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Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

Roundup

divergent1 198x300 RoundupSo, I’ve been pretty busy lately.

One of the things keeping me busy is the launch of an annual outside reading project I do with my 9th graders, called Read, Write, Recommend, which involves independent recreational reading and Goodreads. It’s an awesome project and I am really proud of it and someday (someday!) I will write a whole article about it because it has been fantastic at getting students reading and talking about books.

Anyway, a huge part of RWR is the recommend element, and at the start of the year, many of the recommendations are in the form of reader’s advisory consults with me (later in the year, they’ll be recommending more to each other while I hover around holding up shiny new books). I love love love standing in the library with a dozen students crowded around me asking for books and asking have I read this or that or do I have something they’ll like given a past love of X,Y, or Z.

And as I’ve stood there passing out book recommendations and basking in the thanks the next day, I’ve been thinking about how books fall into a number of categories:

NAMEOFTHESTAR 198x300 Roundup

First, we’ve got books that have scads of appeal but limited “quality” when you take the time to break them down. Lots of highly commercial books—usually with great covers—fall into this category, along with straight-to-mass market (like straight to DVD) stuff. This is not a dis (does anyone still say dis? It’s the right word here but I think my age is showing) of these books—they are often great sources of pleasure and fun to read, and reading trash is an important part of reading. Don’t we all love  (for a special, slightly shame-faced value of love) the trashy books? (Flowers in the Attic, I’m looking at you.) Also, it should be noted that while some of the titles I’m thinking of are actually badly written (wooden prose, contrived plots that sound like last year’s bestsellers), many of the books in this category are merely unexceptional when it comes to the writing: the plot is the point, and the prose does exactly what it’s meant to do to push the plot along. They may lack nuance, but only a small percentage are egregiously bad.

Then, we’ve got books that are magnificently written but have (very) limited appeal: the stereotypical Printz winners. I’d argue that this is an unfair assumption, and in fact I could get really hot under the collar writing about that, but basically these are books that hold up to rereading, that might be fantastic to teach since there’s lots of good stuff going on from a literary perspective, and that almost never move off the shelves. There are fewer of these than people like to claim among the actual Printz winners/honor books–Aidan Chambers, maybe (do those books get checked out anywhere?), and the much maligned White Darkness. Others that get bad press for limited appeal, like my darling Jellicoe Road, do quite well for me, so some of it might be about the handselling and the attitude of the librarians and booksellers pushing the titles. Anyway, the books in this category, whether they have zero or limited appeal, tend to get lots of stars and land on award lists and are used to justify YA, even if they are YA by designation rather than readership, and they don’t exactly sell themselves.

girlfirethorns 198x300 RoundupAnd finally* we’ve got the books that land right in the happy place between the other two. They have reasonably broad (occasionally huge) appeal. The writing is good—not a misplaced word or hackneyed plot device to be seen. The teens want to read them and so do the librarians (even the ones who have read too much and feel a bit burned out on entire genres). Some of these books land on award lists—Ship Breaker; The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks; Looking for Alaska; American-Born Chinese, to name a few. But lots don’t, and it’s the difference between sweet spot and winner that I’m really interested in today.

(*Obviously, there are also all those books not published as YA that I am totally pretending don’t exist, even though the only 2011 book with circs to rival Divergent—see below—is The Night Circus. But whatever, we can’t give not-YA books a shiny Printz sticker so they are as nothing to me.)

So, here are the titles I’m looking at this year that seem to hit the sweet spot based on my own in-house circulations and/or holds lists, cross referenced with things like Amazon’s bestseller lists to be sure it’s not just my kids reading them: Beauty Queens (Libba Bray); Bronxwood (Coe Booth); Divergent (Veronica Roth); Crossed (Ally Condie); The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Rae Carson); and The Name of the Star (Maureen Johnson).

I planned (and still do plan) on tackling Beauty Queens and Bronxwood.

But it never occurred to me to review the other four in this blog, although I read each of them the moment I got my hands on them. Why not? Divergent received two stars that I know of and a largely postive write up in the Times. The Name of the Star kept me up all night, and while I don’t see any stars for it (someone correct me if I’m wrong, please), reviews have all been positive. Girl? Again, two stars, and I loved it—an original straight up fantasy, no urban or real world trappings to be seen.

So what’s holding me back?

crossed1 199x300 RoundupCrossed is a second book in a series, so okay, I KNOW I have a bias there. If the book is in a series, you will have to work really hard to convince me it stands alone, and I believe it does need to stand alone to be a contender, since we can only evaluate each book on its own merits.

Divergent, though? Do I believe that since a dystopia took the gold last year, this one can’t? Or am I comparing it to Ship Breaker? (Which I can’t, per the charge, because we can only even compare apples and zucchinis in the same pub year, and really it’s never about comparing anyway.) Divergent has the highest circ of any book this year: surely that deserves a second look?

And what about The Name of the Star and The Girl of Fire and Thorns, which both made me genuinely happy as a reader, and seem to be working for my teens as well? I’m picky, and yet I don’t remember pausing with either of these books because something jumped out as a flaw. I wasn’t reading with notebook to hand, but usually anything big does crack the windshield even when I’m trying to pretend I’m just out for a stroll and not driving at all.

Am I being unfair to commercially appealing books? Responding to flaws that some part of me noted while most of my attention was on the plot? Ignoring anything with less than three stars and lending too much credence to the review system? Or is it just that I can’t imagine rereading any of them except maybe to refresh my knowledge of these worlds when the sequels come out?

Wait, am I penalizing first-in-a-series books? Holy cannoli, that might actually be it, and this isn’t a staged epiphany—I just wrote myself into that realization.

So, what do you think? Are these contenders? If not, why not? They’re great reads. They might even be great writes, but I was so busy dismissing them from the Printz arena that I never noticed. What ultimately sets apart the not-even-on-the-table from the also rans and winners?

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About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything (except current events, because she’s too busy reading YA literature to follow the news). Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. You might be on to something about the first of the series being a drawback, but not because of a bias against series as much as, the nature of something being first in a series makes it less tight and self-contained than it might have been as a stand-alone. I’m reading The Name of the Star right now, and I’m loving it to bits, but I did notice there seems to be a lot more world-building scenes at the beginning, before the main action really starts ratcheting up, than there probably would have been if this was intended as a stand-alone. It’s a different kind of structure or arc or something. Now, whether that means it ought to be judged for it’s quality AS the first-in-a-series instead of compared to stand-alone books, or brushed off entirely from award-talk for that reason, I don’t know!

  2. I think there’s something to be said, in this bias against commercially appealing books, that there’s often a bias against what’s perceived as “girl books” that are marketed and read largely by an audience of female teens. Maureen Johnson is a great example of this – her hugely popular books feature and are marketed towards girls. “Girl books” are often perceived as less literary than their gender neutral or male-oriented counterparts. I’m not even talking content here, but presentation. I’m remembering a twitter dialogue awhile back (that I can’t find to reference) where Johnson and several other authors discussed how “Pink Books don’t win the Printz.” So while some awesome feminist books (like Frankie Landau Banks, for example) make strong contenders, other well written books (like E. Lockhart’s previous novels, The Boy Book, Dramarama, etc) would never have been considered because they look “girly.” It’s a perception thing.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    I think you’re onto something when you wonder whether being distracted by the “page-turnability” makes you put your mental notebook away. I found DIVERGENT immensely gripping and fun. But after the halfway point I found some pacing problems, and muddled descriptions, and a lot of the action suddenly happened very close to the end. A little more seasoning will definitely iron those things out for Ms. Roth.

  4. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    rockin, I noticed the same thing with THE NAME OF THE STAR. I think its a bit gutsy, actually, to allow for a rather slow build up to the big reveal about Rory.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear THE GIRL OF FIRE & THORNS; not just the plotting & language, but it did so many things that are usually “no”s in the books: a rather indulged main character; a serious look at religion and belief (that, in a way, reminded me of Battlestar Galactica’s treatment of same, now that I thinkn of it); and a rather suprising character death.

  5. Sarah Couri says:

    I have to say (and I don’t think I’m giving too much away when I say this!) that we did look at some of the more commercial fiction around while I was on the committee. I was a little surprised, I guess because I had drank the literary-limited appeal-stereotypical Printz winners cool-aid?

    We didn’t look at all of it, of course, and not anything that was egregiously bad. There were just more books in your third category up for discussion than I had been expecting (the good to great appeal, solid to strong writing category). They were always interesting discussions because there was good to talk about — lots of great dialogue, say, or meticulous pacing, or what-have-you. And there was never a ton of negative stuff to bring up. And yet they didn’t quite make it to our final five. I think it came down to that ‘not comparing but kind of comparing’ that you talked about in an earlier post, Karyn. It’s a matter of finding the books that rise to the top. Some of the nominations were strong books, great reads…just maybe not the five greatest writes of the year.

    The whole question of serial writing is totally complicated and I wish we had a better way of dealing with it.

    And Sarah, I think you bring up an interesting point. We had a couple of totally confidential, not-sharable conversations about misleading covers while at the table. It can be hard to see past a too-glitzy, too-sexy cover, I think. Unfortunately.

    Er, and I am hastily editing to clarify… We all read very carefully, no matter what was on the cover! We just mentioned that “such-and-such” on the cover was off-putting, or allowed us to be surprised by what we actually found on the inside.

  6. Mark Flowers says:

    @Sarah Sullivan – I guess I see where Johnson is coming from, but “ANGUS, THONGS . . .” and “THE EARTH, MY BUTT . . . ” are both pretty “pink” books that won Printz Honors.

    I think the larger problem for Maureen Johnson is that she isn’t a very good writer. I have to say, I’m kind of stunned at the positive press for NAME OF THE STAR. Sure it was fast paced and suspenseful, but I think it falls pretty definitively into Karyn’s category: “merely unexceptional when it comes to the writing: the plot is the point, and the prose does exactly what it’s meant to do to push the plot along”

    As for the series issue – I agree with rockin: “not because of a bias against series as much as, the nature of something being first in a series makes it less tight and self-contained than it might have been as a stand-alone”

    After all, MONSTRUMOLOGIST, OCTAVIAN NOTHING, and the afore mentioned ANGUS, THONGS were all series starters. And this year, I had a few problems with DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE, but not primarily because it was the first in a series. What all those have in common is that even when they advertised themselves as the first in a series, they never really felt that way while reading.

  7. farfalla says:

    Don’t forget that SHIP BREAKER is the first in a series.

  8. Karyn Silverman says:

    Mark, I think you nailed it– it’s the ones that feel like series starters that I was thinking of when I wondered if there was bias in my reading; I had no idea that Ship Breaker was going to be a series, for instance. Also, thank you for calling out Angus especially, which I thought of immediately when I saw Sarah (Sullivan)’s comment.

    I do wonder how much cover and perception of commercial appeal bias our process, but I think the rereading is actually the bigger piece. Every book I’ve read that feels like a winner also feels like it will stand up to multiple reads (and when I’ve tested it, they do stand up). These are books we can dig into. Books operating on more than just surface, and doing more with language than advancing the plot: books with depth. But is depth actually a sign of great writing? How do we codify depth? What if a book gives and gives to me on each reread but leaves someone else cold? I’m wondering if there is an objective standard we can apply to test for this quality, which I’m thinking might be the literary equivalent of umami.

  9. Elizabeth says:

    I think there are two ways that series get created lately in YA: my suspicion is that books like SHIP BREAKER are sold as stand-alones, and the success of the book (and the richness of the world, and talent of the author) spur the sequel. Then there are manuscripts with a “hook” that went to auction between multiple houses, and the end result is a multi-book deal that includes the sequels right up front. I have a prejudice that the former method produces a tighter book.

    Gosh, I hope that serious readers and reviewers don’t truly judge a book by its cover, or I’m doomed when my glitzy, inappropriate, Vogue-like cover is revealed. I console myself daily with Franny’s cover, and now you’re making me worry.

  10. Karyn Silverman says:

    Elizabeth, does it feature a headless girl in a pretty blue, purple, or pink dress, with smoke effect on the dress or in background? That trifecta is a bit off-putting at this point (it looks like EVERY OTHER BOOK). Otherwise, you’re fine.

    (And if you DO have the trifecta cover, maybe you want to make sure the dress is teal or some other color we haven’t seen yet. Just to play it safe.)

    And I think you are spot on about the tighter book and sequel v hook/open series concept.

    And we do look past the cover. Actually, I’m kind of a sucker for the cover I just made fun of. It’s when the plot sounds just like every other book that I pause.

  11. Erin says:

    I haven’t read _all_ of the ones you mentioned, but I definitely do think The Girl of Fire and Thorns could be a contender: a fresh, surprising plot that plays with genre conventions, thoughtful stuff about religion, a setting inspired by Mediterranean cultures rather than medieval northern Europe, a main character who is unconventional but not in a forced way, and the prose goes down smooth and easy.

    I don’t know if it’s a final fiver, but I think it should get a serious look.

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