|Life: An Exploded Diagram
by Mal Peet
by Brian Selznick
School Library Journal, being the efficient operation that it is, had all four of the books from the previous round in this bracket sent to me before I got started. All four were still in play, and they want the judges to be able to get right out of the blocks when the time comes. My first reaction when all four had arrived was:
My goodness, there’s a lot of talent in the room.
Shortly thereafter, though, I got the word that two of the titles had been eliminated and I didn’t need to feel quite as intimidated and overwhelmed. My new feeling was:
My goodness, there’s a lot of talent in the room.
The two titles I had to judge were Brian Selznick’s WONDERSTRUCK and Mal Peet’s LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM.
WONDERSTRUCK was the first one to emerge from the first round, and so we’ll start there. My lovely missus, who is an artist, checked out what I was up to, examining Selznick’s work in particular. We have a running gag in my house about being jealous of creative artists who are gifted with both lavish and varied talents. She spent a bit of time with both the text and the artwork of WONDERSTRUCK.
“So, you gonna hate him?” she says.
“Well, I’m gonna try,” I says.
Happy to report that I failed miserably in this attempt. Combining two narratives in two formats (prose and pictures), beginning in two eras (1970s and 1920s) in two very different locales (Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, and Hoboken, New Jersey), Mr. Selznick manages to blend these elements into something that manages to be both charming and compelling. Ben’s story in prose leads the way in the early going as we try to pick up the thread of Rose’s story in 1927. Reasonably enough, the pictures take more time to accumulate as narrative, but they steadily gain in power and wind up having at least as much impact as the words. The drawings are black-and-white, and at the same time, luminous.
The book shares with LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM an almost effortless feel for the flow of family history, and a gift for making it matter to the reader. Without wanting to give away too much here, Rose sets out on a quest 50 years ahead of Ben, but ultimately they are on a path to meet each other over the barriers of time and geography and emotional upheavals. There are decisions that have been made by characters seeking to protect themselves or their loved ones which reverberate down the years and invite the reader to jump in and debate the whys of it all—just like we were part of the family. We can get mad at them sometimes (I did), but it would take a hardened heart not to care about them. The pages practically turned themselves as the questions accumulated about Ben’s roots and the identities of the cast of characters who pass through both his and Rose’s lives.
By the time we got to the Queens Museum of Art, this reader was utterly and equally entranced by both the pictures and the words. When the lad, both orphaned and deafened, finally connects with Rose (deaf, as well), and with all his lineage of people, it’s a deeply satisfying result.
There is, I understand, a certain randomness to the assembly of the brackets in this competition. And these two books certainly look wildly different at first glance (OK, later they do, too), but one definitely segues nicely into the other in terms of their attention to the family tree. At least, the family tree reaching back to the early 20th century.
The view from here says it is impossible to discuss LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM without addressing the question of whether it is a YA book.
So there. We’ve discussed it.
OK, let’s say this: If you wanted to be picky about it, you might say that the story really hits YA stride when our boy, Clem Ackroyd, moves to the council estate and then onto the secondary school. Before that he’s not really the center, and it amounts to a sort of 75 page preamble.
But what a bleddy brilliant preamble. (It could take a while to get Norfolk out of my head.)
The manner in which Peet delivers the basics of the family history plays with the rules of narration in a way that should be more troubling than it is. Third person omniscient, first person, back and forth in time starting with the moment of the labor that produced Clem himself and then going back to tell us about his grandmother’s childhood, could all disorient a person. And yet, there it was, mocking narrative convention, calling attention to itself…
And pulling it off.
If I may echo the Clinton war room motto: It’s the writing, stupid.
There is just so much excellent writing in this book, that it not only makes one inclined to forgive transgressions, it makes one inclined to enjoy them.
The history of modern Britain, as it pertained to the regular Joe and Joan of rural Norfolk, is delivered with precision, exquisitely judged detail, and above all sly, delicious humor. “Also in the year 1956, a rockabilly American singer called Carl Perkins released a song called `Blue Suede Shoes.’ Being about fashionable footwear, it left the people of Norfolk largely unmoved.”
It is a very quotable book.
On the disappointing Britain that Clem’s father found on returning from WWII: “They’d fought—he’d fought—for sex. To capture the brothels of Benghazi and Tripoli from the Italians, the Germans. Then take the tricks learned there home to the wives and girlfriends who were starving for it. Unless the ruddy Yanks had been there first.”
And Peet is just as sharp in turning these observations to characterization. Clem’s father, George again, sizing up a man critically: “Even from across the desk, his breath was rank. He had thin colorless hair greased over the top of his head, and he did not convincingly occupy his clothes.”
By the time we get to the central cross-classes relationship between Clem and the landowner’s daughter, Frankie, we are in familiar YA territory in the best possible sense. The sexual charge, the fear and frustration and tenderness between them is palpable. Alternating between the very real details of this fraught relationship (discovery will mean chaos for both families in a very class-conscious time and place), and the bigger global mayhem of the Cold War, the author unfurls one sure and convincing scene after another.
I was uncertain, for a while, how I felt about the straightforward and very insider-ish narration employed in the chapters on the Cuban Missile Crisis. As someone who is fairly familiar with the information the book provides on this subject, I kept wondering, can I skip ahead a bit here? How ’bout here?
It is to the book’s credit that, time and again, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It was, regardless of what I thought I already knew, compelling stuff, winningly rendered. And then I thought about the adolescents who are most likely new to much of that material, and I realized this book is really firing on a lot of different levels.
So, the outcome. It was a privilege to be asked to weigh in on both of these fine books. But despite the wonder undeniably struck by Brian Selznick, I have to go with Mal Peet on the strength of yer bleddy brilliant writing.
It really is going to take some time to get Norfolk out of the system.
– Judge Chris Lynch
And the Winner of this match is……
LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM
Yes! I’m quite pleased with this decision. I love WONDERSTRUCK, but I think LIFE is one of the more underrated books of the year. My only disappointment with WONDERSTRUCK bowing out here is that its loss robs DRAWING FROM MEMORY of yet another chance to go head-to-head with a words-and-pictures kind of book. I mean, first HEART AND SOUL narrowly misses its path, and now WONDERSTRUCK. On the other hand, LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM has racked up back-to-back raves, first from Lauren Myracle and now from Chris Lynch, despite the questionable teen appeal of the book. It’s starting to remind me of THE RING OF SOLOMON last year, when many of the judges were surprised by how much they loved the book, despite the fact that they didn’t normally read in the fantasy genre.
A harbinger of things to come, perhaps?
– Commentator Jonathan Hunt
With many of the previous matches, the two books competing against each other were quite similar in their genres and writing styles. This made for very interesting battles, but I was quite pleased when I learned that Wonderstruck would face Life: An Exploded Diagram in the final match of Round 2. Comparing prose and pictures is often a difficult feat, and I found it quite hard to do. With Wonderstruck’s undeniable charm and phenomenal illustrations, I am in denial that the novel did not leave the match victorious. Then I realized what Selznick’s fantastical work of art was going up against, and the odds were not in its favor. Life: An Exploded Diagram is an incredibly brilliant historical piece, and I enjoyed it immensely. Last year, I was a devoted supporter to Countdown, a novel that touched upon the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I was instantly fascinated by the subject. I was very content when I learned that there would be another book in this year’s BoB that would discuss the subject in detail. After reading the novel, I was instantaneously transfixed by the author’s witty, brilliant writing style. As much as I enjoyed Wonderstruck, Life: An Exploded Diagram deserves to continue on to Round 3.
– Kid Commentator GI