What Should’ve Won: Printz 2003

The Publishing Year: 2002

postcardsfromnomanslandThe WinnerPostcards from No Man’s Land by Aidan Chambers

The Honor Books:

  • The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
  • My Heartbeat by Garret Freymann-Weyr
  • Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos

Other Books to Consider:

  • {Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Feed by MT Anderson
  • Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi
  • Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale by Holly Black
  • Six Days in October: The Stock Market Crash of 1929 by Karen Blumenthal
  • Overboard by Elizabeth Fama
  • Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story About Brain Science by John Fleischman
  • America by E.R. Frank
  • The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler by James Cross Giblin
  • Shattering Glass by Gail Giles
  • Coraline by Neil Gaiman
  • Left for Dead: A Young Man’s Search for Justice for the USS Indianapolis by Peter Nelson
  • 19 varieties of gazelle : poems of the Middle East by Naomi Shihab Nye
  • This Land Was Made for You and Me: The Life and Songs of Woody Guthrie by Elizabeth Partridge
  • Hush by Jacqueline Woodson
  • Girl in a Cage by Jane Yolen and Robert J. Harris

What Should Have Won: Feed

Jonathan Hunt commented on my last entry that 2001 was “To my mind, this is the single greatest year in YA literature”, then when I said that 2002 had a good claim, he clarified that “I think there are many other years that compare favorably in terms of the quality at the top, but I think 2001 has them beat when it comes to depth.”  I won’t go into the question of depth, because I simply haven’t read deeply enough in enough years to know, but indeed, when I mentioned the strength of 2002, I was thinking about “quality at the top.”  In I’m blown away by the entire list above, but in particular, the four Printz titles plus America, {Catalyst, Feed, Hush, Overboard, and Left for Dead constitute a staggering top ten, far superior to any of the years I’ve looked at so far.  With that in mind, as much as I love the whole field I’ve listed, I will dispatch of the other titles fairly quickly.

Left_for_dead_c-330So, in brief: I couldn’t finish 19 Varieties or This Land.  I’m perfectly willing to believe that they are fabulous books but This Land fell victim quickly to biography-itis (this happened, then this, then this), and 19 Varieties just couldn’t hold my interest when I could be rereading FeedGirl in a Cage, Crispin, and Coraline would be fabulous excuses to promote a middle grade title for the Printz except for those pesky top ten. Phineas Gage is fascinating and a huge crowd-pleaser, but not very well written or constructed.  Hitler and Six Days are at approximately the same level as the nonfiction titles I backed for 2002, but just not up to the quality and style of A Hole in My Life and Left for DeadShattering Glass is heartbreaking but lacking in literary quality.  And Tithe left me a bit cold.

So what of those top ten?  Like 1999 and 2001, this year featured two titles which stood high above the rest in terms of visibility. House of the Scorpion features three shiny stickers: Newbery and Printz Honors, and a National Book Award win.  And it was also a BBYA Top Ten title.  Feed, meanwhile, missed the Printz, but was a National Book Award Finalist and a BBYA Top Ten title, and has generally been one of the most high profile literary YA books around ever since its publication.  (I should mention here that 19 Varieties and This Land both garnered the same two honors as Feed, but besides the fact that neither impressed me much, I also don’t consider them as high profile because neither has remained as visible in the last decade as Feed has). Interestingly, in each of the three years of these dyads, there was a clear theme: 1999 was the year of the problem novel, 2001 was the year of identity politics, and 2002 features a pair of cautionary Science Fiction titles.

But before we get to the SF showdown, let’s look at two other categories–Nonfiction and Problem Novels—and two standalones.

In Nonfiction, we’ve got two books: Left for Dead and Hole in My Life.  While I was looking for things to say about Feed, I remembered that I had first read it in my YA Literature class in library school.  I knew that I had written up some thoughts on the book for that class, so I was looking through my old notes, when I was shocked to discover that I had also read Left for Dead that semester. Prof. Loertscher encouraged us to write in several different styles, including blurbs—which is what I wrote for the book.  Here’s what I said then:

Two amazing stories: one of the sinking of the ship, and one of Hunter Scott’s quest to clear Captain McCay’s name. Perhaps too facile a sense of “justice,” but I’m not complaining.

And Left for Dead’s stories are indeed amazing, but what is more interesting, although he abandons it half-way through, is Nelson’s way of telling the story.  In the early going, he weaves between the two stories, and not in strictly chronological order, to achieve some stunning moments of suspense.  As he gets into the meat of the story of the Indianapolis, he begins to hold more strictly to chronology, though, telling the story of the sinking, recovery, and court martial, and then moving on to Hunter Scott’s story of finding “justice” for Cpt. McCay. I think what I meant by a “facile . . . sense of ‘justice’” is that by the time we get to the somewhat unsatisfying conclusion of Hunter’s story (Congress enters some letters into McCay’s personnel file), we already know all the facts of the ship’s sinking, so for us, justice is served by the fact of the book, and the fact that Congress can’t or won’t acknowledge it is infuriating even as it is beside-the-point.  If Nelson had hewed more closely to his original technique of interweaving the stories, we might have learned more of the facts of the ship as Hunter and then Congress learned them.  Then, rather than knowing half-way through the book that McCay was obviously innocent of any real crime, we might have felt more attached to Hunter’s mission to solve the puzzle.  As I say, though, I’m not really complaining, and despite the fact that I had forgotten reading it, this continues to be an impressive piece of work.

hole in my lifeThe other nonfiction book to discuss is the one that actually got a Printz medal: Jack Gantos’s A Hole in My Life.  Gantos is hilarious, and his account of his childhood travails as an naïve drug-mule is fascinating, funny, and moving. You had some fine things to say about the book a few months ago, which I can’t better: “Gantos, in contrast, has got self-deprecation down to an art form. He is honest, straightforward, and absolutely hilarious. . . . an unflinching look at himself at one particular time in his life, when he made a whole series of stupid decisions, but somehow managed to land on his feet. Running throughout is his love of literature and his desire to write. I’m glad I re-read this, because it is wonderful, funny, touching, and beautifully written.”  Then you said you wondered how it would do in What Should’ve Won. Well, here we are, and it’s time for Gantos’s reckoning. Unsurprisingly, this is the best written of the nonfiction titles from this year—and it particularly soars over Left for Dead.  And while I personally find the story of the Indianapolis more compelling than Gantos’s prison time, I think it is clear that he has written much better structured book as well. I have grave misgivings about the memoir as a genre, but if ever a memoir deserved a prize, it is this one.

Our other category is contemporary problem novels: {Catalyst, America, Hush, and My Heartbeat. Despite being a Printz Honor book, My Heartbeat has never been on my radar before, nor have I read (or even heard of) any other book by Freymann-Weyr, but I am very glad that I read this one.  As a 32-year-old adult living in 2013, I was at first a bit put off by how very ignorant Ellen is about homosexuality. But I stopped for a second to try to remember my own thoughts about the subject as a sophomore in high school, only about 5 years before Ellen’s story takes place, and realized that I was probably just as ignorant.  Once I accepted that, I found myself very moved by Ellen’s struggle to understand her relationships with her brother and his best friend.  As I said in my goodreads review, my one qualm–which I have never had before in my life–was that I wanted the book to be longer: the short space unfortunately forced a few characters, in particular James (the brother’s best friend, who becomes Ellen’s boyfriend) to be underdeveloped and as a result overly idealized.  A small fault in what is surely a minor masterpiece, but enough to push it out of my final five.

Another minor masterpiece is Jacqueline Woodson’s Hush, which recounts the life of a young girl named Toswiah whose life is uprooted by her father entering the Witness Protection Program. It’s a strange little novel, with a very minimal plot, relying instead on the undulations of Toswiah’s thoughts and feelings.  I could see the lack of plot hampering a lot of readers, but I found the atmospheric nature of the book quite moving. It would make for a bizarre but perhaps productive pairing with Robert Cormier’s I Am the Cheese, also about the Witness Protection Program.

catalyst{Catalyst, meanwhile, is one of my very favorite books of 2002. On The Hub, I said it was “A great (and prescient) look at the increasing insanity of the college admittance process we inflict on teenagers.” The characterization of Kate, the protagonist, is probably the best of all the novels I looked at for this year, and the integration of Kate’s science leanings into the text is quite impressive. And, of course, Laurie Anderson’s writing is always pristine.  Indeed, while I have other reasons for my final winner as well, and while this is a ridiculous thing to bring into a Printz discussion, one of the primary reasons I’m discounting it is that (spoiler alert) I really can’t see any other possible winner for What Should’ve Won: Printz 2010 than Wintergirls, and I’ve already handed Anderson What Should’ve Won: Printz 2000, so it seems a bit unfair.

americaYou have told me many times that you think that ER Frank’s America was robbed of Printz glory, and having finally read it, I tend to agree with you.  There are some pretty fascinating plot parallels to Patricia McCormick’s Cut, which I discussed a few entries back, but Frank handles this similar plot and structure—a young person dealing with their demons in a mental institution, slowly coming to trust their therapist—with an even surer hand than McCormick. The details of America’s life are, of course, heartbreaking in the extreme, but (unfortunately) not terribly implausible. Frank’s nuanced characterization of the several people who harm America is nothing short of amazing. And even the metaphor of America’s name, which I thought at first would be overly obvious, is played well.

overboardI’m reserving a paragraph here for Overboard, by our friend Beth Fama, just to embarrass her.  Overboard is a truly impressive piece of work—limiting herself to a setting almost entirely in the water (for comparison, Left for Dead takes a similar incident and dispatches it with relative haste), Beth is able to wring an amazing amount of plot and character development from a very restricted palette.  Beth will no doubt agree with me that it doesn’t quite have the weight of the five books I’ve chosen for my mock Printz, but I absolutely think it has every right to be discussed in the top ten.

And finally, before the death-match, there is the Printz Winner itself, Postcards from No Man’s Land.  All I can say is: why didn’t someone tell me this book was about Operation Market Garden?? A Bridge Too Far (which describes this WWII operation) has been one of my favorite movies since I was little, and here this is the last Printz Winner I read. Oh right, we’re talking about the merits of the book.  Clearly, this is a staggering work: the double plot line, the characterizations, the prose. Great stuff.  If I had to name a flaw in this book it is one similar to that I voiced against Code Name Verity last year: the narration doesn’t make much sense. In this case, at least we have a good excuse for Geertrui’s narrative to exist: she is giving it to Jacob to explain their relationship.  But still, there is far too much novelistic detail (and indeed, Chambers sometimes calls attention to this, by reminding us that Geertrui can’t remember everything that happened or by having her say she doesn’t know why she’s telling Jacob this particular detail).  It’s a small point (much smaller than in CNV) but enough to push it to number 6 or 7 in this outstanding year.

TheHouseoftheScorpionSo what do we make of House of the Scorpion vs. Feed?  Both take scientific/ethical questions of their day and extrapolate them into the future to offer cautionary visions of what can happen when society chooses science over ethics. Both are written brilliantly with strong, memorable characters and rich themes.  As I’ve already mentioned, House of the Scorpion was the much more highly decorated title when they were published—and I think I can see why–but I find Feed to be the superior book.  Mostly, this has to do with small flaws that riddle House of the Scorpion.  Sondra Eklund recently drew my attention to a relatively small problem: that the novel has Matt using his fingerprints and DNA to get through El Patron’s security system, despite the fact that clones do not share fingerprints.  I think this is minor because it could be solved by simply making the security based on DNA alone and omitting the reference to fingerprints, but it points to a larger issue I have with the book: a misunderstanding of what cloning means. Farmer is obviously on the side of the clones, but she still shares the general societal view that clones are somehow strange and unnatural—international law in the novel holds that clones are not people until their “host” dies because the law can’t acknowledge two people with the same DNA.  But the current law of every country and municipality in the world already acknowledges two (or three or more) people with the same DNA: identical twins and triplets.  I suppose some people find twins to be kind of freaky, but there is nothing inherently inhuman or unnatural about them.  And, contra Farmer, they don’t even always share the same interests and personality types.  It really is true that nuture matters.  This issue also speaks to a general simplicity of thought in the novel.  As opposed to Feed (as we’ll see below), Farmer seems to think that her ethical issue is straightforward and obvious. And sure—it is obvious that it is evil to create clones for the purpose of harvesting organs.  But that’s just the extrapolation—surely her novel should have something to say about the more subtle issues we face today, about stem cells, discarding blastocysts, and medical experimentation in general.

Beyond that, the biggest problem with House of the Scorpion is structural—the section of the novel after Matt escapes Opium is fine, but significantly less solidly constructed than the first two thirds of the novel.  The plot meanders much more than it has up to then.  And especially troubling is Farmer’s strange turn towards a satire of socialist thinking, which really has nothing to do with anything that her novel has been discussing up to this point. Not that she doesn’t have interesting things to say, but just that it dilutes the novel as a whole.  None of this is to take away from Farmer’s achievement—and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, out this year. But House of the Scorpion just doesn’t live up to the power and vision of Feed.

feedI honestly didn’t know that I was going to award Feed the title until I got most of the way through writing this post, but the more I thought about the novel, and the more I compared it to the other books, the more impressed I became.  I obviously have no idea what Anderson’s writing style looks like, but the novel reads like it was written with a blistering urgency to get itself on paper, and it demands to be read with the same intensity.  There are so many things to highlight about Feed, but I’ll start with the most obvious: the SF elements. I said earlier that I wrote up some thoughts for my YA Lit class—here’s a piece:

A frightening vision of the future which seems to grow more true every year since it was written: computers and advertising taking over the world until they become so much a part of human beings that we will die without them.

I think this synopsis is right on (I wrote it after all). The attack on consumer culture, on our reliance on computers, and our willingness to be controlled by corporations is very real and red hot–one of the most horrifying scenes I’ve ever read is when Quendy shows up with artificial lesions all over her body. But there is much more to the SF angle, starting with the fact that Anderson clearly feels ambivalent about the feed: just like so many of us, he is able to identify the advantages of it, just as he can see the detriments, and it is very hard to separate them out and “purify” the technology.  Check out this paragraph:

“Of course, everyone is like, da da da, evil corporations, oh they’re so bad, we all say that, and we all know they control everything. I mean, it’s not great, because who knows what evil shit they’re up to. Everyone feels bad about that. But they’re the only way to get all this stuff, and it’s no good getting pissy about it, because they’re still going to control everything whether you like it or not. Plus, they keep like everyone in the world employed, so it’s not like we could do without them. And it’s really great to know everything about everything whenever we want, to have it just like, in our brain, just sitting there.”

As much as it seems obvious that Titus is “wrong” and that we have to fight the power, that paragraph sounds pretty much exactly like what everyone has to say about Google these days—and it is a lot harder than we think to disengage ourselves from the world of advertising and corporations.  And, as Titus says, it might not be what we actually want.  That paragraph also takes me to my next point: the writing. It is just so full of information about the society, about Titus’s character, and about the way people think and speak in the world.  That paragraph doesn’t contain good examples of it, but the book is also packed with future-slang that is better designed and integrated than any SF novel I’ve read since A Clockwork Orange—“unit/unette”; “youch”; “meg” and much more. To take another example, there is the justly famous first sentence: “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.” People love this line because it is funny and irreverent, but it is secretly hiding a ton of information: 1) it introduces us to the fact that space travel is a regular part of life in this world, 2) it shows us the callowness of Titus from the first line—that he can’t appreciate such an amazing thing as traveling to the moon, except 3) the trip to the moon actually *does* “completely suck” since it is the source of the rest of the plot, most importantly Violet’s malfunctioning feed which eventually leads to her death.

And speaking of Titus’s callowness—his characterization is a tour de force precisely because Anderson refuses to compromise his character in any way.  If Feed had been written today, it would be part of a dystopian trilogy in which Titus breaks away from society, finds a way to disengage from the feed and eventually fights against those “evil corporations” running the world (or is it solar system?).  But, as I’ve said before—that’s a bullshit way to approach dystopia.  Titus doesn’t suddenly realize that his whole world is wrong, because how could he? In fact, he barely changes at all—he acts atrociously towards Violet as she is slowly dying, and just barely begins to make a change towards being able to show his love in a meaningful way after she has died.  He never really figures out what her resistance to the feed was all about. Instead, Anderson asks the reader to identify with Titus’s complicity in his world, his inability to ever really break free from the feed.

The humor and satire of Feed are obvious from that first line, and they hold your memory strongly, but I had forgotten how emotionally affecting the novel is in the second half, as Violet’s feed malfunctions.  Violet’s desperate will to live and to love Titus; her father’s heartrending account of his reasons for installing Violet’s feed, and his blind lashing out at anyone and everyone around him for his daughter’s death; even Titus’s disengagement from Violet just as she needs him most—all of these contribute to a harrowing experience.

Powerful prose, visionary science fiction that reflects directly on contemporary society, fully developed characters, and emotional punch—there is not much more you can ask for out of a book than that.

Honor Books:

A Hole in My Life


House of the Scorpion




Filed under Awards, Books, Teens

5 responses to “What Should’ve Won: Printz 2003

  1. Sharon Grover

    Not sure I agree with the honor books, but you’re bang on with what should have been the winner!

  2. You didn’t! Here’s a sock in the arm for putting OVERBOARD in this post! *punch*

    I’ve tried twice to read FEED and failed, even though I devoured the OCTAVIAN books, which are much more unusual YA fare. But the paragraph you printed is a good example of what inexplicably frustrated me: the teen-speak. You have six sentences there, with four instances of “like”–as a quotative, a verb, a conjunction, and of course as a “discourse particle” (obviously I had to look that term up). I saw artistic reasons for the speech to be colloquial, but it was so thick that it became self-conscious and forced, seeming to trick Anderson into sometimes losing mastery of the editing. But it has been many years, and I’m a more mature reader now. I’ll try again!

    (And this is neither here nor there, but the cover design for FEED is phenomenal in my opinion. Instantly iconic.)

  3. KT

    I love this series. I don’t read nearly enough YA to contribute anything, but I think it’s fascinating (and I keep finding new books to check out!)

  4. Postcards, My Heartbeat, and Hole in My Life are books I love in a deep and personal way, and I think they all deserved their Printz recognition, but Feed is so deep and masterful and unflinching — of the books from that year, I think it’s the one that keeps on mattering.

  5. Pingback: Responses | crossreferencing

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