Alligators, Curses, A Swamp – Oh My!
In 19th century England, a fictional child reader asked, “and what is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?” In 20th century Taiwan, a non-fictional child reader pondered, “and what is the use of a book without magic or something completely made up?” Indeed, when this Taiwanese young reader grew up and studied Children’s Literature in the United States, she was astonished by the existence of “realistic fiction”! Who would want to read something that could actually happen? Isn’t the entire point of Children’s Literature to create a completely imagined landscape for readers to explore, wonder, and escape to? She learned quickly, that, no, not only there are many realistic fiction for children, they also tend to be the most praised and more likely to win major awards. It’s not uncommon to hear someone says, “Oh, I love that book but I don’t think it has a chance at the Newbery. Fantasy just don’t win the Award!” (A quick glance through the last 20 years of Newbery winning/honored titles confirms this sentiment.) With around 60 titles nominated by Heavy Medal readers this year, only a handful are speculative fiction. Still, my love for fantasy and science fiction for children has only increased through the years — especially because so many of my young readers seem to gravitate and truly connect with these tales.
I couldn’t have been more delighted when I realized that Tumble and Blue is definitely not rooted in reality! Beasley starts the narrative with the sinister voice of an ancient, magical being telling readers that creatures like them “don’t fit in between a cartographer’s line” and that they can “only be found in the places where maps dare not go.”
The tone is set — both by the events described and the author’s choices of words. Readers are entering a world not replicated from real locations or circumstances.
Tumble and Blue follows the magical tradition of the American Tall Tales: Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp (and its Upside-Down counterpart) serves as the mythical central location and the Montgomery and LaFayette clans are the quest seekers wishing to reverse ancient curses. These larger than life characters with supernatural powers compete against each other. We are even given the traditional trope of a Pie-Eating Contest! There are some slapstick moments and down-right mean spirited relatives. But our main characters, like true folk tale heroes, definitely have hearts of gold and their final triumph comes not from brute forces or superhuman powers, but selflessness and compassion.
The compassion/selfless theme is neither subtle, nor uncommon. However, Beasley packages the theme with an inventive plot, a vivid sense of setting, a cast of authentically admirable and despicable characters, much humor (“The universal adoration is somewhat in doubt,” “Doesn’t have a sense god gave a goose,”) and verbal dexterity (“Quick and quiet as a slither.”)
While “getting the message,” the readers are definitely entertained along the way.
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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