A Mountain in Maine, a City of Light and the USSR: Distinguished Settings
The Newbery Terms and Criteria state that Committee members must consider “delineation of setting” as they try to identify “distinguished writing.” “Setting” can be kind of a tricky concept. It’s usually fairly easy to describe what the setting is, especially the time and place in which a book is set. But we also need to look at how the setting serves the overall impact of the book: does it support and enhance themes, characters, and plots? Also, it’s more than just time and place; setting can also include the mood or feel of the world the author creates; that’s more elusive and harder (for me at least) to articulate, but highly important. Here are a few of this year’s titles in which evocative settings contribute a great deal to the books’ success:
BLACKBIRD GIRLS by Anna Blankman
This book takes place in two time periods. A large part of the story follows Valentina and Oksana in the USSR, beginning with the Chernobyl disaster, during 1986. Several chapters jump back to 1941 and follow Rifka, Valentina’s grandmother, as she tries to survive during the German invasion of the Ukraine. The author jumps right into the story as Valentina sees the “strange, unearthly blue” of the sky above the nuclear power plant (1). In that first chapter, readers learn a bit about the power plant and the “model city” of Pripyat, and the background information comes through fairly naturally through Valentina’s point of view. In the Oksana chapter that follows, a classroom discussion fills in some more bits of Soviet history that will impact the story (18-19)…that part seems a little bit forced, but it’s quick and necessary.
Along with the history, though, we get a strong sense of the ethos of the characters and their country, and the different perspectives that exist among the characters. Our sense of 1980’s USSR widens as the girls arrive at their new residence in Leningrad, which is so different from their previous homes:
Here there were no pastel houses, no ice cream cars or shiny automobiles. The roads were rutted, the curbs lined with mud. A couple of passersby waved at Valentina’s grandmother, but no one stopped to chat. Oksana shivered in her thin spring coat. Leningrad felt colder than Pripyat. (119)
In both plot threads, there’s also a tangible aura of fear and distrust that all three young women have to maneuver around. That works as a plot element too, creating much of the suspense in their stories, but at the same time, that apprehension is almost palpable, and it plays an essential part in bringing the world of the novel to life.
ECHO MOUNTAIN by Lauren Wolk
The natural world of the mountain is an inextricable part of the story of Ellie and her family in 1930’s Maine. Descriptions come from Ellie’s first person narration; they tell us a lot about her as a character while also putting the reader right alongside her experiences and emotional responses:
There were many things that tempted me as we went down the mountain: a fresh-green meadow where fire from lighting strike had cleared a few screws of trees before rain had put it out; a vernal pool where peepers sang so loudly at twilight that we could hear them even far up-mountain; a granite ledge big enough for me to sit on, like a turtle in the sun. But I decided to keep those things for another day. (73)
Small, distinct details of places and things are woven seamlessly into the narrative. LIke when Ellie enters Cate’s cabin for the first time:
In another corner, there was a cold fireplace. Alongside it sat a big copper bucket full of logs, and another smaller one with kindling.
And there were candles on every flat surface. One, on the floor, had melted into a puddle, its wick burned away.
I was amazed that it hadn’t burned the whole place to the ground.
But I knew that if I were a flame, I would rather fizzle out than ruin a place like this one. (96)
We get a good sense of the historical time period as well, but it’s the essence of the physical places that is most striking to me.
A WISH IN THE DARK by Christina Soontornvat
In this fascinating novel, the setting isn’t historical, though it feels almost like it could be. And it’s not a completely fantastical world, though magic does play a part. The author deftly conveys what this world is like without ever explaining it directly. The three main settings are vividly described, but it’s the moods that permeate them that are especially powerful: The oppressive unfairness of Namwon Prison; the tolerance and generosity of the village of Tamburi and its temple; and the chaotic lighted city of Chattana, which can be seen as beautiful or extremely harsh, depending on who you are and how closely you look.
Within these settings, the author does a wonderful job of introducing the magical elements, while keeping some details hidden. The Governor seems like a sorcerer at first; but Somkits’ growing knowledge indicates that what seems like pure magic could be mostly science. The religious faith of Father Chan also has elements of surprising fantastical powers. In many fantasies, the rules of magic get established fairly clearly and directly; in this book, though, the uncertainty around the Governor’s light creates an aura of mystery. This is an effective plot element, but it also contributes greatly to the distinct atmosphere of the world of the novel.
I also give high marks to the historical settings of A CEILING MADE OF GLASS, KENT STATE, PRAIRIE LOTUS,, and A VILLAGE OF SCOUNDRELS. Books set in modern times that jump to mind include EFREN RISING, KING AND THE DRAGONFLIES, and HERE IN THE REAL WORLD. Please chime in with your thoughts about “delineation of setting” in any of this year’s books, along with discussion of any or all elements in BLACKBIRD GIRLS, ECHO MOUNTAIN, and A WISH IN THE DARK.
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 email@example.com.
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