Della, Ware, and Bob the Dog: Distinguished Characters
Here on Heavy Medal, I, along with all of you readers, have been gathering title suggestions and compiling lists since early 2020. Now it’s time to dig deeper into some of those titles and discuss them in light of the Newbery Terms and Criteria that the actual Committee adheres to.
Once a week (sometimes twice) a Guest Blogger will introduce a single book. I thought I’d try something different this year with my own posts. Since the Newbery Terms and Criteria are so important in the decision-making process, I’m going to feature one piece from the Criteria at a time. So there will be separate posts about plot, theme, and the other literary elements named in the Criteria. I will also build posts around other phrases from the Criteria, such as: “not for didactic content” and “books for this entire age range.” I’ll pick a few titles that are particularly strong in the featured area, and invite discussion from that starting point. We’ll start that off today with “characters.”
From the Criteria: “In identifying ‘distinguished contribution to American literature’…committee members need to consider…Delineation of characters.” That delineation is important. It tells us to evaluate the characters themselves, but also the way that the author develops and communicates their personalities to the readers. Here are a few titles where the author’s choices in that area seem particularly distinguished to me:
FIGHTING WORDS by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
There’s a lot going on in this book, including a compelling plot and multiple powerful, thought-provoking themes. It’s Della’s voice and personality, though, that lead us to care so much about those themes and events. From the start, she sounds like a real ten-year-old kid: blunt, honest, and matter-of-fact. Her narration is mostly about what’s right in front of her and what she’s thinking at that moment, but hints of the larger story slip in:
I should have guessed, you know? I should have guessed the parts of the story weren’t about me. I should have guessed what had happened to Suki.
I’ve learned that some things are almost impossible to talk about because they’re things no one wants to know.
Not even me. (39)
As Della gradually gains strength and confidence in her “wolfness,” she also develops a heightened sense of empathy. She starts to understand the reasons behind Trevor’s bullying and her teacher’s missteps …but at the same time, she makes sure she and her friends have a plan in place for the next time trouble threatens their “pack.” (241-242)
The other characters also shine, but because she’s just a ten-year-old, most readers will see them a little differently than she does. At first,Della is mostly suspicious or unimpressed by Francine’s kindnesses, but we can see how Francine is in the girls’ corner (though she’s not a standard foster-parent-with-a-heart-of gold cliche at all). Della’s relationship with Suki is complex in ways that neither of them really articulates, and it shifts as their life with Francine continues.
THE ONE AND ONLY BOB by Katherine Applegate.
Here’s another first-person narrator that we get to know just from the way he tells his story. Bob’s a small dog, but as he says:
…size ain’t everything.
It’s swagger. Attitude. You gotta have the moves.
Probably I shoulda been named Bruiser or Bamm-Bamm or Bandit, but Bob’s what I got and Bob’ll do me just fine. (5)
That “swagger” makes Bob’s storytelling engaging and delightful. But like Della in FIGHTING WORDS, the dog’s life has not been easy, and he lets readers in on some of that harshness along the way:
Lemme tell you about being man’s best friend.
Being man’s best friend can mean a lot of things. Companionship. Belly rubs. Tennis balls.
But it can also mean a dark, endless highway and an open truck window. (15)
The pace of this novel is almost leisurely in the beginning as we get to know Bob,his friends, and some of his history. Then the hurricane hits, and Bob learns more about himself (and so do we) as he’s forced into perilous situations, culminating in his face-off with Kimu the wolf (307-312). Bob shows he has a lot more than “swagger” in that moment, but when it’s over, he’s still the irreverent, funny Bob we’ve gotten to know:
Rowdy still isn’t moving.
I don’t know what else to do.
So I bite the heck outa his tail.
Perks the little guy right up. (313)
HERE IN THE REAL WORLD by Sara Pennypacker
This story is told in the third person, but everything is filtered through the fascinating mind of Ware. We get right inside his wandering, inquisitive eleven-year-old brain. His thoughts are observant and amusing, but they also provide insight into Ware’s evolving sense of himself:
The old church was littered with lizards, baking on the hot concrete rubble. Ware didn’t begrudge them the space, but they always reminded him of the day he’d heard his mother say she wished her son was normal. It would have been better if he’d seen a different animal that day. Something less common, like the luna moth he’d found out there once trembling on the screen door: pale milky green, big as his hand.
“Go away,” he told the lizard beside him now.
The lizard blinked. (93)
Ware’s internal thoughts and observations work perfectly to show the beauty and the substantial drawbacks of being an eleven-year-old introvert. There’s a lot going on with plot threads and interactions with multiple characters, but I feel like it’s Ware’s voice, and the way he learns to use it, that make this novel really shine.
Other engaging characters that stand out for me so far include Donte from BLACK BROTHER, BLACK BROTHER, Loma from A CEILING MADE OF EGGSHELLS, Zoe in FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON, Bea from A LIST OF THINGS THAT WILL NOT CHANGE, and Omar from WHEN STARS ARE SCATTERED.
Please share your thoughts on FIGHTING WORDS, THE ONE AND ONLY BOB, and/or HERE IN THE REAL WORLD below. You can expand on the “characters” aspect, or bring in other strengths and weaknesses from these books beyond characterization. You can also let us know about any distinguished characters from other books that have caught your attention.
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 email@example.com.
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