The past looms large this year for the National Book Award for young people’s literature, which will be given Nov. 16. All five finalists are set more than 40 years ago, with place and time ranging from an Alaskan boarding school in the 1960s to working-class Manhattan at the turn of the last century.
Chime (Dial, $17.99), the novel accidentally omitted from last month’s announcement of the finalists and then added later, opens in 1920 with the minister’s daughter, Briony Larkin, 17, on trial as a self-confessed witch. Although her London friend Eldric may talk of motorcars and electric lights, the girl’s fellow English villagers still live in fear of the monsters that haunt the nearby swamp. As she looks back on the incidents that led to her arrest, Briony reexamines memories related to her stepmother’s death, her father’s long absence and the accident that seemingly damaged her sister’s brain. Franny Billingsley’s lushly written fantasy takes some breathtaking turns as Briony pieces together clues involving her own writing and Eldric’s tiny sculptures to discover the true causes and effects. (Disclosure: Billingsley is a colleague of mine at Vermont College.)
Equally gripping is Flesh & Blood So Cheap (Knopf, $19.99), an account of the tragedy in 1911 at New York City’s Triangle Waist Co. and the workplace changes it galvanized across America. This nonfiction contender’s important strength is its examination of the terrible fire within the context of its time — and ours. Albert Marrin looks at immigration patterns (many of the victims were poor young women from Russia and Southern Italy) and the era’s sweatshop conditions (crowded rooms, locked doors) that led to Triangle’s 146 deaths. But he also traces these conditions and their repercussions to the garment industry today in the United States and abroad. In Bangladesh, a fire similar to Triangle’s killed 91 people, mostly teenage girls, in 2006. In drawing such vivid connections between past and present, Marrin highlights one vital reason to study history: to avoid making the same mistakes.
A fictional tale of more recent immigration is Inside Out & Back Again (Harper, $15.99), for which author Thanhha Lai drew upon her own childhood in Vietnam and Alabama. In 1975, 10-year-old Hà and her family flee Saigon in advance of the Communist takeover and end up in the United States. In my review in April , I called this novel in poems “unforgettable,” offering as it does “a child’s perspective on the fraught nature of starting anew.” Contributing greatly to the book’s power is Hà’s voice, which feels “wholly authentic as she schemes against school bullies and mourns the loss . . . of her homeland.”
Luke Aaluk, too, must travel far from his tundra home and build a new community at the Sacred Heart School in My Name Is Not Easy (Marshall Cavendish, $17.99). In the early 1960s, when this heartfelt novel is set, small American Indian and Eskimo villages had to send their children to distant boarding schools. Author Debby Dahl Edwardson follows Luke, a 12-year-old Inupiaq boy, for five years as he grapples with “giant nuns and mean priests,” secret medical tests and the rivalry between Eskimo and Indian students. She also deftly shifts the point of view to include other narrators (a protective Indian boy, a chatty white girl) and other time frames. The effect is stunning: a lively blend of voices, a nuanced perspective on events and a mutable sense of time, with “past and present and even future, all of it running together.”
A minor character in Gary D. Schmidt’s “The Wednesday Wars ” (2008 Newbery Honor), the bully Doug Swieteck assumes first-person status in the sequel, Okay for Now (Clarion, $16.99). By eighth grade in 1968, Doug has been so abused by his father and older brother that he narrates his story in a coded, rather circular way. He projects his feelings onto a series of birds in an Audubon book that he finds in his small-town library. To him, the “terrified eye” of the arctic tern and the silent scream of a dying gull reflect his mother’s frightened expression and his helpless reaction to his father’s cruelty. Through friendship with a feisty girl and the kindly librarian who is teaching him how to draw, Doug comes to trust his own perceptions and to open up a bit. Readers will finish this poignant novel of possibility and change by rooting for a guy who initially seems an unredeemable jerk.
Quattlebaum is a children’s author and regular reviewer for The Washington Post.