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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Language and Length in The Glass Town Game

In THE GLGlass Town GameASS TOWN GAME, four Bronte siblings (yes, those Brontes) travel to a magical world filled with characters and settings from the their own imaginative games.  I went back and forth on this book several times while I read it, and it shows in my thoughts below:

The language is eloquent, imaginative, clever, often humorous.  I can open at random to any page, a few weeks after I read the book, and feel like I’m right back in that world.  At the same time, it can be overly demanding on a reader when all sentences are so packed.  I struggled at first, but got used to it.

The magical elements of the story are reminiscent of E. Nesbit’s MAGIC CITY (my favorite of hers) and Edward Eager’s KNIGHT’S CASTLE (an homage to MAGIC CITY, but excellent in its own right), but Valente brings in expanded layers of complexity.  Like when they learn that Anne’s doll Victoria is playing a game about a made up country called England, and it seems like the kids might be the creations, as well as (or instead of) the creators of an imagined world.  On the other hand,   I struggled with the way that words become real in logical, but bizarre ways.  It’s sometimes fun (Ann realizes her fingers can open a locked door because they have bones, which means:  skeleton key (353)).  But often it seems arbitrary and too nonsensical.   

The interplay between fantasy and reality becomes more complex as the story evolves, and it also gets more serious.  As Charlotte says, “Our games have gone on without us and I don’t think we’re such good friends anymore” (280).  But…the level of suspense is never that high.  There’s never any real doubt that they’ll make it home okay, and the notion that they could use the magical grog to bring their older sisters back to life never really catches hold as a plot mover.  

The children’s real world problems and challenges are affected by their experiences in the fantasy world, and that works pretty well.  Bram, especially, struggles with his ideas of what a boy should be like (basically violent, selfish and jealous) and plain old decency and empathy.  He develops as a character and it’s through the action of the book that it happens.  But his struggles go back and forth a lot, and do get tiresome.. My notes-while-reading include several variations of: “Bran’s whining….again!”  

This is a long book:  531 pages.  With some good reasons.  The pace, partly because of the rich language, is deliberate. Concepts are complex.  The large cast of characters makes sense (because they had a lot of toys and played a lot of games), and she doesn’t skip around or simplify.  Still, I do wonder what this book might be like at 431 pages.  Or 331.  I especially struggled with the Wildfell Ball that Emily and Charlotte attend (360-398), where there are so many characters to keep track of and just not that much happening.  But I’m not always a patient reader, and I believe that patient reading is a requirement for members of her “intended potential audience.”

References to literature and history add nuances to the story that will be missed by many (most?) young readers.  Ghost Cathy works fine as a character even if you don’t know WUTHERING HEIGHTS, and her perception that Emily is “half-savage and hardy and free” (439) rings true.  But if you do know that she’s the character later created by Emily, that episode takes on a more powerful meaning.   

In the end I would nominate this book because of the highly impressive, sustained use of language, which does so much to establish character, plot, setting, and themes.  My reservations mostly lie in the ways that character, plot, and setting were overly dense and detailed, which ultimately limits the book’s potential to resonate with young readers.  But then, it doesn’t have to resonate with all of them.  The Newbery Manual states that we can consider a book that “is so distinguished, in so many ways, that it deserves recognition for the excellence it provides to a small but unique readership.”  I’m not sure GLASS TOWN GAME reaches that “so distinguished, in so many ways” level, but I would say “distinguished, in some ways” (especially style), and that makes me want to see it discussed next to others that may present fewer flaws, but may not aim as high or shine as brightly in a single element.

 

 

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Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at sengelfried@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. It is the incredibly rich language that has daunted me. As I wrote elsewhere I’ve tackled this several times, but always put it aside to return to (and haven’t:(. Makes me think of a very rich dessert full of meringue, liquor, and more that I don’t care for. Also, I’m an uneven imbiber of whimsy — prefer mine to be sparer than here. Can’t say this for the Real Committee, but I will here as I did in my earlier comment — I liked THE GIRL THAT CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND very much, but lost steam with the subsequent volumes. The language and whimsy got the better of me. I may give this another try as it does intrigue me, as does your post.

  2. THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND

  3. Ha. Just found my review of THE GIRL WHO FELL BENEATH FAIRYLAND and it makes me think I need to give this one more time as that is what I did with those older stories. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13538708-the-girl-who-fell-beneath-fairyland-and-led-the-revels-there

  4. I mostly agree with you. It may lie with me, because I am not the biggest consumer of fantasy in the world, and even when I like it it doesn’t stick with me much. I found that with Valente’s Fairyland books and even her adult stuff — I enjoyed it but it left my mind fairly quickly. I never read most of the sequels to Fairyland — never even thought to look for them, in fact, much as I liked the first book.
    I did wonder about the age thing. I think older children might be familiar with Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights — it’s around the age that they sometimes venture into adult classics. But would they know that much about the Brontes to be interested? (Also, let me just say that as a Bronte nerd some of the small things, like Aunt Elizabeth instead of Aunt Branwell, bothered me, and the anachronism with trains in Keighly, and — yeah, it’s fantasy, so I’ll shut up.)

    • Lcanon, I would not let anything off the hook by saying “yeah, it’s fantasy,” so kind of anything goes! In fact, really good fantasy must adhere to the strict internal world building logic well to make the cut for me.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      The one that genuinely bothered me was the reference to Wellington as “Hero of Trafalgar” (335). I don’t know that Valente is excused on the “Presentation of Information including Accuracy” front even though she specifically mentions “anachronisms, liberties, and all other assorted foolishness” in her Acknowledgments as things for which she would take her “scoldings without complaint.” Roxanne, I’d say Valente is definitely a Lewis not a Tolkien, who is said to have hated Narnia for its lack of internal consistency. Narnia is beloved so it can’t be a Fatal Flaw, even for fantasy, but it’s a legitimate criticism to be sure. In the Vox interview I linked to below, Valente even says Bran was Edmund from the beginning. Despite the smashing premise, I admit Valente’s world-building is a derivative mashup a bit like Lewis lumping together Christian (including Santa Claus) and classical elements (Bacchus etc.) Bonaparte’s description of the passage to the “real” world seems directly inspired by Lewis, “a long dark passage, dimly lit by a single, lonely lamp.” The punning that Steven found arbitrary and nonsensical has some tradition behind it (e.g. Carroll) though it actually reminded me most of the trashy, punny Xanth fantasy series. I think there may even be a reference to Trump (495). Anyway I wonder whether the anachronistic train is a nod to Rowling.

  5. Sara Coffman says:

    First of all, kudos to Monica for the phrasing “I’m an uneven imbiber or whimsy.” Clearly my favorite thing today.

    Second, a question to Steven: what qualifies a book as “overly demanding”? I think we can agree texts can be demanding or not, more demanding or less, but “overly” conveys a sense of judgment against a set standard. This far and no further-ish.

    Finally, I love Valente; her work is among my favorites. But like Steven and others, my feelings on this one are mixed. Is it too long? Or actually too short? Is the language, though beautiful, too heavy-handed? Here are two examples that I LOVED but also can see as being a bit more authorial argument than character voice:

    “Bran! We’re English!” (responding to Bran making some complaint about the English)
    Bran’s reply:
    -“So’s Prince John and Morgan LeFay and Mrs Reed and Macbeth and the Headmaster at Charlotte and Em’s school and Richard the Third and Henry ‘Dunno, What’dya think, I’ll just cut all my wives’ heads off, shall I?’ the Bloody Eighth! No one’s good just from being born any place” (317).

    “After all, it was a boy’s job to make things – furniture and machines and money and books and governments and art and such. It was a girl’s job to sit still and let someone else make something out of THEM, and that was that” (8).

    • Steven Engelfried says:

      You’re right Sara, “overly demanding” is unclear, implying a weakness in the text rather than applying its characteristics to potential readers. The text was demanding, and for myself as a specific reader, it was almost too much at times. But not quite. Other readers will find it too much; I think Monica’s comment that “the language and whimsy got the better of me” might apply to many. But that’s not a flaw in the text. It’s intentionally demanding in ways that are just right for the readers who want all the language and whimsy they can get.

      • Eric Carpenter says:

        I feel like the same argument could be used for profanity right?
        Couldn’t you imagine someone saying about THE HATE U GIVE:
        “The text included many f-bombs, and for myself as a specific reader, it was almost too much at times. But not quite. Other readers will find it too much. But that’s not a flaw in the text. It intentionally includes f-bombs in ways that are just right for the readers who want the characters to feel authentic.”

      • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

        Yes, Eric, that’s a good example. It’s a challenge, for me at least, to shift from “that book was just right for me” to “that book was just right, though not for me.” But it’s required for Newbery evaluation, book reviews, etc. I think that’s why a book like GLASS TOWN is hard for me to get a handle on….it’s a book that’s almost just right for me, but not quite. That’s where the second read, where you can step back a little bit from those personal reader responses, can be so valuable. I’m not sure I’ll have time to fit in those 531 pages a second time soon, but would definitely need to for the real committee.

      • Just yesterday I was talking to a group of students about “Real Friends” as a potential Newbery contender against the official criteria. One of them really disliked the book because she disliked Shannon — too clingy, too weak, too emotional… The other students and I helped this reader to separate the “This book is not for me because I cannot relate to the main character” sentiment and “This book’s author manages to present successfully a very realistic protagonist that makes me feel a particular way toward this character” analysis — and she consented that even if the book is “not for her,” it does not mean that it is not an outstanding graphic memoir that genuinely captures the pain of friendships in middle school.

  6. Leonard Kim says:

    Quality presentation for children:

    The author took pains not to make this book dependent on knowledge of the Brontës or the many apperances and allusions to historical and literary people and events. As Steven writes, things “work fine” even if you don’t get a specific reference. I found an article on vox.com where the author discusses this specifically and I am quite taken with her “hope.”

    “The word Brontë is never mentioned in the book, and the year in which it takes place, which is 1828, is never mentioned either. I didn’t want it to be not accessible to kids who don’t want to read a historical book. It’s my hope that a kid could read it and just love characters named Charlotte, Emily, Anne, Branwell. And then when they grew up a little bit, and saw Jane Eyre on the bookshelf, and saw Wuthering Heights, they’d be like, “But that’s my Emily, that’s my Charlotte! I know those people!” And that it would help them to read the Brontës in a way that was personal. . . There’s so many references to the things that happened in the Brontës’ lives. . . . But if you don’t [know them], it’s just an adventure and a throwaway line, you know?”

  7. Leonard Kim says:

    Interpretation of the theme or concept:

    Valente writes in her acknowledgments, “there is not a road in my tale in which [the Brontës] did not lay the first stone.” I perused enough of Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal: Selected Early Writings (Oxford World’s Classics) to appreciate both the truth of this statement and how far Valente went with it in a child-sensitive way. Really, I am completely floored by her achievement. There is an oft-quoted passage of Charlotte Brontë’s which is, in essence, the whole novel, including so much of the siblings’ characters and relationships.

    “. . . Branwell came to our door with a box of soldiers. Emily and I jumped out of bed and I snatched up one and exclaimed, “This is the Duke of Wellington! It shall be mine!” When I said this Emily likewise took one and said it should be hers. When Anne came down she took one also. Mine was the prettiest of the whole and perfect in every part. Emily’s was a grave-looking fellow. We called him “Gravey”. Anne’s was a queer little thing, very much like herself. He was called “Waiting Boy”. Branwell chose “Bonaparte.”

    (According to the endnote, the name of Anne’s favorite soldier was “soon changed” to Ross).

    I think this book can be profitably compared to THE PURLOINING OF PRINCE OLEOMARGARINE. Stead’s book is, if anything, even slower and less suspenseful than Valente’s, though much shorter of course. (And in neither case is this necessarily a bad thing imo). Stead is also working from the writings of another, classic, dead author. Yet whereas Valente is clearly inspired by her sources and that love shines through in every page, Stead’s obvious ambivalence about his source material basically becomes his book. I personally prefer to be swept up by Valente’s affection. However, my local children’s bookstore owner e-mailed me her opinion that, ” [Stead was] allowing himself to try to make a book from what he’d been given. . . oddly, his sense that he is no Twain and could not really add too much, is what allowed his book to be ok. Conversely, Valente’s infatuation with the Brontes is what probably dooms her: she is perhaps too in love with them to edit her imaginings of theirs.”

  8. Leonard Kim says:

    Appropriateness of style:

    THE GLASS TOWN GAME is unquestionably dense, but I think Valente’s writing flows like music, at least for some readers. I first experienced the audiobook, on my commute, and was basically rapt and transfixed the whole time. I laughed aloud many times and fought back tears in others. I agree that the plot-pacing (as opposed to language-pacing) isn’t perfect. In addition to the Wildfell Ball, I would identify the attack on Port Ruby and the final Bastille scenes as places where the book threatens to linger past interest, but in my case some magical sentence would quickly pull me back. As a distinctive and luminous writer, Valente has few peers–we are talking DiCamillo territory here. On my “actual” read, the book flies by easily for me, despite the number of adjectives, I think because I am definitely a read-aloud-in-my-head kind of reader. I have more trouble with short, plain sentences that stop and start than with reading many more words with a well-controlled and varied meter. My daughter is now 8, and we had basically given up bed-time reading, but I’ve revived it in order to read THE GLASS TOWN GAME to her (so this would be my third traversal). She’s a bit younger than what I would consider the ideal age, and she doesn’t get any of the references, and we are taking it a little at a time (1/2 or single chapters each night), but actually it is going very well. She’s attentive and frequently laughs aloud. Though maybe I am finding it a bit adjective-heavy when I have to actually say all the words aloud rather than in my head.

    It’s definitely a real thing that things have accelerated in all media. I remember the movie Airplane! as a non-stop one-broad-gag-after-another experience, but when I tried to watch it with my 12-year-old, it clearly felt both glacial and overly subtle to him. I once tried reading Voyage of the Dawn Treader to my daughter (we had gotten through LWW pretty well) and gave up. I had forgotten just how slow for such long stretches Lewis can be (e.g. chapters 3-4). GLASS TOWN GAME is nowhere near that slow, but still evokes a slower style. So I appreciate Steven’s reference to the Manual’s support of considering a book that “deserves recognition for the excellence it provides to a small but unique readership.” Far more than mature 14-year-olds, I think there *is* a well-defined but in-the-minority child readership who are, in a sense, pre-Literature – those who have the patience and focus to read with genuine enjoyment Nesbit and Eager (and Lewis and Tolkien etc.) Those who will read Jane Eyre for pleasure as teenagers. I think these readers will love THE GLASS TOWN GAME, for its richness (both its language and imaginings), its many invocations of names of things, its characters and how the book gets right into their raw feelings and experiences (yes, Bran is whiny, but utterly realistic – I and others have had his thoughts with that level of intensity and self-revulsion and repetition.) I think children will actually relate more to all this than adults. My bookstore owner friend again e-mailed me the “negative” version of this: “What I am reminded of—in my life—is listening to my son, telling himself stories, out loud, almost nonstop. He would weave everything he knew together into a narrative. . . . he’d somehow put what he’d been hearing in place in the long continuous narrative that was his way of digesting the world, I guess. . . [As] interesting as his story could be (not always, I do know) and interested as I could have been as the mother, I could not listen to all of that! I don’t know if my complaint here is about the limits of my own patience or about how much of this kind of imaginative play can be interesting to an outsider. I am happy to read the lengthy imaginings of Philip Pullman or Tolkien (I still believe), so I’m not quite ready to say that the problem is all about my attention span. What I suspect is that my problem is with the kind of imagining we’re listening in on, and it is imaginative play, a game, a bit like the game of “and.” If you are part of it, it Is probably fun, but if you are not, it gets tedious.”

    Finally, I would like to plug Chris Raschka’s THE DOORMAN’S REPOSE. This is another one that evokes children’s books of the past. Raschka does an excellent job replicating the feel of an older writing style. Again, pulling that feat off may narrow the audience somewhat.

    • Leonard — I don’t find the book dense at all. I find the writing fairly easy to get through and has an airy quality. I simply find the “piling on details” tiresome.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Roxanne, it was Steven who first wrote, “My reservations mostly lie in the ways that character, plot, and setting were overly dense and detailed.” Maybe I am misunderstanding what people mean by dense. I did write “the plot-pacing (as opposed to language-pacing) isn’t perfect.” So when I used the words “dense” and “slow” I was referring to the plot, not the writing which, as I said, flew by easily for me. You, Steven, and I seem to be on the same page here.

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