Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Book Review Club - Always October

Always October
Bruce Coville
Middle Grade

In breaking with my world tour of literature from Down Under to Italy, I decided on a good, ole-fashioned monster book that doesn't even take place in this world...much, Always October by Bruce Coville.

Admittedly, it would seem this has a Fall slant to it, but no!, Always October is another world, a world inhabited solely by monsters who arise from human nightmares. Ghoulish, right?

But no! not ghoulish, not entirely. The monsters are actually nice, some of them anyway.

Basic Plot: A baby is abandoned on Jacob's doorstep with a note asking that someone take care of it. Jacob and his mom take said baby in. He's sweet and adorable so they name him Little Dumpling. But alas, when the moon is full, Dumpling turns into a full-fledged monster.

Methinks Coville has spent many an hour with small children.

As it turns out, Little Dumpling isn't just your run of the mill abandoned on the doorstep monster-baby. He is actually the savior of the world of monsters and humans, and there are monsters out to get him. Jacob and his friend, Lily, must travel (are first chased, actually) to Always October, world of monsters, in an attempt to save Dumpling from the bad guys, only to discover they have to cross back into the world of humans and hide Dumpling to keep Always October and the human world from total annihilation. The journey there and back again is a monster-style Candy Land with a River of Doom and Bridge of Doom and Veil of Tears and Queen of Sorrow and CliffHouse.

The action and fast-moving plot aren't what made me choose this book for my review, though (or the need for a good horror read during the doldrums of summer!). It is Coville's use of alternating first person POV between Lily and Jacob. I was excited to find a middle grade with alternating POV. I'd tried the trick before myself, and I was eager to see what someone with Coville's writing chops had done comparatively.

To keep the characters and POV separate, each chapter is labeled (Jacob), (Lily), (Jacob), etc underneath the chapter title. Coville gives Lily a quirky metaphoric vocabulary with a decidedly B-horror movie bent, while Jacob has physical quirks, e.g. he has to tap the wall three times when going upstairs, or he taps his fingers against his thumb to calm down. It's a pretty ingenious approach, connecting with expressive trends within this middle grade age group.

Nevertheless, I found myself flipping back to the front of the chapter to remind myself who was narrating, and I began to wonder why. Why does alternating POV work seemingly so much more easily in YA vs. MG? I came up with a couple of possible reasons: 1) the dual characters in YA, as in this MG, tend to divide up along gender lines, but in the YA case, love enters into the dynamic, and so we readers get two different viewpoints on love. 2) It helps that in the dual YA I've read, somebody usually is turning into, say, a werewolf, or other monster. The human/monster dichotomy goes a long way in keeping characters separate. 3) I've also read adult lit with alternating POV when both characters are of the same gender. Usually, in that case, age tends to differentiate characters and their views of the world are thus seen through the lens of more or less life experience.

Despite these de facto differences that may make it easier to write more distinctly different older protagonists, I still believe alternating POV can work better in middle grade. I'd love to hear from anyone who has read Always October and whether they had the same experience, or if you've got a suggestion for a middle grade title in which the alternating POV worked well. I'm on the hunt!

For more great summer adventures, paddle (here in the midwest anyway) over to Barrie Summy's website!


Bee said...

I mostly read YA, and I have noticed how common the alternating POV has become! It has featured in 4 of the last books that I've read. Is the horror in this one actually horrific and gruesome -- or mostly just humorous?

Sarah Laurence said...

If Always October is as hilarious and smart as your review, it will be a big hit. You made me chuckle with insights such as "The human/monster dichotomy goes a long way in keeping characters separate." I appreciated your analysis too.

The only MG book with multiple perspectives that comes to mind is Wonder, which did work well but the characters were differentiated by age as well as gender. In YA Romance I think Simon Elkeles does a great job with alternating POV. They characters are boy/girl, Hispanic/white, poor/rich so that helps. Most multiple POV don't work because either the voices are too similar or you prefer one character over another. It's tough but adds a new dimension when done well.

Cloudbuster said...

You make some really great points about alternating POV. It's such a tricky thing to get right, and especially when you're writing Middle Grade I think your toolbox for differentiating characters is much more constrained for many of the reasons you point out. Great review! This book looks like something I would love.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Always October sounds like a really fun read for kids. Personally, I'm not overly fond of alternating first person POV, though it helps a lot when the chapters are labeled.

Barrie said...

Am getting this book immediately! I'd heard of it, but didn't realize it was written in multiple POVs. Which I'm trying in my current MG ms! The most recent MG with multiple POVs that I've read is Gordon Korman's Masterminds. He did a great job with the POVs (also labeling each chapter with that character's name). I never questioned whose chapter it was. Not once. From ages ago...The View from Saturday was also multiple POVs and really well done. Wonder, too as Sarah mentioned. I actually think it's becoming more popular in MG. Enough of my rambling...! :) Thanks for this great review. I'm really looking forward to reading this book.

Rose said...

I don't read YA or MG books, but you've raised some good points about the alternating point of view. It's so common in adult fiction that I don't even think about it. But when I was teaching (high school), I noticed that this was difficult for some readers. I would think middle school readers would have an even harder time following this.