Chopsticks is a particularly interesting item from the buzzed-about portion of our contenda list. It’s a fascinating format — available digitally and physically — full of arresting visuals and links to outside media. Although there are very few words on each page, the visual elements are all carefully chosen and placed. Analyzing the title feels like it requires a special vocabulary; it’s not quite a graphic novel; it feels most like a found scrapbook.
Glory has played piano pretty much her whole life. After her mother dies, she fills her time playing the piano with her music teacher father, Victor. Her grueling daily schedule allows her a single hour of free time; the rest of her waking moments are full of piano practice, eating, and school time. Her two hours of Bartok are balanced by two hours of algebra and Spanish after lunch. Tchaikovsky gets an hour in the afternoon, with Stravinsky and Shostakovich sharing two hours after dinner. Their careful, sterile life is conveyed through formal pictures of a house dedicated to housing a piano, not a family. The time before, with mom, and the time after, without mom, is given an effective montage treatment through glimpses of the family photo album.
But then Francisco Mendoza and his family move next door. Francisco, or Frank, has moved from Argentina, and is miserably enrolled at Willard Dunn High School. He spends his days forced into classes he hates, and surrounded by students who leave notes on his locker saying “go home spic!” Frank vents his rage by skipping classes in the bathroom (scrawling “fuck you” all over WD stationary), and getting into fights. Frank is a shadowier figure, largely defined by his obsession with Glory. Details from his life add up into something mysterious, once you’ve gone through the book.
The two teens find each other and fall instantly, passionately in love. “Piensa en mi,” they write; “think of me,” they plead via notes and sketches. Mix CDs, pictures, feverish IM conversations document their quick descent into love. When apart, they write, “I miss my heart,” “Your heart loves you.” The visual parallels between their lives get stronger and stronger as the story progresses, and what seems passionate at first starts to feel frantic and disturbing.
Glory’s father acts to split the teens, first taking Glory on tour in Europe, where she finds herself increasingly unable to play anything but “Chopsticks” to scandalized, mesmerized audiences. Victor eventually brings her back to New York, where he checks her into Golden Hands Rest Facility, run by Willard Dunn.
The book is full of twined imagery and connections. Glory and Frank sign everything G and F, the notes of Chopsticks that move together and then apart. Glory’s initials (GF, for Glory Flemming) add a hugely complicated layer to the mystery. Willard Dunn, who owns Golden Hands, is also the name of the high school, and the two institutions share a logo. Frank and Glory echo each other’s feelings within the safety of a bathroom stall (“this place is a hellhole”).
I’ve been tap dancing around the big twist partly because I’m still trying to wrap my mind around what I think happened. I mean, my big public reason is so that we can get to spoilers in the comments, in case people haven’t cracked this book open yet. But also because there are a couple of possibilities, and the text leaves all of those possibilities open to the reader.
Here’s what I will say without giving too much away up here: the visual, scrapbook design makes for a really powerful reading experience. The clue-spotting nature of the read is needfully intellectual, and beautifully, disturbingly done. You think you’re reading one kind of story, but the cracks are there, and they get wider each time you go back and look. The extra layers of meanings add up slowly, and make the reveal(s) feel more forceful. However, a lot of this book is an intellectual experience; there’s not a lot of emotional connection with Frank or Glory as people. We readers are invited to examine their lives, not participate in them. That’s not necessarily a criticism from my perspective, but it does make me wonder what RealCommittee will say about it.
There’s a lot about RealCommittee discussion that has me wondering, actually. This is a reading experience that was designed with multimedia elements; it’s available as an app with those multimedia elements seamlessly available at a single click. Instead of seeing a fuzzy picture of Feist singing, you can click on her video and watch it from inside the book. I read the paper copy straight through to see if the story stands on its own; it does. But then I got curious and bought the app, too. I played around with the videos (I actually only made it about 2/3 of the way through that particular read). I am not convinced that the digital copy disqualifies this title as a contender (it’s completely possible to read this book without the videos, bells, and whistles), and I’d argue that via email, were I on the RealCommittee. However, I am not, and RealCommittee may ask YALSA for a ruling, and that ruling may disagree with our Pyrite ruling here.
I wonder, too, how RealCommittee will feel about the (not-quite) wordlessness of the story. If you look at the criteria list (Story, Voice, Style, Setting, Accuracy, Characters, Theme, Illustrations, Design), I don’t see anything that would disqualify this title — this is a story that hits all of those items. That it does it largely without words does not seem to me to be a problem. But again, I can only make the call here, on the blog.
And, of course, you might disagree!