Thursday, September 15, 2005

What I Believe by Norma Fox Mazer (Harcourt, 2005)

What I Believe By Norma Fox Mazer (Harcourt, 2005). When Victory Marnet's dad loses his high-paying executive job, the family tries to remain hopeful. But after a while it becomes clear that no equivalent opportunity will arise. So, her mom decides they'll sell the house and "extras" to begin again in a small, city apartment. But the adjustment is ongoing and involves continued financial tension, taking on a boarder, dad's depression, and temptation that Vicki can't quite pass up. A deeply felt look at downshifting economic class. Ages 10-up.

From the back flap: "Norma Fox Mazer is an award-winning novelist and a faculty member for the Vermont College MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults Program. Her books have received a Newbery Honor, a Christopher Award, an Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Juvenile Mystery, a National Book Award nomination, and other prestigious honors. She lives in Montpelier, Vermont."

My Thoughts

Because it was by Norma Fox Mazer (I'm a fan), I opened this novel with high expectations. Generally, I don't feel this way about novels in poems (though the writing forms here extend beyond poems to include lists, memos, journal entries, dialogue, and several more, I'm sure, that I'm not savvy enough to identify). They're perhaps overpublished at the moment, and more often than not, either the poetry or the story succeeds--not both. Characters tend to be underdeveloped, plotlines hole-ridden, and compelling voice--especially "regional" voice--sacrificed in favor of showy language.

So when a novel in poems (or mixed forms, like this one) succeeds, I'm wowed. My favorites include Split Image: A Story in Poems by Mel Glenn (HarperCollins, 2000) and A Bad Boy Can Be Good For A Girl by Tanya Lee Stone (Wendy Lamb Books, 2006), and now, What I Believe by Norma Fox Mazer (Harcourt, 2005). For those of you interested in writing this way, I highly encourage you to study these books.

But zeroing in on the novel at hand, what struck me most was its vulnerability and intelligence, the intensity of Vicki's believability. She's flawed yet inspirational, and readers can't help but feel closer to her with each turning page. What's more, the author shows as much care in crafting her minor characters as her stars. No one is merely a device or place holder.

The book is particularly recommended to writers working on showing emotion. Take a look at "The Real Estate Agent" on pg. 18, contrasting what Nina Byrd says and how Vicki acts in reply. Don't you feel the moment? Yet no emotional "label" is used or needed. Then turn to pg. 19, "We're Still Here On 5555 Sweet Road," and see how much it achieves using dialogue alone. Think about the home-shoppers' comments that Vicki elects to repeat and what they say about her state of mind.

As for the story itself, I have to be careful not to give away too much. (Don't you hate when reviewers do that?). But I will say that I recognized the feeling of being helpless in the face of your parents' financial responsibilities and the guilty frustration at wishing they were somehow stronger in the world. I also was struck by Mom's comment that "Your parents aren't newbies at sorrow, but I so wanted to spare you" (pg. 89). So many parents are like this, and who can blame them? Yet, in the end, all it does is raise their children's anxiety level. Kids already have less power in the world. If a problem affects them and they're denied a context for it, they're also deprived of a starting place to cope.

For those of you looking hard for them, this novel does include a biracial (black/white) secondary character. I'm still recalling Sara's comment that, "My dad says anyone whose family has been in this country for more than a century has a good chance of being a brother or a sister, whether they know it or not" (pg. 75), and it reminds me of something Marc Aronson said this summer, something about how people make the biggest deal out of the smallest differences (brainy thing that he is, Marc said this far more eloquently).

This is a recommended novel to use as a springboard for taking about class, race, depression, and parent-child relationships. But it's also a wonderful story to simply savor.

Beyond that, I suggest reading it aloud, if at all possible. The short entries are perfect for young audiences, and this 'tweener would be an excellent selection for a classroom group. Like Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie by David Lubar (Dutton, 2005), What I Believe by Norma Fox Mazer (Harcourt, 2005) should not only be a winner with young readers but also a gift to English teachers looking to integrate quality trade books into the curriculum.

Cynsational News & Links

I'm pleased to report that in light of the sale and completion my upcoming YA gothic fantasy novel, to be published in fall 2007 by Candlewick, I'm now a full member of the Horror Writers Association.

If Rock and Roll Were A Movie: an Untraditional Screen Treatment of the Novel by Terry Davis from VOYA.

2005 Texas Institute of Letters Awards: Entry deadline is January 6, 2006. Authors born in Texas or those who have resided in the state for at least two consecutive years are eligible as are books "whose subject matter substantially concerns Texas." Children's/YA titles that qualify will be considered for the Friends of the Austin Library Award. See site for further requirements and other information.

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