More things about luck
We’ve all had plenty to say about THE THING ABOUT LUCK from out of the gate this season, from Jonathan’s first post, all the way through the NBA announcements and our nominations. We’ve talked about the strength of the characters, setting, and prose; how these all support a theme that hangs on a light plot, but which is so strong that the lightness of the plot doesn’t really matter. When I talk with those who, like me, read this one a while ago, even if we can’t recall what *happened,* we remember the feeling of inhabiting the story and characters as if we were the ones who had spent the summer with them. I feel similarly about this book as I do Jacqueline Woodson’s FEATHERS, or Kevin Henkes’ OLIVE’S OCEAN.
THE THING ABOUT LUCK is somehow funnier than these…though there’s nothing really funny in the storyline itself. It’s in Summer’s narrative voice, which is what makes the story so gripping. Jonathan said in his post back in September: “Nina often talks about Newbery books being recognizable even from the first page, and this book certainly fits the bill.” Another version of this test, when you think you’ve found a potential winner, is to open the book at random and look for something distinguished on that page. Let’s try it.
[p.18. The family is sitting waiting for anyone to show up at Jaz’s party, but no one does]
“He looked at this feet. ‘Why doesn’t anybody like me?’ he asked.
“I thought of saying, You have a bad temper, and you’re weird. He had such a bad temper than when he was angry, he sometimes banged his head on a wall or on whatever was handy. And he was weird because he would do strange things. Like, one time when he started singing a song in the middle of a test. My mother loved to tell that story because she thought it was cute, but I doubted the kids in his class thought it was cute. But I knew now wasn’t the time for honesty. ‘You had a friend, but he moved away. That wasn’t your fault. You’ll make another one.'”
Okay, nothing earth-shattering here, but it’s a nice example for analyzing Summer’s voice. Her interior voice is brutally honest, and sounds like a twelve-year-old, but also sounds like she’s speaking to an audience, not just to herself, and that’s part of what’s so involving about this book. Who remembers being told not to use the word weird? Summer uses it because it’s appropriate, but then she goes on to explain herself by providing examples for us, as if she were writing an essay. As she wanders in her thoughts, we get an insight into her mother (and to why Jaz might be having such a hard time fitting in), and to Summer’s desire to do right by people. This scene, in fact, moves into one of my favorites…it has nothing to do with the story evolving, it’s a flash-back, but is another scene through which we learn about Summer’s character and mettle–an important thing to do with the readers at this early stage of the story:
p.19 “I hated all the boys in Jaz’s class. In my class the boys were nicer. they did not shun anyone. But then I remembered Jenson, who didn’t have a single friend that I knew of. I had rarely given him a thought, but now my heart went out to him. He was long and lanky, and he always held his chin slightly up, so you could see in his nostrils. And, it was hard to explain, but there was something about him that kind of repelled everyone. It was something about the way he moved, not in smooth, normal strokes like most people, but rather kind of jerky, as if he were part robot. Right then and there, I vowed to say something to him one day. Even if it was only ‘hello,’ it would acknowledge that he was there. “
I like how she gets simply and directly to that physical sense of “weirdness” by which so many kids end up ostracized at school. And read this aloud–it really sounds like someone speaking. I love the phrase “see in his nostrils.” The scene moves on, and then a few pages later:
p.23 “…a few weeks later, as I walked into class on my last day before we left for harvest, for some reason, my eyes rested on Jenson. I remembered vowing to say hello to him, so I cheerfully called out, ‘Hi, Jenson.’ Several people looked at me like, What are you doing saying hello to Jenson of all people? Jenson?
“Jenson glared at me suspiciously, then said, ‘Shut up.’
“Wow. I didn’t expect that. People were still looking at me, and I felt my face grow hot. I thought about what Jenson had just said. He must have been incredibly lonely to respond that way.
“I heard one boy saying to another, ‘Hey, Summer likes Jenson.’
“Even though I knew Jenson was lonely, now I was annoyed at him. ‘I was just trying to be friendly,’ I called out.
“‘And I was just trying to say shut up,’ Jenson shot back.”
The day wears on and Summer determines to “try to be nice to Jenson one more time.” She attempts it on the bus going home, where he finally levels with her, “I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ve known you since first grade, and I don’t think you’ve ever spoken a word to me. So thanks for whatever you’re trying to do, but bug off.”
We know now we have a friend (since Summer’s voice clearly intends for us to be friends) who will risk being a little weird herself to set things right in the world…and who is tenacious, maybe even stubborn. (Please don’t tell her I used the word “weird” in reference to her, as I’m sure she’d dispute that, but you know what I mean.)
Okay, that was a long example. Let me close the book and open it again. Page 108:
“The sky filled suddenly with clouds, but they disappeared so quickly that you would have had a hard time convincing someone it had just been cloudy.
“I peered through the back windshield at the highway curving through the wheat. Highway. Wheat. Sky. So simple. Compared to a city like Wichita, it all looked like a doorway to another world–our world. I always had this weird feeling as I stared out at the wheat, like the dust of my personality was settling a bit, like instead of me ever being confused or with my thoughts all over the place, I was just me, without any questions about anything or any worries or even any sadness. But that was impossible, because I didn’t even like wheat. Did I?
“A mosquito zzz-ed in the air in front of me, and I smashed it by clapping my hands together. I looked at it. It was a male; it had the feathery proboscis.”
I’ll let you spend all day yourself with that middle paragraph. Meanwhile, notice the pacing and transitions that Kadohata uses to allow us into this kind of thinking without losing ourselves, or getting bogged down. The very startlingly clear physical image of the sky (and a perfect, and unusual way to describe it)…and the mosquito; two very concrete bookends to her trail of thought, both either metaphors, or just things, whichever the particular reader needs to make that center thought work. Also, that sense of humor, which is evident on every single page. Try again. Page 131:
“‘Yes, boys need meat. very important,’ Obaachan said. ‘It very bad tragedy if he no have meat for breakfast.’ She shook her head. ‘Tragedy, tragedy.’
“I knew Obaachan was being serious because boys needing meat was one of her most important rules in life. But Mrs. Parker couldn’t seem to tell if Obaachan was agreeing with her or mocking her.”
See? I could do this all day, clearly…but instead, why don’t you take a turn?
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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