Family Dynamics, New Friendships, and Political Intrigue: Distinguished Plots
The Newbery Terms and Criteria instruct Committee members to consider “development of a plot” as they evaluate the qualities that make up the most distinguished books of the year. The plot is basically… what happens. The development of the plot, though, is where an author really can shine. Here are a few examples where I felt the authors made creative and mostly successful choices about how they decided to tell their stories:
THE ONLY BLACK GIRLS IN TOWN by Brandy Colbert
The title of the book describes the one major plot element: We learn what it means to Alberta when another black girl moves to town. Edie’s arrival triggers new awareness in Alberta about her classmates, her town, and even her best friend. She has to puzzle her way through these interactions; her first assumptions don’t always turn out to be correct, and she also misses some things the first time through.
The other major plot thread involves the discovery of Constance’s journals, which lead Alberta and Edie into the life of a woman who passed as white more than 60 years earlier. Both stories contribute significantly to themes and character development. The girls recognize the different conditions in which Constance lived, and this affects the way they look at the challenges they’re both struggling with. After one journal entry, they talk about Constance’s situation:
Edie looks up at me, blinking rapidly. I think maybe she’s trying to hold back tears. “This is so sad, Alberta. She was definitely passing for white.”
We sit with that for a few moments. As hard as it is to be black in a town where not very many people look like me or understand what it is to be me, I can’t imagine pretending to be white.
“It seems like it would be so much harder…pretending,” Edie says quietly, as if she’s read my mind. (201)
Then they shift to the perspective of their present culture, which has different, but also significant unfairnesses:
She shakes her head. “I don’t think I could do it.”
“You wouldn’t have to.”
“What do you mean?” Edie says, frowning.
“You’re light skinned.” (201-202)
The journal reading subtly changes the dynamic between the girls:
A stubborn look deposits itself on Edie’s face, and I think maybe she’s mad at me. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything. (20)
The fact that these two girls found that particular journal does seem a bit contrived, but not impossible. And those two individual plot threads build upon each other very successfully. BLACKBIRD GIRLS also jumps back and forth between historical periods with related stories, and it’s interesting to look at how that approach works in two very different books.
LEAVING LYMON by Lesa Cline-Ransom
We get Lymon’s story in short chapters over a ten year time period. The narrative drops us into one key period of his life, then jumps ahead to the next one. The leaps in time vary from a few months to years, but the narrative flow is seamless, mainly because Lymon’s first-person telling so effectively drops us right into his current time and place.
Lymon tells what happens directly, usually without filling in background or context. We get plenty from conversations and incidents. He never talks directly about racism in Vicksburg, but the story Lymon relates about the school bus for white kids (15) tells readers a lot.
…But soon as we saw the school bus coming down the road, taking the white kids to their school across town, we’d jump in the ditch to hide so we didn’t get the dust from the wheels in our faces and have to hear the nasty words they yelled from the window. Only when it passed good, we’d throw rocks at the back of the bus, knowing we’d miss, but feeling good we did something…(15)
Similarly, we learn something about his mother’s situation through conversation from the adults (7). And a bit about how her status affects him when he enters fourth grade in Milwaukee (27-28). He doesn’t explain any of this to readers, but we get it anyway.
There’s not a lot of introspection in Lymon’s story, so when he does reflect about his life, those moments stand out. He listens to Daddy’s story of life on the road and his plan to take off again, for example, but doesn’t really share what he thinks about it at that time (43-45). Afterwards, though, he lets readers in on his feelings a little bit:
Here in the kitchen making music, without Ma fussing, starts me with that wanting feeling I get sometimes. For a real momma, not a grandma I call Ma. And a house with me and my parents, all living together, making music, and feeling like family. (46)
When he gets that family at the end but still feels insecure about his father’s reliability, that’s also shown, rather than told, when he checks Daddy’s clothes to make sure he’s not gone again. That moment leads to the emotional scene when Lymon finally shares his anger. It’s a strong conclusion to a book that demonstrates how the changing relationships of characters, rather than dramatic action or plot twists, can result in a compelling plot.
RETURN OF THE THIEF by Megan Whalen Turner
This conclusion to the “Queen’s Thief” series just came out, so, although we usually can’t avoid spoilers on HM, I’ll try not to give away too much. The story is told by Pheris, a disabled child who’s far more intelligent and observant than he lets on. The broader plot, in which The King and Queen of Atollia face an invasion by the powerful Medes, comes through in the bits and pieces that Pheris learns about. The more personal side of the story involves Pheris’ growth and the tentative friendships he establishes with the few palace residents who are willing to pay true attention to him. Readers follow the politics and the relationships at the same time, and it builds into a truly involving tale.
But you have to pay attention. Since he’s the narrator, looking back at his own life, we know that Pheris is not at all the “little monster” he seems to others. Gradually, we learn exactly how carefully he’s cultivated that perception. His tutor Relius sees through him, but like so much in the story, that’s revealed obliquely:
Relius handed me the proof written out on a piece of paper and laughed at what I am sure was a rapt expression on my face.
“Don’t get spit on it,” he said.
I glared at the very suggestions, realizing too late what I was revealing.
“Yes,” said Relius. “I have noted the…shall we say, “elective’ nature of certain behaviors.” (159)
Key plot developments, including the nature of the relationship between Teleus and Relius and three separate pregnancies are alluded to, but not directly spelled out. Though Pheris as narrator clearly knows the details, he tells it through the eyes of his younger self: a keen and avid observer who doesn’t always fully grasp the full meaning of what he sees. At the same time, the older and wiser Pheris’ voice is there as well. It shows up especially in the dry humor, usually when relating Eugenides’ antics. When the battles finally start, with ruses, betrayals, and chilling acts of violence, the pace speeds up and it’s all terrifically engaging.
The artful development of plot in this book could be seen as too sophisticated for the Newbery audience of children “up to and including fourteen years of age.” On the other hand, it’s through Pheris’ child’s-eye view that we experience the subtleties of Eugenides’ world, which might make it a fit for the more sophisticated readers in the top portion of that range.
If you’ve read other books with especially notable “development of plot,” and/or if you have thoughts about BLACK GIRLS, LYMON, or THIEF, please share below:
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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