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The Thin Line
I’m going to cheat a little today, and deviate from our attempts to review in roughly calendar order.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about middle grade and YA and all ages and the fine line between the Newbery and the Printz.
We’ve had books on all ends snag awards, yes, but these are generally outliers (see: Navigating Early, Last Stop on Market Street, This One Summer). Generally, the Printz list is solidly YA, the Newbery middle grade, and the Caldecott goes to a picture book for ages 4-7. But here’s the thing: books aren’t nearly this clearcut in their appeal. And as always, we have a handful of books this year that seem tailor-made to defy easy age and award bracketing. Today I’m going to look at three of them (with an honorable mention of a fourth): Matt Phelan’s Snow White, Shaun Tan’s The Singing Bones, and Kelly Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank Down the Moon. These aren’t the only potential line-blurrers: Joy’s Thanksgiving call for reader nominations raised Wolf Hollow (my honorable mention) and Some Kind of Happiness as possibilities, and the nonfiction this year is almost all on the cusp — and that’s just the ones I can name off the top of my head. But these three are the ones I see as having the most consensus as crossover books we might want to talk about, whether or not they actually have the legs to go the distance.
I’m not sure Phelan’s style 100% works for me — the sketchiness sometimes made the action hard to follow — but putting that aside, this is a hell of a stylish, sophisticated fairy tale retelling/graphic novel. The Depression-era NYC setting, the silent movie-esque chapter titles (in language and aesthetic), and the ending with the detective that seems to look forward to 40s noir, the other stylistic parent of the text, is all fantastically on target. The setting is so perfect for the tensions of Snow White, in fact, that I’m amazed no one has set a version there before. There’s also some great color work: the use of the limited palette, again calling to mind old films, with the flourish of color (mostly red, but also the green of the makeup when the stepmother disguises herself), giving way to color for the happy ending is visually appealing and helps carry the narrative. Phelan manages to evoke both the Grimm Brothers and Disney while making the story his own: all in all, a virtuoso achievement.
On the other side, it’s a very slight story: setting aside, not much new is being done with the material, and it’s spare to the point of lacking in depth. But that doesn’t make it not a YA-appropriate text — in fact, the setting, the most original aspect, struck me as a detail that explicitly makes this skew up quite a bit; if a reader doesn’t have some sense of history in general and the Depression in particular, this becomes merely an interestingly illustrated version of Snow White. The older reader (6th grade and up?) will be more able to appreciate the ways Phelan is playing and the artistic references seeded throughout.
My final call on this one is that it’s the slightness of the story rather than the age of the ideal audience that makes it not a serious contender.
This is the rare bird that could make it to the table for both awards — although it’s fantasy, and not without flaws, so it might not get to either winner’s circle.
Sophisticated in her language and her understanding of people, Barnhill gives us a charming but not insipid or shallow fanasty steeped in the fairy tale tradition. There’s an oral tale tradition at play, in the interstitial bits of Ethyne’s mother’s stories and again in the way so many characters exist as nouns: the madwoman, the Witch, the Sorrow-Eater — they are not archetypes, but their names evoke the archetypes of folk and fairy tales. There’s also a sense of history and world-building at odds with fairy tales but critical in excellent fantasy writing. The characters are endearing, appealing — and inclined to growth. Way back when I served on book committees, one of my colleagues was in the habit of using the 40 Developmental Assets when we were arguing whether a book deserved recognition as a YA book. My ultimate shorthand from that was the habit of distinguishing children’s from YA by considering whether the character arc went from being acted upon to acting upon. If a character did not move in that arc, the book was clearly children’s. This is an imperfect framework, but I find it maps almost perfectly with whether a book, regardless of character age or packaging, will resonate with my high school readers, so I continue to use it. Luna’s journey is pretty much the perfect example of that arc.
(This is not to say it isn’t also a book that will resonate with younger readers, and Jonathan has already opened up the Newbery discussion for this one.)
Added to that is the rich thematic material, much of which revolves around familial ties and especially (grand)parent-child ties. I think this reads in deeply meaningful ways for different readers — Fyrian, Luna, Antain, the madwoman, and Xan provide different ins to the emotional framework suitable for different readers.
Of course, it’s not all perfect; the messaging of the themes is pretty heavy handed, and Fyrian and Glerk feel a little Disney animal sidekick, and there are a few plausibility holes (mostly Antain and Ethyne both being within the inner circles just enough to kind of start to understand things, and also being allowed to live on, together: wouldn’t Gherland or Ignatia have realized this was going to put a crimp in their plans?) But mostly, I loved this and so, it seems, does nearly everyone else. If this pulls a Navigating Early, I would be less shocked and less perplexed than I was in 2014, because this may be a younger YA but it’s not lacking in anything, from the sentence level writing to the overall arc, that we should look for in a Printz winner or honoree.
So, on the one hand, this is a true all ages book. On the other hand, it fails terribly as a book, in the sense of a cohesive whole.
The part everyone I know has loved is the art. Tan’s art is, as always, compelling: whimsical, engaging, unexpected. As a catalogue of an art show, this is amazing — but it’s not being pitched as the bound catalogue, even that’s functionally what it is. It’s being pitched and catalogued as a fairy tale collection.
But it’s actually a series of sculptures, beautifully photographed, tied to excerpts rather than complete tales. The image doesn’t always match the excerpt, and when it does it’s sometimes incredibly literal, while other images are metaphorical and resonant. Similarly, the excerpts themselves don’t always seem to be clearly pointing to a meaning; I found myself drawing on my existing knowledge of the stories, or else flipping to the back for the longer versions of tales I didn’t know. The illustrations demanded more context or less: entire tales, even if summarized, or nothing beyond the titles. Our librarians-only book club read this last month, and everyone who loved it without reservation had only really spent time with the art; those who read the text from front to back had reservations galore about how this held up as a reading experience (although we all enjoyed the Zipes introduction, and I for one am in awe that Tan or his publisher had the clout to get an admiring introduction from Jack Zipes, because that man is brilliant).
I think this probably won’t get any award love: for Caldecott, the text and the pictures don’t play well enough together; for Newbery, the text is secondary to the illustration and the images here can’t really be read as text; and for Printz, where this one probably most belongs — it’s mostly a strangely sized coffee table book for older readers who already know these stories, like teens and adults — the lack of cohesion when viewed as a complete entity will keep it out of the running.
But man, some of those images are spectacular.
Honorable mention: Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk I was going to write Wolf Hollow up for this post as well — all those stars, and that language! But actually I didn’t like it at all for Printz consideration; it’s got that adult-looking-back tone that is so often deadly for older readers, and the main character’s age seems firmly middle grade. Happily, it came up as a reader nomination last week, so I will hold off on further comments until I get to read a statement about why it does deserve to be in Printz consideration from Allison. (Irony alert: Wolf Hollow, which pubbed in May, was the reason I jumped all these other crossover books up the post timeline.)
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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