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.