105 Ways to Give a Book

Road to Paris, Eh

It’s not too late to take part in the book discussion of King of Shadows. So if, like me, you forgot about it yesterday, you can still go and add your two cents in the comments.

I’ll also remind you that I will be hosting the next Carnival here in February. I’ll shoot for a submission date of February 15th and upload on February 20th. You may submit a post to my email (click the button at the bottom of my blogroll) or at the Carnival site. I’m not going to set a theme, as February is full of them without my picking just one. So, send your posts on love, Black History Month, presidents, and groundhogs. Or cold weather. Or snow. You get the picture.

Today is the blog birthday of A Fuse #8 Production, and I wanted to get Fusie something special — besides writing out her whole blog name. But what to get for the blogger who has everything?

The Road to ParisSo I give the gift of debate. She liked The Road to Paris — and as it turns out, I didn’t. It is rare that I don’t agree with Fuse on books. In this case, I’m also going against just about everybody who read this book, given that it won a Coretta Scott King Honor Award.

My feeling is that Nikki Grimes wrote a fictionalized account of her own experience as a foster child who finds a good placement in a caring home. It’s probably a good story. But if you’re going to write about something that happened in the sixties/seventies, say that. Fuse mentioned how the lack of current slang made it feel like it could have happened yesterday or years ago. But I felt like the book was firmly placed in the past, which is fine, but then just say that.

Several things didn’t ring true for me for this time. When the teacher has the kids exchange Valentine cards, she doesn’t make the kids give one to everyone. Generally, schools don’t do that anymore. The street in a suburb of NYC has only three black families in neighborhood of white families. Really, in Ossining, a suburb of NYC? The kids seem completely thrown by Paris’s skin color. Again, really? In a metropolitan area? Who brings milk money? Waxed paper wrapped around her sandwich? Hello, plastic baggies. Nat King Cole came on the radio enough that it’s her mother’s favorite song. The photographs that were taken at Easter are black and white.

But here’s the kicker: When the dad of her friend sees her hanging outside the door, he calls her the n-word. That seems like something out of the sixties, especially when the mom shoos Paris away seeming scared of the dad. I’m not saying that there isn’t racism and that people don’t still use the n-word. But the scene doesn’t play right for this era. Then Paris gets mad at her friend for not sticking up for her in front of her dad. But it’s obvious that the mom is even afraid of the dad; why wouldn’t her friend also be afraid of being hit by the dad? You’d think that Paris would know what it’s like to be stuck in that situation, but she writes her friend off completely.

The story was fine, as a sixties story, but I thought that having the end of the story as the first chapter added a strangely false conflict. Would Paris feel bad about leaving this new, nice foster family to take a chance on her mom? Sure. Would she really have a serious debate about it or for that matter, a choice? I don’t know about that. I would rather have seen a more straightforward approach, more year-in-the-life, than building tension about what Paris was going to do next. I feel like the author — who everyone knows as a good writer — was too close to the subject. Or maybe she needed a stronger editor who could have mentioned that if you’re going to write a book that takes place in the sixties, you might want put the time period in the book and not make your readers guess.

Unfortunately, Fuse#8’s review was taken off her site in the whole Newbery Committee vs. Bloggers episode, but it lives on at the bottom of the Amazon review. She enjoyed the book, and the ambiguity of the resolution. She saw the book as more timeless since there weren’t references to current slang or technology. Anyone else have an opinion about the book? Or more specifically, can a book be timeless or is it always set in some time period by intention or design?

6 comments:

Emily said...

I feel like there are a lot of books that want to give the impression that they're "timeless," especially books that were published in the 70s or earlier and set in the same time period as when they were written.

The first thing to come to mind is Beverly Cleary, whose Ramona and Henry Huggins books are just slightly removed from my own generation, but which nevertheless gave me the impression that life in the United States was very strange indeed. (I lived in a suburb of Canada, and didn't have an inkling that the difference was more of time than of distance).

I feel like there's a collection of Canonical Childhood images and set-pieces that largely come from the 1950s--things like vacant lots and walkable neighborhoods and baseball games in the park, and which people tend to accept without thinking about whether such things are really true any more.

Daniel said...

Sadly, I think that it wouldn't be hard at all to find a neighborhood in the NYC metro area where a new black resident could cause a major stir, or precipitate the use of the n-word. Large cities may, in fact, be a little more prone to this sort of thing simply because neighborhoods outside the center city tend to be a bit isolationist, and comprised of one or two dominant groups. I've encountered much more blatant racism in the environs of New York and Philadelphia than I have in comparatively tiny Richmond, the much-maligned capital of the Confederacy.

Becky said...

First of all, I loved The Road to Paris. I thought it was beautifully and wonderfully done.

As far as "timeless" goes in reference to children's literature...or literature in general. It is not that "timeless" means free from a specific time, place, or culture. It doesn't. It can't. Timeless means that the underlying themes, the emotions, the circumstances are universal, unchanging. It doesn't matter if it's set in ancient Greece, nineteenth century England, modern-day America--a love story that 'captures' what it means to love, to lose, to cherish, makes it timeless. There are certain aspects of humanity that are universal. Love. Fear. Joy. Laughter. Hunger. Pain. Loneliness. Death. Grief. Jealousy. Etc. These emotions make up what it means to be human. If a book captures these emotions in such a way that a reader connects with the text, is moved by it, remembers it...then that book becomes timeless.

A book about a child that feels lonely, scared, abandoned. That could happen any time, any place, any culture. Those feelings, those experiences aren't tied to one specific time and place. So in some ways, I feel the novel is timeless. Obviously every reader responds differently.

On that note, perhaps time is what is needed to test whether something is "timeless" or not. If a book is remembered beyond one or two years. If a book is remember ten years, twenty, or even fifty years fromnow....then there would be more of a concensus that it is timeless.

One of my pet peeves is when jacket flaps promote a new release that has barely had time to be reviewed and put on the shelves as "classic" or "memorable" or "unforgettable" or in other words the most wonderful book the world has ever seen.

MotherReader said...

I do understand the general use of the word timeless in regards to literature, and perhaps I should have found a better word to represent my meaning in terms of this book.

I do think that the emotions represented in the book, the human experience of it, is timeless in the way you describe.

What bothered me about this book, is that since there is no indication that the events are happening in a different time period, say the sixties or seventies, one would tend to assume that it is taking place in the current time. But many things in the book seemed to indicate that it was taking place at a different time.

My sense is that the author wanted it to be a story without a set time period, but I don't know if that truly can be done. There are always particulars of any period that may give it away - even if the author avoids current slang, technology, and current events that would date the book.

Throwing in such an important issue as racism, it does matter to me, as a reader, if the story is taking place now or fifty years ago. In some ways, it makes it a completely different reading experience.

Brooke said...

I dunno . . . Lynne Rae Perkins' novels are certianly of a certain time, although that year is never mentioned anywhere, in the books or on their jackets. And yet for some reason I hesitate to label them as historical fiction.

A book whose setting did bother me last year was "King Dork." Did you read it? The book is ostensibly set in the present day, but a number of things -- the presence of vinyl records, the complete lack of e-mail, the thirty-something hippie stepfather -- led me again and again to think the book should have been set in 1981. Did the book's editor feel that a book set in the 1980's wouldn't be as appealing to kids?

Hum, hum, hum.

cloudscome said...

I wrote a review of Road to Paris for The Edge of The Forest/Feb., which is coming out tomorrow I think. It didn't bother me at all that it seemed a little old fashioned. I didn’t like the valentine party either. I think that teacher was particularly insensitive. In the chapter when her friend’s dad I so racist, I think a nine year old child is rarely prepared for that kind of shocking hate. I think she did the right thing by distancing herself from the friend who for whatever reason betrayed her. Having that kind of dad would make it hard to keep the friendship in any case. The way Grimes wrote that particular scene was one of the best parts of the book, IMO.