Batty About Books is a place for my book buddy Kathy (aka @thebrainlair) and I to share our thoughts about a book we read together.
Last week we tackled the first half of What Came From the Stars by Gary Schmidt, and today we wrap up our discussion. My thoughts are here in purple, with Kathy's responses in blue. Kathy's blog - The Brain Lair - hosts her thoughts with my responses. Be sure to stop over there as well!
There are mild spoilers, though we tried to keep from ruining the story for anyone who hasn't read it.
Okay, overall I really did enjoy this book. The pace sped up a lot toward the end, and I had trouble a few times putting the book down so that I could jot down some notes for our chat! While it wasn’t a “perfect” read (mostly because I felt that the Valorim sections were a bit overloaded on the strange vocabulary which made it hard to read), I know I’ll have students who will enjoy this book. My students are accustomed to fantasy reads, and they generally have the stamina to get through early sections of the books that are more challenging, as long as they have a reasonable hope that they’ll start to put the pieces together soon.
Kathy: Overall I enjoyed it too! I had the same issue with the Valorim section. The language and similarity between names and places made it confusing so it didn’t add as much to the story as it could have. What I could get out of it was fascinating and emotional and I would have loved to be able to follow more of it.
Moving toward science fiction:
When I first read the synopsis of the book and saw it listed as science fiction, I expected a more “sciencey” first half. While the other world existed on another planet, the first half of the book still had a more fantasy feel to it. The chain as the embodiment of the Art of the Valorim is a very high fantasy type of feature. Likewise the warriors, the battles, etc. The second half still didn’t rise to what I would consider a serious science fiction novel, but it did include more information about things like space travel that helped me see why the book got that classification. This would be a great book to use for discussing the distinctions between the genres.
Kathy: Hm. I would think it would actually cause some issues for students. Is every book with space travel or time travel automatically science fiction? I would think it takes more than that. This is in the fantasy section of our library. It even has Fantasy listed on the CIP. What makes you think it’s scifi? Huh. I could have sworn I checked the inside and it said “science fiction”. I just went back and looked - at it was actually the classification system on Amazon that had it as SciFi. I would definitely put it with fantasy books, myself. I guess I went into this book LOOKING for science fiction tie-ins because of that preconceived notion. With that said, there are books and movies that seem to cross over the genre lines (like Star Wars, for example).
Glorifying Art - high talents
I love the way all different types of talents are accentuated by the chain. The gift of rhetoric and debate, the use of paint and pencils, sharpened memories, and even the way you catch a football. All types of special skills should be seen as valuable contributions, and I liked this aspect of the story.
Kathy: Reminds me of the good old days when schools valued multiple intelligence. I’m lucky to be at a school that values both athletics and academics - though it would be awesome to have it spelled out better like Schmidt does here. I would love to sit in on one of his classes.
The purpose of Art:
It was only a short scene, but I think the discussion between Mr. PilgrimWay and Tommy about the purpose of Art on page 182 would be an awesome jumping off point for a class. Obviously, I think the kids would understand that Art shouldn’t be used for personal power (though it often is, especially the arts of rhetoric and persuasion). But what IS the reason for these special talents? How should they be used, and who should benefit from them?
Kathy: Whoa! Talents. Love it. Do we all have them? Do you know what your’s is? Would you want to trade with someone? Are there any special talents that run in your family.
The Characters: I think we talked a lot about how easy it was to see and understand Tommy in the first half discussion. That continues to be true, but I’d like to point out the way some of the minor characters enhance how I experienced the story here.
Mrs. MacReady (the secretary who wasn’t paid to do that.)
Okay, really.... she just cracks me up. What a great example of the use of repetition and a simple phrase to build in some comedic relief. It was the same kind of role that Mrs. Lumpkin had in the first half of the book.
Kathy: Such a great name! You could also point out the way he uses repetition to get a laugh and the way he uses it to emphasize a serious point - as he does in the scenes on Ethelim. I also think a case could be made for it’s overuse.
I really wish we’d gotten to see a bit more of the father, though I do understand he wasn’t the main focus of the tale. The little glimpses we had of him were so moving. I loved how he found ways to build little beautiful family rituals like watching the waves together. I like how he was able to back off of Tommy and give him space, and how he brought the blanket out to put around his shoulders. This is a father who is in touch with deeper emotions, which is a wonderful role model for any boys who read it. It’s also a great model for girls to see that men can have that depth to them.
Kathy: This is a rarity in MG literature. Really, most literature for children, you don’t see the parents and what you do see is flat. Here is Peter Pepper (the names are so awesome in this book) raising two young children alone and he is doing it compassion and his full presence. Bravo, Mr. Schmidt.
Here we have a woman who doesn’t appear in the story, but the echo of her presence is one of the most important things in it. I love the scene where Tommy sees her in the waves, though it damn near broke my heart. It just seems so clear that there isn’t a single moment when Tommy isn’t affected by her memory and her loss. Without spoilers, this is also one of the reasons I was deeply emotionally impacted by the end of the story. I also have a student who recently lost a parent, and I thought about that child a lot while reading this book.
Kathy: The things Tommy imagines her saying goes a long way towards developing her character for us. Schmidt has skills.
The writing style:
Since the majority of the book switched back and forth between a high fantasy and a more realistic writing style, the point at which the two styles blended into one really jumped out at me. I wonder, though, if this will be effective for all readers. Today, while on Twitter, Kathy made a comment about how Tommy’s name changed to Tommin briefly, and that it was confusing. When I looked back in my notes, that is exactly the page (237) when I had made a note about the blending of the styles. I liked it, but I think it has the potential to be pretty confusing for kids.
Again - without spoilers (I know there are friends out there who haven’t read the book yet, and maybe they want to read this post too!).... I loved the way the two segments of the book both ended with the “lighted stars”. The symmetry of the endings was lovely. The epilogue (“Testament”) part didn’t thrill me. I could have lived without that entirely, as I felt the way the other two segments ended really rounded off the story perfectly.
Kathy: Wait, did you just call me a kid??? I was so into the story (Confession: I didn’t even take notes on this half) and the battle that I was caught off guard and pulled out of the story. You mention that you liked it but you also noted it. So it did cause you to pause. I’m so used to reading ARCs that I thought I was reading one, and they’d made a mistake. There wasn’t enough of the blending for me. We’d already had Tommy saying some of the foreign words so I was used to that. I mention in my response that I think Schmidt should have included more blending or kept it up longer or even not switched back, just stayed that way to show the story.
I loved how the “lighted stars” showed the connection also. I think the otherworld part of the story would have benefited from more of that - how the actions of Tommy and crew affected what was happening. I liked the epilogue! Though, on my side I wanted it to be at the beginning. Like a broken record, I repeat that it would have helped me get into the story faster. The names and places all seemed to make a little bit more sense after having read The Testament.
Final Note: READ THE GLOSSARY! Not just because it will help you understand the odd words, but for its own merits. Trust me on this.
Kathy: TOMBRADISIND. Loved that.
There you have it, my friends! What Came From the Stars was a feast of beautiful language and fascinating characters. While the otherworld setting had some confusing parts which might be challenging for younger middle grade students, the love I felt for Tommy and his family made this a story I'll be happy to pass on to my stronger readers.