Usually, when I see a book with a Newbery medal, I’m skeptical of the contents. Although Newbery medal or honor winners are said to be the “most distinguished [contributions] to American literature for children,” my own experience as a student who had to read way too many of them is that there was always something wrong within their pages. (And my parents were told that, because the books had earned these accolades, surely they must be 100% age-appropriate!)
Maybe it was just the specific Newbery-winning authors whose books kept showing up as assigned reading in my grade school days, or maybe the people over at the Newbery Awards judging panel tend to turn a blind eye to kids’ books containing “cuss” words, sexual innuendo, and sometimes worse (mind you, said offensive material tended to have no plot-related place in the story, and it was always the same sort of things that would get a kid sent to detention if they said aloud in class) but I can speak with experience that just because a book has been awarded a Newbery Honor Award or Medal, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s actually appropriate for its intended audience.
With Clare Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest, though, I’ll admit I was very impressed. The narrator, a tween named Abilene Tucker, is sent away to live in a small town called Manifest, Kansas, the sort of town where everyone knows everyone and word travels fast. There, her father has friends, like the town’s pastor, an unlikely fellow for the job named Shady Howard.
This move is especially difficult for Abilene because she has a very close relationship with her father, her only living family member. Despite this closeness, she doesn’t actually know much about her father’s past. To paraphrase Donna Noble once said in Doctor Who, he talks so much, but he doesn’t actually say anything about himself.
When Abilene comes to Manifest, she uncovers some uncanny secrets about the town’s past, but in the process, she also learns some things she didn’t know before about her father.
Abilene’s voice throughout the story is the perfect mix between childish and world-wary, spunky and chutzpahdik without being snarky, and altogether lovely to hear ringing from Vanderpool’s pages. This is a style I’ve always tried to portray myself in my own female characters, and Ms. Vanderpool has it down pat.
There were some aspects of the story I did not enjoy, but they were minor details that were outweighed by far more awesome elements. The author proved herself not only talented, but truly capable of penning a children’s tale that is compelling and exciting, without having to use any of that “birds and bees” talk to fill in space.
All in all, Moon Over Manifest was an endearing, and truly distinguished, piece of children’s literature.