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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Revolution

This seems the spring book to talk about, based on comments from our first post, with raves from many, and a few of us voicing qualms. Rachel Stein offers a nice synopsis of the book at For Those About to Mock, though she mentions she hesitates to comment on its Newbery chances because she listened to it in audiobook.  She adds:

“With that caveat, I can say, with confidence, that Wiles has achieved distinction in every category mentioned in the Newbery criteria. The setting is brilliantly realized, the characters (both major and minor) are complex and vivid, and the thematic elements are handled with deftness and subtlety. Prose style is always more difficult for me to discern when I’m listening to a book, but it seemed elegant and fluid.”

Interestingly, I think that audiobook might be the best first read for this title in regards to the Newbery.  While committee members are required to read and ultimately evaluate the printed book, they are welcome to use audio for “re-reading” purposes.  And in this particular case, because the criteria require that “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.”…. it might be handy to experience this title first through its text only, to get a handle on how the text stands separately from the photographs.

Though comparison to its companion COUNTDOWN is not relevant to the Newbery discussion, I will agree with others that the “documentary” aspect of this book is much more successful here than in COUNTDOWN. I haven’t done a re-read of that one to figure out why I think so, so I’m not sure if it’s simply that we’re all used to what Wiles is doing at this point, or if she’s actually put it together better here.   If I were a committee member this year, I might indeed re-read COUNTDOWN solely to help me articulate my evaluation of this aspect of REVOLUTION. If I were to champion it, I’d want to put to bed any arguments that this additional component makes the book any “less effective.”   As long as I don’t bring the comparison with COUNTDOWN into my argument, it is fine.

I think the this might be Wiles’ best work yet. I agree with Rachel and others that this reads deftly and fluidly…that the setting is masterful and the main character and many side characters are fully engaging.  I think that Wiles’ has succeeded too in matching her format (both the “documentary” style but also just her narrative style and arc) with her theme.  There’s a great conversation with Wiles, courtesty of TeachingBooks.net, which you can read partially transcribed here, in which she says:

“Kids don’t often see themselves as part of history, but they’re a piece of it, and their [stories are] vital to understanding the larger history. …Freedom Summer changed my world, and it changed our nation. With the trilogy, and with Revolution in particular, I wanted to show the larger arc of our nation’s history, juxtaposed against an individual’s smaller arc. History is made by individuals, one moment at a time. By experiencing [my character] Sunny’s walk through it [in Revolution] or Franny’s [in Countdown], readers see that, choice by choice, they craft a life.”

Has Wiles’ succeeded in this?  Mostly. And she has set her bar high in accomplishing it, one that certainly “distinguishes” her work and makes it a strong contender for Newbery.

So, where my qualms, wherefore “mostly”?  There is a fatal flaw that I find in REVOLUTION, and that is that Raymond is not as fully realized a character as Sunny, not by a very long shot.  Everything about his story feels purposefully there to move Sunny’s character.  That is both the point of the book (Sunny being moved) but also ultimately its failing. Because he is given so much airtime, the un-equalness in vitality of voice is stark.  If Wiles had not tried to make this such a balanced pair of perspectives, it would not have stood out quite at much.  But I see also that her theme depends on the perspectives being balanced.   She has gotten herself in a “d***ed if you do, d***ed if you don’t” situation here; I understand that Sunny’s perspective is largely based on Wiles’ own, and so of course Sunny’s voice will seem more “real.”  And this is primarily Sunny’s story.  But where the author “falls away” in almost every aspect of this book …which is what makes it a contender in my view… I’m painfully aware of Raymond being a character in a book, not a real person.  And that feeling works against everything else that Wiles has accomplished.

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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. Funny, I reluctantly started this over the weekend – and could NOT put it down. The characters seemed so real to me, the pacing was so well done, that I kept telling myself I’d just read one more page to see what happened….Nina, I see your point about the character of Raymond not being as well developed, and was left wondering what happened to him after that summer. Such compelling writing – and the pictures advanced the story too, providing proof that the events really happened. I found myself singing the songs, too. At this point in my reading, I’m not ready to say this is my pick, but it will definately be one of my five!!

  2. Leonard Kim says:

    I haven’t done a re-read yet, but one review I read recently reminded me of something I had forgotten: that even Gillette gets a few chapters from his perspective. I bring this up because I think Raymond’s chapters (and certainly Gillette’s) aren’t necessarily intending (and failing) to provide balance to Sunny. So I don’t hold that against the book and just enjoyed the added richness. To me, these chapters arguably serve a function that lies between the documentary material and Sunny’s story – they provide context larger than the one individual but in a narrative format. (I find it interesting that in the interview excerpt you quoted, Wiles says “an individual’s smaller arc” and not two individuals.)

    Even so, personally I found Raymond fully credible and “real” (and I’ve seen others claim the same.) Maybe he is not as complex a character as Sunny, but who says everybody has to be complex? He is a boy after all :) I think it was thematically effective to show how somebody with “simple” motives (a desire to swim, watch movies, play baseball, basically to *do* things) can get caught up in something bigger, and the relatability of his motives made it feel to me like his chapters really were his own and not just a device to advance Sunny’s story.

    • I’m late to this conversation, but I’m going to echo Leonard here and state that Raymond was never meant to hold the same wait as Sunny in the book nor was Gillette. It was always Sunny’s story.

  3. Sara Ralph says:

    Deborah Wiles talks about Revolution in this past Sunday’s Nerdy Book Club post: http://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com/2014/09/07/birthing-a-revolution-by-deborah-wiles/

    I’m not sure about Countdown, but it is obvious that Wiles has a strong connection to Mississippi in 1964. I loved this book; I’m not sure it is the “most” distinguished, but I hope it is one many children will continue to pick up over the years. The story she tells is an important one and I appreciate how accessible she has made it for kids.

  4. I did not have qualms about Raymon’s character not being as balanced as Sunny’s when I read it. I thought it did a good job and that he wasn’t meant to balance her but was serving the same purpose as her step-brother’s perspective. It rounded out the story’s scope a bit more. I think character, setting , and plot wise there are definite arguments to be made for distinction.

    My qualm on this one does come from the documentary format of the novel, which I do really like. But if we are assessing solely on text then we need to remove the pictures from this evaluation, and I wonder how the flow from the essays to the fiction narrative works without them. I personally don’t like the essays or reports (whatever we want to call them) anyway. I found they pulled me out of the story and I skipped over a lot of them. This is where I think you may be right about using the audio version,Nina. Has anyone listened to the audio who can speak to this?

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Brandy, here’s another way to look at that. We have to base our evaluation solely on the text, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the flow has to be solely dependent on the text. Can we can find the text itself, for the part it plays in the book, distinguished?

      • Determining that for me will require a reread as I skipped most of those because they weren’t working for me. I just wanted to get back to the story. Which may point to an issue with them, but I would actually want to reread them with the book to say definitively they weren’t distinguished enough.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      In the interview link Nina posted, Deborah Wiles makes the rather wonderful statement that the documentary and “opinionated biographies” are scrapbooks and pieces compiled and written by adult Franny and Sunny. I hadn’t thought of that, and I think that is so cool.

      Viewed in this light, perhaps one needn’t “read” this material, if it’s not one’s cup of tea, but knowing this about them adds yet another dimension to these books.

      • That actually does change how I look at those parts. That is pretty cool and makes me a little more okay with their obvious bias (though I still cringe at how kids may be taking those opinions that find their way into them as fact with no further thought). I agree that it does add a dimension, but I’m not sure that it’s particularly effective if we have to be told that is what they are doing. I’m still in the process of figuring out myself how these parts fit into my overall impression of the story and how it impacts analyzing the book as a whole for something like Newbery. I did very much love it from a personal standpoint.

  5. I think the book is wonderful for all the reasons already articulated. I’m a huge fan of the documentary material, the setting is evocative, and Sunny’s introspection and growth is beautifully done. There are some absolutely brilliant scenes — the opening one especially. That said, I very reluctantly have to admit that I did notice the lesser place Raymond takes in the overall narrative. While Gillette does get a few moments, Raymond gets much more and his story is much more significant for the larger themes of the book. Yet Wiles’ deep and complex presentation of Sunny, one that comes clearly from such a profound personal place, makes Raymond’s more cautious presentation noticeable. She simply can’t go as deep with him because she hasn’t lived his experience as she has Sunny’s. As a result Raymond, his circle, and his life are not as personally and richly realized. I need to reread the book to figure out if this is as great a flaw as Nina indicates, but it is one I — a huge fan of the book — have to acknowledge is there.

  6. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I haven’t made it to REVOLUTION yet, but you’ll remember that I was lukewarm on COUNTDOWN and I’m likely to be again with this new book. I can’t really weigh in on Raymond’s character, therefore, but it reminds me about a conversation I had with a past Newbery committee member about BUD NOT BUDDY vs. DAVE AT NIGHT. She argued that the latter book had the same flaw (black character present only to serve white character’s narrative arc), and I didn’t necessarily agree, thinking that Deza wasn’t nearly as fleshed out as Bud either (and, hey, Deza got her own book!). I’m more open to that argument now than I was then, however, and when my district subsequently adopted BUD NOT BUDY as a core literature text for all fifth graders, and I then heard the splendid audiobook, I repented and now happily acknowledge that BUD was the right choice for the Newbery that year.

    This will be an interesting book to compare against the field. Are there other books which feature African Americans in a more fully developed light? BROWN GIRL DREAMING, for instance, which is also clearly autobiographical. How will REVOLUTION compare to FREEDOM SUMMER by Susan Goldman Rubin and THE FREEDOM SUMMER MURDERS by Don Mitchell in terms of the evocation of the setting, not to mention historical events and characters.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think the documentary material renders this one ineligible. Not at all.

  7. Although it’s a secondary plotline, I was struck by the relationship between Sunny and her stepmother. I thought it was honest yet tender (without being schmaltzy).

    • The step-mother, was her name Annabelle?, was my favorite character. I found the subtly with which Wiles maneuvered her around Sunny’s biases breathtaking.

  8. Leonard Kim says:

    Monica, I think I disagree that Raymond’s circle is less richly realized than Sunny’s. Am I alone in thinking the portrayal of the black community was more memorable and nuanced than the white?

    Re-reading Nina’s post, I’m wondering whether she’d prefer Raymond get less page time, because she felt his character didn’t warrant it, or whether she’d rather his portrayal be more like Sunny’s.

    It might seem like a “d***ed if you do, d***ed if you don’t” situation, but for someone like me who didn’t have this problem, I would say that, if there were less Raymond, I would miss having his eyes in the community, and seeing less of his community would diminish the book in my opinion. On the flip side, were Raymond more like Sunny, I feel that could create redundancy. I think it’s fairly common and effective in books to pair a character for whom life seems hard, with all the attendant internal struggle and doubt and soul-searching (and all the words needed to portray this), and a contrasting character for whom life is “easy.” (This is separate from the fact that Sunny’s life is objectively much easier than Raymond’s.)

    • Leonard, I love the book and so love hearing your perspective. And I do agree that Raymond’s circle is richly realized. I think the tricky piece is that Sunny clearly comes from Wiles own experience and that causes her to feel very different than Raymond, for me more personal. That said, they are both needed for the story to have the depth that it does.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Does Sunny clearly come from Wiles’s experience, though? I know her author bio has a couple lines about Mississippi, but still . . .

  9. Bina Williams says:

    As I recall with Countdown, there were more plotlines/issues in the book than in Revolution. Nuclear threat, Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedys, the assassination of JFK, hints of the Civil Rights movement beginnings,esp. for the older sister. Revolution has a narrower, yet deeper focus on the Civil Rights movement and Freedom Summer itself.

  10. In a recent blog post (http://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com/2014/09/07/birthing-a-revolution-by-deborah-wiles/), Deborah writes about how Sunny is based on her own experiences that summer.

  11. Thanks for linking to us, Nina!

    I’ve been sitting back and reading this discussion, because I’m not sure where I stand on Raymond’s lesser voice. I agree with those who say that Sunny is the real protagonist, and that Raymond is not meant to be as central a character. I don’t think we would remark on this at all if he were white, but marginalizing the voice of an African-American character in a book about civil rights (especially when he is standing in for so many other voiceless boys, like Emmett Till) does feel… off.

    I think Monica really captured it when she said that he is presented more cautiously. I get the sense that Wiles was not as willing to speak for him as she was for Sunny. That’s fair, but maybe it does harm the book.

  12. It’s been a while since I read it, but I remember one plot detail that bothered me in Revolver. When Raymond gets shot, it seems like he’s probably dead or at least very badly hurt. It was a powerful moment. You didn’t want it to happen, but it was believable and impactful. Then if I remember right, Raymond is fine at the end of the book. Not that I wanted him to die, but it felt like a manipulation. Trying to get the dramatic impact one moment, then making everything okay later.

    • Ronnie I totally agree! Glad you brought that up. I’m torn about the different depths and presentations of character in this book. I read it as very much Sunny’s story. The struggles of Freedom Summer are the historical background, but in so many ways those same struggles mirror Sunny’s struggles to accept her own family members. As she learns to see people like Raymond for who he is apart from a label, she’s also coming to the same knowledge about her family members, whether step or biological. This makes it a very personal story, and it would be hard to be as vested at this level in multiple characters. Would we feel this tension if the book weren’t set in the Civil Rights era and if the characters in question weren’t on different sides of the sharply drawn race lines? That being said, this book gets major design points. Even to the shading of the different voices’ pages. Yea for publishers willing to see an author’s vision and go the distance.

  13. Okay, I’ve finally taken the time to read through this entire discussion and as much as I’d like to dismiss the quibbles or flaws that have been stated as looking at the book with a warped lens I will wait until my reread so judge the weight they carry.

    What I particularly appreciated about REVOLUTION was the deftness with which Wiles showed so many facets of racism, without pointing a big stick in the direction. What I remember most is when Sunny was downtown with her grandmother, a white supremacist in her own right, and they ran into the man cleared of a lynching (or some of racial type of murder). The grandmother didn’t condone his level of racism but had no trouble hanging on to her own. It seems like Wiles did this over and over showing long held biases, some ready to be set aside and some clutched all the tighter.

  14. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    From an anonymous person. :-)

    Coming into this discussion really late. But I do have a couple of things to say:

    1. The point about Raymond being more a “prop” in the story than a realized character, I think, is quite valid. I don’t mind that Ray’s chapters are short or that he is portrayed with broken English (perhaps I do mind that a little bit) and I think his hot-headedness rings true. However, since Sunny’s chapters are so (often) insufferably lengthy, with such detailed descriptions of scenes and actions and feelings, there is definitely an imbalance between these two actors on this freedom summer stage. Partially because I feel that Sunny’s highly descriptive and also introspective narrative seems not quite aligning with her very impulsive traits. Given that her passages are in first person present tense, we can’t even excuse this by saying that Sunny grew up to be a thoughtful person and writing this looking back from a more mature and more contemplative voice.

    2. I was quite disappointed that Raymond had to be shot and that incident gives Sunny a chance to act as an angelic white savior. I’m not quite sure that the story needs this particular sequence of events to make its impact. To me, the strength of this story should be on how even though Sunny has not witnessed the most atrocious acts, she still could have a transformative summer. The young readers reading this book do not have to feel that they must experience something over the top dramatic in order to learn something about life, or change their views and minds about others. Adding this scene at that late stage of the story, to me, reduces the value of the book — if we are looking for values and lessons in a book on this topic.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      I really need to do that re-read. I don’t know if it makes a difference, but doesn’t Wiles state the shooting incident was a real event? FWIW it does make a little difference to me that the authorial sleight-of-hand is just getting Sunny in that backseat rather than making up the whole thing for “over the top dramatic” purposes. For me (and I hope young readers) the key value and lesson of the incident isn’t how it affects Sunny, but being witness, as she is, to the refusal of care at the hospital. I think that’s a necessary escalation — that combating racism isn’t just about fair access to movies and swimming or the vote, but about fighting something that, in some people, trumps even basic humanity and care for the fellow human.

      Besides, if there’s an angelic white savior in all this, isn’t it Jo Ellen? (This is unsupported by Wiles’ statements, but I think Jo Ellen “feels” more like an authorial stand-in in these books than the main protagonists.)

      • Nina Lindsay says:

        Leonard, me too (need a re-read). I think the idea of bearing witness is an important perspective to look for in the re-read, and this is what felt unbalanced to me in the use of the different POVs. It’s a very fine line…

    • I finished the book last night, and was so upset by the end that I couldn’t sleep. [Spoiler alert, though no more than the other comments.] I was approaching the end and thought, “Oh god, she’s going to kill off Raymond.” I was bothered throughout by his portrayal — I agree with Nina and Monica and others who have pointed out that Ray is less realized as a character than Sunny, and it seemed he was put in there to advance Sunny’s character. Whether he lived or not was actually less important to me than the fact that he was put in the book to be shot — which Wiles confirmed in her interviews. Ray’s character was based on the shooting of Silas McGhee (who also survived and went on to become mayor). I think it’s interesting that it’s based on a real person and that story being told by a white person is not necessarily a bad thing (though it has to be done carefully), but in this particular book, to put him in just to be shot AND to have it be a part of Sunny’s awakening and not much else, just feels wrong to me. I thought the book was quite strong in so many ways, but I actually think it would have been stronger if Ray’s voice itself were not in it than to have it there in its current form. I got invested in Ray — she does successfully do that — but I was ultimately disappointed.

  15. Leonard Kim says:

    OK I have re-read the book.

    There is one thing that surprised me that may surprise others who think the under-representation of Raymond is a flaw rather than a feature of the book.

    Looking at Wiles’ non-fiction text: the mini-biographies of Bob Moses, LBJ, Polly and Dorothy, and Ali, as well as her concluding note (which is written in the same style and thus I feel should be considered part of the main text), these parts occupy exactly as many pages as the Raymond pages, a little more than 40 pages and less than 10% of the book each. No chapter of Raymond’s is more than 3 pages and many of them are more windows into Colored Town rather than focused on Raymond himself. Raymond is a very, very small part of the book. Contrary to Nina’s original post, it would be hard to give him any less “airtime” and I think it’s hard to argue that Wiles is trying to balance their perspective or that her book depends on their perspectives being balanced. (Sunny occupies over half the book and no chapter of hers is less than 3 pages, the maximum length of a Raymond chapter.)

    I think Wiles is such a strong and vital writer that Raymond occupies a much bigger place in the reader’s mind than the few pages he actually occupies in the book. (Look at Dean Schneider’s comment in the Freedom Summer post.) Like any good character in any book, I can understand wanting more of him, but I don’t think that’s the same thing as saying that this is a flaw in the book.

    And in those few pages, I would say that Raymond actually develops more than Sunny or any other character. He is the one who finds a calling,

    “And I got a job to do. Keep on being arrested until they let anybody watch a movie at the Leflore. Keep on gettin’ arrested until Chief Lary sick of me. Keep gettin’ arrested until no more arrestin’ to do.
    But tonight we got us a party.”

    I was surprised to see that Sunny and the other characters don’t really develop or do much, especially in terms of racial attitudes. Sunny, Gillette, Jamie, and Annabelle are decent people from the start and try to do good when they are plunged into the summer’s events. Like Nina wrote in a previous comment, Sunny’s larger role is really to bear witness, an important role no doubt. Her personal story is not about race, but the love quadrangle between her, Miranda, Jo Ellen, and Annabelle. Her own climactic realization is nothing more or less than that Miranda didn’t love her. In some ways, I would turn Nina’s argument around: Sunny’s story (particularly her crush on Jo Ellen), not Raymond’s, is the plot device designed to get her involved and move forward the “actual” events of the story.

    I can understand on cultural grounds wishing a book like this wasn’t told from the white girl’s standpoint. But I think we have to consider the book that we have, even though we might wish we lived in a world where there were more kinds of books and points-of-view. (We do have ONE CRAZY SUMMER, thank god.)

    Finally, one thing I picked up which may legitimately be used against this book, though it didn’t bother me, is the overtly religious/moral tone of a lot of the writing, which occasionally tips towards direct preachiness. I can imagine this might put off some people, but I actually kind of like it here (getting a quasi-religious feeling while reading can be wonderful, after all), but personal taste will rule here.

    • Nina Lindsay says:

      Leonard, so interesting! Thank you for sharing…I’ll have to take this back to my re-read. My question to myself now is *why* I feel like he was given so much airtime. Without having re-read yet, he still feels to me like a plot device (he is, of course, I just don”t want to see that as a reader), and maybe that is part of the tone you are talking about.

      • Genevieve says:

        Does he feel like he gets more airtime than he does because he’s the only character, other than Sunny, whose viewpoint we see from?

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Gillette gets 2 chapters, Jamie gets 1 chapter, and there’s a strange omniscient chapter describing the pre-Freedom Day meeting which is part fiction and possibly part non-fiction (I don’t know whether the speeches from actual historical figures are quoted or made up) but yes Raymond is the 2nd most represented fictional voice behind Sunny. (The non-fiction elements of this book, by the way, represent nearly 40% of the book, more than 200 pages, which is just astonishing to me.)

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Sorry to respond to this thread belatedly, but here’s a question for Leonard. Since Wiles introduces an omniscient narrator then why not use the omniscient narrator to tell all chapters not from Sunny’s viewpoint? I think most people have an expectation that when they read a first person narrative that they are going to feel more intimately connected to the characters, and I think that’s a hard expectation to overcome. Moreover, doesn’t it create the appearance that Wiles is only comfortable writing in first person regardless of whether or not it serves the story? Just playing devil’s advocate here . . .

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Jonathan,

        That’s an interesting question. I am perhaps not the best person to answer it, because I personally did feel connection with Raymond and Gillette and Jamie in their chapters. But it is not clear to me that Wiles couldn’t have reserved the first person voice for Sunny alone. And maybe some readers would have preferred that.

        I can only speculate, but perhaps the first/third person division in this book is supposed to reflect the fiction/non-fiction aspects of this book? And the one chapter I refer to as “omniscient” is interesting. It really does blur the distinction between fiction and non-fiction (and I’d be curious to know where the line really is.) It could almost read as a “Raymond” chapter (since his chapters are already quite “observational” rather than internal) and I think he’s there at the event, but one realizes the pages are the wrong color, the chapter goes on too long to be one of “his”, and eventually that this chapter is not through Raymond’s eyes, or at least not only his eyes, but collective eyes, or an omniscient eye.

        Bob Moses is coming to speak near where I live in a couple weeks. I wonder whether it’s appropriate to ask him how he feels about his portrayal in REVOLUTION and elsewhere.

  16. REVOLUTION uses exquisite vocabulary and dose a great job of distinguishing the characters

Trackbacks

  1. […] came to mind when in her Heavy Medal post on Deborah Wiles’ Revolution, Nina noted that “There is a fatal flaw that I find in […]

  2. […] my enjoyment of the whole. Over at Educating Alice, Monica Edinger wrote about her reaction to the Heavy Medal discussion on Fatal Flaws that might ruin the chances of a children’s book winning the Newbery. Fascinating discussion […]

  3. […] Award finalist in the young people’s literature category, but I first learned about it via Heavy Medal as a potential Newbery contender.  It is the second book in Deborah Wiles’ Sixties Trilogy. […]

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