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Message or Masterpiece (Or, Does the Problem Novel Still Exist?)
Today we’re running a roundup of books that we think are worth discussing because they are in the top, say, 100 of the year. But they aren’t quite there, and we don’t think they’ll go the distance. And to make the post about more than just a series of short reviews, we’ve limited today’s roundup to books that have a lot to offer but seem to lose out on Printzliness in the name of message or purpose. Every time we discuss these books, we find ourselves focused on a central issue not of writing but of the world: an issue discussed in the books at hand but not really of them.
And as we discussed this, we found ourselves comparing these books to the problem novels of yesteryear, because like them, what the books are about seems to weigh more heavily then how they are written, even if the how is light years beyond the old chestnuts. And really, these books offer so much more than just the issues at their hearts — but we were struck by the ways that the social issue at the heart of the text stuck in our heads the longest, outweighing the literary elements. Is this about our own biases, seeing and holding on to the part that feels like a news soundbite — and therefore, easy to remember and the sort of thing that we are reminded of by the outside world on a sadly too frequent basis — or is it an issue in the writing?
I (Karyn) have mixed feelings about including this one here, because although in the end what stuck was the history — and oh, such history — it came to life and stuck because of the craft of the novel, so it might be reductive to simply say the history overshadowed the text .
In 1947, the British were withdrawing from India and partitioning a section of it off into a new, Muslim state, Pakistan. When we think of Western Europe and the U.S. exercising their power in the 40s, we tend to think of the creation of Israel, and I’m not sure whether the partition of India is ever covered in U.S. classrooms. It should be. It’s a fascinating, terrible moment of white privilege that has left effects that are still real and raw today.
Bradbury has brought the time and place to life through three mostly distinct voices, British Margaret, a forward thinking (and, frankly, just forward) sort of girl; Sikh Anupreet, a lonely girl who has already been touched by the violence breaking out; and handsome, smart Tariq, who wants nothing more than to attend Oxford. Through each of them Bradbury examines different facets of the situation. Margaret, who falls in love with India, is a stand-in for the reader, a lens from a Western perspective, and her growing unease with the situation teaches the reader. Tariq and Anu seem to represent two different facets of Indian life: Anu is, for the most part, content with her life (and is, in all honesty, the least memorable of the three), while Tariq has dreams bequeathed to him by the centuries of colonial rule: he wants to go to Oxford and be educated, because that is the road to power.
Margaret is the standout, while Tariq and Anu sometimes blur together. Both narrate story and are used as vehicles to impart the author’s (seemingly extensive and meticulous) research; when Margaret is used for this purpose, it works more seamlessly because she is herself a stranger in a strange land, so explanation from her makes sense; it also makes sense for her to wax rhapsodic about things in her diary and her voice is, on the whole, a richer voice.
In the end, I found this a powerful text about power and privilege, but one that was almost tailor-made to be a teaching text. It’s a good novel; it’s a great lesson. As with so much historical fiction, the weight of the history is in the end heavier than the weight of the writing, making this unlikely to stay the distance for literary recognition.
Although this book has one of my (Joy) favorite titles of the year, it doesn’t stand out to me as a strong Printz contender. No literary element of this novel stands out more than its plot: Piddy Sanchez is bullied at her new school by tough girl, Yaqui Delgado. Subplots revolve around Piddy’s questioning of her self-worth, manifesting in her relationships with her mother, best friend, and former neighbor, but these all link back to the horrific torment that Piddy endures. Thematic exploration and character development are never as important as the development of Piddy’s downward spiral because of bullying.
Although she is a fully realized character—in part because we get to witness her story in first person present, so we are with her at every crucial moment—Piddy’s allies and enemies alike never grow beyond archetypes. Medina does a great job of placing the action in a believably real location for outsiders that is also authentic for New Yorkers, but a big exception to this is that throughout the novel I kept wondering why Piddy had been placed in a local school for high school if she’s so smart. Wouldn’t she have placed into one of NYC’s specialized high schools? The answer to this question is crucial because Piddy wouldn’t attend Daniel Jones High School with Yaqui Delgado even after she and her mother moved.
Although it lacks the literary excellence to make it a Printz contender, Yaqui Delgado deserves its starred reviews and spots on SLJ’s and Kirkus’ year-end best lists. Like any good piece of fiction, this book has the power to change lives. Readers going through similar situations will hopefully find strength and comfort by reading about Piddy’s struggle and survival.
This is a book that has its staunch supporters, and I (Karyn) can see why. For the first third or so, I was all in — compelled by the narrative voice, struck by the sense of place, pained by the ways in which expectations and bias shape and destroy lives.
It’s no critical slouch either — two stars, plus it made the Kirkus year-end list. This is a difficult read about a difficult subject, and it’s an examination of how things collide and affect one another — parental pressure leads Ben to the Langes, which leads to Jimmy’s photo, which destroys both their lives, in Jimmy’s case quite literally. On the literary/why Printz side, this has some serious voice going for it — Ben’s confession opens with an urgency and a sense of imminent doom, which carries the book quite a ways.
But in the end, the structure doesn’t hold up and the characterization never fully rang true, and I found myself far more focused on the hate crime than Ben’s experiences.
Part of this might be an emotional response: he witnesses his friend being beaten to death and yet his overall response is so “me me me” — possible, even plausible (although possibly not in the context of this character), but so repugnant. I dislike this. I want more of this to be about something other than his “people think I’m gay” reaction, but that seemed to take over the part that was horror at the brutal murder of a friend. He’s horrified that he saw it, but over and over there was a self-absorbed quality that was unpleasant to me as a reader and person.
So yes, potentially that biased my reading, although the unlikable and potentially unreliable narrative is in fact the book’s greatest strength. But the things that really make this not a super serious contender have more to do with Ben’s character, which has various elements that don’t quite add up, and some structural weaknesses. Ben is just never fully fleshed out; he’s a cipher, to himself and to the reader. But he’s too smart and introspective for that to read as fully likely; he’s not consistent, and it doesn’t always work to attribute that to unreliable narrative voice; some of it just comes across as sloppy characterization. The structural weaknesses had to do with the odd descent into murder mystery; is this a book about Jimmy’s murder or about Ben? It wants to be both, but never fully manages to be either, and if it’s about how what he has seen has loosened Ben’s hold on reality, then the structure fails to make that clear (that reading only emerges when Ben more or less spells it out for the reader at the end of that section). In the end, it’s about actions and reactions and how life traps us, and it’s good at bringing that to life but in the end the flaws outweigh the strengths as a literary text.
We’re considering all of these also-rans, but if any of these are in your personal top five for the quality of the writing, sound off!
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