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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Retrospect and Audience

A Conspiracy of Kings, p.117

“…the magus said thoughtfully, ‘That lying little monster complained about everything: the food, the horses, the blankets, the company. He even found falut with the stories I told by the fire, but I cannot recall that he ever once complained about the climbing.’

‘So many things are obvious in retrospect, aren’t they?’ I said.”

This double-crossing in-joke of Megan Whalen Turner’s is the iconic moment that I think of first when I think of A Conspiracy of Kings.  In it, she allows the reader to feel as if he or she is uncovering a cleverness…yes, a clue from The Thief that is obvious in retrospect.  But what the reader doesn’t realize at this point in Conspiracy is that Turner is doing it all over again…that Sophos’ tale is not all it seems.  We’ll have the tables turned on us a few more times in fact, each time more upsetting that the last, and on a second time through a reader will come upon this conversation on  p. 117 and groan…and love it.

The dexterity of Turner’s plotting and character development through her multiple points of view and highly articulate just-walked-into-a-room-in-the-middle-of-something show-not-tell kind of narrative is what participants in our live Mock Newbery on Dec 12 heralded over and over through our discussions.  What I refrained from saying at that table, since it doesn’t really relate to Newbery criteria: this style reminds me of the reception scene in Altman’s Gossford Park, where the camera wanders from one conversation to the other, and you can hear them overlaying each other. The first time you watch the movie, its utterly disorienting: there’s clearly several intrigues going on, and you’re not sure which to follow.  On multiple viewings, however, another phrase will lift itself to your ear which now makes so much sense having seen the movie through, and you realize that nearly all the clues were there, in that early scene: you just didn’t know what you were listening to.   In Turner’s case, this style shows great understanding of and appreciation for a certain kind of child audience–one who appreciates intrigue and deception, and a book that withstands (in fact, grows better with!) multiple re-readings.

What book on our shortlist might stand up to Turner’s in this regard?

That’s right: Mo Willems’.

How many times have you read…I mean really read, City Dog Country Frog?  Try reading it once each day, ignoring the pictures.  Here’s what I saw in it today.

Each season starts with “City Dog didn’t stop (on that first day in the country; to admire the green, green grass; to sniff the falling leaves; to eat the snow).”  The first time it’s just because he can (“as far and as fast as he could”), but after that it’s because he’s got something he’s looking for: a friend.  Then, suddenly, one day, the friend isn’t there, and this changes City Dog.

Wait: Not so fast, and not so suddenly.  Actually, Country Frog is changing in every season. It’s just that City Dog, and the reader, perhaps, on first read, haven’t noticed.

“Country Frog’s games involved / jumping and splashing and croaking. /  That was spring.”

“City Dog’s games invovled / sniffing and fetching and barking. / City Dog and Country Frog played / until Country Frog was too tired / to sniff and fetch and bark / anymore. / That was summer.”

“‘What shall we play today?’ asked City Dog. / ‘Dog or Frog games?’ / Country Frog took a deep breath. / ‘I am a tired frog,’ replied Country Frog. / ‘Maybe we can play remember-ing games.’ / …They remembered… / That was fall.

I’m a lot older than a preschooler. Though I noticed the change in tenor of the types of games that were being played each season, and saw them heading somewhere, amazingly I did not notice the physical clues: “until Country Frog was too tired,”  … “Country Frog took a deep breath”….  Here are multiple layers of clues that a very young child might start to notice as they read and re-read this book.  The seasons change. The types of games change. Frog changes…and has been changing all along.

Changing by slowing down.  When we get to winter, Dog–who hasn’t stopped, recall–slows down too.  Then stops.  Here is a physical metaphor for sympathy: a key ingredient in friendship, especially the kind of friendship that Dog is about to exhibit, the kind that can be translated.

Frog slowed down for one reason.  Dog in sympathy for his friend…and then through that sympathy carried to its ultimate end, starts up again.  These are complex emotional and philosophical narratives for a preschooler, but they are communicated artfully, simply, almost deceptively through physical scene setting.  So perfectly suited to the audience.  So obvious in retrospect.

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Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at ninalindsay@gmail.com

Comments

  1. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Yep. I certainly think there are plenty of clues there for the young reader to infer what happens to the frog.

  2. great to see more attention for City Dog, Country Frog. Not sure why you’re claiming the audience for this one to be preschool. I’ve read it to my 2nd grade students 4 or 5 times and they really dig it. I think the audience might be a bit older than you’re guessing.
    I’ve thrust the book into a number of 1st grade teachers’ hands and they’ve told be their classes also loved it. Not only is it a great early elementary read aloud but higher 1st grade students or low second graders can also read the book independently (the repetition leads to a predictability in language which help facilitate independent reading).
    Like previously honored picture books such as Doctor DeSoto, the writing in CD,CF can be enjoyed by a wide range of readers/listeners. One could possibly argue that CD,CF has the widest age range of any of your short listed titles.

  3. Sondy says:

    Ah, but it was the pictures that tipped me off to what was happening to the frog. It was the pictures that really gave the dog waiting the impact. I just hate to consider this one without the brilliant pictures!

    And you are hitting on what I consider the genius of Megan Whalen Turner. Her plotting – with subplots and levels that are only revealed on second and third readings – is unmatched by anybody. Then when you add in brilliant characterization — heroes with real flaws; characters that grow and change — and an amazing setting of a fully realized imaginary world — well, I’m talking myself into putting this at the top of my list.

  4. Mark Flowers says:

    @ Eric – I think you are right about the audience not being limited to preschool. In fact, back on the original posting on this title, Jonathan commented that with its ” 329 words . . . from a controlled vocabulary of 116 words” the book could also be used as “a beginning reader, considering how Willems uses such things as repetition, predictability, consonant clusters, syllable count, compound words, and punctuation, to name just a few”

    On another note, I haven’t read this one to my 2 year old daughter yet, but she loves books even more challenging linguistically.

    So I definitely agree with you that “One could possibly argue that CD,CF has the widest age range of any of your short listed titles.”

  5. Martha says:

    Can I just second Sondy? :)

  6. Nina Lindsay says:

    Martha and Sondy…well, I can’t stop you from appreciating the pictures. But the challenging of looking at this for Newbery is to find distinguished elements in the words alone. So I’m forgetting about the pictures for now. I want to find characterization, plotting, tension, etc in the words ONLY…and I’m finding it!

  7. Mr. H says:

    “Wow”, was just about all he could say. Was “wow”.

    Last year, I came on this site looking for some good middle grade fiction titles and was introduced to a whole world of other considerations. I was a little hesitant at first, but THE DUNDERHEADS became one of my favorite reads last year.

    This year, having fallen in love with TURTLE IN PARADISE, WHAT HAPPENED ON FOX STREET, and A TALE DARK AND GRIMM and THE BONESHAKER, I have to admit, I was a little disappointed when this title was released on your expanded shortlist.

    I snatched it from our public library last night and read it when I got home from school.

    Then I read it to my wife. Then we read it to our 10 month old daughter. Then I called my mom, a librarian, and read it to her because her ordered copy hasn’t come in yet.

    Then I brought it to school today to share with my 5th grade class! We talk a lot about making inferences when we read and this is one of the best examples of using inferring I’ve read in a long time. It’s so easy for a 5th grader to see what’s happening and then point out how clever Willems has been with what he’s told his reader and what he hasn’t.

    This is SOOOOO deep on so many levels. My kids were saddened by WHY Country Frog wanted to play remembering games (because he probably knew the end was near and wanted to prepare City Dog) . . . I can’t say enough about it.

    A new favorite, this one!

    Although I will say, the number one clue that allowed my students to understand what was happening was the illustrations. But as Nina states, I still think a case could be made for words alone. The pictures only add to the distinguishedness!

  8. Miss Julia says:

    Alright went through the book again…checked the words…looked at the pictures (Sorry, Nina!)…

    Did anyone else notice the word on snow pages…down on the right side? What does it say and mean? Is my copy the only one with the word?

  9. Nina Lindsay says:

    (Mine doesn’t seem to have a word in the snow…)

  10. Mr. H says:

    I see it. Looks like “Archer” . . .

  11. Miriam says:

    Alright, just read this for the first time yesterday. And the book design made it real easy to consider only the text on a first read–I kept the book open in such a way that I couldn’t see the right-hand page. (Don’t worry, I went back and read it with the pictures, and with the handful of words superimposed on the pictures. Though the style of the art impresses me intellectually but doesn’t speak to me emotionally. Or maybe that’s just my Cute Animal immunity talking.) It’s pretty amazing. The text is just beautiful.

    (Though I will admit, it was a mite overshadowed by reading Knuffle Bunny Free for the first time, too. It’s just like the time my sister left her blankie in England! Squee!)

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