The Publishing Year: 2000
The Winner: Kit’s Wilderness by David Almond
The Honor Books:
- Many Stones by Carolyn Coman
- The Body of Christopher Creed by Carol Plum-Ucci
- Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison
- Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman
Other Books to Consider:
- Fever, 1793* by Laurie Halse Anderson
- Forgotten Fire by Adam Bagdasarian
- Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan
- Sir Walter Ralegh and the Quest for El Dorado by Marc Aronson
- Cut by Patricia McCormick
What Should Have Won: Stuck in Neutral
Compared to 1999, 2000 was a strange year for YA books, with lots of first-rate books published, but nothing in particular standing out from the pack, or screaming “Printz book.” On the one hand, that probably accounts for what is, in my opinion, the greatest decision by any Printz Committee: giving an Honor to Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging–a truly delightful book that probably wouldn’t have stood a chance in a richer year. But, on the other hand, it leaves us without any real obvious choice for a winner–rather than one or more books rising quickly to the top, this year seems more like a process of elimination.
Fever, 1793* is a really wonderful book, but definitely a lesser effort than many of Anderson’s other novels. The Body of Christopher Creed is another one, like Angus, that seems like it maybe slipped into the list because of the weak field–don’t get me wrong, I love both books, and love that they have shiny silver stickers on them, but they don’t seem to have quite the same level of literary heft that most later Printz committees went for. Homeless Bird, which won the National Book Award, and The Forgotten Fire, which made the BBYA Top Ten, both got quite a bit of notice at the time, but 12 years later they seem more notable for their socio-political statements than for their literary quality. Again, that’s not to take away from them–Homeless Bird, which follows a young Indian girl who is married off for purely mercenary reasons, then quickly widowed, is particularly affecting. And The Forgotten Fire, while a bit of a mess in terms of plot, is one of the only novels I know of that fully addresses the still sadly neglected Armenian Genocide of 1915. And Many Stones . . . I dunno. I guess I see what the committee was impressed by–certainly the narrator’s voice is well-wrought, and the conjunction of the family’s grief over Laura’s death and the political situation in South Africa is intriguing. But, frankly, the book just doesn’t do much for me.
The one nonfiction book that I thought was worth a look (and which Jonathan recommended in my last post) was Aronson’s Sir Walter Ralegh, which I had not read before. It’s generally a very fine history of the Elizabethan era, and of Ralegh’s various ventures, and features Aronson’s always fine prose, but it suffers from many of the same flaws you noted in Aronson’s book from last year, Master of Deceit. There are, for instance, a proliferations of “might have”s and “maybe”s. A small example (but one that stuck with me) of Aronson’s style: in discussing the Spanish Armada, he weaves an elaborate metaphor in which the huge, centralized structure of the Armada stands for Spain’s Catholic faith (get it? Catholics are monolithic and bureaucratic), and the more guerilla-like tactics of the English fleet stands for Protestantism. So that somehow the Armada is a representation of the conflicting religions rather than the petty war of aggression that it always was. I don’t want to make too much of Aronson’s faults, though–as with Master of Deceit, in the end, I found the whole to be well worth reading, just not Printz-worthy.
So that leaves us with a three-way battle for the crown: Kit’s Wilderness, Stuck in Neutral, and Cut. Personally, my favorite of these is Cut, which I hadn’t realized was McCormick’s debut. As a debut, it is nothing short of amazing–many at the time compared it to Anderson’s Speak, and I think those comparison’s still hold, in terms of the strength of the voice and characterization, and the delicate handling of a complex and possibly controversial topic, in this case self harm. What ultimately puts it out of the running in my mind is McCormick’s explanation for her narrator’s cutting, which is essentially pegs to a single incident in which the narrator’s brother developed severe Asthma, which she feels personally responsible for. Frankly, this is just too neat. Again, McCormick handles the repercussions of the narrator’s cutting quite well, and she doesn’t imply that recovery will be easy, but this sort of textbook style causation knocks the book down a touch.
So what of the winner, Kit’s Wilderness? Almond won a Printz Honor in 2000 for Skellig, then the Printz for this book, thus becoming the first of a select group of YA authors with two Printz medals, but since then he has been absent. I think very highly of both these novels, and I had this to say about Skellig, on Goodreads, which I think applies equally to Kit’s Wilderness:
Almond writes with this eerily strange sense of inevitability – as if he is retelling a well-known folktale from an entirely new perspective. It is haunting and beautiful, and strangely distant at the same time. Utterly unique.
So, certainly a great novel–but a Printz winner? Maybe–if it weren’t for Stuck in Neutral. We’ve discussed this novel on this blog before, in the context of its ambiguous ending, and I continue to think that the ending is one of its great strengths. But the reason it stands out as the winner for me is that it succeeds precisely where so many of the novels I’ve just discussed stumble: at balancing literary excellence with a complex understanding of a social issue. Trueman’s delicate handling of cerebral palsy–his ability to imagine the inner life of a character trapped within that disease, while still fully acknowledging the trials and complications for the family (especially the father) who have no access to that inner life–is nothing short of amazing. And while I wouldn’t put Trueman’s literary style at the same level as Anderson or Myers (or, for that matter, Almond), it is far and above that of Whelan and Bagdasarian, both of whom allow their subject matter to take too much away from their prose.
So in a year in which several novels fell down for failing the balance between literary excellence and thematic import, Trueman “should have” won for getting that balance exactly right.
* Fixed 7/4/13, per Jen J’s comment, below