Moon Over Manifest
I have mixed feelings about Moon Over Manifest, Clare Vanderpool’s debut novel and the most recent Newbery winner. On the one hand, I love the protagonist, twelve-year-old Abilene Tucker, whose strength of character and curiosity allow her to thrive in a new town during a summer-long absence from the only parent she has ever known. She makes friends despite feeling ostracized, motivates herself through unnerving situations, and commits herself to helping the misunderstood Miss Sadie well beyond the bounds of duty. I like how she follows the breadcrumbs to learn more about her father’s background, and how she solves a thirteen-year-old mystery. I like her willingness to dig in and work hard, physically and intellectually. And I like many of the secondary characters who befriend her, like kind Hattie Mae at the newspaper and the unconventional Sister Redempta. I appreciate that the author doesn’t shy away from so-called adult issues and that she pushes the young reader to pay attention to structure with her chronological back-and-forth.
But on the other hand, I find that though the “good guys” are morally and socially complex, the “bad guys” are simply bad. There are passages where the narrative shifts tone and reads more like an early draft than a fully-edited work. And the inclusion of a medium and the setting of the south during WWI and then the Depression, combined with the strong female hero coming of age, seem to recap the classic Newbery novel—which is not a slight on this story but perhaps more a judgment on the Newbery selection criteria, as though anyone who drops the classic elements into a jar and shakes it well has a good chance of pouring out a winner. (Take a look at Turtle in Paradise, which tops the list of this year’s Newbery Honor books, for an easy example.)
So though I disagree that Moon Over Manifest is “the most distinguished American children’s book” of 2010 (as crowned by the Newbery), I have already recommended it to several young readers; and if Vanderpool’s writing matures with experience, her future titles will be strong contenders for another medal.