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Guest Blogger Post: KENT STATE

KENT STATE consists almost entirely of an extended dialogue between more than a half-dozen unnamed voices reliving, relitigating, and reflecting on the Kent State shootings. The overall effect is like a radio play or books like Joyful Noise and Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! that have been previously recognized by the Newbery committee. As with those books, KENT STATE could be particularly well-served by performance, allowing it to be experienced by less hardcore and non-traditional readers, whether through the powerful audiobook or a dramatic reading by students.

Those familiar with Deborah Wiles’ work will expect KENT STATE’s excellence in the criteria of Character and Style. Though the voices are differentiated by font and placement, this is hardly needed as Wiles’ writing makes them so distinctive. More surprising, perhaps, is how the choice of format – the extended conversation on a historical event — allows an illuminating take on the criterion of Presentation of Information. In her note, Wiles writes that it is impossible to “tell definitively what happened, because there is so much unknown, or disputed, or misremembered and misconstrued” (121). KENT STATE turns this into a strength and offers children a powerful model for understanding history. To take a mundane example, were there helicopters on Saturday? Wiles writes,

And then the helicopters came / my god the helicopters / No, no, that was Sunday night. / The helicopters scared us sh*tless (51-52).

This example also nicely illustrates how, in a work that is almost completely dialogue, Wiles can be so evocative in the criterion of Setting. A reader doesn’t need a conventional description of helicopters flying overhead at night to feel what it was like to be there.

This book could be discussed alongside Lowry’s ON THE HORIZON, another lyrical rumination with multiple perspectives on a historic day of violence. For both books, it could be argued that the final section is the weakest. In Lowry’s book, the perspectives of the first two sections were so well-balanced that I was not convinced bringing in her personal experiences at the end (such as the encounter with Allan Say) added much. One of KENT STATE’s many strengths is its willingness to listen to all perspectives. But in its final Elegy section, KENT STATE puts its thumb on the scale, undermining its otherwise gripping Development of Plot. I wish Wiles had omitted this section and ended with:

We looked around us at the carnage. / And almost without knowing it / we made a plan for the future. / Because one thing we knew for sure: // They did not have to die” (107),

which would have been nicely symmetric with the book’s initial stanza which also ends, “They did not have to die” (3). Wiles is among the very greatest writers working in children’s literature today, but this single reservation prevents me from giving KENT STATE full-throated advocacy for the Newbery.

Nonetheless, the book is beautiful. It is powerful. It directly and continually involves the reader from its very first line, “You are new here” (3). Speaking to our remaining criterion of Concept, the child reader can get so much out of this that is directly applicable to their world today: sympathy, outrage, passion, listening, history, community, activism, memory, and honoring, presented in words that practically burn off the page.

Guest Blogger Leonard Kim started following the Heavy Medal blog when all three of his kids were still “children” according to the Newbery definition. His pandemic activity has been playing Beethoven piano sonatas on YouTube. He lives in Pennington, New Jersey.

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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. Leonard, Could you please say a bit more about why you think the Elegy section tends to undermine the book? Although there are parallels to ON THE HORIZON, KENT STATE is much more, as you point out, a choreopoem, meant to be performed. I actually found the biggest weakness of Lowry’s book, although she framed it as a personal reflection, to be the extent to which she sometimes misrepresented history. How accurately do you think that Wiles has presented historical events which are largely unfamiliar to young readers?
    Thanks for your thoughtful post.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Hi Emily, up to that point, everyone had their say, not just students, but townspeople, and even the National Guardsmen. This is not to done to promote some false equivalence, but to show the kinds of things people really did say about Kent State. The dialogue is often not constructive. Disagreement devolves into hate (“THEY SHOULD HAVE KILLED MORE OF YOU” (50)). Conversation itself is sometimes unwelcome (one of the few uses of profanity in the book is when one of the student voices announces, “right on cue: enter the National F***-ing Guard” (47)), but for the reader, it’s always illuminating.

      That’s why the Elegy felt off to me. One of the compelling things about the book was the idea that these voices are constantly “reliving, relitigating, and reflecting.” But the Elegy came across as: problem solved, the townspeople have had a change of heart and realize the youngsters are right and we should do what they tell us to do. Maybe so, but it diminished the book for me.

      To your second question, I can’t speak to the accuracy of the book, but as I wrote, the book’s format allows different speakers to give conflicting accounts, which Wiles notes reflects the state of the historical record, and I think that is distinctive as far as Presentation of Information goes.

      • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

        Though I don’t think the Elegy sinks the book, it is a definite shift. It starts by continuing the multiple voices format, but by the last three pages, the two on the left disappear. It seems like assertion that it’s the voices on the left that the reader should be listening to. That’s very different from most of the rest of the book, where readers listen to many diverse voices, none of which seem completely right or completely wrong.

        I think the shift makes sense if we see it as an attempt to highlight the book’s intended message, if we see that message as: Listen to all sides; recognize that it’s not all black and white; but definitely put your name down on the side that will “use our privilege / and our talents / and our energy / to make this democracy work.” (117).

      • I agree with all of this, and would add that Wiles did extensive research for the book, so historical accuracy is likely to be at a granular level we aren’t even imagining. I was actually surprised by how unique and effective this book was – I think I was expecting “just another novel-in-verse,” and it definitely was not that. It was so much more. That said, the “thumb on the scale” (great description, Leonard!) is problematic. For me, it’s not that it eliminated all but one voice. It feels like it eliminated ALL the voices up to that point and left us only with the author’s voice. And that shift is what bothers me. Finally, when I read and loved this book, I decided not to review it as part of my Newbery conversation because I felt it was for an older audience – the profanity, yes, but also the complexities and nuance of the narrative really demand an older reader.

  2. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    Thanks for this post, Leonard. As both you and Emily mention, this is a book that cries out to be performed. At the same time, I was struck by how well the multiple voices worked even while reading it silently to myself. After a while I stopped consciously reminding myself which voice each font and placement represented…you can almost hear the voices and their tones in your head.

    I always appreciate it when an author trusts young readers. In this case, it would have been simple to list the voices in the beginning, so readers would know who was talking from the start, but she jumps right in, forcing us to read a little more carefully and focus on the points of view to learn about the people who are expressing them.

  3. I love books of this sort, and the interweaving of the voices is very effective. I did have trouble keeping the voices straight, though (electronic Braille does not always differentiate fonts), and plan to purchase the audiobook. I did feel the liberal use of profanity might lessen it’s chances for Newbery, but perhaps this is my own personal bias. Kent State would be an excellent choice for Printz I would think. I love how the ddiffering voices and opinions presented are so relevant to our own differences of opinions today. Wiles effectively illustrates that everyone has a voice, and voices deserve to be heard. This book is very relevant in exploring current conflict. We can learn from history while reflecting on the present.
    Outstanding analogy of the material!

  4. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    Not really relevant to our Mock-Newbery discussion, but Derf Backderf wrote/illustrated a graphic novel for adults earlier this year (“Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio”). Thinking about the way Wiles ended her book, it’s interesting to see how Backderf approached it. The main portion ends with students walking out of town and rain that “washes away the bloodstains on the pavement.” (249-251) Then there’s 25 pages of notes, followed by a one-page Epilogue, which shows Nixon and Haldeman talking blithely about how uprisings can be managed. Nixon: “…You know what stops them? Kill a few! Remember Kent State?”

  5. Aud Hogan says:

    I am, personally, planning on mentioning this in a book talk later this month about civil engagement. However, the descriptions of the violence during the actual shooting is pretty graphic, and I could see some committee members questioning whether it’s appropriate for the age range intended. For example, “Joe was flipping them the bird, defiant, as the Guard turned and aimed their weapons, then pop-pop-pop! he was on the ground, screaming, bleeding, writhing, his pain spilling over us, blood ballooning inside his jeans” (only with far better, more effective formatting). It continues in that vein for a while. It’s excellent writing. It’s incredibly effective and definitely distinguished. But. I could see some people questioning the age range. Especially since it’s nonfiction and some readers react more viscerally when they know the story is about real people.

    Please forgive my lack of page numbers – I’m reading this on my phone and don’t have them.

  6. Leonard Kim says:

    I think Wiles’ historical books, including this one, are comfortably middle school (though not younger) and thus Newbery-eligible. But I’ve said before that I also think her books work best not necessarily in a library context (where a child picks this off the shelf or has it handed to them to take home) but could work powerfully and indelibly in a classroom setting, maybe when the topic is civil engagement, and you can have a teacher guiding the discussion (or coaching the student performers.) I think that’s an equally legitimate form of excellence of presentation for a child audience, but since the Newbery committee counts more librarians than teachers in their number, I wonder how much that context is considered.

  7. Great write up, Leonard! (And adorable picture! 😁) I also thought of it as a play and would love to see it performed (I should definitely try the audiobook, I guess!). I found it very powerful (definitely made me cry!). I agree it gets a little didactic at the end.

    I do think it’s a bit old for Newbery. Or at least certainly the ideal audience is upper high school, since such a big point of it is these kids were just your age. Even when I was in high school, I thought it was really weird when adults talked about “college kids” or called soldiers “kids.” I mean, they’re 18, that’s an adult! (Now that sounds so very young, of course.) That transition to official adulthood at 18/out of high school is a huge cliff when you’re younger than it. So even in high school, I wouldn’t have identified the college kids of Kent State as peers, I don’t think. In junior high, they definitely would have seemed like far distant adults. So I don’t think you’re going to get the full experience of the book reading it at 12 or 13.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Katrina, I will have to think about this. As I and others have suggested here, the messages of this book do seem relevant to our current time. My daughter is 11 (my only remaining Newbery child!) and, like so many others, participated in some marches/peaceful protests this year. My gut feeling is that not really being able to identify with or not being of comparable age to the victims that inspired these movements wasn’t really a factor in whether she understood and engaged with the issues underlying those marches/protests. But I agree that, if KENT STATE is Newbery-eligible, it’s definitely on the high end of the age range. I don’t think I’ll be handing my daughter KENT STATE, but, as suggested above, if her school made her read it in the next couple years, I think that’s not unreasonable?

      • No, I definitely agree with that. I think your point about it being best suited for a classroom setting, especially for the younger age range is a good one. And you’re right that it’s still a big historical event and you don’t have to necessarily identify with the characters for it to be relevant. It’s just something the book itself seems to push and I think it’s probably extra impactful if you’re that same age. (Although, honestly, probably actually most impactful when you’re old enough to look back on that age and see it as young!)

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