My Mock Printz List, plus notes on nonfiction writing

Mom,

Well, as you know, my own list of Printz-predicition failure goes back to your own Printz committee in 2004 when I summarily dismissed The First Part Last.  The last few years I have been sure that Wintergirls (2010), Last Summer of the Death Warriors and Before I Fall (2011), and Everybody Sees the Ants (2012) were among the best books of their years, and none of those four got even an honor.

So.  I’ve read or abandoned 48 of Someday’s list of contendas, and I think it has been an unusually strong year for YA Literature. There are probably at least 20 books that I would not be surprised to see win the Printz this year (not to say I’d be happy about all of them, just that I wouldn’t be surprised).  If I were holding my own Mock Printz, I would include many of the same titles as you: Ask the Passengers, Bomb, Brides of Rollrock Island, Chopsticks, Code Name Verity, and Seraphina for sure.  Since I do think the year has been so strong, I would probably choose my final four a bit more for discussion’s sake, than strictly as the best titles of the year.

  • hadesDrama or Hades: Lord of the Dead. I haven’t actually read Drama, but I’ve heard good things and I would really like to get a graphic novel into the discussion, especially to play off of the very different graphic technique of ChopsticksJonathan Hunt briefly discussed Hades’s possibilities as a Newbery contender, but I think it has a better chance (though still practically zero) at the Printz, where the art can be discussed.  Wendy Burton has said she didn’t care for the art, and obviously that would be a huge part of the discussion, but personally I loved the art, and the whole construction of the book. 
  • Liar-and-SpyLiar and Spy. I can’t find the age range that Randon House lists this for, but since the main character is in 7th grade and 12-years-old I’m going to assume it runs up to 12.  I would want to put this out there for two reasons: 1) because the Printz Award is supposed to look at books published for 12-year-olds, and 2) because I think it is one of the four or five best written books of the year and even if it isn’t eligible (please let me know), it is a great measuring stick for other YA books to try to live up to.
  • Never Fall Down. Lots of people still have questions about the voice and authenticity, but I think that is exactly the sort of discussion that should be going on at the Printz table.  And there’s no question that the story is amazing.
  • Titanic or We’ve Got a Job. Both of these books happen to be among my favorite books of the year, but even if they weren’t, I think it is really important to have more than a single nonfiction title under discussion.

A word about nonfiction writing. You said you have “doubts about [Titanic‘s] status as one of the best from a purely literary standpoint”, and I want to probe this a little because I think it merits a larger discussion. What makes a nonfiction book “literary”?

Here’s a section from Titanic:

Soon Lightoller found himself pinned against the wire grating of one of the Titanic‘s huge air shafts–a shaft he knew went all the way down to the very bowels of the ship. He struggled and kicked for all he was worth, but it was impossible to free himself: ‘. . . as fast as I pushed myself off I was irresitably dragged back, every instant expected the wire to go and to find myelf shot down into the bowels of the ship’

Lightoller realized he was drowning: ‘. . . another couple of minutes would have seen me through, I was still struggled and fighting when suddenly a terrible blast of hot air came up the shaft, and blew me right away from the air shaft and up to the surface.’

Lightoller was in a precarious situation–caught in the chaos as the massive ship began to break apart. He got free of being pinned against the air shaft, but in the next instant he was sucked down against a grating. (p. 144)

Aside from the unforunate double use of the phrase “bowels of the ship” this is extraordinary writing. Crisp, visual, dramatically compelling, and perfectly integrated with the quotations from Lightoller. It is exactly what nonfiction writing should be. It is surely not as flashy as all those quotations from Brides of Rollrock I trotted out last week, but should it be?

Here’s We’ve Got a Job:

Desperate to save the Birmingham Movement, King tried to rally swarms of volunteers at a full-house mass meeting that Monday night by asserting. ‘We are going to fill all the jails in Birmingham.’ He even promised to collect the funds to pay their bail. The crowd clapped and hollered enthusiastically.

But the numbers told a different story. The next day only three people were arrested. By the tenth day of Project C, fewer than 150 people had been arrested–nowhere near enough to fill the jails. Fearful of reprisals, even those who supported Project C could od little mor ethan shout ‘amen’ at mass meetings.

While the leaders continued to aruge, Audrey, Arnetta, James, an d hundreds of other kids were increasingly excited by what they heard night after night, unaware that the Movement might be disintegrating around them. (p. 55)

Look at the way these three paragraphs lay out the dynamics of the movement–moving from King’s optimism, to the realities of the adults’ fear, to the children’s excitement and desire to be included.  This is basically the story of the whole book in three paragraphs, and Levinson does this over and over to showcase the importance of the Children’s March.  The writing itself is clear and precise, but willing to use colorful phrases like “swarms of volunteers”.  Again, this isn’t flashy, but it is crystal clear which is absolutely essential for telling a complicated story with many threads and hundreds of people involved.

These are two small examples, but I hope they help show what I’m trying to get at. As much as prose-style is my go-to measurement of a book, it can’t be the only thing we look at, or we could just give the Printz to Margo Lanagan every year she writes a book and go home. The prose has to match up to the plot and the characters, and in nonfiction many times the function of the prose is to be as invisible as possible so as to grant the reader greater access to the information and quotations contained within it.  Also, literariness surely reaches to such important aspects as pacing and plotting, and delineation of characters and ideas.  Bomb, Titanic, and We’ve Got a Job are perfect examples of three different ways of constructing a nonfiction account that is literary without being obtrusive.  And I think the Printz committee would be foolish to ignore any of them simply because they are filled with imagistic language or flashy techniques like those in Code Name Verity and Brides of Rollrock.

So those would be my ten choices for a Mock Printz.  As I said, I think there are plenty of other books that may actually win the thing, but I think those ten titles would provide for an excellent discussion of what makes a book literarily great, and how to compare different styles, genres, and formats.  What do you think?

– Mark

PS – I promise to tell you my thoughts on In Darkness one of these days–maybe after it unexpectedly wins the Printz.

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