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!