Now that the Cybils winners are all official ‘n stuff, I can review the finalists from the Middle Grade Fantasy & Science Fiction category. Here they are, in one speedy blowout:
The Prince of Fenway Park, Julianna Baggott
Check this premise, people: the famous Curse on the Red Sox is a real curse, brought on by an angry faerie. Not only does it prevent the Sox from winning the Series, it also traps an odd assortment of Cursed Creatures in tunnels under Fenway Park. Oscar’s deadbeat dad turns out to be one of them, and only Oscar can break the Curse and free his father and the rest of his family.
It’s one of the most original fantasy premises I’ve ever heard, and as a Bostonian I’m contractually obligated to love it at least a little. I wanted to love it a lot — and there were things I did love about it, besides the Boston stuff.
Oscar is mixed-race, white and African-American, and adopted by white parents (ok, one turns out to be half-fae, but it’s not like that’s a box you can check on the census). There aren’t enough books like that to start with, and the way this one uses the fantasy journey to help Oscar find where he belongs is kind of beautiful. The Curse ends up being in part about how shamefully the Sox treated black ballplayers, and the parallels between Oscar and Jackie Robinson were neat. I loved that the Sox weren’t the unmitigated Good Guys — they were a deeply flawed “hero” who had to grow up in order to be worthy of having the Curse broken. It made baseball be about something deeper.
Lots of kids will love this book (though I can’t tell how many will be neither Bostonians nor baseball fans). But I was disappointed in the magic: it’s too easy, too contrived.
The Farwalker’s Quest, Jodi Sensel
In this vaguely post-apocalyptic future, almost no one ever leaves their village, and little old knowledge remains. Thirteen-year-olds Ariel and Zeke are about to choose their vocations, when they find a mysterious message dart in a tree that sends them on a long journey and changes their futures forever.
This is an old-school fantasy adventure that manages not to be (too) derivative, the above summary notwithstanding. If you like the title, you’ll like the book — it’s pretty much as advertised. I couldn’t put it down.
I have to tell you, though, that I got a little obsessed with the relationship between Ariel and her protector, Scarl — and I wasn’t alone. A bunch of us judges got vibes. The book claims that they develop a father-daughter relationship, but I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to decide how old Ariel would have to be before their 16-year age gap was no longer icky. I mean, I had a crush on Scarl, so I totally saw where Ariel was coming from. He’s all moody and tortured! (It was very Fire and Hemlock, for the three of you who get that reference.)
11 Birthdays, Wendy Mass
This is Groundhog’s Day for kids — and I love me some Groundhog’s Day, so I found it charming. If you’re looking for a slightly quirky read for nice girls who can’t get enough books about friendship and Learning About Themselves — the girls who loved Savvy — this is a solid choice. But as a potential award winner, I didn’t think it sang.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Grace Lin
If you need a gift book for an elementary school girl, this is a lovely choice. It’s the children’s novel equivalent of a period piece: the set designer and costumer will win Oscars, and it’s easy to ignore the rest.
Fortunately, in this case the rest is also lovely. Lin’s writing is simple in a way that evokes mythology, but it’s meatier than Odd and the Frost Giants. The stories all weave together in a very particular way: I was reminded of Bridge of Birds, which makes me wonder if this brand of story interconnection is a feature of Chinese mythology. (Anyone know?)
I would have been totally bored by it as a kid — there’s not enough excitement, and it would have felt like something adults thought was Good for Me. But I hope not all kids are as narrow-minded as I was, because it really is an excellent book.
Odd and the Frost Giants, Neil Gaiman
This is an invented myth about a boy who tricks the frost giant who’s taken over Asgard, thereby saving his people from endless winter — it’s Neil Gaiman, doing what he does with the reinvented mythology and whatnot. It’s cute, but slight.
The Serial Garden, Joan Aiken
This is a posthumously collected book of Aiken’s short stories about the Armitage family, to whom something magical happens almost — but not every — Monday. They’re delightful, and so adorably British they created an insatiable desire for tea and crumpets… but they’re all kind of the same. Once you’ve got the hang of the amusingly blase way the Armitages react to a unicorn in their backyard or a witch teaching the neighborhood school, you could pretty much write the rest of the stories yourself.