Last week we were talking about the various different components of a book and how we personally rank them–character, plot, prose, ideas, etc. But there are many other factors we use when we evaluate books: age range*, genre, or (what I want to talk about today) how a book fits with an author’s other work. Over at The Hub, I’ve been writing a series of posts called The Completist, in which I evaluate an author’s entire body of (YA) work, and it has made me realize that whenever I pick up a book by an author I know, I am always reading it in the context of everything else I’ve read by her, finding interconnections, continuities, and discontinuities between the works.
All these interconnections can not only be interesting in themselves, but really improve the quality of the works as I perceive them. So, sometimes you have an author like AM Jenkins who can take a single idea and explore it from different angles in different novels. Other authors have various themes and allusions they come back to over and over. An interesting example is Rick Yancey. In his Alfred Kropp books, he introduces readers to his take on Arthurian legends, but he pretty quickly seems to get distracted by plot concerns. Then, in his adult series, The Highly Effective Detective, he begins exploring the concept of knights further, but this time in the context of a ordinary guy just trying to do the right thing–is it possible for him to act as a knight in shining armor, or do those values act contrary to modern society (the climax of this question is a throwaway joke in which the detective renames his agency White Knight Associates–he walks into the newly minted agency while the stenciler is in the middle of writing, so that the agency appears to be called “White Knight Ass”). In the third of these books, he even briefly outlines the story of Sir Pellinore and the Questing Beast**, giving the reader an enormous clue about the existential themes he has been pursuing in the series. Meanwhile, in the Monstrumologist, published the year before, Yancey names his main character Pellinore, and as the Monstrumologist series progresses, the idea of the Questing Beast moves from the very literal Anthrophagi of the first book to the almost entirely metaphysical quest for the “Holy Grail of Monstrumology” in The Isle of Blood.
Even in cases less dramatic than Jenkins and Yancey, it is fascinating to see an author develop their style and approach to plot, character, setting and the rest. This is, of course, particularly interesting if what you read an author’s books out of publication order. So, for example, I read Rebecca Stead’s three novels in this order: When You Reach Me (2009), Liar and Spy (2012), First Light (2007). My experience of these books was that I liked each one of them more than the last, which leads me to wonder, is First Light really her best novel, or did I like it more for knowing what she would later do with her talents? When You Reach Me, of course, won the Newbery Award, and I liked it well enough at the time, but now I plan to go back and reread it at some point to find out if my opinion of it has changed now that I’ve read Stead’s other books.
And that leads me, finally to my last point (for now), which is the interaction (or non-interaction) between all of what I’ve been talking about and awards committees. Because on the single book committees, like the Printz and the Newbery, the members are specifically instructed not to do what I’ve been doing–that the book must be judged only against other books from the same year. I have serious doubts as to whether it is even possible to do this entirely, but in any case, it leads to some very interesting cognitive dissonance when you look at the lists of winners and honor books. So, for instance, you have Walter Dean Myers and Laurie Halse Anderson getting Printz recognition in the very first year, but (to date) never again, despite having each continued to write at an extremely high level. Or, you have Libba Bray winning the Printz for what I consider to be her weakest book (Going Bovine). I’m not saying that the awards committees should do things any differently, but I do think it’s important to keep in mind, for working librarians, that the awards have very specific charges that don’t necessarily coincide with what we want our collections to look like. So that, if I’m starting a YA collection, I’m going to buy every Laurie Halse Anderson book right off the bat, but I would have to think hard about whether I even want one of David Almond’s, despite his Printz Award and Honor.
Anyway, I hope all of this makes some sense. Do you have any thoughts?
*I read a really interesting review on goodreads of (one of your and my favorite books) Tender Morsels. The author of the review gave the book 3 stars but essentially copped to the fact that if the book had been marketed as an adult book she would have rated it higher. Weird.
**the gist is that Pellinore always searches for but never is able to find the Questing Beast