Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Printz Award Winners: 2002

Continuing my look through those books the American Library Association considers books that "exemplify literary excellence in young adult literature," I look at the honorees from 2002.

Winner: An Na, A Step from Heaven
Honor citations:
Peter Dickinson, The Ropemaker
Jan Greenberg, editor, Heart to Heart: New Poems Inspired by Twentieth-Century American Art
Chris Lynch, Freewill
Virginia Euwer Wolff, True Believer

Dickinson’s The Ropemaker (honor book): Brit Dickinson is another award-laden author—winner of two Carnegie Medals, Britain’s highest honor for children’s writers—that I probably should have read long before this, but somehow never got around to it. He writes in a variety of genres both historical and fantastic, and The Ropemaker is a fantasy in the epic quest vein. When the magic that has protected the Valley’s peaceful people from the Empire’s oppression begins to wane after twenty generations, Tilja and three other descendants of the Valley’s last questers leave to find the magician who can renew the forest magic. At first Tilja feels out of place because she has none of the Valley magics shared by her companions, but she gradually discovers she has a power that may be the only way for them to achieve their goal. Tilja is a very thoroughly drawn character, but the plot itself was a fairly standard—if vividly imagined—quest story.

Greenberg's Heart to Heart (honor book): as this was more of an art book and a collection, I passed on checking this one out.

Lynch’s Freewill (honor book): This was a very interesting little book (about 150 pages). While normally books are told in either third person (he did, she said) or first person (I did)—the latter is almost a given for YA books—this little gem was an unusual experiment in second-person narrative (you did, you said). While generally I find these kind of experiments extremely self-conscious and/or overly literary, this one really worked well with the subject and tone of the book. The main character (named Will, as you might expect) is a young man who is extremely confused and almost dissociated from himself and other people following a family tragedy. The book opens with someone complimenting him on a table he made in wood shop class—a piece he doesn’t remember making: “Why are you here? (the narrator says) Whose table is that? Why are you in wood shop? You are meant to be a pilot.” When the strange wooden totems Will is making in class start turning up at memorial sites of a string of local teen suicides, things become even more confusing. Is Will predicting their fate? Is he orchestrating it subconsciously? Is his work and his confusion being used by someone else? The second-person narration not only keeps the reader guessing throughout, it serves extremely well as a way of communicating Will’s precarious state of mind. This wasn’t an easy book to get into (the second-person narration does require adjustments in the reader), but it was fascinating to read.

Wolff’s True Believer (honor book): Ack, this is a sequel, and I really didn’t have time to read the first in the trilogy, Make Lemonade, although I’d heard good things about it. Like Lemonade, True Believer is told in verse from the point of view of LaVaughn, a teenage girl who is determined to go to college someday as a way of escaping the challenges and dangers of inner city life. One thing she is determined not to do is get distracted by boys (a baby would derail her college dreams), although when her childhood friend Jody returns to the neighborhood she finds it difficult not to indulge her romantic dreams. LaVaughn also faces challenges from new classes at school and from old friends who are growing apart—pretty standard fare for a YA novel, but LaVaughn’s honest voice, and the free verse with which she tells her story, raise it several levels above the usual YA. It made me want to go back and find time to read the first (and third) novels in LaVaughn’s trilogy. (True Believer also won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.)

Na’s A Step from Heaven (winner): This debut novel from a Korean American author is short but memorable, chronicling one girl’s immigrant experience through a series of short scenes. Young Ju is four years old when we first meet her, experiencing the ocean’s waves for the first time, and when her parents talk of leaving their home for Mi Gook—America—she thinks they are talking about heaven. Her adjustments to a new land, a new language, a new school, and a new family dynamic are told in a voice that grows along with Young Ju. The narration was really outstanding in this book: Young Ju is believable whether relating her earliest memories in simple and straightforward language, or sharing her terrifying experiences with domestic violence as a mature teenager. Interestingly, my library shelved their copies of this book in the adult fiction section, and I wonder whether this book might hold more appeal for adults because of its broad scope. It covers much more time than most YA books, and focuses not so much on telling a specific series of events as on revealing a character. In any case, I found it fascinating. (A Step from Heaven was also a finalist for the National Book Award.)

So overall, my thoughts on this year’s books? I think they demonstrated a higher caliber than the previous year’s, and I might have had a very difficult time choosing between the four I read. The voices in Freewill, True Believer, and A Step from Heaven were all so different and yet all so memorable, it really seems a matter of personal preference. I wouldn’t be surprised to see all three of these books endure for quite some time.

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