Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Watch That Ends the Night

The 1912 sinking of the Titanic is one of those rare historical events that fascinates both adults and young people. That disaster, memorialized in nonfiction books, movies, and even a Broadway musical, is now recounted in THE WATCH THAT ENDS THE NIGHT : VOICES FROM THE TITANIC, a novel in verse by Allan Wolf. The twenty-five voices that describe the the ship's journey from its launch to the rescue of its survivors include the ship's captain, several passengers from different classes, the ship rat, and even the iceburg that causes the disaster. ("I am the ice. I've seen the sun arise / for centuries, a hundred thousand dawns. / The sun rose up before humans came. / The sun will rise long after they are gone.") One way to judge the success of any multi-voice narrative is to dip into the volume on random pages and see if one can identify each speaker's unique voice without checking the top of the page. Unfortunately, with a few notable exceptions, many of these wordy poems tend to blur together, regardless of speaker. Nevertheless, this reimagining of the Titanic tragedy -- familiar in content, yet stunningly original in execution and style -- is a major accomplishment and one which will no doubt be long popular with young readers, always hungry for another, different volume about this historical event.

PRINTZ-WORTHY? A book about the Titanic winning the Printz on the one-hundredth anniversary of the tragedy would be notable. Much will depend on how the committee approches this work. On a line-by-line basis, the poems are generally strong, despite some stylistic sameness. But this is also a work where the whole is bigger than the individual components, making well worth some award recognition.

What do YOU think?

My Name is Mina

A dozen years ago, when the first Printz Awards were announced, David Almond's SKELLIG was named an Honor Book. The selection was surprising -- not because of the book's indubitable quality, but due to the young age of its characters, as well as the intended age of its audience (BOOKLIST recommended the title for ages eight to twelve.) Almond went on to the win the Printz in 2001 for KIT'S WILDERNESS and has gone on to write a succession of intriguing, often brilliant novels. Now he is back with a unusual and rather daring new novel, MY NAME IS MINA, which features a protagonist first introduced in SKELLIG. It's always a risk for an author to return to previously-created characters and narratives. Sometimes it works (Susan Cooper returned to her 1965 novel OVER SEA, UNDER STONE after eight years and the resulting "Dark is Rising" series is considered a classic) but more often it doesn't (Louis Sachar's SMALL STEPS didn't live up to the acclaim of HOLES.) In this case, David Almond succeeds wonderfully, creating a unique and powerful novel that seems every bit the equal of SKELLIG.

In SKELLIG, Mina was the neighbor of protagonist Michael, but she comes front and center in this prequel, telling her own story of the months leading up to Michael’s arrival in the neighborhood. Written in the form of a journal (the font resembles a child’s printing), Mina muses about leaving school to be taught at home, her sorrow at her father’s death, and her interest in words and writing and nature. Less a plot-driven narrative than a character study, this luminous book may not appeal to everyone, but special readers will be amazed at how brilliantly the author captures the essence of the imaginative, misunderstood, almost mystical and always evolving title character in a book that can truly take its place on the same shelf as SKELLIG.

PRINTZ WORTHY? Absolutely, if we're talking about literary quality alone. But one has to remember that SKELLIG itself felt rather "young" for the Printz Award, and this prequel concerns an even younger character. Ah, if only British novels were eligible for the Newbery!

What do YOU think?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Stay With Me

A teenage romance plays out in just over one hundred days, forever changing the lives of a boy and girl. Mack Morse is a sensitive, but explosive, high school dropout who has spent time behind bars. CeCe Vaccuccia spends her time studying for a gifted-and-talented exam which she hopes will get her into a better high school. They meet at a restaurant where she waits tables and he washes dishes. Awkward conversations lead to quiet walks home in the summer heat, and their relationship blossoms when Mack, who has a talent for animals, takes in a pitbull that even dog-fearing CeCe learns to love. The story is related by both characters in raw first-person narratives that have the beat of urban poetry. ("Tell you what, I'm so excited about being alive, I can't stop smiling, and doesn't the bodega lady just smile too? She's whistling, and I carry her tune with me, out the door, the cowbell jangling like a laugh. I'm lit up just like the sky. Lightning falls all across it, like God brushed a wirehaired jackal and pulled the dross from the comb and just tossed it down on us.") Believable coming from a fifteen-year-old kid who can barely read? Probably not, yet somehow it all works within the context of this stylized novel. Mack and Cece come from hardluck backgrounds (Mack's dad is a drunk, as is Cece's mom -- a memorably upbeat loser with gold-capped teeth and a big heart) and STAY WITH ME is realistically cruel in depicting the fate of this too-good-to-be-true first romance. Just when things are looking their best for the teens, the world comes crashing down and they are permanently separated. It's to the author's credit that, despite the incredibly downbeat final chapters, the novel somehow ends with a dim ray of hope for these two unforgettable characters -- not as a romantic couple, but as individuals.

PRINTZ-WORTHY? This novel's blend of light and dark, beauty and grit, hope and despair, mark it as something different -- and rather special. It will be interesting to see if the Printz committee accepts the stylized writing and heightened reality of this romance or rejects the book as overwritten and unbelievable.

What do YOU think?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Pregnant Pause

In the early days of young adult fiction, there was a sub-genre of novels concerning "young marrieds" -- books that explored the ups-and-downs of teenage marriage; pregnancy sometimes played a role in these stories, though usually not until the latter half of the book when the young wife discovered she was going to have a child and joyfully told her husband the big news. By the time the late sixties and early seventies rolled around, marriage was out -- but pregnancy remained an hot issue in YA fiction, with many novels focusing on teenagers expecting babies outside the bounds of matrimony. Han Nolan's latest, PREGNANT PAUSE, revives the "young married" novel for a new age, focusing on pregnant sixteen-year-old Eleanor Crowe, a drinkin', druggin', near-delinquent who is pushed into marriage by her religious missionary parents. Immediately after her courthouse wedding, Eleanor's parents take off for Kenya, Eleanor and new husband Lamont move into a cabin at Lam's parents' fat camp for overweight children, and the groom takes off to spend their wedding night partying with friends. The marriage seems doomed from the outset, and Eleanor is confused about to do when she gives birth to her baby. Her married, childless older sister desperately wants to adopt the infant, as do Lam's parents, who lost another baby years earlier. Conversely, Elly's summer job as a counselor-in-training at the fat camp proves to be somewhat fulfilling, as she leads a dance class and becomes close to one troubled young camper. Although PREGNANT PAUSE may sound like it contains all the elements of a standard "problem novel," what makes it rise far beyond the genre is the complexity of the characterizations. Even supporting characters, such as Elly's and Lam's parents (not to mention Lam's grandmother, who only appears in a couple scenes) are limned with shades of gray, and Elly herself is particularly fascinating. Here is a character who grows and changes throughout the novel, frustrating the reader with a wide streak of immaturity yet also exhibiting sympathetic moments of self-awareness.

PRINTZ-WORTHY? If the committee is seeking a well-written, character-driven novel, PREGNANT PAUSE definitely deserves consideration.

What do YOU think?

Monday, November 7, 2011


Although young adult books are experiencing broad popularity, their subject matter seems to be growing increasingly narrow. Check out the new YA section of any bookstore or library and you'll see one high concept novel after another: dystopian, dystopian, vampire, teen with special fantasy powers, vampire, dystopian, dead teenager on a mission, dystopian. On and on. It's likely that any book that doesn't fit into these tight strictures will automatically draw attention. It will be interesting to see how the Printz committee handles this situation. Are they going to give the medal to the best vampire or dystopian novel (think last year's selection of SHIP BREAKER) or are they going to buck popular trends and be drawn to something completely different?

David Levithan's EVERY YOU, EVERY ME certainly qualifies as "different" in almost every category: theme, style, execution -- even physical appearance. The story is told by teenage Evan, mourning the loss of his best friend Ariel. Dramatic, enigmatic, and troubled ("If I ever ask you to get me a gun, don't. Whatever I say, don't."), Ariel is no longer part of Evan's life, and the reason for her absence is just one of the mysteries that unfolds in this singular novel. An even bigger mystery involves the identity of the person anonymously sending Evan photographs depicting past moments from his relationship with Ariel. The photos -- some in black-and-white, others in color -- add intrigue to the novel, as does Evan's unreliable voice. Addressing Ariel in the second-person throughout, Evan changes his mind, second-guesses himself, and edits his own thoughts so that words, sentences, and even entire chapters are lined-out; reading these redacted sections adds layers of emotion, as well as surprising revelations, to the story. EVERY YOU, EVERY ME has a lot to say about both the depths and limitations of human relationships, the lies we tell each other, and the lies we tell ourselves. It's a smart, strong book flawed only by a confusing and somewhat flat ending that doesn't live up to the potential of the novel's mysterious premise.

PRINTZ-WORTHY? Perhaps. Levithan's novel would certainly be a unique and much-discussed selection, even if the book is ultimately less than satisfying in its entirety.

What do YOU think?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Dreams of Signficant Girls

Vivian is a New Yorker, an aspiring chef of Cuban-Jewish descent; wild, "unhinged" Ingrid hails from Canada, and Shirin is a wealthy Iranian princess. The three girls meet at a Swiss boarding school in 1971 and return for two more summers filled with conflict, romance, and friendship. Related in the alternatiing first-person voices of the three young women, Cristina Garcia's DREAMS OF SIGNIFICANT GIRLS seems, at times, a teen version of a jet-setting potboiler by Judith Krantz or Jackie Collins; Shirin isn't just wealthy...she's so fabulously rich that her father springs for tuition for the other two girls, has their suite professionally decorated, and ships Arabian horses "via the Persian Gulf and the Arabian and Red Seas, then through the Suez Canal, across the Mediterranean, and up along the western coast of Italy to the French Riviera" just for the girls to ride during their month at summer school. Ingrid isn't just talented with a camera, but becomes a famous teenage photographer after shooting nude studies of her two BFFs. (Ingrid's sister, who is so unnecessary to the plot that she need never have been introduced, turns out to be a tennis prodigy.) Vivian's not just a good cook...she ends up competing in an international culinary competition. The sex scenes -- here is seventeen-year-old Ingrid describing her fifty-something art dealer lover -- are right out of Krantz as well: "We spent hours in bed. We took baths together. We rubbed scented lotions all over each other. We fed each other fruit and cheese, stark naked." Although the characters of the girls are well-differentiated, in both behavior and first-person narrative voice, they are pretty much done in by a plot forced to live up to the novel's lofty title. Every conflict they face is "significant" and oversized -- suicide, abortion, homosexuality -- while some of the plot twists hinge on coincidences that wouldn't make it out of a Writing 101 class. One, involving a connection between Vivian's and Ingrid's fathers, even has Ingrid saying, "What were the odds of this? Like one in seventeen trillion?" She later comments, "If I wrote this in a book, no one would believe me." She's right.

PRINTZ-WORTHY: No way. Unless the judges are swayed by the author's pedigree (which includes a National Book Award nomination for her adult novel DREAMING IN CUBAN) this book won't merit any "significant" attention from the Printz committee.

What do YOU think?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Where Things Come Back

So yesterday I was reading the Someday My Printz Will Come blog , which discussed potential Printz contenders. Among the comments was this one from Jennifer Hubert Swan:

Please don’t forget my favorite YA title of the year so far, Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley!

I thought, “Oh dear.”

Then I read this suggestion from Stephanie Wilkes:

I second Jennifer with Corey Whaley’s Where Things Come Back!

And I thought “Oh dear, oh dear.”

Just below that, Lisa McMann chimed in:

And I third it!

“Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.”

This might be one of those years -- one of those years when everyone is raving about a book that just leaves me cold. When I saw a sudden flurry of positive comments about this title, the way I did yesterday, it makes me think momentum is building. Will Where Things Come Back be a National Book Award nominee in just a few hours? The finalists will be announced just after noon on the radio and posted here. Will it wearing a shiny gold or silver Printz sticker come January?

I'm hoping not.

The protagonist of John Corey Whaley's novel is seventeen-year-old Cullen Witter, who finds it "very difficult to deal with the boredom brought on by living in Lily" -- Lily, Alabama, populartion 3,947. Actually, life in Lily may seem fairly hectic to the average reader, considering all that goes in this story -- including the death of Cullen's druggy cousin, rumors that Lily might harbor an extinct Lazarus woodpecker, and the sudden disappearance of Cullen's rather mystical younger brother Gabriel. The story of Gabriel's disappearance is related in alternate chapters that take place in Africa, as well as Georgia, and dip into such topics as missionary life, suicide, teenage marriage, and a missing book of the Bible. The story is busy and the characters remain frustratingly distant. (It doesn't help that narrator Cullen frequently goes off into third-person tangents, referring to himself as "one," as in: "When one enters the kitchen to find his mother, father, and best friend all seated in front of a stack of uneaten pancakes, he knows that something strange has happened.") And while sex is usually a Big Deal in the life of your average teenager, Cullen's blase attitude about not one, but two different sexual affairs is so offhand that the book feels more like an adult novel about teens, rather than a YA story written for teens. Though the complex plot is intriguing, the remote characterizations, many unfinished subplots, and cold storytelling may not appeal to the targeted teenage audience.

PRINTZ-WORTHY? Well, it's certainly different from most current YA novels, which alone may merit the book award consideration. But it's also a book that sacrifices everyday emotion for "high concepts" and "big ideas." If the Printz committee sways that way, it may stand a chance. But I won't be a happy camper.

What do YOU think?