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A romantic rendezvous
Actually, this is a romantic roundup, but rendezvous sounded catchier. In the context of Printz reviewing, romance has actually fared well in recent years with both the RealCommittee and the Pyrite Committee (aka: all of us). I’ll Give You the Sun was the Real and Pyrite winner in 2015, and in 2014 Eleanor & Park was a Real and Pyrite honor.
This context is important because it’s proof that professional readers are recognizing straight-up romances that are also literary. Today, Sarah and I are looking at three books that may (or may not) have what it takes to bring love back to the winner’s circle.
Summer Days and Summer Nights, edited by Stephanie Perkins
St Martin’s Griffins, May 2016
4 stars; Reviewed from an ARC
I really like the idea of a romance walking away with a medal. There really is still a sense that rewarding romance with a silver or gold is pretty subversive. It could only get more subversive if it’s an anthology — we’ve talked a lot before about how difficult consensus on a collection can be. There are a lot of strengths to examine in this title, and if RealCommittee isn’t afraid of a little romance, we could be in for a surprise. There are some YA heavy hitters here: Cassandra Clare, Libba Bray, Veronica Roth, and Francesca Lia Block! The range of experiences included is fairly broad — first love, reunited love, ending love. There’s also a little range of subgenres — some creepy, atmospheric stuff and some speculative fiction stuff, as well as realistic romance. Some of the authors write about diverse characters (would love to see more of this…), so there’s a bit of a range of perspective. Summer Days received four stars — Bardugo, Perkins, and Grossman all bring it, and I also loved Libba Bray and Jennifer Smith’s entries; it’s easy to understand those four stars. A few entries felt slightly too short and thus underdeveloped. But more than anything else, anthologies are working against their own form, so despite the four stars and the strong moments in the text, I wouldn’t peg this as a strong contender. —Sarah Couri
Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit, by Jaye Robin Brown
Harper Teen, August 2016
3 stars; Reviewed from an ARC
Preacher’s daughter. Small town. A teen lesbian in love. It sounds like it could be novel steeped in stereotypes about coming out, facing adversity, and being proud of who you are. But this is not that book and I mean that in the best sense possible. Jaye Robin Brown’s novel has drama, yes, but it’s not complicated. Joanna Gordon’s father loves and supports her and most of the characters we’re supposed to care about have similarly loving and accepting attitudes about homosexuality. The drama is generated from the promise Joanna makes with her father after they move to small-town Rome from Atlanta; that she’ll “lay low” (aka, go back in the closet) in her new school for the sake of the social standing of his new bride and her family. We are repeatedly told that life was different for Joanna in Atlanta—where she was called Jo and had a happy out and proud life. Add in the additional wrinkle that Joanna starts falling hard for her popular classmate, Mary Carlson, and that’s fuel for the entire novel.
Brown gets a lot of mileage out of the conflict between Joanna’s desire to keep her word to her father and to be true to herself, because the former hurts her relationship with Mary Carlson while the latter is also fraught with the lies she’s already told. Particularly striking is that Joanna is a protagonist who is deeply spiritual. She isn’t conflicted about her faith because of some people’s intolerance for the LGBT community; she is strengthened by her father’s ministry and message of love and hopes to be a positive influence in the Christian community by offering a safe space and a sympathetic ear for queer teens who still have faith in God. I can’t recall another YA narrator like her and it’s refreshing to read about a teen who has a clear understanding of how religion and faith shape her life. It’s certainly a check mark in the boxes for theme and character.
In terms of story, this is a romance that balances tension and satisfaction brilliantly. Most readers will probably always be at least one step ahead of the author, but the fun is in seeing how the beats play out. It’s not necessarily inventive but it’s a page-turner and did I mention that it gave me serious feels?
Alright, so it’s a true romance with great characters and some interesting themes but the execution of themes is where Brown stumbles. Everything is literal. There’s no symbolism or metaphor, subtext is nonexistent and it’s simple (to a degree that occasionally feels unrealistic). Although it’s not quite a Printz, this book will be incredibly important to a teen struggling with their sexuality, their faith, or both.
The Sun is Also a Star, Nicola Yoon
Delacorte Press, November 2016
5 stars; Reviewed from an ARC
In the immediate days after I finished The Sun is Also a Star, I felt like the book was following me around. Many of the novel’s ideas were popping up in all sorts of places; casual conversation, other books, and of all places, Stranger Things.
I really loved this book. I took a ton of notes and I felt very connected to both Daniel and Natasha. They are vivid characters and the story of their romance built on chances is charming. Even the “histories” written in third person felt like they added thematic weight to the book, in that they zoom out from the intimate tale of two people to place the lovers in the context of their families, society, and the universe. And as a New Yorker, it’s so clear that Yoon just gets this city, all of its quirks and ugliness, but the hidden gems and beauty as well. It’s an authentic portrait of NYC but the richness of the setting gives the story a texture that allows for the improbabilities of the coincidences that bring Daniel and Natasha together.
Given all those positives, it’s possible (heck, very likely) that I’ll love this book again, but something changed in the past few months. The magic is gone and although I appreciate Yoon’s novel for many reasons, I no longer sense that intangible “it” quality. My working theory is that this is the kind of novel that offers a ton of fun, late-night philosophical questions, without the necessary narrative weight to support any lasting ideas. When Daniel tells Natasha that dark matter is love*, she bristles at the idea but doesn’t dismiss it out of hand. It’s a poet’s explanation of the world and it’s lovely. Yet nothing in the plot or characters supports or represents this as a theme. Sure it’s big and one could argue that a novel about love and destiny is all about love being the major force in the universe, but it’s not enough for the gestalt to represent that. I don’t believe that the romance between Daniel and Natasha is strong enough to show love being that force, therefore, the idea becomes an interesting thought, not a theme.
Then again, perhaps the last month and half has turned me into a grizzled cynic. I truly believe in the idea of “right book at the right time,” so it’s possible that this was the right book for me in August, but now, I’m holding it up to more practical standards. If the RealCommittee sees something that I’ve lost, I won’t be surprised but today I see too many flaws to put it in serious contention. —Joy Piedmont
*In the novel, Natasha tells Daniel that 27% of the universe is made of dark matter, an unidentifiable kind of mass and energy, posited by some scientists to be the thing that keeps galaxies together. If you’ve seen Interstellar, you know that film presents the idea that gravity is love. Basically, love makes the world go ’round.
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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