Retrospect and Audience
A Conspiracy of Kings, p.117
“…the magus said thoughtfully, ‘That lying little monster complained about everything: the food, the horses, the blankets, the company. He even found falut with the stories I told by the fire, but I cannot recall that he ever once complained about the climbing.’
‘So many things are obvious in retrospect, aren’t they?’ I said.”
This double-crossing in-joke of Megan Whalen Turner’s is the iconic moment that I think of first when I think of A Conspiracy of Kings. In it, she allows the reader to feel as if he or she is uncovering a cleverness…yes, a clue from The Thief that is obvious in retrospect. But what the reader doesn’t realize at this point in Conspiracy is that Turner is doing it all over again…that Sophos’ tale is not all it seems. We’ll have the tables turned on us a few more times in fact, each time more upsetting that the last, and on a second time through a reader will come upon this conversation on p. 117 and groan…and love it.
The dexterity of Turner’s plotting and character development through her multiple points of view and highly articulate just-walked-into-a-room-in-the-middle-of-something show-not-tell kind of narrative is what participants in our live Mock Newbery on Dec 12 heralded over and over through our discussions. What I refrained from saying at that table, since it doesn’t really relate to Newbery criteria: this style reminds me of the reception scene in Altman’s Gossford Park, where the camera wanders from one conversation to the other, and you can hear them overlaying each other. The first time you watch the movie, its utterly disorienting: there’s clearly several intrigues going on, and you’re not sure which to follow. On multiple viewings, however, another phrase will lift itself to your ear which now makes so much sense having seen the movie through, and you realize that nearly all the clues were there, in that early scene: you just didn’t know what you were listening to. In Turner’s case, this style shows great understanding of and appreciation for a certain kind of child audience–one who appreciates intrigue and deception, and a book that withstands (in fact, grows better with!) multiple re-readings.
What book on our shortlist might stand up to Turner’s in this regard?
That’s right: Mo Willems’.
How many times have you read…I mean really read, City Dog Country Frog? Try reading it once each day, ignoring the pictures. Here’s what I saw in it today.
Each season starts with “City Dog didn’t stop (on that first day in the country; to admire the green, green grass; to sniff the falling leaves; to eat the snow).” The first time it’s just because he can (“as far and as fast as he could”), but after that it’s because he’s got something he’s looking for: a friend. Then, suddenly, one day, the friend isn’t there, and this changes City Dog.
Wait: Not so fast, and not so suddenly. Actually, Country Frog is changing in every season. It’s just that City Dog, and the reader, perhaps, on first read, haven’t noticed.
“Country Frog’s games involved / jumping and splashing and croaking. / That was spring.”
“City Dog’s games invovled / sniffing and fetching and barking. / City Dog and Country Frog played / until Country Frog was too tired / to sniff and fetch and bark / anymore. / That was summer.”
“‘What shall we play today?’ asked City Dog. / ‘Dog or Frog games?’ / Country Frog took a deep breath. / ‘I am a tired frog,’ replied Country Frog. / ‘Maybe we can play remember-ing games.’ / …They remembered… / That was fall.
I’m a lot older than a preschooler. Though I noticed the change in tenor of the types of games that were being played each season, and saw them heading somewhere, amazingly I did not notice the physical clues: “until Country Frog was too tired,” … “Country Frog took a deep breath”…. Here are multiple layers of clues that a very young child might start to notice as they read and re-read this book. The seasons change. The types of games change. Frog changes…and has been changing all along.
Changing by slowing down. When we get to winter, Dog–who hasn’t stopped, recall–slows down too. Then stops. Here is a physical metaphor for sympathy: a key ingredient in friendship, especially the kind of friendship that Dog is about to exhibit, the kind that can be translated.
Frog slowed down for one reason. Dog in sympathy for his friend…and then through that sympathy carried to its ultimate end, starts up again. These are complex emotional and philosophical narratives for a preschooler, but they are communicated artfully, simply, almost deceptively through physical scene setting. So perfectly suited to the audience. So obvious in retrospect.
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About Nina Lindsay
Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at email@example.com
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