While Morris-Printz crossover isn’t exactly common, it’s happened twice — in 2012, when Where Things Come Back took the double gold; and again in 2015, with sleeper hit The Carnival at Bray taking double silver.
This season, we pretty much flubbed our Morris coverage; the debuts we covered earlier in the season were largely not the debuts the Morris Committee shortlisted (exception: The Serpent King), and those we “predicted” were notably absent from the shortlist. But failing to predict the Morris is actually pretty true to form for us, as is this post: a last minute roundup of the actual Morris shortlisters, squeaked out shortly before the YMAs.
We are not a Morris speculation site, and the Morris has different criteria than the Printz, so our goal here is not actually to predict the Morris (which we’ll definitely fail to do!) but to look at how these already notable books — some of which were on our radar already — stack up in the larger and more specific Printz pool. Here goes!
This is actually one of the earliest 2016s I read; it was even our first book club pick of the year. It has some exceptional writing; looked at story by story, a few of them — the title story in particular — are undeniable standouts, and of course the setting is noteworthy as well: 1970s Alaska, just after statehood. It’s an ensemble text, with a number of interwoven stories and characters, including one Athabaskan protagonist. The window into an unfamiliar time and place was refreshing; for those for whom this is a mirror, it might even be more refreshing and a relief as Alaska so rarely shows up in literature as anything other than metaphor made concrete. (Note: I do know there was a bit of back and forth about this on AICL, but my sense is that the Alaskan Native communities stand behind the depictions here, and while the author herself isn’t Athabaskan or Esqimau, she is deeply tied to the communities and to Alaskan politics and culture.)
Given all of these positive and noteworthy qualities, you might be asking: why didn’t this get written up sooner? Truth? We thought it failed as a cohesive book. The stories varied in quality, and some seemed shoehorned into the larger narrative. Our overall consensus in book club was that this was a book where the whole was less than the sum of the parts. The Morris is looking at the best debut, which I think leaves more leeway to forgive these flaws; for the Printz, they struck me as insurmountable, and so we were going to skip this one. –Karyn Silverman
Let’s be real: debuts with one star aren’t natural attention grabbers. However, completionist that I am, I volunteered to take a look at Calla Devlin’s novel about family, secrets, and betrayal. Well, I’m about a third of the way through and I absolutely see why this is a Morris contender. Devlin’s authorial voice is confident and some of her descriptive writing evokes clear and specific imagery, which is important considering that the book is set in 1976 San Diego and Tijuana.
The three sisters at the center of the story are also well-established from the beginning as characters with depth. They are, however, archetypal in a way that prevents verisimilitude. In any fictional trio you need one who’s brash, one who’s an observer, and one who’s odd or comical. The sisters follow this outline and when you add in a romantic interest who thinks Kerouac and Whitman are acceptable literary heroes while looking down his nose at Agatha Christie… well, that may be one too many “types” on the page. Although the character writing would take this novel out of a Printz conversation, I think that the stronger elements contribute to a whole that’s impressive as a first novel. The story is compelling enough that I want to keep reading (and I say this as someone who really thought I was sick of stories about sick people) and the sense of place is effective and transporting.
I haven’t read any of the other Morris finalists—okay, I read a few pages of The Smell of Other People’s Houses but the tone was not for me—so I can’t say how Devlin’s work stacks up against its peers but comparing with the other 2016 debuts I’ve read this book definitely stands out for its vivid descriptions and the compelling storytelling. —Joy Piedmont
Girl Mans Up has been on our list from the start — with three stars and strong reviews, it’s a book we’ve been excited to talk about. Girard brings a lot of complexity and thoughtful nuance to this exploration of identity and relationships. Pen’s quest for love and belonging is both universal and specific; she starts with a careful understanding of herself and her own gender presentation. This isn’t a story about a quest for understanding herself; it’s Pen’s search for other people who understand her. She has a few real connections from the jump, and eventually finds a group of loving people who really get her. All of this adds up to a title that feels fresh and new in the YA world; Pen has to negotiate with her whole being in order to find radical connection with people. Just read this amazingness, people:
I don’t want to be her girlfriend, though. But there’s this part of me that totally knows I could be her boyfriend. I don’t want her to think of me as a boy, or a boy substitute, though. I want to be a boyfriend who is a girl. I have no idea how to explain that stuff to anyone, let alone a girl I like. I just wish it was already understood.
What might take this out of Printz consideration? There are a few flaws — the biggest being some of the characterization of the minor characters. In particular, Pen’s parents, Blake, and Colby can be too simplistic and too one-note. Colby, as a representation of unthinking toxic masculinity, has some dimension (though he’s pretty hard to take). And Blake’s characterization could be understood as that powerful (blinding) first love, but her parents — down to their repetitive dialogue — don’t have enough going on to move beyond their one-note representation (and as immigrant characters, they hew a little close to stereotype). I suspect that these things will take it out of consideration for people at the Printz table. So although I don’t think this will be part of Printz’s Final Five, a lot of people will remember Pen’s hard-won victory, and will be excitedly awaiting Girard’s next. –Sarah Couri
This was a later addition to our reading piles — largely because we still haven’t found a great way to discover smaller press titles, so they only land on our radar if someone else covers them or if the publisher is kind enough to send a review copy without waiting for us to make a request. In this case, we did receive a copy AND the book started to get some nice buzz, moving it from unknown to “let’s do our best to make time for it” (also my mother-in-law is Gujarati and Rani is exactly my age, so I wanted to make time for this, which I can’t say is true for everything on the pile). The Morris nod was the final bump into must read ASAP.
It’s easy to understand why Rani Patel is getting some serious love: it’s an #ownvoices novel with a fierce female protagonist, a Gujarati rapper girl transplanted to a small Hawaiian island. Peppered with Gujarati, Hawaiian pidgin, and slang words and phrases, narrated in Rani’s compelling first person voice (at its best, there’s a wonderful, muscular sense of rhythm in her sentences), set in the early 90s and full of references to pop culture that give a sense of time and place, this is also an upsetting but important look at the aftermath of incest; Rani has been abused by her father in ways overt and sexual but also covert and emotional.
So there’s no real question about the power of this debut, hence the Morris nod. Of course, as always, we’re asking here whether it has what it takes for the Printz.
I’m going with no, four stars notwithstanding; there’s a tendency to be a little too textbook perfect in the exploration of the effect of the trauma of Rani’s father’s abuse, and things are often made too explicit to be completely in character — a common issue in first person narratives. These are minor issues that don’t affect readability, but I think they take this out of Printz contention. However, here’s hoping Patel (the author) has more stories to tell, because I’d happily read more about Gujju girls in island paradise. Especially since Patel did a fantastic job depicting the beauty and the issues of Hawaii, one more reason this might just carry off the Morris. –Karyn Silverman