'm kind of ridiculously excited - I'm participating in my first Mock Newbery! It's a bunch of grownups reading a whole bunch of kids' books that seem to be getting award buzz and then we're going to get together and eat snacks and argue about them! The books. Although maybe also the snacks.
If you live in Baltimore and this sounds like fun, give me a jingle. We're well underway, but we haven't had our first meeting yet, and we might be able to squeeze you in ;)
Some of the books on our list are Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk, Ghost by Jason Reynolds, and The Inquisitor's Tale by Adam Gidwitz. This week, I mightily enjoyed reading Jenni Holm's Full of Beans. Historical fiction without the weight, that's Jenni's M.O. She makes it look easy.
I also read The Best Man, by living national treasure Richard Peck, and Some Writer!, the biography of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet, possibly the best match of biographer and subject I can imagine. And god help me, I have thoughts.
Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White by Melissa Sweet
My goodness did I lap up this book! Every page, every scrap was balm and wisdom and joy - the excerpts from White's correspondence, the photos of him in canoes and on porches, the sketches and scraps from Melissa Sweet's magic art studio of treasures. Even the page numbers, some of which are typed on old red-bordered gummed labels, make one want to pull out the art supplies and a journal and go sit on a stump somewhere.
But - and jeez I hate typing this - is it for kids? Is there enough 'this is where Stuart Little came from' to sustain a young person's interest, or will the (and I mean really stellar) evocation of White's appreciation of simplicity and the outdoors seem repetitive or obvious to people who have not yet had to face the kind of economic and emotional realities that might keep them locked indoors 40 hours a week?
And if not, would that make it less 'good' of a book? I guess that's yes and no. You know what, wait a minute, that's a no. The book is 100% a great book. Whoever it's written for, it stands as a finely honed, perfect encapsulation of an extraordinary talent. Well, two of them. Melissa Sweet comes off almost as well as E.B. White.
Do I buy it for a school library? I do, and I expect it will be used at the very least for author studies. Do I buy it for the public library? Of course I do. Public libraries need to have all the good stuff. Do I buy it for my niece or nephew? I have at least 18 nieces, nephews, niece/nephewlike cousins, and grandnieces and -nephews. I would buy it for like... 4 of them. Hold on. *counts on fingers like a big girl. Five.
But for sure I would buy it for myself:
"There was a lake, and at the water's edge a granite rock upholstered in lichen., This was his pew, and the sermon went on forever." -- E.B. White, "A Boy I Knew," Readers Digest 1940
The Best Man by Richard Peck
Agghhh!! I'm drowning in a morass of ambivalence!
This book is terrific. The writing, the insight, the characters - all the things that are here are terrific. It's like... like the objects in the curio cabinet in my mother's dining room. Each item: each miniature domino set, porcelain sea urchin, loose semiprecious stone, expedition medal and antique fountain pen is a treasure, and each for different reasons. In this book, the parents who work from home, one as a marriage counselor, the other restoring antique automobiles - are treasures. Grandpa the architect, in his seersucker suit and straw hat - a treasure. Beloved Uncle Paul, in his bespoke sportcoat and wingtips, who will turn out to be both wise and gay, is a treasure. Archer's house is a treasure. Large, square, situated in a "leafy suburb" of Chicago - I can picture it, I just can't afford it.
Which is not entirely an insignificant point.
Because, like my mom's beautifully lit collection, this book is just about the whitest thing I've come across in a long time. There are things that are *not* here, amid its sparkling array of treasures. There don't seem to be any black people, for one thing. Nor anyone with a Hispanic or Asian surname. And, regardless of the skillful references to Angry Birds and YouTube and Uncle Paul's wedding - it is missing a true feeling of contemporaneity.
Now of course my mom's cabinet doesn't have to represent every facet of the human experience. It would be weird, for example, for her to include a set of manumission papers - to our knowledge, nobody in our family was ever enslaved. And the expedition medal is an object to be proud of - not everybody does the dangerous thing for which it was awarded. But at the time it was given, it was almost exclusively white men who had the opportunity to earn it.
And while Mom may add a new item to that cabinet every few years, it is by its nature disconnected from the present time. That collection (and I mean this as a compliment rather than the reverse) reflects her point of view, and her point of view is that of a white woman born in a leafy suburb sometime before the middle of the last century. God, she's going to kill me for writing this.
In the case of The Best Man, I feel a similar point of view applies. And it's not - it's a valid point of view, and for sure there are kids in Evanston going to one-class-per-grade seemingly all-white elementary schools that are close enough to home that they can walk. But although this may be an increasingly rare point of view, it's not one that is lacking in representation.
I also take issue with the hunky student teacher who shakes up Archer's fifth grade year. All of a sudden, there are field trips! Something new every day! Mr. McLeod takes over for the regular teacher, Mrs. Stanley, when she gets tripped up by improper fractions. Really? Guy teacher shows the ladies How It's Done? Hrrumph.
But my gosh, it just KILLS me to quibble with this book. Uncle Paul's orientation, love story, and wedding are treated so wonderfully - that is, as if being gay were not a big thing, which it isn't. In many families. In many communities. But not all. So that's really nice.
And lord Richard Peck is funny. And his main character learns some things without the reader feeling Taught, which is no mean feat. I personally, a white woman born in a leafy suburb who walked to school until she was 17, very much enjoyed the book.
But I think its time, like that of the quotidian antiques resting on glass shelves in my mom's dining room, has passed. Now is the time for it to be admired for its form and craft, because we are not likely to need to use it.