January is Newbery month—that is, when the American Library Association holds their annual winter conference, the highlight of which is the ALA Youth Media Awards. The Monday-morning announcement (Jan. 23 this year) covers many awards, but the Newbery, as the oldest (actually, the oldest award for children’s books in the whole world) is always the most eagerly anticipated. Betsy and Janie continue their tradition of first discussing some of the year’s most-buzzed books and then predicting their best guess as to who the winner or winners will be.
This year we’re trying something different: choosing two books with similar themes and settings to discuss at once. Pax, by prolific author Sara Pennypacker, and Wolf Hollow, by Lauren Wolk, share a rural setting and a somber tone.
Janie: I’ll start with some thoughts about Wolf Hollow. Though it takes place in 1933, historical events are not critical to the plot except perhaps for signaling a depressing theme with a Depression-era setting. The story is narrated by Annabelle, who in the first two pages tells us that upon turning twelve she learned, first, how to lie, and second, “that what I said and what I did mattered.” Most of us come by the first thing pretty easily, but kids (and a lot of grownups) have a harder time understanding that they live in relationship and their actions do indeed matter. Annabelle’s world turns upside-down with the arrival of Betty, a girl of her age who’s moved in with her grandparents. Betty is a disturbing character: one of the few figures in children’s fiction who appears to be just plain bad. Her malevolence extends to Toby, a veteran of the Great War who lives quietly in an abandoned smokehouse and counts Annabelle as one of his few friends. Before long it’s clear that Betty could be a real danger both to Annabelle and Toby. When she disappears, Annabelle can’t help but feel relieved, but Betty’s absence may have far worse consequences than her presence.
In spite of Annabelle’s loving and supportive family (except for her Aunt Lily), a somber mood sets in from the first page and never lifts. This world has a mean streak we can’t do anything about, as Annabelle’s mother informs her impatiently: “Do you think you’re God? Do you think you control things? Well, you do not. And it’s arrogant to think that you do.” Betty and Toby are both, in a way, victims, and the author’s sensitive exploration of how Annabelle struggles with her own guilt in relation to them is compelling and sometimes gut-wrenching. The story ends with the living (i.e., hope), but it’s very sad. Perhaps too sad for this age group. What do you think, Betsy?
Betsy: The overall mood of this book was depressing and tense. From the first lines until the very end, as a reader, I felt anxious. Frankly, that’s an uncomfortable feeling! I do think this book has a grown-up feel to it. The narrator is speaking as an adult looking back on a season of her girlhood, and the reader feels the weight of that grown-up perspective. Wolf Hollow strikes me as an adult book with a child protagonist, not a typical middle grades book. There are plenty of sad middle grades titles (Old Yeller, Little Women, and many classics come to mind as well as more contemporary titles like The Penderwicks in Spring) that do a better job of capturing a childlike sadness and understanding of the world as well as offering hope.
Pax is an interesting comparison to Wolf Hollow, partly because I felt like it was a middle grades book written for adults: a book that teachers and librarians might gush over, but which I predict will fall short with its intended middle grades audience. It offers more hope than Wolf Hollow, particularly in the boy’s relationship with a lady named Vola, but the overall tone is still harshly realistic with themes of war, the circle of life, and other “real world” issues. Neither you nor I have jumped on board with its wild acclaim in the critics’ realm. What struck you most about Pax, Janie?
Janie: I think you’ve put your finger on it, Betsy—both these books read like adult books with child protagonists. And while I haven’t scanned all the Amazon reviews, I’ll bet there are few if any raves from the audience they were intended to reach. Pax is a journey story with a strong animal hook, which appeals to a lot kids. Peter is forced to release his pet fox (the title character) into the wild when his father enlists in the army, and from that point the narrative splits between the boy and the fox, each on a voyage of self discovery as they work their way back to each other. The story takes on a mythical quality as war looms in the same area. There are no place names, only two people names (Peter and Vola), and the animals communicate telepathically.
The strong points are beautiful writing and a strong evocation and appreciation for nature. The flip side of that is zero appreciation for humans: what other animal makes war, kills for sport, destroys tress, etc? While searching for Pax, Peter encounters a deer who gazes at him reproachfully, as though thinking You humans. You ruin everything. That’s an actual quote. I find it odd that literature can’t somehow celebrate humans for their accomplishments even while illuminating our many faults (one sterling accomplishment: reading and writing books!). Human evil is a prevailing theme in both these books, a theme with which the prophet Jeremiah would concur. But there’s a limit to how much 4th-7th-graders can comprehend evil and acknowledge it in themselves. Pax seems to suggest that the solution is getting back to nature, and that’s one aspect of this book that strikes me as juvenile. Am I being too harsh?
Betsy: I don’t think you’re being too harsh, Janie. As you, an author of middle grades books, must know, it’s often more difficult to write for a young target audience as an adult yourself precisely because we have the weight of our own adult experience bearing down on us. The best authors for children manage to write from a childlike perspective, not just about childish things. This is Wolk’s first middle grades novel, and her writing is lovely. We can hope that she manages to leverage that writing strength with a more balanced, childlike (and hopeful) perspective in her next work. Pennypacker is no stranger to children’s lit with such wildly successful series like Clementine under her belt; perhaps Pax is an exploration for her into a different type of novel. (And I hope she will bring her formidable talents back to the likes of Clementine in the future!) These two authors each have a remarkable ability to wield the sword of the pen, and I think it likely that the grown-ups picking the Newbery awards will give these two novels a close look. Will they win in the many kid-choice Mock Newberys around the country? I wonder.
Janie: We’ll be making our predictions soon–not just what we’d like to win, but what we think will win. Judging by the buzz, I think both these books are strong contenders–but stay tuned! Meanwhile, next week we’ll talk about two sports-themed books that are more celebratory.