Angela Johnson, The First Part Last
Jennifer Donnelly, A Northern Light
Helen Frost, Keesha's House
K.L. Going, Fat Kid Rules the World
Carolyn Mackler, The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things
Donnelly's A Northern Light: I was really looking forward to reading this one, ever since I got my hands on an advance copy of the author's latest, Revolution, my favorite book of last quarter. This was a completely different type of book, being a pure historical rather than a modern-historical-magic realism (maybe?) hybrid, set in northern New York in 1906. It was inspired by the notorious murder that also inspired Theodore Dreiser's classic An American Tragedy, and opens with the discovery of Grace Mae Brown's body in Big Moose Lake. It is assumed that she and her male friend, two guests at an Adirondacks hotel, both drowned after an excursion on the lake. But hotel maid Mattie Gokey comes to suspect something different when she peeks into the letters that Grace asked her to burn before she died.
This seems like a straightforward mystery—and one that will be easily solved, once Mattie gets the courage to look at the letters—but the greater mystery actually lies in Mattie's own background. Although the novel opens with a body at the hotel, there are frequent flashbacks to Mattie's life on her father's farm, taking care of her three younger sisters despite a burning desire to write and go to college. Mattie made a promise to her mother on her deathbed to take care of the family, so each time we see Mattie in the present, working at the hotel despite her father's disapproval, we wonder not only what she will do about the letters, but how did she ever get here? With each flashback we think we have a better grasp on it, but only at the end does everything come together for Mattie, with each plot strand contributing to a satisfying conclusion. It's a wonderful example of how to use structure to amplify your story, as the use of flashback enhances the mystery and character development. (A Northern Light also won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for YA fiction and Britain's Carnegie Medal, under the title A Gathering Light.)
Frost's Keesha's House: Grrrr. My library didn't have this, and it looks interesting: a series of stories, all told in different poetic forms, about teens who find refuge for their various troubles at the inner-city home where Keesha lives with an unofficial guardian. I'm always interested in what people can do with poetry, so maybe I'll get this on loan later.
Mackler's The Earth, My Butt, etc.: I heard the author speak at this summer's SCBWI conference (an engaging talk on writing though good times and bad), and got my very own autographed copy of this honor book. The voice of her book's narrator, Virginia Shreves, was equally engaging as she opens the book by relating how her not-quite-boyfriend almost made it to second base with her—and all she could think about was whether he would see the bubber underneath her shirt. Virginia is a plus-sized girl in an average-sized family of overachievers, and she is having difficulty coping with their expectations, as well as the usual high school social pressures. For a while she tries to conform and get along, but a shocking accusation directed at the older brother she idolizes leads her to start standing up for herself and discover who she actually wants to be. It was a satisfying to see Virginia grow and change, without having the "makeover" ending you would get in a movie.
Going's Fat Kid Rules the World: Was the Printz committee having body issues this year? Another book told in first person by an overweight teen living in New York, that doesn't end with them miraculously slimming down and transforming their life? The similarities are superficial, though: whereas Mackler's Virginia is from a upper-middle-class, two-parent family, Going's Troy is from a poorer neighborhood and is living with his brother and their widowed father. His story opens as he is considering jumping off a subway platform into a train; he is stopped by a grubby, skinny older kid who turns out to be a legendary musician from Troy's high school. Curt sees something in Troy, inviting him to become his drummer, and despite his lack of self-confidence Troy responds. Curt has his own troubles, though, and Troy has to muster the guts to save his life in turn. While I found Curt's character a little unbelievable—kind of a drugged-out, male version of the manic pixie dreamgirl archetype, existing more to enable Troy's character development than to have a life of his own—Troy himself seemed fully realized and his story was very entertaining.
Johnson's The First Part Last: This is another novel that makes great use of a dual timeline to create mystery and add impact to the story. It's narrated by 16-year-old Bobby, who is alternately exhilarated and exhausted by his new baby daughter, Feather. His struggles to be a good parent alternate with flashbacks to the days when he was carefree and hanging out with his friends. When he discovers his girlfriend Nia is pregnant, they (with the help of their parents) decide to give the baby up for adoption. Therein lies the mystery: if they had decided on adoption, why does Bobby now have Feather, and why does he parent her alone? I found the answer, which comes at the very end of the book, both unexpected and moving. Johnson also subverts a lot of stereotypes with this novel: not only do we see a young man feeling tender and paternal, but her African American New Yorkers are not fatherless ghetto kids, but middle-class achievers who have the loving support of two parents (although one set is divorced). I think too often when people think of books with African American characters, they think of inner-city or historical settings, so it's nice to read one that shows a broader experience. This was a short but very powerful little book. (The First Part Last also won the Coretta Scott King Award for Fiction in 2004.)
So, how might I have voted this year? All the books I read were enjoyable, and while Johnson's First Part Last was a little gem, I have a thing for historicals, and Donnelly's A Northern Light was not only interesting as a historical but also as a mystery and as an wonderfully structured piece of writing.
An interesting note: this year there was no crossover at all with the list for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, even though four of the five NBA finalists, including the winner, Pete Hautman's Godless, were YA novels. More evidence reinforcing how subjective these kinds of awards really are.