That Was Awesome! Writers on Writing

Voice and Ecstatic Moments in Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You The Sun

What makes a book memorable? If you ask ten people, you may get ten different answers. Personally, I don’t really fall in love with places or descriptions. I didn’t even fall in love with plots. I fall in love with characters—with their insights and angst, their unique way of seeing the world, all of the elements that make up a character’s Voice. When I’m enamored with characters’ Voices, I’ll follow them blindly wherever they go.

For me, no book captures Voice better than Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You The Sun. This contemporary young adult novel is the story of artist twins (a brother, Noah and a sister, Jude) whose relationship degrades right around the time they lose their mother in a tragic accident. The story is told in alternating points of view, and through their individual accounts of events, we begin to put together the pieces of how their relationship unraveled. In the hands of any other writer, this story might have been mundane. The plot itself is not particularly unique, and at times, the novel was a little predictable.

But what Nelson does with Voice blows my mind. This gifted writing is particularly evident in the chapters told by Noah, a young, teenaged boy starting to explore his sexuality all the while witnessing his parents’ crumbling marriage.

I’ve concluded that it’s not raining on Mom. I find her on the deck smoking (she’s not a smoker) as if under an invisible umbrella, always with the phone to her ear, not saying anything, just swaying and smiling like someone’s playing her music on the other ends. I find her humming (she’s not a hummer) and jingling (she’s not a jingler) throughout the house, down the street, up the bluff in her new circus cloths and bangles, her own private sunbeam enclosing her while the rest of us grip the walls and furniture so we don’t wash away.

It’s not just Noah’s sensitive, artistic observations that distinguish his character. Noah’s impressions and thoughts pick up speed, race to the edge of a cliff, and almost teeter over. It is these ecstatic moments that take I’ll Give You The Sun to a whole other level. For example, when he believes that his sister has kissed the boy he is madly in love with, Noah falls apart:

It’s like having explosives on board 24/7, the way I feel. I can’t believe when I touch things they don’t blow to bits. I can’t believe I was so way off.
I thought, I don’t know. I thought wrong.
So wrong.
I do what I can. I turn each of Jude’s doodles I find around the house into a murder scene. I use the most hideous deaths from her Stupid How Would You Rather Die? game. A girl being shoved out a window, knifed, drowned, buried alive, strangled by her own hands. I spare no detail.
I also put slugs in her socks.
Dip her toothbrush in the toilet bowl. Every morning.
Pour vinegar into the glass of water by her bed.
But the worst part is that for the few minutes every hour when I’m not psychopathic, I know that to be with Brian: I would give all ten fingers. I would give everything.
(Self Portrait: Boy Rowing Madly Back Through Time)

I don’t write straight contemporary… at least not yet. My stories are sci-fi / cli-fi and my newest work in progress is paranormal, but I know that there is much to be learned from Noah—from a character whose world is made up of self portraits, daydreams and fantasies. Regardless of what genre you write, characters who jump off the page are memorable. Characters who Voices describe the world in unique and unusual ways affect readers.

The Realm of Calm’s been sucked back into his index finger and now he looks like he eats human livers. Sauteed with eyeballs and toe tips.

It’s been months since I read I’ll Give You The Sun, but I have not forgotten Noah’s words or the way he talked about his feelings. When someone mentions the book, I get shivers down my spine. When I get upset, I will forever imagine puking the florescent blue puke that Jude puked, that no one saw, but Noah.

Shari Becker was born in Montreal, Quebec, and was raised speaking both English and French. As a child, she spent her summers in the Adirondack Mountains catching fireflies, minnows, and toads. She has an MA from New York University and has worked for Nickelodeon, for Disney-owned companies, and even for an Emmy Award–winning puppeteer. She is the author of two picture books, including Maxwell’s Mountain, a Junior Library Guild Selection and Charlotte Zolotow Honor Book. Her novel The Stellow Project is available now from Skyscape.


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