A bike is stolen. It’s a big deal. We’re not exactly sure why. But we’re made to feel the big-deal-ness of it. The author – in this case, Jerry Spinelli – makes sure we do. He accomplishes this by carving a hole into the onward rush of his story, and by pumping that space full of tense, frozen air.
That space – in this case, a short chapter – doesn’t quite add up. Us readers are missing a couple key pieces of information that we’ll need to make complete sense of it. We read on, though, delighted nevertheless, because the sentences drag us forward, they charm us on, each one adding a small moment of breath-stopping drama to the overall mystery, to the vague, titillating confusion that looms above the chapter like a big fat question mark.
Spinelli is a master. Pick up one of his novels, and within a few sentences he’s got you in his hands. His control over the language, his use and purposeful misuse of syntax and punctuation, his weaving of thought and narration, his crafting of idiom- and slang-packed poetry – it’s downright awe-inspiring. And there’s boatloads to learn from reading him.
In the passage below, note how he controls the movement, how the volume and the energy whip back and forth like he’s pumping the gas pedal with the car in the Park. He’s got a hand on the gearshift, and he’s ready to throw the thing into Drive and take us tearing down the street. But not yet. He’s going to make us wait just a little longer. And if you’re anything like me, you’re going to enjoy every second of it.
From Hokey Pokey, by Jerry Spinelli (p. 52-53)
She happens upon girls playing football. As soon as they spot her, they abandon the game and come running.
“Hey! Is that what I think it is?”
“It is! It’s Jack’s!”
“Omygod, Ace! How’d you get it?”
“Omygod omygod – look at her face! She stole it!”
“You da chick!”
She lets the fuss wash over her. When it subsides and they’re all fish-eyed waiting for her to speak, she gives her patented little sniff and grin and says primly, “It’s Hazel now.”
Pandemonium. If somebody had a chisel and stone, they’d make a statue of her right here and now.
The girls circle, bend to huddle, cheer:
Get these boy germs off of me!
As the huddle breaks and the din peters out, a voice calls: “C’mon, Ace, park it. We need a quarterback.” A ball comes flying. She catches it and, as always, feels the loving seduction of the pigskin. Her fingers inchworm over the pebbled surface to the Chiclet-y laces. “Go!” she barks, and a dozen girls take off, looking back over their shoulders, calling her name, pleading. She picks one out, throws, leads her by a good twenty yards because she’s arcing it high and is already peeling out before it comes down. It’s not these girls she most has to see. It’s someone else.