Monday, May 08, 2006

A Really Good Meal For A Starving Reader

As a general rule, I don't seek out Newbery Medal winners. Somehow I've gotten the impression that they tend to be improving. Or sappy. Or improving and sappy.

So I wasn't looking for Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins. I didn't even know what it was about when I stumbled upon it at the library.

Which meant that I got to have an incredibly wonderful experience, because Criss Cross is an incredibly wonderful book.

I guess I'd have to say that Criss Cross is about yearning. It's about a group of kids (I've read in reviews that they're fourteen, but I missed the exact age when I was reading the book) whose lives criss cross over a summer in the 1960s. They're getting ready to be grown-up and move on with life.

Reviewers say the story is told in "vignettes." I would call them moments. Some of these moments don't seem terribly connected to some of the other moments, but when you are reading about each moment, you are there. You are in the moment.

This was the first book I read after I finished my wealthy-girl-gone-bad reading mission. As I started reading Criss Cross, I felt as if I were hungry and eating a really good meal at a nice restaurant. And by "nice," I mean a restaurant you really like, not necessarily a restaurant that has been labeled "nice" by someone else. I kept thinking, "This is so good," "This is fantastic," the way you would--or I would--if I were eating a really good meal.

There's stuff in here about learning to drive, listening to the radio, reading, guitar lessons, trying to connect with members of the opposite sex, a summer job, a summer fair, those awful booklets put out by companies that make sanitary napkins...There are moments about all these things.

I cannot exaggerate how much I enjoyed this book. It reminded me of Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, a favorite of my college years. But even as I was reading it, I wondered if kids would get it. How many of them would know who Julie Christie is? They would never be able to enjoy the subtle Jonathan Livingston Seagull reference.

Sure enough, if you read the reader reviews at Amazon, there are a lot of complaints--and not just from kids--because the reviewers think nothing happens. And before Criss Cross won the Newbery, there were only 20,000 copies in print. Hey, I wouldn't complain about that figure, but when you compare that to the numbers that a lot of lesser books manage to pull in, it does give one pause.

All I can say is, nothing does happen most summers. And yet everybody is different by fall.

The chair of the Newbery Committee described Criss Cross as an "...innovative, and risk-taking book in which nothing happens and everything happens." I think that's definitely the case. I think the Newbery Committee was innovative and risk-taking for giving this book its medal. I definitely will be paying a little more attention to their awards in the future.


fusenumber8 said...

Thank you! I freakin' loved that book. Of course, I'm also a huge "Dandelion Wine" fan as well. And I agree with you that there are similarities. I got a little of that from "The Penderwicks" as well.

Jackie Parker said...

Ok, well, here's my question. Admittedly , I've not actually read Criss Cross, but does the book actually depend on its time setting? I'm 25. I like old movies. I'm not an idiot when it comes to references from times before me. That said, referencing Julie Christy hits only the faintest niggling in my mind - that that I know I've once heard the name before. And Jonathan Livingston Seagull, I know I've never heard of before. Expecting a Newberry audience to understand those references is ludicrous. It may be true to its time, but is it not important to speak to your audience? Not speak down to them, but choose atmosperic references that will actually give them an actual feel for the setting/mood? Those examples would just be dead words to me. I'd skip right over them and receive no benefit. Perhaps I should be a better, more astute reader, but I doubt that I, or most readers, would take the time to look them up. I don't know. SO, I'll say again: Does the setting have to be placed in 1960? Is it integral to the plot?

Leila said...

I didn't have an issue with the book as a book -- much. (Other than all of the things I complained about in my review...)

I just don't see CC as a book that kids -- the audience the book is supposedly intended for -- will embrace. Someone else said this at my site recently -- that Criss Cross and (sorry, F#8) The Penderwicks are award winners partially because they're the kind of book that adults would like to see kids reading.

I also love Dandelion Wine. My absolute fave Bradbury is October Country, though.

Gail Gauthier said...

You're almost bringing up the question of what is the criteria for the Newbery's--are they given for a good "children's book" a book that children enjoy. I've wondered about this for years, and it's a big part of the reason I'm not that fond of Newbery books. They do seem to be books that adults like--a lot of the honor books, too. And that absolutlely may be the case with Criss Cross.

I had a big discussion about this with my editor sometime after Out of the Dust won and Dancing on the Edge got a lot of attention. They both seemed like women's victim books to me. My editor's spin was that the Newbery's did not award books that were good from a children's point of view. They awarded good writing, which was different.

If that is the case, I don't think the average parent and librarian knows that. I think a lot of people do think Newbery's should be books kids like.

No, I'm not at all sure if Criss Cross had to be set in the 60s. I do agree that there is a nostalgia factor that I don't think kids understand.

fusenumber8 said...

It's interesting that y'all have immediately decided that the book was set in the sixties. That was actually a huge point of debate amongst my colleagues and myself. Where is the evidence? She wears bellbottoms (which kids do today and in the 1980s as well). They listen to a show that might be Doctor Demento or might be something else. And they don't have cell phones. Aside from that, how do we know that this takes place in the past. I liked the book but Perkins was a bit loosey-goosey with the whole time period thing.

Gail Gauthier said...

I don't think a date is ever given in the text. The Booklist review at Amazon thinks it's set in the 1970s.

I like to think that it could be any time. However, when Debbie goes through her mother's memoribilia, she finds something that suggests that her mother saw Gone With the Wind when it came out. (I don't have the book any longer, so I can't check that.)Even if her mother was a child in 1938, she'd probably be having children in the 50s and Debbie would be in her early teens in the 60s. The illustration that is supposed to be of the mother when she was young has a very 40s/50s look, not at all the 70s/80s look that mothers of contemporary children would have.

The piano teacher wore a chain to hold her cardigan sweater together. Definitely not a contemporary look.

Hector goes with his sister to a coffee house where guitarists are performing. I'm sure that's still happening in some places, but I don't think it's very popular with teens.

The TV room in the cellar, the moms getting together and going down cellar to watch a soap opera--this all feels very 60s to me.

Does this matter? Does it make the book more meaningful to people who recall the era or can at least recognize these details? Maybe. I need to find some teenagers who have read this.