Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Watch That Ends the Night

The 1912 sinking of the Titanic is one of those rare historical events that fascinates both adults and young people. That disaster, memorialized in nonfiction books, movies, and even a Broadway musical, is now recounted in THE WATCH THAT ENDS THE NIGHT : VOICES FROM THE TITANIC, a novel in verse by Allan Wolf. The twenty-five voices that describe the the ship's journey from its launch to the rescue of its survivors include the ship's captain, several passengers from different classes, the ship rat, and even the iceburg that causes the disaster. ("I am the ice. I've seen the sun arise / for centuries, a hundred thousand dawns. / The sun rose up before humans came. / The sun will rise long after they are gone.") One way to judge the success of any multi-voice narrative is to dip into the volume on random pages and see if one can identify each speaker's unique voice without checking the top of the page. Unfortunately, with a few notable exceptions, many of these wordy poems tend to blur together, regardless of speaker. Nevertheless, this reimagining of the Titanic tragedy -- familiar in content, yet stunningly original in execution and style -- is a major accomplishment and one which will no doubt be long popular with young readers, always hungry for another, different volume about this historical event.

PRINTZ-WORTHY? A book about the Titanic winning the Printz on the one-hundredth anniversary of the tragedy would be notable. Much will depend on how the committee approches this work. On a line-by-line basis, the poems are generally strong, despite some stylistic sameness. But this is also a work where the whole is bigger than the individual components, making well worth some award recognition.

What do YOU think?

My Name is Mina

A dozen years ago, when the first Printz Awards were announced, David Almond's SKELLIG was named an Honor Book. The selection was surprising -- not because of the book's indubitable quality, but due to the young age of its characters, as well as the intended age of its audience (BOOKLIST recommended the title for ages eight to twelve.) Almond went on to the win the Printz in 2001 for KIT'S WILDERNESS and has gone on to write a succession of intriguing, often brilliant novels. Now he is back with a unusual and rather daring new novel, MY NAME IS MINA, which features a protagonist first introduced in SKELLIG. It's always a risk for an author to return to previously-created characters and narratives. Sometimes it works (Susan Cooper returned to her 1965 novel OVER SEA, UNDER STONE after eight years and the resulting "Dark is Rising" series is considered a classic) but more often it doesn't (Louis Sachar's SMALL STEPS didn't live up to the acclaim of HOLES.) In this case, David Almond succeeds wonderfully, creating a unique and powerful novel that seems every bit the equal of SKELLIG.

In SKELLIG, Mina was the neighbor of protagonist Michael, but she comes front and center in this prequel, telling her own story of the months leading up to Michael’s arrival in the neighborhood. Written in the form of a journal (the font resembles a child’s printing), Mina muses about leaving school to be taught at home, her sorrow at her father’s death, and her interest in words and writing and nature. Less a plot-driven narrative than a character study, this luminous book may not appeal to everyone, but special readers will be amazed at how brilliantly the author captures the essence of the imaginative, misunderstood, almost mystical and always evolving title character in a book that can truly take its place on the same shelf as SKELLIG.

PRINTZ WORTHY? Absolutely, if we're talking about literary quality alone. But one has to remember that SKELLIG itself felt rather "young" for the Printz Award, and this prequel concerns an even younger character. Ah, if only British novels were eligible for the Newbery!

What do YOU think?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Stay With Me

A teenage romance plays out in just over one hundred days, forever changing the lives of a boy and girl. Mack Morse is a sensitive, but explosive, high school dropout who has spent time behind bars. CeCe Vaccuccia spends her time studying for a gifted-and-talented exam which she hopes will get her into a better high school. They meet at a restaurant where she waits tables and he washes dishes. Awkward conversations lead to quiet walks home in the summer heat, and their relationship blossoms when Mack, who has a talent for animals, takes in a pitbull that even dog-fearing CeCe learns to love. The story is related by both characters in raw first-person narratives that have the beat of urban poetry. ("Tell you what, I'm so excited about being alive, I can't stop smiling, and doesn't the bodega lady just smile too? She's whistling, and I carry her tune with me, out the door, the cowbell jangling like a laugh. I'm lit up just like the sky. Lightning falls all across it, like God brushed a wirehaired jackal and pulled the dross from the comb and just tossed it down on us.") Believable coming from a fifteen-year-old kid who can barely read? Probably not, yet somehow it all works within the context of this stylized novel. Mack and Cece come from hardluck backgrounds (Mack's dad is a drunk, as is Cece's mom -- a memorably upbeat loser with gold-capped teeth and a big heart) and STAY WITH ME is realistically cruel in depicting the fate of this too-good-to-be-true first romance. Just when things are looking their best for the teens, the world comes crashing down and they are permanently separated. It's to the author's credit that, despite the incredibly downbeat final chapters, the novel somehow ends with a dim ray of hope for these two unforgettable characters -- not as a romantic couple, but as individuals.

PRINTZ-WORTHY? This novel's blend of light and dark, beauty and grit, hope and despair, mark it as something different -- and rather special. It will be interesting to see if the Printz committee accepts the stylized writing and heightened reality of this romance or rejects the book as overwritten and unbelievable.

What do YOU think?