Book: Going Bovine
Author: Libba Bray
Publishing: Delacorte Books for Young Readers, September 2009
Pages: 496 (hardcover)
Genre: Young adult, contemporary fantasy, dark comedy
Awards: 2010 Michael L. Printz Award
Review copy: checked out from King County Library System
Why did I read it?
My accountant friend Amy walked up to me and said, “You’re a writer. You should watch this crazy video. Oh, and you should read the book, too.” I borrowed the book from the library, read it, and… just watched the video.
What did I learn from it?
Remember back in Read 1000 books about how I don’t like to review books? I don’t. But I love to read, both for pleasure and for learning. And I’ve learned something about writing from every single book I’ve read.
When I started reading Going Bovine by Libba Bray, I had just read through a friend’s complete novel manuscript and two teen writers’ chapter submissions and received feedback on a few scenes from my novel. I had no idea what ANY of their characters looked like and they didn’t know what my characters looked like.
THAT is a problem, I thought. And then I picked up Going Bovine and noticed almost right away Bray’s use of character descriptions and how she sprinkled them into the narrative. Here are a few:
Technically, girls aren’t allowed in men’s bathrooms, but since only the losers, present company included, ever use this one, it’s a nonissue. Besides, Rachel’s five ten with six tattoos and seven piercings. Nobody gives her shit. -page 10
Kyle tucks his long, stringy blonde hair behind his ears. -page 11
The door bangs open, and a really small dude with a huge ‘fro comes barreling out, pushing up his sleeves. It takes me a minute to realize he’s a dwarf. -page 12
She’s [Jenna] standing beside the water fountain with her dance squad, her dark blond hair pulled up into the requisite ponytail and cascading ribbons. -page 15
But against the uniform pert tan-blondness that is the dance team, my shaggy dark hair, British-musician-on-the-dole pale skin, and six feet of seriously awkward body stand out like a strip of film negatives plopped down on top of their happy group photo. -page 16
Eubie’s growing a little soul patch. It looks good with the dreads and the multicolored T-shirt emblazoned with the face of some famous reggae star. -page 21
I could go on, but I don’t want to prevent you from reading the book yourselves!
Even though Bray introduces four characters in one chapter (pages 10 – 15), they each have a little something, not a huge description, but a little something that helps readers distinguish them. And that little something is so skillfully done, and so subtly, that we recognize the characters later in the book, like Rachel and Eubie, when they appear again, either as themselves or morphed into a new character from Cameron’s (the main character) road trip.
Not only does Bray provide individual descriptions unique to her major characters (read about Cameron, the main character, above), but she also takes advantage of stereotypes to help fill in details for her minor characters: Jenna has dark blond hair, and she’s part of the dance squad. We can deduce she’s good looking, tan (even before Cameron’s description of himself), thin, maybe even tall, based on our idea of what girls look like when they’re on the dance team. And as a minor character, we can even guess some things about Jenna’s character—again based on our ideas of a high school dancer. Eubie’s character also takes advantage of stereotypes.
Don’t be afraid to use stereotypes to help flesh out minor characters. Don’t RELY on those stereotypes and don’t use them for major characters, or for every minor character, but for a few characters—especially those who really just serve as background decoration—it’s quite useful.
And remember to “sprinkle” in your characters’ descriptions, as Bray does, in bits and pieces continually throughout your story to remind readers what they look like and how they act. Have Eubie rub his soul patch or push his dreads back under a cap (Bray puts him in new band T-shirts for almost each scene) for, but also have a reason why he does it. Does Eubie rub his soul patch because he’s nervous? Does he push his dreads out of his eyes just so he can see (has it become a habitual gesture)? These repetitions make your characters real to our readers.
OK, so if you REALLY want book reviews, here you go:
- Em’s Bookshelf has a spoiler-free review.
- Teen Reads review is basically positive and contains some spoilers.
- Book Slut’s review is less than positive, but well-thought out. There is much I agree with here. There are a few spoilers.
Go read! 999 more books to go. Next week: Wolves, Boys and Other Things that Might Kill Me by Kristen Chandler.