July's Book Review: The Silent Boy
Today, I'm continuing my summer book review with a historical middle-grade novel. Lois Lowry's The Silent Boy opens with a prologue of aged protagonist, Katy Thatcher, looking back on her life; then returns to 1908 in Chapter One when Katy is nearly six. Katy is the daughter of the town doctor and herself a doctor in the making. Her father takes her on calls to the farming community and introduces her to thirteen-year-old Jacob, a boy people call "simple" or "touched in the head." Jacob never talks but he's a keen imitator of noises and animals adore him. When Katy finds Jacob in her family's stables humming to the horses, she hums with him and a bond forms between them.
The majority of the book spans three years in Katy's life. She's deeply affected by the 1911 garment factory fire in New York where girls jumped to flaming deaths and when WWI begins, she longs to be a doctor to heal the wounded. Closer to home, she's disturbed by a visit with her father to the local asylum and tries to understand when he tells her he can only help the patients' bodies but some day he hopes there will be cures for the minds. Her compassion for Jacob grows as she sees how others view him. When Jacob unwittingly commits an unthinkable act, Katy alone deciphers his reasoning.
Lowry accents each chapter with old, sepia-tinted photos from the early twentieth century. In the book's acknowledgments she writes, "All of the people in these photographs are real people. Some of them were people I knew and loved. One is my own mother." She goes on to say that she found some of the photos in an antique store and wondered about them. I have read several of Lowry's many books, including her Newberry winners, Number the Stars and The Giver. She continues to amaze me with her creative dexterity and commitment to children's literature. Visit her site here; you'll see what I mean. I heard Lowry speak and read at a local book shop a couple years ago. She's a charming reader and equally engaging speaker. If you have the opportunity, get out to see her while she's still touring.
By now, Floridians have settled into summer: Weekly lawn mowing, evening frog serenades and afternoon storms. Five of my sunflowers survived the seed-eating squirrels, leaf-chewing grasshoppers and tropical storm Debby. They're as wonderful as I imagined, massive buds forming, then turning to face the sun before opening and sprouting lemony petals. The dramatic early morning shadows on the back fence are an unexpected bonus. The squirrels and grasshoppers are fat and I'm a happy gardener. I hope to offer the seedpods to wildlife and save a few seeds for next year.
Local creeks, dried to a trickle through winter and spring, are now full and flowing. We pass streams along three of our walking routes. This one is on a deadend country road and bisects two properties. Just past the creek is a fenced-wooded area where morning mist rises from a pond at it's center. It seems the ideal setting for knights to camp in a historical novel or fairies to flit in a fantasy. This squirrel deemed it the perfect breakfast spot! At the end of the road, we passed a sandhill crane family munching bugs in a cow pasture.
Several weeks ago, we spotted a peahen with seven chicks, six brown and one white. I was delighted with the tiny hatchlings and didn't pay close attention to the mother. This weekend we stumbled upon this mama with her brood. I can't be sure it's the same family but the one white chick makes me think it is. It's sad to think just four of her babies survived. The mama is the only buff-colored peahen I've seen. She stayed well ahead of us and three of her chicks scurried after her. But not the fellow below. He strolled toward the camera and eyeballed it. He deserves his own picture book, don't you think?
I'm blessed to have a husband who loves story as much as I do. He grew up in a reading household and he keeps a book within reach at all times. He also has a flexible mind. Which is a huge asset when I need to plot story.
I like to brainstorm away from the distractions of home. We walk a couple miles every morning and story often accompanies us. It usually starts with a plot point; a snag or stall. This morning, I had reenvisioned the beginning of a YA book. I shared it with my husband and we began to fill in the empty spaces. Birds trilled, frogs croaked, and peafowl honked. We automatically waved at passersby leaving for work. Our feet carried us down the path, while our minds plotted story.
We stopped briefly to check out the creek, flowing after recent rains, and again the marshy field where last week we spotted a mallard and her seven ducklings. Then our chat continued to the rhythm of our steps. The subject was apocalyptic. When I finally looked up several houses from our home, I laughed at us, the frumpy, middle-aged couple plotting the worlds' destruction on our bucolic walk.
Sometimes, we brainstorm story in the car, losing track of our destination until one of us blinks at the road and announces, "We missed the turn!" At the cafe where we like to eat breakfast, I force myself to focus on the waitress until our order is served. Then story is tossed across the table, seasoning our food with plot. It's no wonder so many authors acknowlwdge their spouses and children on the inside covers of books. Family--good listeners and eager plotters--deserve credit for their part in the story.
Imagine in a Big Way
The last few weeks I've been neck deep in picture books. I've been trying to learn to write one for over a year and I've come to believe the two most valuable assets for PB authors are imagination and a child's voice.
By imagination, I mean the mental flexibility that leaps past the real world into a limitless one where animals and inanimate objects talk, ships sail on deserts and monsters are tamed by peanut butter. The youngest readers or listeners (as many aren't reading yet) don't know laws of gravity. They don't distinquish between reality and fantasy. They are learning good from evil but they also believe their parents can protect them from everything. So almost anything goes in a PB. The more outrageous the better.
The ability to access a young child's voice is gold. To re-experience the love of sounds, giggle at funny words and delight in rhyme. To play with language, rearrange it in ways that speaks to children. The youngest book lovers don't need to understand every word. They have adults to explain if they feel they must know. But the words must mesmerize. Young minds have very short attention spans. If the words don't entice them, they wander off to find something that does.
Illustrations are the other half of the PB story and they should be equally imaginative. They aren't simply pictures illustrating the author's words. They are a separate part of the story, shown in art. Picture book illustrators are masters of expression, exaggeration and whimsy. They set the tone with line and color.
I, sadly, have neither a flexible imagination nor access to a young child's voice. But I'm trying to find them and I'm having a fabulous time hanging out with writers who are as witty and playful as the books they write.
I write middle grade and young adult books with a magical twist. I'm represented by the fabulous Leslie Zampetti of Dunham Lit.
Lorin Oberweger - Freelance Editor