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Della, Ware, and Bob the Dog: Distinguished Characters

Here on Heavy Medal, I, along with all of you readers, have been gathering title suggestions and compiling lists since early 2020. Now it’s time to dig deeper into some of those titles and discuss them in light of the Newbery Terms and Criteria that the actual Committee adheres to. 

Once a week (sometimes twice) a Guest Blogger will introduce a single book. I thought I’d try something different this year with my own posts. Since the Newbery Terms and Criteria are so important in the decision-making process, I’m going to feature one piece from the Criteria at a time. So there will be separate posts about plot, theme, and the other literary elements named in the Criteria. I will also build posts around other phrases from the Criteria, such as: “not for didactic content” and “books for this entire age range.” I’ll pick a few titles that are particularly strong in the featured area, and invite discussion from that starting point. We’ll start that off today with “characters.”

From the Criteria: “In identifying ‘distinguished contribution to American literature’…committee members need to consider…Delineation of characters.” That delineation is important. It tells us to evaluate the characters themselves, but also the way that the author develops and communicates their personalities to the readers. Here are a few titles where the author’s choices in that area seem particularly distinguished to me:

FIGHTING WORDS by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

There’s a lot going on in this book, including a compelling plot and multiple powerful, thought-provoking  themes. It’s Della’s voice and personality, though, that lead us to care so much about those themes and events. From the start, she sounds like a real ten-year-old kid: blunt, honest, and matter-of-fact. Her narration is mostly about what’s right in front of her and what she’s thinking at that moment, but hints of the larger story slip in:

I should have guessed, you know? I should have guessed the parts of the story weren’t about me. I should have guessed what had happened to Suki.

I’ve learned that some things are almost impossible to talk about because they’re things no one wants to know.

Not even me. (39)

As Della gradually gains strength and confidence in her “wolfness,” she also develops a heightened sense of empathy. She starts to understand the reasons behind Trevor’s bullying and her teacher’s missteps …but at the same time, she makes sure she and her friends have a plan in place for the next time trouble threatens their “pack.” (241-242) 

The other characters also shine, but because she’s just a ten-year-old, most readers will see them a little differently than she does. At first,Della is mostly suspicious or unimpressed by Francine’s kindnesses, but we can see how Francine is in the girls’ corner (though she’s not a standard foster-parent-with-a-heart-of gold cliche at all). Della’s relationship with Suki is complex in ways that neither of them really articulates, and it shifts as their life with Francine continues.

THE ONE AND ONLY BOB by Katherine Applegate. 

Here’s another first-person narrator that we get to know just from the way he tells his story. Bob’s a small dog, but as he says:

…size ain’t everything.

It’s swagger. Attitude. You gotta have the moves. 

Probably I shoulda been named Bruiser or Bamm-Bamm or Bandit, but Bob’s what I got and Bob’ll do me just fine. (5)

That “swagger” makes Bob’s storytelling engaging and delightful. But like Della in FIGHTING WORDS, the dog’s life has not been easy, and he lets readers in on some of that harshness along the way:

Lemme tell you about being man’s best friend.

Being man’s best friend can mean a lot of things. Companionship. Belly rubs. Tennis balls.

But it can also mean a dark, endless highway and an open truck window. (15)

The pace of this novel is almost leisurely in the beginning as we get to know Bob,his friends, and some of his history. Then the hurricane hits, and Bob learns more about himself (and so do we) as he’s forced into perilous situations, culminating in his face-off with Kimu the wolf (307-312). Bob shows he has a lot more than “swagger” in that moment, but when it’s over, he’s still the irreverent, funny Bob we’ve gotten to know: 

Rowdy still isn’t moving.

I don’t know what else to do.

So I bite the heck outa his tail.

Perks the little guy right up. (313)

HERE IN THE REAL WORLD by Sara Pennypacker

This story is told in the third person, but everything is filtered through the fascinating mind of Ware. We get right inside his wandering, inquisitive eleven-year-old brain. His thoughts are observant and amusing, but they also provide insight into Ware’s evolving sense of himself:

The old church was littered with lizards, baking on the hot concrete rubble. Ware didn’t begrudge them the space, but they always reminded him of the day he’d heard his mother say she wished her son was normal. It would have been better if he’d seen a different animal that day. Something less common, like the luna moth he’d found out there once trembling on the screen door: pale milky green, big as his hand.

“Go away,” he told the lizard beside him now.

The lizard blinked. (93)

Ware’s internal thoughts and observations work perfectly to show the beauty and the substantial drawbacks of being an eleven-year-old introvert. There’s a lot going on with plot threads and interactions with multiple characters, but I feel like it’s Ware’s voice, and the way he learns to use it, that make this novel really shine. 

Other engaging characters that stand out for me so far include Donte from BLACK BROTHER, BLACK BROTHER, Loma from A CEILING MADE OF EGGSHELLS, Zoe in FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON, Bea from A LIST OF THINGS THAT WILL NOT CHANGE, and Omar from WHEN STARS ARE SCATTERED.  

Please share your thoughts on FIGHTING WORDS, THE ONE AND ONLY BOB, and/or HERE IN THE REAL WORLD below. You can expand on the “characters” aspect, or bring in other strengths and weaknesses from these books beyond characterization. You can also let us know about any distinguished characters from other books that have caught your attention. 

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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. Steph Gibson says:

    Bea from A LIST OF THINGS THAT WILL NOT CHANGE and Ware are my favorites so far. Stead is so fantastic at writing complicated emotions and Bea is a perfect example of this skill. Ware is a delightful window into an introvert’s mind. I love them both. I am excited to get my students’ reactions to them.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      “Writing complicated emotions” is a great way to describe what Stead does so well, Steph. We learn so much about Bea’s anxiety though her narration, rather than from her telling us about directly. She mentions it only casually (“I’m a worrier, too” (23)), but we get such a strong sense of her worries and how they impact her life as she tells about the incidents and relationships that matter to her. I think Bea’s inner world may be more complex that what we learn about Ware, but both are conveyed so skillfully.

  2. Agree with all three, but especially Fighting Words. Della is such a great character and her voice and personality really make the book. The book also does such a good job handling sexual abuse in an age appropriate way—having three different levels of offense with differing levels of distance was really smart and effective. And it is just such a funny book, which was unexpected. And so hopeful and triumphant at the end.

    Bob is also a fun voice, but I was disappointed in the plot. Not much happens for the first half and then it turns into an action adventure hurricane story in the second half. Not that I’m against action, but it did not cohere into one story arc.

    Omar and his brother are both well-developed characters in When Stars Are Scattered. I think the brother is especially well-developed considering he’s essentially nonverbal.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Katrina, I’m also not sure about how well the two story arcs in BOB fit together. It seems like they should: we get invested in Bob as a character in the beginning, then when he’s tested and has to deal with serious stuff, it should be really involving. I’m not sure that quite happens as smoothly and as powerfully as it might have.

      Good point about the different levels of offense in FIGHTING WORDS. If I remember right, Della herself never directly draws a connection between Trevor’s bullying and the abuse that she and Suki suffered. The author trusts readers to see that, and I think most will. Especially in the way that Della figures out how to deal with them, by speaking out, not blaming herself, and enlisting help from friends and family.

  3. Julie Corsaro says:

    Thanks to Steven for his close reading of some wonderful books. I think character is how we connect with story. Della in Fighting Words is my favorite so far, and agree with Katrina that it is a great feat how Bradley makes the topic of sexual abuse accessible for a middle grade audience — largely due to Della’s fierce, engaging voice. At the same time, Della’s damaged sister, Suki, and earthy foster mom, Francine, are also fully realized characters — a triumvirate for the ages. I also agree with Steven about the List of Things that Will not Change, as well as From the Desk of Zoe Washington and When Stars are Scattered, two of the most likable books with the most relatable protagonists — despite unusual circumstances — of the year. In addition, I think Leaving Lymon sings when it comes to character. In Lesa Cline-Ransome’s evocative, naturalistic prose, all the characters, not just young Lymon (who started out as such a sweet boy), are entirely convincing. Lymon and his family seem to exist alongside us in the world.

  4. In Fighting Words, I also loved the portrayal of Nevaeh, Della’s friend. I loved the interactions between her and Della and how effectively Bradley illustrates fledgling friendships: both the mistakes and triumphs. Tony and Maybelline, the basketball coach and employers at the grocery store, were vivid and engaging, too.

    I enjoyed Bob’s brusqueness which could not conceal his loyalty and kind heart. I cannot help lumping Bob and Ivan together in my mind, though, and while The One and Only Bob was a fast-paced and enjoyable read for me, Ivan’s story resonated more strongly and is still my favorite.

    I also recommend the characters in Erin Entrada Kelly’s We Dream of Space, particularly the character of Bird. Never have I wanted to reach inside a book and hug a character so much. I wept for her. The climax when she enters her friend’s empty house is so beautiful.

    • Julie Corsaro says:

      I give Erin Entrada Kelly a lot of credit for starting the book with Fitch, who is the least likable of the siblings, even as we come to understand some of the reasons he is the way he is (and he does change in convincing ways over the course of the book). Like Rebecca Stead, Kelly has a gift for capturing the emotions and social dynamics of the tween set. I still cringe when I think of Bird’s female classmate telling her without missing a beat,that she’s not pretty, but that she is smart, like it’s a consolation prize. There’s a good deal of both deliberate and oblivious cruelty among these middle schoolers.

    • Agree about We dream of space.

  5. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    With most (or all?) of the characters we’ve mentioned, their personalities go a long way towards carrying their books. I think of Ware or Bob or Bea before I even think of their stories. It’s also interesting to me when authors create characters who are less distinct in themselves, but still drawn just right for the book they inhabit. For example, Pong and Nok in A WISH IN THE DARK. They’re fully realized characters who develop in convincing ways, but we get to know them more through their worlds and their experiences, rather than their uniqueness of their expression or personality traits (as we first experience Ware and Bob). I’d put Valentina and Oksana from BLACKBIRD GIRLS in that category too. And give both authors credit for rendering their characters in the ways that fit the whole book most effectively….

  6. HERE IN THE REAL WORLD did a good job with setting as well as character. I can see the church and the transformation pretty vividly.

  7. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    Good point about the setting in REAL WORLD, Cherylynn. That ruined church lot was a pretty unusual place, but I could picture it pretty well. And it was important that readers could do that, since it was so integral to the plot. The bar, also, as seen through Ware’s eyes, was neatly rendered.

  8. Leonard Kim says:

    Was the “Della, Ware” thing deliberate? This post inspired me to make my own list of the Criteria and what I thought were strong books in each. My list has overlap with others of course, but maybe it’d be more instructive to share disagreements. I thought FIGHTING WORDS was a strong book, but it didn’t make my excellence in Character list. I think there is a difference between “voice” (I agree Della’s is distinctive and appealing) and “delineation of character.” I know that’s vague, sorry. I have difficulty feeling a character is well-drawn, even when they have a strong voice, when they feel like the author’s pawn, which is a particular danger in so-called “issue” books (such as WISH IN THE DARK, WHEN STARS ARE SCATTERED, ZOE, among others mentioned in the post and comments). There can be tension between excellence in Character and Concept, because a full, living, rich character can muddy the clear transmission of Concept, so “character” instead becomes a compellingly-voiced mouthpiece. Thinking aloud, I think Bea, Oksana/Valentina, Lymon, and Loma among those mentioned above transcend this danger while still supporting their books’ messages, so they are moving up in my consideration.

  9. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    I like Leonard’s insight about the distinction between “voice” and “character.” Della’s voice stand out, and we get to know her very well through the way she expresses herself. But her actions and experiences also contribute to the “delineation of character.” She learned things about the world and about herself, and her growth were convincing to me. In some ways it’s easier for me to look at someone like Valentina, because there’s a greater separation between reader and character. When Oksana stands up for Valentina at their new school, for example, it made sense and I was rooting for that, but I experienced it more as an observer. When Della clashes with Trevor, I’m more emotionally aligned with her. Both approaches seem appropriate and successful, but it does make identifiying excellence in any single area (like character) challenging (and fascinating). And yes, “Della Ware” was deliberate. I couldn’t help myself..

    • Julie Corsaro says:

      There is a new anthology for adult readers, Grabbed: Poets and Writers on Sexual Assault, Power and Healing, about people being touched without permission, an all too common occurrence. Intentional or not, calling Della “a pawn” somehow feels like a grab.

      Like many of the middle grade novels getting attention this year, Fighting Words is told in the first-person. So, yes, it is Della’s “voice” (hence, the title). And what a voice it is: frank and funny (“I got a big mouth, That’s a good thing. It’s excellent.”), and scared and sad (“She didn’t die in the ambulance and she didn’t die in the hospital.”). Through Della’s “words,” we see her thoughts and actions, hear her stories and conversations. Along the way, Della shares center stage with her protective, profoundly damaged sister, Suki, and salt-of-the earth caregiver, Francine. There are equally vivid secondary characters like Della’s insensitive teacher, Ms. Davonte, and the girls’ horrific guardian, Clinton.

      With character at its core, this isn’t a book that belongs on the garbage heap of novels where problems take precedence over people. As the central characters grapple with the after effects of abuse, Bradley smoothly weaves past and present through natural dialogue and artful repetition: “ I kept thinking about Suki. /And Clifton. /And what Clifton did to Suki. /And Mama. /And everything Mama didn’t do. /Couldn’t do. /Would never do.” It’s a groundbreaking book.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Julie, I apologize for any offense. I said I thought FIGHTING WORDS was a strong book. I think it is a stronger contender for the Newbery than CHIRP. But in my own argument for FIGHTING WORDS over CHIRP and others, excellence in the delineation of character criterion doesn’t come into it as much as it does for others, which was what I was trying to contribute to the discussion. Where I think FIGHTING WORDS really shines is the perhaps undervalued criterion of Setting, the world in which Della, Suki, and the reader inhabit in such an immediate way—this is another way of saying what Steven said, I think. The aspects of the first person voice and writing style you highlight certainly contribute to this.

  10. Julie Corsaro Corsaro says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful response, Leonard. I agree that Fighting Words also shines when it comes to delineating setting. The world that Della and Suki inhabit with an imprisoned, meth-addict mother; where a trip to Old Navy is like going to the Taj Mahal; and where no one knows for years that you are living with an abuser, is not one we often see in middle grade fiction (if you haven’t read Leaving Lymon yet, I highly recommend it for its evocation of setting, as well as character). That Fighting Words also manages to be funny and warm is quite a feat; I suppose the fact that the book centers on the aftermath of that abuse, which I previously mentioned, helps.

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