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Someday My Printz Will Come
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Dying to Know How this Is YA

dying to know you 198x300 Dying to Know How this Is YADying to Know You, Aidan Chambers
Amulet Books, April 2012
Reviewed from ARC

Look, Aidan Chambers is an immensely accomplished writer. He was one of the early Printz winners, people write critical essays about his books, and he plays quite impressively with form in many of his novels. He certainly has a a steady command of his language, and while there are aspects of Dying to Know You I don’t like, when it comes down to it a lot of this is stylistic quibbling and reader preference, which is not a Printz-worthy argument.

Not stylistic? The decision to have this ostensibly YA book narrated by a 75-year-old man.

75. Let that sink in for a moment.

I am a staunch defender of the right of a YA book to seem not very YA at all and STILL be eligible for the Printz. I have always been slavishly devoted to a reading of the P&P that recognizes and honors those books that may have limited audience because they are so upper YA they are practically adult, and I will fight to the death for books like, oh, anything Mal Peet has ever written.

But it turns out I do have a line in the sand. This isn’t me, Karyn, ranting because I don’t like old narrators. It’s me suddenly wondering if I as a librarian and critic agree more with Sophie’s reading of the P&P than I ever thought I did. I’ve always been a bit of a literalist: if it’s published as a YA and it’s brilliantly written, it’s a serious contenda. Done. Sophie posited a very different take: part of the literary quality of a YA book is it’s thematic or plot relevance and resonance for a YA audience, which would comprise readers somewhere between the ages of 12 and 18.

(I am a terrible blogger because I can’t find where Sophie said this, and now I’m worrying it is in some random email or Google doc and not in a post or comment at all, so I am posting that statement without a link. If anyone else remembers Sophie saying that on record, won’t you please comment with the link so I can attribute the statement?)

75 is old, and I mean no disrespect there. But the gap between 18 and 75 is BIG. (57, to be precise, which is more than the age of the parents of many current teens. That’s more than a generation.)

I spent most of my time with Dying to Know You feeling confused about where the YA part of the story would come in. Yes, there is a teen character, but the essence of the book is about how the teen character, Karl, changes the narrator, and although this is a tale of friendship and Karl’s life is also affected a lot by the relationship, this is very much constructed as the narrators book.

In fact (spoiler warning), it turns out this is literally the narrator’s book: he is an author who has not been able to write since his wife died, but at the end he begins a new story, and the last lines of the novel we read are the same as the first lines, only now we understand that we’ve been reading his version of the story indeed, and it is the very thing that has broken his writer’s block. Very meta.

In all fairness, and because I know someone will raise this, we do hear from two teen characters. Karl we hear mostly filtered through the narrator’s voice; the premise is a Cyrano sort of plot element, where Karl has chosen his girlfriend’s favorite author to ask for help writing a series of letters to her (that she has demanded). So we read Karl through the narrator on multiple levels, talking about him to us, the readers, writing Karl’s letters for Fiorella, and then talking for and about Karl to other characters. Fiorella we hear in her own words through emails she sends the narrator, as well as filtered through Karl’s telling (which we are actually seeing at a double remove).

The literary gymnastics of narrative voice here are very impressive, so it’s no wonder this received four starred reviews. And if the dialogue without attributions drives me crazy because I find it confusing to read, I forget who is speaking, and I need to read almost every passage like this again? Well, it’s style, and really I can’t fault Chamber’s command of his style.

All I can say is that a book concerned more with old age — with sciatica and prostate troubles, concerned more with the old man who regains his enthusiasm and hope through mentoring a young man than with the young man, who exists merely to mirror the old man (the narrator states outright that one of the things he likes about Karl is that he is reminded of himself, and Karl’s depression is a clear reflection of the narrator’s depression, and just as he helps Karl pull through, Karl has helped him) — that is a book for a different audience.

So I am rethinking my working definition of excellence when it come to literature. There is no question that the writing here, without concern for thematic resonance, is solid, although you could quibble with some of the pacing and how and where Fiorella’s letters fit in. But if I consider Sophie’s points about the book suiting the intended audience at some level, and my own use of the dictionary that led us to theme and meaning as part of what makes excellence, I can construct an argument about how this book is just not an excellent book if we consider it specifically as a YA title.

Curious to hear what others think. And despite how much I think this misses the audience mark, in my heart I also suspect it might belong in the top 10 nomination pile. So let’s discuss. Does relevance or resonance with the target audience matter? Is a publisher descriptor of a book as YA enough, or does YA mean something? Can we explode this comment stream with a rousing argument?

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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. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    confession time: I’m not a fan of Chambers’ work. It is actually a bit annoying, because I’ve heard him speak and I love him as a speaker. I liked the one that got the Printz nod, but perhaps because it was more straightforward. THIS IS ALL did not work for me at all, and it sounds like some of the problems I had with this work would be here also (the fact that this is actually the book he wrote, etc.) You’d think, based on my love of certain story structure (Jellicoe Road, Verity) that I’d like this type of narrative and puzzle but, well, it just doesn’t work for me.

  2. Miriam says:

    Ha, my first reaction when I started reading this post was BUT WHAT ABOUT MAL PEET?! . . . so thank you for pointing out that he pulls off YA-with-non-YA-narrators.

    I haven’t read the book, but my gut reaction is that the Printz needs to be YA–and while it makes sense to have “published as YA” as the initial definition, I think it’s also okay to take into account whether or not the book’s excellence is YA excellence. Which, of course, then gets to definition issues…

  3. It was actually Sarah, I think, and not Sophie! The “Teen Appeal” question originally came up in this “defining the terms” post and then Sarah fleshed the issue out more in her Hulk, Smash” post. It was a great discussion!

  4. Mark Flowers says:

    In my goodreads review of this one, I compared it to Philip Roth, specifically, one of the later Zuckerman books (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain, and Exit Ghost): “an elderly author tells the story of encountering a younger man who reminds the author of himself. The main story is of the young man, but told through the lens of the old one.” There’re even more similarities than that, but that’s the gist.

    So, here’s the thing. I read those late Zuckerman novels when I was 22 (except Exit Ghost which came out later), and absolutely adored them. Both the young men and the old man spoke deeply to me. I thought then, and continue to think that they are among the best Americna novels of the 90s. And it didn’t take any kind of special knowledge of older people for me to understand and be moved by them – Roth did that all by himself.

    I fully admit that 22 is not 12 or even 18, but it’s a heck of a lot closer to 18 than 75. So I’m going to have to defend Chambers against your non-YA claim. Yes, the book is told by an old man and is about the way the teen’s life affects him, but I don’t see that as being a dealbreaker. Teens know old people. Many teens are interested in old people and what they think and have to say, or if they aren’t, they could benefit from knowing. And even with all of that, there is a very real and very well drawn story of two teens at the heart of this novel, which will undoubtedly speak to a great many teens.

  5. Jonathan Hunt says:

    “I am a staunch defender of the right of a YA book to seem not very YA at all and STILL be eligible for the Printz.”

    Really? Because I still see this as an issue of personal taste here. If we like a book then it’s YA, if we don’t like it then it’s not YA.

    Last year, you guys really liked A MONSTER CALLS and THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND IN A SHIP OF HER OWN MAKING and decided they were YA. OKAY FOR NOW and DEAD END IN NORVELT which you didn’t like quite so much were juvenile, right? You don’t like DYING TO KNOW YOU so it’s not YA? But CODE NAME VERITY? THE BRIDES OF ROLLROCK ISLAND? These are YA? I’m confused.

  6. Karyn Silverman says:

    @Elizabeth, as always your intense attention to detail is a boon to my sometimes disorganized self. I had it so firmly in my head as something Sophie had said that I only looked through her posts and comments elsewhere. Whoops! Thanks for catching that. What’s the etiquette on correcting the post, people?

    @Mark, I’m listening! And it’s not that I think that the construction AUTOMATICALLY functions as a deal breaker, but the thing is that I disagree with your take: “The main story is of the young man.” The ending in particular, where we learn that Karl’s story is a tool for the narrator’s recovery from his own grief, made the main story here for me the narrator’s story. We may just agree to disagree, but that for me was the crux of what made it not YA in it’s essence.

  7. Karyn Silverman says:

    The thing is, Jonathan, I LIKED Dying to Know You (quibbles notwithstanding). And I certainly admire the craft of it, which is why I think it probably does belong on the shorter list.

    I think I said some of this last year (when we discussed Norvelt and Okay for Now, neither of which I read, in the discussion about the line between MG and YA) that I really do think about the developmental assets and especially the journey from acted upon to acting upon. That growth is, I think, the heart of the coming of age we see in so many YA novels. In Dying, Karl does do that, which would seem to be a YA journey, except that as I read itvthe construction sets Karl up only to be a mirror of the narrator, which makes this the narrator’s journey.

    Now, maybe by my own argument the fact that the journey is there means it is YA. But this was the first book I can remember that really made me question my own defense of “if it says YA it is YA” on the upper end (we can keep arguing about MG, although I’m not sure how many crossovers we have this year), and that’s what I wanted to explore, because I suspect it will be the crux of conversations about this book.

  8. Mark Flowers says:

    I’m willing to compromise on the word “main” in “the main story” issue – there is no doubt that the narrator’s story is central to the novel, and could be considered the “main story.” But I think the key is that it is Karl and Fiorella’s actions (their “story”) which prompts the changes in the narrator – his story doesn’t exist without theirs, so they are both the “main” stories. But again, I want to stress that having one of, part of, whatever the main story be about a 75 year old man does not strike me as disqualifying. You don’t need to be 75 to understand his story–in fact, that’s part of the brilliance of the book for me, is that Chambers is able to show the similarity of experience and ability to find connections between a teenager and a older man.

    I also think that Jonathan has a point – I don’t think he’s being completely fair to what you had to say about each of those novels, but I do think we have to tread very carefully on the issue of personal taste, and *especially* what we think we know about what “real teens” will read. I obviously have no way of knowing the age of the people checked it out, but my branch’s copy of DYING TO KNOW YOU has gone out 4 times already since it came into the library in late July.

  9. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Oh, okay. Karyn, I couldn’t tell you liked DYING TO KNOW YOU quite so much from your original post–and I know that I unfairly attributed to you anything that Sarah and/or Sophie may have said.

    The problem with both ends of the spectrum is that two things can be equally true: DYING TO KNOW YOU is an adult book, but it is also a YA book. Why does it have to be one or the other?

  10. Mark Flowers says:

    @ Jonathan: exactly. If this book had come to me as an adult book, I would have immediately written up a review for the Adult Books 4 Teens blog.

  11. Sarah says:

    This is another I read back in the spring. I had a very mixed reaction to this book. Looking back at the review I posted on my blog, I noted that I enjoyed the book, as the writing quality is stellar and I felt compelled to keep reading. However, I also had a number of questions/issues – like you, Karyn, I wondered about the choice of narrator. I think it’s an interesting choice, but I do worry about the potential disconnect/alienation of the reader. However, like Mark, I checked our circ numbers and our copy has also gone out 4 times since July, so maybe it’s not actually creating the disconnect I imagined. I found Karl and Fiorella – who are, after all, the teen characters – bland and frustrating, particularly Karl. However, I did not really consider that I was getting to know them through this particular narrative lens, so it may be something I’d need to revisit. Lastly, and this is probably very petty of me, the title – I don’t get it. Was I wrong to assume that someone would die? Yes, there are close calls, but ultimately no death. So why this title?

  12. Roger Sutton says:

    I feel like DYING TO KNOW YOU tells a teen reader what he or she means to the world, here personified in the narrator. That’s plenty YA for me.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Thanks, Roger! While I still have my reservations, that’s exactly what I needed to hear to allay at least some of them. If we were at the table discussing these books, I’d move Dying to Know You to the still-under-consideration pile now.

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