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Haunted Places

haunted placesWe are working on getting through books in the maximally efficient way, which sometimes means more fanciful pairings, and other times means groups that play with each other in interesting ways as we discuss them. Today we have the second option, a trio of books that mingle together in engaging ways as we consider the set. We have three books that are on the young side, and all involve a heavy sense of place, where the characters are as much shaped by their surroundings as they are by their own histories. Hence, haunted places.

(As always, this is not really how RealCommittee approaches their discussions, since they try to talk about each book individually.)

quicksand pondQuicksand Pond by Janet Taylor Lisle
Simon & Schuster, May 2017
Reviewed from final copy; 2 stars

First out of the gate, we have a contemporary read with a historical mystery. The mystery is from a generation ago, but has shaped life on the pond since it occurred. The intense, complicated, doomed friendship between Terry and Jessie is effectively conveyed and absolutely haunting. The location, Quicksand Pond itself, is a huge element of this novel, too. Lisle’s gives specific, sensory-filled descriptions that allow us to feel like we understand the location: magnetic, secret and dangerous, and totally wonderful.

Really, the location was probably my favorite part of the novel. Lisle’s language is lovely — it indicates both the strange beauty of the place, as well as the twisted danger that sits at the center.

This almost-magical place also echoes the friendship that Jessie finds with Terry — intense and beautiful, but also dark, possibly dangerous, with a core of tragedy. The two girls are great characters, their unlikely relationship offering them a chance to find out more about their own worlds.

This is definitely haunting; the end is dark and rather unresolved. I can’t quite tell what I think about that; on the one hand, it’s unexpected and initially hopeful while leaving room for a lot of darkness to inevitably creep in (in your imagination if not the actual last chapter). That unresolved ending may be a sticking place for the committee; they may want more information about Jessie’s family, particularly her parents’ situation.

The more I think about it, though, the more I believe it’s the right choice: beautiful but still dark. Hopeful in the moment, but weighted with past injustices and the threat of more in the future.

So I found a lot to like here. Out of the books included in the post, this one has the fewest starred reviews (not that that necessarily has any bearing on a medal). What, then, might exclude this for RealCommittee? There are moments where the text changes tense, and I found that really jarring, but I think you could argue that it’s a bold authorial choice; the change happens largely with a Henrietta-centric point of view, and at times of great stress. Some of the secondary characters are a bit underdeveloped (though not terribly so). The biggest issue, at least in Printz-land,  would be the intended audience (which is possibly the real theme of this post). Jessie and Terry are both younger; what makes them — particularly Jessie — feel young is the way they are hemmed in by the adults in their lives.

All of this is too bad, because out of all my reading for this week, Quicksand is the one that surprised me the most. I loved how unexpectedly dark the story is. I loved that it’s a friendship story about a relationship that dissolves. I may be the most surprised by the fact that it only has two starred reviews! All of this makes me very curious about  how it will fare at the Newbery Table.

beyond bright seaBeyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk
Penguin, May 2017
Reviewed from final copy; 5 stars

For book number two, we have a historical read with both mystery and coming of age elements. Again, the mystery is from the past, and we are equally concerned with Crow, who is taking her first big steps into a more grown up role over the course of the book. These first forays into adulthood bring about a buried treasure, a grave robber, a leper colony, and a possible long-lost brother. While the bare-bones description might sound over the top, it’s not at all; this read is elevated by beautiful writing, believable people in the pages, and a character-driven plot.

The character are where this story shines: Osh as the damaged and loving father; Miss Maggie as a fierce protector-warrior; Crow as the thoughtful narrator, finding more information about her own history for the first time. Wolk is very careful about allowing the strong characterization to carry the story instead of the mystery pulling the plot along. While it’s a slow-paced read, it feels deliberate rather than dragging, and the moments of tension shine all the more as a result.

It’s a joy to read. Crow’s narration is matter-of-fact, quite simple, but full of images and metaphors from nature. Osh shrugs, and his hair “rolled like night waves.” Vulnerability in the middle of an old and difficult argument: “Miss Maggie, forlorn as a cold lamb. Osh, looking like he had a bellyache.” Crow is observant about the people in her life, cataloging minute changes in their faces, in their postures, in their attitude giving the reader room to find an understanding of her world.

With five starred reviews, there’s clearly a lot of love for Beyond. Is there anything that could take it down at the table? There’s some reliance on coincidence; the story does really play out because of overlapping timelines and chance (Crow just happened get interested in Penikese while Kendall is digging the holes, a climactic nor’easter rolls up at the perfect climactic moment). Wolk works a lot of foreshadowing into the story as well; this makes it solvable, but may make the mystery feel too predictable as well. These are minor issues, but conversation at the table can clarify how these small things really matter. More than anything, though, I pinpoint intended audience as the factor that could take it out of Printz conversation; it’s generally more kid-like than teen-like. Crow’s age is one part of it; related to that is the way she describes and understands the adults in her life. She loves them, and understands them, but it read to me as a kid’s understanding, and with a kid’s limits. Again, I wonder what the Newbery committee will make of it. Heavy Medal has had their say, as well.

face like glassA Face Like Glass, Frances Hardinge
Abrams, May 2017
Reviewed from ARC; five stars

For the third book, it’s Karyn jumping in to talk about one of my favorite middle grade-ish fantasy novels this year (the other was Nevermoor, which pubs tomorrow and which I’m hoping to write up when more people have had a chance to read it). A Face like Glass was originally published in the UK before The Lie Tree, and is one of two Hardinge books coming stateside this year — the other, Skinful of Shadows, just made the PW list, but I haven’t read it yet; it’s high on the docket.

A Face Like Glass is much more truly middle grade than The Lie Tree, but like Cuckoo Song, it’s a middle grade book that offers a lot for the older reader, and because Neverfell’s age isn’t terribly material to her adventures, it reads up nicely. Sarah opened this post talking about haunted places. Caverna isn’t haunted, exactly, but it’s an odd, marvelous but unpleasant place, and Neverfell herself is deeply haunted by her missing past (even if her quicksilver attention span means she doesn’t dwell on it all the time).

There’s deep thematic content here; history, identity, friendship, and goodness (Hardinge says “innocence” in this interview, which is another word for the same idea — the innate goodness of someone who grew up unspoiled by societal pressures). There’s also one of the most marvelous fantasy worlds I’ve ever come across. Caverna is an underground city full of practicioners of the Craft — cheeses that bring visions, wines that rob memory, perfumes that shape actions. It’s broadly comic, but specifically disturbing. Power corrupts, and Caverna is full of people who have been corrupted by the power they wield. They are also a frightened people, terrified of the aboveground world. Finally — and most innovative, of all the feats of imagination present in the novel — it’s a world where lying is as natural as breathing, because in a world where facial expressions must be taught, no one shows any emotion unless they choose. Even those who would choose can’t always; there are strong discussions of class throughout this, with the limited Faces of the Drudge class, who must appear cheerful and efficient and ready for orders even as they stew. It’s a book that rewards both the fast read — the plot moves, amazing characters blow in and out (the Kleptomancer!), and there’s a nice empowering ending. But it’s also a book that rewards the slow read; it’s chock full of inventive details that can provoke serious musing. There’s a lot to unpack and none of it is didactic; indeed, most of the questions raised, such as they are, are never really answered.

Plus, the language is incredible and there’s some play with genre — fantasy, of course, but there’s a lot happening here that isn’t typical for high or low fantasy.

So the real question is not whether this is a great book, because it is; it’s whether it’s a Printz book, given the middle grade target. I think this is worth a RealCommittee look, but suspect that it’s too much a children’s book, although in the end Neverfell changes her world, which is very YA. It probably comes down to the actual RC and whether anyone was willing to champion a young book. It only takes one person to get it on the table, and then the book has to speak for itself. This is the first time in a while I would characterize the year as truly strong, which probably makes it a bad year to be a young YA. But you never know.


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.


  1. A Face Like Glass is my #1 pick this year. It’s my favorite Frances Hardinge, and that’s saying something. I just reread it this past weekend, and it’s fabulous, like you say. I found the discussion of class more compelling – and more – is obvious the word I want? – than Neverfell’s innocent characterization. Maybe it’s because a lot of novels feature a protagonist who’s new to her surroundings and unprepared for this world (though I certainly don’t hold that against this book!) but this discussion of class interwoven with absolutely spectacular worldbuilding is everything to me! I think Hardinge is at her very best when her themes grow out of her worldbuilding and the latter is the star of the show.

    She gets all the details pitch perfect, too. That moment where the significance of the eggs becomes clear? The missing two months – that paragraph thrills me every time. The names! Following a rabbit out of the tunnels! A fantastic epilogue! This is a masterpiece.

    I’m pushing it hard because I’m convinced it won’t win anything. But it should.

  2. I adore A Face Like Glass, and the setting is what has stuck in my mind–I read it a good five years ago, not long after it came out in the UK, and it consistently pops to mind when I’m thinking of weird, quirky settings that boy howdy work

    For me, it’s (and Cuckoo Song, and Lie Tree) are absolutely perfect for that interstitial reader: the conspicuous bright 10-to-14-year-old who’s getting pushed up into YA and adult classics but doesn’t necessarily want that–but does want interesting, complex stories. But being interstitial does often put them in Printzbery, easily-overlook territory.

    I just started A Skinful of Shadows last night and had that immediate “oh yes” reaction; it may be the book to break me out of my reading slump.

    I liked Beyond the Bright Sea but didn’t find it nearly as compelling or powerful as Wolf Hollow; irrelevant for this discussion, I know, but a big part of my immediate reaction. The convenience and coincidence struck me as flows–and I’m a mystery reader and thus have a fairly high tolerance for characters learning just the right thing and just the right time–and the plot is rather repetitive, which hampered the plot and pacing for me.

    A thought about the setting of Beyond the Bright Sea: does it rely on familiarity? One of the things I loved most about Wolf Hollow was the concrete sharpness of the setting; I pegged it very early on as being “Western NY or Western PA or Ohio,” which is the region in which I grew up (and yes, folks, Western New York State has a heck of a lot more in common, socially, politically, and physically, with Ohio than it does with NYC). But I’ve talked to people who found it vague. I found the setting of Beyond the Bright Sea evocative but vague, but the people I know who have read it and have spent time on Cape Cod and/or the Islands were absolutely blown away by it, the setting in particular.

    (Sorry, Karyn, Nevermoor didn’t wow me; the first chapters knocked my socks off but after they crossed over I found it heavy-handed in its allusion and almost cloying in its earnest, trying-so-hard narrative voice.)

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