This year, we have two excellent anthologies on the market for teens.
I’m not talking “pretty good, you know, a few gems in there”: I’m talking consistently excellent, with some flights of genius. And I’m predicting not a whit of attention on either of them come January.
(Don’t you just love the exclamation in the title? It’s so excited. I kind of want to do a dance move every time I say it.)
Steampunk (the genre/zeitgeist/fashion/attitude) is hot hot hot. So hot that it’s probably almost over, in fact, but hopefully not. Because really, doesn’t everyone need some goggles and automatons in their life?
Notably, however, the anthology doesn’t feel like pandering. Each of the stories is it’s own unique little gem (is it officially a cliche to call short stories gems? I think it might be. But what else conveys glitter and richness and something small but precious? Because that’s what I mean, even if the phrasing has gotten a bit stale.) And none of them take place in the conventional spaces of steampunk (Victorian London, that is).
So we’ve got well written short fiction (ranging from good to excellent, barring one story, but that one is in graphic novel format and there might be bias in my assessment, since I am not the best reader of visual texts). We’ve got a unique twist on the organizing principle of the collection. It’s even pretty well ordered for reading start to finish. There’s an emotional flow to the read for the most part; stories with thematic resonances are spread across rather than clumped together, but the flow isn’t so schizophrenic as to disrupt the reader’s experience with abrupt about faces, and faster paced stories give way to slower paced and back again. The design (which we never really talk about in Printz speculation but actually is specifically cited in the criteria) is lovely, from the font choices for titles and text alike to the little flourishes and blots on each page. Also, the trim size is just a bit wider than usual, which feels suitably old-fashioned but modern.
I’m not going to analyze each story independently, but in case you wondered, yes, I have favorites. Cassie Clare’s opener is really creepy. Libba Bray’s selection takes place in the Old West and has Pinkertons and a girl gang, which wins the cool factor award. Delia Sherman’s comic romance made me laugh out loud. And Elizabeth Knox goes back to the world of the Dreamhunter duet with her usual skill and depth. This is not to say that the other stories aren’t fantastic–and for sheer literary grace, M.T. Anderson and Kelly Link really can’t be beat. But those four stuck with me a bit more than some of the others, and some of the stories might not fare as well under really close scrutiny.
The other stellar anthology this year is Welcome to Bordertown. I might lack some objectivity here, though: I grew up on the first iteration of this shared world, and have all the original anthologies and the novels too. I was one of those adolescents who would have fled for Bordertown in a heartbeat. So there might be an element of my assessment that is tied up in my personal baggage. But the collection did receive two stars as well as some lauds in the mainstream and fantasy worlds (all helpfully collected on the Bordertown Press page), which indicates my love is not just a me thing.
The brilliant: this is a shared-world anthology. And it’s done well: these stories all feel totally different from one another but the setting is consistent, and not just in details. It feels like a cohesive whole. And the opening piece, which is both effective writing on it’s own and also genuinely teen-aged in voice: it spoofs travel guides in a way that reminds me of the travel brochures to planets our Astonomy class has done in the past. It’s attempting to be serious, but the writer is 16 or 17 and you can tell. When my students do that, we ask them to work harder on their voice maturity; when an author (or group–no author is listed for “Bordertown Basics”) pulls it off, we look on in awe. As with Steampunk!, it’s clear that thought went into the ordering of the stories, especially the bookending opening and closing selections and the seeding of songs between prose pieces.
Bordertown, although it pains me to admit it, also has a few flaws. The songs, for instance. As poems, I found them only so-so. As songs they might be great, but since no music is provided, it’s hard to assess them effectively. Cory Doctorow’s story struck me as a clumsy attempt to bring him (the author, personality, pundit) into Bordertown, and I found it problematic on an individual level (lots of authorial voice, but maybe this is comparative because I am aware of his larger body of work?) and on an anthology level (it isn’t entirely seamless to have this one glaringly computer-driven tale in this collection. Why would a kid like that want to live in Bordertown anyway?)
It also has some standouts. Two in particular have stuck with me. Charles De Lint’s closer choked me up: love, loss, and hope packaged beautifully. There is something graceful about his prose when it is at it’s best, and this is it’s best. Alaya Dawn Johnson once again proves that she has a flair for short fiction (see Zombies v. Unicorns for another example). Her writing is vivid: this was a story where Bordertown came to life even without the added color borrowed from the fact that every story deepens the world.
And finally, Bordertown does something that’s hard to do in fiction in general, much less in a collection: it meditates on adolescence and growth. Woven through the entire book is a meta conversation about the perils and pleasures of being a teen and what it means to be lost and lonely and on the cusp of something. This is where it rises way beyond the sum of it’s parts and becomes richer for it.
So, with all this good, why do I think no award loving?
Mixed-author anthologies are hard. Even the great ones are uneven. It’s hard to focus on literary quality when you need to assess every story individually and as part of a whole. They feel like neither fish nor fowl, and so they end up pushed aside. Maybe this is the correct call: in both collections, there are some duddy stories, so they aren’t consistently excellent. Then again, in lots of novels there are small flaws we can cite if we dig deep enough, but we still consider these serious contenders.
I think one or the other will end up on best-of-the-year lists (I predict Steampunk! more than Welcome to Bordertown, although BFYA is only considering Bordertown, much to my surprise). But they will likely get lost in the shuffle, like so many collections, and that’s a darn shame.
Maybe we need another award, for the best story (not anthology or collection) published for the YA market. That way these little gems would have a chance to really shine. What could we call it, and what might the criteria look like? (I’m totally serious here, and comments are open. Go crazy!)