Conversation is a part of life. In almost all of the books that we have read this semester (the exception being The Arrival), conversation is a normal and frequent part of the story line. Characters regularly speak to one another and their dialogue is very evenly distributed, with all participants in the conversation contributing more or less equally.
However, in Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, we find ourselves with a unique main character named Melinda. Due to her traumatic past, Melinda rarely speaks. Readers get a deep look inside her mind as she narrates the story, and she explains how words either get caught in her throat or she feels that she has nothing to say, leading to her silence.
This makes Speak unique in two ways. First, readers are given much more insight into what Melinda thinks and feels than are any of the people that she interacts with in the story. She is a mystery to most of her peers, teachers, and family, but the reader knows exactly what is going on within her mind, and is thus able to sympathize with her. It creates a stereotypical image of her parents, who do not understand anything going on in their teenager’s life, but it is extended to a more dramatic level in that the reader can see that literally nobody in the story has any idea how Melinda feels. By forming Melinda as a nearly speechless character, Anderson forces the reader to pay attention to Melinda’s actions and determine who she is based on the random acts that she does, along with the way that she portrays her life through art. Melinda may not have much to say, but there is much for the reader to learn about her through her unique, creative ways of letting her emotions out.
Second, Anderson provides a very interesting portrayal of the way that conversation works in the way that conversations are formatted in Speak. They are written as if it is a screenplay, with a new line starting with the character’s name, a colon following it, and whatever they said, every time that a character speaks. This highlights how silent Melinda normally is, because conversations often consist of several lines of one character speaking, followed by “Me: [empty line]” for Melinda. This style of formatting could be considered a commentary on how conversations can feel for introverts in reality, because since Melinda is narrating this story, it makes it clear that she is very aware of how unbalanced the conversations she partakes in are. Some people naturally have more things to say than others, while others have much more going on purely within their heads, and Anderson recognizes and portrays this phenomenon quite effectively. All in all, Speak is unlike any book that we have read to date, because in keeping with the theme its title suggests, conversations are portrayed and formatted to show the unique ways that they sometimes happen in real life.
Bud, Not Buddy is a children’s book that chronicles the adventures of Bud Caldwell, an African American ten-year-old boy who has spent the past four years of his life in the foster care system after his mother unexpectedly dies. Bud has never met his father, but is convinced that he knows who he is, and sets out to journey across Michigan and find him. The book is set in the Great Depression, a time when many people were struggling to find enough money to survive and overt racism was still popular. Thus, the book discusses many issues that it might be hard to talk to children about, from to death to poverty to racism.
In American society, I think we have a tendency to want to keep our children as innocent and naïve as possible for as long as we can. Children are seen as pure-minded beings, and to talk about these kinds of hard topics with them can become very difficult, because we do not want them to lose their playfulness that comes from being ignorant about some of the darker aspects of humanity.
While this is acceptable when children are still fairly young, I believe that it is important for them to be exposed to these realities before they come into contact with them on a more personal level. Discussing difficult topics with children makes them more ready to handle them when they encounter these issues in their lives, so I commend Christopher Paul Curtis, the author of Bud, Not Buddy, for not shying away from writing about these issues in his children’s novel. I think that by a time a child is old enough to read a chapter book like Bud, Not Buddy, they are also old enough to think critically about social injustice and wrap their minds around the pain of losing someone that is close to them.
The book makes it especially possible to do this because of the way that the main character does have to deal so directly with these issues, and readers get to look inside his mind as he navigates his life. Readers gain a more intimate and real exposure to these issues through the way that Bud narrates his life. They can feel his hunger and understand how badly he wanted to be let inside the mission for breakfast. His fear is palpable every time he starts to think about parting with the suitcase filled with the memories of his mother and the man he believes to be his father. He has to listen to an older man describe to him the way that white townsfolk feel about blacks passing through their town. Bud lives in a harsh reality, and while most children who read this book will not have to deal with all of the problems that he does, it is important that they are exposed to them so that they have a fuller understanding of the way that the world can work, fair or not. To keep children shielded from these facts for too long could result in them being struck by the realities in a less gentle way when they see them for themselves.
Three days ago, October 15th, was the 60th anniversary of the publication of Charlotte’s Web. NPR did a segment celebrating this occasion, and it includes some excerpts of E.B. White reading the book, as well as interesting facts about his inspiration for writing the book.
Early on in his adventures, Milo runs into an interesting character: Tock, the watchdog. Tock’s job is to make sure time never gets wasted, so while they are on their way to Dictionopolis, he explains to Milo all of the reasons that time is so important and why it should be considered sacred. It is clear that Tock takes time very seriously, but Milo does not immediately seem to hold it to the same standard. At the other end of the extreme are the Lethargarians, who try as hard as they can to waste as much time as possible. Thus, in this section of the book, there is an overarching theme regarding time and the way that it should be spent, which leads one to consider the ways that time has been represented in the book thus far, as well as the way that it is esteemed in terms of childhood in general.
One of the first things that we read about Milo is that he is always in a rush, although it is not because he has anything to do or any place to get to. He hurries to get to his destinations, but once there, he sits dejectedly thinking about how there is nothing exciting going on. So while Milo is initially making a great use of time by spending as little of it in transit as possible, he immediately switches to wasting time once he reaches his destination. He has nothing to do, which makes it all the more interesting when he sees the package that reads, “For Milo, who has plenty of time.” At this point, time is turned into a possession, something of which a person either has plenty or not enough.
This is interesting because it ties into the way that childhood is viewed as a period of carefreeness. Children do not really have a concept of time or wasting it. They can spend hours playing the same game without getting bored, and they are seldom anxious about finishing one thing so that they can get started on another. For them, time is something that exists only in the context of having a certain number of hours to play outside, between finishing their homework and coming inside for dinner. But all of that time spent in play just exists – the minutes are not counted, they are not carefully planned out.
Thus, it appears that Milo gets a unique look into adulthood once he meets Tock. Hearing someone talk about time and all of its values, and the way that it is imperative not to waste it, is something that most children do not give much thought to. The book therefore serves to teach children the lesson of time and its value. It may be a premature lesson, as it is something that people naturally grow to accept as they get older and things like deadlines become more relevant. However, it is a unique thing to focus on in a children’s book, which gives The Phantom Tollbooth a different feel from other children’s books that we have looked at thus far.
One of the ideas brought up in the Keywords discussion of “Children’s Literature” is the struggle in defining a true children’s literature when there is no form of literature written by children, for children. Thus, the idea of a power struggle within the relationship between author and reader comes up. It is true that nearly all the books that we tend to classify as “children’s literature” have been written by adults, for the children who will read them. In order for a children’s book to enter the hands of a child, it must be written by an adult, deemed acceptable and published by some set of adults, purchased by an adult, and then presented to the child. Children therefore have little control over the books that they end up consuming, so this raises the question of whether it is fair to say that the category of “children’s literature” belongs to children.
The fact that stories have to pass through the hands of so many adults before they reach the child makes one wonder if what we call “children’s literature” is an accurate depiction of what children would be reading, had we given them full reign over what this category would be defined by. We choose literature that we feel our children will both benefit from and enjoy, but it is difficult to know how successful we are, especially since the idea of what constitutes proper reading material for children has changed dramatically over time. In the end, it seems quite presumptuous to suggest that we are doing children a great favor by giving them some category of literature all for themselves, when we have almost never taken into consideration what the literature might look like if we sat down with them and allowed them to pour their deepest thoughts and ideas onto the pages of a book. I do not mean to suggest that children’s literature is meaningless unless children have full control over it – on the contrary, I think that there is a lot of merit in giving them books with qualities that have been shown to engage and educate them. However, it seems to me that as long as children have their literature filtered by so many adults before they receive it, trying to imply that this is a category of literature belonging completely to children is an unfair oversimplification.