Locker Combinations is a Book Case feature by BookPage contributor and young adult (YA) literature expert Jill Ratzan. Using a variety of literary, cultural and educational perspectives, Jill guest blogs about the latest in YA lit and the general direction, trends and changes of the field.
Later this month, 10,000 librarians will converge on the city of Philadelphia for the American Library Association (ALA)'s Midwinter Meeting, five days of committee meetings, speakers, vendor exhibits and general hobnobbing. Many will venture out into the chilly January pre-dawn to snag good seats for the 8:00am announcements of the ALA Youth Media Awards, the Academy Awards of the children's and young adult (YA) literature world.
If the Youth Media Awards are the Academy Awards of youth literature, the Michael L. Printz Award is the YA lit equivalent of Best Picture.
It's awarded annually to the best—defined exclusively by literary merit—book published for teens in the previous year. The Printz committee can also name up to four Honor Books, or second-place finishers.
Compared to its much older children's literature cousins the Newbery and Caldecott Medals, the Printz, first awarded in 2000, is a relative newcomer. Since then, similar YA awards and recognition lists have either joined the party for the first time or gotten a makeover. These include the William C. Morris YA Debut Award and the Best Fiction for Young Adults list, as well as specialized lists like the Amelia Bloomer Project, recognizing the best of feminist-themed books for children and teens.
Much can be said about the awards' effects on YA purchasing (To what extent do sales spike after award announcements?) and publishing (Does the presence of an award to aim for encourage publishers to produce more YA lit in general—or to take more risks on edgy styles?), but to me the more interesting issues have to do with canonization, visibility and legitimacy.
Printz award winners, like those of the Newbery and Caldecott, instantly become canonical works of young peoples' literature. Teachers of YA lit (myself among them) often recommend that students consider the Printz backlist as a pre-assembled required reading list. Readers new to YA lit, whether formal students or not, can use the Printz to identify some of the very best works that the young adult category has to offer. Of course, not all excellent YA books become Printz medal winners or Honor Books, and not every winner is going to resonate with every reader. But with a variety of stunning offerings ranging from the atmospheric The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater to the hilarious Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging: Confessions of Georgia Nicolson by Louise Rennison, the Printz list is a good starting point for dipping into YA lit's riches.
Awards that recognize excellence in YA literature also add visibility, and by extension a degree of legitimacy, to the field of writing for young adults.
While devotees of YA lit might wonder why this is an issue—of course YA is an easy to find, worthwhile category!—this very puzzlement may be a testament to the awards' success. YA guru Marc Aronson, who helped establish the Printz award, believed that the visibility of teen lit was part of the purpose of the medal. Writing shortly after the establishment of the Printz (but before the announcement of its first winners), Aronson explains in Exploding the Myths: The Truth About Teenagers and Reading that "the Printz is not merely designed to honor a few books; it is meant to bring new attention to teenagers and reading." Although Aronson acknowledges that attention alone isn't quite the same thing as recognition of YA as a legitimate art form, it's a first step in that direction.
Every year, YA lit readers try to guess what book will walk away with the gold Printz award seal. Teens debate their favorites in Mock Printz committees while librarians muse about possible winners on blogs like School Library Journal's Someday My Printz Will Come.
My own choice for this year's Printz is Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick.
Reminiscent of Madeleine L'Engle's 1978 YA classic A Swiftly Tilting Planet and the 1999 adult title Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland, Midwinterblood presents seven interconnected narratives in reverse chronological order. All seven take place on a remote northern island where blood, magic and mystery exist in equal measure, and where the power of love just might conquer time itself. Midwinterblood weaves themes from art, literature, mythology and history into a multifaceted work of fanfiction. (To impress classics professors or religion scholars at your next cocktail party, try calling it a palimpsest or a midrash!)
Most of all, Midwinterblood makes its readers work hard to uncover its secrets. That makes it a top Printz contender in my book.
So, in three weeks' time, one lucky author (or maybe a team?) is going to get a terrific phone call from the Printz committee very late at night . . . or very early in the morning, depending on your point of view. But while only one book a year can have that gold seal, the thousands of YA lit fans who read and relish that book may very well be the real winners.
What do you think? What's your own pick for the 2014 Printz?
In our monthly Locker Combinations feature, using a variety of literary, cultural and educational perspectives, BookPage contributor and young adult (YA) literature expert Jill Ratzan will guest blog about the latest in YA lit and the general direction, trends and changes of the field.
Spoiler alert: This month's Locker Combinations hints at the endings of several books, including Allegiant by Veronica Roth and Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick. But Jill doesn't give too much away—we promise!
A controversy is currently swirling around Allegiant by Veronica Roth, the final volume of the YA dystopian trilogy that began with Divergent. At the risk of a spoiler, Allegiant's ending is not what many readers expected. The cultural news website Flavorwire quotes an Amazon reviewer, who writes, “as a school librarian, I won’t be recommending this series to my students any longer. The thing about YA dystopian fiction is that it always leaves the readers with a sense of hope.” When this reviewer (according to her report) confronted Roth at a book signing, Roth allegedly replied unapologetically, “Maybe you should go get some ice cream or something so you can feel better.”
The larger question here makes an interesting discussion topic: Does some “rule” require all works of YA literature to end on a hopeful note?
In 1974, Robert Cormier wrote The Chocolate War, a brutal, unforgiving story about a lone teenage boy trying—but failing—to stand up to bullies during his high school’s annual chocolate sale. Cormier had difficulty selling the novel and was encouraged to change its “downbeat” resolution to better match “stories with role-model heroes walking off into the sunset of happy endings,” according to his introduction to the book’s 1997 reissue. He can hardly be accused of violating any “rules” of YA literature, though, since the category itself was new at the time; Cormier’s work helped to set the rules.
The decades that followed saw YA books that took a variety of approaches to the topic of hope, and sometimes reflected these approaches in their titles. In Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt (1981), Dicey Tillerman and her siblings achieve the titular event only after a series of missteps, false starts and dashed hopes.
The similarly upbeat title of Virginia Euwer Wolff’s 1993 novel-in-verse Make Lemonade immediately suggests the positive way its characters will react when life hands them “lemons” like poverty and teen motherhood.
And the title of Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer (2000) turns out to be true in many ways for its itinerant teen waitress protagonist . . . even if loss was “here,” too.
Contemporary YA books address the supposed “hope rule” in multiple ways. In Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick, the closer the story moves to a violent ending, the stronger a parallel thread about future possibilities becomes. Even if the crisis at hand is resolved, though, fixing the problems that led to it in the first place may be more complicated. It's so daunting as to be nearly hopeless.
And in Laini Taylor’s dark fantasy Daughter of Smoke and Bone, protagonist Karou (whose name means “hope” in the language of her otherworldly family) is repeatedly told that hope is stronger than angels and more potent than magical wishes. But, as she wonders later in the book, at what point do ignorance, jealousy and the desire for revenge outweigh hope’s power?
In what might be the ultimate test of the YA lit “hope rule,” both protagonists in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars begin the book already diagnosed with cancer. Unlike the cheery-sounding Homecoming, Make Lemonade and Hope Was Here, the title of The Fault in Our Stars quickly establishes a subtle, nuanced perspective. (The characters know the famous line from Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar—“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves”—and consider it to be hogwash.) There are no victories to be won in The Fault in Our Stars, only battles to be lost on one’s own terms. Does this constitute “hope”?
And finally, a second look at The Chocolate War suggests that maybe the ending isn’t so hopeless after all. Betty Carter and Karen Harris, writing in the spring 1980 issue of Top of the News, a professional library journal of the time, argue that readers should bring their own hope to Cormier’s grim tale. “The reason Jerry was not saved was because he stood alone,” they write. “The boys at Trinity [High School] could have come to Jerry’s defense, if they had not lacked courage.” That is, Cormier’s “downbeat” conclusion challenges readers to be better than his characters, and to make the real world a more hopeful place than his imagined one.
So is there a rule saying that all YA books require some measure of hope? The answer is probably something indeterminate like “maybe, but . . . ” Teen readers are smart enough to know that the outside world is sometimes messy and confusing. YA lit that acknowledges this reality respects the intelligence of its readers . . . and this degree of respect may be the most hopeful quality of all.
How do plan to fill your time while you wait for the return of HBO's "Game of Thrones" next spring? Books, as always, are the answer. YA author Morgan Rhodes is the author of the Falling Kingdoms series, and the first in the high fantasy series was immediately pinpointed as a great read for fans of GOT. The second in the series, Rebel Spring, continues the engaging tale.
In a guest post, Rhodes shares a little more about her series' appeal for GOT fans, and she also recommends 10 more books to read while waiting for GOT season 4. Check it out:
Are you craving the fourth season of "Game of Thrones" on HBO like I am? Need something to tide you over until Dany again flashes that platinum mane (not to mention her dragons) and Jon Snow dons his big black wooly coat? Allow me to introduce you to my Falling Kingdoms series (the second book, Rebel Spring, came out on December 3) and offer up five reasons why it’s been called “Game of Thrones for teens.”
1) An ensemble cast of diverse characters!
From princesses and kings to witches and rebels, there are multiple character POVs to help expand the canvas on which the Falling Kingdoms story is painted. Four teens find their lives intertwined after a murder that sparks a war: Princess Cleo, the spoiled youngest daughter of a good king, who finds her life forever altered after a fateful trip to market; Jonas, the son of a winemaker, whose brother is murdered, summoning his desire for vengeance; Prince Magnus, the son and heir to an evil king, who grapples with his father’s dark actions as well as his forbidden feelings for his sister; and Princess Lucia, who is realizing with growing alarm that she may be the sorceress spoken of in an ancient prophecy.
2) A fight for ultimate power!
In Mytica, where magic has faded from both the land and the memories of its people for a thousand years, three kingdoms clash for power. Limeros is the northern kingdom, which is turning slowly to ice and is under the thumb of a cruel and sadistic king. Paelsia is a wasteland with citizens who’ve wholly handed their lives over to fate. Auranos, the southern kingdom, is a beautiful, sunny haven, but its people are hedonistic and self-involved.
3) Magic and witches and shapeshifters . . . Oh my!
It’s elemental magic, known as elementia, that’s up for grabs in Mytica, but very few believe it’s anything more than legend. There are the Watchers, beautiful creatures who can take the form of hawks in their search for the Kindred, the source of pure and omnipotent magic. And there’s the prophesied sorceress the Watchers been waiting for for a thousand years who is said will be the one to bring powerful magic back to the world.
4) Kickass action and gritty battle scenes!
I mean, in a kingdom at war, it’s unlikely everyone’s just going to hug it out, right?
5) Lusty characters who lust for lustful things!
Only, you know, in a totally teen-appropriate way.
Feeling the itch for even MORE high fantasy to combat "Game of Thrones" withdrawal? Then you should definitely check out these books as well . . .
1) Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
2) Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
3) Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder
4) Graceling by Kristin Cashore
5) The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson
6) The Demon King by Cinda Williams Chima
7) The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen
8) The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
9) The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King (A classic and an early high fantasy inspiration for me.)
10) A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin (That is, if you haven’t already read it and you want to know what surprises season four of GoT holds!)
Thanks, Morgan! I think we'll be able to be patient for season 4 now. (Patiently waiting to be scarred for life, yet again.) Readers, Rebel Spring came out on Tuesday. Check it out!
Locker Combinations is a brand new Book Case feature! Using a variety of literary, cultural and educational perspectives, BookPage contributor and young adult (YA) literature expert Jill Ratzan will guest blog about the latest in YA lit and the general direction, trends and changes of the field.
November 9, 2013, marks the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, a night of anti-Jewish riots in Nazi-controlled Germany and Austria that began what would later be known as the Holocaust. Between this anniversary and the annual commemoration of the end of World War I (Veteran's Day, November 11), November is an ideal month to think about—and read about—the past.
Young adult (YA) literature offers lots of insights on history, including great examples of both fiction and nonfiction. At first glance, books like the 2013 Sibert Medal-winning Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin make nonfiction seem like the best way to talk about history. However, according to a recent study reported in the journal Science, reading literary fiction can “expand our knowledge of others’ lives, helping us recognize our similarity to them.” If the mission of learning history is not just to memorize names and dates but also to empathize with people from the past, then YA historical fiction seems ideal for meeting this goal.
YA historical fiction can take lots of different forms. Some, like the Revolutionary War-era The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation by M.T. Anderson (vol. I, vol. II) and Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson, about the Philadelphia Yellow Fever epidemic of the eponymous year, simply are engaging stories set in distant times and places.
Others combine historical fiction with elements of fantasy and the supernatural, like The Diviners by Libba Bray and Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, or historical fiction with the suspenseful twists and turns of mystery, like The Caged Graves by Dianne Salerni and What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell.
Still others juxtapose stories of the present and the past, like Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, set partially in the present day and partially during the French Revolution, and In Darkness by Nick Lake, in which a contemporary Haitian boy’s story runs in counterpoint to that of Haitian independence leader Toussaint L'Ouverture.
And some, like the magical realism-infused The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler, take place in a past so recent—in this case, 1996— that adult readers will recognize elements like VCRs and cordless phones . . . maybe from their own teen years.
What makes YA lit such a great match with historical fiction? For one thing, several qualities that characterize a terrific work of YA lit also define an excellent work of historical fiction: namely, immediacy and the focus on an individual narrative. For example, Elizabeth Wein’s harrowing but hopeful Rose Under Fire follows a single (fictional) teenage pilot into the depths of Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration camp in Nazi Germany. By only focusing on what Rose, the narrator, personally experiences, Wein trades a big-picture perspective for one that’s narrow, individualized and intense—just like any other story with an authentic teen voice might be. (In an author’s note, she balances this highly focused viewpoint by mentioning the concurrent stories she doesn’t tell because her character didn't encounter them.)
The teen years are a time for many firsts, like first crushes, first dates . . . and first serious research papers. YA historical fiction can help teens understand why visiting libraries, assembling bibliographies and other such steps are valuable parts of the research process. Again, Rose Under Fire provides a good example. Wein explains, also in her author’s note, how her explorations of topics ranging from aircraft technology to conditions in wartime factories enhanced Rose’s story. Her inclusion of an extensive list of primary and secondary sources reinforces the importance of thorough research.
And finally, the best works of YA historical fiction inspire teens to bring ideas from the past into their present lives. Ravensbrück prisoners took any steps they could to tell the world their stories, and any book about them honors their wishes in some way. But the fact that Wein chose to write for teens in particular is significant. Teenagers’ unmatched levels of energy and passion, combined with their ability to tell the world for many decades to come, make them ideal stewards of this important task.
Each year, fewer and fewer survivors remain to tell their own stories of the 20th century's major wars. Historical fiction is one way to keep memories alive . . . and YA literature is one place to find excellent works of historical fiction.
I wanted to pull down a book, open it proper, and gobble up page after page.
• Laurie Halse Anderson •
Do you have a favorite Laurie Halse Anderson book?
Teen Read Week is all about encouraging teen readers to go to the library and get lost in a book, but it's also a good time to remind adult readers that the YA shelves have plenty of engaging books that will suit the reading preferences of an older audience.
Here's a selection of 2013 young adult fiction with great crossover appeal:
Remember how last year everyone kept saying, "Read The Fault in Our Stars. READ IT NOW"? Well, it's starting to get that way with Eleanor & Park, a misfit love story for all of us. (Rowell's other YA book that came out this year, Fangirl, is great, too.)
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This Carnegie Award-winning novel isn't your typical dystopian YA. It's about a 15-year-old dyslexic boy living in a violent, alternate-history post-WWII England. The inventive narrative style makes for a uniquely fearless read. (And Nick Lake agrees.)
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Love Stephen King? You'll get the same thrill from this chilling contemporary thriller. A town is left only with questions after the "killing day," when five citizens inexplicably murder 12 people before killing—or attempting to kill—themselves.
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It's a love story unlike any other you'll read this year: In Iran, homosexuality could get you killed, but transsexuals are accepted, so one girl considers sex change surgery for the chance to love her girlfriend openly. Easily one of the best debuts of the year.
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If you loved the heartfelt messiness of the characters in The Silver Linings Playbook, you'll love Quick's newest book for teens, the story of a teen boy contemplating a murder-suicide on his 18th birthday. Teachers will find this book especially interesting, as Leonard's teacher must make some tough decisions about the relationship between teacher and student.
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Wein's Code Name Verity was one of our favorite YA books of 2012, and its sophisticated approach to WWII historical fiction made it great for adults, too. The same goes for the companion novel, the story of an American pilot imprisoned in Ravensbrück.
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What would you add? Which 2013 teen books belong on every adult’s TBR list?
Nick Lake wears two publishing hats, as publishing director at HarperCollins Children's Books U.K. and as author of the Printz Award-winning YA novel In Darkness. Next up for him is Hostage Three, slated for release on November 12. Lake describes this literary thriller about a family taken hostage by Somali pirates as a fairy tale. (Read our interview with Lake to find out why.)
We were curious about the books Lake has been reading lately, so we asked him to recommend three recent favorites:
By Sally Gardner
This deservedly beat my book to the Carnegie prize. A unique story, fusing alternate history with mystery, bold storytelling technique and devastating emotion. I don't even want to say much about the plot because it's a story that should be told by its odd, wonderful, irrepressible narrator. It's also a novel that will stay with anyone who reads it for a long time, I think. I read it before I did an event with Sally, and it still ripples across my mind a year later. It struck my editor side perhaps even more than my writer side: I get hundreds of submissions a year, and so I know how rare it is to see someone pull off something new. But about a third of the way into this book, something happens that switches it onto entirely other, slipperier rails: you think you're in a quirky voice story, and then BOOM—you're in a whole different, and darker place. Original in the best sense of the word, with at least one narrative device I don't think I've seen before. Phenomenal YA fiction.
THE TRANSIT OF VENUS
By Shirley Hazzard
This beautiful book was recommended to me by the editor Mark Richards, who had recently discovered it and believed it to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, albeit sadly neglected. I now agree with him. The novel presents itself initially as a lyrical, sweeping family saga with unusual psychological depth, in which swathes of time pass without a great deal happening, apart from travails of love and life. In fact a lot of Amazon reviewers appear to give up halfway through, on account of the slow, poetic cadence and buildup of detail. But they're missing out and missing the point, because this is one of those rare books where every single apparently inconsequential detail comes together in the end to spring a fiendishly clever trap on the reader, forcing a reappraisal of everything that has gone before. The final revelation is simply astonishing, like a drop from a pipette into a solution that causes it to crystallize instantly, showing how a single act long ago can resonate through the lifetimes of a whole group of people. It's not a twist—it's a truth that unites, and explains, everything. Perhaps the most extraordinary novel I've read in the last decade.
Helprin's is also a voice that divides people, though while Hazzard goes for lyricism, his tone is one of baroque complication and grandiosity (or verbosity and pompousness, if you're one of the Goodreads one-star reviewers). It's strange because I'm usually allergic to what I tend to see as overwriting—I like minimalist prose—but I feel that Helprin pulls it off. I read this on the strength of his more well-known Winter's Tale, which I almost loved—though I admired its ambition more than I actually liked it. Yet, to my surprise, I truly did love this epic new novel. I was mystified, actually, by the slightly mixed reviews it received.
It's a hard book to describe. An American special forces soldier returns to Manhattan after WWII and falls in love with a rich girl who is also a beautiful stage singer. At the same time, he is being harassed by the Mafia, who want to force him out of the luxury leather goods business he inherited from his father. Thrilling, romantic, teetering on the verge of being over the top, I loved every moment of it and can't understand those who found it bloated. Yes, it's full of description—mostly of Helprin's beloved New York. Yes, the central relationship lacks nuance and balance—this is very much a "love at first sight" story. Yes, the worldview that animates the novel's stage and actors is a little conservative. But I don't think the author intended anything remotely connected to realism. This is a mystical novel in which love is an absolute, and order and beauty are built into the fabric of the cosmos.
Most of all, it impressed me—as an editor—by the way in which the sumptuous description and romance are lacquered on top of a proper, 500BHP engine of a plot. It struck me almost as an attempt to achieve, in book form, the sweep, propulsion and visual spectacle of a movie—like a mad mixture of Holly Golightly, Bond, and Private Ryan. This is a book in which people swim across fast-flowing rivers at night to gate-crash engagement parties, parachute into occupied France to single-handedly blow up a bridge and slow the German forces, ambush Mafia goons on country roads, survive shipwrecks. . . . It never lets up, constantly pushing the characters toward their destiny. And it fairly crackles with energy, movement and—of course—light and shadow. I'd recommend it to every teenager or adult with a dash of romance in their souls. One of those books I wish I could read for the first time again.