Every year at this time, children’s book websites brim with speculation about what books will win or place in the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards–especially the coveted Newbery Medal. At Redeemed Reader we do our own speculation, starting with a series of discussions over some of the more likely contenders. Today, Janie and Pamela (a librarian and sometime RR contributor) discuss two similar-themed novels, one by a well-known Newbery laureate and the other by a relative newcomer.
Janie: I’ll start with a novel that’s actually the last of a trilogy, by two-time Newbery medalist (and one-time “honorist”) Kate DiCamillo. I don’t think it’s a strong contender, chiefly because no author has already scored three times. But it may deserve special consideration as the last of a highly praised trilogy that began with Raymie Nightingale. Beverly, Right Here follows the third member of a friendship ring—the most difficult of the three, in some ways. All the girls have tough family situations, but Beverly’s is probably the toughest, with no dad and a mother that seems to put Beverly at absolute last in her list of priorities. The last straw is the death of Buddy, Beverly’s dog. Almost four years have passed since the first book of the trilogy, and both her friends have moved on. Her mother might not even notice she’s missing. Beverly hitches a ride with her cousin to wherever he’s going, which turns out to be Tamaray Beach, Florida, a slightly seedy resort and retirement mecca. Though some of the events are far-fetched, I thought the novel had its strengths. But before we get to that, what did you see as its weaknesses, Pamela?
Pamela: Although I’ve really enjoyed most of Kate DiCamillo’s books, and know her to be a writer who can be counted on for well-crafted stories, perhaps the main reason this book didn’t resonate with me is that Beverly, the main character, seems to be trying to avoid connections with other people. As you point out, Janie, she has come from a pretty tough family situation, and DiCamillo does a good job of portraying someone who has been hurt and developed a hard exterior. She describes what Beverly chooses to do and say, which are usually designed to distance her from others, but rarely tells us Beverly’s thoughts and feelings. Beverly also responds to people with outright rudeness at times, and at least twice she steals from another person; she doesn’t show any regrets for these things. This all had the unfortunate effect of distancing me as a reader from her through a good portion of the book.
There is also a minor character in the book, Mrs. Deely, who appears to be a pushy Christian; she writes and distributes tracts to anyone she can, including children. But she is a pretty weird lady, and her tracts have a lot of scary-looking snakes; I can’t help but wince that the only character connected with Christianity is so strongly negative.
Janie: That’s true. Although I’ve known some pushy Christians not unlike Mrs. Deely handing out Chick Tracts,, it would be nice to have another Christian character to balance her out. I get the sense Kate DiCamillo may have some sort of church background—the main character’s dad in Because of Winn Dixie was a pastor, after all! But you’re right that we don’t get a lot of insight into Beverly’s interior life. I guess we have to intuit her thoughts by her actions. And she does keep people at arm’s length–including the reader! But that’s the point. A major theme of the book is relationship: that we all need each other and no one is sufficient unto herself. As Beverly’s elderly friend Iola says, “People wait on other people. People rely on other people.” That was also a strong theme in the previous volume of the trilogy, Louisiana’s Way Home. In both books, the main characters find themselves alone in the world, but strangers come alongside and provide a sense of home and family.
As I mentioned above, Beverly’s finding a job simply by walking into a restaurant, and a home simply by making the acquaintance of a quirky old lady in a trailer park, don’t seem very realistic. But it makes a good story. And it’s a joy to see Beverly’s hard shell soften up. One more thing I want to mention before we take our leave of Beverly: many, if not all of DiCamillo’s books include a sense of transcendence, or something beyond this world. In Beverly Right Here, it’s a painting of The Annunciation, or Gabriel’s announcement to Mary. I find that touch of “something beyond” one of the strengths of the book.
Pamela: Yes, I agree that as Beverly starts to thaw in her new relationships, it felt like little bursts of joy were sparking out from the pages! It was sweeter because she started from a place of such resistance.
Janie: There’s another novel about a girl on the run (sort of, anyway) that’s getting a lot of buzz this year: The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise. I haven’t reviewed it for Redeemed Reader, so could you tell us a little of what it’s about, Pamela, and why you think it’s a contender?
Pamela: The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise opens with 12-year-old Coyote sneaking a kitten onto the bus in which she and her dad Rodeo live. They stay on the road year-round, and pets have always clearly been a “no-go.” But author Dan Gemeinhart easily draws in his readers; who couldn’t help but root for Coyote, who clearly needs this feline friend? She names the kitten “Ivan” after the main character in The One and Only Ivan, one of her favorite books. We soon learn the reason for her and her dad’s never staying in one place. There was a tragedy years back that makes it just too hard for Rodeo to go home. But then Coyote learns that the park in their hometown is due to be razed within days–the very spot where a family memory box of hers is buried. Getting her dad to agree to keep Ivan is a piece of cake compared to the mission impossible of convincing him to head home.
Dan Gemeinhart is a great storyteller, and a master at enabling the reader to connect with his characters. I’ve kept an eye out for his books since I read Some Kind of Courage a few years back. He weaves many humorous moments into this tale, and it’s a fast-paced story you won’t want to put down. Unfortunately though, one reason it may be getting plenty of attention is his inclusion of a sympathetic lesbian character in this story; this almost seems to be a requirement for a book’s consideration for an award at this time.
Janie: You’re probably right. That felt gratuitous to me—not just the inclusion of the character, but the preachy way it was handled. The girl is hitchhiking because her judgmental parents kicked her out, which makes Coyote think, “My very favorite aunt is gay and her wife is my very favorite aunt-in-law, and the thought of someone hating on them just ‘cause of who they love made me want to put on boxing gloves.” (Coyote is a feisty one.)
Beyond that, the theme of the book is very Newbery-friendly: a lost child looking for home. Coyote’s yearning for a settled place is palpable, and so is her love for her dad, even while he thwarts that desire. Her dad doesn’t even want to be called Dad anymore—that’s why she calls him Rodeo. Such fecklessness, even though it’s a defense mechanism responding to genuine tragedy, is not justifiable. The theme demands that Rodeo will start acting and thinking of himself as a dad again. (I hope it doesn’t spoil the plot for a reader to say that he does.) That overarching theme, and the humor scattered throughout, and a diverse cast of characters, are all positives. Bonus points for the eye-catching cover, too.
I got pretty impatient with ol’ Rodeo, though. And Coyote’s first-person voice was just a little too colloquial, and her observations sometimes wiser than a normal 12-year-old girl (even though, as an author, I can vouch for the difficulty of staying in the POV of a child). Overall the most off-putting thing about the narrative was the frequent profanity—Lots of “my god”s and “good lord”s. I can tolerate a little of that as representative of the way people talk, but it got to be too much. We’ll see what the Newbery committee thinks, though.
Next up, Betsy and Hayley discuss two outstanding illustrated nonfiction books!