Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Pillars of Gold and Silver

In a recent conversation with my 16-year-old nephew Ben about my blog, I mentioned that I generally blogged about books that I recommended. In a typical adolescent "let's think outside of the box" response, he said, "Why are you doing that? Book reviewers don't have to like a book in order to write about it."

So thanks to Ben, this is my first blog about a book that I didn't like and would not recommend: Pillars of Gold and Silver. Suggested to me by a librarian who was helping me choose books related to the Korean War, this middle-grade book takes place during that time period and thus is a glimpse into that era.

The story is interesting enough. A young girl (Blanca Estela) moves to Mexico with her mother immediately following her father's death in the Korean War. Her Spanish is poor and she must adjust to living in her grandmother's village and the different customs, food, and forms of recreation that greet her. This could be an interesting plot and view of a different culture and time period for 4-7th grade readers, but unfortunately the author, Beatriz de La Garza, breaks two cardinal rule of writing: She tells, rather than shows and dumps information in paragraphs that plod from chapter to chapter. Consider this paragraph early in the first chapter. It is the first time her mother speaks about her husband's death, on the bus ride to Mexico:

Sometimes they stopped in little towns, or even where there was only a gasoline station or café all alone in the middle of nothing. Then her mother would have her get out and go to the restroom or give her sandwiches to eat, even when she wasn't hungry. Other time when she was hungry, she had to wait a long time to eat until they reached their next stop. Once, when she was both hungry and sleepy, she began to fret and to complain about it to her mother, but then she stopped because her mother did not seem to be listening. She seemed to be far away in her thoughts, and, instead of responding she asked Blanca Estela, "You don't really remember him do you? You were still so little when he left. He only came back once for a visit after that. He was supposed to come back for good by the New Year. And now he is never coming back." (p. 10)

An event that should emotionally grab the reader in the gut- a little girl's father's death- leaves the reader yawning. To me, de la Garza's desire to include many interesting details ends up weighing the story down. Coincidentally, yesterday I was reading the October issue of Writer's Digest. In the article "What Agents Hate" Rachelle Gardner of WordServe Literary says, "One of the biggest problems is the 'information dump' in the first few pages, where the author is trying to tell us everything we supposedly need to know to understand the story. Getting to know characters in a story is like getting to know people in real life. You find out their personality and details of their life over time." In the same article, Jennifer Cayea of Avenue A Literary is quoted as saying: "I [dislike] inauthentic dialogue to tell the reader who the characters are, instead of showing who the characters are."

In my book, Teaching the Story and at teacher's conferences I talk about the need to show characters FAST- through their feelings, actions, speech and thoughts. When an author narrates and tells rather than shows, their characters are one dimensional and lacking the immediacy of someone you have enjoyed getting to know.

Unfortunately, de la Garza's long narratives didn't engage me and I'm afraid that most young readers won't get far enough into the book to be caught up in the story. That's too bad. The author had an interesting story to tell, oops!, to show.

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Jean said...

Interesting review, Carol. Thanks. I tend to carry YAs and MGs home from the library by the boxloads.

I think I'll pass on this one, though.


Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

Good post! You showed us what you wanted us to know!

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