Saturday, February 1, 2014

Characters You Love to Hate

In my "Giving Voice to the Voiceless" class we were told: "To be heard is to have power over one's life. To be silenced is to have that power denied. Throughout history many have been silenced and children most of all." In this course, the goal is to read "young adult and middle grade novels where authors have given voice to the truly voiceless, where speaking is not possible or perhaps permitted, and study how the creators of these texts created an authentic narrative experience so that we can apply the same approaches in our own writing." So far this has been a great experience, and I have loved every book we have read. This past week I was assigned to read the book Silent to the Bone by E.L. Konigsburg.

 What is Between the Covers?
Silent to the Bone was a challenge for me because the author chose to allow the narrator to have a very mature mindset, despite being only thirteen. While it was a challenge to picture this young boy speaking the way he did and having such a large vocabulary, Konigsburg painted a perfect picture of a child with highly educated parents (his father was the registrar at the local university). This allowed the character to be believable. I loved the word choice. It's a breath of fresh air to read characters that have a large vocabulary. It seemed that most of the characters were well educated and through my reading I was able to learn a great deal. 

Connor captivated me from the beginning. Branwell Zamborska, one of the main characters, is the best friend of Connor, the narrator. After an incident involving Branwell's baby half-sister Nikki being sent to the hospital and put on life support, Branwell stops speaking. A mystery surrounds what happened that day and the young au pair, Vivian, paints an ugly picture of Branwell's unnatural obsession with his little sister and claims that Branwell shook and then purposefully dropped Nikki. Branwell is sent to Clarion County Juvenile Behavior Center where his only visitor is Connor. Connor has to figure out a way to communicate with his best friend, and through their communication he begins to untangle the web the Vivian has cleverly created.  

What Did I Think?

 I tend to latch onto a story when there is a character I can hate, and that character was Vivian. Once I figured out that Vivian was a young woman and not a Mary Poppins or Mrs. Doubtfire type of nanny, I disliked her even more. As the story played out and I discovered that she had Morris over while Nikki was sleeping or that she paid no mind to Branwell being there, the fire only grew. I truly enjoy when an author can create a villain like this and not overdo it. Some in other books seem somewhat overdone, but Vivian reminds me so much of these women I'm seeing on CNN lately---using sexuality to get ahead or out of trouble. 

Konigsburg uses physical signals to reveal more about Vivian as a character.Her physical signals were more angering than anything she \said. Examples: “Vivian had another cigarette with her coffee. I volunteered to light it for her. She held my wrist again. Same wrist. Same place. And then before I pulled my wrist away, she smiled shyly and lip-synced, “Thank you, Connor.” (108) Here she is playing with the emotions of a prepubescent kid. It makes one wonder if she acts this way with Connor, how did she act with Branwell—this question is revealed later in the book. 

She knows she can get her way with men, yet we don't actually see her attempt this with any grown men other than Morris, who obviously is infatuated with her because he lets her stay with him. Maybe Vivian's powers only go so far, and she can only control the younger men; however, it's evident that if a male is around, she will get what she wants. She seems obsessed with being the center of it all. Why hold his wrist in such a way? The focus must be on her. 

Another example: "Vivian laid her wineglass down on the coffee table and took a small handful of peanuts in her right hand. She opened her hand and studied the peanuts for what seemed like a minute before choosing one" (93); “Vivian plucked a single peanut from the bowl and held it between her thumb and forefinger and studied it for a while. […] Vivian put that peanut—no, placed that peanut—on her tongue and slowly closed her lips” (98). NO ONE EATS PEANUTS LIKE THAT. It was at this point I began to feel sick. I was ready for Margaret, whom I believe was my favorite, to slap her in the face and knock those peanuts to the floor. Once again, through physical movements and signals, Vivian is taking the heat of the crime off of her and attempting to get the focus on her sexuality.  

How Did This Help My Writing?

I have a little trouble creating a villain that doesn't come straight from a cookie cutter. It was so great to watch how Vivian began as an au pair, a character who wasn't mentioned much in the beginning, to a character who became front and center in Branwell and Connor's mission to show the truth of what happened to Nikki. It was Vivian's motions, rather than her words, that made her seem like a predator. These slow motions of having Connor light her cigarette, or how she treated Branwell in regards to the Jack-and-Jill bathroom in Branwell's home, showed that actions read more loudly than dialogue. 

Konigsburg tackled scenes that allowed me to challenge my own writing. There is a particular scene where it is revealed that Vivian truly does use her sexuality to control Branwell. This scene was a difficult one to digest. I can only imagine attempting to write it as tastefully, yet honestly, as Konigsburg did. How Vivian acts when being watched versus how she acts when she thinks she is not, plays into the recurring messages that all is not as it seems. When Branwell finally speaks and reveals who Vivian truly is, I was ready with my pitchfork and torch to attack. Vivian was definitely a character I loved to hate.

 Do I Recommend This?

Whether it's for pleasure or an assignment, Konigsburg has painted a captivating picture of two friends from worlds that children don’t read about often. It has become the norm for kids to talk in text lingo or pepper sentences with expletives, however these two boys enjoyed using larger words that needed to be defined. This would be a great read for a middle school or early high school student and is loaded with juicy words that sometimes Connor unveils for readers, but other times it is up to the reader to thirst for more and pull out Webster's.

Using the Techniques in Your Writing 

Think of someone you love to hate and use them as the basis for a character. Change the character's age, gender, and identifying details. Come up with a situation where the character's true colors are revealed through subtle actions.

Ties to Leap Books

A recent release, Deep in the Meadows by Lisa M. Cronkhite, has a character you may love to hate. Read it online and tell us which character or characters you thought were creepiest and you'll win a chance to get a free Leap Book.


Courtney Warren is a writer for her local newspaper, as well as a graduate student at Hollins University where she is pursuing a degree in Children’s Literature. She has a bachelor’s degree from Delta State University, the home of the Fighting Okra (which she is incredibly proud of). She loves to read just about anything placed on the shelves but has a special place in her heart for the Harry Potter series.

When she is not writing about herself in third person, she loves to write stories about middle schoolers with spunky attitudes who intend to save the world, as well as drinking Earl Grey tea from a very prissy teacup.

Check out her blog, Tea, the Spirit, & a Pen.

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