Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Hockey Kid and the Boy in the Stoopid Shirt

the-truth-as-told-by-mason-buttleI read THE TRUTH AS TOLD BY MASON BUTTLE and CHECKED a while ago and what really stuck with me weeks later was the distinctive voices of the two first person narrators. The Newbery Terms and Criteria mention “appropriateness of style” as a key consideration, and that’s where I think these two books shine. Style isn’t enough on its own, though, so we also have to determine how well other elements from the Criteria, such as theme, plot, characterizations, and setting, are conveyed within that style.

Mason Buttle’s story involves bullying, friendship, death, and a bunch of other stuff. He tells it with blunt, direct language. His statements are often prefaced by: “I think this:…” and “I’ll tell you what:…” He’s not a writer or a reader and that language feels right for someone who’s putting words on paper and telling a big story for the first time. He uses short sentences and plain words, but when he says something that really matters to him it really comes through. Here he is sharing the joy he gets from the neighbor dog with pure enthusiasm followed by specific, tangible descriptions: 

“I think, what else is like this? This good? What in the whole wide world? Nothing!

“I hug him up. Pat him over and over again. Stroke, stroke, stroke, Moonie Drinker. My hand fits his smooth head bone. I hold his ear in my fingers. Give it some squishes. Feels nice as a sock just come out of the dryer.” (285)

Mason narration flows out like it’s from a kid who hasn’t really thought it all through. There’s no overview or background early on about who he is, what his family’s like, etc.; he never even mentions Shayleen, for example, until she actually appears (48). Though nobody thinks he’s smart, including Mason himself, he’s actually pretty perceptive in some ways. He notices Annalissetta’s strength and that Calvin is really “mighty” (322) when others overlook them.

Mason’s narrative style allows the mystery plot to emerge gradually, which is unusual and pretty effective. Readers area likely to be a little ahead of Mason in figuring out what’s going on. I wasn’t totally convinced that he could totally miss the fact that people suspect him of deliberately causing Benny’s death. It seems like he could have put the pieces together (as I think most readers will) well before it finally hits him (252), especially since we realize that he’s not nearly as dense as he thinks he is. Or that someone would have told him about the suspicions…his uncle, his grandma, or maybe even Matt as part of his bullying. It could still be plausible, though, because Mason really doesn’t have an accurate sense of how people view him for most of the book. 

checkedConor, the hockey kid from CHECKED, also has an excellent kid-like voice. We’re right inside his head the whole time, which jumps around the way an eleven-year-old’s head will do. He weighs in on everything from the job market (229), to old age (133), to puberty: “It’s the future, man.  And it’s a mystery.” (148). He even muses about his own tendency to muse:

“Every so often, I like having these heavy thoughts too, like just lying around with Sinbad, thinking stuff. I wonder if someone would pay me someday to be a philosopher. Is that a thing?” (58)

While Conor takes us through his random thoughts and his hockey days, serious worries about his dad and his dog pop up regularly. He’s at an age and a situation where he’s dealing with complicated issues for the first time and trying to figure out how he fits (more than once he says: “I’m only a kid”) and what he can do to make things better. And he jumps from optimism to despair and back again in seconds…because he’s eleven: 

“And then I’ve got a sick dog…Life is tiring, man. I feel sorry for myself for a second. But Sinbad lets out a snort, and my whiny moment passes. I smile. Sinbad’s gonna make it! I’m an AAA! I’m gonna work like hell and make first line! I press my face in Sinbad’s neck. Life doesn’t get any better. It just doesn’t.” (264)

Those don’t really feel like typical Newbery-level sentences, but they capture the inner workings of this kid perfectly. Even the big thematic moments are just so Conor-like. Near the end he sums up some of what he’s learned: 

“You just gotta be a good person, but your dog’s gonna die when he dies.” (403)

 Looking at the Newbery Terms and Criteria could lead to some concerns about “development of a plot” in CHECKED. There are a lot of details about hockey, but it’s not a traditional sports story. It’s a pretty long book, and not that much really happens, especially if you compare it to books like The Book of Boy or The Night Diary. I think you could make a case, though.  The Criteria state that the “committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements,” so a book with distinctive style that’s used to convey themes, characters, and settings in an excellent presentation warrants consideration. The plot isn’t really flawed, it’s just not the central driving element of the novel. And if it were more plot-driven it might have detracted from the way we get to know Conor and his world.  

I enjoyed Mason and Conor so much as a reader that I wonder if I’m overlooking flaws in either book, so I’m curious to hear what others thought of their “voices” and their books.     

Share
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. How interesting that you find Connor’s voice kid-like and the strength of the book while I questioned all along how an almost-12-year-old, even if he’s had quite the life experience, would use sentences like, “Still, I’m basically cool with Rocko, just don’t see the need to try to escalate back into friendship” and “I can feel something kind of emanating out of him” or “but California has become a hotbed for youth.” I have more examples that kept giving me pauses. Since this is a Present Tense narration, we can’t even say this is Connor looking back to his childhood with wisdom or vocabulary of an older person.

  2. Great analysis of both Steven. These were two of my personal favorites of the year, and their voice and style is what won me over as well. I agree, CHECKED was a little long, but I was so enamored with Connor’s voice that it didn’t bother me. In comparing the two, I think MASON’s plot is tighter, but that fits the story because of the mystery surrounding Benny’s death. There was a mystery to figure out and get to the bottom of so the plot has more structure and closure than something like CHECKED, which is pretty much just a year-in-the-life-of type of story. I think CHECKED has an appropriate amount of conflict though sprinkled throughout to keep the narrative moving, with Sinbad’s health, his father’s emotional state, and hockey in general.

  3. Steven Engelfried says:

    I guess I hear Conor’s voice more as a stream of consciousness. He’s not actually forming these sentences, the way Mason does while speaking into his Dragon computer. It’s a representation of what’s running through his head. He may not use words like “escalate” or “emanating” in speech or writing, but they convey the essence of his train of thought. On the other hand, maybe I’m trying to have it both ways, because “basically cool with Rocko” is more how he would talk….

  4. Jenna Friebel says:

    I didn’t loved Mason Buttle as much as I expected to after hearing all the praise. A lot of side characters felt pretty one-dimensional/ stereotypical to me. An argument can be made that it’s because that’s how Mason sees them, but that stopped it from being a great book for me. I did *like* it, but it didn’t shout Newbery to me. I also didn’t buy that he wouldn’t have figured out he was suspected of Benny’s death, but I do agree the voice was well done.

  5. Just throwing this other one out there — does anyone feel that Mason has too much hardship piled on one character? I’m thinking of how he has to deal with his overactive sweat gland on top of the death of a friend, crumble-down house, being bullied at school, unable to decode/process words, mother’s death…

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      I feel some of that “too much” also, Roxanne. The way that Calvin’s near-death ties in to the mystery of Benny’s earlier death works well to complete that plot element, but may be a bit of a stretch to think that such similar situations would happen to Mason’s two best friends.

    • I’ve been wary of making assertions that a book or character has too many problems ever since I read the essay “Perceptions of Diversity in Books Reviews” by Malinda Lo (https://www.malindalo.com/blog/2015/02/perceptions-of-diversity-in-book-reviews). See the section “So Many (Too Many?) Issues.”

      Mason Buttle doesn’t exactly match the kind of character Lo is writing about, but I do think it’s relevant in the sense that some of Mason’s challenges in life are seem to be linked together (excessive sweating, intellectual disability, poor living conditions, synesthesia, and bullying).

      I do 100% agree with Steven that what happens to Calvin feels too similar to what happened to Benny. When you add in his mother’s death it seems like Mason is unbelievably unlucky.

  6. Leonard Kim says:

    I hadn’t thought to link these two books by voice, but it makes a lot of sense. I personally found Conor’s voice very credible. I agree with Steven, it may not be literally the way he might speak (and even if it were, I didn’t pause at his vocabulary), but it felt right for me, for that character. I actually had a bigger credibility problem with Mason’s voice. Connor’s style (the author of MASON, not the hockey kid) felt a little too poetic and writerly for the character I felt Mason was supposed to be. Maybe he’s unintentionally a poet and doesn’t know it, but it did take me out of the book a little, compared to Conor’s more plain-spoken style (the hockey kid not the author of MASON).

    Though CHECKED is the longer book, MASON was the book that felt longer than it had to be, perhaps because of the reasons Steven suggests: MASON is more plot-driven but takes longer to get there than the reader may need whereas CHECKED is not plot-driven so can sustain its length as long as Conor doesn’t overstay his welcome (which he did not for this reader.)

    Before Steven’s analysis, I had situated MASON alongside HARBOR ME which also paired a strong writing style with a first-person narrator and transcribed audio, and I wasn’t sure such a poetic style was appropriate for that. I had situated CHECKED alongside OUT OF LEFT FIELD and MISCALCULATIONS OF LIGHTNING GIRL in that the main character being “good” at something (hockey, baseball, math) is a key component of the book. I felt CHECKED by far did the best job at representing this credibly, putting it near the top for me in the Criteria of character, theme, and information. I also wondered whether, at any point, the portrayal of the white policeman father in CHECKED (and also Messner’s BREAKOUT) would come into the discussion at any point, given the current zeitgeist.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      I like that grouping of characters who are good at something. This really worked with CHECKED, I thought. I do like sports, but never got into hockey, and don’t really understand it all that well, but found the information fascinating. Partly because Conor clearly did. Even something like a paragraph about taping his stick in a different way (240) is interesting and gives just a bit more about Conor’s personality (“You gotta try different stuff to find your style.”). OUT OF LEFT FIELD does it well too…though it’s a very different kind of sports book.

  7. Leonard Kim says:

    Reflecting on my own 13-year-old kid, perhaps I didn’t have a problem with Conor’s word choices, because kids that age really do overuse vocabulary (to seem more adult? because they’d more recently learned them?) I was probably far more likely to use a word like “emanate” in middle school than now.

    Roxanne, I agree there may be too much piled on Mason. Perhaps that contributes to the feeling I (and others?) had that the book was a little too long?

    • And contrary to your experience, Leonard, I feel that my 11-year-old (Conor is turning 12) students (a couple of thousand through the years) would not speak/or even think in many of those words/phrases. Conor is not “writing a literary memoir,” nor is he demonstrating, within the confine of the book, leanings toward becoming a writer. His entire existence is dad, dog, hockey. So, I still stand by my feelings regarding his voice: I’m not convinced.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Roxanne, that is an interesting question. I agree Conor might not speak or think like that, and you claim Conor wouldn’t be writing to us. That leads to the question, what is this book (or any similar book)? Are these characters speaking or writing to the reader? Or is the reader following a stream-of-consciousness like Steven suggests? I guess my own gut has been that Conor *is* writing to us in a way, even though “realistically” I agree he would never actually write such a thing. Why do I feel this way? I don’t know, probably just because, simplistically, it’s a book. I can see though if one experiences books like this as speech or thought rather than writing where voice might be more of a problem.

      • In this case, the choice of “first person present tense” is deliberate. I do think Conor is not “writing to the readers” but presenting his experiences in real time, as thoughts, perhaps. An author always has the choice to write in 3rd person narration if they decide to insert wisdom, maturity, literary words, etc. I believe that a first person present tense choice has an inherent limitation — that the VOICE has to be credibly fitting for the age/experiences of the narrator. This is why Philip Pullman switched from telling Lyra’s story in first person POV to third person — it would not have sounded authentic and he wouldn’t have had the range of commentaries and paradoxical observations (oh how I love those) to play with. In the case of Checked, the voice does not convince me. In Mason’s case — I had to keep tracking when he’s “narrating” the story and when he’s “writing through the dragon” — and I have to say that Connor (author) does these two “types” of voices meticulously.

      • Thank you Roxanne, for pointing out the difference between Mason narrating the story and Mason speaking into the Dragon. I’m reading this out loud to my students right now and that was a good catch. I agree, it is handled very well.

  8. What I do appreciate about Checked, though, is Conor’s awareness of their financial situation — by looking things up and figuring things out. I don’t remember seeing this spelled out so much in children’s books and find it skillfully handled.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Yes, I liked Conor’s financial thinking too. Calculating the cost of being a hockey kid, then thinking about the things he and his dad don’t do (that other kids do). Weighing his dog’s treatment vs. giving up some hockey class opportunities. But he also knows that he’s got it better than most. He describes himself as Jae-won as “the two least rich kids on the team.” And then follows with the story of how Jae-won’s dad bought him six hundred dollar skates and “he hated them after using them twice. It’s tough when that happens…Still, they were able to sell them for two fifty.”

  9. Tell you what: I was not prepared to like MASON as much as I did, and when I reflect on the reading experience, most of my enjoyment came out of feeling like Mason was sitting next to me and telling me his story (very similar to how I felt about JOURNEY OF LITTLE CHARLIE).

    Mason’s suffering is also believable because of the way he processes the world around him. The cruelty is almost unbearable (at least for this reader it was), but Mason’s reactions (or rather non-reactions) seem painfully appropriate to his character. In fact, his suffering is made even more heartbreaking when he muses, “People are just looking for one kindness”, seemingly overlooking his own need for kindness.

    What didn’t work, though, was the “mystery”. Calvin’s disappearance seemed almost too convenient a parallel to Benny’s, and Benny’s death didn’t work as a plot device. I had a hard time believing that any adult worth their salt would think Mason had anything to do with it.

    • I don’t know if the police investigation is as far-fetched as people are implying. You have to consider the police perspective. I never got the feeling that anyone involved believed Mason did anything intentionally to Benny, but the evidence and the circumstances and Mason’s demeanor made him a person of interest regardlesss. The ONLY person of interest actually. So he HAD TO be investigated. I agree, I was frustrated too at the way the police treated him and the way they went about investigating him, but I think some investigations are like that.

      • It’s also been a long time since I read this and in rereading it now, I might be able to see why people think this way. I do seem to remember the hand saw being an important piece of evidence and the cop pushing Mason a bit… But again, Mason isn’t offering up much. Difficult position for law enforcement to be in.

  10. Roxanne, here’s my two cents regarding Conor’s vocabulary… I know a lot of hockey kids. My nephew plays competitve hockey and I’ve had a few students play. My own son tried it for a few years, too. Conor felt like a hockey kid to me. Playing hockey competitively is a huge commitment. Kids are pretty much removed from their normal set of peers and thrust into an environment surrounded by adults (coaches, parents) who treat them like professional players. And they travel all the time, often playing for weekends on end in states other than their own. Conor’s coach or role model probably used words like “escalate” and “emanate” sometime and now Conor’s giving it a go in his monologue. “Hotbed of youth,” is obviously something he’s heard his father, a cop, say before and he’s repeating it like a fact. This rang very true to me, as something kids like him would do.

    Furthermore, it seems that your trouble with Conor’s vocabulary stems from the opinion you have of Conor himself. That he’s only “dad, dog, hockey” and I think if his narrative proves anything, it’s that he’s much more than that! I think you’re doing the character a horrible disservice if you limit him to those three summary points, as if you’re expecting less of him intellectually. He’s copmassionate, insightful, and observant and I wouldn’t be shocked at all to hear a kid like him use some of the words and phrases you cited since he’s probably picking them up from adults he interacts with on a daily basis.

    • I see where you come from. Perhaps we need to step back a little bit and stop considering the kids we know in real life and just think about how Conor is presented in the tale. I think he is extremely compassionate and self-reflective, as a book character. I don’t see how his vocabulary is necessarily from hanging out with grownups because these grownups in the tale itself, as described by Conor, show that they use the type of words/expressions that Conor uses sometimes in his narrative. Is this a fairer way of thinking about the Voice? My “dad, dog, hockey” descriptors are the aspects that we do see in the book. I’m pointing out that the author does not give us indicators clearly where he collects his expressions. To me, that’s a missing link.

  11. I really liked Mason as a character, but had trouble with the plot and especially the pacing. It took so long to get going and all of the bullying was stressing me out! I don’t think the mystery works very well, since it was obvious to me who did it and it seemed like it should be obvious to everyone else to at least suspect him given he was the other person with access to the treehouse (and an actual motive). It seemed weird that the cop was so obsessed with him and hadn’t even talked to any other kids about it, especially since Mason was clearly incapable of lying. It particularly didn’t make sense for the cop to be convinced Mason did something to Calvin since he thought he killed the first friend by accident, not on purpose.

    I do think it was a lot of piling on with all of the issues. In particular, I’m not sure it worked that well to give him so many different mental issues. Synesthesia, dyslexia, *and* whatever causes his more general lack of awareness? I did like that it showed him being smart at trees so he does have things he’s good at. But having him have dyslexia and be more generally “dumb” for lack of a better word seemed not great since it reinforces the misconception that if you are dyslexic you are dumb. I did really like that he wasn’t socially aware and assumed everyone had good intentions–he was sweet and I liked him for it. I thought he made a good unreliable narrator for a child audience since he’s unperceptive for his age, rather than because of his age. I did feel like they were in 4th or 5th grade instead of 7th grade though.

    Matt was a little over the top with the dog cruelty though. She seemed to be trying to make him full sociopath, which I don’t think was really necessary. I wasn’t sure which way she meant it, but I thought one way you could take it is that he was bullying Mason because he felt guilty, which I like because that’s interesting and complex. But making him generally evil undermines that.

    It’s been too long since I read it, so I don’t remember what I thought about the voice. According to my notes, I didn’t love the writing style. I felt like it had an early reader style with the lack of contractions, simplistic language, and definitions for hard words (often scientific but not always). It sounds like most people took those things to be parts of Mason’s voice and what made him authentic. That apparently wasn’t how it struck me, but that makes sense.

Speak Your Mind

*