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Stars in my Eyes (or, Starred Reviews vs. The Printz, round 2)
Between Roger’s piece way back and Sophie’s thoughtful assessment of stars in our playground, I’m not sure what more really needs to be said.
But never let it be said that I passed up an opportunity to air my opinions.
Last week, I read a Mary Poppins of a book.* It deserves a dozen stars. And it won’t, and shouldn’t, be considered by the 2014 Printz committee (the book is a 2013 pub. I had no business reading it. But… it was pretty! And calling my name. And sometimes we need to succumb to siren songs.).
Because perfect, or even merely really excellent, books are not always so big on the Literary. In this case, the writing is pitch perfect, which is not always a given in even a star-earning book. The plotting is tight. The characters are engaging. The world gets a big “mwah” for being so much fun and well established without any needless exposition. It’s well written, but it doesn’t, in the end, offer anything more than a diversion.
Which sounds a bit like damning with faint praise, and it isn’t. A book that offers a diversion is a wonderful thing. And honestly, a book that can make me forget I’m a reviewer or a librarian or a blogger with an eye on the Printz is something decidedly special. Maybe magical. Not once did I wince or find myself imaging how I would speak to this flaw or that choice in a review. In short, I forgot everything except the book, thought about it when I put it down, and spent a few days wishing I were still reading it once I was done.
So if calling it a diversion isn’t faint praise, and I’m going on record that this is an excellent book, probably my second favorite of the year (even if it technically belongs in next year’s pile), how is it not a contender?
The answer to that question is the gap that can exist between stars and winners.
(Note that for the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to lump silver and gold stickers together as winners, even if some technically only honored.)
Now, Sophie spoke eloquently about the criteria piece, and that’s definitely part of it. Different criteria SHOULD mean recognition for different books. But the popularity/appeal issue (not the same, mind you, and if you want to know more, I recommend sitting in on a Best Fiction meeting at an ALA conference) is only one aspect of a star, and it’s entirely possible for a reviewer to assign a star based only on the quality of the writing. In the case of my Mary Poppins book, the writing does deserve the star. Looked at objectively, a book with nothing wrong and with loads of appeal is hitting both sides of the criteria right in the bullseye.
But it takes more than a pretty face.
I’ve always considered rereadability a sort of shorthand for some of the critical components of a Printz winner. Sophie alluded to this as well when she referenced “repeated close readings by nine people — NINE.” Rereadability isn’t, obviously, a thing unto itself (or a word, I think). (Although now that I’m considering it as an objective marker I’m thinking we could start to give books a rereadability score in our reviews. Hmmm…) But a book that can be read more than once and offer more each time clearly has a little something something going on. And it’s usually a something indicative of Literature: plotting so tight that you want to read it again to marvel at the way the pieces fall together, voice or characterization that leaps off the page and welcomes a closer look, layers of narrative or meaning or nuances of language that only begin to be visible on one go.
(You could also think of these as “teachable” books. Not that they are likely to be taught nor—heaven forbid—do they seem designed for teaching, but books that have enough going on that writing a paper (or a 1,000+ word blog post) is a real possibility? Books that, faced with 9 close, critical readers, can’t be argued off the table? Those are the books likely to go the distance. Depth, people! Depth is critical.)
Lots of books that are marvelous on one read lack that depth. There is not a single thing wrong with my Mary Poppins of a book, but I don’t see anything new being revealed on a reread, either.
(I will, however, happily eat my words if I find out it does offer something more when I reread it in its actual publication year.)
Of course, there are books that pass the multiple readings test but don’t fare so well on the single reading test. And that might be why the lack of definite correlation between stars and prizes.
Turn back your clock a moment to the first time you (okay, I) read Jellicoe Road, in advance reader form. The manuscript was riddled with weird typos (as far as I could see, an unfortunate find-and-replace for ms to Ms. resulted in words like “rooMs.” in the midst of sentences). And while it was good, if I’d been a reviewer on a deadline, who had waited until the 11th hour to finish—having possibly procrastinated out of an inability to deal with the typos without becoming irritable—would I have seen how complex and layered of a tale it is? Would I have seen the genre blending and how deftly different narrative tropes had been pulled in to make something new? Probably not, even if this hypothetical me hadn’t procrastinated. And so I would (I hope!) have said good things, but given all of the above plus the way it drops the reader right in without a lot of context, which is likely to hurt on the appeal front, I would probably not have given it a star.
On a second reading, though? That strange start and the disorientation you feel as a reader is a parallel of the experiences of the two main characters. What seemed like the biggest flaw on a first read becomes a strength the second time around.
So yes, that Mary Poppins of a book doesn’t stand up to that. On the other hand, I anticipate it flying off my shelves and being a beaut of a booktalk. And I’ll be first in line to buy the promised sequel. And as much as I treasure the Printz winners, I also adore the Poppins. We need both, and we need stars that aren’t winners and maybe even the winners that aren’t stars. It keeps committee members from taking the easy way out (which is all the 3-star rule in these parts ever was), keeps those of us betting on the YMAs from having it too easy, and it means that there is room in great YA for various flavors of great. All the better to tempt the readers, my dears!
*Practically perfect in every way, of course!
About Karyn Silverman
Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.
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