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Does Never Fall Down Stand Up to the Hype?

Never Fall Down, Patricia McCormick
Balzer + Bray, May 2012
Reviewed from ARC

National Book Award Finalist. Three stars. Patricia McCormick. Never Fall Down is a critical and popular darling, and there is absolutely no question about the emotional impact of the story. You would need to be a stone to stay dry-eyed reading about the atrocities Arn sees and endures under the Khmer Rouge.

So let’s cut to the chase. There’s really only one conversation anyone is having about Never Fall Down, and it’s all about the voice.

Here’s my take. This is an important book. It’s effective. It made me feel, it taught me a lot (Cambodia and the Killing Fields are things I never learned, and was too young to know about when it was news, so a lot of the details were new to me as they are likely to be for teen readers). There is no question that this was a gripping read, with history mixed really well with a deeply personal story, carefully researched according to the author’s note. Is this a book people should be reading and will be invested in reading? Absolutely.

But I don’t think it’s got what it takes to go the distance when it comes to Printz bling.

As I said, voice is the big issue here, and I think it’s going to be a divisive one. I think either the voice grabs you and doesn’t let go or is problematic, and I suspect the exact same sentences could be used for either argument. For me, the voice was problematic, and that’s what I am going to explore here, but I fully expect disagreement. I’m curious to see the why and how it worked for others, or whether it was just that for some the issues were overwhelmed by the impact of the story as a whole. This is, once again, that question of emotional engagement and the how and why of engagement — although in this case, the emotional engagement for me happened despite the things that jolted me out of the story.

I have qualms about the decision to write in broken English. Here’s why it works: as readers, we are in the position of voyeurs, living the horror vicariously through this little boy. By having Arn address the reader in the voice that is presumably what his English might have sounded like then, in his childhood (although actually he didn’t speak English then), an immediacy is maintained; instead of watching from a distance, the reader is drawn in. It also allows the story to be told in something very nearly present tense and real time — the narrative is present tense, in fact, although there are clues that the narrative perspective is not (“We never will see Siv again”). The fact that Arn only speaks English in one tense allows this contradiction, and this contradiction is a great balancing act that benefits the book, providing as it does immediacy with a larger sense of the facts.

But there are contradictions in the voice. The verb use, in particular, is inconsistent, with conjugations of to be sometimes used and sometimes skipped. On page 22 of the ARC, in the last paragraph of chapter 2, starts off without the verbs: “Today, I think, this the most exciting…” and “Real American coming…” rather than “this is” and “American is” or “Americans are.” But two sentences later, “I think he’s missing.”

Now, that would be some serious nitpicking if it happened there and never again, but I’ve got similar instances marked throughout, and each time I was booted right out of the story. Arn’s voice has a rhythm, an almost musicality at its best. When that rhythm falters, the construction of world and character faltered too, and it happened far too often for me to brush past it as a minor issue. In some moments, it came across as authorial intrusion, because an emotional statement rendered with correct grammar doesn’t sound like Arn, and instead sounds like the educated author speaking, telling the reader what to feel, making the point for Arn, rather than on Arn’s behalf.

(For a much stronger take on the choice to use broken English and how it doesn’t work, see the Kirkus review, which I believe is the only professional review that does not praise the voice.)

My second voice-related issue, which might be less critical if it were the only issue, is that Arn’s voice doesn’t change. Even as he talks about gaining fluency, the voice remains mostly the same, even in the epilogue from 1984. Presumably by then Arn’s English would have improved, so it was another moment that my willing suspension of disbelief, my pushing aside all of the barriers between my comfortable first world existence and the horrors of Arn’s reality, cracked.

But really, my concerns with the last section of the book go deeper and straight to the heart of the question of what is literature. The too-close adherence to fact significantly affects and hurts the ending section, when we see, through Arn’s eyes, details about the Ponds. This is based on a true story, and I believe that these details are both true and that they might have been deeply meaningful to the real Arn. But for a reader they distract from the narrative thrust of the novel up to that point.

Sometimes the line between fiction and nonfiction is blurry. Sometimes for the story to be excellent, liberties need to be taken: fact is not always the same as true, after all, and here the facts had me turning to my old pal the internet. I wondered whether Peter Pond was insane, strongly enough to want to dig into the facts of his life. But that’s not where Arn’s journey should end; from a literary perspective, that’s a new story intruding on the primary narrative. It’s very nearly irrelevant to the journey we’ve been in until that point, and diminishes the novel as a work of art.

In the end, I do think this is a serious accomplishment, one I will recommend because it’s important. But the reason it stands out is for historical significance more than perfection of the writing. And the Printz doesn’t care about importance, or message, or history. As I have said before, historical fiction that is history first lacks something. The Printz is an award for literary excellence, and on that front, this does fall down.

About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.


  1. I agree with you that the entirety of the argument is going to revolve around voice. Some of us already started having this conversation over at Heavy Medal, and I encourage everyone to read those comments (

    My take before having the discussion linked to above was that I had a little trouble getting into the voice at the beginning, but I quickly warmed to it, and thought it did an excellent job of conveying Arn’s feelings. The debate over on Heavy Medal was whether the voice was an accurate depiction of either 1) how Arn’s language would sound in Cambodian (the answer is: absolutely not), or 2) how Arn’s real English sounds or sounded (the answer is up for grabs). McCormick’s author’s note seems to suggest that she was trying to capture the way the real Arn currently speaks, although I also like your suggestion that it is how he would have spoken English as a child.

    The fact that Arn’s mistakes were not consistent throughout did not bother me in the least, because these are exactly the sorts of inconsistencies we should expect out of a less than fluent speaker of any language – sometimes you get it right, sometimes you get it wrong. In fact, they were one of the many things that convinced me without a doubt that McCormick was not attempting to approximate the way Cambodian would sound in English – because then we would expect total consistency and fluency of one kind or another.

    Taken all together, and understanding that we are reading a novel, and not a transcript of Arn’s spoken English, I am willing to give McCormick the benefit of the doubt and say that this is how the fictional child Arn would represent his story in English. I do think your point about his lack of increasing fluency is a point against the novel under this interpretation, but for me it is not a fatal flaw, just a minor one.

    I’d put this one somewhere in my 10-15 bracket of Printz choices, but certainly not out of consideration.

  2. I haven’t read Never Fall Down, but I’m going to come out from my secret hiding place to make a comment, because I’m researching a historical fiction novel now and this topic obsesses me…

    In your previous post about historical fiction (“if it’s history first, it lacks something”) you used the examples of The FitzOsbornes and Queen of Hearts, both of which involve fictional characters in real historical times and places. In those cases the authors can use the history as a backdrop to the compelling invented stories they want to tell. Code Name Verity is another case where the setting is real but the characters and story are pure imagination. In terms of research, only the setting and larger global events have to be accurate. On the other hand, when you’re writing about an actual historical figure like Arn, you’re bound by what really happened to him. Some authors get around this a bit by telling the story from the point of view of an invented character who is close to the historical figure (e.g. we follow Kitty, not Catherine Howard, in katherine Longshore’s Gilt), but even there, Longshore can’t fudge anything that actually happened to Catherine.

    I guess what I’m saying is we have apples and oranges here, and it’s not fair to compare them. Historical fiction that documents a real person must in some sense keep “history first,” and the real task is to use voice and language (and nuanced interpretation of real events, and guesstimates of unknown events) to make the real-life story as powerful in a literary sense as fiction.

  3. Just a quick note to say, I show four stars for this one – Booklist, PW, SLJ and the Bulletin.

    • Karyn Silverman says

      @Mark, thanks for the Heavy Medal reminder. I try to write in a vacuum (including not reading reviews until after I’ve finished or mostly finished a post), and then forget to get OUT of my vacuum. Headed over there now to see what is being said.

      @Jen, Thanks for catching this. I’ll amend the post.

      @Elizabeth, I think there comes a point where the author makes a decision to use or not use a fact, or even to tweak the facts (I have read lots of historical fiction that moves an event a bit or combines two incidents, and that’s what the author’s note is for, isn’t it?). In this case, yes, Arn Chorn-Pond is a real person. But narratively, there is no need for the detail once he gets to the Ponds. It could have been glossed over. The novel could have been written to acknowledge Arn’s experiences without getting into Peter Pond’s emotional idiosyncracies, not by changing the facts but by using the facts in support of the story. This is what I mean by placing the history first. McCormick opted not to write a biography, but instead a novel based on true events, which puts the burden on her as a novelist to select the best way to present the factual elements. I argue that the decisions to adhere slavishly to the details and facts towards the end of the portion of Arn’s life chronicled here negatively affect the literary merits of the book, especially as it’s not even history per se at that point, except Arn’s history.

  4. mslibrarian says

    Indeed we had some comments on this one over at Heavy Medal. Mark, my question remains: why would a Child Arn be telling the story in English in present tense? This is an authorial choice that does not make a whole lot of sense to me. It almost feels like that there is a documentary film crew following Arn who is describing each scene as it happens to an English speaking audience. Instead of making the tale immediate and intimate, this voice feels contrived.

    Although, now with many people’s dissecting of the possible reasons for inconsistent grammar, I can accept that IF Arn is telling the story as an ESL student, these inconstancies can occur. Then, as pointed out by Karyn here, there is no progression of changes — instead of becoming more fluent, Arn remains throughout the story an early stage ESL student — and not the current, more fluent English speaker. So, are we hearing the story from a teenaged Arn that’s arrested in time, foretelling some of his later experiences, as well?

    I think when an author chooses to utilize a specific (and especially less commonly employed) narrative device, she has to work especially hard to maintain the integrity of that device because it will be scrutinized and because it does impact more how the readers receive / perceive the story. I am still with Karyn that literarily speaking, Never Fall Down is not as successful as some of the starred reviews have proclaimed.

  5. My feeling is that the voice is meant to represent Chorn-Pond addressing an audience of English speakers, now. Isn’t that the most likely scenario? Honestly, it puzzles me that it would be thought anything else, though I’m reading the discussion here and elsewhere with interest and try to look at it from each point of view. Many lecturers and storytellers choose to tell a story in the first person, so that doesn’t bother me, either. And that’s why his level of fluency doesn’t change. His way of looking at the world DOES change, as would be expected from someone growing from child to adolescent within the narrative.

    But I think you’re right: whether this voice works for the reader is highly individual. I don’t think there are passages I can pull out here to convince anyone, though I hope the more abstract arguments make people think.

    Karyn, can you expand on what you didn’t like about the last section? It didn’t provide the happy ending I desperately wanted, maybe needed, but it was certainly more challenging, and I did appreciate that.

    I don’t know that this makes my top, say, five books for the Printz, in a literary sense, but reading it and discussing it has certainly enriched my life.

  6. mslibrarian says

    Wendy, I can buy that present day presentation in 1st person present tense argument. (reluctantly) Then — how do we explain the way he “speaks” with these many mistakes and inconsistencies? I can buy Mark’s argument that a non-native speakers are not always consistant in their subject/verb matches or even verb tenses. McCormick’s author’s note states that she tried to capture the beautiful cadence of Arn’s speech, and I wonder how successfully she achieved that. To me, she simply managed to present a foreign born person’s inability to manage English (while in real life he manages quite well.) And how would the intended audience interpret this broken English scenario?

  7. I thought the rhythm/cadence of the written narrative corresponded fairly well with the recording of Chorn-Pond from NPR that Roxanne Feldman posted over on Heavy Medal, His English is probably better than what’s written, but the overall effect was, I thought, very similar. The narrative needed to strike a balance wherein the English was “broken” enough to get that effect across–if the errors were only occasional, I think they would drag the reader out of the story even more–but not so “broken” as to be difficult to understand.

    Someone brought up somewhere the question of how teen readers, less likely to intellectually analyze the language used, would respond to this; some seem to think this would leave them with a negative impression of–I’m not sure, Chorn-Pond? Cambodians? I really expect this to work even better for those who don’t stop to do a close analysis of the voice, which is perhaps more impressionistic than representative. But I would be very interested to hear teen reactions to this book.

  8. mslibrarian says

    I wrote, “I can buy Mark’s argument that a non-native speakers are not always consistant in their subject/verb matches or even verb tenses.” Which should have a follow-up sentence stating that the overwhelming amount of such inconsistencies and their placements in the book do not feel organic — they seem forced and they do not, to my own “English as a Second Language” radar, capture Arn’s actual speaking patterns.

  9. mslibrarian says

    For those who are curious to compare what’s in the fiction and what’s Arn’s actual speech like in print, here’s a short interview transcript:

    Reading the transcript, one can still sense the slight unfamiliarity of English and one can see his choice of words and phrasing which definitely has a slightly different “pattern” than native speakers. But, there are no page-ful of glaring grammatical mistakes and inconsistencies.

  10. Karyn Silverman says

    Thanks for that link, mslibrarian. The more I see/hear of the actual Arn Chorn-Pond’s English, the more discomfort I find I have with the voice of the book. And regardless of that, the inconsistencies still bother me; they don’t feel natural (either you use to be or you don’t; either there is a grasp of subject-verb agreement or there is not. If the language was generally closer to fluent, the occasional lapse would seem more comprehensible, but the way it’s written what I see is mostly consistent nonstandard English with the occasional lapse to grammatically correct constructions, and that I have a harder time believing.)

    Wendy, as far as the last section went, I found myself wondering why we were getting so many details about the Ponds. I recognize that some of this is vital to get us to the end and the beginning of Arn as humanitarian, speaker, public figure, but I found Peter Pond’s volatile moods worrying in a way that had me wondering about him (not about Arn’s reactions). And based on some of the links folks have shared and information I found online, it appears the real Arn Chorn-Pond is incredibly fond of and grateful to Peter Pond, so some of the detail struck me as reporting because these are the facts, when they didn’t strike me as critical.

    I can pull some citations if you want; I think, paging through, that it was probably not actually that many actual pages (3? 4?) of text, but those passages affected my sense of the book as a whole and overshadowed the other details of Arn’s setting in in the US, and have therefore loomed larger in memory.

  11. While I think it is interesting to hear the real-life Arn, I think we have to be very careful about comparing the way he speaks to a fictional narrator in a novel. There is no reason why McCormick can’t change the facts of the way Arn speaks to fit her goals. Now, whether she succeeds or not (which was the original question) is more complicated. But I definitely don’t think we can just say – the real Arn speaks more fluently than the fictional one, therefore McCormick is wrong (I understand that no one is making precisely this argument, but that seems to be the direction in which some comments here and on Heavy Medal are leading us to).

    Meanwhile, I continue to stand by my argument that inconsistencies in grammar are completely to be expected in a non-fluent speaker. As an extremely non-fluent Spanish speaker (indeed a very broken Spanish speaker), I personally find myself speaking to Spanish customers entirely in present tense verbs, wrong conjugations, etc. But then out of the blue I’ll find myself remembering “oh, that’s how you say that!” and pulling out a completely fluent (if horribly accented) sentence. So that’s my experience as a SSL speaker. As a listener of ESL speakers, I think for the most part the patrons I interact with do better than I do with my limited Spanish, but I still hear the same sort of inconsistencies. For that matter, regular, native speakers of all languages constantly engage in disfluencies, mismatching subjects and verbs, etc. It’s just that we generally don’t “hear” them because we know what we expect to hear out of native speakers.

    As I write this, I realize that the core of my argument has to do with the differences between the written word and speech. Speech is surprisingly difficult, as anyone who has read an unedited transcript of spontaneous speech knows.

  12. While I don’t want to belabor it if it doesn’t strike a chord with anyone else, I don’t want a quick previous comment to get lost in the shuffle, because I think it sums up my feelings on this really well–that the voice is impressionistic rather than representational.

    Really, what it seems to come down to is that it works for me and doesn’t for some others. I didn’t get “glaring grammatical mistakes” from this; I got “imperfect second-language English”, which is the same thing with a different spin. My boyfriend’s an ESL speaker, and he also didn’t begin to learn until his late teens; fluid but not fluent by academic standards. When I’m quoting or telling stories about him verbatim, I’m always surprised at the inconsistencies in language that come up that I never notice when we talk.

    Did other people have reactions to the last section of the book that were similar to Karyn’s? I guess I thought the level of detail was similar the the earlier parts. I did find it all jarring and uncomfortable, but that, too, was working for me.

  13. I guess my problem with the voice is that there’s so much individuality that gets flattened out. To me, it’s like the disfluencies overwhelm the narrative voice to the extent that I don’t hear an individual narrative voice beyond those disfluencies. In other novels that are potential Printz winners, you hear sarcasm or sincerity, honesty or self-deception, plainness or ornateness in the voice. In Never Fall Down… it’s hard to hear anything beyond the English disfluencies. It makes it seem as if the only relevant facet of Chorn-Pond’s self, or his personality, is that he learned English as a second language.

    As someone who learned a few languages besides English, and is constantly frustrated by not being able to express a full range of thoughts and emotions in my non-native languages, it’s a choice that makes me feel very awkward.


  1. […] at SLJ’s Blogland, Karyn Silverman discusses her reaction to Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick, a highly praised book and a National Book Award finalist based on the true story of a young […]

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