I AM DRUMS by Mike Grosso
Published by Clarion Books, September 2016
Suggested age range: 10 – 12
Sam knows she wants to be a drummer. But she doesn’t know how to afford a drum kit, or why budget cuts end her school’s music program, or why her parents argue so much, or even how to explain her dream to other people.
But drums sound all the time in Sam’s head, and she’d do just about anything to play them out loud—even lie to her family if she has to. Will the cost of chasing her dream be too high?
An exciting new voice in contemporary middle grade, Mike Grosso creates a determined heroine readers will identify with and cheer for.
IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:
Communication. It can be difficult to express what you’re really feeling or what’s really going on with you in a way that others can understand, BUT it’s necessary in order to be fully yourself and to participate fully in relationships with people you care about.
So what did we think?
Eva: There are a lot of things to like in this book. I like that Sam is a strong female protagonist who wants to play the drums — despite the fact that she gets made fun of for her interest. I like that we learn a lot throughout the book about the specifics of drumming. (This would be a great book for a kid who is interested in drumming or percussion.) I like that Sam has to work hard to get what she wants and that things don’t end perfectly — very realistic.
Meagan: I enjoyed this book, too. On a purely personal note: I was once a middle school girl in the percussion section of concert band. Sam’s experience of it as a “boys’ club” as well as the goofing-off-antics that occur back there definitely rang true to me. Unlike Sam, however, I really didn’t care about drumming or practice very much. It wasn’t my thing. But it’s neat to read from the perspective of someone who thinks differently than you and has her own unique passion. I appreciate the showing-not-telling Mike Grosso has done to help me get into Sam’s head. Instead of just telling us that she wants to be a drummer, he shows how she has rhythms running through her head all the time and observes the world around her through the lens of drumming.
Eva: This is Mike Grosso’s first novel, and it seems like he crafted it in the way all the advice books and blogs suggest. He starts with a very clear inciting incident (Sam’s school is getting rid of the music program!) and a very clear desire (Sam wants to take drum lessons, but her parents won’t let her!) Sam takes action, but a series of roadblocks keep getting in her way. Things go from bad to worse until we get to the climax and the “core emotional experience.” The structure of this novel is exactly what agents tell writers they want a novel to be.
Meagan: Yep, I agree. Mike Grosso gets a gold star for textbook execution of how to plot a middle grade novel.
Eva: Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading so much about how to write MG books, but it was sometimes too easy for me to see the innerworkings of the plot and predict what would happen next. I doubt a younger reader would pick up on this, but I do wonder if the book will hold the attention of kids who are not so interested in drumming.
Meagan: I think what he did works (it kept my attention, and I feel sure there are kids who will enjoy this book), but the plot is not the wow-factor here. It’s very effective, but not surprising or intriguing really. I think character, rather than plot, is his strength in this book. We get a window into the mind of a person who has a musical way of thinking.
Eva: Right. The book actually has a metaphor for that “window” into Sam’s head. Sam starts out the book by wishing she had a headphone jack in her head:
“With a headphone jack in your head, you could let anyone plug right in and listen to your thoughts, especially the complicated stuff… I want people to understand me when I can’t say what’s on my mind.”
It’s a cute idea and shows up throughout the book as a very obvious theme. At the end of the book, Sam sums everything up by going back to her favorite metaphor:
“…I love drums. It might not be the headphone jack in my head I’ve always wanted, but it’s kind of the same thing when you think about it. It lets you say something you can’t express any other way.”
Meagan: The other thing that I think this author does well regarding character development is get me to identify with a basically sympathetic main character and then lead me down a slippery ethical slope as she does more and more wrong things in pursuit of her goals. Even though some of her actions are pretty bad and things I would not have done as a kid, I totally believe that she does them, and I get why. Believable motivation can be a difficult thing to nail, so I went back to the book to try and pick apart what he is doing to achieve it.
One of Sam’s early wrong decisions is deleting a phone message intended for her parents. As she listens to the message from the school administrator she worries about how her dad will react.
“–oh man, you don’t want him mad. You lose pretty much every privilege you can imagine, even if it’s only a little bit your fault. Even if you just lost control for a split second. Even if you felt totally humiliated.”
So we’ve got both emotion and rationalizing here. But she doesn’t go right for deleting the message. She thinks through her options.
“I pull the phone away from my ear and try to come up with a way to explain this to my dad…”
And then before she takes action, the voicemail system gives her a prompt she can act on without thinking.
“‘Press nine to delete this message.’
My hand shakes, but I slowly bring my index finger down. It lands on the number nine.”
In the moment of action she’s trying to distance herself from the action by describing her finger as the actor.
“I hang up the phone and run back upstairs, trying to forget the message ever existed, because as far as anyone besides me or Dr. Pullman knows, it never really did.”
More rationalizing and distancing.
I think it can be tempting as a writer to describe your character taking big actions and making big decisions, just assuming that your readers will get where your character is emotionally or why a person might do something like that. I know I have been guilty of that at times–just assuming it’s obvious. And it is a fine line. No reader wants too much explanation. But I think Mike Grosso does a good job bringing us along for the ride with Sam’s bad decisions by using her interior voice. He provides both the rationalization and the emotional basis for her choices and we get to be in her head and she makes them.
Eva: That’s a really good point. In previous posts we’ve talked about how interiority — a character’s interior thoughts — can really help us understand character motivation, and this book does a great job of that.
THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:
Eva: When I was a kid there was a time when I was obsessed with Olympic gymnasts and wanted to be one, despite the fact I wasn’t even taking gymnastics lessons. There was this very short novel (I can’t remember the name of it) that I used to read obsessively when I was about eight years old. It was about a girl gymnast. I couldn’t tell you anything else about the book, and I don’t think there was very much to it other than her challenges on the balance beam. And yet I LOVED it because I loved gymnastics.
I can see kids who are interested in playing the drums (or playing in a band) being interested in I Am Drums in the same way I loved that gymnastics book as a kid.
THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:
- A clear inciting incident and character desire.
- A main character who takes action to get what she wants
- Strong use of interior voice (interiority) to ground character motives
- A character with a unique way of thinking
Eva: A sweet and well-executed book though it did not quite knock my socks off. On the other hand, if I Am Drums encourages any little girls out there to become rad female drummers like Patty Schemel or Meg White, I’m ALL ABOUT IT!
Meagan: In realistic fiction (like this book), the escapism aspect of reading relies heavily on character. There’s no magical fantasy world for your reader to get lost in. Instead, use your character’s unique interior voice to invite your reader to get lost in the mind of a person different from him or herself.