It’s no secret that the winner of the Newbery Award, Moon Over Manifest, came as a surprise to much of the children’s literature community. But why? First, the book was released in October of 2010, meaning that it missed the opportunity for buzz to build over the year. It also wouldn’t have had time to make it to many libraries, who would then be unable to include it in their mock Newbery discussions. Second, the book was an author debut and as such, wasn’t big on the radar or probably on purchase orders. But the third reason interests me the most, and that is that some people who were actively looking to guess the Newbery winners had this book, read a few chapters, and put it down. I’m thinking specifically of the Heavy Medal blog, but I doubt they were the only ones. I had the book myself, skimmed the beginning, and didn’t pursue it.
It’s not that the book is bad, but it is a real slow starter. I’m not even talking the fifty-page rule that dedicated readers give a book. For me, it wasn’t until I was halfway through the three-hundred-fifty-page book before I was invested in it. The little pieces planted in along the way started to come together with explanation and meaning. The story started to build momentum and tension until a point at which a twist, and then another twist really brought it home.
When I put it down at that moment, after the roller-coaster ride of the ending, I totally understood why this book won the Newbery Medal. Because I left it feeling like I’d watched an exciting movie, for which the lengthy setup had left me completely unprepared. It was like going in watching The Remains of the Day and coming out watching Ocean’s Eleven. That was unexpected — and as such, kind of cool — and I closed the book thinking that this was indeed the best of the year. For about a day.
But the more it sat with me, the more I resented the long buildup in a children’s book. I persevered because I knew it had won the award. Also because adult books often have a more meandering style, so it was still within my comfort zone for reading. But I see it as a notable flaw that it was so hard to get into the book, especially considering the target age — which is not actually adults.
Also, the more I thought about it, the less satisfied I was with some of the resolutions. A big part of the buildup is the allusion to something the town is trying to forget or even to hide. At the same time there’s a recurring suggestion that Abilene’s dad left the town because of his own hurt or shame. I wondered if we were coming up on some wild version of “The Lottery.” Now that would be some dark writing. But it turns out that while the secret is fun to discover, it’s not something that a town would consider its dark past. And the catalyst event for the mourning that hangs over the town and Abilene’s dad is that a young man died in a war and her dad helped him sign up. That’s it? I waded through all of that setup and that’s all you’ve got for me? It felt cautious. Like the author couldn’t bear to put a more realistic amount of accountability on the father or the town.
Overall, Moon Over Manifest is a good book. It’s slow, for sure. It’s more observation then action. There are some problems with the resolutions, though others are brilliantly done. There are passages that lean too heavily on the meaningful metaphor, especially in the first few pages. But there is definite skill in linking the two stories of past and present. There is a tremendous amount of attention given to characters with depth and purpose. The book sets a scene, a time, a place with great flavor and detail.
As I said as I started this discussion, I don’t think it’s a bad book. But I do think that there are flaws that don’t make it the ideal gold medal winner. I especially have concern with the highest-award-winning book for children being a book that has the pacing of an adult book, leading me to wonder how accessible it is to kids.
So what do you think about it?
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