Mentor Text: The Book Thief by Markus Zusakand The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom
- Point of View
December, as we all know well, is busy.
Which makes it one of the worst times to get engrossed in a book. But I did it anyway. See, I had won a signed copy of Mitch Albom’s The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto, and in moving the stacks of books around the house to make room for holiday guests. And I opened it, and started reading.
Right away, I was hooked. See, what blew me away was that the narrator of much of the book is Music. Albom personified musical talent to narrate the story of musician Frankie Presto. As a music fan, this book, so clearly a love letter to music had me in its grasp until I finished reading it.
Then, I got back to shelving and organizing books, and came across my copy of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. I was struck by the similarities between Albom and Zusak’s books. Both feature an unconventional narrator, Music, and in Zusak’s book, Death. Both of these narrator’s told the main character’s story with such tone, showing care and concern for the subject, yet capable of delivering truths in a frank and harsh manner.
And then, I thought about what some of the things I’ve got planned for my students this year, and realized these books make wonderful mentor texts.
Point of View- If you’ve read either of these books, then you know that the best part of both of them is the narrator. Zusak using Death to tell the story of a young girl in Nazi Germany, and Albom using Music to tell the story of a musician is a stroke of genius. These are narrators who aren’t necessarily the core characters of the story, but are essential aspects, or presences, if you will, without whom the story wouldn’t necessarily unfold. Personifying them, and allowing them to speak on the events unfolding as they narrate adds such a wonderful element to both of these works.
Some of my students are in the midst of a MultiGenre Project. We’ve been researching various topics related to social justice. I would love to pull a few excerpts from these novels for us to sit down with, and to discuss. Then, I’d love for us to choose a thing that is part of their topic, and have them write from it’s perspective. Imagining racism explaining, and justifying its existence. What would a piece of genetically modified food have to say? If a stertotype could talk, what would it say?
I think what I love most about the idea of this writing exercise is using point of view to explore their topic through a different lens. In writing from Music or Death’s point of view, these authors had to consider what those things would have to say. What would Death have to say during World War II, obviously a busy time for him? What commentary would Music have to offer on the life of a great musician? These are great explorations on those topics, and I think it would be an interesting exercise for our writers to try.
Voice- When The Book Thief was first reccomended to me, the core reason for the suggestion was the novel’s use of voice. They didn’t tell me who the narrator was, but that the voice was strong.
Which is a huge part of why that book resonates with me, and with every person I give it to.
Balancing care and contempt, compassion and frustration, these writers give voice to something we traditionally consider voiceless. Perhaps this is the reason that these narrators resonate so strongly with us as readers – they are not voices that we’re necessarily used to. Both Albom and Zusak allow their narrators to be frank and honest. We are charmed by them, and forget that they are not people. In fact, when we are reminded of exactly what Death is in The Book Thief, it is actually a bit striking, as we have come to love this narrator.
Again, imagine the thought and considerations our writers would be putting into the consideration of what their unconventional narrators would sound like. If they’re writing racism, then they would have to consider what it would be about that character that would attract some people, and how would they make it clear to their reader how racism isn’t a good guy?
I realize that this is giving them the work of master storytellers to study. However, the whole premise of mentor texts is the study of masters, is it not? As I read Frankie Presto, I was actually struck with the thought that this is actually, in my reading anyway, an underutilized narrative device. The heart of both of these books, however, I feel is squarely in the choice of narrator. Considering this device in their writing could be a great strategy for our students to explore.
Do you know of other texts that use this device? Have you had students play with this device? “Who” would you want to have a voice?