The Van Gogh Cafe

14Mar10

In The Van Gogh Cafe, I was charmed by the stylistic crafting characteristic of Cynthia Rylant’s writing in many of her picture books. Rylant’s use of unconventional constructions pulled me closely into the words – each one seeming to strategic, essential, important. The stylistic achievements gained from these unconventional constructions were obvious, but I noted that students must understand that this is an intentional stylistic move and recognize that these conventions are typical of the norms expected during more academic writings.

For example, Rylant often begins a sentence using a conjunction such as ‘but’ or ‘and.’ This simultaneously achieves an abruptness and a continuance of thoughts. For example, “Those are not the sort of walls that harbor magic. But theater walls do” (2).

In  the following except, Rylant uses ‘and’ to begin two sentences consecutively in addition to phrases like “well then” and “too” to add a colloquial, casual touch: “And if the possum chose to hang outside the window of the Van Gogh Cafe in Flowers…well then, everyone would start talking about magic. And that would be good for the possum, too” (4-5).

Rylant’s use of short sentences in contrast to very long sentences is one of her signature stylings. To make a point or emphasize a description, Rylant uses a very simple sentence structure as in “It is flat.” and “People would notice.” Her very long sentences seem to go on forever in a flowing, beautifully descriptive fashion: “And because of what he sees, he turns his car around and drives back to where he belongs, back to his farm, back to his farm, which he turns into a home for stray animals, animals who come to him and take away his loneliness.” (10)  Rylant’s use of commas without joining words make the thoughts run effortlessly from the page to our minds.

Rylant carefully and explicitly weaves each chapter together, making it hard to put The Van Gogh Cafe down. Each chapter ends with a thought followed by an elipsis that coordinates with the next chapter’s title and main event.

  • Chapter 1 The Cafe “Like the possum…”
  • Chapter 2 The Possum “Perhaps when lightning strikes…”
  • Chapter 3 Lightning Strikes “But they’re nothing compared to magic muffins…”
  • Chapter 4 Magic Muffins “Someone who could be a star…”
  • Chapter 5 The Star “Magic is never wasted on a wayward gull…”
  • Chapter 6 The Wayward Gull “For the next couple of months the phonograph will softly play, the hen will smile, dogs will be blessed, and things will be just perfect by the time the door opens and in walks the writer.”
  • Chapter 7 The Writer

I found it very interested that Chapter 6 did not use the structure of the thought followed by the ellipsis. I believe Rylant chose to do this to lead into the final chapter as the concluding event. An ellipsis usually indicates an intentional omission to indicate things to come. With Chapter 7 being about the writer brings the book full circle in the final moments by seeing the reflection of the Van Gogh Cafe on the book that Clara is reading, making it appear that the book is titled as such, leaves the reader feeling like this book was written by that very writer, and inspired by that very event. There is no more need for ellipsis because the circle of magic has been closed.

(While writing these reflections on Rylant’s unconventional constructions and crafting, I found myself writing like her at times!)

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3 Responses to “The Van Gogh Cafe”

  1. 1 Amy Moser

    Rylant’s style of writing continues to be infamous of drawn out sentences and repetitive transitions. Sometimes her sentences are long, as if she is showing the way that we orally communicate with others. On the other hand, sometimes her sentences are short-which does not allow for much deliberation or thinking, and she makes her point.

    This particular style truly made The Van Gogh Cafe have a plot that encouraged prediction and analysis. I almost thought as though Rylant was The Writer in the final chapter, due to her uniqueness as a writer – as The Van Gogh Cafe’s magic made him realize his true gift. Could this be something that Rylant experienced herself in her personal aspirations as an author?

  2. 2 Amy Moser

    Replace “famous” rather than “infamous” in line 1. 🙂

  3. 3 Leslie

    I, too, recognized the “famous” Rylant style of writing. Her writing invites the reader into the story, as though we are in the moment of each event. I also noticed the ellipses at the end of each chapter. As the reader, then, I didn’t feel right about putting the book down at those places because I knew there was more to come. I overlooked, though, that chapter 6 did not end in that same pattern. The intentionality of Cynthia Rylant’s writing style is clear. She thinks about how she wants us to read each line, whether it be long and whimsical, or short and abbreviated. Analyzing her writing makes me look at other authors and wonder, “Did they do that on purpose?” Whereas when reading a Rylant story, I know that her writing style is purposeful.


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