Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Printz Award Winners: 2006

The pace of fall hasn't slowed any, but I have with a twisted ankle ... meaning instead of running, walking, or TKD I've been using the exercise bike. I can read while I bike, and I've  made it through the books from 2006 that "exemplify literary excellence in young adult literature," according to the American Library Association.

John Green, Looking for Alaska
Honor books:
Margo Lanagan, Black Juice
Marilyn Nelson, A Wreath for Emmett Till
Elizabeth Partridge, John Lennon: All I Want Is the Truth, a Photographic Biography
Markus Zusak, I Am the Messenger

Lanagan's Black Juice: This collection of short stories from an Australian writer was trippy, wild, imaginative, and right up my alley. The author used all different kinds of fantastic settings, but only one was what you might think of as traditional fantasy, with a medieval-type setup. Sometimes it took a little patience to figure out the setting—one was futuristic punk, one seemed an African or aboriginal setting, one I didn't know how to describe—but they were all worth it. Lanagan creates snapshots of wildly different worlds, all with something interesting and powerfully moving at the center. I gobbled this book up very quickly. (Black Juice also won two World Fantasy Awards, for best collection and best short story for "Singing My Sister Down.")

A Wreath for Emmett Till: I'd heard of this book before, and was familiar with the subject—the fourteen-year-old African American boy who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955—but I didn't know that Nelson's book was actually a cycle of 15 interlinked sonnets, a form called a heroic crown. The last line of the first sonnet made up the first line of the second sonnet, etc etc, until the 15th sonnet, which is made up of the first lines of the previous fourteen. The format itself is impressive—especially when you see the first lines of the last sonnet spell out "RIP Emmett Till"—but the poetry is just as exhilarating. She uses imagery from popular culture, mythology, and history; links the hate of lynching to the attacks of 9/11, imagining a grown up Till becoming a hero in the towers; and calls for an end to hate. I read the book through once, then again with the notes the author includes at the end, explaining some of her references, and was thoroughly impressed. This book should be read not just by kids who need to understand the civil rights era, but by kids who don't think they like poetry. It's a wonderful, wonderful book, and the first thing I wanted to do after finishing it was share it with someone else. (A Wreath for Emmett Till also won a Coretta Scott King Honor citation from the ALA.)

Partridge's John Lennon: this heavily illustrated biography was one of the books that has led a renaissance of sorts in nonfiction for kids, as it seems lately there is at least one nonfiction book (if not more) that scores a major honors every year. And this is a very appealing book, liberally supplied with photos, that tells the story of Lennon's life from the time he was born until his murder in 1980. As someone who writes a lot of nonfiction, I really admire Partridge's judicious use of historical context, giving us just enough history to understand the events in Lennon's life without interrupting the flow of the story. The  structure is simple, the pacing quick, and the subject compelling, making for a good read for any age.

Zusak's I Am the Messenger: this novel by an Australian novelist felt more like what they're now calling "new adult" literature rather than "young adult," as the main character, Ed, is out of high school and struggling to find purpose in his life. Chance seemingly sets him on a new path when he inadvertently thwarts a bank robbery, leading someone to send him playing cards in the mail with strange messages. The cards set Ed a series of tasks in which he is to help people, sometimes by directly intervening in their lives and sometimes just taking small actions that send a powerful message. Ed is an interesting character, and his struggle was compelling reading, but as the novel progressed and he learned more about who was sending him the cards, I found the story taking a metafictional turn that I found irritating. It was an entertaining read, but left me slightly unsatisfied at the end. (I Am the Messenger also won the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Award.)

Green's Looking for Alaska: This novel, I think, was another game-changer in YA fiction, for its frank depiction of teenage "misbehavior." At the very least it introduced an incredible new voice in the genre. The "Alaska" of the title is not the state, but a girl that Miles "Pudge" Halter meets soon after starting classes at an Alabama boarding school. Alaska is wild and mysterious and Pudge is soon head over heels ... but the relationship doesn't last (because of a twist I won't reveal), and he and his friends are left trying to piece together why. The book has often been challenged by censors for its portrayal of teenage sex, smoking, cursing, and drinking—but none of these behaviors are gratuitous, and we see the consequences of the characters' poor choices, so these elements only strengthen the emotional honesty and power of the novel. I read this novel last year, and quickly sought out Green's other books.

So how might I have voted among this books? I have to say that I thought this year's finalists the strongest across the board since the first year of the Printz Award, and it would have been a hard decision. But I think Alaska is likely to be the longest lasting of the bunch, so I think I would have had to agree with the panel.

Can I manage to get to 2007 by the end of the month? I'm certainly going to try ... only four years of the award left to cover, and I'd like to get there by the end of the year.

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