Guest Blogger Post: KENT STATE
KENT STATE consists almost entirely of an extended dialogue between more than a half-dozen unnamed voices reliving, relitigating, and reflecting on the Kent State shootings. The overall effect is like a radio play or books like Joyful Noise and Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! that have been previously recognized by the Newbery committee. As with those books, KENT STATE could be particularly well-served by performance, allowing it to be experienced by less hardcore and non-traditional readers, whether through the powerful audiobook or a dramatic reading by students.
Those familiar with Deborah Wiles’ work will expect KENT STATE’s excellence in the criteria of Character and Style. Though the voices are differentiated by font and placement, this is hardly needed as Wiles’ writing makes them so distinctive. More surprising, perhaps, is how the choice of format – the extended conversation on a historical event — allows an illuminating take on the criterion of Presentation of Information. In her note, Wiles writes that it is impossible to “tell definitively what happened, because there is so much unknown, or disputed, or misremembered and misconstrued” (121). KENT STATE turns this into a strength and offers children a powerful model for understanding history. To take a mundane example, were there helicopters on Saturday? Wiles writes,
And then the helicopters came / my god the helicopters / No, no, that was Sunday night. / The helicopters scared us sh*tless (51-52).
This example also nicely illustrates how, in a work that is almost completely dialogue, Wiles can be so evocative in the criterion of Setting. A reader doesn’t need a conventional description of helicopters flying overhead at night to feel what it was like to be there.
This book could be discussed alongside Lowry’s ON THE HORIZON, another lyrical rumination with multiple perspectives on a historic day of violence. For both books, it could be argued that the final section is the weakest. In Lowry’s book, the perspectives of the first two sections were so well-balanced that I was not convinced bringing in her personal experiences at the end (such as the encounter with Allan Say) added much. One of KENT STATE’s many strengths is its willingness to listen to all perspectives. But in its final Elegy section, KENT STATE puts its thumb on the scale, undermining its otherwise gripping Development of Plot. I wish Wiles had omitted this section and ended with:
We looked around us at the carnage. / And almost without knowing it / we made a plan for the future. / Because one thing we knew for sure: // They did not have to die” (107),
which would have been nicely symmetric with the book’s initial stanza which also ends, “They did not have to die” (3). Wiles is among the very greatest writers working in children’s literature today, but this single reservation prevents me from giving KENT STATE full-throated advocacy for the Newbery.
Nonetheless, the book is beautiful. It is powerful. It directly and continually involves the reader from its very first line, “You are new here” (3). Speaking to our remaining criterion of Concept, the child reader can get so much out of this that is directly applicable to their world today: sympathy, outrage, passion, listening, history, community, activism, memory, and honoring, presented in words that practically burn off the page.
Guest Blogger Leonard Kim started following the Heavy Medal blog when all three of his kids were still “children” according to the Newbery definition. His pandemic activity has been playing Beethoven piano sonatas on YouTube. He lives in Pennington, New Jersey.
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.
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