When I was in high school, I first read a novel by the writer Alice McDermott and was blown away. I shared it with a friend and was surprised when she still hadn’t finished it a few weeks later. Did she not like it? She assured me that she did. “I have to read it slowly,” she explained. “It’s too beautiful to read fast.”
Back then, I couldn’t relate to the idea of reading a beautiful book slowly, unless I was reading it in school and the teacher parceled out chapters each night. The more I liked a book, the later I stayed up reading it and the faster I was done. Now, though, I understand what my friend meant about savoring a beautifully written book. I recently read two books that I had to take slowly, partly because I haven’t had as much reading time lately as I would like, but partly because I found myself wanting to linger, even though both books are suspenseful.
First, Holly Goldberg Sloan’s I’ll Be There tells the story of Sam and Riddle Border, who have been on the run with their disturbed, abusive father since he took them away from their mother when they were very young, and Emily Bell, whose life is as stable as Sam and Riddle’s are unstable, and who believes that everything is connected and everyone is part of a ripple effect. Emily and her family members become attached to the Border brothers, but then Sam and Riddle’s father, Clarence, finds out about his sons’ new friends and tries to ruin everything.
I’ll Be There is Holly Goldberg Sloan’s first novel, but she has written and directed several films. I wasn’t surprised about her screenwriting background because the novel has a cinematic feel. The omniscient narrator dips into many, many characters’ psyches—from Clarence Border to Emily’s family members to an elderly motel maid and a cattle farmer—and Sloan gives readers an interesting blend of detail and restraint. At the beginning of the novel, she describes Emily Bell as having “some kind of magnet that pulled at someone’s soul” and “allowed someone to look at her and feel the need to share a burden.” Throughout the novel, it feels like the omniscient narrator holds such a magnet up to each character that is in some way connected to Sam, Riddle, and Emily, pulling that character’s thoughts and desires up to the surface of the narrative.
At the same time, Sloan chooses not to share some of the main characters’ feelings and experiences. When Sam and Emily are getting to know each other, for instance, she stops chapters just as they begin interacting or summarizes interactions rather than depicting them in scenes. For me, these moments of narrative restraint drew me into the story because I liked the characters and trusted the competency of the writing enough that I imagined and inferred what happened in those scenes.
The novel has an almost magical, fable-like feel to it. Even though Sam and Riddle endure horrible traumas, the story is imbued with hope, humor, and the sense that things will turn out right in the end. A.S. King recommended I’ll Be There when she visited Friends Select as a young adult book that is appropriate for sixth and seventh grade readers in content and themes, and I agree with her recommendation. For younger middle school readers who are eager to read “older” books but might not be quite ready for the content of some YA novels, this book is an excellent option. My wonderful colleague Maureen will be offering this book as one of the choices in her summer book pair, and I hope many students read it and enjoy it as much as I did.
Another great book for middle school readers is Melanie Crowder’s Parched, which just came out this week! Melanie is a fellow Vermont College of Fine Arts alum, and I got to hear excerpts of her debut novel when we were both in graduate school. Parched takes place in a drought-ridden place and follows three viewpoint characters—a girl named Sarel, her protective dog Nandi, and a boy named Musa—as they try to find water and survive.
I borrowed an ARC of this book before it came out and brought it with me on the 8th grade class trip to New Mexico last month…and then realized that this was a book I wanted to bring home and read when I could give it my full attention. The prose seems simple on the surface, but I knew I would miss a lot of the novel’s richness if I read it too quickly or when I had any distractions.
I knew from hearing Melanie read parts of this book that the writing was gorgeously spare and poetic, but I didn’t know how attached I would feel to the three main characters. Melanie makes powerful use of actions and gestures to show (rather than tell about) the affection between Sarel and Nandi and then the gradually building connections between Sarel and Musa and Musa and Sarel’s dogs. As a result, I felt affection and concern for all three characters, too.
As in I’ll Be There, the multiple viewpoint characters create suspense, because the reader sometimes knows more than individual characters do. Melanie provides enough background information about the characters and their world that readers know what Sarel, Nandi, and Musa are up against and can picture the setting, but she uses a lot of restraint in her depiction of this world. This restraint encourages readers to consider where and when the story might take place and to think critically about the similarities and differences between this world and their own.
Parched is a book that absolutely lends itself to slow, careful reading. Because of its relatively short length and the way it sets readers up to make inferences and connections, it would be an excellent read-aloud novel. I plan to use it as a sixth-grade read-aloud next year.
How about you? Any books you’ve found yourself lingering over lately?