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When previously awarded writers tell other tales
When we start to compile our list of books to cover, authors who have a previous Printz win or honor are automatically added to the list. We also give serious consideration to writers with wins or honors from other important ALA Youth Media Awards. Of course, the logic is that a previous winner has a good chance of continuing to create work at a high level.
Today’s contenders come to us in slightly different form than the author’s previous work. Unlike her Printz and Caledcott honor book, This One Summer, Mariko Tamaki’s Saving Montgomery Sole is a prose novel. The Great American Whatever is Tim Federle’s first YA novel—his middle grade series, Better Nate Than Ever has earned him a Stonewall and Odyssey nomination as well as a Lambda literary award. Both Tamaki and Federle use themes present in their other books, but do they also use the qualities that earned them praise?
Saving Montgomery Sole’s story is small, centering on Monty’s belief in/horror at the power of an unusual crystal called the Eye of Know, which may or may not be causing calamity. Amidst this, Monty feels personally threatened by the son of a preacher who’s on a mission to “save the American family,” even though he barely speaks a word to her. Over the course of the slim novel, Monty’s friendships and family relationships are strained as she struggles to understand her place in the world.
For first-person narration to work, the voice has to be clear and consistent. Tamaki achieves this with Monty, but her voice is irritating. That’s not to say that all narrators must be pleasant; in fact, a lot of interesting dramatic tension can arise from a protagonist with major personality flaws. The problem is that Monty is quick to judgement, petulant, and very slow to admit when she’s wrong. These aren’t necessarily negative qualities in the voice, rather, these character traits do not work with the development of the plot, making Monty’s voice difficult to tolerate throughout the book. Early on it’s easy to see that Monty is sabotaging her relationships with her attitude. The inertia of the plot makes this otherwise interesting dynamic frustrating until the rushed resolution.
This One Summer is also an “uneventful” story with an alienated, somewhat angry teen. In both books Tamaki shows teens who feel like they are alone in their jumble of intense emotions. Like its predecessor, Saving Montgomery Sole explores the complexity and fragility of teen friendships and the simple (but hard to learn) truth that you are only alone if you refuse to let people in. In This One Summer, co-author (and cousin) Jillian Tamaki’s art gave these themes lift, developed the characters, and sustained a difficult protagonist. Tamaki’s latest relies on prose that doesn’t work for its characters, story, or themes. It isn’t likely to be in Printz consideration but there are elements here that could have worked with more refinement.
Tim Federle’s The Great American Whatever also has a small plot in the sense that it’s not an action-packed thriller or intense romantic drama. This novel is concerned with what happens when you begin to move on from grief. Federle’s execution of the plot is realistic—with the exception of the neighbor/babysitter-turned-screenwriter who returns home to shoot his latest movie.
Quinn Roberts is an aspiring screenwriter who hasn’t cared about anything since his sister died in a tragic car accident. The setup is sad but the execution is full of quips and comic situations. Quinn’s sense of humor is a defense mechanism against the crushing weight of reality. His plans for the future died with his sister, who was the director for all his films.
Quinn’s voice as narrator is sharp and sarcastic—the kind of aspirational smart-teen speak that’s also filled with pop culture references. Personally, I like this style of writing but I know it’s not for everyone. Federle’s convincing in this voice, although Quinn becomes tiresome when it begins to seem like his only mode of communication is funny one-liners. For Printz consideration, voice should evolve with the character’s development as the narrative unfolds. The lack of change here takes this one out of Printz contention for me, despite being an enjoyable read overall.
All in all these previously honored authors probably won’t come up in most Printz conversations this season. Still, these are two authors to watch as their current books show glimpses of what could be continued development on the horizon.
But what do you think, readers? Are there other previous winners/honorees we should look at? Let us know in the comments!
About Joy Piedmont
Joy Piedmont is a librarian and technology integrator at LREI - Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School. Prior to becoming a librarian, Joy reviewed and reported for Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch. She reviews for SLJ and is the President of the Hudson Valley Library Association. When she’s not reading or writing about YA literature, she’s compulsively consuming culture of all kinds, learning to fly (on a trapeze), and taking naps with her cat, Oliver. Find her on Twitter @InquiringJoy, email her at joy dot piedmont at gmail dot com, or follow her on Tumblr. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, HVLA or any other initialisms with which she is affiliated.
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