Saturday, December 10, 2011

Pregnant Pause

In the early days of young adult fiction, there was a sub-genre of novels concerning "young marrieds" -- books that explored the ups-and-downs of teenage marriage; pregnancy sometimes played a role in these stories, though usually not until the latter half of the book when the young wife discovered she was going to have a child and joyfully told her husband the big news. By the time the late sixties and early seventies rolled around, marriage was out -- but pregnancy remained an hot issue in YA fiction, with many novels focusing on teenagers expecting babies outside the bounds of matrimony. Han Nolan's latest, PREGNANT PAUSE, revives the "young married" novel for a new age, focusing on pregnant sixteen-year-old Eleanor Crowe, a drinkin', druggin', near-delinquent who is pushed into marriage by her religious missionary parents. Immediately after her courthouse wedding, Eleanor's parents take off for Kenya, Eleanor and new husband Lamont move into a cabin at Lam's parents' fat camp for overweight children, and the groom takes off to spend their wedding night partying with friends. The marriage seems doomed from the outset, and Eleanor is confused about to do when she gives birth to her baby. Her married, childless older sister desperately wants to adopt the infant, as do Lam's parents, who lost another baby years earlier. Conversely, Elly's summer job as a counselor-in-training at the fat camp proves to be somewhat fulfilling, as she leads a dance class and becomes close to one troubled young camper. Although PREGNANT PAUSE may sound like it contains all the elements of a standard "problem novel," what makes it rise far beyond the genre is the complexity of the characterizations. Even supporting characters, such as Elly's and Lam's parents (not to mention Lam's grandmother, who only appears in a couple scenes) are limned with shades of gray, and Elly herself is particularly fascinating. Here is a character who grows and changes throughout the novel, frustrating the reader with a wide streak of immaturity yet also exhibiting sympathetic moments of self-awareness.

PRINTZ-WORTHY? If the committee is seeking a well-written, character-driven novel, PREGNANT PAUSE definitely deserves consideration.

What do YOU think?

Monday, November 7, 2011


Although young adult books are experiencing broad popularity, their subject matter seems to be growing increasingly narrow. Check out the new YA section of any bookstore or library and you'll see one high concept novel after another: dystopian, dystopian, vampire, teen with special fantasy powers, vampire, dystopian, dead teenager on a mission, dystopian. On and on. It's likely that any book that doesn't fit into these tight strictures will automatically draw attention. It will be interesting to see how the Printz committee handles this situation. Are they going to give the medal to the best vampire or dystopian novel (think last year's selection of SHIP BREAKER) or are they going to buck popular trends and be drawn to something completely different?

David Levithan's EVERY YOU, EVERY ME certainly qualifies as "different" in almost every category: theme, style, execution -- even physical appearance. The story is told by teenage Evan, mourning the loss of his best friend Ariel. Dramatic, enigmatic, and troubled ("If I ever ask you to get me a gun, don't. Whatever I say, don't."), Ariel is no longer part of Evan's life, and the reason for her absence is just one of the mysteries that unfolds in this singular novel. An even bigger mystery involves the identity of the person anonymously sending Evan photographs depicting past moments from his relationship with Ariel. The photos -- some in black-and-white, others in color -- add intrigue to the novel, as does Evan's unreliable voice. Addressing Ariel in the second-person throughout, Evan changes his mind, second-guesses himself, and edits his own thoughts so that words, sentences, and even entire chapters are lined-out; reading these redacted sections adds layers of emotion, as well as surprising revelations, to the story. EVERY YOU, EVERY ME has a lot to say about both the depths and limitations of human relationships, the lies we tell each other, and the lies we tell ourselves. It's a smart, strong book flawed only by a confusing and somewhat flat ending that doesn't live up to the potential of the novel's mysterious premise.

PRINTZ-WORTHY? Perhaps. Levithan's novel would certainly be a unique and much-discussed selection, even if the book is ultimately less than satisfying in its entirety.

What do YOU think?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Dreams of Signficant Girls

Vivian is a New Yorker, an aspiring chef of Cuban-Jewish descent; wild, "unhinged" Ingrid hails from Canada, and Shirin is a wealthy Iranian princess. The three girls meet at a Swiss boarding school in 1971 and return for two more summers filled with conflict, romance, and friendship. Related in the alternatiing first-person voices of the three young women, Cristina Garcia's DREAMS OF SIGNIFICANT GIRLS seems, at times, a teen version of a jet-setting potboiler by Judith Krantz or Jackie Collins; Shirin isn't just wealthy...she's so fabulously rich that her father springs for tuition for the other two girls, has their suite professionally decorated, and ships Arabian horses "via the Persian Gulf and the Arabian and Red Seas, then through the Suez Canal, across the Mediterranean, and up along the western coast of Italy to the French Riviera" just for the girls to ride during their month at summer school. Ingrid isn't just talented with a camera, but becomes a famous teenage photographer after shooting nude studies of her two BFFs. (Ingrid's sister, who is so unnecessary to the plot that she need never have been introduced, turns out to be a tennis prodigy.) Vivian's not just a good cook...she ends up competing in an international culinary competition. The sex scenes -- here is seventeen-year-old Ingrid describing her fifty-something art dealer lover -- are right out of Krantz as well: "We spent hours in bed. We took baths together. We rubbed scented lotions all over each other. We fed each other fruit and cheese, stark naked." Although the characters of the girls are well-differentiated, in both behavior and first-person narrative voice, they are pretty much done in by a plot forced to live up to the novel's lofty title. Every conflict they face is "significant" and oversized -- suicide, abortion, homosexuality -- while some of the plot twists hinge on coincidences that wouldn't make it out of a Writing 101 class. One, involving a connection between Vivian's and Ingrid's fathers, even has Ingrid saying, "What were the odds of this? Like one in seventeen trillion?" She later comments, "If I wrote this in a book, no one would believe me." She's right.

PRINTZ-WORTHY: No way. Unless the judges are swayed by the author's pedigree (which includes a National Book Award nomination for her adult novel DREAMING IN CUBAN) this book won't merit any "significant" attention from the Printz committee.

What do YOU think?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Where Things Come Back

So yesterday I was reading the Someday My Printz Will Come blog , which discussed potential Printz contenders. Among the comments was this one from Jennifer Hubert Swan:

Please don’t forget my favorite YA title of the year so far, Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley!

I thought, “Oh dear.”

Then I read this suggestion from Stephanie Wilkes:

I second Jennifer with Corey Whaley’s Where Things Come Back!

And I thought “Oh dear, oh dear.”

Just below that, Lisa McMann chimed in:

And I third it!

“Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.”

This might be one of those years -- one of those years when everyone is raving about a book that just leaves me cold. When I saw a sudden flurry of positive comments about this title, the way I did yesterday, it makes me think momentum is building. Will Where Things Come Back be a National Book Award nominee in just a few hours? The finalists will be announced just after noon on the radio and posted here. Will it wearing a shiny gold or silver Printz sticker come January?

I'm hoping not.

The protagonist of John Corey Whaley's novel is seventeen-year-old Cullen Witter, who finds it "very difficult to deal with the boredom brought on by living in Lily" -- Lily, Alabama, populartion 3,947. Actually, life in Lily may seem fairly hectic to the average reader, considering all that goes in this story -- including the death of Cullen's druggy cousin, rumors that Lily might harbor an extinct Lazarus woodpecker, and the sudden disappearance of Cullen's rather mystical younger brother Gabriel. The story of Gabriel's disappearance is related in alternate chapters that take place in Africa, as well as Georgia, and dip into such topics as missionary life, suicide, teenage marriage, and a missing book of the Bible. The story is busy and the characters remain frustratingly distant. (It doesn't help that narrator Cullen frequently goes off into third-person tangents, referring to himself as "one," as in: "When one enters the kitchen to find his mother, father, and best friend all seated in front of a stack of uneaten pancakes, he knows that something strange has happened.") And while sex is usually a Big Deal in the life of your average teenager, Cullen's blase attitude about not one, but two different sexual affairs is so offhand that the book feels more like an adult novel about teens, rather than a YA story written for teens. Though the complex plot is intriguing, the remote characterizations, many unfinished subplots, and cold storytelling may not appeal to the targeted teenage audience.

PRINTZ-WORTHY? Well, it's certainly different from most current YA novels, which alone may merit the book award consideration. But it's also a book that sacrifices everyday emotion for "high concepts" and "big ideas." If the Printz committee sways that way, it may stand a chance. But I won't be a happy camper.

What do YOU think?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick

It's fun, it's fast, it's like a wild teenage movie pressed between the pages of a book...but is Joe Schreiber's Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick Printz-worthy?

Only if you think that American Pie was Oscar-worthy.

But there's a reason I'm putting the book up for discussion here. Read on.

The story is narrated by Perry Stormaire, a high school senior being bullied into college and career by his upwardly-mobile lawyer dad.
Not a "prom-type guy," Perry plans to spend the evening of the dance playing a gig in Manhattan with his garage band -- until the foreign exchange student living with Perry's family makes it known that she wants to attend prom with Perry as her date. Gobija Zaksauskas is from Lithuania, suffers from epilepsy, and dresses for the big night in a "traditional Lithuanian ceremonial costume" which includes a brown wool skirt decorated with stripes and clovers, a large animal-pelt handbag, and a kerchief tied under her chin. After a brief, disastrous stop at the prom, Gobi insists that Perry take her into NYC, where she directs him to a popular night club and emerges from the restroom "in a little black dress and wraparound sunglasses...hips snapping back and forth like a metronome beneath the stretchy fabric." It's about this time that Gobi reveals she's an international asssassin, who expects Perry to chauffeur her around the city while she ices five foes.

From then on, the narrative kicks into nonstop action -- tires squealing, machine guns firing, bodies bouncing off car hoods, pitbulls snarling, and helicopters descending from the sky -- accompanied by the type of funny, yet totally unbelievable, dialogue we've heard in a million buddy movies ("You shot him. You totally just shot that guy back there. I think I'm gonna throw up.") though one particular line about women is so crude it will probably have to be cut from the script in order to get a PG13 when the inevitable film of Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick is made.

Slight and slick, the novel's one nod toward literary luster has each chapter cleverly structured to answer an essay question from a college admissions form ("Tell us about one of the best conversations you've ever had (Stanford.)" Otherwise this book reads like a treatment or pitch for a movie.

PRINTZ-WORTHY: Not by a long shot fired from one of Gobi's guns!

So why are we featuring this Crazy European Chick in a Mock Printz blog? Because a friend who knows a lot about YA fiction insists this book has Printz potential. And since this same friend was the only person I know who predicted Going Bovine would win the Printz a couple yeara ago, I've got to listen to her.

Yeah, I've learned to listen to matter how much I disagree with her.

What do YOU think?

Friday, September 30, 2011

Five 4ths of July

Historical fiction may be the single largest genre represented in the Newbery canon. At first thought, this genre seems under-represented by the Printz...until you examine a list of all the winners and Honor Books and realize that a work of historical fiction has been recognized virtually every year -- though sometimes "history" means only twenty or thirty years ago (JELLICOE ROAD; TALES OF A REVOLUTIONARY MADMAN) or is depicted in a verse format (YOURS, SYLVIA; A WREATH FOR EMMETT TILL.) Some of the other recognized titles include LIZZIE BRIGHT AND THE BUCKMINSTER BOY, A NORTHERN LIGHT, and perhaps the greatest historical work written in ages, the two-volume ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, which received a pair of Printz Honors.

In some regards, Pat Raccio Hughes' FIVE 4THS OF JULY is a very traditional work of historical fiction, placing its protagonist smack in the middle of the American Revolutionary War. What distinguishes this novel is its depth of characterization and unusual narrative format as it follows teenage Jake "Mal" Mallery from July 4, 1777 through July 4, 1781. In 1777, he's a fourteen-year-old, mostly concerned with teasing indentured servant Hannah and trying to join a ship's crew. By 1779, he's in love with Hannah and helping to fight off the British invasion. The following July 4, he's held captive on a prison ship with his best friend. The grueling prison scenes highlight a seldom-discussed aspect of the Revolution; the author's note later informs us that about 11,500 Americans died on British prison ships, compared to only 4,500 American deaths in all the Revolutionary War battles combined. Authoritatively-written, the novel is abundant with gritty details and doesn't place its characters on lofty pedestals, but instead features down-to-earth, full-blooded individuals who make mistakes, crack vulgar jokes, and change with the times. The format -- showing Jake's life only through the events of five successive Independence Days -- is fascinating and allows the reader to watch this character grow into maturity, just like his incipient country grows, over the course of those five years.

Printz-worthy? Though it seems to be lacking "buzz" at this point, FIVE 4THS OF JULY is an unusually strong novel that definitely deserves consideration from the Printz committee.

What do YOU think?

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Big Crunch

The cover of Pete Hautman's The Big Crunch contains illustrated vignettes of a young couple's relationship across four seasons. The cover art seems somewhat symbolic to me right now, as I first read this book when snow covered the ground and have continued reflecting on it through spring and summer. Now that autumn has arrived, I've circled through all four seasons with this title and am still thinking about it. That "staying power" is a good sign and convinces me even more that this unique novel should be a frontrunner for the Printz Award.

Yet I have to admit I'm not hearing much buzz about The Big Crunch and I wonder why. Over the last few years, Pete Hautman has built a great reputation as a young adult author, with Godless winning the National Book Award. He's yet to be noticed by the Printz committee. Isn't it about time?

Wes is a regular guy from an average Minnesota family. June has spent her life moving from town to town as her father constantly changes jobs. They meet on the first day of junior year and their relationship -- which begins cautiously and develops into a romance of great intensity. The narrative style is unconventional. A series of brief, often understated vignettes, alternate between the perspectives of each teenager, highlighting their sometimes shared, sometimes differing, perspectives on young love: the physicality, the confusion, the euphoria, and even the occasional moments of boredom (“You’re playing a computer game while I’m talking to you?”)

Wes and June’s relationship weathers a mid-book move to another town three hundred and fifty miles away, but even while the teens dream about running away to Paris, they are refreshingly honest in their acceptance that life will continue to change and that their romance may not last forever. It’s rare to discover a love story for teens this elemental in its telling, this balanced in its characterizations of both the boy and the girl, and this honest its emotion. THE BIG CRUNCH is Pete Hautman's best book yet and has the feel of a classic.

Printz-worthy: Definitely!

What do YOU think?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

In Trouble

Much has been written about the difficulty Ellen Levine had in finding a publisher for her novel In Trouble. It seems that even in this post Roe v. Wade world, during an era when nearly any topic can be explored in young adult fiction, publishers still shy away from the subject of abortion. Obviously the "back story" of how Ms. Levine's novel came to be published has no bearing on its quality or whether it will receive consideration from the Printz committee. Yes, even though the Printz criteria state "controversy is not something to avoid. In fact, we want a book that readers will talk about," it's clear that "literary excellence" will always trump controversy in award selection; otherwise the committee would merely pick the book with the most contentious subject matter and go home.

Set in 1956, In Trouble is narrated by high schooler Jamie Morse whose father has just been released from prison because he refused to testify in the McCarthy hearings. Meanwhile, Jamie's best friend is getting serious with her college-age boyfriend and, from the moment she states, "He says it's a sign I don't love him if I won't...," we know that Elaine is going to end up "in trouble." Jamie is also troubled by an event from her own past: visiting her cousin for the weekend she was date-raped. She soon realizes that she too is pregnant.

The coincidence of two best friends both finding themselves pregnant under very different circumstance gives In Trouble a narrow, claustrophobic feel. Despite Elaine's dream that her boyfriend will marry her and they'll raise their baby together, she is sent to a home for teen moms where she is expected to give the child up for adoption. Jamie, with the support of her understanding family, seeks out an illegal abortion. The novel does a good job exploring the limited options of pregnant teens in a 1950s milieu, but its limited characterizations (Elaine, in particular, seems defined only by her pregnancy) and tight focus prevent In Trouble from fully rising above the ranks of a solid, but unexceptional, issue-oriented novel.

PRINTZ WORTHY? Probably not. At a time when many young-adult books are overinflated to four and five hundred pages, this two-hundred-page work of historical fiction actually could have benefited from presenting its story on a broader canvas, instead of within the confines of an old-school problem-novel format.

What do YOU think?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Blood Red Road

If there are 5000 young adult books published in the US each year, it sometimes feels that about half of them are dystopian fiction. Okay, we're exaggerating...but, the more we think of it, the more inflated that five thousand figure sounds as well. (Five thousand YA books? Really?) But there's no denying that, with the possible exception of vampire stories, dystopian novels are the hottest thing going these days. And they've got vampires beat when it comes to critical plaudits. When was the last time a vampire book got the Printz? Uh...never. But a dystopian tale won the Printz just last year: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi. And it wasn't the first dysotopian book to win. Remember how i live now by Meg Rosoff?

Now along comes Blood Red Road by Moira Young, a hot new title that's already won a lot of fans and been optioned for the movies by Ridley Scott. Set in a hot and dusty post-apocalyptic world, the novel concerns a motherless family suddenly broken apart when mysterous intruders kill Pa and abduct eighteen-year-old Lugh for unknown reasons. Lugh's twin sister, Saba, with young sibling Emmi in tow, leaves their remote homestead in order to track down her much-loved brother. During Saba's grueling journey, she's held captive and -- in a subplot reminiscent of The Hunger Games -- forcd to work as a cage fighter. She falls in love with another young nomad. And then there are the giant hellwurms squeezing through the cracks of a deserted lakebed, ready for attack. Blood Red Road features nonstop action, a tenacious heroine, and, in Saba's first-person pidgin-English ("I hafta stop myself from screamin. From walkin fast. Runnin on ahead."), a distinctive first-person voice.

But the glut of recent dystopian fiction gives this novel a certain familiarity. Readers drawn into Saba's story will be anxious to see what happens next (Blood Red Road is the first volume in a trilogy) but they may also have a feeling that they've traveled similar roads before.

PRINTZ WORTHY? : Despite a strong narrative voice and a memorable protagonist, Blood Red Road seems unlikely to wear a gold or silver seal. Oh well, maybe the eventual movie will get an Oscar.

So...Printz-worthy or not? What do YOU think?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

5000 Books...But Only One Winner

According to a recent posting on the American Libraries site , there are approximately 5000 young adult books published every year in the United States.

Of course all those books vary widely in content and quality, yet they're all eligible for the Printz Award if they meet the qualifications set forth by the American Library Association:

The award-winning book may be fiction, nonfiction, poetry or an anthology.

Books must have been published between January 1 and December 31 of the year preceding announcement of the award.

To be eligible, a title must have been designated by its publisher as being either a young adult book or one published for the age range that YALSA defines as "young adult," i.e., 12 through 18. Adult books are not eligible.

Works of joint authorship or editorship are eligible.

The award may be given posthumously provided the other criteria are met.

Books previously published in another country are eligible (presuming an American edition has been published during the period of eligibility.)

That's an awful wide net -- much wider, in fact, than the ones determining the Newbery and Caldecott Awards. (For example, those awards are not open to books previously published in other countries.)

Therefore it could be argued that, of the approximately 5000 YA books published each year in the United States, most are potential Printzlings.

So how does the field get narrowed down to just one crown Printz -- a single heir apparent, along with up to four Honor Books (AKA the heir and some spares)?

That depends on how well the books meet the award criteria, which you can read about here.

I would have just cut-and-pasted that criteria here, but it's a long list, open to interpretation, and boils down to two words: "literary excellence."

But determining literary excellence can be somewhat confusing -- especially since the ALA's criteria are "only suggested guidelines and should in no way be considered as absolutes."

One only has to look at the list of Printz winners and over the past eleven years to see how broadly the term "literary excellence" has been used in selecting winners. I've always thought the first year's slate (winner Monster by Walter Dean Myers and Honors Skellig by David Almong, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, and Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger) was a somewhat definitive list...though in the years since some great nonfiction has been honored, we've had a graphic novel take the top prize, we've seen Printz selections that range from wildly popular to nearly obscure, and we've had some wonderful surprises and discoveries appear on the list, as well as a few stinkers.

In recent years, the Heavy Medal blog has kept an eye on Newbery possibilities and now there's the Calling Caldecott blog anticipating the year's most distinguished picture book. Following in their footsteps, the Picking Printz blog will look at the titles which seem to be possible contenders for this year's Printz Award. Will we get predict the correct? Probably not...but, hey, last season Heavy Medal didn't notice a certain MOON that was rising overhead either. But it will still be fun and informative to discuss the mighta, woulda, shoulda, coulda been contendas.

So let's start off with a list of titles that would make YOUR personal Printz shortlist. Mine include Recovery Road by Blake Nelson, The Big Crunch by Pete Hautman, Queen of Hearts by Martha Brooks, Chime by Franny Billingsley, and Beauty Queens by Libba Bray. What are yours? Please share them in the comments section.

And feel free to submit any opinion pieces on the award, or book reviews of possible Printz titles, to PRINTZPICKS@AOL.COM. We will probably post most of these as blog entries, though the moderators reserve the right to not publish reviews that fall outside the age range of the Printz Award, reviews that appear to be ringers (i.e. written by the book's own author, spouse, or great-aunt Martha), or titles that don't seem to have a chance in heck of ever winning.

If we're wrong, and the book we turned down DOES end up winning, you will have the last laugh and the right to say "Told you so!" on January 23, 2012, 7:45 a.m. CT, when the awards are announced in Dallas, Texas.