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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

These Are the Times That Try Men’s Souls

Style is one of the Newbery criteria.  Defining it can be a challenging thing, but we often know it when we see it.  See if you can spot which sentence–all very similar in meaning–is distinguished for its style.  (You may recognize these examples from THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE by Strunk and White.)
 
1.  Times like these try men’s souls.
 
2.  How trying it is to live in these times!
 
3.  These are trying times for men’s souls.
 
4.  Soulwise, these are trying times.
 
5.  These are the times that try men’s souls.
 
Clearly, the last sentence has that intangible combination of style that has allowed it to endure through several centuries.  E.B. White suggests that we could talk about style in terms of rhythm or cadence or word choice, but that in the end it remains elusive and mysterious.
 
While style refers not just to sentence-level writing, but also the big picture that emerges from those sentences–things such as making inferences in WHEN YOU REACH ME or the humor and satire of A SEASON OF GIFTS–for the purposes of this post, I’d like to focus on sentence-level writing with some examples from Team Nonfiction because I think many of us have the assumption that fiction has an advantage in this department, and perhaps that has been so in the past, but it’s certainly not the case this year.  Consider the following passages, selected randomly from books on my shelves, as examples of distinguished prose; all but the Murphy are first lines.   
 
ALMOST ASTRONAUNTS by Tanya Lee Stone
 
One woman stands alone, off to the side of the crowd.
 
She paces back and forth–agitated, excited, impatient.
 
From the back, it is hard to tell her age; her faded brown leather jacket and blond ponytail reveal nothing.  But if she were to turn to glance at the group of women on the observation bleachers behind her, you would see the lines of time etched on her face.  You would see a smile tinged with sadness.
 
BUTTERFLIES AND MOTHS by Nic Bishop
 
There is no mistaking a butterfly.  Its colorful wings skip in the air like petals blown by the wind.  Blues, reds, and yellows dance in the sunlight.  Some shimmer like tinsel.
 
A creature so beautiful should belong in a fairy tale.  But butterflies are real.  They dance through the woods and glide over fields.  You can see them in parks and backyards.  And they always catch your attention.
 
CHARLES AND EMMA by Deborah Heiligman
 
In the summer of 1838, in his rented rooms on Great Marlborough Street, London, Charles Darwin drew a line down the middle of a piece of scrap paper.  He had been back in England for almost two years, after a monumental voyage around the world.  He was in his late twenties.  It was time to decide.  Across the top of the left-hand side he wrote Marry.  On the right he wrote Not Marry.  And in the middle: This is the Question.
 
CLAUDETTE COLVIN by Philip Hoose
 
If, like Claudette Colvin, you grew up black in central Alabama during the 1940s and 1950s, Jim Crow controlled your life from womb to tomb.  Black and white babies were born in separate hospitals, lived their adult lives apart from one another, and were buried in separate cemeteries.  The races were segregated by a dense, carefully woven web of laws, signs, partitions, arrows, ordinances, unequal opportunities, rules, insults, threats, and customs–often backed up by violence.  Together, the whole system of racial segregation was known as "Jim Crow."
 
A SAVAGE THUNDER by Jim Murphy
 
A retreat is a complicated and dangerous procedure.  The trick is to get tens of thousands of exhausted, dazed, and sometimes wounded soliders away from the enemy as quickly and as quietly as possible.  This is even more difficult at night in rugged and unfamiliar terrain.
 
What about each of these passages strikes you as distinguished (or does not strike you as distinguished)?  And which books have you found exemplary of distinguished sentence-level writing this year?
 
 
 
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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. Monica Edinger says:

    I’m currently reading the Hoose and am very struck by the excellent sentence-level writing.

  2. Wendy says:

    One of the things I didn’t care for about My One Hundred Adventures last year was that I kept feeling like I was reading “beautiful writing”, which kind of makes me crazy. I said sort of pompously that if you kept feeling like you wanted to mark passages of a book because they were just so beautifully written, that was taking you out of the story and wasn’t a good thing… I guess I think a book with distinguished style has great writing, but those sentences are never just for the sake of their beauty.

    Calpurnia Tate is one standing out for me so far. I opened to a random page just now, intending to look back for a particular sentence, and found a great example right there:

    “[Granddaddy] whistled some Mozart for a while and then broke into song, something rude about a drunken sailor and what should be done about him. To pass the time, he taught me the words.”

  3. AC says:

    Sorry to change subject,but is anyone else not seeing any SLJ blogs updated in Google Reader? I tried canceling the subscription and subscribing again but the latest I see is Sept 30th.

  4. Jess says:

    I agree with Wendy about Calpurnia – I thought the sentence level writing was great, but in a way that enhanced the story and added to the mood and atmosphere. Rather than distracting me from the story, it pulled me further in.

    I’m also a big fan of Jim Murphy’s style of historical fiction – he pulls me in as though I’m reading a novel, although I haven’t had a chance to look at A Savage Thunder yet.

  5. Sondy says:

    I just finished a book that completely captivated me — Any Which Wall, by Laurel Snyder. But it captivated me because she wrote a book that beautifully mimicked the style and content of the Edward Eager books I loved so much as a child. Is style “distinguished” if it’s imitating someone else?
    On the sentence level, here’s a random sentence I like:
    “Then, at the beginning of the third week, Emma learned to ride the shiny green bike she’d gotten for her sixth birthday only the month before, and that’s when the summer opened up like a giant map unfolding — full of mud puddles and climbing trees and trips to the library.”

  6. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Is a style distinguished if it’s imitating someone else? I think it can be, but you have to be really careful that the book itself is distinguished rather than the one it’s paying homage to. What about THE PENDERWICKS by Jeanne Birdsall (winner of the National Book Award, but blanked by the Newbery committee)? This, too, was an homage to Edward Eager and Elizabeth Enright. Was it distinguished? I think so.

  7. Christina Fairman says:

    This discussion highlights something that has always intrigued me – what is it that keeps our attention in a book, that pushes us to turn pages even if it is 1AM and we must go to sleep but we just *have to* find out what happens?

    My example of beautiful prose would have to be M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. The opening lines are poignant and perfectly chosen: “I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees. I recall, in the orchard behind the house, orbs of flames rising through the black boughs and branches; they climbed, spiritous, and flickered out; my mother squeezed my hand with delight. We stood near the door to the ice-chamber.”

  8. a teacher says:

    I’m not thrilled about A Season for Gifts or Calpurnia, and wonder why novels like Any Which Wall are not getting more attention. Why do Newbery novels always have to be historical pieces with epic, slow moving, boring plots? Why not some more fantasy? That’s what kids LOVE! The Graveyard Book, Savvy, The Underneath . . . one couldn’t have asked for more exciting titles last year! Are there any titles like these this year (besides When You Reach Me) that explore fantastical elements while appealing to kids?

    I really enjoyed ANY WHICH WALL!

  9. wise says:

    Men who are sincere in defending their freedom, will always feel concern at every circumstance which seems to make against them. Our army must undoubtedly feel fatigue, and want a reinforcement of rest though not of valor. Our own interest and happiness call upon us to give them every support in our power, and make the burden of the date, on which the safety of this city depends, as light as possible. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country he was talking quite literally in the former case about the fair-weather friends of the Revolution. Many of the “summer soldier” were farmers who would join up with the Army when their crops were planted, fight with them during the summer, and go back home to help with the harvest.

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