Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Printz Award Winners: 2003

In this installment of my survey of those books that "exemplify literary excellence in young adult literature," according to the American Library Association, I consider the honorees from 2003.

Aidan Chambers, Postcards from No Man's Land
Honor books:
Nancy Farmer, House of the Scorpion
Garret Freymann-Weyr, My Heartbeat
Jack Gantos, Hole in My Life

These four works couldn't have been more different, but they were all excellent reads.

Farmer’s House of the Scorpion: this is a brilliant piece of speculative science fiction, of the kind you rarely find in books for children or young adults. While fantasy is extremely popular for this audience—fairy tales are some of the first tales we tell children, after all—it seems many authors are hesitant (or unable) to explore the more complex ideas posited by sci fi. The idea Farmer explores—cloning, and whether clones are human and deserve the same rights—could be very complicated, but the way she approaches it makes it simple: she tells the story from the point of view of Matt, a four-year-old living in isolation with his caretaker in the middle of a poppy field. Matt doesn’t know he’s a clone, he only knows he is supposed to stay hidden, even from the local children who happen by. When he can’t resist their invitations to come play, he gets injured and they take him home. His escape shows him two different things: that he is both valuable—everyone around him is worried for his safety—and yet also an “animal” who is filthy and not fit to be among humans. After a period of isolation where he is caged like an animal, he is rescued and learns the truth: he is the clone of El Patrón, an elderly but brutal drug lord who has the power to ignore laws requiring that a clone’s brain be destroyed at “birth” (clones are grown inside cows, and thus not legally “human”), and raise him instead as a real boy.

The book continues to follow Matt from age 4 to age 14, as he learns who and what he is, eventually discovering (and trying to escape from) the dangerous implications of being a clone. The brilliance of the book is that it works for readers of varying sophistication. More mature readers will understand right away that clones are intended for spare parts, and that Matt only has a future as long as El Patrón’s health holds out. Younger readers may not grasp this concept, but they gradually learn about it as Matt does. No matter how much the readers understand of the idea of cloning, they both experience a sense of growing dread, and both find a rewarding reading experience in sharing Matt’s coming of age story. The ALA recognized this broad appeal, awarding the book not only a Printz honor but a Newbery honor as well (the first of only two books so honored); the novel also won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

Freymann-Weyr's My Heartbeat: this novel presents an interesting triangle: although 14-year-old Ellen is in love with her brother Link's best friend James, she recognizes they are devoted to each other and she is lucky to be included in their activities together. Things change drastically when a friend at school asks if the boys are "a couple" and she can't put the idea out of her mind. She asks them directly if they are "together" and their differing answers cause a rupture. Ellen becomes James's confidante (and eventual lover) while she struggles to understand her brother's behavior and his role in the family. This is a very mature and thoughtful book—maybe a bit too mature, with a 14-year-old narrator who seems more perceptive than most girls her age—but it was an interesting look at complex characters.

Gantos's Hole in My Life: and for something again completely different, we have this memoir by the award-winning author of the comic "Joey Pigza" series for middle graders. There is little to laugh about in the subject matter, however, as Gantos relates how he lived on his own in a welfare hotel during his senior year of high school before joining his family on the Caribbean island of St. Croix. After briefly working for his father, the aspiring writer agrees to help sail a ship filled with a ton of hash up to New York. He hopes for adventure but instead finds an FBI investigation that results in a smuggling conviction and hard time. Gantos has to decide how he will cope with jail, and what kind of person he will try to become.

I didn't read this book, but listened to it unabridged, read by the author. He relates his story in a blunt and simple style (and lots of humor, despite the serious subject); even so, I was impressed with some of his turns of phrase, like how he created a “blazing bonfire of blame” during his first week in prison. He effectively communicates how thoughtlessness led to one huge mistake without sounding preachy, and the memoir not only works as a "scared straight" story but as the account of a writer's birth. I don't think I've read a more brave and honest book, the author revealing things about himself most people would rather hide.

Chambers's Postcards from No Man's Land: Chambers has been writing groundbreaking novels since the late 1970s, and in 2002 won the Hans Christian Anderson Award, awarded biennially by the International Board on Books for Young People for "lasting contributions to children's literature." This is his most acclaimed novel, also winning Britain's Carnegie Medal in 1999. You'll notice it took a couple of years for it to make it over the pond, and I'm not surprised: it has a very complex structure that relates several interweaving stories. The first is of British teenager Jacob, who is visiting Holland both to attend a commemorative service for the battle of Arnhem, where his grandfather fought, and to meet Geertrui, the Dutch woman who sheltered his grandfather after he was wounded. He begins with a few misadventures in Amsterdam (his belongings are stolen), and his story is interwoven with Geertrui's, a first-person account of how the British paratroopers landed in their neighborhood and how she came to shelter and then fall in love with a wounded soldier left behind during the British retreat. This passages are themselves interwoven with a few actual war accounts from paratroopers, many of whom were teenagers themselves, recounting their experiences of the Battle of Arnheim.

So we have Jacob finding himself during his travels in Amsterdam and Arnheim, Geertrui experiencing first love, and a few assorted soldier's accounts of battle. An impatient reader might get lost in the complex structure, but each character is distinct and clear, and their individual struggles are compelling to read. It was a very interesting and satisfying novel to read, although it could be challenging for some young teen readers. It has a lot of crossover appeal for adults, and I can understand why it won a ton of awards.

For me, however, I can't get over how much I love Farmer's House of the Scorpion. It does such a good job of taking the all the things I love about science fiction—interesting ideas that inspire creative answers to that eternal question "What if?"—and making it accessible to readers of all ages. I not only enjoy her book as a reader, I admire it as a writer, making it my clear favorite of the bunch.


  1. I think I'd like to read the Farmer book. Do you have a copy I could borrow?

  2. Yep, I'll set it aside for you.