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Printzbery Part 1
Printzbery: could be one, could be the other, might even end up both.*
By popular demand: today we’re talking about all those maybe kidlit, maybe YA books from the first three quarters of the year.
On the table for the potential Printzbery*: Roller Girl; Echo; Goodbye, Stranger; The Hired Girl, Cuckoo Song, and Orbiting Jupiter.
Today, we’re tackling The Hired Girl and Echo and tomorrow we’ll bring you Roller Girl and Goodbye Stranger; Orbiting Jupiter we’ll cover as we get deeper into the back half of the year (along with anything we come across in the meantime). And Cuckoo Song? It’s on my serious contender list and I will argue that it reads up UP UP, so I plan to cover it either by itself or in tandem with another genre frontrunner, hopefully in the next week or so.
Oh, The Hired Girl, the book that has launched what seems like an insane amount of conversation for something that struck me as… slight.
First, the controversial passage and the conversation surrounding it: I strongly recommend popping over to the Heavy Medal post and settling in to read the extensive conversation in the comments. I will say that as far as the comparison that sparked so much of the conversation (“It seemed to me… Jewish people were like Indians…”), it definitely jumped out at me (as an ouch moment on two counts, for both named populations). I read this as a loaded but deliberate choice: Schlitz uses a stereotype the average reader (10 & up) should immediately recognize as deeply problematic (the idea of the uncivilized, almost imaginary, generic “Indian”) to reflect for the reader the way Jewish people were seen at the time, since most contemporary readers probably won’t know a great deal about anti-semitism or the Jewish history of being othered and persecuted outside of the Holocaust (which obviously is a pretty huge example — but many of the younger students I’ve known, especially not-Jewish students in the Northeast, think the Holocaust and Hitler’s antisemitism was a largely localized issue, and don’t understand the greater context). I’m not the only reader who read the passage this way (again, see Heavy Medal); likewise, this doesn’t necessarily change that this is a problematic passage. This is a tiny example in a single book that speaks to the need to have these hard conversations, and the level of discourse and respect happening is inspiring.
There’s also the question of what it means to have a book about religion that is so much about the Jewish experience yet is narrated by a Christian, and I have spent hours unpacking that in conversations with others. I loved seeing what could be my own family history in a book (my maternal great-grandparents were German Jews whose families came over in the later 1800s and who were assimilated, but not too assimilated — I was raised Reform but we certainly never drank milk with dinner, because the memory of keeping Kosher ran deeper than the actual keeping). On the other hand, I hated the conversion story line — I don’t care if she repents, it still was physically uncomfortable to read. Joan’s religious growth is a lovely narrative, but juxtaposed against another religion it did leave me feeling like there was a subtle message that Judaism is all very well, but clearly the Catholics are the one who have actually seen the light. I don’t think this is at all deliberate and I also think it will only read this way for a small portion of readers, but personally it definitely affected my reading, and that kind of divisive reading of a text can certainly come into play in award conversations, as can questions of representation and accuracy.
Aside from all that — although the nuanced discussion at Heavy Medal and elsewhere online has been incredibly enlightening and was my primary impetus to actually finish the novel, which I had put aside with 40 pages to go — does this have a chance?
Well… I think it reads young, but certainly falls into the bottom end of the Printz age bracket. Does it strike me as an excellent YA book?
(To rehash a thousand previous conversations/posts/comments/thoughts: technically, the criteria would indicate that any book which the publisher has designated as being for any portion of the age bracket — 12-18 — is eligible. However, the award is for excellence in young adult literature, and each RealCommittee has to grapple with exactly what that means anew. Based on my experience and discussions with others who have been on the RealCommittee, for some YA has been taken at face value, where YA is defined by the publisher age bracket; other years the RC has considered whether the texts speak to the teen reader as a portion of what they have defined as excellence.)
There’s a classic developmental asset narrative here (the acted upon to acting upon/gaining of agency journey), which has always been a large piece of what I use to separate children’s from YA (also there’s a gut level aspect to separating the two). But then at the end Joan is literally allowed to be a child again, which is a really interesting ending to that journey from the perspective of development and growth, and makes this feel a bit more children’s territory to me (remember, though, that I specialize in 14 & up readers and books, so sometimes I have a harder time assessing the books at the young end, and if I were discussing this at the table I doubt I would get away with saying that without a LOT of discussion).
In the end, when I go back to the criteria, the biggest hurdle will be the pacing. Whether the open is too long, the ending (way) too abrupt, or the middle just too meandering is up for discussion. The fact that it has come up for several readers does indicate that something is off balance. And there are a few plausibility issues — even today, as a (very) Reform Jew, if I had a caregiver for my son try to convert him, she or he would be fired immediately. It’s that big of a deal. For me, that was the crack in the windshield that made the whole book fall apart: the books Joan had read were a little too on the nose; the way everything worked out was too convenient and plot, such as it was, was absurd; and the way Joan sees what Mr. Rosenbach and everyone else can’t about his children is terribly artificial when you think about it.
But… I am an outlier and most folks love this to pieces. (Five stars!) We’ll have to see. –Karyn Silverman
I spoil the end of Echo. If you haven’t read it yet, read on at your own risk. -JP
If you’ve never heard classical music played on a harmonica and weren’t inspired to find some after reading Echo, I would be surprised. However, I’m a helpful librarian so here’s a link to watch a boy playing Rhapsody in Blue on harmonica. You’re welcome. I know you’ve just had your mind blown (how does that tiny instrument do that??) but go ahead and let that play while you read on.
In Echo, there is much to admire. Pam Muñoz Ryan writes lovely sentences, particularly when describing sound and music. The songs and classical pieces referenced are well placed and meaningful. (No, I didn’t cry when she quotes “Some Enchanted Evening” at the end of Part Four. You did.) She also has a good sense of pacing and rhythm. Throughout the novel, she controls dramatic tension using shorter sentences or single line paragraphs. When combined with her lush descriptive writing, as it is at the end of Part Two when Mike attempts to run away, this technique serves the story well.
Maintaining narrative momentum in a novel that’s split into six parts (five if you consider the prologue and epilogue as two halves of a larger frame) can’t have been easy. Each section is populated with fully realized characters, dramatic conflicts, and rich settings. We leave each story on a cliffhanger, but they work as deliberately unresolved endings. It would be incredibly frustrating to not know what happened to Friedrich, Mike, or Ivy, but it isn’t necessary to appreciate their stories.
I’ve talked to several people who think the success of the book lives or dies in Part Four. To some readers, it stretches the limits of plausibility; to others it’s the section that unites the novel. I believe it’s the latter. It’s entirely appropriate for this novel to unite the three characters and their stories in its ending. When each character plays that unusual Hohner harmonica marked with the red M for the first time, they recognize the instrument’s unique sound and feel as though the music is reaching into something inside of themselves. Other characters also notice the different sound. Friedrich’s father says, “It’s as if you are playing three instruments, not one.” The epilogue proves that the harmonica sounds like this because it’s the same one that the three sisters from the fairy tale, Eins, Zwei, and Drei, imbued with those qualities. Kenny Yamamoto’s near-death experience during the war demonstrates that the instrument returned to them, completing its journey, freeing them from the witch’s curse.
In the prologue the sisters say, “When you play… you will forever be joined to us, to all who have played the harp, and to all who will pay it, by the silken thread of destiny.” Therefore, of course our three main protagonists end up in the same place on the same night, because it’s magic, music, and destiny that bring them together.
Will the RealCommittee discuss it? Who knows. I hope they do because I think there’s some beautiful writing here and a lot to discuss. —Joy Piedmont
*Also the name of our upcoming real life combo Mock event; if you are in the NYC area and want to join in, email one of us for details.
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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