Monday, April 9, 2007

The Thump Factor

The inconvenience of being without Internet access in a foreign (well, Canadian--only three hours away but still officially foreign, last time I checked) city for nearly a week was almost made up for by the glory of having hours at a stretch to just sit and read. And read! And read! And so I finally had the chance to plunge into the 389-page treat that is A Drowned Maiden's Hair.

That was well worth it, all right. I'd give up more than Internet access to read that book again. Mmm.

As I'm apparently the last person in the kidlitosphere to read it, and it won the 2006 Cybil Award for middle-grade fiction and has been gathering hosannas of reviews all over the place, I won't go into detail about the plot. But I was thinking, later, about why that book was so especially satisfying: what was it?

Well, it was readable without being lightweight, meaningful without preachiness. God knows it has plot--that subtitle "A Melodrama" is well-earned--but it's not aboutthe plot, per se. What it's really about, in some ways, is grief. So much so that I advised my partner (who with me is parent to a strong-willed, physically daring, and perhaps slightly spoiled daughter, and who has a hard time reading books or seeing movies in which Bad Things happen to children) not to read it. But it's not a sad book.

The characters are (o, overused reviewer's phrase) well-drawn; I believed, wholly, in Maud Mary Flynn, and wanted to know what would happen to her; I believed in Hyacinth and wanted desperately for her to get her comeuppance. But I've read lots of books with great, believable characters that didn't get to me like this one. So what was it, exactly?

"Thump" is the word I came up with finally to describe that particularly delicious reading experience. A Drowned Maiden's Hair has Thump.

"The thump factor" is a phrase usually used to describe the physical heft of a book, but that's not what I'm after here. For lack of a better definition, Thump in this context refers to a perfect or near-perfect balance of emotional plot and action plot (As Brooklyn Arden explains in this post, the emotional plot of the first "Harry Potter" novel is "Harry finds friends and a home." The action plot is, oh, you know, "Harry goes to a cool wizard school and saves the Stone and finds out about Voldemort.") Books with Thump have both, plus something else: they reach beyond the specifics of plot and character to big, universal themes. But they don't get all caught up in the message; they keep you turning the pages, keep you needing to find out What Happens Next. Plus, to keep all that going, the prose itself has to be brilliant.

And all of it has to fit together: the meaning can't feel tacked-on, the plot can't falter, the characters have to pop off the page but still be believable, the emotions have to feed into the action and vice versa...

Oh, forget it. The more I try to describe Thump, the longer and more tangled this post gets. So I'm just going to provide a couple of lists: one of books with thump, one of books I love without. There are lots more in both categories than the ones below, plus a few I'm not sure about. But when I looked through my reading list from the last several years, it was surprisingly easy to pick out the few Thump books from the others: like they say about pronnography, I might not be able to describe it, but I know it when I see it*.

Books With Thump*

Holes, by Louis Sachar
Maybe the archetypical Thump book: a plot that won't quit, with layers of meaning that you can't stop thinking about. A third-grader can read it and love it; an adult could write a master's thesis on it. No wonder it won the 1999 Newbery as well as numerous Children's Choice awards (it beat out Harry Potter for the 2001 Young Reader's Choice Award, at my school and all over the region).

The Sea of Trolls
, by Nancy Farmer
It's a chunky, compelling historical/fantasy adventure story about a boy who's kidnapped by Vikings and has to go to the Troll Lands to save his sister! No, it's a deep and thoughtful exploration of philosophies that value life vs. those that valorize death! It's a floor wax! It's a dessert topping! It was my favorite book of 2005, and a fair bet to win this year's YRCA Intermediate award if my students are anything to go by.

The Greengage Summer
, by Rumer Godden
At first glance, this slim novel might seem a bit dreamy: a British family travels to the Champagne country of France for one enchanted summer; the two oldest daughters learn the ways of the world. But the coming-of-age emotional plot is wrapped around a taut mystery/thriller that doesn't let up until the very last page.

The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau
Lina and Doon are racing against time to save their city, sure. But there's more here, about the nature of society and individuals' obligations to the common good. That kind of theme-y stuff is understated, though, and never as lecture-y as I've put it here. And the prose is gorgeously transparent. It doesn't draw attention to itself, but there are passages--like the one where Lina and Doon see night outside the City for the first time--that just glow.

To Kill a Mockingbird
, by Harper Lee
Okay, this is the other archetypical Thump book; there's a reason it's assigned reading at high schools by the hundreds. It's a courtroom drama, a meditation on the nature of justice and mercy and a great kid story all at once--Scout is right up there with Ramona and Clementine and Junie B. in the pantheon of tough, smart little girls.

Books I Love That Don't Quite Have Thump

Harriet the Spy
, by Louise Fitzhugh
If you forced me to choose at gunpoint, I'd say (like many other women of my generation) that this is my favorite book of all time. But the truth is, what makes it compelling is Harriet herself, eccentric and brilliant and cranky as she is. The plot is secondary.

The Saturdays, by Elizabeth Enright
Oh, but this is a lovely book--you just want to climb in through the Melendys' window and hang out with them. Episodic, though. Like a lot of other non-Thump books I love, the characters and situation predominate.

Fly by Night, by Frances Hardinge
You can't accuse Fly by Night of lacking in plot; it's got twists and turns up the wazoo, plus boffo characters and linguistic pyrotechnics, and a powerhouse ending that will resound with anyone who loves Story. But the story gets a little boggy and hard to follow in the middle, and it could have been tightened by maybe 50 pages and a plot thread or two. I loved it enough to buy it (not many books get bought in our two-librarian household), but it's too tangled and unwieldy to nail down that elusive thumpy quality.

Airborn, by Kenneth Oppel
I wavered before putting this one on the list, because I hate to put it down in any way; it's such a compelling read, with such great characters, chock full of adventure, and with those amazing cloud creatures thrown in. But in the end, there's not enough else going on to put this in the Thump category: the story doesn't reach out of itself to connect with anything bigger, the way Holes or The Sea of Trolls do.

The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron
When kids' book people complain about the lack of kid-appeal in many Newbery Medal winners, it's partly the thump factor that they're talking about. I loved Lucky, loved the setting and the quirky characters and the language, and I cared about what happened to her. But when you get down to it, the plot was a bit thin.

*Obviously (I hope) this is all totally subjective; I'm not trying to come up with some authoritative Abundance-of-Katherines type theorem about the Thumpiness of books, just to define it for myself and whoever's still reading after my vacation-induced absence.

What do you think: are there books that have It for you? Or don't? And how do you define It?


Vardibidian said...

Hmm. I would have said that House of the Scorpion had Thump, but that Sea of Trolls lacked it. I mean, I liked Sea and all, but it seemed to be lacking a certain ... I would have said heft, but thump works better.

Also, I like that you point out that a book can be perfectly good without that thump, and in fact can be great books without thump, better than books with plenty of thump, but that doesn't give them thump.


Jen Robinson said...

Interesting stuff! We've just been discussing the elusive concept of kid appeal among the Cybils organizers, and I think that you've definitely hit upon something useful. Thanks!

bookbk said...

vardibidian-- It's funny you should mention House of the Scorpion-- I thought of that title too. But it loses a lot of steam, and some direction, in the last quarter of the book. I almost put it down as a counter-example, but figured one Nancy Farmer was enough.

And yes! about a book being perfectly good without thump. I can see, rationally, that Holes, say, has more Thump than Harriet the Spy, but I'll never feel passionately about Holes like I do about Harriet.

bookbk said...

Jen--there's definitely some relationship between thump and kid appeal, though it's not one-to-one; lots of books without thump (Airborn and other plot-heavy books, especially) have lots of kid-appeal. But are there kids' books with thump but without much kid appeal? Hmm. Not sure.

web said...

Hey, welcome back! I added you into my little blog on the prairie post, since you didn't have a fair chance to make it in the first time. :-)

liz said...

You are the only person I know outside my family who knows about The Saturdays.

Have you ever read Mr. Mysterious and Company? A very good non-thump book.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Sea of Trolls definitely has Thump. Other titles that fit that category for me: Dogsbody (Diana Wynne Jones), The Secret Garden, The Golden Compass, and Ender's Game.

Liz: There are others of us who love the Melendy family too! My mother introduced me to the Melendys when I was seven. I wanted so desperately to crawl into the book and go on adventures with them.

Kate said...

Whoa, great post! I read this and immediately added this blog to my blogroll. "Thump" is the perfect word for what you're talking about.

Oh, and I love the Saturdays too. Mona, Rush, Randy, and Oliver hooray!

liz said...

Hooray for more people knowing about the Melendys!!!

I got the book and the other sweet prizes, Els! Thank you!!! MM is wearing the pink flamingo tatoo on his tummy as we speak.

Kelly said...

Boy you nailed "Fly By Night" for me. Great book, excellent descriptions. Needed to lose at least 50 pages. (And the alphabet conceit seemed forced to me.)

Pamelamama said...

I totally get 'thump' and I agree with the reader who added the Golden Compass to the list!

jone aka msmac said...

I love the thump factor, great analogy. Have a teacher reading Higher Power of Lucky to 5th grade and getting wonderful discussions from it. (not sure if she edited it or not)

cloudscome said...

Great description of thump. I am reading Fly By Night too, and am stuck in the middle. I like it a lot but I wondered why I wasn't eager to get to it last night. I have found myself thinking about it, felt connected to the characters, am wondering what happens next... but don't run to it at the first chance I get. That's how I would describe thump. And I think Harriet has it for me.