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Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

Lots of Unfinished Books

Tired 300x200 Lots of Unfinished Books

This is how I feel in December.
CC-licensed image by Flickr user Tambako the Jaguar.

One of the things that no one believes when I say it is that I read less on winter break than any other time. There’s just no time — my kid stays up too late, we’re always visiting family or being visited, and if I manage to finish a book it’s a miracle.

And actually, my kid staying up late and visitors? Those are just excuses. Because really what happens is that I burn out. For 7 out of the past 10 years, my reading life has centered on a late January deadline, and my reading selection has been dictated not by my own whims and tastes but by the necessities and vagaries of nomination lists, whether official YALSA lists or our own contender list.

And when late December comes, and all my colleagues and friends talk about all the books they plan to read over break, I feel sad. Because what I have left to read at this point is a pile of books I’m just not that excited to read — that’s how they ended up at the bottom of the pile, after all. A few late additions to the list of must-reads might spark my interest, but my reading at this point is so purpose driven that I don’t feel like I can take the time to finish anything I can’t defend as a necessary read — these days, that means anything that falls below the top 20 or so books I’ve read this year feels like gross indulgence when there are other books clamoring to be read before the YMA announcements. This year, I’d really like to have read the winner and any honor books before they are the winner or honor books!

Mind you, I’m not complaining — all those committees were AMAZING experiences, and Someday is a dream come true. But everyone I know who has served on a selection or award committee has felt this burnout. And it probably colors how I read books that I come to for the first time this late in the award season, and certainly is one of the hazards of committee work.

In the past few weeks, I’ve started four books. One is a full-on contender that I will be finishing, one is a buzz book we added to the list, and two are write-ins.

Let’s start with Moonbird, the actual contender. Because someone needs to explain this to me.

I don’t, as I plead often and loudly, read a lot of nonfiction. But actually, I do — I read articles voraciously (processing the print magazines at school almost always results in me absorbed in the contents, and Twitter is a link hotbed), and I read a lot of J NF and DK encyclopedias to my son (if it’s about Star Wars, I’ve read it. There are a lot of Star Wars and Star Wars LEGO books. A LOT. Also, animal books. No shortage there). Also, BBYA (before it was the fiction-only BFYA) and Printz meant that I read plenty of NF for those four years. So narrative flow and design are not alien to me, even if I rarely choose narrative nonfiction to read. And despite all my protests, I’ve been known to be totally absorbed in nonfiction, although I find these oversize, picture and pull-out heavy texts that are also narrative reads my least favorite in terms of format.

I was looking forward to Moonbird, although I was a little startled by it — it seems like a big book for a small subject. But interesting. Which it is. However, right in the first chapter two things jumped out at me.

First, the anthropomorphizing of B-95 at the start — what?

If this didn’t have 6 stars, I would have put the book down pretty then and there. Because that anthropomorphizing is either a cheap trick (for an older YA audience, who will recognize the patent falseness of attributing such human characteristics to a bird) or this is a J book through and through, and either way, since I’m under the wire and reading with Printz eyes, done. But 6 stars and people I know and trust telling me it’s at least suitable for younger YAs? I’ll keep reading, but I’d love some encouragement.

Second, the layout puzzled me. When are we supposed to read all those sidebars and pullouts? Maybe I’m spoiled by reading NF with this sort of layout that is aimed primarily at more emergent readers, because I’m used to text that has pause points built into the pages, where the reader can read the main narrative and then at the end of the page or at some clearly marked section break on the page can go back to the additional text and read that without losing the narrative thread, and then turn the page and read on. In Moonbird, I don’t see those stopping points, so I’ve been reading the chapters as a whole then going back to all the additional text. It’s making the narrative feel choppy, and I don’t understand how this is an effective way to convey some of the information, plus — most critically for my current purposes — I am not sure how to assess the narrative. As something interrupted constantly? As two different texts, one narrative and one bite-sized? In some other way I’m missing?

And is my questioning this the result of my own lack of experience with the format, or is the format not as well designed as it could be to allow the smoothest reading experience?

Moving on, I have also read approximately half each of Vessel, In Darkness, and Endangered. Of the three, I think I will only be finishing In Darkness.

Vessel (Sarah Beth Durst) is a solid fantasy, with an unusual and engaging premise and world. But the characters are a bit flat — Fennick and Pia are central casting through and through. The world building has a lot of promise but is a bit thin — each clan is a singular, quite small entity? With little interaction, but a common tongue and religion? Is there intermarriage or trade? Small things that don’t matter much to the reading experience, and I can see why this has some ardent fans, but in Printz terms, in this year, this is just not a contender. This is, as it happens, the one on my pile I was actually looking forward to as a reader, so I’m sorry not to finish it — hopefully in February! For now, out of the pile it goes because however enjoyable, reading a book that doesn’t seem like a book I could imagine nominating this year is a crazy thing to do right now.

I think Endangered, by Eliot Schrefer, is going the same way, and thinness of character is at fault again, because I just don’t buy Sophie, although I am very interested in the story. But Sophie is a mess — lots of exposition and observances that make no sense for the character. And the plot feels a bit contrived thus far (70 pages in). That said, it also feels like an important book and another one I’d finish if I weren’t at the pressure point, because generally I do prefer to finish books. I know this was one quite a few people were buzzing about after it came to our collective attention as an NBA finalist, but does anyone really think it’s got what it takes to go the distance this year? How does it compare to two other books this year that mine some overlapping territory, Drowned Cities and Never Fall Down?

Nick Lake’s In Darkness, on the other hand, I am planning to finish. In fact, I’ll probably pick it back up and start over, with an eye towards a closer read, in the next day or so.

This one is daring and bold and goes in unexpected directions. I think I see some authorial intrusions that might ultimately be its downfall, and if the connection between Shorty and Toussaint fails to deliver it will clearly fall apart, but my initial impression is that this is a real dark horse contender, and I’d love those who have read it already (it received two write in votes on the Pyrite* Poll, and the last readership poll shows a handful of additional readers) to let me know if I am right to give it a closer scrutiny. But I figure anything that startles me with it’s quality at this point in the year is probably even better than I am giving it credit for being.

So, am I just burnt and cranky and in need of a palate cleansing adult read? Or did you find these books similarly flawed? If you finished any of them, does the ending outweigh the early flaws?

 

*The Pyrite Printz, or Pyrite, is the Someday My Printz Will Come mock Printz deliberation, and should not in any way be confused with YALSA’s Michael L. Printz Award, often referred to here as the RealPrintz or Printz. Our predictions, conversations, and speculation about potential RealPrintz contenders and winners reflect only our own best guesses and are not affiliated with YALSA or the RealPrintz committee. You probably figured that out on your own, but we like to make it clear!

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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. Wendy says:

    I feel just the same way about the pile of books I don’t really want to read. Most of them are books that I checked out of the library, didn’t get around to, renewed twice, had to return, and then put on hold AGAIN.

    I’ve been protesting all along that MOONBIRD is too young for the Printz. Is anyone defending it for the YA audience? Except for the sidebar issue (I found them effective, and effectively placed), I just didn’t think it was that good for the same reasons, but that’s a fairly unusual opinion around here. Anyway, I can’t think that it’s truly a Printz contender. I can somewhat reluctantly allow Newbery and Sibert, but Printz, no.

    I can’t wait to have time for a “palate cleansing adult read”.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      I would be kind of relieved if it was too young, since it would mean one more I could put aside for the moment, maybe allowing another book to make it to the read pile this year.

      Looking to the professional sources, SLJ said gr 6 and up and BL said 7-12, which would both qualify as firm YA, while Kirkus and PW said ages 10&up, which puts it in the dread 10-14 range. (Dread because there is a difference in opinion about how to interpret 10-14; I am uncertain that it should count as YA if half the range is outside YA, but others disagree passionately, and I don’t actually want to revisit the argument right now because so far everyone has been pretty intractable when it’s come up.)

      All of that is somewhat inconclusive, but it made YALSA’s Excellence in Nonfiction finalist pile, which means a group of librarians already had this discussion and said it was both YA and excellent. And that seems pretty definitely to say this is YA — and 6 stars! Making it a likely contender indeed.

  2. Barbara Moon says:

    That photo! YES. THAT’s me.

  3. Miriam says:

    I know EXACTLY what you mean. My palate-cleansing adult read last weekend was Zoo City by Lauren Beukes. Man, did I need it. (Though, Karyn, given the overlap in our taste–if you haven’t tried N.K. Jemisin yet, I recommend her work when you get time to palate-cleanse.)

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      I have the first one on a shelf at home, although I’ve had it for a while and somehow haven’t read it still! First palate cleanser this round will probably be the new Kate Morton (cozy gothics are good comfort reads), followed my Martha Wells’s third Raksura book (love her writing), followed by Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookshop, which everyone is buzzing about.

      After that, I’ll try the Jemisin!

  4. Elizabeth Burns says:

    Moonbird, or nonfiction in general. wonder sometimes at the demands placed on NF –here for example the stuff from the POV of the bird. I actually liked that absent a few paragraphs, there were no names used for the bird, rather the number. I’ve passed my copy onto my animal loving neice, but I saw the side info as asides or more info, if someone wanted it, and didn’t find it a distraction.

    Endangered: wow, talk about 2 people reading totally different books! I really liked Sophie & enjoyed that book very much.

    Alas, the rest are on my never-ending TBR list.

  5. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Karyn, can you discuss why you think B95 is anthropomorphized? As I understand it, that happens when an animal is personified with uniquely human characteristics. As I look at that first italicized pargraph, I’m not sure that I see any. B95 is described as “he” but sex (i.e. male/female) is not a uniquely human characteristic. B95 “feels” a word that here refers to his biological instincts and not emotions–although as we learned in TEMPLE GRANDIN animals do feel emotions. B95 “packs on fuel” and “sets his inner GPS,” but neither of those are human characteristics; it’s more of a plane metaphor. So . . . whither the anthropomorphization?

    Also, you said, “When are we supposed to read all those sidebars and pullouts?” Can you clarify what you mean by pullout? As I understand the term, it is a folded page that readers have to unfold in order to read and view the information on it, and it is more typical in picture books. Obviously, I didn’t find any of those in MOONBIRD. (Nor, for the record, did I find the “slick paper” that Joy described in BOMB; my edition definitely had a matte paper stock.) But I’m not sure that that’s what you mean by pullout, so I’m asking for clarification.

    • Wendy says:

      I see what you’re getting at, Jonathan, but I can’t think of a better word than anthropomorphism, even if that is inexact. The author attempts to put us in the bird’s head, the way an author puts the reader in a human character’s head, and I found it… irritating?coy?precious?

      • Karyn Silverman says:

        I felt the same way, Wendy, and I also think it’s the best way to describe the technique. Precious is a perfect word for them, too.

        Jonathan, I don’t believe that you don’t know what I mean, semantics aside! Those pulled out chunks of text in boxes. If they have a name, I don’t know what it is — sidebar only seems to apply for rectangular side-set text boxes, but in Moonbird they don’t all fit that physical description. I mean the information that clarifies, expands, or digresses but is not part of the narrative and is physically pulled out from the main narrative — maybe they would be footnotes or endnotes in a text for academics, but in textbooks and NF I have always thought of them as pull outs. Would you prefer text boxes? But the term is not the point, and I have to wonder why we’re going there.

        I appreciate the information the text boxes provide, and they are clearly and concisely written, but I find they chop up the reading experience — if I read them when I get to them, they interrupt the narrative flow, sometimes midsentence (assuming I go to them at the end of the page) but when I went back at the end of the chapter, it seemed like reading backwards — the narrative had moved me on to new ideas that I wanted to follow through into the next chapter, but I had to go back and get more information on the ideas, people, etc, of the chapter I had just read.

        I’m using I, but my concern from a literary perspective is that this design (yes, we’re back to design) makes a difficult reading experience for the reader — and for the reviewer, I find it challenging to assess. But like I said, this is not a format I spend a lot of time with, which is why I am asking for input. So far, no one has given me a sense of how to read it for the best experience. If a student asks “What do I do with all these extra bits of information? When do I read them?”, what do you answer? (Not just Jonathan!)

        FYI, slick paper was my fault — I edited Joy’s post and didn’t have a copy in front of me at that moment, but my memory was the glossier paper stock and I thought it was worth throwing in to a dialogue about misleading design, but actually memory had upgraded the stock, which is merely a bit heavier. I’ll edit the review accordingly, but the original point about design creating expectations and how a book works with or pushes against those expectations remains.

      • Jonathan Hunt says:

        I call all text boxes sidebars, regardless of shape or placement. That left the maps–and I couldn’t figure out why you wouldn’t just call them maps. I didn’t think you meant fold-out pages, but I couldn’t grasp your meaning. Chalk it up to one of those internet exchanges. Obviously, if we had been in the same room with the book the misunderstanding would not have occurred.

        I think there are three ways to read this book. First, read the narrative and none of the boxes. Second, read the pictures, maps, boxes, and captions only and not the narrative. I have many students that browse/read like this, especially EL students–THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE KKK is a good example: they are drawn in by the cover and the subject, but the main narrative text is too hard so they read the pictures with the captions. And third, to interrupt the main narrative at various points to read the sidebars. Since my students are familar with sidebars from their textbooks from a very young age, I find that they generally don’t have a problem with how to read the information. Do your students have a hard time with sidebars?

        • Karyn Silverman says:

          But in They Called Themselves the KKK, it’s just short captions. I did a quick look through some other NF titles in my collection today, and I see that many of them end pages with a period or have mid-page section breaks on page spreads, both of which allow a reader that natural pause point to read the text box info. This is the layout that Moonbird seemed to lack.
          And I see that those are the ways to read the narrative and text box info, but it still strikes me as either you skip one layer (by reading one or the other) or you end up with a fragmented reading experience (by reading both portions page by page, or even chapter by chapter), both of which seem like organizational issues that detract from the books literary qualities. For me, this is major design fail, much more so than Bomb‘s trim size, which plays with expectations but doesn’t actually affect the narrative or internal organization.

          As to whether my students have a hard time with sidebars, I’ve had Moonbird at home, but I was chatting with a couple of my students today as I was browsing through NF titles on the shelf, and the response to my description of the kind of use of text boxes I was looking for (I wanted to see if I could find another YA NF with the rich use we see in Moonbird) was to ask if I meant like textbooks, and then complain about how annoying that structure is. Admittedly, it was a small sample of students, but both do read nonfiction by choice. I’m planning to bring Moonbird in tomorrow and doing some teen surveying with a whole pile of books to see how they respond. Possibly pertinent is that the students I was speaking to today have been at my school since elementary school and so their textbook use is pretty limited — our pedagogy means we more often teach from texts or collections of readings. I’ll try to get some kids who came from more traditional middle schools and have spent more time with textbooks in the conversation tomorrow.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Isn’t any book that is not read in a single setting a fragmented reading experience? I read novels all the time and get interrupted in inconvenient places in the text that are nowhere near the end of the chapter or even those one-line page breaks that indicate a break in narrative time. I just have to dog-ear the page, but then it always takes me a minute to find my place. Is this, too, a major design fail?

        • Karyn Silverman says:

          But isn’t there a difference between interruption by design (literal book design) as opposed to by choice? You could, if you wanted, not stop mid-paragraph, right? I stop reading a stop or so early on the train sometimes to end at a good break point (usually a chapter break), and I have occasionally ruined a book for myself by having to stop reading right at the climax. That’s my failing in terms of organization of time, though, not the book’s failing; a book’s design quite clearly indicates stopping points, and it’s my own fault if I ignore them. My concern in Moonbird is that the design of the book dictates a fragmented reading experience that could have been largely avoided by a different layout.

          Also, do you really dogear? Criminal!

      • Miriam says:

        Even though they’re just captions, I did have disjoint/fragmentation/interruption issues with THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE KKK, and historically have with a lot of books with visual elements (I haven’t read MOONBIRD, so I can’t comment specifically on that one). I think it’s something that varies a lot from reader to reader–I hyperfocus and I’m very much not a visual person, and that’s how-my-brain-works baggage which I take to all books–and is part of why some books just work better for some readers than for others. Which will always be the case, no matter how good the books are.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Yes, I dog-ear, but only because I read mostly ARCs. Am I forgiven? :-)

      I do think there is a difference between those kinds of interruptions, but my point is that because we all have the ability to follow the flow of information when we get interrupted (regardless of whether that interruption is voluntary or involuntary interruption) doesn’t this conversation move into the realm of personal reading taste rather than inherent design flaw?

      • Wendy says:

        I think some books do this better than others, and I thought it was very well done in MOONBIRD. Reaching back several years, I remember reading the Fleischman Mark Twain book was irritating because of awkwardly placed illustrations and text boxes. I also think I remember struggling a bit with the Fleming book about Amelia Earhart.

      • Elizabeth Burns says:

        I’m still trying to accept the dog earing of pages. It’s going to take a while.

      • Mark Flowers says:

        I find this thread so humorous, I have to chime in. I dog-ear pages! hell-yeah! I’m even been known to dog-ear a library book from time to time (gasp!). I also used to (not so much any more, mostly because I don’t have a pen handy) underline and write copiously in books. And I really feel no shame whatsoever.

  6. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Hoose attempts to create a sense of empathy for the bird–which you found irritating, coy, and precious. I think the inductive reasoning has as much to do with that as the vivid, descriptive writing. I still don’t see trying to get into B95′s head. Hairsplitting?

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      How do you mean?

      I will concede, having read more, that it is less anthropomorphic than it seems from the opening, but I’m still finding that there is a lot of language that while technically correct, implies a more human and emotional and cognitive engagement with the world than a bird has. It sounds like for you this created empathy — I’m finding it reads young and very much irritating. I know irritating isn’t really addressable in a Printz conversation, so it’s not technically a flaw, but since it is not effective to me, or to Wendy, I’m not sure we can call it a success either, unless we amass a big sample of 12-18 year old readers for whom it works. We have a situation where the writing is eliciting a somewhat visceral response — the objective analysis is that this is the purpose of the writing, but whether he succeeds or fails is coming down to opinion.

      This might be one of the things that I find most challenging when assessing NF — so much of it is down to style and style is one of the hardest things to objectively assess. Character, plot, and some of the other things that are more hallmarks of fiction I can make a solid stab at assessing even in a book that doesn’t work for me, although it’s always harder when the heart reaction is negative, but with NF I get stuck. Hoose definitely has a style in the way he personifies B95, but is having a style enough to make it literature?

      And having read more, I’m just going to say that the design here is actually bad — images and maps are offset, aligned, and sized seemingly at random; the visual cohesion of elements is limited to the beveled boxes and heavy blue outlines on maps, but the sizing, if you flip through, is almost comically unattractive. This is the book we should be having a pitched battle about design over, not Bomb, because Bomb is a somewhat subjective situation. I think this is just broken.

      • Karyn Silverman says:

        (And having said that, I’m still not saying that’s enough alone to disqualify. But should it be ignored or made light of?)

      • TK says:

        Taking this on a bit of a tangent, I actually do think irritating is, at the least, an unofficial disqualification for many books. It may not be addressable in an official Printz discussion (though, let’s be honest, it certainly is likely to be mentioned). If a good portion of the RealCommittee finds the writing, the characters, the plot, or whatever else irritating, chances are that title is not going to be found on ballots when the voting begins.
        This all might sound obvious, but if the blog is trying in any way to handicap what the RC will actually select, it should be considered.

      • Karyn Silverman says:

        TK, that’s probably true, although my experience was that most books were either unsupported by anyone at the discussion (including the original nominator) or, more often, had at least a few passionate supporters who weren’t going to get anyone get away with using irritation to disqualify a book.

        (Although I will always suspect that that is what did poor Chime in.)

        And often the irritation stems from something textual and enough conversation seems to get at the meat of it.

        (Also, the thing about the blog is that we are so much more accountable than the RealCommittee members! No one ever asks me to justify the books my committee selected, but we are all called on the carpet around here.)

        Also, so far we have two for irritation and two against, all others abstaining thus far. So it’s far from an irritation consensus.

  7. Lucas says:

    To me, In Darkness is probably the 2012 YA title that most deserves a wider readership and even greater recognition. I too was skeptical of whether the connection between Toussaint and Shorty would work, but I thought it was beautiful and inspired in the end. And as a whole, the book really wowed me. The Times review criticized it for presenting Haiti in a cliched way that focuses on the negative aspects of Haitian society. There may be something to that, but, to me, the novel was too complex and empathetic to be justifiably considered exploitative or lazy.

    Anyway, I hope it ends up with an Honor at least!

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Lucas, I’m planning to finish and write up In Darkness by early next week. I won’t read the Times article til I do that (to avoid coloring my opinions), but already I can both see what might make a reviewer say that and also see how Lake is doing a great job showing readers glimpses of beauty even in the worst slum. I have doubts, as I said, about authorial intrusions, but also think this is raw and visceral and unexpected. I look forward to discussing it more thoroughly once I’ve finished it.

  8. Miriam says:

    Slightly off-topic… can I make a plea for turning off nested comments and going back to straight chronological? With the nested replies only going three deep, it’s much harder to trace and follow these lengthy conversations than it needs to be.

  9. Jen J. says:

    I am also struggling a little with the nested comments, but more than anything I’d love to see the ten most recent comments on the sidebar (as opposed to five). As the activity has increased here I occasionally come back to an all new set of recent comments and wonder if I’ve missed something in between. I think having that would alleviate my issues with the nesting (can’t speak for Miriam of course).

    • Mark Flowers says:

      I think the only real answer to following all the comments is to subscribe to every post. I did that this year and it helped immensely.

      As for nested comments, I have mixed feelings – I like that you can respond more or less directly to a comment, but I think it gives the threads a little bit of a feeling of side conversations, instead a single discussion.

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