This book received the Newbery in 1997, the year my son started sixth grade. He was in an advanced program and on the math team. I was a bit of a nerd myself at that age (Who am I kidding? I’m STILL a nerd), winning the science fair and the spelling bee. I could SO relate to the Academic Bowl team in this story (from page 148, “Here were four kids who could speak in complete sentences without a single you-know as filler”). I think my son and his classmates could as well.
Nevertheless, even though its reading level is grade 4-5, the structure of the book will be daunting for many even-older readers, because it’s not linear and it is not plot-driven. E. L. (Elaine Lobl) Konigsburg ties together the first-person narratives of the four sixth-grade Academic Bowl team members (who call themselves "The Souls"), Noah, Nadia, Ethan, and Julian (who are interconnected in other ways), with the third-person limited story of their coach and teacher, the wheelchair-bound widow Mrs. Olinski, and an overall third-person omniscient tale of the team’s progress in Academic Bowl competition.
In “The View From Saturday: A conversation with E.L. Konigsburg, winner of the 1997 Newbery Medal” by Judy Hendershot and Jackie Peck (Reading Teacher, May 1998), Konigsburg says,
When I got to where Julian was telling Ethan about the B and B, I remembered that I had in my files a story about a young man named Noah whose mother insists that he write his grandparents a bread and butter letter, a B and B letter. That made me remember another story about a dog named Ginger that plays the part of Sandy in the play Annie. And that led me to another story about an Academic Bowl team. Before I had finished my walk, I realized that all those short stories were united by a single theme. Taken together, they reinforced one another, and the whole became more than the sum of the parts.
...all of my books deal with a child's search for identity....children want two things at the same time: They want acceptance for what makes them the same, and they want acceptance for what makes them different from everyone else. That conflict between those two needs reaches a climax at the age of 12. When I was growing up, it probably was age 14, but I think it's now 12. That problem of wanting acceptance for being different from everyone else and wanting to be the same is a strong conflict. I can continue to write for children because the basic problem has not changed.
Although never explained in the story, I think the meaning of the title is in the way the students’ bonding at tea on Saturdays at Sillington House gave them a different view of the world. Ethan says,
Something in Sillington House gave me permission to do things I had never done before. Never even thought of doing. Something there triggered the unfolding of those parts that had been incubating. Things that had lain inside me, curled up like the turtle hatchlings newly emerged from their eggs, taking time in the dark of their nest to unfurl themselves. I told jokes I had never told before. I asked questions I had never asked before....When it was my turn to tell what day I would like to live over...The Souls...were not embarrassed to hear, and I was not embarrassed to say, "I would like to live over the day of our first tea party. And, look," I added, "every Saturday since, I get to do just that." (page 93)
And near the end of the book (page 157), Julian’s father says to Mrs. Olinski:
“The Souls…found on their journeys what you found at Sillington House.”
“A cup of kindness, Mr. Singh? Is that what I found?”
“Kindness, yes, Mrs. Olinski....found kindness in others and learned how to look for it in themselves.”
In her Newbery acceptance speech, Konigsburg said, “A person must experience kindness to recognize it. He must recognize it in order to develop it. Being kind makes us kind....there is a critical age by which we must experience kindness to be kind. And that critical age is before adolescence. That critical age is in the cruelest year — grade six.”
The book subtly and gracefully deals with issues of race and disability as well. It’s sometimes sad and often funny. It was very amusing how Konigsburg tied in questions they received in Academic Bowl competitions with the team members’ individual narratives.
The book is filled with wonderful similes and metaphors; for example, Ethan describing Julian on page 66: "His skin was the color of strong coffee with skim milk-not cream-added." Nadia says (on page 26) her “Grandpa Izzy's eyes are bright blue like the sudden underside of a bird wing." On page 64, Ethan says the Sillington place “is a huge old farmhouse that has had so many add-ons it looks like a cluster of second thoughts." My favorite on page 23 compared painting Nadia without her freckles as “like brushing the cinnamon off cinnamon toast.”
A teacher could use examples from this book to study these figures of speech as well as other vocabulary and cultural references, and the use of humor, flashback, irony, perspective, and point of view (the "view" from Saturday?). I enjoyed a book with a positive view on academic excellence written by an author who doesn’t write “down” to her readers and believes they can understand her. The unabridged audiobook really contributed to the story, with a full cast of separate voices for each team member, Mrs. Olinski, and the overall narrator.
[Cross-posted at my book blog, Bookin' It.]