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Horn Book Reviews of the 2013 National Book Award Finalists

The National Book Foundation announced their shortlists for the 2013 National Book Awards on Wednesday, October 16th. Here’s how the Horn Book reviewed their selections in the Young People’s Literature category.

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp
by Kathi Appelt; illus. by Jennifer Bricking
Intermediate, Middle School     Atheneum     374 pp.
7/13     978-1-4424-2105-9     $16.99     g
e-book ed. 978-1-4424-8121-3     $9.99

Rumble-rumble-rumble-rumble… Buzzie and Clydine’s gang of feral hogs is thundering toward Bayou Tourterelle. Yellow eyes gleaming and tusks glowing, they’re delirious at the prospect of the swamp’s wild sugarcane. But raccoon Swamp Scouts Bingo and J’miah are ready. They’ll even go so far as to attempt to awaken the legendary Sugar Man and risk stirring up his wrath, if necessary. There’s a human drama unfolding, too, as twelve-year-old Chap Brayburn and his mother hope to save their beloved swamp from the clutches of Sonny Boy Beaucoup, who intends to turn it into a theme park. Appelt’s folksy tall tale is related by a third-person omniscient narrator (“Got to go way, way back into yesterday and the yesterday before that, maybe a million yesterdays…”) who busily weaves a multitude of oddball characters — and more than a touch of magic — into the fabric of bayou life. Appelt fans will enjoy this romp in the swamp and will stay with it to see if predatory pigs and dastardly developers will prevail over the kindly swamp denizens. Black-and-white interior illustrations unseen. Dean Schneider

Reviewed in the July/August 2013 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

The Thing About Luck The Thing About Luck
by Cynthia Kadohata; illus. by Julia Kuo
Intermediate, Middle School     Atheneum     273 pp.
6/13     978-1-4169-1882-0     $16.99
e-book ed. 978-1-4424-7467-3     $9.99

Twelve-year-old narrator Summer lives with her brother, parents, and grandparents in Kansas in this funny, poignant novel that will give urban and suburban readers a glimpse of contemporary rural life. Summer explains how wheat farmers hire custom harvesters (independent contractors who own farming equipment), who in turn hire people like her parents to drive the combines all over the Midwest. But ever since Summer almost died from malaria, infected by a “rogue mosquito,” her family has been down on its luck. Now her parents have been summoned to Japan to care for dying elderly relatives and won’t be able to go “on harvest” this year. Money is tight, so Summer’s grandfather, Jiichan, comes out of retirement to drive a combine, while her grandmother, Obaachan, cooks for the work crew (with Summer as her assistant). It’s a hard life, but Summer’s chatty narrative and her grandparents’ terse humor manage to keep things light. Obaachan complains that her frizzy-haired granddaughter looks like “Yoko Ono, 1969”; Jiichan is forever clutching at his heart in reaction to such things as Teflon pans (“invented by someone who care more about easy than about good”). Summer’s first crush, her mosquito obsession, her notebook sketches — even her descriptive details about harvesting — add layers of interest. When a crisis hits, Summer gathers her courage and saves the situation; her exultance makes for an uplifting conclusion. She believes that when something — like a mosquito — almost kills you, you’re bonded to it for life; readers will see this is also true for Summer’s bond with Obaachan (whose harsh words mask her love) and with the backbreaking but satisfying work of harvesting. Jennifer M. Brabander

Reviewed in the July/August 2013 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

Far Far Away
by Tom McNeal
Middle School, High School     Knopf     373 pp.
6/13     978-0-375-84972-5     $17.99
Library ed. 978-0-375-94972-2     $20.99     g
e-book ed. 978-0-375-89698-9     $10.99

Sprightly, assured, and original, this story blends a small-town, middle-American, twentieth-century setting with the learned realms of the Brothers Grimm and their nineteenth-century German fairy-tale collections — to compelling effect. Jeremy Johnson Johnson lives a woebegone life — abandoned by his mother; the sole caretaker of his bedridden, depressed father. But Jeremy has the rare ability to hear ghosts, and that’s how Jacob Grimm, the story’s narrator, becomes Jeremy’s mentor and guardian. With access to Jacob’s erudition and experience, Jeremy becomes a whiz at school, knows fairy tales inside and out, and has an unusual advantage in capturing the interest of Ginger Boultinghouse, whose amber eyes possess “the hue, sparkle, and…effect of a strong lager.” As Jacob tells us, “This might have made a tender tale” if not for “another player in the cast,” the Finder of Occasions, whose “tortured and malignant” purpose gives the buoyant, intelligent story a shiver of horror as dark as any of the Grimms’ tales. McNeal superbly and elegantly enfolds those stories’ essence and depth into plot, setting, and characters; archetypal figures and situations glimmer through McNeal’s small-town American cast like tantalizing clues in a novel that becomes ever darker even as it sparkles with the dignified, affectionate voice of its ghostly narrator. Deirdre F. Baker

Reviewed in the July/August 2013 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

Picture Me Gone
by Meg Rosoff
Middle School Putnam 242 pp.
10/13 978-0-399-25765-0 $17.99 g

Londoner Mila, twelve, is an observant watcher and a solver of puzzles. Although “still, technically speaking, a child,” she considers herself more responsible than her absentminded translator father, Gil, and claims a higher emotional intelligence than her cool-headed musician mother (“If someone is angry or sad or disappointed, I see it like a neon sign”). So when Gil flies to New York to search for his oldest friend, Matthew, who has inexplicably disappeared, Mila accompanies him. The road-trip novel setup (Matthew’s wife sends them upstate to their camp in the Adirondacks, guessing he might be there) allows for much airing of Mila’s thought processes; many revelations about Matthew’s past, including the car accident in which his oldest son died; and the introduction of further, complicating, characters. Along the way Mila renews (via text) a broken friendship and begins her first maybe-a-romance with cute Jake, son of Matthew’s former girlfriend. Mila also begins texting, secretly, with Matthew, proud of her detective skills — and then has her world rocked when Gil reveals that he has been in touch with a desperate Matthew all along. The novel’s focus and central question — how much tragedy and guilt can a person bear before he gives up on life? — are thoroughly adult, and just a tad soap-operatic. But the writing is up to Rosoff’s usual standards of originality and wit: of Matthew’s wife, Mila says, “She’s not old but looks pinched, as if someone has forgotten to water her.” Martha V. Parravano

Reviewed in the November/December 2013 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

Boxers & Saints
by Gene Luen Yang; illus. by the author; color by Lark Pien
Middle School, High School     First Second/Roaring Brook     328 pp.
10/13     978-1-59643-359-5     $18.99

by Gene Luen Yang; illus. by the author; color by Lark Pien
Middle School, High School     First Second/Roaring Brook     172 pp.
10/13     978-1-59643-689-3     $15.99
Boxed set 978-1-59643-924-5     $34.99

Yang’s latest graphic novels are a “diptych” of books set during China’s Boxer Rebellion of the early twentieth century. Boxers follows Little Bao, a village boy with an affinity for opera; Saints centers on Four-Girl, an unloved and unwanted child who perfects a revolting “devil-face” expression. They meet fleetingly as children, foreshadowing their respective roles in the conflict to come. Little Bao, with the help of an eccentric kung fu master, learns to harness the power of ancient gods, forming the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist in an attempt to rid China of the “foreign devils” who spread Christianity across the country. Four-Girl sits squarely on the other side of the rebellion. After repeat visits from Joan of Arc in mystic visions, Four-Girl comes to the conclusion that she, too, is destined to become a maiden warrior. She converts to Christianity, takes the name Vibiana, and strives to protect China against the Little Bao–led uprising. The inevitable showdown between the two characters leads to a surprising and bleak conclusion. While neither volume truly stands alone (making for a significant price tag for the whole story), Yang’s characteristic infusions of magical realism, bursts of humor, and distinctively drawn characters are present in both books, which together make for a compelling read. Sam Bloom

Reviewed in the September/October 2013 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

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