April 13, 2008

the view from saturday

And now, for a young adult novel that will never be made into a movie because the characters could not possibly be embodied by human child-actors, all the special effects are words that can never be replicated by moving pictures, and so much of what pushes the story forward is interal, within one of the four "Souls" or Mrs. Eva Marie Olinksy, their teacher.

Are you listening, powers that be? Please don't let anyone try to make a movie out of this story. My mental casting agent is having a field day with Hamilton Knapp and his father (Tom Felton and Jason Isaacs; mental casting agent and I are very sorry for the lack of creativity there) - but not one of the four Souls can be cast. Because they are, as so many reader-reviewers point out, so not actual sixth graders. Sublimely wise; ethereally composed. Unbelievably perceptive, too mature. Too quick-thinking, and way too considerate. Too intelligent, and far too worldly. Where - gasp - would you find such kids, the ones who would know the origins of obscure acronyms, kids for whom science and activism are a lifestyle, kids who have had life experiences outside a house, away from a television set? OK, so these aren't your sixth graders (neither, I will point out, is the opposite end of the spectrum of manners, Maniac Magee), but that's exactly the value of this book - any of the Souls might be a YA reader's first literary hero.

I do not deny that Harry Potter is infinitely more probable than Julian Singh, but one can always hope.

Konigsburg doesn't set out to create role models, she just happens to have created four of the finest, all in one book. I thought I should say that because she's not an author who tiresomely moralizes, separating (or even classifying) "good" and "bad." Hamilton Knapp doesn't get beat up, sent to the principal's office, or grounded, but readers do see what he has lost out on by being what he is. The Souls win the competition but the rewards are intrinsic - friendship and honor speak for themselves, volumes louder than a plaque or standing ovation.

I came upon Konigsburg not in elementary school but in one of my favorite M.Ed. classes ever (well, favorite ever if you don't count Todd Chow-Hoy's "let's all get out of here by 7 p.m." Ed Research class): Children's Literature taught by Sherry Rose, a Farrington High School English teacher and self-described kook. According to Maurice Sendak, you can't write for children - "... [T]hey are too complicated. You can only write books that are of interest to them") - and I have a particular love for great authors and illustrators who write books of interest to children without talking downward or diluting truths. E.L. Konigsburg quickly became one of my favorites. Some of her books I couldn't get through (Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, for one) and I haven't yet read her latest, The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World (sounds Murakamian!), but was floored (and made more than slightly uncomfortable) by Silent to the Bone* and have its prequel, The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place, on deck.

The View from Saturday is by far my favorite Konigsburg. So many ELK fans seem to dislike this story, calling it boring, unrealistic and unworthy of the (1997) Newbery Medal. I completely disagree - and would like to know how four sixth-graders forming an Academic Bowl team and sincere friendships is less realistic than, say, an eleven-year-old girl fed up with her family running away to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC with her precocious little brother for a week (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, 1968 Newbery winner by ELK. Also a beloved book in my stash, though I didn't read it till I was in grad school.) Each character's singular quirks and their life experiences - funny, painful, joyous - contribute to each one's ability to answer the Academic Bowl questions he or she is given. In the chapter entitled "Nadia Tells of Turtle Love," Nadia Diamonstein describes sea turtles' migration to the Sargasso Sea and, after battling hurt feelings she'd rather deny, finally sees a parallel between their journey and human journeys in which change, compromise and sacrifice for the sake of family and love are everyday necessities.

Nadia, for whatever reason, does not use contractions (as in, she'll say "she will" instead of "she'll"). She's smart and prickly-sensitive, and, were she a real live sixth grader in a real live sixth grade class, she'd probably be scorned and shunned for her intelligence and ostensible self-righteousness. Fortunately, Mrs. Olinsky (perhaps the only adult as smart as Nadia in this book) can see what many real live sixth grade teachers of real live sixth grade classes probably wouldn't. This is another facet of the gem that is TVFS - ELK creates four surprising, perceptive individuals (the "Souls") - and dreams up the teacher so many of us want to be. Intuitive, resilient, human, and at the end of the day, right.

The View from Saturday sparkles - because of Nadia (she has a halo, you know) and for many other reasons. At the risk of sounding like a bad elementary school book report closer, please read this book. For a synopsis and sharp analysis, please read this article. And if you must read an official review, please read this one (but ignore Beth Gutcheon calling one of the principal characters "little Noah Gershom." Thank you.

*Silent to the Bone. Highly as I regard this YA novel, I cannot bring it into my fifth-grade classroom. A handful of my children are not yet ready for it, and several dozen handfuls of adults I can think of will never be ready for it. It is for mature audiences, to be sure, not only because of references to sexual abuse and mind games played against children, but also because the theme of silence as communication is so complex. There's much to be learned from STTB about compassion, integrity, and respect - which is why I'd have it in my classroom library, no question, if not for the aforementioned issues.

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