Three Voices, One Story…and a Newbery Medal?: Character, narrative, and style in THE SUMMER WE FOUND THE BABY
Two motherless girls spending the summer on Long Island during World War II find a baby on the steps of the local library. Amy Hest’s THE SUMMER WE FOUND THE BABY presents this unlikely event in alternating chapters through the perspectives of eleven-year old Julie, her six-year-old sister, Martha, and their friend, twelve-year-old Bruno Ben-Eli. In the hands of a less gifted author, this narrative technique can become an engaging but disjointed exercise, an easy way out of weaving together different voices into one cohesive story. Hest’s novel, however, is an accomplished interpretation of childhood under difficult personal circumstances and a trying historical time. By allowing the unmediated thoughts of children to come through strongly and clearly, without the intrusion of an adult consciousness, the author creates characters free of obvious artifice. A perfect match of style and character make this deceptively simple novel a success.
The book is divided into sections, each one given a title taken directly from the narrators’ experience. “Leaving the Scene,” “Binoculars,” and Things You Don’t Necessarily Tell,” all offer clues to a plot which unfolds, in Bruno’s words, “like some mystery you see in the movies” (p. 14). The reappearing binoculars of the chapter title tie together the three perspectives, even as they also highlight their differences. For Bruno, they are an emblem of his older brother, while Julie, watching Bruno “with those big binoculars kind of plastered to his eyes,” (p. 66) sees him transformed into a young soldier. For Martha, they are “magical,” a way to conjure the woman who one day will say, “YES, MARTHA, I WILL BE YOUR NEW MOTHER” (p. 67). Of the three narrators, Bruno is the most conscious of time and of ordering the events of the story into something which makes sense. His older brother, Ben, is serving in the army and the painful fact of his absence is a daily reality. Bruno’s stream-of-consciousness is natural and understated, but also dramatic, because children do not necessarily understand those two ways of seeing as contradictory. Describing his wristwatch, his words go on to conjure the absent Ben, even including a brief bit of his brother’s speech.
I knew I had plenty of time because I kept checking my watch. Which is not in actual fact my watch, but I wear it every day because Ben said I could. Ben. That’s my brother, Private Benjamin Ben-Eli, bravest soldier in the war. BRUNO, CATCH! That’s what he called from the train that day – his leaving day – and the train whistle blew and his watch came sailing out the window, and the train pulled out, and then he was gone. Gone to war. (pp. 6-7)
Eleanor Roosevelt is a presence in the novel, a link between the child and adult characters, and the outside world of the war. When Julie watches Mrs. Ben-Eli writing to Mrs. Roosevelt, Hest emphasizes how different the mental worlds of adults are from those of children. Julie is in awe of the letter’s language, which is utterly sincere, but follows the codes in which adults express their feelings. Mrs. Ben-Eli is “THE MOTHER OF A BRAVE YOUNG MAN STATIONED OVERSEAS.” She wants to “PERSONALLY THANK YOU FOR YOUR SELFLESS TRIPS…IN THE PACIFIC” (p. 87). In contrast, Roosevelt appears to the children as a tall woman in clunky brown shoes, an old lady getting out of a big car, a “baby expert” (p. 158) so rich in maternal skills that she feeds, burps, and sings to the baby of the book’s title.
THE SUMMER WE FOUND THE BABY is not a merely a nostalgic look back at the past, but an authentic expression of children’s inner lives set in a specific time and place.
Emily Schneider lives in New York City and reviews books for the Jewish Book Council. Her articles about children’s literature and other cultural topics have appeared on the JBC website and on The Horn Book, Tablet, The Forward, and other publications. She blogs about children’s books at https://imaginaryelevators.blog/ Emily holds a doctorate in Romance Languages and Literatures.
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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