If any book this year passes the first-page test with flying colors, it might be this National Book Award Finalist from Kate DiCamillo. (And, at this point, I’m talking about the first page of text.) Not only are character and setting immediately called into action, the tone and spirit of the book come on so brightly that the reader knows exactly what they’re in for… and if it is not for them, that is ok, and they know to move on to something else.
“Chapter One: A Natural-Born Cynic [first indication of characterization, and clue to reader to prepare themselves.]
“Flora Belle Buckman [say it aloud. We know immediately to expect a heightened or exaggerated mood, expressed directly through the language. A protagonist must rise to her name. If any reader wasn't familiar with Kate DiCamillo yet (as many young readers of this title won't be,) "Flora Belle Buckman" is like the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth: get ready. Ok, let's start again.]
“Chapter One: A Natural-Born Cynic
“Flora Belle Buckman was in her room at her desk. She was very busy. She was doing two things at once. She was ignoring her mother, and she was also reading a comic book entitled The Illuminated Adventues of the Amazing Incandesto!“
‘Flora,’ her mother shouted, ‘what are you doing up there?’
‘I’m reading!’ Flora shouted back.
‘Remember the contract!’ her mother shouted. ‘Do not forget the contract!’
At the beginning of summer, in a moment of weakness, Flora had made the mistake of signing a contract that said she would ‘work to turn her face away from the idiotic high jinks of comics and toward the bright light of true literature.’”
In the first half page, we know our protagonist and our villain. And we suspect that, since mother’s aren’t usually TRULY evil villains in books that look and sound like this, that we will have a dramatic story with a villainous arc (since comic books have been introduced, on several levels, as an element) but of a comfortable degree and scope, and probably with a happy ending. Everything about the book from the very beginning declares its audience; and for young, transitional readers, this is so wonderful, to open a book that says “I’m talking to you.”
I start with the audience question, because that always seems to be the most important point when discussing a Kate DiCamillo book. Adults tend to approach them with either strong favoritism or strong ambivalence, usually having to do with their own reactions to the tone. Setting aside our own reactions (whether positive or negative), and imagining that of the intended reader, is the first step in considering this book.
So then, we have the story of a comic-obsessed girl of separated parents, the strange kid next door, and an even stranger squirrel, who works as a device for the two kids to test the adults around them, and the rules of the adult world. Adults-not-believing-kids is a tried-and-true plot device, and DiCamillo uses is to wonderful effect here, and within a pretty unique plot. The plot is tightly projected and deployed in this under-200-pages, heavily illustrated novel, further showing respect to its audience. Some of the plot arc and tension is carried, between text sections, through the illustrations, so here’s a good moment to ask The Pictures Question.
In the Newbery Criteria:
2. Each book is to be considered as a contribution to American literature. The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text. Other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective.
Jonathan and I, over the years, have made the argument that this means that the discussion of the book must be about the text, while not ignoring that the pictures may be a part of the story’s development. The Newbery committee awards a book that is the most distinguished in its text; but that text, I would argue, might depend upon accompanying illustrations. With some books (Dark Emperor and other Poems of the Night might be one example) one could actually fully separate the text from the illustrations; but, like the sequel question: do the criteria really compel us to consider whether the text “stands alone?” It may be easier to find it to be distinguished if it does, but I don’t think anything in the criteria suggest that it must or should.
Then: this clause, that other components “may be considered when they make the book less effective.” I always have trouble with this: if we are bound to make our decisions only on the text, why should anything else matter? I sense that it is there to compel the committee to award books that aren’t “bad” in their other components; in any case I always use that “may” literally, and have never found the discussion that really hinged on this clause. (Interestingly, the Caldecott criteria have a similar point, but with different wording [emphases mine]: ”other components of a book are to be considered especially when they make a book less effective.)
So, even though we might not consider the illustrations in our discussion, let’s talk about them so that we have a sense of how they work with the text…and thus, how well the text works. I’m looking at the ARC (this title releases next week: my apologies to those who don’t have their hands on it yet, but place your hold NOW with your library if you haven’t yet, and you will have it very soon!)… even in low-res and draft form, I think the style of art supports the text nicely, and I like the strong sense of line, shape, and composition. Even though they rarely move in comic framing style, each frame has an internal energy that works with the tension in the story… and then when there IS comic-book-style movement, it heightens the drama. It’s an interesting and unique style, moving between classic book illustration and graphic novel; sometimes the pictures illustrate the text, and sometimes the illustrations move the narrative (this second variation similar to Brian Selznick’s form in THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET and WONDERSTRUCK). My only quibble is that because they serve different purposes at different times, I wasn’t always sure, as a reader, which way I was supposed to be reading them. That is: on each occasion, are the illustrations interrupting the text and carrying the narrative to the next point? Or are they intended to be read visually as an illustration that can be eyed at whatever point the reader chooses? I stumbled a few times with this, and …low and behold… I actually find a reason for the very first time to consider that clause above. Is it possible, that this perceived weakness in the formatting might make the text less effective? And if so, how much? And, does that in any way make the text less distinguished?
I think there are incredible strengths here, so this doesn’t necessarily knock the book down in estimation for me…and I’m not yet sure how significant my stumbling is, and whether it is only symptomatic of being over the age of 11. I’m waiting for the final library copy (placing my hold now) for a re-read.