Welcome to the first post of the 2012 Children’s Literature Summer Challenge.
The Watsons go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel by Sherman Alexie
I bought both of these novels for a Children’s Lit class exactly one year ago during my last semester at college. I can’t remember if there were class discussions on these titles; all I remember is that I didn’t read them. (Sorry, Dr. J! My co-writer and I had a deadline for our novel. Or was it a migraine day? Well, excuses and road blocks are excuses and road blocks.) I kept them around after leaving school, however, because who am I to give up a book without reading it first?
I’m so glad I kept them.
These books have the following in common: male protagonists, social issues regarding race, a haunted body of water, and humor. It’s the humor that always keeps me reading.
If you wish to disown your family, I suggest you get yourself adopted by the Watsons. That is, The Watsons go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis. Although I often found it odd to be an adult laughing so much at children’s shenanigans, it’s not so odd considering how easy it is to think like a child when you’re reading first person point of view. Curtis brings this mind-set to life by using exaggeration to describe things like time length and emotions. A short event might take a hundred hours. An emotion might be easy to describe when it’s someone else’s, but a little strange for the main character, Kenny, to describe when he’s feeling something that isn’t easily definable and is completely new.
I took a year-long break when I was two-thirds through the novel because life was calling my attention to other things, but I had never completely left the family. A year is usually more than enough time for me to forget what’s happened in the middle of a story, but the Watsons had entered my life and the quirks described of each member stayed with me as if I’d always known these people; Kenny’s self-esteem with his bad eye, his mother’s aversion to smiling, etc. I also left off at a good place: right after the parents decide to send their naughtiest child to his grandmother’s—a sort of punishment that was bound to end in hilarity.
Given the historical event that happens once they reach the grandmother’s house (I won’t spoil the surprise by telling you what that is, but I’ll give you a hint: Birmingham—1963), I wish more of the story had revolved around that event, the aftermath, or not taken so much time with the buildup in the characters’ hometown in Michigan. Perhaps I needed a longer ending after experiencing Kenny’s acceptance of his new emotions. Despite the horror of the climactic event, I was more interested in the entire family than just the main character’s response. The book’s ending was a little abrupt, but I’ll accept it because of the narrator’s peace with himself if not with the world. The punishment of Kenny’s brother did not end in hilarity, but it could not have gone in such a direction after the shock of what happened during his visit with his grandmother. The best humor I can find in the last few pages is how Kenny uses a whirlpool to battle his inner demons. That’s not funny at all.
For a good time, call Christopher Paul Curtis. He’ll make you laugh yourself silly until it’s time to shape up.
Also in first person, Arnold from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel by Sherman Alexie is funny in his own right once you make it past the title. Alexie also relied on exaggerations to describe just about anything. The one exaggeration that got on my nerves, though, was how Arnold described everything as being an Indian quirk.
I don’t know what it is about [Indians]. But we love ghosts. We love monsters.
Did Alexie intend to repeat this exaggeration so often or was he (or his character) at a loss for words about the complexities of his own people? Was this part of the character’s ignorance of the sameness in his world? I’m pretty sure all cultures love ghost stories. Who wouldn’t? This constant professing of how he sees his community as strange finally got on my nerves when Arnold was telling a never-ending story about a deceased horse that kept resurfacing from a lake. That’s one way to beat a dead horse.
Despite indications from the title, this book isn’t in diary form and the comic-like illustrations seem to be more of an afterthought despite their entertainment value. Although there’s nothing journal-like in the format, it does reads like a conversation. The comics simply illustrate how he sees the world. Since Arnold is 14 and covers some post-puberty subject matter, I would consider this book to be Young Adult instead of Juvenile. It is listed under Y.A. but I’m sure someone under twelve would get his hands on this. As children are free to roam the library—as they should be—this book is an enjoyable introduction to Teen’s Lit. A lot of Y.A. books I’ve encountered like to use the same off-beat, conversational style of telling a story that’s quite successful.
Although I know next to nothing about basketball, I could easily follow what Arnold was doing as he described playing a game and I was genuinely interested in the outcome. He may as well have been sitting next to me, babbling on and telling it to me straight. Arnold’s experience with sports is more realistic than a Hollywood film about a down-on-his-luck player. No matter how cliché this scenario is, it does give one warm and fuzzy feelings.
Of the above books, my favorite is obviously The Watsons… because of the writing style and the history. The chapter in which Mr. Watson buys a turn table for the car reminded me of 1960′s technology before there were iPods or CD players connected to cars. (Back in my day, we had cassette players.) Despite having exposure to more advanced technology, I could share in the sense of wonder the family felt at the new addition to their family.
That said, I preferred the pacing of …Part-Time Indian. Rather than realizing the sameness in everyone through one large event, he pieces together his revelation through many occurrences in his life—the way real life tends to be.
This post didn’t intentionally have a theme, like future ones will have, but these two books do have complicated titles in common. What they also have in common are male protagonists, first person POV, social issues regarding race, a haunted body of water, and humor.
This post is a few days later than I intended it to be. My co-writer and I are involved in another project, she was visiting last weekend, and I have a couple of novels to read for book clubs. Excuses and road blocks are excuses and road blocks! I must go read some Robert Cormier for the next post.
2 titles down, 50 to go.
Days left: 92.