Wednesday, October 09, 2013

A Universal Child Story

Last week I wrote about one of the reasons I like the Cybils Award. Here's another--While the judges are reading the nominees, there's a chance they'll blog about them. Since absolutely anyone can nominate a book, the selection of titles considered is much broader than for those awards for which publishers submit what they consider their best shots, their award level work. With the Cybils there's a chance that books that might not be getting much attention will get some, whether they win or not or even whether they make the short list or not. This is good for books, for writers, and particularly for readers.

That's why I nominated The Waffler by Gail Donovan. The book has been well reviewed, and I hope it becomes well known, too.

It's not unusual to see children's books about death, divorce, poverty, illness, and other Big Topics. Big though they may be, they are not universal child topics because not every child experiences death as a child, experiences divorce, poverty, illness, natural disaster, etc. The number one universal child experience, in my humble opinion, is the pressure/need to conform. By that I don't mean conform to a child clique or a team or a group of bullies. I mean conform to adult society, adult social norms. The universal question we must all deal with as children is How the Hell much of myself am I going to have to give up in order to get along in this freaking world?

And that is what The Waffler is about.

Monty isn't a model fourth grader. He was, after all, involved in a graffiti incident, and he's not in one of those combined advanced classes like his twin sister. The big issue that the adult world comes down on him about, though, is that he can't make a decision to save his life. What kind of pet to buy, what to name it, what to write about for a class assignment, where to sit at lunchtime. You name it, and he'll probably change his mind about it. This makes him unacceptable both to the loving, frustrated grown-ups at his two homes (he has two sets of parents) and the much harsher grown-ups at his school. No one accepts him the way he is and, interestingly, no one helps him with decision making skills. He's just told to start making them.

Figure it out, kid. Become like us.

Fortunately, this isn't a learn-the-error-of-your-ways-child story. Of course not. I wouldn't be writing about it, if it were. Monty wins his family over, for a while at least, with a decision not to make a decision. It's pretty clear that his teacher isn't as taken with this move but decides discretion is the better part of valor and waits to fight another day. The book both does and doesn't have a tidy ending, something I appreciated.

I also appreciated the fact that it's a book for the lower end of the middle grade spectrum. You see a lot of middle grade books with twelve-year-old characters. You want an older character in order to create someone who has a lot of acquired knowledge or be mature enough to save the world in a fantasy. You use twelve year olds when you're trying to make the unbelievable more believable. (I've done it, too.) Monty is a believable younger child in a believable situation. He's not wildly funny. He doesn't have an over-the-top voice. He's a regular child many child readers at the lower end of middle grade or the higher end of chapter books could know.

Time for a little FTC transparency chatter here: I received my copy of The Waffler from the author, who I met at a NESCBWI conference maybe twelve or thirteen years ago. 


Ms. Yingling said...

I just requested this from the library and will probably blog about it! Thanks for the Cybils shout out!

Gail Gauthier said...

I'm going to make a greater effort to watch Feedly for the next month or two, so I can see what you think of this book.

Augusta Scattergood said...

It seems to me that the Cybils also recognize books that kids tend to read and talk about. I nominated This Journal Belongs to Ratchet, a middle grade novel that I'd also blogged about. It's fun, different, well-written, and I suspect passed around, young reader to young reader.

Gail Gauthier said...

Augusta, I can't say that the Cybils recognize books kids actually read, but I certainly hope so. I like to think that with the Cybils, books kids might actually like get some attention rather than books kids SHOULD like. It seems to me that that might be happening with a lot of other book awards.