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Someday My Printz Will Come
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Date Rape, Siblings, and the New Problem Novel

youagainstme 204x300 Date Rape, Siblings, and the New Problem NovelYou Against Me is a fine novel, in the non-pejorative sense of fine. It is finely detailed, even nuanced, story about family and what happens when bad things derail the complacency and blindness of a family.

It’s also the second book I’ve read in 2011 alone in which a sibling response to an alleged date rape is a central component: back in February, verse novel Exposed by Kimberly Marcus hit the stands.

Exposed hasn’t been mentioned over here before, although it too is a fine novel, this time admittedly in the damning with faint praise sense. It did quite well in my library, because it’s short and tight and while it has nothing hugely remarkable to recommend itself, it does what it sets out to do very well. Because really, what it is is a problem novel. Like Ellen Hopkins’s books, or Sarah Dessen’s, or Patty McCormick’s, it provides palatable (not sweetened) access to a difficult subject, and it’s fairly straightforward (verse format notwithstanding.)

You Against Me covers much of the same territory, except that in addition to the rapist’s sister, we also get the victim’s brother, a double whammy treatise on masculinity, and a star-crossed love (between the two siblings). And I found myself thinking that this seemed like trying to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. In many ways, this passes as a silk purse. Downham has an astounding ear for dialogue (caveat: I speak American, the characters speak English. So it might play differently across the pond). She has a deft touch with her examination of gender and class. But in the end, it read a little too much like a problem novel gussied up, and I’m not sure that dressing up is enough to make this stand out in the year.

On the other hand, we don’t have a lot of straight up realistic fiction under consideration: How to Save a Life; I am J; and Where Things Come Back are the only other realistic contemporary books I am seeing on the list we’ve been working from, and the Printz gold most often goes to realistic fiction (off the top of my head: Jellicoe, Alaska, First Part Last, Monster, Postcards).

There are two areas where You Against Me shines. One is Mickey and Karyn’s story (and let me digress for a moment to say that it is really really jarring to read a book with my name and my spelling, having spent a lifetime without actually meeting any other Karyn-with-a-y’s. I feel for all of you with names often found in fiction.). Mickey is a somewhat conventional bad boy, saddled with a drunken mother and two younger siblings and with dreams that are hard to realize within the circumstances of his life. He’s 19 and he lives in a world where that’s pretty much it–many of his friends are already fathers, and university isn’t in his future. He genuinely loves his sisters, and his inability to deal with Karyn’s depression after she is date raped is compelling and painful. He only knows how to fight with his fists, and that’s not actually what his sister needs. She needs a listening ear. She needs time and space and all Mickey can give her is his anger (for, not at, her) and his distrust of the established authority even though it turns out that the cops and social services are not the bad guys after all. Mickey is conflicted and he wants something he’s never really known he can want–safety, room to follow his passion, a world where following the passion (cooking) won’t be laughed at. He wants to be a man and be himself, and the gulf between what his working class society tells him is manhood and what his dreams tell him is him is a big chasm of uncertainty. Downham manages to convey all of this smoothly, showing it through actions and conversations and never being ham-handed in her treatment of these questions of gender and class.

Karyn herself is unfortunately not as rich of a character, so when I say it’s their story that shines, it’s compared to Ellie and Tom’s story, although you could probably just talk about Mickey’s story versus Ellie’s story. Ellie is the smart, overlooked younger sister of a golden boy, and while as a reader you do get invested in her, it’s a predictable story. She must find the strength to go against her family, especially Domineering Dad, to Tell the Truth. Of course she falls for Mickey: he’s a Beautiful Bad Boy, all the girls fall for him, and he’s the antithesis of her safe world. (Hey, it’s just like Charlotte and what’s his face– the one who was Eric on Gossip Girl– on Revenge. Liz was right, Revenge is a YA story indeed, in all sorts of ways!) None of this is bad, but when we are looking for books that rise above the year’s cohort, Mickey’s journey into being a a good man instead of being caught up in what it means to be a man in the most conventional sense is something fresh. The romance? The girl who must push back against her confining patriarchal world? Eh. Tropes and well trod territory.

But the novel has one more thing going for it. The sentence-level writing here is so rich, so evocative. No flourishes or fancy language plays as we see in Chime, just beautiful language all over the place, making even the mundane aspects of the story a little shinier. Star-crossed lovers, as Ellie and Tom become, may be a dime a dozen, but they are lots more compelling to read about when the writing is this good.

From the first page, the descriptions bring the setting to vivid life, and the language changes to match the dominant perspective of the chapter: “Outside, the rain was still going, a fine mist falling into light from the fluorescent strip above the door.” Mickey’s voice comes through: the rain was going; Ellie’s voice would have rendered that sentence differently. When Ellie speaks, the language is formal, precise, and still so well crafted: “It had become imperative to tell the truth, as if any grain of goodness that was left in her life would slip away if she didn’t.” The language shows the differences in class, the differences in how their lives have shaped their world view, and it has a simple grace and balance that seems simple on the face but is difficult to write.

The writing is what kept me going through the nagging sensation that I’d read this already, and the language it what elevates it to something beyond similar books. But does it elevate it enough? I’m torn. Part of me wants to dismiss this, and another part of me thinks it has final five written all over it: I see the weaknesses, but I’m not sure these are flaws in the sense I’ve meant when I’ve used that word before. Nothing is actually wrong with this, I’m just not sure it’s all that and the bag of chips.

Then again, that’s almost exactly what I said about Alaska way back when, and that went on to take the gold.

Thoughts?

Pub details: Alfred A. Knopf/David Fickling Books, September 2011; reviewed from ARC

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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. tess says:

    This doesn’t have much (well, anything) to do with You Against Me, but have you read Rotters by Daniel Kraus? It’s such a brilliant book and it hasn’t been getting NEARLY the attention it deserves. Probably has something to do with the silly cover and the blurb from RL Stine. Anyway, it filled me with this total evangelical zeal, so I just thought I’d mention it. :)

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