1997 Blue Ribbon Dissents
The participants in the Blue Ribbon meetings are a tough room; begging, pleading, and offers of bribes won't get a title past a reviewer who sees glaring flaws where the proponent finds fresh originality or tender lyricism. This means that many of us really loved books that didn't ultimately make it onto the Blue Ribbon list. This year, we decided that the Bulletin website (unofficial motto: "It's Our Website, and We Can Do Whatever We Want") would, á la the Supreme Court, allow each of us a chance to go on the record with the one book we particularly regret omitting from the list. So here are our dissents.
--Deborah Stevenson, Assistant Editor
It's shocking. Who would have thought that Alice Ramsey and her chronicled "Grand Adventure" would be rejected by a roomful of female reviewers? This little-known heroine deserves a hearing. She "wanted to be the first woman to drive across America," and from June 9 to August 7, 1909--a total of 59 days--driving from New York City to San Francisco that is who she became. Not only is Alice the kind of strong, independent woman we most admire, but the book is deserving of a little admiration of its own. How could they reject a book with a combination of nearly perfect pacing, terrific paintings, and that "will-she-make-it?" plot without offending most of the AAA motor club constituency? Maybe they didn't look closely enough at the incredible obstacles she overcame as she drove across the Platte river bridge ("She drove carefully and kept moving--if she didn't, the Maxwell's tires would become trapped between the railroad ties"). Maybe they didn't notice that gorgeous watercolor scene where the cold, blue depths of the desert night are just barely illuminated by the tiniest wisp of headlamps, lighting her way. Maybe they didn't realize that Alice Ramsey in her Maxwell would be a perfect vehicle to enliven a biography unit, a travel unit, or a just plain, good story unit. I'll bet my next parking ticket that kids will though.--Pat Mathews
Against the seismic upheavals of World War II, Giff plays out the private tremors of two children who live in a safe place but are nevertheless threatened with the loss of those they love. Summering in Rockaway Beach with her grandmother and permanently haunted by her mother's early death from heart disease, Lily refuses to say goodbye to her father when he leaves for the European front in 1944. Then she meets Albert, a Hungarian refugee guilt-ridden over what he perceives as his abandonment of a younger sister in Nazi-occupied Paris. Giff has developed a quietly nuanced story, full of the secrets children survive, yet dramatic in revealing the kind of dangerous situations to which their impulses can lead. Lily and Albert rescue and shelter a drowning cat, only to come near drowning, themselves, when Albert tries to row out to an ocean-bound troopship. All the characters are subtly dimensioned: Lily with her confusion of fantasy and lies, Albert with his quirky sense of humor precariously balanced with tragedy, Gram with her affection camouflaged by scolding. One typically poignant scenario involves Lily and her friend Margaret sneaking candy from a package intended for Margaret's brother, who is subsequently reported missing in action. Thus the most innocent mischief assumes disproportionate impact, and young readers, like Lily, will come to understand that war changes everything for everyone. This is a moving story, vividly set and patiently realized--a notable contribution to American children's literature of the Home Front. --Betsy Hearne
Part poetry, part biography, part travelogue, this lovely volume presents the spare beauty of seventeenth century haiku master Basho's work within its original context--poetic reflections on his wanderings across Japan. Basho's aural delights are ably matched by Demi's travelscapes of ink, brushed with extraordinary delicacy, and rich saturated color on rice paper-like stock. Although I grudgingly concede that the opening Chinaman-in-the-tree spread is a bit problematic, the title's masterful integration of centuries-old haiku with its historical context far outweighs a page worth of quibble. For many readers, the sleepy old "3 lines 5-7-5 syllables, now-let's-all-write-one" class exercise is their first (and probably last) contact with haiku; Spivak's work will jolt them with the vitality of the form. --Elizabeth Bush
I resentfully acknowledge the justice of the exclusion of this title from the Blue Ribbons-in terms of sheer writerly quality, belles lettres this ain't. But this book so perfectly executes what it means to do, so congenially and believably conveys the realities of writerly apprenticeship and labor, and so cheerfully introduces you to a corny, unpretentious author that it was one of the great reading pleasures of the year (perhaps that makes it Miss Congeniality?).
Readers will see the kid Stine was (writing homemade humor magazines and getting in trouble for passing them around in class) in the adult he became (writing fake office memos and getting in trouble for passing them around the office). More importantly, they will see the connection between the writer he was as a child and the writer he is now, so budding authors can see how much his beginnings looked like theirs. It's also delightfully clear that he doesn't write down to his audience, and that he enjoys his writing perhaps as much as his audience does. From the hologrammed cover to the appended "R.L. Stine's Twenty Most-Asked Questions," this is a generously goofy, contagiously cheerful, surprisingly savvy book. --Deborah Stevenson
At fourteen, Evangeline Canan, self-renamed Staggerlee, is a quiet loner, unsure of exactly what it is she is struggling against or yearning for. As the biracial daughter of a black father and white mother, she has chosen to identify with both and neither, resisting too-simple categorization with "I know what I am. I'm me, that's all." Into this slow summer landscape comes Trout, her somewhat mysterious and wholly beautiful cousin and age-mate, a girl whose presence--and the whole-hearted attraction she engenders in Staggerlee--becomes the catalyst for Staggerlee's first steps toward her adult self.
Woodson has captured the intriguing and nearly indescribable sense of expectant possibility that accompanies the move into adolescence and that is embodied in the immediate and quicksilver attraction that draws the two girls together. This may or may not be the story of two young lesbians, but that lack of certainty is refreshingly unproblematic: as they walk along the river bank, the girls write in the mud, "Staggerlee and Trout were here today. Maybe they will and maybe they won't be gay." The story is set in that hard-to-define place in life that is the transitory borderland between childhood and adulthood, a time of change that is no less real for its lack of permanence. This is one of the few novels I've read that explores the opening moments of this transition, as the readers sees the series of conscious moments of self-discovery that move Staggerlee away from a child's worldview and toward an adult's self-awareness. --Christine Jenkins
It is the policy of the Bulletin that books by staff receive no actual review, only a tasteful announcement. When Betsy Hearne's picture book, Seven Brave Women, came out it was a BCCB favorite (not that we are biased, mind you) but because of policy we couldn't toot Betsy's horn. It didn't matter, though, because everyone else did the tooting for us-- Booklist, Horn Book, School Library Journal and The New York Times all raved about 7BW.
Seeing as how 7BW has been so positively received, we think it's okay for us, after the fact, to say publicly what we wanted to say all along. So this is not a dissent, exactly--more like a vociferous assent.
Seven Brave Women is a celebration of women, family, and history, a celebration that never falls into the coy or the self-conscious. In seven chapters (each comprised of a single double-paged spread), the narrator tells brief stories about her female ancestors: "My Great-Great-Great-grandmother did great things. Elizabeth lived during the Revolutionary War, but she did not fight in it." Each biographical sketch includes a sense of the time in which each woman lived, names the war that each woman did not fight in, and contains information about each individual woman's trials and triumphs, a combination of the concrete and the poetic that is remarkably absorbing and cumulatively, effectively moving.
Bethanne Andersen's oil paintings have an impressionistic, magical realism quality that makes them stylistically suitable for this look at the past, tying the women, their history, and their accomplishments together with a literal, visual ribbon that curls from spread to spread, composition to composition, story to story, linking them all both physically and psychically.
The range of appeal for this book (as a readaloud or a readalone) is wide. The author never writes down to listeners or readers, instead trusting this powerful evocation of family spirit to make itself felt without didacticism. This is the sort of picture book that will age well, the kind of story that only becomes richer as the readers grow older and can bring more of their own personal history to bear on the subject at hand.
This accumulation of stories creates an inspiring sense of continuity that may motivate its audience to start collecting stories of their own ancestors. The concluding chapter will bring readers full circle: "I am not a woman yet, but I can do great things. . . . I will make history the way my mother and grandmothers and great-grandmothers, and great-great-grandmothers and great-great-great grandmothers did. There are a million ways to be brave."
To Seven Brave Women, the Bulletin says "Brava!" To Betsy Hearne, we say thank you. --Janice M. Del Negro
This page was last updated on January 6, 1998.