Fencing, Hoops, and a Family Wedding: Distinguished Writing Styles
“Appropriateness of style” is one of the literary qualities named in the Newbery Terms and Criteria. I would feel a little better if we substituted “execution of style” for “appropriateness of style.” The latter seems to point to the author’s choice of writing style, rather than its level of excellence. But “distinguished writing” applies to all of the qualities, so clearly it’s the choice of style and how well the style is used. We can’t really look at any of the literary qualities in isolation completely, but as Julie noted in an earlier comment: “writing style is relevant to all books.” Here are a few fine examples in which the authors’ style choices are crucial to their books’ success:
BLACK BROTHER, BLACK BROTHER by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Rhodes’ stylistic approach jumps out from the start in this novel. The distinct rhythm of Donte’s first person narration instantly grips the reader:
I stare at my hands. Nighttime dark. They have a life of their own. Clenching, unclenching. Fist then no fist. I keep my shoulders relaxed; my face, bland. My hands won’t behave.
No science fiction or fantasy is going to help me. I live in a too-real world. (3)
Those short, clipped sentences, all in present tense, provide strong immediacy to Donte’s experiences. They also provide the reader with a sense of how he sees his world: it’s unfair and often dangerous. The way he names things directly and constantly processes what he sees and feels vividly reflects his responses.
Parenthetical words and phrases provide counterpoint in well-chosen spots. Sometimes they show Donte thinking a little deeper, or questioning his own first reactions. He describes an early interaction with Coach:
We look at each other. I feel like we’re speaking silence.
I’m thinking, He’s really strong. He’s an Olympian. He’s thinking (I think), I can teach him all I know.
Then it hits me. I’ve never had a coach before. Never wanted to do anything where I needed one.
“It feels good,” I say aloud. (Having a mentor.) (73)
The rapid-fire pace also works perfectly to convey the speed and action of the fencing matches.
The pace and structure of Donte’s sentences (and sentence fragments) play a huge part in characterization, plot development, and delineation of theme. I suppose the same story could have been told in more conventional language, but it’s hard for me to imagine because the style Rhodes chose, and executes so well, feels like an intrinsic part of everything in the novel.
THE LIST OF THINGS THAT WILL NOT CHANGE by Rebecca Stead
Bea narrates her story in a voice very different from Donte’s, but one that also informs her character, which is a little harder to pin down. She jumps around a lot in her telling, moving back and forth in time as relevant incidents pop into her head. Her storytelling wanders in just the way the mind of a ten-year-old like Bea’s might.
It’s anything but random, though. Bea isn’t exactly an unreliable narrator, but she’s definitely not telling us everything she might. She addresses her anxiety a little bit (“I’m a worrier, too” (23)), but mostly we learn about how intense her nervousness can be from what she does and how she thinks. And although Bea describes Angelica’s accident on page 3, we only gradually come to understand her intense level of guilt about the incident.
Bea’s also trying to understand herself, and readers discover things and wonder about them at the same time she does. She keenly observes what people say and do, but struggles with figuring out what they feel. Like when she’s not sure what her new stepsister is feeling when she visits:
Every night, I hoped that Sonia and I would talk in the dark. It was part of the story in my head about what sisters do. But Sonia never talked. After the last Frog and Toad story, I clicked the tape recorder off.
“Are you tired? I said into the dark.
She didn’t answer.
We were in our nightgowns, with our beds lined up and not too far apart. Rocco was curled up on the floor and I could hear our dad talking in the other room. Did that add up to real sisters? I didn’t know.
I fell asleep. (93)
Stead’s writing style trusts readers to empathize with Bea, which lets plot and theme shine without overstatement. Bea’s wedding speech could be a perfect moment for the protagonist to neatly summarize the themes of the book; the Bar Mitzvah speech in TURTLE BOY (374+) is one example of this approach. Bea, in contrast, thinks about it, waits (“like Miriam would have wanted me to”), then:
What I said out loud was, “We made a new family today. I think we should be dancing.”
Everyone waited. But I was done. (211)
It works, partly because that’s exactly what Bea would do, but also because we’ve already experienced the meaning of the book through the deceptively complex narrative style.
DRAGON HOOPS by Gene Luen Yang
In a comment on a previous post, Leonard cited DRAGON HOOPS as an example of “a children’s book [that] involves the reader in the ‘meta’ question about how to Present Information.” That’s an excellent lead-in to the stylistic choices Yang makes as an author and illustrator.
The main story is about McClymonds High School’s basketball team. The author is a character within the story, as he befriends Coach Lou and follows the team. But we also see Gene as the author of the book, wondering if readers will even be interested in any of this. He shares his uneasiness at entering this unfamiliar world of sports, both as an author/illustrator and as a teacher who had never even set foot in the gym of his own school.
In conversation with his wife, Gene wonders why he can’t learn more about the players:
“That’s exactly it! They treat me like I’m the media!
“You are the media, honey.”
“Look. You’re not their coach. You’ve never had either of them in class. You’re not even from where they’re from. Maybe what you’re asking about isn’t any of your business.
“Yeah. You’re probably right. But how am I supposed to do this book if I can’t figure out the characters’ backstories?” (76)
He’s wondering how he can create the book, while readers are holding the book…which of course he did complete. His roles as narrator, character and comic creator intersect in interesting ways. He watches the two basketball stars complete an alley-oop, then realizes why the comic book artist in him is so delighted:
The first time I saw them do it — “Whoa.”
Young men in colorful uniforms, performing seemingly superhuman feats?
Felt familiar. [illustration shows Superman dunking with Batman watching] (73-74)
This deliberately loose narrative approach allows the author to follow multiple tangents without disrupting the flow. He utilizes the sequential panels to provide information, and sometimes humor, in deft, efficient ways; tracing Dr. Naismith’s thoughts as he tries to figure out how his new sport will work (58), for example, or presenting a checklist comparison of Ivan and Paris, the star players (67).
I do think this book might resonate most with adults, and teens as well, but there are seventh and eighth graders who will be just right for it (I would have been one of those, if there had been graphic novels way back then). And I think it’s Yang’s free-ranging, but carefully constructed narrative style that makes it engaging to a wider range of readers.
Please share your thoughts on “appropriateness of style” in any other Newbery-eligible titles below, and we can discuss any elements of BLACK BROTHER, LIST OF THINGS, and DRAGON HOOPS in this space.
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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