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The Librariest

I'm an elementary librarian in need of justifying the amount of books I reads aimed at eleven year-olds by organizing them on a nifty website.

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M. C. Higgins, the Great

M.C. Higgins, the Great - Virginia Hamilton I'm at a loss, I either want to give this book five stars or one. I see by the average of almost exactly three I am not alone.It took me most of the week to get M.C. read. I’m not sure what I expected, by the title maybe something along the lines of Ramona the Brave or The Great Gilly Hopkins – a mix of audaciousness self-delusion and vulnerability? Come to think of it, I guess that is what I got with M.C., but in such a different package from than what Cleary and Patterson delivered.Although I have a few questions for the committee that chose this book, I can see why it might have drifted to the top of the top of the list in 1975. I have the desire to discuss this book for hours and days with other readers. I wish to discover what they found that I missed and to share the juicy nuggets that I found so delectable. And to bang my head with others who may have also found it frustratingly slow and tedious.Hamilton creates such fully realized characters that I was left knowing what M.C.’s, Jones’, or Ben’s reactions would be if placed in an entirely different place and time. Hamilton never tells us what we should think of M.C. instead she shows us a character that is arrogant and dependable, misogynistic and protective, bigoted and loyal. We only see him where he reigns supreme, in the small nucleus of his world on the mountain. We know that he leaves the mountain to go town during the school year, but we never see him out of his element until he visits the Killburn commune, where suddenly his footing, his dignity, and his very perceptions are shaken. (Can I just interject that I loved watching Ben swagger while he was on his home turf.) M.C.’s desire to get off the mountain is at odds with his naïve comprehension of the world at large.Interspersed between M.C.’s coming of age arc is a story of relationships. As with the other aspects of this book these are exquisitely honed. My favorite is M.C.s relationships with both his parents. I found a profound honesty that I’ve discovered in my life. Children have one relationship with their parents when presented as a united entity and completely different relationship with them individually. The combativeness he has with his father is at odds with the camaraderie he shares his mother, but the authority of who leads the family remains intact. Hamilton creates such a dense sense of setting that if I were to take a wrong turn some night driving through the Ohio River Valley and stumbled on Sarah’s Mountain, I would be no more lost than The Dude. Granted, I would be plenty disoriented, but able to recognize major landmarks, particularly that odd pole poking up from the crest of the mountain.It feels like the essence of this story could be distilled down to a few drops of rich broth: Circumstances don’t need to determine destiny. Fresh eyes may be required to expose bigotry. Family is both stifling and expanding. Roots anchor but also encumber.Hamilton’s stylistic language is gorgeous. I wished more than once that I could hear this read aloud. I wanted the cadence to go with the unique verbiage. I was also intrigued by the fact that Virginia Hamilton was the first African-American to be awarded the Newbery medal. But unlike Roll of Thunder, I didn’t feel like this was a novel about the American Black experience. It was a novel where the characters happened to be of color Their story extended beyond race. We are still in short supply of books of this ilk today. I did find myself frustrated in what I didn’t know. I wanted to know the broader racial makeup of the nearby communities. Was the town mostly white? Where the mountain folks mostly of color? What was the race of The Dude? How did a runaway slave find the resources to “own” a mountain? The answers are not important to M.C.’s story, and I think Hamilton trusts her reader to infer most of these answers. I can be just a bit denser than the average reader.M.C. Higgins, the Great is a title that stretches the Newbery caveat, “a book for which children are an intended potential audience”, to its narrowest limit. I keep thinking that if I were to recommend this book to one of my students, the ensuing head-scratching would result in serious hair loss. Because of its subtlety, I also believe pushes the upper age range. I’ve chosen this year to read my honor’s books from. I have read The Perilous Guard many times and am eager to see what the others have to offer. I figured out that I was eleven when these awards were announced. I secretly think of this age as the prime Newbery target. I would never have been ready for M.C. when it came out.