Thoughts on Newbery: Retrospective Voice

Nina Lindsay reminded me of this series of posts, begun when I was on the 2008 Newbery Committee.  Now I’m having a grand time following and occasionally participating in the discussion over at Nina’s and Jonathan Hunt’s Heavy Medal blog.  Both are old and good friends; both are passionate, smart, and thoughtful about books for children; both are worth paying close attention to even if you don’t agree with them.  And they’ve been discussing two books, Richard Peck’s A Season of Gifts and Jacqueline Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, that I’ve been wondering about for a very particular reason:  the “looking back” voice.

The authors of these and another highly-lauded book, Fran Slayton’s When the Whistle Blows, have older narrators telling us about earlier times.  And it strikes me that when you are using an older voice to look back in a book for children you are walking a fine line — while you may have a nostalgic view of that time your audience may not share that view.  That is, we adult readers have a fund of background knowledge that we bring to a reading of the story that child readers do not have. And so we may see things the way you (the adult author) does that they may not (or see as the adult author may not have intended).   I also think there is the fine line of how much to include — all the stuff we adults find fascinating may simply slow down the action for a child reader.  Finally, I wonder if we adults, having experienced all of childhood already, can appreciate a broader range of growing-up than can those readers in the under- 15 age group.  Perhaps not, but it is stuff I’m wondering about.

For example,  57 year-old me reads A Season of Gifts with a degree of familiarity that a 9 year-old cannot.  I remember my babysitter’s besottedness with Elvis Presley whereas I would guess that a child today might have no clue who he was.  I remember playing “Cowboys and Indians,” westerns, and calling outhouses “Indian toilets” (a term my parents came up with when we were camping for some reason I can no longer find out about) whereas my students would say Native Americans, are very aware of the importance of respectfulness, and tend to be unaware of the careless behaviors that I recall from my past and are in this story.  Now Peck, to my mind, does a terrific job having his narrator tell his story in an immediate way that is likely to engage a young reader, but I do wonder about whether or not they need some background knowledge to navigate the complicated terrain of that Kickapoo Princess.  Does this particular issue of context matter?

Then there is the retrospective voice of Callie in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.  She is also looking back, how far back is no clearer to me than in Peck’s story.  But since author Jacqueline Kelly did not personally experience the time she is looking back to I don’t see the issue of background knowledge that I see for the Peck.  She is in the same chronological space as her intended child readers and brings in the necessary background beautifully, raises issues (say the roles of girls and women) from the same perspective (but without being anachronistic — an impressive feat) as her intended child readers.  But that raises for me a different question — is there too much of it?  I did find it languid at the beginning and wonder if the desire to bring in sufficient background knowledge (however subtly) slowed things down.  Will children be as engaged as adults by the slow layering of information and thought, elegantly brought in scene by scene?  Or is there in this case something about using a looking-back voice that resulted in a bit of an overly-information-rich story?

Not yet discussed in depth by Nina or Jonathan is Fran Slaytor’s When the Whistle Blows.  A lovely and very moving book,  it takes place over a number of years — each chapter a year later in the narrator’s life.  And so I wonder, what age group is going to enjoy this book?  It ends when the narrator is 18 and something about the chapters leading up to that final one made me feel that it wouldn’t appeal to my fourth grade students. Yet I also wonder if it would appeal to an almost-15 year-old (the high-end of the Newbery age range).  Anyone have some firsthand experience with kids reading it?

Popularity, despite much discussion to the contrary, is NOT a Newbery criteria.  But child appeal is.  And I do wonder about the retrospective voice in these three books and its appeal to children.  I’d love to hear from those of you who know of kids reading them and whether the three concerns I raised are significant or not.

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7 Comments

Filed under awards, Newbery

7 responses to “Thoughts on Newbery: Retrospective Voice

  1. John Re

    My school was lucky to have Fran Cannon Slayton come to my school to talk to 5th and 6th graders about the writing process and her book When the Whistle Blows.

    Since it was early in the year we were able to only cover the first few chapters as a read aloud before her visit. The book has been very popular at my school. My students were very intrigued by the the story. They were captivated by the chapter when Jimmy and his friends are in the graveyard play a prank with rotten cabages. They were inspired by the chapter that focuses on the big football game.

    The book is told from a first person point of view that I think students can relate too. I think some students are not going to have the background knowledge to understand every aspect of the story, but I think the same could be said for “modern” stories that take place in other countries or different regions of the country.

    What I like best about the book is that in some ways it is like a fine collection of short stories that connect. My students were fascinated by how the plot moves forward – each chapter is the same day the following year. They were excited to learn that that writers could do that – something they might want to try with thier own writing.

  2. John, thanks so much for giving us a sense of how 5th and 6th graders responded to this book. I agree that it is best considered as a collection of linked short stories.

    I don’t think kids would have difficulty with background knowledge in the case of this book; my wondering was more about just what age group would best appreciated it. You let me know that 11 and 12 year-olds do. (Of course, I do have to point out that having the actual author of a book on hand will definitely make it much more interesting to kids!)

  3. Briar

    I haven’t read the Peck book yet (pesky backordering). I loved Calpurnia Tate and actually didn’t notice a “looking back” quality at all. Which may be partly the rushed nature of my reading with a toddler underfoot or which may say that it’s just not as big of a problem in her book. I did find that it took a bit longer to get into the book but I really did get into it and eventually couldn’t put it down.

    I am running a Newbery club with 4th graders this year. When the Whistle Blows just had its first reader, a 4th grade boy who said he enjoyed it (will get more out of him at next meeting). Calpurnia has her first reader, too, who is taking her time and gushing about its greatness each time she sees me.

  4. Briar, thanks so much for letting us know about those kids. Love it if you come back and tell us more. It occurs to me that I’ve got a Book Blogger club and was just giving them new books to read, but I think maybe I’ll give them these three to see what they think. (They are all sixth grade girls so far.)

    I actually didn’t notice the retrospective voice in Calpurnia Tate either, but someone else pointed it out to me and it made me wonder if that partially accounted for the slow start.

  5. I was considering reading a chapter from WTWB, to my 6th graders the week before Halloween. I will let you know how it rolls. It is certainly one of my favorites for this year.

    Will you check your first link; it is just bringing up this very post. I am intreged to see the reference.

  6. Do let us know what the 6th graders think.

    The link is to a series of posts of which this is the most recent; scroll on down to see more of them.

  7. Pingback: When The Whistle Blows « Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog

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