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Someday My Printz Will Come
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The Different Girl

The Different Girl, Gordon Dahlquist
Dutton Children’s, Feb 2013
Reviewed from ARC
different girl The Different Girl

Let’s talk about voice (bay-bee), because this book features one of the strongest I’ve come across.

(And before you hit the jump, please remember that we do spoilers here. All the time. So if you are reading on and you haven’t read the book yet, I don’t think I’ll ruin it but I will spoil some parts. Caveat emptor.)

Well, actually, let’s ease into voice. I want to end on the strong note in hope that others will pick this one up, since I think it’s pretty far under the radar.

There’s a part of me that wonders if this is really an upper middle grade title I should be pushing on all my Newbery-focused friends, rather than the Printzers. It’s so simple in some ways, and the language is so manageable, that it sometimes feel young. But the ideas are huge — this is, in so many ways, a quintessentially YA story. It’s probably more a defies-easy-categorization book than anything as obvious as a “children’s book” or “YA book”.

The YA-ness is the core internal journey. The four girls, epitomized by narrator Veronika, are moving from childhood to adulthood, although their version looks different from May’s, the titular different girl. In the course of the story, Veronika, Caroline, Eleanor, and Isobel emerge as individuals, having been parts of a whole before — maybe not entirely, but largely. They are the same, as they have to be. But as they acquire more knowledge, as the world comes to them, as they experience more and more individual moments, and they form separate selves. They grow, mentally if not physically, from children, protected by Robbert* and Irene, to a kind of adulthood, having to think for themselves and decide for themselves.

(*I found that second B in Robbert weirdly distracting, which had me thinking about names and spellings, something most often played with in genre books. Anyone else find strange spellings for seemingly normal names problematic? I’m fine with made up names, but alternately spelled names leave me wondering way too much about the process and decision that led there, and pull me out of the story. In this case, I could get past it, but I never quite stopped remembering that I was reading a book someone had written whenever I read Robbert’s name. Subjective and baggage, so I’ll stop digressing now.)

Dahlquist’s world-building here is worth stopping to admire. It’s economical, due in part to the very limited knowledge of the first person narrator, and so carefully parceled out through that limited perspective. It puts a lot of onus on the reader: we can establish a rough timeframe (near future) and determine that the world seems to have gone to Hell in a handbasket — but we don’t get big picture, because the narrative is so small-lensed. That the reader still has a sense of place makes this a notable feat, although it may well leave some readers puzzled and dissatisfied.

(My mother, for instance, could not connect all the dots because there were too many things left unstated, and she’s a way more experienced reader than the intended audience, but she’s also less conversant with the tropes of dystopia than they are, and I think anyone who reads a lot of the current crop of dystopic books would have the imagination to fill in the holes.)

Now let’s talk about voice. Because I think the world building is admirable but I recognize that what I see as economy another might see as lazy or half-baked, so we run into who we are as readers rather than the book itself, and the YA journey, while relevant in some ways, is not critical to literary excellence (although it’s come up before that some committees have opted to count that as an element of literary merit; I think the journey done well can be a kind of thematic excellence but the presence or lack thereof is less relevant to my process and criteria).

Veronika’s voice is fantastic. Her precision, the way she turns over each idea searching for the logical progression that led her there, the way she slowly finds her own ways of expressing abstract ideas when she is only just beginning to grasp them: this is an unusual and tightly written voice. It’s been months since I read this the first time, and her voice lingers with me. I believed in her, in the idea of AI girls, because the voice felt so true. In her careful progression through thoughts, laid out for the reader just as she must lay it out — no intuitive leaps here — so many intangibles come through. Most of all, I was struck by the way a sense of wonder threads through, even though as a construct wonder should be far from possible for Veronika.

Ok, enough gushing. Textual evidence: rereading passages, I was really struck by the use of simile and metaphor. For a long time — the first 60 pages or so — there are no metaphors. Nothing represents another idea, because that kind of higher order thinking is hard to get at logically. There are plenty of similes, because in a logic-based system comparison is a useful benchmark for understanding. And then a metaphor develops: the cage, the parrot; the parrot is the thing so obvious you can’t miss it, and the cage is the surrounding, maybe less obvious, idea or thing. This imagery is something the girls can grasp. Veronika gets it first, and then she employs the cage as a symbolic representation of other things she is trying to understand. I’m kind of in awe, because the grasp on language is so perfect. Here is a first person narrative in which the language that is telling the story is showing the character arc. Hello prize-worthy writing.

Also striking: the careful balance of the childlike and the brilliant. These girls can do a lot of things, and they have powers of recall and a breadth of knowledge that is not insignificant. But because emotion is not innate, and too nebulous and indefinable to be learned like a fact, they have a literalism and pragmatism that is a lot like that of a toddler or pre-schooler. They wouldn’t understand sarcasm. They don’t make jokes (not ever. There is an occasional drip of almost-humor through Veronika’s narration, but it’s only ever there because of the juxtapositions the reader can see — the way, for instance, that when Veronika first studies May’s pictures, she is equally interested in the man and the fish he has caught; she doesn’t understand that the fish’s fin and scale coloring is utterly irrelevant. For the reader, it is a little funny, but for Veronika it’s just how she sees the world.) This balance is there in the patience Irene exhibits and the way one of the girls always says “No pinching!” when they take her hand — all these moments that are so childlike, but then you have the moments of cerebral awakening, the visible, naked process of learning that Veronika can understand at an incredibly high level.

Speaking of cerebral, this may be too thinky for some readers — there’s some nice tension, but Veronika’s voice, in order to stay true, can’t ever get too ruffled. She reports, rather than emotes, because it’s how she is made. This makes even the tensest moments distanced. I can’t call that a flaw, though, because it’s the outcome of the always on pitch voice.

And anyway, the Printz isn’t about popularity or appeal. As far as writing goes, I think there’s a lot here to propel this one forward. What say you?

 

 

 

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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. Maureen E says:

    My notes for this one start out with, “Voice!” So, yes, I clearly agree there. I tend to ‘hear’ narrative voices, and Veronika could have been right next to me telling me her story. I can’t think of a place where her voice falters, which is quite impressive.

    Part of what made this one for me was the fact that Dahlquist didn’t try to take on the big picture worldbuilding. He stayed true to the story he was writing, which made the whole thing work. Similarly, he resisted the temptation to switch to May’s point of view and show us the girls from her eyes. Instead of giving us an easy out, he makes us work for understanding, both of the girls and of their world. For instance, parts of the details of who the girls are and how they function are so subtly woven in that I had to go back and read sentences again. There were a few parts that worked less well for me because of that–I was personally confused by the parents and would have to re-read that section to see if I can parse it a bit better.

    I usually tend too much towards the “it just is!” school when determining whether a book is YA or not. But here, I think there’s a pretty clear case to be made, both in the strand of becoming individuals, and in the way that the loss of Irene and Robbert (agree about the spelling, Karyn! But maybe he’s supposed to be Dutch?) echoes common YA themes of independence from parents.

    Actually, one of the minor details that bugged me and pulled me out of the book a bit was the names. I kept wanting them to mean something, but either they don’t, or the meaning is not one I got. This is more disclosure of baggage than a criticism, but in a book that’s otherwise so full of resonance, it did make me wonder.

    I found the setting very effective, especially the way Dahlquist uses the island to show us Veronika’s changing perspective. Think of how many times she sees the same stretch of sand, and yet no two are the same precisely because every time she has learned to see the world differently.

    If I had a criticism of this book, it’s that the story fell apart for me a little at the end. The emotional resolution works (the different handles, for instance). But the practical aspects were–not so much elided–passed over? in favor of the cathartic. I wanted just a little more time spent on their lives after they decide to keep going. We only actually get about four pages, so surely there could have been just a bit more? For me, this is an issue, but measured against the rest of the book, not a fatal one.

  2. busparking says:

    I realize that this probably isn’t criteria that the RealPrintz committee considers, but I was pretty excited when I discovered that the cover glows in the dark!

    Also, I ditto all the previous comments made.
    It was definitely one of those books that didn’t move me significantly as I read it (perhaps because of the excellent voice), but has definitely stuck with me after finishing it.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Well, design is in the criteria, so I move we consider that an admissible element!

      Although I thought the cover gave a little too much away; the moment the penny drops for a first time reader would be even better with a less obvious cover. But it is a great visual and the glowing ink is pretty awesome.

      I was moved when I read it — it’s so poignant, because even as they grow, you don’t actually know how long their survival can last. It’s so precarious, and the girls are even more vulnerable than other people. But it wasn’t a heart book. And yet, the more I think about it the more I am struck by the sheer quality of skill of the writing, which is exactly what the Printz is designed to recognize.

      • busparking says:

        Thanks for the assist, as that’s what I meant to say, but for some reason didn’t.
        What I should have said was that the narrative wasn’t one where the frantic action moves the story forward (like most dystopians I’ve read), but rather, relied upon the discoveries/development of Veronika, which allowed us into the inner-workings of her mind on a level I don’t think I’ve experienced before.

      • Miriam says:

        …wait, are we NOT supposed to assume from the outset that they’re robots? I haven’t read it yet (“In Transit” sayeth the library), but I have assumed from the first time I saw the cover that… robots! If that’s supposed to be a big reveal, then I definitely think the cover is a problematic design choice. Because everything about that cover, down to the type treatment, says robots!

        (If the big reveal isn’t robots!, then everything I just said is moot.)

        • Karyn Silverman says:

          I think it’s a STRONGER book if we don’t know from the outset. Because it takes a while before it’s explicit, and the moment when it becomes explicit is great — certain things (the girls hair, their care walking on the sand, the way water is dangerous) are suddenly recast. I’d like to give it to a reader with the cover covered and see what they say — I think a reviewer reading it without a cover or any related preconceptions would have given it a starred review just for that, but the cover kills it. Too much information. But if it sells, right?

      • busparking says:

        Also, stay away from the jacket blurb if you can!
        =0p

  3. Mark Flowers says:

    “Anyone else find strange spellings for seemingly normal names problematic? I’m fine with made up names, but alternately spelled names leave me wondering way too much about the process and decision that led there, and pull me out of the story.”

    Yes! One of my biggest beefs with George RR Martin. Eddard? really? This world is *so* different from Medieval England that a “w” sound gets dropped! Catelyn? Bran?

    Seriously, though, this book is a great example of this year’s fabulous crop of good-not-greats. Strong enough, but nothing that really set it apart, imo.

    The SF stuff . . . I wouldn’t say “lazy or half-baked”. Actually, I was pleased that Dahlquist didn’t give us too much information (I was pretty scared near the end that I was going to find out this was the first of a trilogy, with all the specifcs of the world-building to come in the next volume). If anything, I’d say he gave us too *much*, so that it became a bit red-herring-y. The people who were “scared of knowledge” or whatever? Do we care?

    My other complaint was that the plot seemed possibly a bit too convenient–maybe I’m wrong, but to me it read like Veronika and the others were all blossoming intellectually and emotionally *before* May arrives, making her appearance a bit too coincidental for me. I’d have preferred for May’s arrival to be the trigger that caused them to start thinking outside the box. Perhaps a bit minor.

    All I’ve got on the names is that they spell out VICE (Veronika, Isobel, Caroline, Eleanor). I don’t think that means anything.

    • Maureen E says:

      Mark, I think I read the blossoming a bit differently than you did. Before May arrives, the girls are learning intellectually and being taught by Irene and Robbert, but it’s all taking place within a very prescribed program. Their individual talents are being developed, but it’s all taking place within the context of “lessons” and Robbert and Irene’s tinkering with them. After May arrives, this methodical program is disrupted, by the questions that May has, by the way she sees the girls and their life on the island. So yes, in a certain sense there are changes before she arrives, but at the same time I think she does act as a catalyst.

      However, my reading brings up a question about May herself as a character–is she enough of a real person to bear that kind of narrative weight? I’m not sure about the answer for that one. Without re-reading the book, I suspect that it works for a casual reader, but maybe not for the intense scrutiny of the Printz-style discussion.

      • Mark Flowers says:

        Maureen – I think that your reading is the more natural one, and the one Dahlquist was probably going for, but for whatever reason, that wasn’t how it read to me. Frankly, I’m too lazy and not convinced enough that this book is a strong contender to go back and find evidence one way or the other, so for now I’ll grant the point. It doesnt’ seem like many people have read the book yet, or have anything to say about it. If it picks up more steam later in the season, maybe I’ll go through it again and see.

  4. Blythe says:

    Maybe the only name that matters is Veronika: True image.
    I’m excited to read this–especially by the idea that the style reflects the developing consciousness of the character. I been thinking about Flowers for Algernon lately (old people think of old books) and how very differently such a book might be written now. Perhaps it would be a bit like The Different Girl.

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