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Today is going to be one of those ALL THE BOOKS posts, loosely linked by being by and about women and featuring humor. Which is a pretty loose thread, but let’s roll with it. As is often the case with these roundups, we don’t think any of these are books that are likely to go the distance — but all are books we could see someone else championing, and that could easily be on the table for the RealCommittee, which means the conversation is open and a strong advocate might be all that’s needed. Perhaps one of you will champion one of these in the comments and be that advocate? We’re getting close to Pyrite nomination time, so now is definitely the moment to make a case.
This is a personal essay collection expressly aimed at a YA audience, which is a fantastic thing. And some of the essays are equally fantastic, at least in beats — the exchange around the menstrual cup had me snort-laughing, for example, and there’s some wonderful zingers in the piece about sharing the cancer news. This has zero stars, though, and I think it’s down to how uneven it is, sort of framed by Erin’s cancer but not quite, sort of balancing humor and pathos, but not quite. Also the Buzzfeed cheerleading is sort of like product placement, and it reminded me of the conclusion of Averil’s Atonement by Anne (of Green Gables) Shirley: “And we’ll always have Rollings Reliable Baking Powder,” declares the final sentence of Anne’s bowdlerized, prize-winning story as her protagonists embrace. I believe in this case Erin Chack really loves her job, but there’s an essay towards the end where the Buzzfeed love is a little too on display. That said, Chack has some great comic chops and it’s a delight to see a personal narrative like this aimed at the teen readership. I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next and to booktalking this, but I just don’t see it going the distance in awards chatter.
I know it’s not a comparison game, but of the three books featured today that I read, this is head and shoulders the strongest (and therefore also the longest write up).
Susan Juby is underrated. She’s consistently funny but her humor is always laid over a very serious foundation, exploring real issues faced by real teens. I don’t know if it’s the humor or the Canadian settings that are keep Juby from household name status, but for my money she’s one of the more interesting contemporary realism writers in the field. This has three stars, so at least three reviewers agree with me, but she just doesn’t have the name recognition with (US) teens she deserves.
(In this case, it might also be the appalling cover keeping the book down; this is unattractive, makes it look like the market is tweens, and is wildly inaccurate to boot. Fail.)
This one is told in two voices, and the differences between those voices is probably what will keep this from serious Printz attention, because one of them leaps off the page and the other… doesn’t. Charlie Dean is the character I remember, months after reading this: her struggles at home, her endless, almost manic (but genuine!) optiminism, her 40s style suits and mangled French, and her unflinching belief that fashion matters and can improve the world. John Thomas-Smith, on the other hand, I had to look up because all I really remembered was that there was a boy who does metal work and is a total snob about fashion. He’s just not as strong as a character, and probably anyone’s voice would pale in comparison to Charlie Dean, because she’s voicey in a way that’s just this side of caricature, except that everything about her is cultivated to be over the top so it works.
In addition to Charlie Dean’s voice, this has in its favor rich thematic scope: class and culture and the nature of art are all examined, in realistically teen ways, through the journal entries that comprise the text. Charlie Dean’s father and his girlfriend are both recovering addicts, something Juby depicts with sympathy but no excuses, and Charlie Dean and John are both in the competition that gives the novel it’s structure because they want to attend a private arts school but are not financially in a position to do so (although John’s finances and home life are much more stable than Charlie Dean’s).
I sort of wish this had been just Charlie Dean’s story — and think it would be a stronger contender if that had been the case. But that’s not the book we have, and the book we have is a great read but uneven enough in voice to fall by the wayside when it comes to award speculation.
Joy here, cutting in to briefly talk about Ramona Blue. Although I can see a few different reasons why this one wouldn’t it make it far at the RealCommittee table, I’ll admit that I’m surprised that it’s only earned two stars. Just as she promoted body positivity and feminism in Dumplin’, Murphy continues to explore identity formation, this time focusing on sexual fluidity, class, race, and the intersectionality of it all. The themes are ambitious and clear, the characters utterly charming, and the story, although it’s a slow burn, is compelling. Ramona’s small town, Eulogy, is so carefully described that it’s easy to conjure in one’s imagination. The book also has a quiet, unassuming tone, despite tackling heavy, and important, topics. Murphy’s authorial voice very rarely draws attention to itself, and never seems like it’s trying too hard to be “woke” (we have all read those books; they’re usually a slog). Ramona Blue will certainly be the right book for many teen readers, but we wouldn’t be a Printz speculation blog if we didn’t also point out some less-great qualities.
Ramona narrates in first person present, so we’re totally immersed in her point of view. She’s thoughtful, intelligent, pragmatic, and very self-aware. I can mostly believe this in a young woman who survived Katrina as a child, practically raised herself when her mother never returns after they evacuate their home, and works two jobs with no expectation of higher education. She had to grow up quickly; these teens are usually scarily adult-like, but Murphy’s writing for Ramona occasionally displays an advanced level of identity formation that I’m not sure is entirely accurate for her age group. Setting aside her age, and what would be developmentally appropriate, the character development is internally consistent. Although Ramona’s mature, she doesn’t have all the answers. She goes through many moments of self-doubt throughout the novel. But it’s her understanding of herself as she reconsiders her sexuality that really seems to be an adult’s breakthroughs, not a teen’s. In my (admittedly) limited experience talking to, and hearing teens speak about sexual identity, I have frequently heard my students describe the relief they felt when they could put a label to the mixture of things they were feeling. For Ramona, having settled into her identity as a lesbian early in her adolescence, would she need a label to define herself more urgently than Murphy depicts? Or is it less important for Ramona because of the other concerns she has in her life? It’s only when I stopped to consider Ramona as a real seventeen-year-old that these questions bubbled to the surface for me. As I said, Ramona is internally consistent and pulls you into her story like an old friend.
The other ding that may keep Murphy from a shiny sticker is the style/voice that occasionally brings the novel :thisclose: to being a PSA for sexual fluidity. It’s those moments, when the authorial voice speaks louder than Ramona’s, that would raise debate at the table. I do hope that you all make time for this one though. Heck, maybe it will surprise us all? —Joy Piedmont
Confession time: I (Karyn again) haven’t actually finished this one. It’s not working for me, personally, and I think it’s mostly a voice thing. BUT — I am compelled by some very strong reviews, by the ways in which it’s examining race, class, and gender, and by the fact that the voice has enough strength to irritate me, which is a sign of strong writing. I’m hoping to be convinced that I need to take a closer look to get me to push past the personal reader response (which is what RealCommittee members have to do all the time, if someone else nominates a title) OR that some of you have read this and can assure me that it’s not a serious contender and I can be a little lazy and move on to the next book in my never-shrinking pile.
So there you have it, 4 books for the price of one. Thoughts? Have at it in the comments.
Filed under: Books to look for
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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