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Someday My Printz Will Come
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Children of the King

Children of the King, Sonya Hartnett
Candlewick, March 2014
Reviewed from ARC

Luxuriant prose, complicated and resonant themes, contemplative characters — Hartnett’s historical fiction is actually a bit of a genre-blender with thin fantasy elements woven in. Traditionally, the Printz committee rewards books that mix genres — but RealCommittee choices also tend to skew older, and Children of the King has been pegged by publisher and reviewers as a middle grade title. It’s happened before — David Almond comes immediately to mind; Hartnett’s rich descriptions and haunting strains of magic woven into the plot invite that comparison.

So when the RealCommittee sits down to discuss CotK, what will they bring up? Hartnett’s beautiful descriptions of the setting and of nature are endlessly quotable; they made me wish I was listening — or reading it aloud to someone. Her descriptions and her dialogue — of Snow Castle, of characters’ reactions, Peregrine’s compelling storytelling — are strong but instead of quoting the entire book, maybe I just need to say that I appreciated most of the characterization here. Cecily and May (and their pairing is also delicious — they come to understand each other and learn to forgive each other) in particular stand out. Jeremy’s anguish and frustration are palpable; the scene with him on the stairs was powerful. The choices he makes from then on feel totally set: irreversible.

The power of choice, the effect small choices can have on the wider world, is just one of many themes in the text. History’s effect on the present was my favorite theme; I loved the storytelling device. I loved the way Snow Castle was a physical embodiment of history in the present (here but not, part of life but otherworldly). Hartnett is skilled at using the micro to illustrate the macro. Under the themes of power, described particularly as “kingmaking,” she illustrates war time’s effects on civilians, especially children.

Peregrine is linked to Richard III — Peregrine has the power of controlling the story (and describing the king with real sympathy and understanding)…and also as a manipulator. Or is he just innocently sharing? He moves from ominous to kind to insightful to nurturing. It all culminates with him giving May the Richard III locket, and it’s hard to know what to make of all those shifts. On the one hand, kingmaking is a complicated business and there are always costs (Richard pays the price with blood, but are Peregrine’s hands any less dirtied? How many millions of people died in WW2?). On the other hand, the ending feels a little muddled by all these complications and considerations.

In fact, the ending as a whole is sudden in comparison to the tense, stately pace of the rest of the plot. Peregrine’s storytelling is dragged out over days; the two princes don’t always appear in Snow Castle even though May and Cecily seek them out regularly; Jem and his mother work through a silent and prolonged conflict before he takes any action. The tension created by this slow pace is delicious, but in the rushtotheend it has no where to go and feels wasted. The mild magic feels somewhat shoehorned in, too — she could have had similar themes and images without having Cecily and May talk to the Princes or sending them to help Jem.

I’ve been struggling the most with the question of audience here. It’s been marked for middle school (technically ages 10+), and I don’t disagree with that assessment. But when I brought it to my students yesterday and read a portion of it aloud, nearly all the students described the audience as ranging from teen to adult. Admittedly, this is a small sample size, and they only heard a tiny bit, but I still think this is food for thought. Each committee each year has to resolve the “age question” for themselves, but it’s fair to say that Printz often gives the award to “older” books. Is this a case where talking to teens would help committees through that process? Or would it be helpful to have Newbery-like wording about intended audiences and high standards (referring here to page 69 of the Newbery criteria, which is merely part of the “extended definitions and examples appendix.” I nearly passed out with jealousy at typing that sentence. SO MUCH PROCESS-Y INFORMATION TO DIGEST)?

Will all the good stuff take the day? Will the committee’s considerations about audience ultimately keep this book out of the running? Or are there enough small flaws to make all these other questions moot?

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About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. I will admit that I’ve checked this one out twice and returned it unread both times. It ought to be a book I love–WWII! Richard III! Girls who are friends!–but I just haven’t managed to really get into the story. Which doesn’t have anything to do with its RealPrintz chances, except that I think it might lack some of the immersive quality of Almond’s work.

  2. It took me a little while to get into this book, but once I did I thought it fabulous. It has been months since I read it, but I recall admiring especially the passages providing Cecily’s viewpoint. I can recall wonderful scenes of her eating, stumbling about, and more. I think Hartnett did something pretty amazing in presenting so much of this story through Cecily’s third person POV. The smart one is clearly May, but we learn most of it via the not-so-smart Cecily.

    • Sarah Couri says:

      Yes, Cecily’s characterization is so very well done — not very likeable, and yet also so puppy-like. Really, all the characterization impressed me (Jem and Cecily and the way they interact with mom vs the way they interact with Peregrine…May’s compact but powerful dialogue, the mom’s distance and fragility). Strangely, I feel like my reading experience was the opposite from yours, Monica and Maureen — for whatever reason. I loved it from the get-go — the tension between the characters and the growing suspense of the Richard III story was masterful. I wish the ending had been as strong (that was where I fell off a bit in my ardor).

  3. I enjoyed this book well enough, but I wasn’t blown away by it. My biggest struggle, though, isn’t the novel’s distinction, rather it’s the age of the novel’s intended audience. It’s a middle grade novel. If anything, I thought it skewed a bit younger than that. I know a few historical fiction enthusiasts in our 4th and 5th grades who might enjoy it. But I’m having a really hard time imagining a 7th or 8th grader picking this one up. I guess I’m not seeing what qualifies this one as a Printz contender as opposed to a Newbery. I mean the book starts out with two kids playing hide and seek with their Daddy.

    • Well, it’s definitely not a Newbery contender, because the author isn’t an American citizen or resident.

      I think it’s a very fine book; it’s definitely at the younger end of the Printz eligibility range, but so was Navigating Early; it’s a book with war, murder, and betrayal in it, so I don’t think it skews as young as you do. Is it a book with lots of teen appeal? No — not because it’s young, but because it has a sort of old-fashioned feel to it. And in any case appeal isn’t part of the Printz criteria.

    • Sarah Couri says:

      I’m wondering about those assumptions, Emily. I was ready to make them, too, until I asked some of the teens I worked with. When they heard a part of the story, they almost all pegged it as a book “for teens and up.” (IE, teens and adults.)

      This one strikes me as more of an “all ages” kind of title, rather than only middle grade, or only for kids, or only for teens. I DO believe it as fourth grade “and up.” I think within that “and up” part is where it *could* be a Printz contender.

      And, Emily H, as far as appeal (you’re so right, not a Printz-ly question, but still an interesting one!), of the teens who rated it for me only one teen said they didn’t want to hear any more. I think I could have continued that read-aloud for much longer than that single advisory period! :-)

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