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A romantic rendezvous

romance-roundupActually, this is a romantic roundup, but rendezvous sounded catchier. In the context of Printz reviewing, romance has actually fared well in recent years with both the RealCommittee and the Pyrite Committee (aka: all of us). I’ll Give You the Sun was the Real and Pyrite winner in 2015, and in 2014 Eleanor & Park was a Real and Pyrite honor.

This context is important because it’s proof that professional readers are recognizing straight-up romances that are also literary. Today, Sarah and I are looking at three books that may (or may not) have what it takes to bring love back to the winner’s circle.


Summer Days and Summer Nights, edited by Stephanie Perkins
St Martin’s Griffins, May 2016
4 stars; Reviewed from an ARC

I really like the idea of a romance walking away with a medal. There really is still a sense that rewarding romance with a silver or gold is pretty subversive. It could only get more subversive if it’s an anthology — we’ve talked a lot before about how difficult consensus on a collection can be. There are a lot of strengths to examine in this title, and if RealCommittee isn’t afraid of a little romance, we could be in for a surprise. There are some YA heavy hitters here: Cassandra Clare, Libba Bray, Veronica Roth, and Francesca Lia Block! The range of experiences included is fairly broad — first love, reunited love, ending love. There’s also a little range of subgenres — some creepy, atmospheric stuff and some speculative fiction stuff, as well as realistic romance. Some of the authors write about diverse characters (would love to see more of this…), so there’s a bit of a range of perspective. Summer Days received four stars — Bardugo, Perkins, and Grossman all bring it, and I also loved Libba Bray and Jennifer Smith’s entries; it’s easy to understand those four stars. A few entries felt slightly too short and thus underdeveloped. But more than anything else, anthologies are working against their own form, so despite the four stars and the strong moments in the text, I wouldn’t peg this as a strong contender. —Sarah Couri

Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit, by Jaye Robin Brown
Harper Teen, August 2016
3 stars; Reviewed from an ARC

Preacher’s daughter. Small town. A teen lesbian in love. It sounds like it could be novel steeped in stereotypes about coming out, facing adversity, and being proud of who you are. But this is not that book and I mean that in the best sense possible. Jaye Robin Brown’s novel has drama, yes, but it’s not complicated. Joanna Gordon’s father loves and supports her and most of the characters we’re supposed to care about have similarly loving and accepting attitudes about homosexuality. The drama is generated from the promise Joanna makes with her father after they move to small-town Rome from Atlanta; that she’ll “lay low” (aka, go back in the closet) in her new school for the sake of the social standing of his new bride and her family. We are repeatedly told that life was different for Joanna in Atlanta—where she was called Jo and had a happy out and proud life. Add in the additional wrinkle that Joanna starts falling hard for her popular classmate, Mary Carlson, and that’s fuel for the entire novel.

Brown gets a lot of mileage out of the conflict between Joanna’s desire to keep her word to her father and to be true to herself, because the former hurts her relationship with Mary Carlson while the latter is also fraught with the lies she’s already told. Particularly striking is that Joanna is a protagonist who is deeply spiritual. She isn’t conflicted about her faith because of some people’s intolerance for the LGBT community; she is strengthened by her father’s ministry and message of love and hopes to be a positive influence in the Christian community by offering a safe space and a sympathetic ear for queer teens who still have faith in God. I can’t recall another YA narrator like her and it’s refreshing to read about a teen who has a clear understanding of how religion and faith shape her life. It’s certainly a check mark in the boxes for theme and character.

In terms of story, this is a romance that balances tension and satisfaction brilliantly. Most readers will probably always be at least one step ahead of the author, but the fun is in seeing how the beats play out. It’s not necessarily inventive but it’s a page-turner and did I mention that it gave me serious feels?

Alright, so it’s a true romance with great characters and some interesting themes but the execution of themes is where Brown stumbles. Everything is literal. There’s no symbolism or metaphor, subtext is nonexistent and it’s simple (to a degree that occasionally feels unrealistic). Although it’s not quite a Printz, this book will be incredibly important to a teen struggling with their sexuality, their faith, or both.

The Sun is Also a Star, Nicola Yoon
Delacorte Press, November 2016
5 stars; Reviewed from an ARC

In the immediate days after I finished The Sun is Also a Star, I felt like the book was following me around. Many of the novel’s ideas were popping up in all sorts of places; casual conversation, other books, and of all places, Stranger Things.

I really loved this book. I took a ton of notes and I felt very connected to both Daniel and Natasha. They are vivid characters and the story of their romance built on chances is charming. Even the “histories” written in third person felt like they added thematic weight to the book, in that they zoom out from the intimate tale of two people to place the lovers in the context of their families, society, and the universe. And as a New Yorker, it’s so clear that Yoon just gets this city, all of its quirks and ugliness, but the hidden gems and beauty as well. It’s an authentic portrait of NYC but the richness of the setting gives the story a texture that allows for the improbabilities of the coincidences that bring Daniel and Natasha together.

Given all those positives, it’s possible (heck, very likely) that I’ll love this book again, but something changed in the past few months. The magic is gone and although I appreciate Yoon’s novel for many reasons, I no longer sense that intangible “it” quality. My working theory is that this is the kind of novel that offers a ton of fun, late-night philosophical questions, without the necessary narrative weight to support any lasting ideas. When Daniel tells Natasha that dark matter is love*, she bristles at the idea but doesn’t dismiss it out of hand. It’s a poet’s explanation of the world and it’s lovely. Yet nothing in the plot or characters supports or represents this as a theme. Sure it’s big and one could argue that a novel about love and destiny is all about love being the major force in the universe, but it’s not enough for the gestalt to represent that. I don’t believe that the romance between Daniel and Natasha is strong enough to show love being that force, therefore, the idea becomes an interesting thought, not a theme.

Then again, perhaps the last month and half has turned me into a grizzled cynic. I truly believe in the idea of “right book at the right time,” so it’s possible that this was the right book for me in August, but now, I’m holding it up to more practical standards. If the RealCommittee sees something that I’ve lost, I won’t be surprised but today I see too many flaws to put it in serious contention. —Joy Piedmont

*In the novel, Natasha tells Daniel that 27% of the universe is made of dark matter, an unidentifiable kind of mass and energy, posited by some scientists to be the thing that keeps galaxies together. If you’ve seen Interstellar, you know that film presents the idea that gravity is love. Basically, love makes the world go ’round.

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About Joy Piedmont

Joy Piedmont is a librarian and technology integrator at LREI - Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School. Prior to becoming a librarian, Joy reviewed and reported for Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch. She reviews for SLJ and is the President of the Hudson Valley Library Association. When she’s not reading or writing about YA literature, she’s compulsively consuming culture of all kinds, learning to fly (on a trapeze), and taking naps with her cat, Oliver. Find her on Twitter @InquiringJoy, email her at joy dot piedmont at gmail dot com, or follow her on Tumblr. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, HVLA or any other initialisms with which she is affiliated.

Comments

  1. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Noooooo! THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR has no flaws! It would be a perfect Printz Honor book. 😛

    • Joy Piedmont says:

      I thought you might have something to say about this one! I really did adore the book upon the first reading but it started to fade away soon after I finished it.

      What do you think is its greatest strength?

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Well, as to “fading away” I’ll refer you to the recent exchange between Todd and Karen on THE LIE TREE post. While we often use this as our own personal barometer to help us sift and sort the books that rise to the top, it’s kind of a super subjective quality, not to mention that it’s hard to tie it to any of the specific Printz criteria.

        I’m going to use a Best in Breed argument here, for one thing: it’s the best romance. I know we are not supposed to support genre fiction for literary awards (I’m saying this facetiously, of course–genre fiction has as much right as anything else), but when you compare the literary elements of this book, head to head, with others, it fares quite well. In addition to its five starred reviews, it was also a finalist for the National Book Award (so it’s a book that’s already risen to the top for quite a few people).

        • Joy Piedmont says:

          As to “Best in Breed” for romance, I hadn’t really considered the book in that light, but I can’t argue that. Of the romances I’ve read this year, it certainly has risen to the top and its ambition is commendable.

          But regarding the book “fading away,” I do think that this can be tied to literary quality because for me, if characters are fully realized they will stick with me for weeks and months, if not years. If the plot is well-constructed and engaging, I’ll remember specific details; If the sentence-level writing is outstanding, certain phrases or sentences will stick in my brain like earworms. I’m not going to argue that this is the same for everyone, but in my experience, the memory test is a good first indicator of literary quality. It’s through interrogating the “why” of that fading that I begin to understand which elements are flawed. In my reading, the shifting perspectives and widening/narrowing lenses of focus were fascinating as individual chapters, but upon reflection now, those pieces don’t add up to anything meaningful.

          Bottom line though: if THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR manages to get an honor I’ll be surprised but not disappointed. I think Yoon is a really talented writer and as I mentioned at the top, a lot of ideas fuel this novel and that’s always cool.

  2. i know nobody cares, but I have been very dutiful about reading the YA starred reviewed books this year from Jen J.’s very thorough list of 3-6 starred books. I think I’ve read at lest 40 on the list and somehow I haven’t read any of these three books. How did that happen? Now I am wondering if I was purposely avoiding the romances on the list. Sounds like Jonathan thinks I’d better add THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR to my reading list before Jan. 23rd.

    • Joy Piedmont says:

      Sometimes it depends on when you check the lists. I didn’t realize THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR had earned 5 stars because when I initially looked it had 2. I only found out that it had 5 when I was writing this post.

      • I think you are right. I just reviewed the list again and noticed a few more books which now have four or five starred reviews which weren’t on my radar. We still have a month, right. There is time to cram in a few more. But then I panic because I just looked at the Morris nominees and I’ve only read one of them. I guess I have to draw the line some where. Sigh. So many books, so little time.

  3. I just finished listening to The Sun Is Also a Star last week and really enjoyed it. The characters were great and I appreciated how well some of the secondary ones were drawn. I expected the lawyer to be perfect and to have actually visited the judge so it surprised me (in a good way – sort of – I mean, I wanted to give him my worst disappointed face) when it turned out he had totally blown off Natasha’s case for some afternoon delight with the paralegal. I also appreciated that Charlie was allowed to be so mean. He wasn’t evil, just completely unkind and self centered which is something we all encounter in our lives. However, I agree that it’s a bit of a long shot. There’s nothing showy about the writing that I could see and the Printz often seems to favor a more explicitly literary style.

    As to the timing of stars – this one was definitely weird! It got named to the National Book Award longlist before barely any of the reviews were out because it hadn’t even been published yet. As the journals have caught up, it picked up those other three. The only journal (of the six I track) to not star it was SLJ which still gave it an excellent review and named it as a Pop Pick.

    Georgia Peaches has been on my to-read list since I saw reviews and seems to be on my library’s shelves right now. I do believe that will be coming home with me this weekend……..

  4. January 4th—Update. I finished THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR yesterday and found it to be delightful. I know it will be popular with teens in my library, at least I hope it will. My favorite part of the book were the funny little history chapters and chapters by bit players. It helps to make the whole the whole story work.

    As cute as I thought this book was, I still like THE PASSION OF DOLSSA better. My Mock Printz team of teen readers seem to be leaning toward WE ARE THE ANTS. We should have a pretty good rip-snorting workshop a few days before the actual Printz Awards are announced.

  5. I’ve been thinking about The Sun is Also a Star quite a bit as I prepare to make my case for it as a contender at my library’s mock printz next week. I think we often hold contemporary romances like Yoon’s up to a higher standard when considering them for awards based on literary merit. I also like Jonathan’s argument that this book is the best of its kind which is an important factor.

    What I keep coming back to is that Yoon did so many things in this story, and she did them well, while making it seem effortless. This book juggles multiple characters, narratives, and plots, it evokes a NYC setting not just a shiny tourist one but a real one, and it does all of that while offering an intellectually stimulating story that still manages to be upbeat and romantic.

    I’d argue that while it’s not always overt in the text, everything in this story refers back–sometimes subtly and sometimes not–to the idea of love being a driving force in the universe. All of the tangential characters whose actions work to bring Natasha and Daniel together through happenstance or fate are working on some basis of love–the train conductor who has found god and loves life, the security guard who is lonely and mired in her own lack of love both from others and for herself, the attorney and his paralegal. It’s all love. One way or another. Even Natasha’s father and his actions are driven by his conflicted feelings between his love for his family and his love and ambition for performing.

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