Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Printz Award Winners: 2009

How nice to have a little break for the holidays. I got quite a bit of reading done, so I'm ready to give you my latest report on the books the American Library Association deemed "exemplify literary excellence in young adult literature" in 2009.

Melina Marchetta, Jellicoe Road
Honor books:
M. T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 2: The Kingdom on the Waves
Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels
E. Lockhart, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
Terry Pratchett, Nation

Anderson's Octavian Nothing, Vol. 2: The first volume in this historical pair was an honor book in 2007, and was one of my favorites that year for its unique perspective on the American Revolution. The first book recounted Octavian's journey from coddled experimental subject to escaped slave, and in this book he decides the road to freedom is best achieved by joining Loyalist naval forces. His experiences are sometimes harrowing and always interesting, as he develops into a young man and tries to decide what freedom means to him. The "discovered journal" format continues to serve the story well, giving us a somewhat ambiguous ending that seems true to history. Together these two books were one of my favorites I read last year.

Lanagan's Tender Morsels: I'd really enjoyed Lanagan's Printz-honor collection from 2006, so I was looking forward to see what she'd do with the novel form. She started with the Snow White-Rose Red fairy tale, sprinkled in a strange mountain ritual involving bearskins, and came up with this astonishing fantasy in which an abused girl is transported into her "heaven" with her two baby daughters. As the two girls grow up, they get glimpses of the real world they left behind; when one accidentally returns to the real world, her mother and sister are forced to follow. They must leave "heaven" behind, and the three women's differing reactions to a world that—unlike their heaven—contains danger and violence along with opportunity and real love is fascinating to read. This is fantasy with real depth, but it's for more mature readers; the abuse the two girls' mother suffers is heart-wrenching to read.

Lockhart's Disreputable History: This book was a lot of fun, falling into the boarding-school genre established in that first YA, Catcher in the Rye, complete with a pranks and a secret society. What I loved about this book, though, was that Frankie's involvement with school pranks was more about her exploring her role as friend/girlfriend/clique member and what it means to try to fit in. So yes, this was a fun story about boarding school life among the rich people, but it had a real depth to it that would appeal to any teen (or older reader struggling with identity issues. (Disreputable History was also a National Book Award nominee in 2008.)

Pratchett's Nation: I've enjoyed several of Pratchett's works for adults, including his "Discworld" fantasies and the apocalypse satire Good Omens; he has that British flair for wordplay and dry humor I enjoy so much. This book seemed very different to me; not only was it "alternate history" rather than fantasy, it had a sincerity and earnestness I don't really see in his satires. There's still the same sense of wordplay, though, as the young island boy Mau struggles to unite the survivors that arrive on his island Nation in the South Pacific. The first survivor he meets is Daphne, who doesn't know that a plague has made her father the King of Great Britain instead of a very distant relative. (This is where the "alternate" part of the history comes in; Queen Victoria and most of her brood were still alive and kicking around 1860, when the novel takes place.) Although Mau's struggles for survival are engaging, as is his resourcefulness, the novel is really considering bigger issues, like are there gods? What is our duty to them, to ourselves, and to each other? What makes a nation? Although these are huge themes, they never overwhelm the book, owing to Pratchett's lively humor and intricate plot. Another book with an inner depth underlying an entertaining surface.

Marchetta's Jellicoe Road: And another Australian storms the Printz Awards! Although this is another book set inside a boarding school (this one in the Australian countryside) with its own rituals and battles, it is more of a family mystery—and what a mystery Taylor Markham has facing her. Abandoned by her mother at age 11, Taylor has grown up at the school, semi-adopted by Hannah, a young woman who lives on the school grounds. When Hannah disappears with no word, Taylor uses the manuscript Hannah left behind to try and decipher what has happened to her. She is aided by school chums and by the leaders of the townies and cadets who battle for territory around the school every year. As the story shifts between present, Taylor's shared past with the cadet leader Griggs, and Hannah's story of her own tragic youth, Taylor learns to open up emotionally even as the puzzle facing her becomes more complex. (Sorry, not going to be more specific and ruin the mystery for you.) This book was a little confusing to get into, what with all the shifting accounts, but it was worth it to get involved in an intricate mystery with a very satisfying resolution. It's nice when an author can take multiple threads and tie them up neatly at the end—good plotting is tough and it's fun to see it done well.

So all in all, another extremely good year for Printz books, maybe one of the best. And when I look at some of the books that didn't make it onto this list but onto the National Book Award list—like Laurie Halse Anderson's Chains, another wonderful historical novel set during the Revolution—you'd be safe to say it was a great year overall for YA books.

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