Silent to the Bone by E. L. Konigsburg
Thirteen year old Branwell Zamborska stopped talking the day his baby half-sister Nikki wouldn’t wake up. Why? It’s all there–or rather, not there–on the 911 tape. Vivian, the Zamborskas’ pretty British au pair, thinks his silence stems from the guilt Branwell feels from dropping the baby. Connor, Branwell’s best friend, investigates. After all, the Branwell he knows loves words to the point of collecting them–especially English ones like hairgrips and nappies–and plays Summarize in a Sentence (SIAS) on the way to the bus stop (bonus points for cliches, deductions for ands).
Connor uses flash cards with trigger words to communicate with Branwell. First, these words direct Connor to his own (older) half-sister Margaret, who brought Branwell home from the airport the day he found out that Tina, who’d become Nikki’s mother, had supplanted his place in his single-parent father’s life. Next up are Branwell’s grandparents, dubbed The Ancestors, whom Branwell visited while Tina was having the baby. Then there’s dinner with Vivian, an interview with the Zamborska’s cleaning lady, and more conversations with Margaret; even their dad (who Margaret dislikes) chips in by digitizing the 911 tape. As Connor pieces together the events leading up to the 911 call, he comes to understand his best friend better, gives Margaret the chance to give their dad another chance, and experiences teenage infatuation for the first time. Moreover, he learns to read facets of silence, because can’t speak, won’t speak, and didn’t speak are very separate things and deciphering the difference is the key to breaking Branwell’s.
For Konigsburg, penning insightful eloquent adolescents is the norm and Connor is no exception. We identify with him, want to hit him over the head, or hi-five him in turns. But Konigsburg really excels in her realistic portrayal of Connor’s interactions with grown-ups: his eager helplessness when Vivian toys with him, his delightfully smart-aleck attitude towards the Ancestors (because they’re not his grandparents), and basically every scene with Margaret. Also, it’s encouraging to watch Connor mature and to read about a realistic friendship between two boys that is based on communication rather than the usual stereotypes of sports, rock music, and rough-housing.
SIAS: While best friend turned boy detective digs deep to uncover the truth to save his friend, we will never approach silence the same way, for silence, though not always golden, consent, or complicity, is certainly still a means of communication.