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More questions than answers here
Like Joy, I’ve got a double feature: two titles with strong reviews (My Name is Not Friday has three stars; The Bitter Side of Sweet has four), good writing, and memorable characterization. These two titles are both important reads. But are they Printz contenders?
Samuel’s first person perspective, particularly in the first ⅔ of the book, is compelling, with emotional language, strong sensory details, and a host of opportunities to connect with the protagonist; he’s brave, generous, and thoughtful. Walter’s portrayal of the reality of slavery as a system is layered and necessarily brutal. In particular, he uses the relationship between Gerald and Samuel to examine the many ways that enslavement forced white people to deny others’ humanity (and their own) and commit violence, and the moments he includes in the text are carefully chosen and illuminating. His author’s note provides transparency into how he approached his language, in particular his single inclusion of the n-word.
This is (I am pretty sure) the first time Walter uses any kind of racial indicator in the text. There are a few other moments — but only a very few. As a white lady, this color blindness feels very familiar to me, but seems historically inaccurate and so ultimately does a disservice to the story. Additionally, Samuel’s character never really seems to grow or change over the course of the novel. He is very passive throughout the book — all the way to the end. It’s possible that this was a deliberate authorial choice, to show how disempowering the experience of enslavement is, but it ultimately weakens Samuel’s characterization; he’s sympathetic but one-note.
The title is a nod to Robinson Crusoe, and…it’s been awhile since college. Maybe you can fill in for me — are there more textual connections than Samuel’s name re-assignment?
Sullivan’s sophomore effort is set today, in the Ivory Coast, rather than historical fiction, but is also a story of children who are enslaved. Amadou, Seydou, and Khadija are well developed characters, and the story of their escape is emotional and compelling reading. Sullivan is careful to make clear the violence and danger that her characters face. The back matter includes some more information about fair trade chocolate, recommended further reading/viewing, and a call to action for readers. The story overall prioritizes action, making the most out of suspenseful situations as the three characters make their way to freedom.
As a result, the ending feels a little rushed and not as careful as the rest of the book. Amadou’s insistence on telling their story to Khadija’s mother should have been a more powerful moment, but the opportunity for reflection and reclaiming their own narrative is too rushed. At this point, Amadou’s narration is too much telling and feels too obvious.
Let me acknowledge that I’ve stacked the deck by putting these two together, but I still think it’s important to think and speak critically. Put explicitly, these are two books written by white writers depicting characters of color. And these are both quite sad stories — in fact, these are stories about slavery — and there is danger in hearing what too easily boils down to a single story. And it’s also worth being aware of who is telling these stories…and who is not. These are two stories that are about characters of color but that speak primarily to a white audience. While this limitation connects to some of the Printzly P&P, this also leads to larger questions about publishing, the role of the critic, and the scope that literary criticism should encompass.
While the P&P of Printz may not outright encourage these sorts of questions, this still seems to me an important conversation to have at the Printz table. If not there, where? And if these are not valid conversations to have at the table, then how valid is this medal? Sure, these books have flaws that can (and probably will) take them out of consideration for RealCommittee. But RealCommittee can’t function in a vacuum, and ignoring these questions is attempting to exist in a vacuum, no? How can questions like these fit into a Printz conversation?
About Sarah Couri
Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.
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