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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Forge, Countdown, One Crazy Summer

As we enter our last week of discussion before our online voting commences (next Monday, January 3rd), I want to try to touch on each of our shortlisted titles again, in comparison.

I was glad to add FORGE and COUNTDOWN to the mix because I think they provide interesting comparison with ONE CRAZY SUMMER, which still seems to be a favorite in many Mock arenas. The three are for approximately the same age range (11-14), and all could be called “historical fiction,” though each approach their theme very differently.

ONE CRAZY SUMMER still stands out to me for the evocative and provocative voice of Delphine…both her interior voice, and her speaking voice.  This sense of voice affects the development of character and setting, as well as the interpretation of theme or concept, and I think that’s unusual when you look at the other fiction titles on our shortlist…that is, in ONE CRAZY SUMMER I am most convinced that Delphine–not the author–is telling all aspects of her story, and makes them all vivid.   I still think that other titles surpass this one in quality of setting, plotting, and interpretation of theme (CONSPIRACY, SUGAR probably being my top players for those qualities at the moment), but ONE CRAZY SUMMER clearly has its hooks in many readers’ hearts, and the power of that one hook counts for something.

FORGE, we’ve been noting in comments recently, may be challenged by being a “middle” book… having to compete with expectations readers might carry forward from the first book in the series, and having the chore of setting-up the final in the trilogy, rather than being allowed the glory of resolution.  Despite these challenges, Anderson has made a compelling and distinguished novel that could be read on its own.  I found Curzon’s voice compelling, and was more intrigued by his story than I am by most “soldier” stories.   Despite the shift in focus halfway through the story, I found myself easily engaged as a reader throughout, and had very little sense of the author’s hand (except in the “before” flashbacks, which were minimally awkward). I find this book solid, it has strengths in every single criteria. For that reason, it keeps on jostling for my attention in the shortlist.

Rereading COUNTDOWN recently, I mentioned that I was affected by Wiles’ vividness of setting.  It’s not just physically setting, but emotional setting, told through Franny’s  point of view.  I felt painfully and wonderfully eleven along with her, much of it achieved by the attention to physical description of how people look, and move…description at a level not always found in fiction. It made me, as a reader, acutely aware of Franny as a physical presence…how she felt in her body…how she saw other peoples’ bodies.

p.18-9 “Why does Mrs. Rodriguez hate me, why? It makes my heart hurt like it’s a washrag and Mrs. Rodriguez has just wrung it out and slapped it against the side of the sink. / I can’t stand to think about it anymore, so I focus on adjusting my headband — I’m wearing my best one today, the wide red one with little teeth on the bottom that comb my hair when I pus it onto my head. Then I look out the window to find something else to think about. / The sun is blindingly beautiful this time of year. I cup my hands at my eyebrows to shield my eyes. There’s my brother, Drew — Mr. Perfect — and all the other third graders lining up on the playbround to come inside. He doesn’t look the least bit like astronaut material. He’s all angles and bones and too short.

p.220 I wear a soft blue headband today. It’s a stretchy circle and it won’t pop off my head, but it also doesn’t hold my hair back as well, and sometimes it flops down onto my forehead. Sometimes it slips forward and bobs around my neck, if it’s feeling real stretchy. I like it, though, and today I need the softness.

p.376 “‘What’s done is done.’ I sound like Mom. / Margie blinks as if she’s been slapped. ‘I guess it is.’ She takes a deep breath and tries to smile, sees my face looking as cold as stone, and stops.”

Franny’s feelings of shame–about Uncle Otis, or inflicted by her mother–make an artful parallel arc with the tension of the Cuban missile crisis.  There is a lot to commend in this work, and much that is distinguished.  Still, I continue to feel there are two major weaknesses. I find that the characters often say things aloud at emotional resolutions that I don’t think any child would really say (for instance, when Drew reveals he has the suitcase key, or Margie’s breakdown at the Halloween party).  They are things that a child would feel, but not say.  Secondly, I continue to find the “documentary” material confusing at best.  The song lyrics that are overlayed are supposed to carry deep irony (p.60 “The future’s not our to see, what will be will be.”) that is meaningless without knowing the song and the context of what the song meant in its time.  Events are portrayed side by side as if in to suggest chronological points of reference, when they might have occurred far apart. (p.265 “Today four Negroes were arrested when the refused to leave the lunch counter…” but ‘today’ was 11 months earlier than the story. Or p.2-3, the provocative quotes from JFK and Khruschev overlaying a picture of them talking side by side in easy chairs, as if that’s what they were actually saying to each other.).

The pacing evoked by these documentary interludes reminds me of the pacing in KEEPER.  In both instances, these might be books that…though clearly distinguished in parts…are overly ambitious, and end up nearly losing the reader.  They’re risky. (Risky, like Franny on the rope swing, like Keeper in the boat!).  And I’ve got to commend Wiles and Appelt for their creative ambition, and clear talent.  But to me, FORGE and ONE CRAZY SUMMER stand above them as Newbery worthy.

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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. Wendy says:

    What works for you in Countdown is exactly [part of] what doesn’t work for me–for instance, the two (!) headband-related descriptions above. I felt like Countdown was forever reaching for a “You Are There” effect that was distracting. Do children (or adults) really think about their favorite headbands in such excruciating detail? I get that the description tells us things about Franny, but I think in more distinguished writing, those details, that effect come across without being so obvious about it. I generally don’t care for the liberal use of figurative language in books, which is a personal taste thing, but I kept getting distracted by similes that either felt inauthentic or that simply didn’t make sense to me. One I noted was “By the time Saturday rolls around, we’re used to living like emergency room patients.” It’s altogether possible that I’m dim, or that being a nurse throws off my understanding of what the general public thinks about when they think about emergency rooms, but I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean. (And I wonder why Franny would know what it meant.)

  2. Blakeney says:

    There are three aspects of Countdown that continue to be impediments for me:

    1) The text is overwhelmed by 60′s references. These are designed to anchor the story in an actual time period and help delineate the time period aspect of setting. However, I feel as if a list was made of objects, TV and radio shows, etc., and they were all crammed into this narrative. Some are fun for me to remember, but for today’s young person, I think it goes too far.

    2) The documentary material was confusing in terms of the order presented and, as Nina mentioned, the relationship to the story. As a person who grew up in that era, I knew each reference and its context, but I think that would be hard for a kid today to sort out. When I felt some emotional investment in the progression of the narrative and plight of the characters, I resented the interruption of these loosely connected visuals.

    3) By the end of the story, I felt somewhat manipulated (of course, all fiction manipulates) as I foresee, maybe incorrectly, that each of the three volumes in this set will feature one of the siblings – next will be the older sister and Civil Rights and finally the younger brother and the moon landing.

    As a keen fan of Keeper, I bristled at connecting the pacing of the two books. Possibly defensive on my part, but to me each back story added to my understanding of the central character’s plight, and all came together in the book’s climax in a satisfying way.

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I agree with Wendy about the excruciating detail of the headband. It’s almost as if it’s not enough for Franny to convey every thought that enters her mind–no, she has to also provide commentary on it! Of course, the whole book isn’t like that, but that’s one of the problems that I have with first person, especially when it features an engaging voice. I noticed a couple of places in ONE CRAZY SUMMER that did this, too. It’s such a staple of first person fiction, however, that I just let most of it go, chalking it up to a personal bias.

  4. Nina Lindsay says:

    Wendy and Jonathan, so interesting, as I find this “excrutiating detail” appealing. Of course this commentary isn’t something that a person would actually say out loud to an audience…but it’s an articulation of an internal dialogue that allows empathy with the character…to feel like you *are* the character, rather than just listening to them.

    Come on, don’t you remember as a kid being totally fastidiously absorbed with something physical, like a favorite pair of shoes, or a favorite jacket, or the way your hair kinked? The reiterating theme of the headband is *exactly* what made the story work for me.

    Blakeney…I’d be interested to hear more on this comparison of the pacing. Surely Wiles’ documentary interludes are *intended* to do exactly what you found the back stories to do in Keeper? I’ll concur that Appelt pulls it off better than Wiles, but the pacing is exactly what I think dragged Keeper down in our live discussion. After hearing several people say “I found it really hard to get into this book because of the pacing, but I decided it was just me because it ultimately works” I had to ask: ok, if a multitude of people are saying “it must just be me,” then isn’t it actually more than that? I don’t dispute that Appelt’s narrative structure pays off in the end, but I ended up questioning “appropriateness of style” and “excellence of presentation for a child audience” because I was feeling like it was an unnecessarily *distancing* device that would lose a lot of the intended readers. Same problem, though different scale, as in Countdown.

  5. Carol says:

    I listened to “Keeper” and that may have pushed it into a less acceptable pace– all the pauses that go with Chapter hedings that one could perhaps rush through when reading, but “Keeper” pacing flaws were highlighted there as back story interrupting in much the way the detail of the era interrupted the narrative in “Countdown.” Or that’s how it worked for me and some others. Both books were more engaging when dealing with the child-like point of view and voice of their main character. I appreciated both Franny and Keeper’s view of the world and the little things that engaged their attention, but found it dull when the adult stories intruded. I imagine that kids would react in a similar way, but I don’t think that’s relelvant here. Enough would be engaged that I think both have a child audience in mind.

    What didn’t work for me about “Keeper” is the actual name and it’s meaning which is handled so heavily that I felt oppressed each time it was mentioned. Again, that may be more apparent in a audio version, but did anyone else wonder what they called her before her mother disappeared? It is so much what Signe hears the mother say to her when “Keeper” is three that I fetl that there was another name prior to that. Or did I just miss the whole boat there?

  6. Wendy says:

    Carol, I totally expected the revelation of Keeper’s real name to be part of the denouement. I suppose it’s good when an author doesn’t do the expected, but as it stands, I was just sort of confused. I hadn’t mentioned it before because it wasn’t a huge problem, but I’m glad to know I wasn’t the only one who didn’t quite get that aspect.

    Nina, that “articulation of an internal dialogue” is exactly what I found distancing–exactly what made me feel that I was NOT in the character. If I felt like I was the character, I wouldn’t need all that minutiae spelled out for me. But I guess what we have there is a basic works-for-you-doesn’t-work-for-me thing.

  7. Jonathan Hunt says:

    A third person narrator can capture so much more than a first person narrator can. A third person narrator can capture things–thoughts, emotions, feelings, behaviors–that the character is completely unaware of, or at least aware of on an unconscious level. A first person narrator cannot authentically express these things without coming across as either exceptionally talky or hyper-aware–unless the author has clearly defined the audience and the distance between the events of the story and the telling of it. Am I making sense? Maybe I need a fuller post on this . . .

  8. Blakeney says:

    Regarding Keeper’s pacing, Nina said, “I ended up questioning “appropriateness of style” and “excellence of presentation for a child audience” because I was feeling like it was an unnecessarily *distancing* device that would lose a lot of the intended readers.”

    In my experience, many kids in the age group for this book have difficulty with books with multiple voices. It may, indeed, turn out that the constant circling to the back stories of various characters, mainly adult, will have a similar confusing effect. I would agree in discussion that One Crazy Summer’s more or less straightforward narrative is more child-friendly and moves the narrative forward more actively – which should allow for stronger identification with the characters and their predicament. As an adult reader, I found the depth and complexity of the presentation in Keeper allowed me to immerse myself in this community of people and drew me further into their interconnectedness which seemed an appropriate match in style to a character and relationship driven story.

    Countdown’s documentary interruptions seem to pull me away from the story line completely. I would want to relate this title to Hugo Cabret (I know we must only discuss this year’s titles) where there never seemed to be a break in the flow between textual and visual components. In Countdown, I would expect some readers to either look at the pictures only or to jump the pictures/documents to continue the flow of the narrative about Franny. This makes me question appropriateness of style choice since the one component seems supplementary and not essential to the core narrative. Perhaps a younger person less familiar with the time period would find these docu-bits essential and the visual presentation suited to a different style of absorbing information, but I felt much of the same ground was covered in the text itself. Also, the docu-bits did not seem well organized to me.

    Woods Runner, which we have not included here, also uses basically fact boxes which I found enhanced the narrative and increased my understanding of aspects of the historical setting and events. However, they could be skipped without losing the thrust of the narrative. Their interplay with the fictional story line is more similar to Dark Emperor where the fact boxes also add to your appreciation of the poems.

  9. Wendy says:

    I don’t think more can be done with a third-person narrator; I don’t think third-person is more distinguished, nor that good first-person is harder to do (neither of which Jonathan said, of course). Just different. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t have the anti-first-person preference that Jonathan does; so we come at this from different places, but it’s interesting that the result seems to be that the first-person voice in Countdown isn’t particularly effective for either of us.

    I don’t think good first-person is as hard to find as all that, really. I could pull a dozen examples out of the air (one that came to mind immediately: Robin McKinley’s Beauty), none of which seem to be trying so hard to be putting the reader in the narrator’s shoes. The reader’s already there.

  10. Blakeney says:

    Another example of a sort of collage style of presentation is Cardturner where the detailed bridge info can be read or skipped. Cardturner, Woods Runner, Dark Emperor and Countdown all mix separated factual info with fictional stories/poetry. This contrasts for me with Keeper which basically uses a more traditional series of flashbacks, which I find are gracefully and poetically presented. There are no factual sections on merpeople, tides, etc. Stirring the pot slowly by hand at first does not bring a less desirable meal to the table than using the rapid action electric blender. Dreamer seems somewhat similar in pacing with Keeper – both with mounting vignettes that lead to clear character development.

  11. Miriam says:

    Blakeney, I think you raise some good points about Keeper and multiple voices. I think in that book it’s relevant (at least to some readers, including myself) that some of those voices are the voices of animals–which to me felt much more manipulative and aware of the author than switching between human voices. All of the human sections, as you say, “allowed me to immerse myself in this community of people and drew me further into their interconnectedness” but all of the animal sections jolted me back out of the community.

    I should be getting my copy of Countdown tomorrow, so I can’t comment directly on that one yet, but in terms of what Blakeney calls collage style, I felt it worked more smoothly in Cardturner than in Dark Emperor, KKK, or Sugar, for the very simple reason that it was all arranged as part of the main narrative. There where white whales to tell you it was okay to skip ahead to the summary box, but the explanations were in line with the main narrative, not beside it. With KKK and Sugar, I often felt frustrated because I couldn’t figure out when in the narrative was the best time to jump aside and read the captions. I really wanted the information in the captions, but I had some trouble letting go of the smoothly-flowing narrative for them. With Dark Emperor, I knew when to read the sidebars, but they were in such a different voices that I sometimes felt let down, not by any of the text, but by the transition from poetry to nonfiction and back again. (Ignoring that poetry is classified as nonfiction, because that’s just weird.)

    I’m with Wendy and not Jonathan–third person and first person narrators can do *different* things and each have their limitations. It would be way harder to pull off all the false directions and hidden meanings in Conspiracy of Kings were the book mostly in third person instead of mostly in (a very self-aware) first–and those are really what make Conspiracy so good.

    I’d predicted Keeper’s name’s origin, and just assumed that yes, she’d had a “normal” name before her mother disappeared, but it made enough sense to me that they would have nicknamed her, and had it stick, after her mother’s abandonment. Signe’s life at that moment got less complicated but in many ways harder; she might have subconsciously needed Keeper’s name to remember why she took this on.

  12. Sondy says:

    I’ve been madly reading to try to finish the list by Monday. I’m now almost through with COUNTDOWN. At first what put me off is the present tense voice — I hate that in fiction, but I realize that’s a personal quirk.

    As I read, I got more involved. I rather liked the documentary inserts. But then along came the report about Khruschev, if that’s what it is. It’s written in a kid’s report style, but no attribution was made. Is it just the author telling background? I decided to think of it as a kid’s report that could have been written at the time.

    But then came the report about Kennedy. Talk about walloping me out of the story! The report told how well he handled the Cuban Missile Crisis and about his assassination. So thanks for reminding me that I don’t need to be tense about the Cuban Missiles! That one definitely couldn’t have been written until after its place in the story. A report about Kennedy as a kid might have written it THEN would have been evocative and helpful. What was inserted really detracted, for me.

    And I’m still not sure what those sections were doing there. All the other inserts seem to be quotes and photos from the time. If this was not, it would have been nice to attribute it to a fictional school kid (like Franny), and make it fit with the other material.

  13. Jonathan Hunt says:

    To get back to the first person vs. third person thing . . . I don’t think either one is inherently better than the other. I have too much to say, none of the books at hand, and time is running out, so I’ll pass this one up, and look for examples next year.

  14. Nina Lindsay says:

    Wendy, I’m on Jonathan’s side with the 1st/3rd person thing. Example would be your favorite: ONE CRAZY SUMMER. A friend started reading the first page and complained “a kid would never say these things!” I pointed out that it’s an interior voice…and the third person interior voice allows the author to put things in the character’s head, often using metaphor, to articulate emotional complexity, in a way that would sound disingenuous in a first person voice.

  15. Wendy says:

    Wait, in which way are you “on Jonathan’s side”? That a third-person narrator can capture more than a first-person narrator can? I know Jonathan says that isn’t meant to be a value judgment, but it sounds like one.

    One Crazy Summer certainly isn’t a “favorite” of mine. I looked back at the first page and see what your friend is talking about: there are two rather elaborate similes in that one page. I think I found those similes in general more authentic-feeling than those in Countdown, though I’m sure there are missteps in One Crazy Summer and occasional effective similes in Countdown.

  16. Jonathan Hunt says:

    For me, there is often a degree of willing suspension of disbelief in a first person narrative that is not present in third person, so I find it that it is easier for me to be jarred out of a first person narrative, but perhaps that is not true for everybody.

    For example, even with A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS which you all know I love . . . Do you really think that Sophos would write a two hundred page report for Eddis? Unlikely . . . but supposing he did, do you think he would complement his narrative with dialogue? Again, unlikely. I’ve read contemporary journals and historical ones, and even people that tend toward the verbose do not write dialogue. So . . . what happens is that the author makes a contract with the reader. You write us a damn good story and we will pretend that this is narrative is an accurate representation of his written report. Any first person narrative that purports to be written operates under this principle.

    There is often an additional contract with first person: if your voice is unique and distinct and completely absorbing then I will pretend like other deficiencies in the narrative do not exist. I’ve mentioned before that I think this is happening somewhat with ONE CRAZY SUMMER; I don’t think the plot and setting, for example, are as distinguished as A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS, but it hardly seems to matter. If you love the voice, you are blind to this, and so we have authors doing wildly different things with voice to capture this elusive quality. We’ve already discussed the autistic voice of MOCKINGBIRD and its predecessors. I’m almost tempted to make it one of those parlor games where each person has to speak like a specific first person narrator and then everybody has to guess what their “problem” is or who they are.

    One of the trendiest things right now is first person present tense which some people claim lends a sense of immediacy, but one of the strengths of first person is the distance in time from the story, that the narrator can reflect on the story and craft it for the audience (which can make those written narratives effective). But if you are going for a first person present tense with a vivid sense of immediacy–like this is happening in real time, then you leave yourself little room for an exceedingly internal voice. It just comes off as very talky, and hyper-aware. See, I think Franny is aware of her headband, and certainly conscious of everything she says about it, but if this is a representational voice (i.e. if we are eavesdropping on her) then it is weird that she would be voicing this internally, and if it is presentational (i.e. she is aware that she is telling a story to an audience) then does she really think we need a play-by-play commentary of the headband? What’s next? Her heart rate? Flatulence? I’m coming across more negative than I really am because I don’t think this is necessarily consistent throughout the book, and I think Wiles does some wonderful things with first person. But back to the beginning: it doesn’t take much to get me annoyed by first person.

    With ONE CRAZY SUMMER there were a couple instances that I still remember from my last reading, and there may be more that I do not remember. One instance was in the first chapter, I think, where Delphine gives us a physical description of herself. Third person is guilty of info-dumping, too, but when first person couples it with the representational/presentational thing then it just weirds me out. A second instance I recall is her digression on the word, litterbug, which Emily mentioned at our mock Newbery as an example of great writing. I appreciated the thematic connection, and I liked the gist of it, but she stopped the narrative for half a page to riff on a single word. Again, does she talk like this to herself, in her head? Or does she really think we have the patience? For me, that’s a great thought, but it’s a sentence or two at most.

    But you know what I think is amazing about ONE CRAZY SUMMER? Although these little things drove me crazy from time to time, she really hit it out of the park with the big stuff, namely that the pivotal turning point in the book is Cecile’s arrest. Williams-Garcia doesn’t let Delphine explain at all how that affects their relationship with Cecile, but rather she shows us. To that point, the girls had been indifferent toward Cecile, but seeing their mother–their crazy mother, yes, but their *innocent* mother–arrested for having business ties to the Black Panthers (i.e. guilt by association) galvanizes them, and they take up the cause in support of her, and Cecile, in turn, grows fonder of them for their show of support. The whole guilt-by-association thing reminds me of MONSTER by Walter Dean Myers, but I think here Williams-Garcia has taken it down to the level of middle grade fiction without losing any of the finesse and subtlety that Myers had.

    More scattered thoughts on the way, I’m sure . . .

  17. Wendy says:

    “One of the trendiest things right now is first person present tense which some people claim lends a sense of immediacy, but one of the strengths of first person is the distance in time from the story, that the narrator can reflect on the story and craft it for the audience (which can make those written narratives effective).”

    SCORE. I’ve never consciously thought about this, but it makes so much sense.

    (Whether I’m writing journals, letters, or just recounting an experience to someone over google chat, I often use dialogue; my college journals are full of it, as I’m sure my college friends would be thrilled to hear. But this is probably influenced by the first-person narratives I’ve read, and not organic–at least, not originally.)

  18. Jonathan Hunt says:

    1. Some people may really write that much. Some people may write in dialogue. But to have the perfect recall it would take to write that narrative . . . For me, it just requires willing suspension of disbelief and I am all for it if the narrative otherwise works.

    2. Similes and metaphors in a first person child narrative are often jarring and unrealistic, but I can be sold on them if they are restrained, used judiciously, and if the author can demonstrate that the child comes from a family or community with a tendency toward them. Again, it requires a bit of willing suspension of disbelief on my part, but I can make it work if they are not flagrantly unrealistic.

    3. So I have mixed feelings about a book like ONE CRAZY SUMMER. On the one hand, I think it is guilty, in certain instances, of too much information, but on the other, I feel like there is an admirable restraint (or not enough information–so that the reader has to infer), but doesn’t this create a curious dichotomy (i.e. the girl who tells me everything she thinks about the word litterbug doesn’t tell me how she really feels about her mother’s arrest). Is that out of character? I don’t know. I’d need to read this a third time and pay closer attention to the narrative voice. In fact, I’d need to reread all these first person narratives again–CONSPIRACY, ONE CRAZY SUMMER, THE KNEEBONE BOY, FORGE, and COUNTDOWN–and look for specific examples of my (presently) half-baked theory.

    4. I think CONSPIRACY OF KINGS has the best narrative voice of the first person fiction. No, it doesn’t have that mesmerizing voice of ONE CRAZY SUMMER (and I’ve now listened to it on audiobook–and it is mesmerizing). We’ve noted the double meanings built into the narrative, how it has two audiences (Eddis and us–and Sophos has to funnel information to us through the lens of what Eddis lacks in knowledge (which is why Sophos can wax about Sounisian politics and geography and such).

  19. Nina Lindsay says:

    Wendy, I don’t attach any value judgement to first vs. third person…it’s just each allows the author a different tactic, and we see differing success rates in our various titles. Jonathan, thank you for spelling it all out!

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