The Publishing Year: 2001
The Winner: A Step From Heaven by An Na
The Honor Books:
- The Ropemaker by Peter Dickinson
- Heart to Heart: New Poems Inspired by Twentieth-Century American Art by Jan Greenberg
- Freewill by Chris Lynch
- True Believer by Virginia Euwer Wolff
Other Books to Consider:
- Black potatoes : the story of the great Irish famine, 1845-1850 by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
- The Rag and Bone Shop by Robert Cormier
- Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher
- Amandine by Adele Griffin
- Meltdown : a race against nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island : a reporter’s story by Wilborn Hampton
- Damage by A.M. Jenkins
- Lirael by Garth Nix
- Carver: A Life in Poems by Marilyn Nelson
- The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett
What Should Have Won: Damage
Each of the first two entries in this series came down to a decision between the Printz winner and one of the honor books–so that although I disagreed with both Printz committees on the final winner, I certainly validated their overall opinion of the year’s books. If I were a different sort of reader or critic, I could easily see this entry as a death match between A Step From Heaven and True Believer—True Believer in particular seems to have been the overwhelming odds-on favorite of the year, winning the National Book Award (A Step From Heaven was a finalist), and making the BBYA Top Ten list, as well as the Notable Children’s Book list.
But the fact of the matter is that while I recognize the merits of both books, I don’t really care much for either. It’s been a year and a half since I read A Step From Heaven and it is not crystal-clear in my mind, but I notice on goodreads that I didn’t bother to write a review of it, just giving it a mute 4-stars, something I usually do when I just don’t have much to say about a book. One thing I remember clearly about the novel is being pulled out of the story almost immediately upon opening the first page, because the narrator is supposed to be four-years-old, the age of my daughter when I read the book. Now, Mom, you know Elsa, and she is ridiculously bright, so when I say that Na’s narrator was unrealistically articulate, I’m really saying something. It’s a small point (and, admittedly a pet peeve of mine–we discussed it regarding Adam Rapp’s The Children and the Wolves last year), but my overall impression of the book was not nearly enough to pull me back onto Na’s side.
True Believer, on the other hand, I just finished a few weeks ago. I’ll reproduce my goodreads review here:
I found the story to be very moving, and much of the writing well-done, but there is simply no way this is poetry. I just used a random number generator to pick a random chapter and stanza. Here’s the result:
“My hunch was right.
It wasn’t the movie women
my mom put a dress on for.” (p. 103)
How is this a poetic stanza? I can’t identify any particular prosody to it. No poetic language of any kind. The full stop at the end of the first line is worse as poetry than it would be in prose (in either, it should be a colon, or a comma, or something).
Let’s try another:
“While the cookies were in the oven,
I made a card with red, blue, and green markers
on notebook paper:
a cartoon of him lying in bed
with a thermometer sticking out of his mouth.” (p. 191)
um . . . no comment.
That’s about all I have on that. Speaking of poetry, though: fascinating, to me, that the Committee recognized a verse novel, a poetry collection, and a novel which could be described as a prose-poem (A Step From Heaven). These committees do seem to have their own personalities, don’t they? So what about the other poetry I’ve mentioned? Marilyn Nelson’s Carver was a Newbery honor book, but clearly eligible for the Printz. I find it to be far too opaque for its own good–it seems to assume a good deal of knowledge of George Washington Carver’s life and the late 19th and early 20th Centuries in general. Plus, though the poetry is certainly better than True Believer, I don’t find myself moved by it linguistically and emotionally the way good poetry should. Heart to Heart, on the other hand, has the advantage over the other books of poetry by including the best, most interesting and challenging poetry–especially David Harrison’s “It’s Me!”, XJ Kennedy’s “Stuart Davis: Premier, 1957”, and Bobbi Katz’s “Lessons from a Painting by Rothko.” But its main disadvantages are two. First (and most importantly), it shares a limitation we’ve discussed before with regard to short stories collections, which is the uneven overall quality. Those three poems I just mentioned and several others are magnificent, but others are only okay, and a few are just not good. The second problem is related to the first–I find it somehow not coincidental that the three poems I cited above happen to be responses to three of the best pieces of art chosen. In general, the art selections by the poets is confusing at best, disappointing at worst. I wish that either 1) that the theme to the art selections was a bit more specific than a simple time-period (modernism, impressionism, African American art, whatever), or 2) given that they apparently could choose anything they wanted, that they had chosen, I dunno, good artworks?
The nonfiction titles I looked at fare much better than the poetry in my analysis. Black Potatoes, in particular, is a fabulous piece of prose as well as a fascinating historical account, and a well-deserved winner of the Sibert award. Meltdown, meanwhile, distinguishes itself by its unique narrative perspective: rather than a dry history of what happened at Three Mile Island, Hampton offers a memoir of his time reporting on the disaster, so that readers learn what happened as Hampton learned it. I really don’t have much to critique in either of these–I just don’t think they are quite up to the high prose, structural, and thematic standards of my winner.
So what else do we have? Well, we have novels from three (!) Edwards Award winners: Crutcher, Pratchett, and Cormier. Cormier’s The Rag and Bone Shop was his last novel, published posthumously, and it is a doozy: a brutal, and depressingly realistic, demolition of police interrogation practices, in which nothing is sure but Cormier’s typically pessimistic message that a soul is an easy thing to lose. Compared to Cormier’s titanic achievements in I Am the Cheese, The Chocolate War, and After the First Death, this novel seems perhaps a bit minor, but it is still tremendously impressive, and for me beats all five Printz titles. It also beats Crutcher’s Whale Talk, although both novels suffer from weak endings (Cormier for some uncharacteristically poor psychological development in the last chapter, and Crutcher for trying too hard to wrap up every detail). Other than that ending, Whale Talk is rightly beloved by many, but I think too idealized: TJ is a multi-racial, beautiful physical and mental specimen; his decisions are ideologically pure; his stand for the little guy just so satisfying. Not to say that I don’t love it, because I do, but it’s all a bit implausible. Finally, Pratchett’s novel was his introduction of Discworld to teens, which for many is reason enough to give him a prize. For me, the humor isn’t as sharp as his later YA Discworld’s, The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky, and the business with the Rat King gets a little convoluted.
One more paragraph and I promise I’ll get to why Damage wins. First, my obligatory admission of ignorance: I haven’t read (nor do I plan to read) The Ropemaker–there’s too little time in the world, and it just doesn’t sound like my taste. I also haven’t read Lirael, but I leave it on the above list as a sop to my brother Thomas. That just leaves Chris Lynch and Adele Griffin. We’ve both recently admitted our lukewarm feelings towards Lynch, so I won’t rehash that, except to say that I would be more than happy to hear from a Lynch fan about why Freewill deserved a win–it seems like a powerful book, but I just didn’t feel the power. Amandine, on the other hand, seems like a relatively slight book–basically a standard-issue school story, with broken friendships, jealousies, etc.–but Griffin imbues it with her trademark sense of unease, especially with a very late double-punch revealing that our narrator has been less than reliable. A superb book, but again, not quite up to the level of our winner.
OK, the winner is . . . oh yeah, I already told you: A.M. Jenkin’s Damage is really the runaway winner in my mind. A very short, but very powerful book about a high school athlete battling depression, it is a novel whose power sneaked up on me, but once it grabbed me, it wouldn’t let go. It is written in the second person (strangely, for a device used so rarely, so is Lynch’s Freewill), which I usually don’t think much of (and didn’t in the case of Freewill), but Jenkins uses the device to great advantage. Many times the use of the second person seems like a clumsy attempt to implicate the reader in the protagonist’s feelings (clumsy in part because any talented writer should be able to achieve the same end with less intrusive first or third person narration). Jenkins, on the other hand, achieves almost precisely the opposite effect: rather than feeling like a nameless narrator dragging the reader into the character’s world, Jenkins’s second person feels like it is the product of the protagonist, Austin Reid, desperately trying to distance himself from his own feelings and thoughts. This effect is nothing short of brilliant, since it is precisely the way many people with mental illnesses (especially depression) talk about their disease.
Beyond the narration, there is the unique (except to Jenkins’s other novels) narrative structure of delaying the emotional climax (Austin admitting his depression to his best friend) until almost literally the last moment, and eschewing denouement entirely. As I wrote in the post linked to above, Jenkins comes back to this structure frequently, and it has a variety of uses. Here, it is very powerful because it at once acknowledges 1) that simply admitting to having a mental illness is a problem worth a whole book, and 2) that there is in all likelihood no easy solution to Austin’s problem that could neatly fit into a traditionally structured novel. I also wrote in that post about a brief scene which is one of the most emotionally wrenching I’ve encountered in YA lit. Go read about it there. And I haven’t even mentioned the brilliant character that is Austin’s girlfriend Heather.
As I said, this really wasn’t much of a decision for me–Rag and Bone Shop is probably the closest second place, but it is pretty far behind. I find Damage to be just head and shoulders above the rest of the 2001 crop.
My Honor Books:
- Black Potatoes
- The Rag and Bone Shop