1998 Blue Ribbon Dissents
Sigh. They're an ethical lot, those Bulletin Blue Ribbon committee members. Their opinions cannot be swayed by love, money, or homemade cookies. Sometimes, despite passionate argument and total committment, heart-held titles fail to make the final cut. In 1997 we began a yearly tradition of going on record with the one book each of us most regretted omitting from the list. In keeping with the unofficial motto of the Bulletin website ("It's Our Website, and We Can Do Whatever We Want"), we would like to welcome you to the 1998 Bulletin Blue Ribbon Dissents.
-Janice M. Del Negro, editor
Yes, teen love stories are a dime a dozen. Yes, it's possible to find an excellent short story collection whose total value is greater than the sum of its parts. And yes, Ellen Conford titles are bound to move off the shelves without much nudging from librarians (or reviewers, for that matter.) But just try to compile a list of love stories that will engross both girls and guys in a junior high class, and the stellar nature of Crush becomes evident. The characters from Cutter's Forge High School, frantically maneuvering for dates to the Sweetheart Stomp, could be sitting in the desk next to any listener. Kids'll know "Princess Di" Callahan--"Her Royal Blondness used up boys like Kleenex." Or nerdy Robert La Motte, whose clothes "looked as if he'd fished them out of a Goodwill bin. In the dark." Or lovable hulk Batso Batkowski, frustrated that his beloved Amy "didn't even know how to work a self-serve gas pump--and had no intention of learning." The tales are light, but never banal, and often twist in startlingly funny directions. Enter the touching "The Gifts of the Mangy" spin on O. Henry, or the catty romp "Metamorphosis," at the top of the Valentine's Day program, and watch amorous sparks and guilty giggles fly.
Fleming delights again with her unique hand-made paper artwork in Mama Cat Has Three Kittens. You can't help but marvel at the clarity with which she depicts Mama Cat and her brood by pouring wet fibers through hand-made stencils. The luscious greens and yellows contrast with rich black and brilliant white to create a visual feast as Fluffy and Skinny copy Mama Cat: washing, walking along walls, sharpening claws, chasing leaves, and digging in the sand. But, you say, Mama Cat has not two but three kittens? Enter flaming orange tabby Boris who refuses to be distracted from his favorite pastime: napping. Boris finally awakes (spurred on by the napping of the rest of the brood), only to engage once again in his favorite activity: "Boris stretches, yawns, / washes his paws, / and pounces / on Fluffy, Skinny, and Mama Cat. Then Boris naps." Fleming's humor is deliciously subtle, and young listeners will readily join in on the "Boris naps" refrain. Your favorite toddlers will rejoice in meeting someone else who shares their own propensity for stubborn independence.
Elaine A. Bearden
"The cowboy stroked the pony's forehead and rubbed behind his ears. The pony rested his head against the small cowboy's knees." Could any scenario be more appealing for the small cowboys of the world? And this is a small cowboy, a boy who is watching three tough bronco busters try to break a black horse that kicks them up, down, and sideways until they downright give up: "No one can ride that horse. Nothing to do but sell him to the rodeo." But the boy, who has on each successive night brought a soothing voice, a rubdown, food, water, and harmonica music to the horse, ultimately saves him from an embattled future: "The next morning the corral was empty and the gate was open. Far out on the prairie the small cowboy rode the black pony through the tall grass toward the high blue mountains." There's nothing new about this story, but it has the satisfying elements of a legend or folktale, complete with a three-episode plot pattern, a clearcut hero and adversaries, and--center stage--an animal helper. Although the animal is the one being helped here, he's also the vehicle for the young hero's quest, test, and triumphant journey, so he's a helper, too. The dependence of two creatures upon each other for mutual needs frees both. Nurturance centers this story. What better value can we communicate to our boys, and who can convey it better than author Herzig, who wrote Oh Boy! Babies! (BCCB 2/81) Artist Root underscores the drama with pictures of the macho tough guys in tooled buckskin frames, leathery images that contrast sharply with peaceful, open-spaced, midnight-blue scenes where the small cowboy gentles the black horse. The animal's face is expressive, but its body postures, along with the bronco busters' contortions, are even more so. This is one of those picture books that may not win awards for literary or artistic innovation, but its going to win affection every bedtime of the year, and some in-between-times, too.
Lives of Our Own features Shawna Riley, who moves back with her father to his small Georgia hometown after a cosmopolitan existence in Denver; she finds herself at the center of a hot controversy about a traditional local ball, which, African-Ame rican Shawna points out, celebrates some traditions that might be better off left to decay. It also tells of Kari Lang, just barely within the bounds of popularity and uncertain about her position, who at first resents Shawna's challenge and then finds t hat the two of them may, through their parents' shared high-school experiences, have something very important in common.
There are a lot of different ways in which a book can be meritorious and a lot of special insights it may offer. Lives of Our Own's particular merit is hard to describe, which makes it all the more significant that the book conveys it so well . Hewett's brilliance lies in her capturing of that time when you realize that the world we live in, with all its bitterly disappointing aspects, was made by people just like you performing the same sort of daily tasks, decisions, and interactions that y ou do; that everything you do contributes to this making of the world, so history cannot be neatly severed from the present and you are never merely an observer; that things often are more complicated than they initially appear, but that's no reason for y ou not to try to change them. Nor is it ever a dry philosophical tome--this realization is achieved at a school fraught with tension over issues of race, class, and tradition, and the protagonists, who struggle with personal longings and disappointments as well as the larger issues, are sympathetic and vividly drawn. This is morality in action, a human face on the ethical conundrums that beset all our lives. It's a book that deserves attention.
Deborah Stevenson, Associate Editor
As with Alice in Wonderland, it all starts innocently enough; Alice is sitting by her sister on a river bank when a white rabbit runs by wearing a waistcoat and carrying a pocket-watch. In Rathmann's book, a young boy is filling his hamster's water bottle, when the hamster's exercise wheel--with the hamster inside--falls out of the open cage door. This animal is wearing a blue uniform and carrying a megaphone. While Alice follows the rabbit and ends up in Wonderland, the boy follows and ends up in the midst of his hamster's 10-Minute Bedtime Tour that brings a family of 10 hamsters into the boy's bedroom and bathroom, leading to a series of chaotic--and clearly welcome--disruptions of the boy's pre-bedtime routine. The hamsters join the boy in brushing teeth and donning pajamas, but just as he has them settling down to a bedtime story, a new--and much larger--hamster tour group caravans into the his room, accompanied by beach toys, vacation gear, and powerboats. At this point the story and pictures become over-the- top nonsensical, and readers are drawn into a lively hamster vacationland, as the bathtub becomes a hamster poolside resort complete with waterskiers, sunbathers, and grass-skirted hamsters dancing the hula on the soap dish stage.
Rathmann's artwork here, reminiscent of Graham Oakley's Church Mice series, draws the reader into this comic mayhem so skillfully that even the most puzzling pictorial nonsense takes on a zany logic, and even the most nonsensical depictions (Why is the boy dressed like a watermelon? Where did that second group of hamster tourists come from? Why is one fuzzy green slipper--and its boombox-playing hamster passenger--flying around the room while the other sits on top of the hamsters' tour bus? And what about Naomi?) become--at least vaguely-- sensible.
This is a story filled with unanswerable questions that recall the Mad Hatter's tea party. As with the original Wonderland, does it matter that the Hatter's riddle (Why is a raven like a writing desk?) has no answer? The boy in this story, however, needn't travel to Wonderland because--for better or worse--Wonderland arrives on his doorstep only ten minutes before bedtime.
In Voake's paean to the romance of railroads, young narrator Chloe rides her bicycle behind her father, who carries her little brother William in "his little red seat" on the paternal two-wheeler. Their destination is a narrow bridge overlooking the train tracks; once there, they dismount and "look and listen for the trains." They are joined by other trainspotters, who gather at the rail and peer expectantly into the distance. Finally "William shouts, 'Here it comes. . . HERE COMES the TRAIN!'" Voake captures the viewers' delight in watching the train go by: "All the children wave like crazy. The engine driver waves back; he hoots his horn. Beep -BARP! The children hold their breath and . . . WHOOSH under the bridge it goes!" The compositions are bisected by the bridge, placed dead center and spanning the double-page spreads from side to side; the watercolor and line figures with their simple ink features leave a windblown impression as they grin into the breeze created by the speeding trains. The illustrations are fresh, clear, and easy to see, the bridge, figures and trains arrayed across the clean white pages in a style reminiscent of Edward Ardizzone. Voake's locomotive offering will capture young listeners in a rush of winning visuals and onomatopoeiac language; this is one train that is bound for storytime glory. Choo-choo!
Janice Del Negro, Editor
This page was last updated on January 1, 1999.