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Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner
Crown Books for Young Readers, March 2017
Reviewed from an ARC
And now it’s somehow time to speculate about Printz? How can that be?? Ready or not, though, here we are, and it’s time to read, review, debate, and decide! (I am sure many of you are far more ready than me, so I hope you’ll jump right in!)
First up on my list is Zentner’s sophomore title. It’s got two stars — which of course means nothing for Printz, but is something we consider when building our initial list — and with his Morris win last year, odds are RealCommittee is giving this book a thorough and thoughtful read (and re-read). Like his previous effort, this is an ambitious novel that asks big questions, has relatable characters, sharp dialogue, and a story that gives All The Feels. They’ll have a lot to discuss.
Zentner’s ARC letter says that he’s obsessed with death — and this is a story soaked in death — but that’s not the only topic included in the narrative. Maybe my favorite focus is on mental health; Carver’s understandably fragile state helps keep this novel raw, and keeps the reader very emotionally connected to the story. After such a life-changing event, Carver’s off balance; his panic attacks are vivid and heart wrenching to read.
Like last year’s The Serpent King, Zentner looks carefully, with great affection, at teenage friendship. The Sauce Crew trades barbs with abandon — my notes say “FRIENDSHIP BANTER EXCELLENT LEVEL” and there are lots of different your mama jokes I could pull to illustrate this point. EXCELLENT LEVEL, indeed, friends.
Zentner is also careful about where he places the flashbacks. The friendship memories can provide a nice contrast to the weight of the present; the jokes and frivolity among the Sauce Crew can feel like a huge relief. Unfortunately, the flashbacks are where, on reread, I might start seeing cracks. The Sauce Crew as a unit is pretty great — hilarious and smartass. But with closer examination, the characters don’t feel quite as precise. Mars, Blake, and Eli are a strong block, but when pulled apart, they aren’t quite as outstanding. The juxtaposition and slight weaknesses in character can make this long novel start to feel manipulative. Don’t get me wrong, I cried at multiple points throughout the story — in which case: the manipulation worked — but looking at this through Printz lenses requires more rigor, a little more care.
The goodbye days are obviously central to the narrative, and the ties that Zentner establishes between these rituals and the rituals and care of therapy are pretty powerful. However, with three goodbye days to take, and all of them coming in the second half of the book, this is another spot where authorial intention (or maybe just manipulation) is a little too obvious.
Carver’s voice as a narrator, too, might not be quite such a boon as our Printz gaze grows sharper. Zentner is careful to balance the personal and the universal; Carver’s feelings are immediate, and his questions and issues are relatable. But Carver sometimes, especially at points in the present, can sound a little too polished, a little too ponder-y and removed.
There are a lot of sad stories out this year — we’ve been sitting with three of them this entire week, actually! While there’s a lot to like/love/respect here, I suspect it won’t be quite enough to get a medal (say it with me, Printz game is an elimination game). But this author has a lot of love around these parts and in the YA world in general, so maybe you disagree?
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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