Friday, December 31, 2010

The Printz Award Winners: 2008

I've been plugging away at the list, using the cold weather as an excuse to stay inside and read while using the exercise bike rather than going outside to run. That means a little more reading time, and I've made it through the list of books from 2008 that the ALA deemed were those that "exemplify literary excellence in young adult literature."

Geraldine McCaughrean, The White Darkness
Honor books:
Judith Clarke, One Whole and Perfect Day
Stephanie Hemphill, Your Own, Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath
A.M. Jenkins, Repossessed
Elizabeth Knox, Dreamquake: Book Two of the Dreamhunter Duet

Clarke's One Whole and Perfect Day: Another Aussie makes the Printz list, with a book that didn't feel YA to me at all. Sure, the main character is a teen, a girl who feels like her family is totally crazy and hopes that maybe her grandfather's upcoming birthday party might be a chance to have something go right for a change. But her point of view isn't the only one: we get scenes from the point of view of her mother, her grandparents, her brother, her brother's girlfriend, her brother's girlfriend's mother (and father)—characters with a wide variety of ages and backgrounds. YA books are usually in the first person, and even when they aren't they're usually focused on one character's point of view. To include the thoughts of—gasp! adults, especially adult family members—seems really really unusual. That's not to say I didn't enjoy the book, it was fun and the characters were interesting, I'm just not sure how open most teens are to reading about the enemy's, er, their parents' or grandparents' side of things.

Hemphill's Your Own, Sylvia: The author labels this a "verse novel" that is based on the life of the poet Sylvia Plath, who famously committed suicide via gas oven at age 30, with her children in the next room. I've mostly known about the controversy surrounding her death and her legacy (her estate was controlled by her husband, poet Ted Hughes, from whom she was separated at the time of her suicide), and the whole kerfuffle turned me off of wanting to know more. Hemphill's verse novel/biography combines poems, sometimes in the style of Plath's own work, with brief explanations of the biographical facts behind the event described in the poem. The triumph of Hemphill's work is not just the wonderful poems which trace Plath's life and work, envisioning her and the people around her, but that it made me think I've been missing something. The poems moved me, both as verse and as story, and made me want to go to the library.

Jenkins's Repossessed: It seems like YA has been flooded with supernatural fiction over the past few years,  what with all the vampires, angels, werewolves, fairies, and other creatures starring in their own novels. This book features a demon—sorry, a fallen angel—who tires of tormenting souls in hell and decides to take a vacation on earth. He assumes the life of a slacker teen scheduled to be creamed by a bus, and discovers the fun of having a physical body, and the complexities of having feelings. After a few philosophical discoveries—has anyone noticed he's left Hell? does God pay attention anyway?—Kiriel leaves Earth behind, having tried to make a difference in a couple of people's lives. This book was a pleasant-enough read, but I didn't find it revelatory, having left that kind of philosophical angst behind during my own teen years.

Knox's Dreamquake: Although I had access to this book, I didn't think I could fairly judge it without reading the first volume, which was checked out of the library. Rather than wait, and postpone this blog entry weeks and weeks, I took my first pass for a while. Too bad; this fantasy looked interesting.

McCaughrean's The White Darkness: Wowee. I had no idea what this book was about when I cracked it open—I had some vague idea it might be a fantasy, given the dreamy-looking cover and the acclaimed British author's previous work in retelling myths—but it turned out to be a contemporary adventure set in Antarctica. The story is told by Sym, a 14-year-old Brit who is fascinated with both Antarctica and the polar explorer Lawrence "Titus" Oates,  who perished on Scott's fatal expedition in 1912. Sym feels estranged from her schoolmates, most of whom are obsessed with boys and clothes—we don't discover she is partially deaf until a few chapters into the book—and often talks to Titus in her head. When her "uncle" turns a weekend in Paris into a trip to Antarctica, Sym is thrilled at first. As she discovers more about her uncle's true intentions and his past relationship with her family, the novel turns into a terrifying, hallucinatory journey into the cold and the blinding white of Antarctica. It was an intense story of survival, and even if it did push the boundaries of disbelief in places, it was a fascinating portrayal of one of our planet's last frontiers.

So overall, I didn't think it was a great year for the Printz books. A couple of them I thought were interesting enough to read once, but kind of forgettable. The National Book Award winner from this year was Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which I have read and do think will endure, while the runners-up included Sara Zarr's Story of a Girl, which I thought would speak more to teens, especially girls. Of the Printz books I read, I'd probably pick Hemphill's as my favorite ... but as a writer I may be inclined to favor books about writers.

I would say at this point I've only two more years of award-winners to read, but the 2011 awards will be announced in February, so I may not finish by then ... keep posted to see.

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