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Fencing, Hoops, and a Family Wedding: Distinguished Writing Styles

 “Appropriateness of style” is one of the literary qualities named in the Newbery Terms and Criteria. I would feel a little better if we substituted “execution of style” for “appropriateness of style.” The latter seems to point to the author’s choice of writing style, rather than its level of excellence. But “distinguished writing” applies to all of the qualities, so clearly it’s the choice of style and how well the style is used. We can’t really look at any of the literary qualities in isolation completely, but as Julie noted in an earlier comment: “writing style is relevant to all books.” Here are a few fine examples in which the authors’ style choices are crucial to their books’ success:

 BLACK BROTHER, BLACK BROTHER by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Rhodes’ stylistic approach jumps out from the start in this novel. The distinct rhythm of Donte’s first person narration instantly grips the reader:

I stare at my hands. Nighttime dark. They have a life of their own. Clenching, unclenching. Fist then no fist. I keep my shoulders relaxed; my face, bland. My hands won’t behave.

No science fiction or fantasy is going to help me. I live in a too-real world. (3)

Those short, clipped sentences, all in present tense, provide strong immediacy to Donte’s experiences. They also provide the reader with a sense of how he sees his world: it’s unfair and often dangerous. The way he names things directly and constantly processes what he sees and feels vividly reflects his responses. 

Parenthetical words and phrases provide counterpoint in well-chosen spots. Sometimes they show Donte thinking a little deeper, or questioning his own first reactions. He describes an early interaction with Coach:

We look at each other. I feel like we’re speaking silence.

I’m thinking, He’s really strong. He’s an Olympian. He’s thinking (I think), I can teach him all I know.

Then it hits me. I’ve never had a coach before. Never wanted to do anything where I needed one.

“It feels good,” I say aloud. (Having a mentor.) (73)

The rapid-fire pace also works perfectly to convey the speed and action of the fencing matches.

The pace and structure of Donte’s sentences (and sentence fragments) play a huge part in characterization, plot development, and delineation of theme. I suppose the same story could have been told in more conventional language, but it’s hard for me to imagine because the style Rhodes chose, and executes so well, feels like an intrinsic part of everything in the novel.  

THE LIST OF THINGS THAT WILL NOT CHANGE by Rebecca Stead

Bea narrates her story in a voice very different from Donte’s, but one that also informs her character, which is a little harder to pin down. She jumps around a lot in her telling, moving back and forth in time as relevant incidents pop into her head. Her storytelling wanders in just the way the mind of a ten-year-old like Bea’s might.

It’s anything but random, though. Bea isn’t exactly an unreliable narrator, but she’s definitely not telling us everything she might. She addresses her anxiety a little bit (“I’m a worrier, too” (23)), but mostly we learn about how intense her nervousness can be from what she does and how she thinks. And although Bea describes Angelica’s accident on page 3, we only gradually come to understand her intense level of guilt about the incident. 

Bea’s also trying to understand herself, and readers discover things and wonder about them at the same time she does. She keenly observes what people say and do, but struggles with figuring out what they feel. Like when she’s not sure what her new stepsister is feeling when she visits:

Every night, I hoped that Sonia and I would talk in the dark. It was part of the story in my head about what sisters do. But Sonia never talked. After the last Frog and Toad story, I clicked the tape recorder off. 

“Are you tired? I said into the dark.

She didn’t answer.

We were in our nightgowns, with our beds lined up and not too far apart. Rocco was curled up on the floor and I could hear our dad talking in the other room. Did that add up to real sisters? I didn’t know.

I fell asleep. (93)  

Stead’s writing style trusts readers to empathize with Bea, which lets plot and theme shine without overstatement. Bea’s wedding speech could be a perfect moment for the protagonist to neatly summarize the themes of the book; the Bar Mitzvah speech in TURTLE BOY (374+) is one example of this approach. Bea, in contrast, thinks about it, waits (“like Miriam would have wanted me to”), then:

What I said out loud was, “We made a new family today. I think we should be dancing.”

Everyone waited. But I was done. (211)

It works, partly because that’s exactly what Bea would do, but also because we’ve already experienced the meaning of the book through the deceptively complex narrative style. 

DRAGON HOOPS by Gene Luen Yang

In a comment on a previous post, Leonard cited DRAGON HOOPS as an example of “a children’s book [that] involves the reader in the ‘meta’ question about how to Present Information.” That’s an excellent lead-in to the stylistic choices Yang makes as an author and illustrator. 

The main story is about McClymonds High School’s basketball team. The author is a character within the story, as he befriends Coach Lou and follows the team. But we also see Gene as the author of the book, wondering if readers will even be interested in any of this. He shares his uneasiness at entering this unfamiliar world of sports, both as an author/illustrator and as a teacher who had never even set foot in the gym of his own school.

In conversation with his wife, Gene wonders why he can’t learn more about the players:

“That’s exactly it! They treat me like I’m the media!

“You are the media, honey.”

“I guess.”

“Look. You’re not their coach. You’ve never had either of them in class. You’re not even from where they’re from. Maybe what you’re asking about isn’t any of your business.

“Yeah. You’re probably right. But how am I supposed to do this book if I can’t figure out the characters’ backstories?” (76)

He’s wondering how he can create the book, while readers are holding the book…which of course he did complete. His roles as narrator, character and comic creator intersect in interesting ways. He watches the two basketball stars complete an alley-oop, then realizes why the comic book artist in him is so delighted:

The first time I saw them do it — “Whoa.”

Young men in colorful uniforms, performing seemingly superhuman feats? 

Felt familiar. [illustration shows Superman dunking with Batman watching] (73-74) 

This deliberately loose narrative approach allows the author to follow multiple tangents without disrupting the flow. He utilizes the sequential panels to provide information, and sometimes humor, in deft, efficient ways; tracing Dr. Naismith’s thoughts as he tries to figure out how his new sport will work (58), for example, or presenting a checklist comparison of Ivan and Paris, the star players (67). 

I do think this book might resonate most with adults, and teens as well, but there are seventh and eighth graders who will be just right for it (I would have been one of those, if there had been graphic novels way back then). And I think it’s Yang’s free-ranging, but carefully constructed narrative style that makes it engaging to a wider range of readers. 

Please share your thoughts on “appropriateness of style” in any other Newbery-eligible titles below, and we can discuss any elements of BLACK BROTHER, LIST OF THINGS, and DRAGON HOOPS in this space.

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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. Thank you for this post. No matter how often we repeat that literary style is a core element of a book’s quality, we can never say it enough. Granted that there is a subjective component to making judgments about this, you demonstrate that it is still possible by choosing three different authors with three very different, and distinguished, styles. I also agree that the term “appropriate” is really, well, inappropriate! Execution of style, distinctiveness, excellence, would all be better. “Appropriate” has all kinds of extra-literary connotations that easily slide into the territory of judging a book by its didactic message or content. A great book can be about any topic at all.

  2. Leonard Kim says:

    Do you think the word “Appropriateness” may have been chosen to focus Committee members on “excellence of presentation for a child audience?” Certainly there are books that are more appreciated by adults than children, and “Style” can play a big part in that. I remember Roxanne once arguing that the 14-year-old age limit was less about mature content and more to do with literary sophistication. I recognize Rebecca Stead as a great writer, but sometimes I wonder if her greatness can escape younger readers. Deborah Wiles too, which is why KENT STATE is notable for being both searingly-written and completely accessible. (Alas for the profanity, though, which raises a different “appropriateness” question.)

    • Julie Corsaro says:

      I appreciate you drawing attention to the dissonance between “appropriateness of style” and “distinguished” style, Steven, as well as how loaded a term “appropriate” can be, Emily. These are important points to highlight that could make for involving committee conversations. It’s hard to know per Leonard’s query via Roxanne what the original intent behind “appropriateness of style” was. I’m not sure if there would be anything about it in the ALSC Archives, as the Board must approve the criteria, and exactly how it may have related to “excellence of presentation for a child audience.” But as Emily brought up, conversations about these elements could easily dovetail into conversations about “didactic content,” as well as “popularity,” for which the award is not. The committee is appointed to judge this year, and that is what it must do.

    • I had a similar question about age range in BLACKBIRD GIRLS because of its graphic descriptions of child abuse. Is a book necessarily for a middle-grade audience if its characters are middle grade in age?

      • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

        I may be overreaching to assume that “appropriateness of style” extends to “distinguished style,” but I can’t see how else to look at it. I think about early chapter books, where most everything on our shelf is written in an appropriate style. There are dozens of series in which reading level, simplicity of plot, sentence structure, etc. are the main thing, and most books get them all just right. I’d give them all 10 out of 10 for “appropriateness.” But something like THE STORY OF US (“Our Friend Hedgehog” series) or THE PRINCESS IN BLACK AND THE GIANT PROBLEM (which I haven’t read yet, but will soon) may be no more or less appropriate, but stand out for the excellence of the writing.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Steven, maybe this Criterion recognizes the special challenge of being both a contribution to American Literature (which the Terms and Criteria say the Newbery winner must be) and still be stylistically appropriate. I actually think some of our greatest writers, DiCamillo, Henkes, Schlitz, are less effective in some of their “early” books than the run-of-the-mill early books you invoke. They either write beautifully but in a way that is less “appropriate” for the readership, or they limit themselves so that the adult reader can’t but regret how much better the book would be with more complex vocabulary and sentences. It takes a particular talent to make no compromises on either literary excellence or age-appropriateness. Maybe that’s what this Criterion identifies. For example, I think one of the real strengths of Watson’s WAYS TO MAKE SUNSHINE is exactly this. Stylistically it is appropriate, and it is terrifically written in a way that I never felt the author would have written things “better” or differently if she had more advanced readers.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Emily, I was actually surprised that, in the author’s note to FIGHTING WORDS, Bradley writes about ten-year-old readers. I definitely think FIGHTING WORDS is eligible by age for the Newbery, but when I read it, I thought this was a rare example of a book where the ideal reader was older than the main character.

        As you probably know, the argument has been made many times on Heavy Medal that a book should be considered Newbery-eligible because “actual children have experienced the things described in the book.” I have personally always disagreed with this, but would have to think about it before being able to articulate why.

  3. Julie Corsaro says:

    I was most impressed by the overall narrative structure of THE LIST OF THINGS THAT WILL NOT CHANGE. For an author so closely associated with Manhattan, I was more than a little surprised by its opening scene in a Mid-western cornfield. For a story that, otherwise, is well situated in the concrete, from Bea’s list to an apartment bat to endangered seafood, the initial ambiguity around what happened at the summer cottage was also striking. The narrative comes full circle in the end, of course, as it reveals how Bea’s emotions influenced her behavior.

    My copy of the book went out into the world at the beginning of the pandemic (BTW: was it oysters or clams?) and hasn’t returned. But I also recall the artful repetition in Stead’s writing, with the transitions that Steven notes between past and present being fluent, as they are in FIGHTING WORDS.

    While things were discombobulated at the beginning of the story as Bea’s family was changing, the action whether set on the expansive Great Plains or the vastness of Manhattan was largely confined to home, family or the workplace. Does anyone have any thoughts about this?

  4. The List of Things that Will Not Change impressed me so much because all the elements eventually connected. I liked how Beea referenced the sound of corn growing periodically throughout her narrative, so the question of how it related to the other events stayed fresh in readers’ minds. The non-linear style kept my interest as I wanted to know how the beginning connected. I thought the interplay between the spelling party letters, Beea’s sessions with Miriam and the interaction with the other students were also very effective. Even the making of the butter found an appropriate place. I do not know how well this intricate style would resonate with young children, but I think Beea’s authentic voice will hold their interest. I do wonder if the subplot involving Mission might come across as too didactic. Perhaps I am reading too much into this aspect.
    The seafood was oysters.

    I know I keep coming back to this book, but it stole my heart, so I am biased. A Game of Fox & Squirrels, by Jenn Reese, impressed me so much with its literary writing. Every detail connects. The third person singular point of view is effective, and personification, use of metaphor and other literary devices kept me feverishly turning pages. You experience things through a young child’s perspective and truly become immersed in the situations Samantha experiences. Jenn Reese truly impressed me with this novel, and I think it’s the book that has resonated most with me.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      I agree, Meredith, about A GAME OF FOX & SQUIRRELS. Like Rebecca Stead, she had a choice about how much to spell out for the reader, and ended up trusting us. WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER (Guest Blogger post coming Friday) has some of that too. I just finished the new Megan Whalen Turner (RETURN OF THE THIEF), and she also counts on the reader to fill in a lot of pieces. Not easy to do, but I think all three are successful…

    • Julie Corsaro says:

      Oysters, it is!

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