Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Book of the Week: SAVVY by Ingrid Law

Did you have a nice Thanksgiving, Esteemed Reader? Are you worn out from Black Friday shopping? Not me. I avoid stores at all costs on Black Friday, which means I miss out on amazing bargains, but am less likely to be trampled to death by folks trying to reach toasters at half off. The Ninja is willing to pay full price for his toaster and considers the extra money spent to be purchasing the right not to have to shop among the insane hordes.

This week we’re back in business to discuss Savvy, one of my new favorite middle grade novels, and Thursday one of my new favorite authors Ingrid Law will be here to face the 7 Questions (yea!). And Saturday we’ll have a surprise literary agent drop by to see us.

I’ve got a lot to say about Savvy and there’s no way we’re going to get through it all. I highlighted so many passages to share with you that if I reproduced them all, you probably wouldn’t need to read the book. So we’ll dispense with the review early: Savvy is a fantastic read and should be enjoyed by anyone who likes middle grade fiction, and I assume that’s you, Esteemed Reader, or you wouldn’t be here. There’s a reason it was recognized by the Newberry and has become a best-seller, and if you’re a writer hoping to duplicate Savvy’s level of success, you need to read this book. You also need to tune in on Thursday to read Ingrid Law’s advice to writers.

Here is one of the finest opening lines in a book for adults or children I have ever read:  

When my brother Fish turned thirteen, we moved to the deepest part of inland because of the hurricane and, of course, the fact that he’d caused it.

It would take a tremendous dullard not to want to read beyond that first sentence to find out just how a thirteen-year-old boy is capable of causing a hurricane. And by the time you get far enough along to find that out, Law’s got her hooks into you and you will finish the book.

There’s not a chapter in Savvy that ends without leaving an unanswered question in the reader’s mind or otherwise builds expectation in the reader about coming events. The reader is like Al Pacino in The Godfather Part III: Every time he thinks he’s out, Law pulls him back in. That’s sort of an odd reference to drop in a blog about children’s books, but I’m just going to go with it.

There’s something different about the Beaumont family, our narrator, twelve-going-on-thirteen Mississippi Beaumont tells us. On their thirteenth birthday, a Beaumont child discovers their “savvy,” which is actually an old slave word I don’t know the meaning of and am too lazy to Google, but in the context of this story it means “mutant super power,” like the ability to control electricity (or grow andamantium claws). Fish is a non-Haley-Berry Storm and that’s why he caused the hurricane.

I wish I could tell you that all of this super-power having led to a galatic battle between heroes, but that’s another story. Here, the powers, or savvy’s (savvies?), though used as super-powers, are metaphors for something more true to life. Here’s a passage I think clears up all you need to know about savvy’s and their metaphorical significance:

Momma said that lots and lots of ordinary folk have a savvy, but most simply don’t recognize it for what it is. “Some people know they feel different, Mibs,” Momma told me. “But most don’t know quite what makes them that way. One person might make strawberry jam so good that no one can get enough of it. Another might know just the right time to plant corn so it’s juicy and sweet as sugar on the hottest day of the summer.” Momma had laughed then, and I wasn’t too sure if she was telling me the truth or pulling my leg. “There are even folks who never get splashed by mud after a rainstorm or bit by a single mosquito in the summertime.”

But as I grew up, I began to understand that a savvy is just a know-how of a different sort. Some people get called whiz kid or prodigy because they can do puzzles or play music better than anyone’s supposed to, or they can recite the numbers of pi, 3.141592653… on and on for hours without a hitch. There are those who can run fast and win medals, and others who can talk anyone into buying anything at all. Those things are all just a special kind of know-how.

Ingrid Law’s savvy is writing books better than most of us. There are tons of points I want to make about Law’s craft, but as I see we are already halfway done, I’m going to limit myself to just three. The first is that she is every bit as much a master of the set up/pay off as Bob Gale or J.K. Rowling. Bob Gale, for those of you who don’t know, wrote the Back to the Future movies with director Robert Zemeckis.

Almost everything in the first half of a Back to the Future movie is dropping in bits of seemingly unrelated information, such as a flier for the town’s clock tower having been struck by lightning years ago, that pay off huge in the second half. As for Rowling, she spent two novels introducing us to Scabbers the friendly rat only to reveal a huge pay off in the third Harry Potter novel that is perhaps the most amazing and unexpected twist I have ever read in any book.

In the first chapter of Savvy, Law drops in a bit of info about Mibs's little brother Samson and his pet turtle. No one has the heart to tell Samson his turtle is dead and they let him go on feeding it. This is sort of humorous (if you’re not the turtle, that is) and it characterizes Samson nicely, and that’s all there is to it… for a time. Law goes on to tell us about other interesting things and to introduce other characters.

Just before Mississippi’s, or Mibs’, thirteenth birthday she is told how: Poppa’s car had gotten crushed up bad, like a pop can under a cowboy boot, and how he’d gone and forgotten to get out before it happened, landing himself in a room and a bed at Salina Hope Hospital, where now he lay broken and asleep, not able to wake up. Therefore, Mibs’s birthday is to be held at the church, which could be a disaster as Mibs has no idea what her savvy will turn out to be. It could be dangerous, and whatever it will be, she doesn’t want it to be public knowledge.

The morning of her birthday, Mibs discovers Samson’s turtle is moving again. Could it be her savvy is the power to raise the dead and/or comatose? I’m not going to tell you if she’s right or not as it would spoil the story, but in any case, Mibs hides in the back of a Bible salesman’s bus with friends and they set out for Salina Hope Hospital so Mibs can wake up Poppa.

Now Law could have waited to tell us that Samson’s turtle has been comatose the morning its awake, but it wouldn’t have the same impact if she had. It’s better when the reader knows something and then is surprised with new information in a set up/pay off. Some characters have tattoes, which seems like mear characterization until… but I’ve promised not to spoil. Still, it is fascinating to see how Law is able to establish a villain over several chapters before she is actually physically introduced to the story through a method I would again have to spoil the book to reveal.

My second point, or observation, is that Savvy is a prime example of how to successfully discuss religion in a mainstream story intended for readers of all different faiths (or lack thereof), without marking the book as “religious.” There is nothing more irritating than a story that serves only as a vehicle for some important “message,” which is a problem that plagues much religious fiction. I’m looking at you, Left Behind. People who agree with the important message may love the book, but the writer is risking alienating readers who do not agree and were hoping for just a good story, not a sermon.

For a non-religious example of irritating, on-point writing that creates a hollow shell of a story that serves only to reinforce a particular philosophy, see the collected works of Ayn Rand, which focus on a message so misguided surely no one could take it seriously as to do so could lead to financial policies that wreck the economy and create a small number of elites with such great wealth and influence they could purchase our democracy and subvert our government. Wait, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan was an objectivist and devotee of Ayn Rand the entire time he was making major economic decisions? Dang it! You’ve won this round, Rand!

Unlike the dreadful Ayn Rand, the wonderful Ingrid Law does not preach. Many writers simply avoid the subject of religion altogether in middle grade fiction, which is fine. But the Ninja lives in the Bible Belt and grew up in youth group and knows that a majority of Americans come from a somewhat similar background. And for people in general, religious beliefs and religious activities (whatever they may be) play such a huge role in day to day life that to leave them out of fiction would be to leave out a huge part of who human beings are at this time in our history.

Law introduces religion into her novel only as a means of characterization. Savvy isn’t a religious story, but rather a story that contains some religion—and to be fair, could serve as a religious metaphor, but only if the reader so chooses to interpret it in that way. Characters go to church, they pray, and they even ride around in a Bible bus, but it is not imperative that the reader do any of these things to relate to them. Here is a excerpt revealing some of Mibs thoughts on God that convey a sentiment I believe most atheists could relate to:

“…Don’t you worry, Mibs, I have connections.” Miss Rosemary pointed one finger up to the ceiling, though I guessed she was really pointing up toward heaven. Apparently, she was going to get God to help her plan my party. I figured God had much, much better things to do, like keeping people from starving to death or from killing each other, or helping my poppa, and so I hoped He’d just stay out of it.

And that’s it, Esteemed Reader. Be sure to check back on Thursday when Ingrid Law will be here to face the 7 Questions and on Saturday when we’ll have a surprise literary agent. What’s that? Oh, I promised three points and I only made two? But this review is already so long and I wasted so much time with that Ayn Rand stuff. Okay, fine.

My third point, or observation, is that Law also has a savvy for writing great descriptions. She reaches far and beyond to find similes that are fresh and interesting without ever laboring them and she does this as a finishing touch after crafting an excellent story that hooks the reader from start to finish. I’ll leave you with some of my favorites:

Rain pelted us like gravel thrown by a playground bully...

The itty-bitty town of Bee, Nebraska, was just about the size of a yellow striped bumbler; it could buzz right by you if you blinked too slow.

...a grinning giggle spread through the ranks, turning into a gut-busting crackup as the day's tension released like waves hitting shore.

I felt as though someone had punched me in the stomach and pulled out all my bones, turning me into a queasy, useless blob of Jell-O.

(when Mibs is faced with a boy who wants to do some snogging--MGN) Will looked back at me, startled, and I kept my heart muscle strong, feeling something inside me shiver like a pale green flower shoot just waking up for spring. But whatever that thing was, it was still too new to feel ready to bloom; it wanted time to send down roots. Someday soon I was going to bloom like crazy, and then I'd have what I needed to keep me standing tall.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.


  1. I had the pleasure of reading Savvy a couple of months ago. It was an amazing read and yes the descriptive writing is masterful. For someone who has never been in the USA it sure felt like reading a modern version of those classic western movies in setting and language. It is a beautifully told story and I gobbled up the sequel Scumble with the same relish!

  2. Just me, Robert, wishing you a Merry holidays. Keep reading and reviewing--what you are doing for books and authors is AWESOME,

  3. Rob, caught up with your reviews on Goodreads today. You are an amazing reviewer! Thanks for putting in all the time and effort to unlock the secrets of these books.

    (And isn't the cover of Savvy totally amazing!)

    Hope all is well.



Thanks for stopping by, Esteemed Reader! And thanks for taking the time to comment. You are awesome.