Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Printz Award Winners: 2001

Today I continue my survey of books honored by the Michael L. Printz Award, given annually by the American Library Association (ALA) to "the book that exemplifies literary excellence in young adult literature." Here were the awards in 2001, given to books published in 2000:

Kit's Wilderness by David Almond
Honor books:
Many Stones by Carolyn Coman
The Body of Christopher Creed by Carol Plum-Ucci
Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison
Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman

I couldn't manage to read all five of these books, not least because I couldn't get my hands on them. My local library, which has a pretty huge collection, only had the Plum-Ucci in house; the Almond was only available as an audio book, and the Rennison had been lost. I guess this shows how much influence the Printz Award had at the time ... not much. My local bookstores didn't have the Almond in stock (I had to mail order), and the Rennison didn't have the medal on the front, like most winners do ... but more on that later. Here are my thoughts on the books:

Coman's Many Stones (honor book): I don't know why my library didn't have this book about a girl whose trip to post-Apartheid South Africa with her father helps her heal family wounds. It sounds interesting and Coman is a previous Newbery Honor winner, too. But I was already investing in the winner, so I didn't spring to buy this one, too. (Many Stones was also a National Book Award finalist.*)

Plum-Ucci's The Body of Christopher Creed (honor book): This was a great read, differing from what you might usually think of as a mystery. It opens with the narrator Torey Adams, a self-described "formerly Mr. All-American Football Kicker, Blond Geeky Haircut for Little League and All That," writing from his senior year at a boarding school, where he has obviously been sent to avoid some issues back home. The bulk of the story is his account of his junior year back home in small-town New Jersey, and what happened when the class weirdo, Christopher Creed, suddenly disappears with no evidence but a mysterious note. Was it suicide? Murder? The casual high-school gossip about Chris bothers Torey, and as he becomes involved with a fellow student who others assume is involved in the disappearance, Torey comes under suspicion himself. This may sound like a traditional mystery setup, but as the book progresses, it's more about small towns and gossip and how people twist the truth to fit what they need to believe. The start was a little slow, but the book became thoroughly engrossing by the totally believable ending. (The Body of Christopher Creed was also a finalist for the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.)

Rennison's Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging (honor book): As you might be able to tell from the title, Rennison is a Brit, and this comic novel is veddy British indeed. In fact, it reminded me of nothing so much as a Bridget Jones's Diary for the teen set. The main character, fourteen-year-old Georgia, even tells her story in diary format. She has weird parents and an incontinent little sister, isn't great at school, and is obsessed with boys and kissing (snogging)—ie, not much different than your average teen. The book was the first in a now ten-volume series, so that's why there's no Printz medal on the cover—they're marketing directly to teens, not to librarians.

Trueman's Stuck in Neutral (honor book): This slim volume has an intriguing concept: what if a severely disabled fourteen year old, despite the cerebral palsy that leaves him unable to communicate with the outside world, is really an articulate genius? Shawn has a sense of humor about his situation, although he worries about the toll it takes on his family. His father left because he couldn't stand seeing Shawn suffer—at least, he thinks Shawn is suffering. Shawn finds much to enjoy about his life, despite his limitations, and worries his father may try to put him "out of his misery." As the author develops the relationship between Shawn and his often-absent father, he also leaves it open whether or not the story ends with Shawn's death. It's a very unique book, but had somewhat limited appeal for me once it answered the "what if" question about what kind of mind could exist within a body incapable of communication.

Almond's Kit's Wilderness (winner): Almond was on the honor list the previous year for his story Skellig, and this novel had a similar element of magical realism throughout. Kit Watson has returned with his family to live in the old mining town where his grandfather spent his career. Kit falls in with a group of kids led by John Askew, a tough son of a mining family, and they play a game called "Death," where they meet in an abandoned mine and then leave one child alone in the dark to see how long he will wait before coming out. After his turn in the mine, Kit seems to see ghosts of workers (many of them children) lost during the mine's history. When his grandfather becomes ill and John Askew runs away, Kit uses these ghosts—or it is just his storytelling ability—to bring them home. As he shares with a friend, "Telling stories is a kind of magic." Kit's Wilderness has multiple layers, as Kit's grandfather shares ghost stories and Kit writes his own tale of a prehistoric boy separated from his family, although it's not that challenging to follow, in Almond's simple yet evocative language. I found it an intriguing book, but the mining-town setting and complexity might be a bit much for some young readers. (Kit's Wilderness was also a Carnegie Medal shortlist.)

So how would I have voted that year? (Considering I didn't get to read all the books, that is.) Well, the Rennison was amusing but lightweight and the Trueman somewhat one-dimensional (although the one dimension was interesting). The Almond was certainly the most literary of the bunch, but I think I would have favored Plum-Ucci's The Body of Christopher Creed, which managed to use the mystery genre format to explore larger issues of interest to teens.

*Only one overlap between the Printz and the NBA lists this year, as opposed to two in 2000. The winner was Gloria Whelan's Homeless Bird, a book for ages 8-12 about an Indian girl's arranged marriage.

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