The Hockey Kid and the Boy in the Stoopid Shirt
I read THE TRUTH AS TOLD BY MASON BUTTLE and CHECKED a while ago and what really stuck with me weeks later was the distinctive voices of the two first person narrators. The Newbery Terms and Criteria mention “appropriateness of style” as a key consideration, and that’s where I think these two books shine. Style isn’t enough on its own, though, so we also have to determine how well other elements from the Criteria, such as theme, plot, characterizations, and setting, are conveyed within that style.
Mason Buttle’s story involves bullying, friendship, death, and a bunch of other stuff. He tells it with blunt, direct language. His statements are often prefaced by: “I think this:…” and “I’ll tell you what:…” He’s not a writer or a reader and that language feels right for someone who’s putting words on paper and telling a big story for the first time. He uses short sentences and plain words, but when he says something that really matters to him it really comes through. Here he is sharing the joy he gets from the neighbor dog with pure enthusiasm followed by specific, tangible descriptions:
“I think, what else is like this? This good? What in the whole wide world? Nothing!
“I hug him up. Pat him over and over again. Stroke, stroke, stroke, Moonie Drinker. My hand fits his smooth head bone. I hold his ear in my fingers. Give it some squishes. Feels nice as a sock just come out of the dryer.” (285)
Mason narration flows out like it’s from a kid who hasn’t really thought it all through. There’s no overview or background early on about who he is, what his family’s like, etc.; he never even mentions Shayleen, for example, until she actually appears (48). Though nobody thinks he’s smart, including Mason himself, he’s actually pretty perceptive in some ways. He notices Annalissetta’s strength and that Calvin is really “mighty” (322) when others overlook them.
Mason’s narrative style allows the mystery plot to emerge gradually, which is unusual and pretty effective. Readers area likely to be a little ahead of Mason in figuring out what’s going on. I wasn’t totally convinced that he could totally miss the fact that people suspect him of deliberately causing Benny’s death. It seems like he could have put the pieces together (as I think most readers will) well before it finally hits him (252), especially since we realize that he’s not nearly as dense as he thinks he is. Or that someone would have told him about the suspicions…his uncle, his grandma, or maybe even Matt as part of his bullying. It could still be plausible, though, because Mason really doesn’t have an accurate sense of how people view him for most of the book.
Conor, the hockey kid from CHECKED, also has an excellent kid-like voice. We’re right inside his head the whole time, which jumps around the way an eleven-year-old’s head will do. He weighs in on everything from the job market (229), to old age (133), to puberty: “It’s the future, man. And it’s a mystery.” (148). He even muses about his own tendency to muse:
“Every so often, I like having these heavy thoughts too, like just lying around with Sinbad, thinking stuff. I wonder if someone would pay me someday to be a philosopher. Is that a thing?” (58)
While Conor takes us through his random thoughts and his hockey days, serious worries about his dad and his dog pop up regularly. He’s at an age and a situation where he’s dealing with complicated issues for the first time and trying to figure out how he fits (more than once he says: “I’m only a kid”) and what he can do to make things better. And he jumps from optimism to despair and back again in seconds…because he’s eleven:
“And then I’ve got a sick dog…Life is tiring, man. I feel sorry for myself for a second. But Sinbad lets out a snort, and my whiny moment passes. I smile. Sinbad’s gonna make it! I’m an AAA! I’m gonna work like hell and make first line! I press my face in Sinbad’s neck. Life doesn’t get any better. It just doesn’t.” (264)
Those don’t really feel like typical Newbery-level sentences, but they capture the inner workings of this kid perfectly. Even the big thematic moments are just so Conor-like. Near the end he sums up some of what he’s learned:
“You just gotta be a good person, but your dog’s gonna die when he dies.” (403)
Looking at the Newbery Terms and Criteria could lead to some concerns about “development of a plot” in CHECKED. There are a lot of details about hockey, but it’s not a traditional sports story. It’s a pretty long book, and not that much really happens, especially if you compare it to books like The Book of Boy or The Night Diary. I think you could make a case, though. The Criteria state that the “committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements,” so a book with distinctive style that’s used to convey themes, characters, and settings in an excellent presentation warrants consideration. The plot isn’t really flawed, it’s just not the central driving element of the novel. And if it were more plot-driven it might have detracted from the way we get to know Conor and his world.
I enjoyed Mason and Conor so much as a reader that I wonder if I’m overlooking flaws in either book, so I’m curious to hear what others thought of their “voices” and their books.
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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