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Last Licks, or ALL the Books
Today, we’re covering all the books! Ok, not all — but the last of the big hitters that we’re covering. Note that as always, we didn’t get to everything. And this year, which has been an astoundingly rich year, that may just mean we didn’t even get to the winner, because there is SO MUCH GOOD STUFF to read. The pile of books we read and didn’t cover is a pile of books that in most years probably would have been contenders; this year they didn’t even rate because there were 50 other books even better. So read on for our last formal coverages of the season — and please, make liberal use of the comments to make the case for anything we skipped that you think has a real shot of being named next week.
The thing that makes me an ideal reader for Far From the Tree is also the thing that makes me the toughest critic: I’m a transracial adoptee, adopted from Korea into a white family. I’ve always been surprised by the dearth of books with adopted protagonists in young adult literature. Teen Librarian Toolbox had a great guest post recently about adoption in children’s and YA lit, but while Eric Smith felt seen by Robin Benway and Far From the Tree, I felt like I was looking at neither mirror nor window.
Benway begins and ends the novel with Grace’s story, whose identity as a teen mother takes precedence in both moments. To me, this read as a weird blend of outsider perspective and adoptee wish-fulfillment. Seeing a birth-mother’s thought process (and how much she loves her unborn baby) gives adoptees an idealized origin story. Likewise, at the end of the novel we find out how Grace, Maya, and Joaquin’s biological mother, Melissa, loved them so much but just couldn’t take care of them. She is, however, conveniently (for the plot) dead and Joaquin’s biological father has been deported. Thus leaving the trio without having to grapple with the difficult question of what does family mean when there’s a biological connection but none of the shared experiences? For a novel that tries to represent so many aspects of the adoptee experience, the unique way that Grace, Maya, and Joaquin come to know each other in the end, feels generic because too many of their experiences need to be reduced to the simplest possibly version of that story. There’s no room in this book for any one of these stories to have the kinds of complications that would make the characters feel real and less like types. Ultimately, this is a book that uses adoption to tell a story about family, but it is not a book about adoption or the adoptee experience (or rather, it’s not exploring adoption in a way that I’d describe as meaningful to me; however, many other adoptees have had significant emotional experiences with this novel so take my opinion as an individual’s opinion, speaking only for myself).
Of course, Printz criteria extends beyond whether or not a book is accurate in its subject matter (and my opinion is an individual reader’s opinion). Ultimately, I found the book’s major strength to be in its dialogue; certain moments when characters articulate feelings about being adopted that ring true to the experience but also to the way teens speak. —Joy Piedmont
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Or, to recap our recent Mock Printz event: This is simultaneously really magnificent and easily dismissed.
On the magnificent side: The evocation of anxiety and OCD is astounding. This is clearly a deeply personal story, and it’s something so hard to capture for others — but Green, through Aza, makes the reader understand and empathize, while also being able to empathize with Aza’a mom, and Daisy — people who are exhausted by Aza’s struggle, even as they support her almost without limits. People have described this as “claustrophobic” and “terrifying” and “unpleasantly familiar” — all referencing how painfully and realistically evoked Aza’s struggle is. And the way it plays out with Davis is especially painful, as you see how Aza’s ability to be in the world is so deeply affected and diminished by her inability to have the life she wants.
On the easily dismissed side of things: the plot is laughable; the mystery feels phoned in, the stakes are low. One mock committee member pointed out that this reflects Aza’s experience, in that she also makes no effort at anything outside herself, and maybe the lameduck plot is because she is just along for the ride; it’s only ever meant to be background noise. But there’s too much — the lizard, the money, the weird art scene, the relentless affected quirk that is Daisy (who was very divisive, and detested by many in our group, although I kind of liked her — but I didn’t fully believe her) — for the reader to ignore the plot.
Final mock consensus: the good bits are excellent, so this deserved to be part of our event and deserves to be in the RealCommittee’s discussion. And it 100% is our top Schneider pick. The less good bits, however, are weak enough that we didn’t see this going the distance for Printz. –Karyn Silverman
Adam Silvera’s main strength has always been voice. In They Both Die at the End, the narrative alternates between Mateo and Rufus, our titular characters slated for death. Silvera also gives us glimpses into the lives of other tertiary characters a la The Sun is Also a Star, making these moments impactful and meaningful to a book about the value in human connection and empathy.
If we believe this world in which people receive a phone call to alert them of their impending demise within 24-hours (and one flaw in this book is that the mechanism behind this service is utterly mysterious, leaving readers feeling like something is missing), we can also believe the thought processes that lead Mateo and Rufus to find each other through an app for people who want a friend for their last day on earth. Their bond is organic and develops quickly out of necessity but it feels earned. However, I’m doubtful that the RealCommittee will find the merits of theme outweigh the characterization and relationship between Mateo and Rufus, which a romance-inclined reader like me can get behind easily, but I’m curious how it plays to another person. For me, this book should have left me in a puddle of tears but I didn’t feel as emotionally invested as I thought I’d be. Perhaps it’s because this is the year of grief, I’m just all cried out? It may point to an emotional distance that could due to the high concept. However, we’ve had some supporters for this book in our Pyrite so chime in and let me know what I missed! —Joy Piedmont
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