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.