The Dunderheads, Part Two
October 27, 2009 By 29 Comments
In the short introductory section, you can see how Fleischman is able to superbly characterize Miss Breakbone with just a handful of details. The Dunderheads are characterized with even greater economy, nicknames–which not only summarize their talents but foreshadow their part in the plot–coupled with a few details (e.g. I nodded to Clips. His reading scores were low. His math scores were worse. But if they tested for paper-clip chains . . .). While it’s true that the characters remain little more than types, it’s a remarkable feat of characterization considering that Fleischman introduces ten of the Dunderheads–Einstein, Junkyard, Hollywood, Clips, Wheels, Pencil, Google-Eyes, Nails, Spider, and Spitball–and Miss Breakbone in such a short text. There is no character development unless we can consider the Dunderheads as a single entity. It’s not that the Dunderheads grow and change over the course of the story as much as our understanding of them grows and changes. They continually surprise us, first with their unique talents and then with their cooperation and synergy.
This is not a character-driven story, however, but a plot-driven one. The central conflict is delineated early and the subsequent events flow logically and effortlessly toward its resolution with a great sense of pacing and suspense. It’s hard to think of a novel with a similar degree of execution in the plot. The nice clean plot arc works beautifully for newly independent readers–don’t be surprised if this one also gets a Geisel sticker; Fleischman may be the only one who can wrest it away from Mo Willems–while the language also makes it a delicious read aloud.
I love the wordplay in that opening line, and how the typeface reflects the escalating volume in Miss Breakbone’s voice. If the text never quite rises again to similar heights, there is still some great imagery ("Spider went up the drainpipe like malt up a straw") and ("The dogs dropped like marionettes.") and the humorous tone remains consistent throughout the text. I don’t need to remind you how funny books get short shrift in the Newbery process. Moreover, the tone of this story is reminiscent of a hard-boiled detective novel, a wonderful stylistic quality. I believe this is why one commenter thought the text read older than your typical picture book, and while this may be true, I certainly don’t think it reads any older than DOCTOR DE SOTO with its million dollar vocabulary. Fleischman has listed some of his influences for the story, but Miss Breakbone is a delicious villain, one that could have easily stepped out of a Road Dahl book, while the Dunderheads–they remind me of James Marshall, particularly the class in MISS NELSON IS MISSING and boys in THE CUT UPS.
Cooperation and teamwork are the major themes here, and there is an additional subversive quality that makes them particularly enjoyable. If the themes don’t seem as deep and weighty as the Sunday-School-Lesson-in-a-Haiku of HOOK, they certainly aren’t any more trivial than the themes in DOCTOR DE SOTO, arguably the greatest picture book in the entire canon.
If this is the weakest element, then it must be noted that (a) the setting in a picture book is typically conveyed in the illustrations and (b) contemporary settings tend to be more transparent than their fantasy and historical counterparts (even more true of novels than of picture books). You can find text that addresses the setting, but the economy of the text doesn’t allow it to shine. We could say the same of every modern picture book Newbery.
I find all the elements of THE DUNDERHEADS distinguished (although I do make concessions for setting because of the picture book genre), and I find the elements of plot and style to be most distinguished. Now novels and picture books are such wildly different texts that you may find it hard to compare them head-to-head (indeed, many of you simply refused to do it for HOOK). Here’s another way of looking at it: Is this a better apple or is that a better orange? Does THE DUNDERHEADS more closely approach perfection as a picture book or does WHEN YOU REACH ME more closely approach perfection as a novel. Now I could never throw out these names from the canon around the Newbery table because they were not published this year, but I think the best picture books are FROG AND TOAD TOGETHER and DOCTOR DE SOTO while I might say that the best novel in the canon is THE WESTING GAME with A WRINKLE IN TIME somewhere in that upper echelon. I don’t think either THE DUNDERHEADS or WHEN YOU REACH ME matches or exceeds the books mentioned, but I think the gap between THE DUNDERHEADS is much, much closer than the one between WHEN YOU REACH ME and its ideal. Ergo, THE DUNDERHEADS is absolutely worthy of Newbery recognition.