Bridge Constructor, the iPad game, has only 367 reviews. This odd little game gives users a span between two land masses and some materials (some of which might be inadequate to the task). The task? Build a bridge. Once completed, the bridge might look good, but the real test comes when the user crosses his/her fingers and sends a truck trundling across. If the bridge bears the weight of the truck, success! If not, the bridge and the truck collapse into the abyss. Perhaps you are not surprised it has not had wider appeal.
Living in a river town with numerous bridges, I have spent my life trusting these structures. For the most part, I've not considered the complexity required to actually build one. I have, however, considered how different my daily life would be without them. In Pam Muñoz Ryan's latest, Mañanaland, the main character, Max, lives with his Papá and Buelo, both respected stonemasons and bridge builders. Their small village of Santa Maria is known as "the land of a hundred bridges," and throughout the book, we are reminded of the creativity and compassion, the complexity and necessity of a bridge well built.
Muñoz Ryan is not afraid of language - whether it is sprinklings of Spanish or bridge engineering terminology, readers are treated to a story that feels at once foreign and familiar, informative and imaginative, depending on your background. Some may already know what a spandrel wall or a caja sorpresa is; others may be familiar with the taste of a leche quemada or need no translation of favor con favor se paga; regardless of your background, however, this tale will enchant you and leave you feeling like you are standing on top of a bridge, looking out into vast and unforeseeable goodness.
Early on, Buelo explains
"The new bridge will allow one side of the river to safely hold hands with the other . . ."
and Max finishes with
"First things first, then stone by stone. That's how to accomplish anything well."
Papá is proud of Max, but he worries, and he wants Max to focus on what is practical, what is safe, the things that are grounded in the realities of today. Buelo, on the other hand, encourages Max's love of stories, inspiring him to dream of secret bridges guarded by a special gatekeeper, one who may be able to help find things that have been lost, who may be able to guide you to the place where you can hold tomorrow in the palm of your hand.
Max is an average boy, beloved by his family, missing his mother who disappeared when he was a baby, hoping to make the village fútbol team, hoping for a happy ending. Just as she weaves the languages of bridges and villages, Muñoz Ryan also weaves in moments of magical realism, an uncommon element in Middle Grades fiction where things are usually either fantasy or not, science fiction or not. Mañanaland is all of the above. It is true and make-believe, about a boy and about all of us, and above all else about uncertainty and hope.
In today's cultural climate, it is very easy to feel like those inexperienced bridge builders. All we have is the span between us and the fact that our materials may be inadequate. But as Buelo and Max remind us, the only way to accomplish anything well is stone by stone. The only way to hold hands across a river is just as Papá says:
"It's just people helping people."
We may not know anything about keystones or revetments, but we can all do that.
The 2021 Newbery Medal selection committee spends the whole year considering titles. As always, I will be reading and reviewing along with the committee, keeping one eye on today's young readers and the other eye on each book's prospects. After each review, I'll offer my one-sentence take (OST) on medal-worthiness.
OST: There will be lots of talk about this one, and some will fight hard for its unique message and method.
Previous titles under consideration: