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Anita’s Picks: Real Change in Books

by Anita Silvey
 | Feb 18, 2015

One of the most important questions critics ask about a book: “Does the protagonist change in a believable way in the course of the narrative?” Great writers can take a character, real or imagined, and show how they alter because of the events described in the book. My favorite novel of 2014, Ann Martin’s Reign Rain, presents a stellar example of the believable change in a protagonist. Here are some picture books, novels, and nonfiction that also exemplify this idea.

Picture Books

Unspoken by Henry Cole

“In artwork created only with charcoal, paper and pencil, Henry Cole immediately draws readers into his landscape with a dramatic cover image. A young girl walks away from a house holding a lantern. Her image draws readers to turn the page and see where she is headed. At the beginning of the story a group of Confederate soldiers, identified by their flag, pass by a farmhouse as this girl watches. With her faithful cat companion, our unnamed heroine feeds the chickens and does chores around the farm. Then on one arresting page, in the middle of stalks of corn, an eye appears. Obviously shaken, the girl runs back to her house. But then, in the middle of the night, she heads back with food wrapped in a checkered cloth. She comes again and again with more offerings.”

Imogene’s Last Stand by Candace Fleming

“Imogene Tripp, the heroine, lives in Liddleville, NH, a town so small it ‘wasn’t even a speck on the state map.’ Imogene loves history, and she constantly quotes from great historical speeches. As a kindergartner, she used show-and-tell to deliver the words of important women from the past. When older, she discovers the Liddleville Historical Society, an old house filled with antiques, ‘unloved and unwanted until Imogene pushed open its creaky front door.’ After restoring the society to order, Imogene discovers that the mayor intends to tear the building down—but unfortunately for him, Imogene proves a worthy opponent, one who repeats John Paul Jones’s line ‘I have not yet begun to fight!’”

The Iridescence of Birds by Patricia MacLachlan

“In an incredibly spare and lean picture book text, MacLachlan introduces us to young Henri Matisse, who lives in northern France where the skies are gray. But his mother decorates their humble home with flowers, color plates that she creates, and rugs that bring in brightness and light. She allows her son to mix colors and paint. He also helps raise pigeons, and his mother tells him that their color, which changes with the light, is called iridescence. And so Matisse became a painter of color and ‘light and movement and the iridescence of birds.’”

Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell

“In 2011 Patrick McDonnell published an exquisite picture book, Me . . . Jane, distinguished by writing, art, and design. The title page displays a girl clutching a stuffed chimpanzee, and we meet both Jane and Jubilee at the beginning of the text. Jane loves the natural world and explores it; she makes drawings and notes of all she observes. In this fascinating world, she stays in the barn to watch how chickens lay eggs—all with her companion Jubilee.  And she reads in trees, wonderful sagas of Tarzan, Jane, and the jungles of Africa. In a magical sequence, McDonnell shows Jane going to bed, saying her prayers, and dreaming of being in Africa helping animals. And then one day she wakes as an adult—and all her dreams have come true. She is Jane Goodall.”

I’m My Own Dog by David Ezra Stein

“On the first line of text this canine proudly exclaims ‘I’m my own dog. Nobody owns me. I own myself.’ This pooch is so proud that he will not sit on cue even if someone offers a bone. But all proud heroes have a tragic weakness, and in the case of our protagonist, an itch that he cannot scratch causes him to take a person home with him. Readers will watch with delight as a bond forms between an independent dog and the human whom he has adopted. And with one of those perfect picture book endings, the dog tells us ‘Between you and me, I’m his best friend.’”


The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes

“‘It was the first day of second grade and Billy Miller was worried,’ begins the saga. That summer Billy has had an accident that leaves a bump on his head. Possibly he won’t be smart enough for second grade. But his father, whom he calls Papa, thinks otherwise. He tells his son that this year will be the year of Billy Miller.”

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

“Living in Fentress, TX, in 1899, 11-year-old Callie Vee doesn’t excel in sewing or cooking, but she has a passion for science. Not really an acceptable calling for a girl in the 19th century, but her penchant truly makes her crotchety grandfather happy. He delights in providing Callie with information from a controversial book, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In their outdoor explorations, the two even discover a new plant, which they have scientifically verified by the Smithsonian. Callie’s voice, feisty and engaging, brings readers along in this saga, one that makes science seem like the most exciting passion a girl, or a grandfather, could ever have. The tension between what society and her mother expect of Callie and what she herself longs to do underscores the action of the novel. Callie emerges as an engaging young girl, whom readers want to succeed.”

Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord

“Beautifully written and executed, this gentle novel discusses some serious topics and moral dilemmas while telling a totally satisfying story. The book explores how a photograph permanently captures a moment in time, while real life never remains the same. If you have never encountered Cynthia Lord’s books, Half a Chance is a great place to begin. If, like me, you admire her as much as any writer for middle grade children today, the book will only increase your appreciation of her gifts. She never shows, but tells; she brings complex ideas into the range of children ages nine through twelve, and she relates stories with adventure, humor, and heart.”

Reign Rain by Ann Martin

“We meet Rose Howard, a fifth-grade girl with a hard road ahead of her. Diagnosed with Autism, Rose lives with her father, who has little money or patience to give her. Rose spends her days gathering homonyms and keeps a list of her treasures. Because she has no computer, she must write her list over and over, adding each new gem. And although her father often fails to understand her, Rose has been blessed with an uncle who spends a lot of time with her and provides emotional support. But one night her father brings home a stray dog for a pet. Rain does for Rose what devoted dogs have done for millions of children over the years: provides a source of understanding and love.”

The Cure for Dreaming by Cat Winters

“The protagonist, Olivia Mead, is one of the most appealing I have encountered in recent fiction. A young girl living in Portland, OR, in 1900, Olivia has taken up the cause of women’s suffrage; the Western part of the United States, in fact, gave women the vote long before 1920. But Olivia’s passion for women’s rights conflicts with her father’s stern and unbending sense of a woman’s place in the household. And he has become even more rigid after Olivia’s mother flees to New York to pursue her dream of acting.”

Narrative Nonfiction

Eleanor Roosevelt by Russell Freedman

“Of all of Russell’s biographies, I have always loved his Eleanor Roosevelt the best. Perfect for 10- to 14-year-olds—I needed this book as a child myself. I once made a fool of myself in class because I thought that “FDR” was a swear word—so vehemently was it used at home. Imagine my surprise to find out these initials acknowledged a president of the United States. Russell has always admitted that he loved FDR’s wife a bit more than he loved the president, and the resulting tribute to her certainly shows his enthusiasm.”

Claudette Colvin by Phillip Hoose

“A native of Birmingham, AL, Claudette Austin was named after the popular movie star Claudette Colbert. A rebellious teenager, she possessed a bit more courage than her peers. On March 2, 1955, in her high school in Montgomery, AL, she had been studying the Constitution of the United States. Going home that day, this young black woman did the unthinkable. When the bus driver yelled for her to yield her seat to a white woman, she refused to get up. ‘I was thinking. Why should I have to get up just because a driver tells me to, or just because I’m black? Right then, I decided I wasn’t gonna take it anymore. I hadn’t planned it out, but my decision was built on a lifetime of nasty experiences.’ Of course, in the South at this time, she was expected, even required, to defer to whites.”

With a unique career in children's books, Anita Silvey has served both as the editor of The Horn Book Magazine and publisher of a major children's book imprint. She is the author of several books, including Henry Knox: Bookseller, Soldier, Patriot and I’ll Pass For Comrade: Women Soldiers in the Civil War. Her latest project, The Children’s Book-a-Day Almanac, is an interactive website she describes as a “daily love letter to a book or author,” with each entry offering a glimpse into the story behind the story. Her columns are culled from the reviews on her website.

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