Two Orphans, Two Islands: Which Is More Distinguished?
Certain recurring narrative devices have long been universally employed by authors of children’s books: a boarding school setting, moving (away) as the main conflict, meeting a wise mentor, etc. One often-seen element is an orphan protagonist: From Huck Finn and Mary Lennox to Harry Potter and the Beaudelaires, children’s books do seem to feature parentless protagonists disproportionally. Perhaps it allows the author to easily externalize the internal existential worries and wonders of every child reader: even those from intact families. It might also provide a handy explanation of such protagonist’s precocious independence and maturity that enable certain actions and plot development.
Other often found themes in children’s books are a sense of isolation, being misunderstood, and powerlessness when facing the unknown world that is “growing up.” An island is then a perfect setting to represent such feelings.
This year, we have at least two much lauded books that combine orphan characters with an island setting: Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk and Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder.
Both authors are limber with words and turning organically descriptive phrases page after page — but always serving the characters and not just for pretty-prose sake. Wolk uses sea, nature and daily life inspired phrases that befit Crow’s experiences and her observant nature (“questions that rose and ebbed,” “a tide of curiosity,” and “so my wet clothes didn’t weep onto hers”) and Snyder sprinkles in subtle idiosyncratic word usages to indicate the unsettlingly distorted world in her book: a “sleep” is one day; “wishing” means going to the bathroom; and “moon balls” are pearls.
Both authors create distinctive characters who inspire strong feelings in readers. I adore and cheer for Crow and am annoyed by and yet completely empathetic toward Jinny. Both young girls make bold and independent choices that result in life-changing consequences.
Both authors are masterful with dialog and succinct descriptors to construct vivid supporting characters. In Beyond the Bright Sea, Osh’s obstinance and quiet love and Miss Maggie’s fierce support for social outcasts make them complex and admirable individuals. In Orphan Island, readers can almost hear and see Ess’s exasperating innocence and Eevie’s mean spiritedness.
Both islands feel real and lived-in. And both stories maintain suspense and tension throughout. In Beyond the Bright Sea, the buried treasure, the grave robber, Crow’s search of a long lost sibling, and her learning of her parents’ tragic past will no doubt propel young readers to eagerly turn those pages. Likewise, the mystery of where everyone comes and goes, of how the Island gets its magic, and why there are hidden notes and strict rules, along with wondering how Jinny’s rebellion will turn out, will all engage young readers all the way to the final pages of Orphan Island.
As to which author does a better job in the “[i]nterpretation of the theme” department, again both are equally effective. It might be quite shocking to know that I will be greatly pleased if one of them receives the Newbery medal and quite unhappy if the other turns out to be a winner.
Although every literary aspect of the two titles is equally outstanding, these two books have diametrically divergent themes. One is life-affirming and positive, while the other is foreboding and pessimistic. If I were allowed to “judge a book by its theme,” there would have been no contest at all. However, a Newbery member should not and cannot use the “I’m completely distressed and dismayed by the theme of Orphan Island” as a reason to not support it. During a real committee discussion, I will probably never mention how after loving the uncertainty and the ambiguity of Jinny’s ups and downs and her choices-making, the very last moment made a great chill coursing through my body because I was so distraught and scared by the “if you follow your heart and desires and break rules, the Island will punish everyone and people will die” proposition.
I would definitely turn to my fellow members who have nominated this book (Eric, looking at you now) and seek their to better understand why it is on the long list of the National Book Award and why so many mock-Newbery lists feature it? Am I misreading it? Am I wrong in reacting so strongly? If it wins the 2018 Newbery, how would I recommend this book to my young students?
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Roxanne Hsu Feldman
Roxanne Hsu Feldman is the Middle School (4th to 8th grade) Librarian at the Dalton School in New York City. She served on the 2002 and 2013 Newbery Committees. Roxanne was also a member of 2008-2009 Notable Books for Children, 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults, and the 2017 Odyssey Award Committees. In 2016 Roxanne was one of the three judges for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. You can reach her at at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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