Wendy wanted to know how I could possibly rate KEEPER higher than ONE CRAZY SUMMER, and now that I’ve reread both books, I can address that question.
PLOT: The action of this story is very slight, but through the use of short chapters and numerous flashbacks, Appelt infuses it with lots of suspense. Ultimately, we want to know how Keeper will be saved from the boat, and along the way we hope to learn, first, the details of her fateful day and, second, the backstory of each of the individual characters.
CHARACTER: The entire ensemble–Keeper, Dogie, Signe, and Mr. Beauchamp–is not only flesh and blood, but they grow and change over the course of the story, or rather our understanding of them grows and changes as we come to realize their true natures. The animal characters are also a nice addition.
SETTING: Whereas Turner vividly creates a vast world in A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS, Appelt works similar magic with a small stretch of Texas coastline, creating a world unto itself. The physical description of this place is woven throughout and complemented by occasional digressions into history and science such as the one we are treated to in chapter 19 which begins on page 72.
The Texas coast forms an arc, like a rainbow, hugging the salty water of the Gulf of Mexico, laden with redfish and electric eels and speckled trout, cabbage heads and jellyfish and flounders. Right there, nestled between Galveston to the north and Corpus Christi to the south, right at the foot of a salt grass marsh, lies a narrow strip of quiet beach, isolated but for an oyster shell road that starts inland from a tiny town called Tater.
But long before Tater . . .
STYLE: I think this quote also provides evidence of the prose style of Appelt: simple and direct, but also poetic, too. And, too, the story has the quality of a fable or magical realism.
THEME: I love how this little ensemble cast is a microcosm of the world: black, white, gay, straight, child, adult, human, animal, supernatural. All of the characters are yearning for love, and this really resonated with me in a powerful way. From page 260–
Love, thought Mr. Beauchamp. It’s not something to be put off. It’s too hard to find. The old man knew this to be a true thing: Don’t put off love, no matter what.
PLOT: Like KEEPER, this is a character-driven story. Nevertheless, I do find elements of a distinguished plot. Of course, the enigma that is Cecile will keep the pages turning, but Williams-Garcia also keeps readers waiting to learn about the mystery of Fern’s name and what Fern saw at the bus stop. Still, I have to give the edge in this category to Appelt simply because she has more suspense despite less action.
CHARACTER: The edge in this category, however, goes to Williams-Garcia. The family dynamic between all these females (Big Ma, Cecile, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern) is complex and intricate. Cecile has a distinctly different relationship with each of these girls and Delphine’s voice is able to capture that. Cecile reminds me slightly of Grandma Dowdel in A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO; each interaction between her and the girls peels back another layer of the onion. The pivotal point is when Cecile gets arrested. To that point, the girls have been lukewarm about the Cecile and the message of the Black Panthers, but this event galvanizes them, and Williams-Garcia shows us this, rather than letting Delphine explicitly tell us.
SETTING: Williams-Garcia vividly captures the time and the place–and as Nina mentioned much of the setting is grounded in the Delphine’s voice, her perceptions of her world. I’d still give the edge to Appelt here, but I suspect this may have more to do with my preference for third person and the fantasy genre, so let’s generously call this a draw.
STYLE: It’s a strong narrative voice with intelligence, lots of humor, and a little bit of angst. I’m not partial to first person, but this one won me over, and I suspect that if I heard that audiobook that I may fall head over heels. I’m resistant to the voice of KEEPER, too, however, because it has a too-cute-for-its-own-good vibe that normally turns me off. I would call this, too, a draw.
THEME: This is really a coming of age novel, especially for Delphine, and being a fish out of water, so to speak, brilliantly brings this into sharp relief. During this one crazy summer, she learns quite a bit about her mother and quite a bit about the world, and these themes dovetail very nicely. On the first read, I preferred theme in KEEPER, but this one has grown on me tremendously in the second read, and thus the jury is still out . . .
So, yeah, I’d probably still pick KEEPER, but not by much. Not by much at all, and I can be convinced to go the other way. A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS and SUGAR CHANGED THE WORLD are still stuck at the top of my list, but I suspect those will be a chore to build consensus around (ditto for the picture books), so when it comes to middle grade fiction I do think these are two of the finest offerings of the year, and I can get behind both. Still need to reread THE DREAMER and THE KNEEBONE BOY, though. So perhaps my realignment is not yet finished.
I am left with the sense, however, that in comparison to last year where WHEN YOU REACH ME was clearly in a class by itself (in terms of middle grade fiction), whatever might be deemed the best middle grade fiction this year will simply be first among equals. Over to you, Wendy. Why is it “inexplicable” that I should prefer KEEPER to ONE CRAZY SUMMER (or THE KNEEBONE BOY)?