Goblins, Elves, and a Different Kind of Book
THE ASSASSINATION OF BRANGWAIN SPURGE is the last of the five National Book Awards finalists we’re featuring on Heavy Medal. We decided to post about all five this year, because it’s unusual to see all of the NBA Youth Finalists fall so clearly within the Newbery range (well, let’s say four clearly and one maybe, with some discussion of THE POET X’s eligibility going on currently). BRANGWAIN also received three reader nominations on Heavy Medal, even though it had only been out a couple of weeks.
The storytelling is inventive, utilizing three distinct points of view. Most of it is told in third person through the eyes of Werfel, the goblin historian, who hopes that the visit of Brangwain Spurge from the Kingdom of the Elves will lead to peace and interaction between goblins and elves. We also get funny, and increasingly distressed letters from Lord Spymaster Ysoret to the King of Elfland, which reveal the true nature of Brangwain’s mission. And, most challenging from the Newbery point of view, extended sequences of illustrations by Eugene Yelchin which are actually the transmissions that Spurge sends back to Elfland.
Skipping the illustration question for now, the structure provides a pretty dynamic plot. Readers learn about the world, the characters, and the story lines bit by bit. We know pretty early that both sides are up to mischief, but don’t really know where it’s going. There’s a delicate balance throughout between humor and tension. The goblin custom about friends, where “the closer you are with them, the more you make fun of them.” (117) is funny, but also potentially dangerous, as when Spurge tries to join in and ends up actually insulting Reginald du Burgh (181). Later, Werfel remembers falling in love with his late wife in a scene that’s both humorous and tender:
He asked her if she was happy, and she answered that no, he was the most boring, tedious snooze of a date she had ever met.
He knew then that they would be together forever.
He reached up and put his hand gently on her hair, and whispered happily in reply that being there with her that evening was as sweet and pleasant as being repeatedly struck in the skull with a ball-peen hammer.
They chuckled, and the sky burned. (221)
Spurge is the title character, but we get to know him mostly through Werfel, who is overly generous and kind to his strictly-business guest. The development of their relationship takes a while and doesn’t happen easily, but it’s convincing and triumphant in the end.
There’s some subtle, and not so subtle satire, as the customs and events mock diplomacy, politicians, and social conventions, but it all builds towards serious insights about war and peace. The illustrations work to reveal plot elements that are not narrated, and at the same time contribute to the broader themes, since we eventually realize that the visual transmissions Spurge is sending are not accurate, but reflect his own fears and prejudices.
Recent discussions on this blog on graphic novels in general and HEY KIDDO in particular raised ideas about how we can see “pictures as text” in considering the Newbery Criteria which states that “the committee is to make its decision primarily on the text.” I feel that it’s even clearer in this book, since the illustrations exist as separate chapters from the written portions, and while they reveal events that the words mostly don’t, the word provide added meaning to the illustrations as we see how the transmissions impact the plot and learn that they are not completely accurate.
Both the satire and the illustrations could potentially have proved gimmicky, but instead they’re handled expertly and are essential to developing the plot, characters, and themes. It’s an innovative book, unique among others I’ve read this year in terms of format and style. I’m curious to see how others rate it (my guess is: mixed), and also how kids will respond (my guess is: they will love it).
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 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.
SLJ Blog Network