Friday, September 19, 2008

Where Are We, Anyway?

I've said here before that I don't hear a lot about a "sense of place" in children's books. I don't necessarily notice it much in my reading of children's and YA literature, either. But two books I read recently had it in spades.

By sense of place I don't mean that readers necessarily recognize the book's setting because they've been there and really do recognize descriptions of places they've seen for themselves. After all, a book has the potential to be read by thousands of people, and it's not likely that they'll all have been to the scene of the action. To me, a strong sense of place makes me feel as if I'm in a place, even if I've never been there in real life.

The Postcard by Tony Abbott definitely made me feel Florida while I was reading it. Of course, by "feeling Florida" I mean feeling what I think Florida feels like, since I've only been there twice and only seen much of the state once. The light, the heat, the "old Florida" locations not only seemed real to me, but attractive. While I was reading The Postcard, I felt I should consider a trip to the sunshine state, a trip that didn't need to include Orlando.

Maureen Johnson makes the New York City setting of Suite Scarlett seem very real and very attractive. And, again, I have no great knowledge of New York. I have to admit, when I take the train into NYC and start seeing those long, unending streets from my window, I immediately think, Dear merciful Creator! I am entering the Kingdom of Darkness! Please provide me with a guide (cab driver) through the shadows and preserve me until I see the light of New Haven again sometime between three and six this afternoon! But Johnson's characters move about what sounds like a real city in total comfort to a rubish reader like myself.

The kind of you-are-there feeling I'm talking about isn't easy to do. It's not uncommon to read books that use a famous place as a sort of quick and dirty backdrop for the story's action. You also see books in which authors have to stop whatever they're doing to describe a museum or a palace. It's not every writer who really can make readers feel a setting instead of just mechanically see it or, perhaps, ignore it altogether.



Anonymous Tony Abbott said...

Hi, Gail. I want to thank you for your keen review of The Postcard recently and for mentioning it again here; your critique, about its being too full, is very likely right on. It was a kitchen-sink novel for me and I found myself putting in just about everything I wanted to read about. Not that I regret writing it that way. I fancy some readers just might go for the plumpness. Anyway, thanks. I mention your comment on my blog (, which you don't have to search unless you have far too much time on your hands.

4:41 PM  
Blogger Jeannine said...

Ah, sense of place. We just read Charlotte's Web in the children's literature course I teach. What a setting. But I was a bit taken aback when a student called it historical; most seemed to think it impossible that such a barn might still exist, and I don't mean one with talking animals. Going, going, but I hope not completely gone. --Jeannine Atkins

10:00 AM  
Blogger gail said...

Oh, Tony, I'm always happy to go wandering through the Internet looking for whatever I can find. Otherwise, I'd just be working.

I think that most books disappear from the public consciousness incredibly quickly. So whenever something catches my eye and interest I try to mention it here. If I have a chance to bring it up a second time, I'll often do that, too. It's my little literary mission.

Jeannine--So they could accept talking animals but not a barn? That is interesting.

5:55 PM  
Blogger Bibliovore said...

Hey Gail

I love books with a sense of place. I was introduced to the concept by a keynote speech from Gary Soto, who famously sets many of his books in Fresno and uses so much detail that there have been Gary Soto location maps published for tourists.

New York City is a favorite of many writers, but you can always tell the natives by what they talk about--not the capitalized buildings and streets but the cool little things that only somebody who lived and loved it.

My favorite city is Tucson, Arizona, and thus one of my favorite books is the Arizona Kid by Ron Koertge. Unfortunately, I've never found another.

Have you ever read a book with a made-up setting (not just Nowheresville, Iowa, but a fantasy world) that also managed to have that sense of place? I wonder how it would be managed?


11:45 PM  

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