Since watching Nostalgia Critic’s review of “Bridge to Terabithia” link to video is below, feel free to watch at your discretion…
I feel its right to give credit where credit is due as to what prompted me to write this article topic in the first place.
Since watching it, the premise of the movie (the less we say about its shitty attempt to make itself a stupid “Narnia” movie rip-off in the trailers the better-I still haven’t forgiven the movie for that!) and the source material from which it was based off of, got me back into thinking about the book and many other young adult novels like it. That were described as emotionally, deep, gritty and realistic stories about a young child that learned the lessons of life, death, and love in probably a week then most kids learn for a whole lifetime in reality.
But I’m not going to discuss the review from the movie-adapted by a book standpoint or the movie itself. That is left for movie reviewers to decide. No, instead we will focus on the booknerd’s POV on the literary side of the book itself, and a subject which you maybe heard called “Death By Newbury Award Medal” genre.
Death By Newbury Award Medal
These stories have at the very least a predictable and sometimes generalization that has become a strategic writing formula into itself: The atypical average, blank-slate adolescent boy probably living in a small town/suburbanite area, who is socially awkward but loyal to his family and really a kindhearted person but lacks the courage or self-confidence to maintain his convictions or to really survive the Gray morality of real-life beyond his small town conservative bubble.
One thing I noticed especially in the beginning, was how alot of these settings took place in small-town rural “hick” areas, where it seems like the typical things that would normally happen in a small-town the same as any modern city, are suddenly ditched or swept away because, “Hey it’s a small-town, we’re simple we can get away with stuff like that.” like lack of parental supervising, law enforcement, or that as I brought up in the book “Shiloh”, medical professionals are forced to do extra jobs in fields untrained in other areas, putting both them, and the other at risk in uncertain treatments. Whereas if it’s a rural farm area, you know they would have at least one Veterinarian present for farm animals. As a young girl who did live in a small town, it was silly to see how our communities were portrayed in these books, and compare them to how some of our own small town communities were like in actuality. At one point, I wondered if any of them had been to a modern day small-town or did they just cheat and watch “The Andy Griffith Show” to get inspiration.
They meet a pet-usually a dog, or a quirky best friend, that opens this “quiet shy introverted boy” to all that life has to offer, in a Hallmark-Made-for-TV like journey into self-discovery. Most books have branched out to young girls as well, but the “Boy and his dog” cliche could always be found in these types of stories always wrapped around each other.
And everything is fine until something bad happens and the sudden loss of the dog archetype or the best friend, makes the boy (or girl, in the more modern day versions came to be) come face to face with the concept of death and his character development stems from his maturity into manhood by dealing with this overwhelming loss and pain in all categories both Psychologically, Emotionally, Physically, Spiritually, and Mentally.
Now in real life, these things especially for a child at a young age do not just suddenly obtain all these things in realizations and handle them well with a bittersweet happy ending all at once. And above all so quickly, that is usually the instance of the writer shortening up the story because of time. In real life, some of these instances can still have a long lingering impact on the child, either scarring them for life or reflect in ways not always represented in the books’ endings.
Its common for children’s stories to use animals as a means of the child developing a connection and life-long friendship that helps shape them. Animals have been known to have a deeper connection to humans and been useful in therapeutic cases with those suffering from social anxiety, depression, and other such issues. Children gravitate towards animals because of their ability to be non-commutative in the verbal sense of human beings. They can’t talk back, so children will talk and engage with them, with only the animal to listen and not in a bad mishandling attempt to talk back, judge, or offer unsolicited advice to the child.
And most often, the death of a pet is the first experience a child has in dealing with issues of life after death and their own mortality. Which is why I can understand writers using this writing formula, but when its been overused constantly, it turns into the children’s literary version of the comic book world’s “Women in Refrigerators.” Having the pet/best friend die, so the male boy character enters into emotional manhood and maturity in the form of character development.
“Bridge to Tarabithia” “Shiloh” and “Where The Red Fern Grows” offered good examples of how these stories can be well-written and impacting on a child’s life affirming lesson, offering relatable characters, a realistic environment any child has gone probably walked through, and last but not least a real situation in which a child must face and learn to grow up in albeit harshly and quickly. Which is why these stories are unforgettable classics and should be respected as such when adapting them into movies.
Nowadays, it can go very well, or end badly depending on how you write it. It seems as if most stories will play on that the more traumatic the death of a loved one/pet/friend happens to a child, and how “magically” they grow into adulthood-the closet you are to winning that Newbury Medal Award.
However, there is one book I had read which to me seem to fit all the cliches, but didn’t bring any substance to them or made it life-affirming.
And that story I felt was “StoneFox” written by John Reynalds Gardiner.
First of all, the name of the dog is not named StoneFox, it is in fact Searchlight. So some book covers for this story may in fact be misleading. The name refers to a character in the book named StoneFox who is the Native American character of the story.
And though it was heavily acclaimed and popular enough to make a television movie staring Buddy Ebsen and Joey Cramer, the book in my honest opinion really didn’t effect me that strongly as the target child demographic of an animal-lover and adolescent.
Now to clarify: I don’t feel this books sucks or its the worst children’s story ever, I’ve heard of far worse ones out there, but I feel like you won’t get much out of it but heartbreak and nothing to show for it in a character-reflection. At least, a character inflection not in the boy-hero of the story.
The stories characters revolve around Little Willy, his dog Searchlight, his grandfather (who has no particular name), Mr. Clifford Synder, and Stone Fox. The other characters are minor such as Mr. Foster, Doc Smith, Lester, and Dusty the Drunk that are there to help move the exposition of the story alone.
The reading comprehension is around 4th to 5th grade level for a child with simplified non-overly graphic and descriptive prose. So, I will be more on the characters and plot since there really doesn’t seem to be an over-arching noticeable theme at the moment with the exception of a boy’s loyalty to his grandfather, which is basic and not explored too deeply.
The story’s setting is in an undisclosed location out in the American Old West, and opens with Little Willy and his dog Searchlight entering the house and finding their grandfather laying sick in bed. Now at first Little Willy doesn’t notice it as he has known grandfather to be a practical jokester and was always teasing him, even leaving the town doctor Doc Smith to believe Little Willy over the own patient, but it changes his mind when he sees that the grandfather has not really played as well as he used to do and runs some tests on him. The diagnosis; it’s not flu, cholera, scarlet fever, measles. Nope….Its that “He has lost the will to live.”
Very depressing the first few pages isn’t it?
Also, losing the “will to live” is a psychological condition of depression which can in turn effect the health of someone if they break down enough to not be as mobile or energetic as they probably once were, but you can’t help but wonder if “The Will To Live” was not another term for something else altogether in which the writer censored for something way less pleasant.
Though, losing the ‘will to live’ doesn’t really make sense from a physically medical standpoint and can’t be strictly diagnoses, which makes sense that they changed it from that to having a stroke in the movie adaption.
Naturally, the boy takes the news hard as they have no other immediate family members within the area the child could live with in the event of the grandfather’s passing, and grandfather would either end up dead or in a hospital leaving the child to be taken to an orphanage perhaps. Also, we don’t get any clear explanation or reason as why the grandfather is ‘Losing The Will To Live” and is bedridden in a sickly way. So its up to Little Willy in Chapter 2, to tend the farm and work the plow while his father is in bed, with no horse they use Searchlight as a replacement to plow the crops.
It’s not until Chapter 3, we start to get some characterization of who Little Willy was, sort of, we know first off he loves his grandfather and he is ready to help him with the farm in whatever capacity he can. He is always asking the teacher, Miss Williams questions and has a close friendship with his dog. Basically he is your typical, normal every-other kid meant to be a cookie-cutter cut out of every other child character that the child can see themselves as or easily imagine is them in a self-insert way. We get he loves his grandfather, and his pet dog, not to mention as inquisitive as any other student in his class, but that is all we get so far. That he has a strong loyal tie to his grandfather. Which is nothing to be discouraged, and makes him a likable character, but it’s not surprising as the book being written as a short story in simple prose Little Willy doesn’t have that much leeway to grow throughout the rest of the story as the other children in other “Newbury Award” books get.
Now, as I said before, we don’t find out why for some reason Grandma “Lost The Will To Live” or what caused it, but in the story, we get some idea later on in Chapter 4.
That night, he gets a terrifying visit from a Clifford Synder, chain-smoking tax collector who actually sneaks into the sick old man’s house and threatens the grandfather at gunpoint how much he owes in back taxes…
Now given the setting and the time period, maybe we were meant to take this act under Suspension of Disbelief, but I don’t think what this guy does can be considered legal under any court of law.
If this story took place today in the 21st century, he would be fired and put on trial, especially if a minor was in the mix. Not even a tax insurance agency, would go as low as to have one of their own collectors use physical force or a weapon within presence of a CHILD and get away with it, and if grandpa wasn’t the only guy who had this happen to him, imagine the class action lawsuit. However, The Grandfather and Little Willy are not so lucky to live in the 21st century, and Little Willy learns from Mr. Synder that he owns the state of Wyoming $500 dollars in back taxes. Something, that the father had been hiding from Little Willy all this time with no solution.
So from a literary analysis standpoint, we can safely assume that the grandfather really was suffering from anxiety and depression at the thought of not being able to pay enough to keep his farm that it worn him down into sickness. The book never says it, but reading back on it now, you get that sense that is what the idea was in mind. This cannot be easy on Little Willy, as he is both gripping with the conflict of losing both his grandfather, the farm, and financial issues at so young an age.
And with that, the child-reader is drawn into the main protagonist’s sympathies.
Chapter 5, is where the plot starts to move along. Little Willy takes a part-time job at a general store owned by Lester, who I guess since they live in such a small one-horse town, can probably be acquainted on first name terms with him, so the surname isn’t really all that important. Doc Smith, does show a smart side, in questioning the logic in why the grandfather would not keep paying the taxes liked he should’ve and putting them off only to have it end up in this situation and be neglectful of it. It’s a good issue to bring up despite how we may feel about the sickly grandfather, if his crops were in a good season, then whatever he sold he would have used to pay the state taxes, but for some odd unexplained reason doesn’t and as much as I would hate to say it, rightfully would have to pay them back, even if the means the tax collector used was not in the right. The grandfather living longer should have known the consequences in not paying his taxes as he should have.
However, a child reading this story, who has no knowledge of complex financial matters that affect their world at this point in their life, doesn’t see it like that, that is what their parents would see reading this story. The child sees pity upon the grandpa and the grandson, that they would lose their farm and the grandfather would die. Drawing the child into what will happen next without any regard as to the circumstances wrought that had lead this to it in the first place.
Even when the topic of selling the farm comes up, the grandfather makes no discussion about it, even though it would be enough to pay off the state. But on the other hand they wouldn’t have a place to live. Though, in most situations, the house would have been repossessed anyway.
While working his fingers to the bone, Little Willy sees a poster for a dog-racing contest, and the winner will win…A NEW CAR!
No, just kidding, they win $500 dollars coincidently enough.
Chapter 6, Little Willy signs up for the adult prize-winning money race, although, technically he would have had to have a guardian’s signature or permission to actually do this since it could be considered a liability issue if anything was to happen to the child during the race. And then we get the typical part of any “Winning The Contest to Raise Money to save The Orphanage/Clubhouse/Farm whatever” – The nay-sayers.
Which come to think of it, are pretty tame and not that intimidating to make the scene an obstacle to be overcome for the character, Little Willy uses his college money he saved up to enter to win which the bank teller tells him is a mistake, and even The Mayor who’s overseeing this race and probably has for years, no doubt knows how dangerous it can be and how much a hazardous risk it could be, maybe even witnessing a few accidents himself. So he probably would know what he is talking about saying that for his own safety, Willy should probably stick to the children’s dog-sled race. But Willy GASPS defies him because he is the hero of the story and will save the farm-that if not for the grandfather, would have not been in this position in the first place.
Now six chapters in, we FINALLY get to the title character, StoneFox, a Shoshone Native American, who is the strong, silent, intimidating looking archetype character, all of which Little Willy gets his backstory about from Dusty The Town Drunk. About how he never talked to white men for stealing his people’s land (Black men we’re not sure yet as it never is brought up) and that the reason why everyone thinks Willy is foolish for participating in the race hoping to win is that in every race that Stone Fox has been in, he has never lost. To the point that almost no one ever tries to anymore. His secret, really fast samoyed dogs.
Care to elaborate….No, just really fast Samoyed dogs?
All right then…
Once Little Willy learns about the rival Stone Fox, we cut to a scene in chapter seven which is short but sets up the relationship between the two characters, Little Willy and StoneFox, here he is walking at night going to pick up medicine for his grandfather though he really doesn’t want to thinking the store would be closed anyway, until he comes upon a deserted barn with a kennel full of Samoyed dogs which he carefully pets.
StoneFox however, is not amused and accusing Little Willy of trespassing upon his property, he socks the boy in the eye. A bit of a disportioncate response, for a child who snuck into your property to just pet some cute sled doggies. But after being punched, Willy stands back up and tells StoneFox that he will indeed compete with him in the race.
For the reader, this sets up a tense yet very G-rated rivalry and competitive situation between these two characters, now we merely can only call them rivals as Stone Fox is not really the bad guy of the story. We have Clifford Synder for that, but we do see two sides to this confrontation, a child willing to beat him to win the money to save his grandfather’s farm and a man whose land was unfairly stolen from him and his tribe that he could use the money for to win it back.
You’re not sure who to root for at this point. And even if you did, you would find that situation is split down the middle. We can say its easy to root for Little Willy and let him win over Stone Fox if he was the antagonist, but Stone Fox is not, he is not a villain, nor can we categorize him as even a sympathetic villain either. His background explains why he is a gruff, misanthropic, anti-social man and even if the child-reader doesn’t understand it at first, they soon grow up to understand it later when they read up on American History and think back on this story. He was unjustly wronged and as a result, developed trust issues with other people, much like with Judd Trevors in Shiloh but only instead of taking it out in the form of Animal Cruelty, Stone Fox instead shuts down and became a solemn anti-social angry person with an obsessive drive to win and still remain angry at those around him. And we do at least understand him for it, the question is though, is how will this turn out between Little Willy and Stone Fox at the end of the story.
Next chapter is the big race, and we see that Little Willy gets a black and blue swollen shut eye for his troubles from last night, but lies about StoneFox hitting him, as he does realize that it was wrong that he snuck into StoneFox’s barn without permission and that forwards a step in their relationship. Its never really that explored or touched upon, but I think from this there is a slight mutual respect starting to form.
AAAAANNND THEY’RE OFF!
Here we get more into a descriptive look at the dog race, and what I think works here is that we see another way StoneFox races other than having very fast dogs. He plans his routes and the race methodically, conserving not only his energy, but his dogs as well and using the environment to his advantage much like Willy does. He actually doesn’t just race but he races like it’s a strategy. None of the other characters say it, but its shown to us and that I think works out well. And it compares to how Willy is racing as he is going extremely fast and pushing both himself and Searchlight to the limit. However, for all his overexerted speed, Willy has an advantage over the other racers and that is his small size and light weight going over the shortcut that was the frozen lake.
Past the other racers, Stone Fox and Little Willy are now going neck and neck racing each about to reach the finish line….
Wait for it…
OH MY GOD NOOOOOOOOOO!
No warning, nothing to lead up to it. BOOM! The dog keels inches towards the finish line. And Willy is freaking out as he rightfully does. Everyone in the race is shocked, as are the readers at this point I imagine. And this is the part in the story as heartwarming as it is. Made me wonder. What happened?
Death By Newbury Stories will sometimes throw in a twist like this out of nowhere and unexpected, sometimes to illustrate to children how death can occur unexpectedly and without warning. But whereas in Bridge to Tarebithia, the death was unexpected because it was a death by accident, something that was not planned or no one expected would happen. We didn’t think that Leslie would swing on the rope in the rain and drown in the river, we were only told this when Jesse was informed by his parents the news. Which is a good perspective on how in real life some of us come across news of a loved one’s death when they meet a fatal accidental death.
But here, we knew that Searchlight was an adult dog and had been around the family for a long time, but the focus was all on grandpa being sickly and weak, so we all expected that it was going to be grandpa that would kick the bucket. Not the dog. And throughout the whole story, the dog was described as older but extremely healthy.
An interesting plot twist to be sure, but a very harsh one as there was no reason for the dog to kill over, other than provide a big climax in the story give us a fake-out that Little Willy will not win the prize money.
Stone Fox sees the dead dog and promptly takes out his rifle and fires it in the air, creating a line in the snow and threatening that if anyone stops him by crossing over this line, he will shoot them on sight.
Well, it’s the Old West, I guess that was okay to say that in a crowd back then.
And, in a rather dark, bittersweet, heartwarming scene. Stone Fox picks up Searchlight and carries him across the finish line, conceding the race to Willy. Thus he wins the money and saves the farm.
Now, to the other racers, it was indeed a pretty unfair way to win, and it takes their hard earn training and work flushing it down the drain. Though, lets be honest here, we all know that no one is going to question Stone Fox, above all Stone Fox with a big freaking rifle on hand. But on the other hand, you come off as a douche bag depriving a kid of the award money when he is using it to save his farm and his grandfather. Which you honestly can’t blame the kid for, as he is doing it out of the goodness of his heart. So, in that regard as hurt as the racers have in their right mind to be, the sensible thing was probably to back down just this once.
Now this the part of the “Death By Newbury Award” trope where the child of the pet gains a huge character development, but we don’t see that in Little Willy, instead its in Stone Fox, who opens up to the white boy that he punched a while ago, and sacrifices his win to the child. Concluding their rivalry to an amicable alliance.
Review and Afterthought
As much as I hate the dog’s death coming out of left field this harshly, I have to say I do like how they had Stone Fox reach out to Little Willy at the end. Instead of taking the cheesy saccharine route, and having him just HAND over his winnings to Little Willy, smiling and learning a lesson or some such nonsense-they did it in now that I look back upon it, a pretty badass way to do it.
They had the character of Stone Fox, have a slight character development in the story, while still maintaining, his gruff, apathetic, no-nonsense approach at life. And that is okay, it shows him performing a unexpected act of kindness for Willy, without making him have to give up that behavior he was defined for in the beginning of the story, and that they did it in a subtle way that fits his overall character personality. Showing that he can still be misanthropic and anti-social but have a heart and compassion for someone as well no matter who they are. It teaches children that you don’t have to make a huge deal or boasting your good deeds in this big extremely happy way in order for them to make a difference, sometimes a good deed that is done subtly, and behind the shadows with a quiet voice can mean just as more. Its a shame that we don’t get any “mature into manhood” character development from Little Willy, but since his character was already established to be a goody two-shoes responsible boy caring for his grandfather’s farm while was sick, it would seem ridiculous and redundant in the first place. And I feel that for the execution at the time it worked much better on Stone Fox than on Little Willy. And having someone develop a good character development from the death of a dog is better than having a dog needlessly die and no one has a character development at the end.
However, as much as I enjoyed Stone Fox’s character development, I found myself disappointed overall in this book, as the death of the dog is harsh and unnecessary, the decisions of the grandfather are questionable, and the child-reader won’t get alot of literary substance from this story as nothing much is really described that well first off and or doesn’t add more to the story. I know reading it I didn’t really myself, but if your kid is interested in Old West stories and you find the “Kid Hero saves the Important Landmark/Building/Home” plot appealing your child might like it, just be sure to warn them about the dog death at the end.