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Morris + Printz?
In our frantic dash to the finish line, we’re taking today to look at the Morris finalists. A Morris nod has nothing really to do with the Printz slate, though there’s been overlap in years past. And a lack of a Morris nod doesn’t rule any author out for the Printz, either. They’re not correlative. But here in our little world, as opposed to RealCommittee, we use every tool at our disposal to make sure we’re not missing a title and have been able to spend at least a little time with any book the RealCommittee might be talking about — and there’s been just enough overlap in the past that it’s plausible, even likely, that the RC makes sure they take a peek at anything on the Morris shortlist.
We’ve already covered The Hate U Give (the most likely to overlap this year!) and Saints + Misfits, so today we have the remaining three titles from the Morris shortlist: Starfish, Devils Within, and Dear Martin. None of these were on our reading list prior to the shortlist announcement, because our other, very general marker is three or more stars — and these three all have under 3 stars. As we’ve said before, stars aren’t really a predictor for Printz — it’s just one of the ways we we whittle the list of all YA books down to a reasonable pile. As usual, we’ll be running through the books alphabetically. Ready? Click through for the fun!
Starfish has two starred reviews, the highest out of our slate this week — from PW and Booklist. Bowman includes a whole host of issues within the narrative — biracial identity, social anxiety, childhood abuse, toxic family dynamics — and it’s to her credit that it never feels crowded or overwhelming. (Not to say that these ideas are handled perfectly; more on this later.) The straightforward plot is part of what keeps this simple, effectively told story centered. Bowman writes in short chapters that are gulp-able; even when the story gets very dark, it remains compulsively readable. The ending is light and full of hope, which is important in a novel that is dealing with such intrinsically dark material. Each chapter ends with a description of Kiko’s art, which is absolutely my favorite part of the read: evocative, haunting, and powerful. The descriptions tie in to the novel’s themes, and usually to the action of the chapter that has just finished. While I will always love a book that incorporates pictures, I suspect almost liked these nearly poetic elements more than any actual pictures.
There are elements that will take this out of Printz contention. The romance Kiko has with Jamie is sweet but also the mechanism by which she makes it out of her abusive situation, which is, at the very least, problematic messaging. This relationship detracts from the effort and growth and voice-finding that is really the center of Kiko’s story. Not helping matters: Jamie’s characterization is a bit weak and one-note. It makes the romance seem like the fuel that “rescues” Kiko, rather than the emotional, internal work that Kiko has to do. Other supporting characters, particularly Kiko’s mom, are similarly thin. In an effort to help us readers understand just how cruel mom is, we never get any hints of nuance or subtle undercurrents to her characterization.
The Morris pool is much smaller, and we will see what happens for Starfish in that smaller arena. It’s up against some stiff competition — I saw a lot of strengths in Saints and Misfits and of course The Hate U Give. For our focus, I don’t see this getting a Printz medal at the YMAs.
Like the rest of the Morris slate, this is a novel that speaks very clearly to now. It has moments of real suspense, and is certainly a read that will stick with readers after the fact. Nate’s history leaves him with a searing case of PTSD and flashbacks. These scenes were some of Henson’s most effective writing — the past moments actually push in to the present day and overtake Nate’s vision. Her writing where Nate struggles to quell his anger and balance his feelings, are also very effective. Henson’s treatment of mental health issues is extremely strong and very respectful. The tension that grows as members of The Fort find Nate is effective in the moment of reading, as well.
As for the rest? I believe this is a well intentioned book, and perhaps you have another perspective to share in the comments, but I think that some of the flaws add up to a very problematic read.
This is a book that works to interrogate whiteness. It tries really hard. Nate’s history, however, allows him to be a sort of “perfect victim” — which means that all of the work Henson is doing to critique white supremacy is weakened. This may be informed by the thinness of characterization that plagues the novel as a whole. Nate himself, but also Dell — who is locked down and not at all forthcoming, mostly for plot reasons, to keep Nate feeling isolated. Nate’s father, known only as him, is menacing, horrifying, and otherwise nondescript. Bev is tough but obscure…which, well, um. Brandon is a nice guy, but super one-note and exists to bring Nate to new understandings, to help Nate grow as a person, and to be targeted by the Neo Nazis once they track Nate down.
So what we have is a book that is critiquing and interrogating whiteness, but also using characters of color to help the white protagonist grow and change. My issues could also stem from the decision to use first person narration. This allows for up-close unpacking of racial bias — which feels unprecedented in YA — but the narration is also extremely didactic. Coupled with the thin characterization, the MESSAGE is important, but the artistic elements ultimately do not support the work the novel is trying to do.
I could go on — of course I have more feeeeelings. Instead, I’ll just say, I don’t see as a Printz contender. And now I’ll turn it over to you all — am I missing the mark?
With one star, it’s no surprise this was initially far from our radar. It’s a timely, topical book — one that will suffer from comparison to other books this year that cover similar topics, better. And one of those other books (The Hate U Give, which also tackles race, class, and code-switching) is also a debut, which means Dear Martin doesn’t even get my prediction for the Morris win.
That said, there are plenty of moments that work, and for a younger YA (like, 7th grade, maybe even up to 9th), the (exposition-heavy) awakening Manny and Justyce experience is exactly on level, so if you think of this for that age group, some of the flaws are mitigated. Plus there are emotional beats that effectively draw tears throughout, and a ripped from the headlines twist that makes those headlines feel immediate, effectively giving human face to an all-too-common kind of story. Important ideas are grappled with (racism and power, media bias, the stories told about us rather than the stories we tell, interracial romance, class, police brutality, and the power of passing).
But it’s didactic, and more than that, it’s hard to believe that this all happens NOW — Justyce has been around the school for well over a year, he grew up black in a poor neighborhood getting the talk about how to respond to police — so how has he never been angered by the casual racism of his classmates? How have he and Manny never talked about any of this? The timeline is artificially compressed so that everything important can happen in the pages of this slim novel, which diminishes the genuine emotional arc. And that teacher, opening up cans of worms and then just sitting back ineffectually while all hell broke loose? Nuh-uh. It’s another construction to get across a point, but it makes what should be an interesting character — an educated, successful black adult who occupies the kind of spaces Justyce wants to immerse himself in — into a plot device.
Ultimately, this is young and more window than mirror — making it a book designed to educate rather than reflect. That’s a book that has an important place in our collections — there’s so little at the upper elementary/middle school/junior high level tackling issues of race and class with clarity, and this is a book that lays it our clearly and distinctly — but it’s not a book that tends to fare well for literary awards, although it will be loved by teens for displaying the complex, ugly world we live in and still holding out hope that by being their own best selves they can move forward.
So there’s our take on Morris + Printz. We’d love to hear your thoughts.
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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