My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge book for this month is the 2001 award winner, The Art of Keeping Cool by Janet Taylor Lisle.
This middle grade novel is set during 1942 on the coast of Rhode Island and begins with cousins Robert and Elliot watching the military transport huge guns (think cannon-type) through their town to the fort on the coast. The boys soon get to know a German-immigrant artist who becomes suspected of being a Nazi spy.
In My Award Challenge posts, I don’t do an actual book review. I don’t say whether or not I like the book. I usually stick to the things I’ve learned from the book, both historical and writing.
However, this time I want to point out how relevant this historical fiction novel is to the present. The year this novel–which deals so much with the human nature of fear after an attack–won the Scott O’Dell Award was the same year the United States reeled from the 9-11 attacks. Since then, we’ve been attacked often enough that discerning between healthy fear and unhealthy fear is an ongoing struggle.
WWII Defenses on East Coast–I knew there were Nazi U-boat attacks on the East Coast during the war, but it was a bigger problem than I knew, especially in 1942 as the United States was mobilizing and heading to the European Theater. I knew coastal residents watched for enemy aircraft and covered their windows at night, but I hadn’t given any thought to secret and camouflaged coastal fortifications.
In her author’s note, Lisle wrote that she based the opening scene from the novel on a historical event. Big artillery guns were transported through her town in 1942. Although she didn’t witness the gun transport, she did remember, as a kid, seeing the ruins of a WWII fort and defenses.
Memoir-style–There is a major difference between a kids’ book with a child protagonist and an adult book with a child protagonist. In kids’ books, the protagonists live the story or adventure as the readers read the story, even if the story is written in past tense. This means the kid protagonists don’t know how their stories end.
In adult books that have kid protagonists, adult narrators are telling about their childhood experience, but also elaborating on that and telling what those experiences meant. This is memoir-esque.
Most kids’ books do not use this memoir writing style because kid readers like to experience the story with the protagonists. Generally, kids don’t look back over their lives. They focus on the now and the future.
Kid readers want to experience the story with the protagonist. They want to learn things on their own. They don’t want adults telling them what the adults learned through the experience.
Lisle does use the memoir style for this novel. Yet it still works for a kids’ book. Why?
First, because she uses the memoir-style sparingly through most of the book, either to set the scene, to show the passage of time, or to show Robert realizing Elliot sees life differently than he does. But then, Lisle seamlessly moves into a scene where readers see the story unfold.
Second, although Lisle ends the story with a grown-up Robert, he is a young man. He is still more relatable to the readers than if Robert were looking backward as an elderly man. Kid readers can more easily picture themselves as young adults versus elderly adults. Also, with Robert looking back as a young adult, he has matured some, but he doesn’t know it all. He’s still a work in progress.
Lisle does a good job of letting adult Robert give some extra insight into the situation without telling us what lesson he learned.
For more information:
Join me Tuesday, July 26, to talk about the lessons I learned from the 1984 O’Dell Award winner, The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare.
What other kids books are set on the East Coast during WWII? Do you know of other kids books that are written in a memoir-style? How did the author make it work?