I had hoped to post this before the NBA was announced, but fate (and also one very lively 6-year-old) intervened, and then intervened some more.
Regardless, here’s a verbatim transcript of my thinking when I finished Boxers & Saints:
I read the two volumes back to back in the intended order, and I’m looking at them together in this post — but of course, that’s the crux of the question: I can go ahead and tell you all the reasons Boxers & Saints, as a single entity, deserves recognition as one of the year’s absolute bests, and I might be 100% right — but those arguments mean nothing if the RealCommittee considers them as two individual texts.
So let’s start there. Why am I considering them one text?
The easy — and slightly flip response — is that the National Book Award judges looked at them that way, and I’m just following suit.
For the NBA folks to consider this one text, Boxers & Saints was presumably submitted as a single entity. Which seems to indicate the author and publisher also think this. And in fact, the e-text is available as one single thing, with a beautiful cover that combines the faces.
But, on the other hand (really, you might need an octopus to keep track of all the elements in this conversation) it’s also available as two separate texts in e, and the print copies can likewise be purchased independently of one another or in a single slipcased edition, so in the end it’s going to be a judgement call. Final say for questions like this (incidentally also questions like whether American Born Chinese counted as YA since First Second at that point was firmly labeling books as all ages — Gene Luen Yang does like to complicate things!) lies with the committee chair in consultation with YALSA.
There is, as far as I can find, no real precedent for this in Printz history. The closest I can find is that for years the Quick Picks Committee has listed series titles published in a single year as one item on their annual list, and this situation is in some ways clearer than that given the simultaneous publication.
I’m ultimately deferring to the fact that the author outlined them in one go and that they went together in such an intrinsic and critical way that the publisher went with a simultaneous publication, per this NPR interview — and, in all honesty, deferring to the fact that I can’t see any way to intelligently discuss them independently, because they are so deeply interwoven. If I were on the RealCommittee, I’d try to convince the chair we should consider them as one entity, I think (although, hmm, does that leave us with a messy precedent?) — because for once we have a chance to recognize a multi-volume work whose whole is greater than the parts alone, the kind of ambitious, and in this case important as well as excellent, work that usually gets lost in award granting by virtue of being spread across several years.
Of course, the RealCommittee might determine that they are two books. If so, I could see silver for Boxers; I think Saints is weaker looked at alone — although (feeling very Libra today…), there is some statistical data indicating that later books do better for awards, so maybe that would push recognition onto Saints. Either way, referencing the text itself, rather than the package, perfectly segues into discussing the actual text (whoops, almost said books — it’s definitely a precedent-setting and confusing situation here), and there is plenty to talk about.
The art: I have studied art history but I’m not an art critic, and I don’t read graphic novels all that often. I don’t think I need a lot of knowledge/graphica specialization for discussing this text, though, because Yang’s art works. In fact I think there’s an argument to be made about accessibility if a less graphica-experienced reader can read the work with no format-based confusion. And while accessibility isn’t a criteria, it means in this case that the format serves the rest of the elements well, rather than getting in the way. More than that, it speaks to the power and effectiveness of the art that it penetrates right through a tendency to preference prose that I think still holds some weight in literary discussions, although less each year.
Yang uses the conventions of graphic novels — panels, repetition on occasion, boxes for narrative — skillfully, and with small adjustments that make the work more readable for the less well-versed reader of graphica — the additional white space between panels and on the pages in general are aesthetically pleasing and clean, and also allow the eye to track from panel to panel. Similarly, his art is rich in detail but there’s a simplicity of line and style that keep panels from feeling crowded and ensures details aren’t lost. And it’s attractive. I know that there’s a subjective piece to assessing whether art looks good, but there are certain elements that go beyond the personal — balance, consistency of forms, and color are all pieces that can be subverted for a statement or done badly to the detriment of the work. Here, they are used to create something that reads smoothly and, even if not to one’s personal taste, should come across as pleasant to the eye (with the acknowledgement that pleasant is a funny word in the context of some of the content).
The color palette (Lark Pien is the colorist, credited inside the book but not on the cover this time) is muted, with bursts of color especially notable in Boxers, where the color is used to give additional life and literal vibrancy to the Gods and the stories of the Gods. The transformation of the Boxers into the Gods in the midst of battle and the sudden shift panel to panel from primarily duller, earthier tones to the technicolor bursts conveys so much about the passion and belief (delusion?) of the Brother-Disciples of the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist. Blood provides additional bursts of color, bringing home to readers the violence. Color becomes an integral part of conveying the narrative and the world.
The contrast of almost no color in Saints, where the overall palette is sepia with bursts of gold for Joan of Arc, is therefore striking. I’m still working out what it means that the Christian Chinese world is so colorless. So much of the thematic scope of Boxers & Saints focuses on ambiguity and on blurring all the binaries we tend to gravitate towards when discussing conflict (right/wrong, hero/villain, winner/loser). My reading is that ultimately the colors reflect the narrators. Four-Girl/Vibriana’s life is a dull, miserable thing (which makes her choice of a saint’s name that to Western ears sounds like “vibrant” a poignant choice); she searches endlessly for meaning and purpose but it only exists in her visions. The gold of the visions contrasts against the pageantry of Bao’s visions in ways that highlight the conflict between the Christian and traditional Chinese beliefs: pageant vs privation (because the Christians were missionaries in a strange world or recent converts, often poor); richly embedded in the time, place, and culture or recent addition; pantheon of personalities vs stark simplicity — of purpose, belief, and drive — of Joan of Arc.
And that’s just what I see embedded into the art, before I’ve even turned my attention to story or really dug into the thematic and historical importance of this one, nor the rich questions I was left puzzling over.
The questions — oh, the questions.
First, we can look at the meta questions, which I mentioned just above — in the breakdown of the binary vision we usually have of war, and in asking who is right and then refusing to answer (they are both deeply flawed, deeply sympathetic, and often unsympathetic as well, and I have been fascinated in conversation to find how different readers feel more compassion for either Bao or Vibriana — for the record, Bao spoke more deeply to me). There is an ambiguity here that is nuanced and possibly unanswerable. It doesn’t feel like the answers are the point; the question is the point, the thematic scope, the heart of the dual text.
Then there’s the question of reality, or sanity — is Bao perhaps delusional? There are, early on, a few hints that he is in some way othered — the obsession with opera, the way his brothers initially treat him. One of my book group colleagues posited that there was an indication of some kind of possibly congenital brain injury, or an acquired injury at birth or in early childhood; another thought there was a hint of an Autism spectrum disorder with his intensity and lack of nuanced grasp of how people think and feel. I think the text could maybe support either of these, or perhaps neither.With Vibriana, I think the hints are a bit deeper; initially, I thought her visions had to be somehow real (for a given value of real), because — unlike Bao — she would not have had the context to hallucinate Joan of Arc. But then we learn about her father — the depression and despair and possible PTSD, his Christianity that may mean there was some version of Joan’s story present in Vibriana’s earliest childhood — all of which might point to a reading of, possibly, schizophrenia or similar. Again, I think the text could support it. But it doesn’t do so clearly and it doesn’t have to — the fact that the question is there is the more interesting piece, from an analytical perspective; this is a text all about asking and never about answering.
Again and again, events are relayed with an impartial narrative so that the reader must decide: sane or insane? Right or wrong? Terrorist or hero; lost girl or saint?
And all of this is wrapped in a fascinating and seemingly well-researched piece of history, told respectfully and with a careful balance of exposition and story.
History brought to life and examined, in an emotionally and factually accurate package, with beautiful design and rich thematic depth, from a previous Printz winner? If that doesn’t add up to serious contender, I’ll eat my socks.