I read I’ll Give You the Sun a while ago but can’t stop thinking about it––and recommending it to everyone who crosses my path.
There’s a lot to unpack in this incredible novel, 2015’s Printz winner and a Stonewall honor book. With a fresh awards season just around the corner, it’s a great time to look back at a story that knocked our socks off last year. Let’s see what we can learn from it now.
1. Challenge your reader with complex characters.
I’ll Give You the Sun is the story of twins Jude and Noah, and how three years turned their family upside down. Noah narrates the time when the twins are thirteen, and Jude narrates the time when they’re sixteen. Each has only half the story, so we––and they––must string together the intervening years before the family unravels completely.
Forget everything you’ve ever heard about “likable” and “unlikeable” characters. Nelson instead crafts characters that fascinate, that draw us in, in all their frustrating, captivating realness. The family members forge alliances and carry out betrayals. Their relationships are imperfect and emotional, their personalities nuanced and raw.
I won’t say too much, because one joy of this book is plunging the depths of each character’s complexity. But I can say: I’ll Give You the Sun is a master class for any writer looking to make their characters real.
2. Find a structure that lets your skills shine.
Nelson’s structure––alternating POV between 13-year-old Noah and 16-year-old Jude––doesn’t just make for great suspense as we piece together everything that’s happened in the intervening years. It also gives Nelson an opportunity to show off some serious expertise in creating two distinct, yet equally compelling, voices.
Noah’s voice is like overfilled water balloon, bursting and soaking everything nearby. Nelson was smart to begin the book from his perspective––Noah grips you. He oozes creativity, and an artistic energy (a “revolutionary fire,” as he puts it) that can barely contain itself. Noah draws us in with this boundless vivacity, and we’re rooting for him from page one.
Sixteen-year-old Jude is more complex. She’s superstitious, wounded, guarded. Noah thinks she’s wearing “flame retardant,” but it’s not that simple. She’s still figuring herself out, and we’re unraveling that mystery with her. She’s equal parts painfully self-aware and completely unreliable, darkly humorous and wracked with doubt. We get to know Jude slowly, piece by piece. As she falls for another character and lets him into her life, her voice opens up, and she lets us in, too.
3. Mine your subject matter for fantastic, lush writing.
This book is about a lot of things. Family. Love. Death. Growing up. But one core theme stands out, a subject Nelson uses to great advantage in her prose: art.
Both Jude and Noah are artists, as is their mother, and this affects their relationship, and the novel’s plot, in profound ways.
But it’s not just about the plot––it’s about the writing! Not one to scatter a few descriptions of artistic creation throughout and call it a day, Nelson instead infuses this book with art. There’s Guillermo Garcia’s violent, emotional sculpting process; Noah’s imaginary painting, where he freezes scenes from life, abstracting them in his mind; Jude’s deep fascination with a portrait her brother created, which returns to haunt her later; and jaw-droppingly profound descriptions of art and meaning and passion for creating things, all throughout the novel. More than a plot device, art becomes a character in this book.
Nelson reminds us that a well-chosen subject can make all the difference––and we should not be afraid to be over-the-top, to squeeze everything from our subject matter that we can.
Want to chat more about I’ll Give You the Sun or other great kidlit titles? Find me on Twitter at @beckererine.
Happy writing, all.