It's been tricky finding time to read, but luckily I'd already read two of the books on the 2007 list that "exemplify literary excellence in young adult literature," according to the American Library Association. It was an outstanding year for Printz books.
Gene Luen Yang, American Born Chinese
M.T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party
John Green, An Abundance of Katherines
Sonya Hartnett, Surrender
Marcus Zusak, The Book Thief
Anderson's Octavian Nothing, Vol. 1: This is an extraordinary historical novel set during the American Revolution, with its title character not a rebel or a loyalist, but a slave. The story is told through diary entries and letters, all with a formal language that enhances the historical feel. Octavian's story is told in four parts, and that's how I consumed the novel. The first part was fascinating, as we see Octavian's childhood growing up as an experiment in a research college. He is taught Latin and Greek and music (and has his poop weighed every day), while his mother, an African princess, is treated like a lady. Of course he has a gradual discovery of what their slavery really means, especially after smallpox ravages the college and his mother dies in part two. Part three covers his escape to rebel forces, and part four his recapture. The depth of the character and story kept building with each part I finished, and I eagerly turned to Vol II. You'll have to wait for the 2009 reviews for that one, sorry. (Octavian Vol. 1 also won the National Book Award for Children's Literature.)
Green's An Abundance of Katherines: Green floored me with his dark Printz-winning debut, and I enjoyed his second novel just as much, although it had a completely different tone. Colin, the narrator, is a former child math prodigy who has been dumped by 19 girls named Katherine. The later dumping has occured after high-school graduation and Colin, afraid he will never demonstrate any genius again, goes on a road trip with his friend Hassan. They end up in Tennesee and take a job for a woman who owns a tampon-string factory, and Colin discovers mathematical formulae cannot substitute for (or explain) love. I loved the comic tone of the book, which used footnotes and other asides to enhance the humor, and although I'm not thrilled with Green's reliance on the manic pixie dream girl archetype, I really enjoyed the novel. The nerd jokes were right up my alley.
Hartnett's Surrender: This novel by an Australian author really floored me. I'm not sure how to describe it without ruining the story, because it's a psychological thriller that's more of a mystery than a pure thriller. At least I can give you the opening setup: a young man named Gabriel lies dying, wondering if his old childhood friend Finnegan will visit him before the end and bring his dog, Surrender. Years before, back when Gabriel was known as Anwell and was involved in a horrible tragedy, the two boys made a pact: Anwell/Gabriel would embody the good for the two boys, and Finnegan the bad. Now that human bones have been discovered in a forest nearby, however, things start to unravel, leading to a surprising and violent climax. The mystery was engaging and the resolution, and although it's the kind that gives more questions than answers, was very satisfying. It's a haunting book that stays with you.
Zusak's The Book Thief: Another gem of a book from Australia (and again much different than his previous Printz honoree), this story set in Nazi Germany and narrated by Death hit bestseller lists around the world. Death is fascinated by young Liesel, whom he first encounters when her young brother dies on a trip when the two siblings are being taken to live with foster parents. During the trip she steals her first book, a guide for gravediggers, and her new foster father teaches her to read using the book. She is soon stealing books from book burnings and the mayor's house, reading and writing being a way for her to cope with the increasingly difficult conditions under the Nazi regime. She has two other encounters with Death, who at the end notes "I am haunted by humans" like Liesel. Even if you think you have fatigue with WWII/Holocaust stories, this one is so powerful and hopeful—attesting to the eternal power of words—that I think you would enjoy it.
Yang's American Born Chinese: The winner this year was actually a graphic novel, a field that's always been popular with YAs, but only lately has branched out to broader topics. This novel is three related stories in one, beginning with the trouble young Jin Wang, son of Chinese immigrants, is having in assimilating into his American school. The second story builds on the Chinese folk character of the Monkey King, who in the book keeps accumulating power to prove he is more than just a monkey. The third story is presented like a television sitcom starring Danny, a blond American teen who keeps changing schools every time his Chinese cousin Chin-Kee, an amalgam of Asian stereotypes, comes to visit. As the novel bounces back and forth between the three stories, we see the connections as each character struggles to define their identities without denying their origins. I thought it was very cleverly presented, although I didn't find it that revelatory, being somewhat far removed from my own teenage struggle for identity (ie, old and irrelevant). I certainly can see why it's considered a groundbreaker in graphic novels for young people, although there has been great work in the genre for years. (American Born Chinese was also a National Book Award finalist, and won an Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album: New.)
So all in all, a superlative year for YA literature, and I would be hard pressed to choose a favorite among these books. I suppose it would depend on my mood, because there was something for my inner history, math, and book-loving geeks, and they're not very good at fighting it out.
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Monday, December 6, 2010
In July 1999 we rented a car and drove around the northwest part of Ireland, and in County Galway we found this cute little castle, Aughnanure. It's not a huge complex, like you generally think of when you hear the word "castle," but rather a "tower house," a defensive structure that was designed to defend a key strategic location. There are a couple hundred of these "castles" in County Galway, and Aughnanure lies near Lough Corrib, the second largest lake in Ireland, and near enough to the city of Galway to be an important water supply. As you can see, the castle was in a bit of disrepair, although thankfully it was sturdy enough for us to climb the ruins. Because if you're going to visit a ruined castle, you should at least be able to climb around it like a bunch of monkeys and play hide and seek.