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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Printz Award 2017



March:
Book Three


By John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

John Lewis: "This book is for all of America. It is for all people, but especially young people, to understand the essence of the civil rights movement, to walk through the pages of history to learn about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence, to be inspired to stand up to speak out and to find a way to get in the way when they see something that is not right, not fair, not just."



March: Book Three won several other honors, including the Robert F. Sibert Award for the most distinguished informational book for children, the Coretta Scott King Author award, and the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults.



Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Printz Award 2016


Bone Gap
By Laura Ruby


Told from alternating viewpoints, Bone Gap perfectly melds elements of fairy tales, myths, gothic romance, and magic realism into the story of Finn, who lives in a town with gaps in the very fabric of time and place.   (from the YALSA website).


Maile Meloy for the New York Times Book Review:

"It’s a novel about actual changes in worldview, and all its science and myth and realism and magic are marshaled, finally, to answer crucial questions about empathy and difference, and the ways we see the people we love."

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Go Set a Watchman


Harper Lee

Regardless of when Harper Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman, it is impossible to believe it was not meant to serve as a second novel, follow-up on To Kill a Mockingbird

How else to explain its deftly placed updates on our favorite characters and the subtly interjected flashbacks? Without knowing the big-hearted, larger than life Atticus lionized in TKAM, how would the reader of GSAW understand the depths of Scout’s emotion seeing Atticus reduced to the size of a small-minded bigot?

Despite the book’s terrifically funny first chapters, Scout is mortally wounded mid-way through – and then left for dead by the unnamed narrator, who is presumably an older Jean Louise.

Read as a companion piece to Mockingbird’s satisfying morality play, the messy mixed message of GSAW is an unsettling shock to the conscience -- perhaps so shocking, Harper Lee thought better of publishing it. Why kill a mockingbird?

Well, as an African American reader who has long loved Lee’s first novel, I delight in this devastating addendum. I revel in this opportunity to put things in perspective – to return to Maycomb and see it as Tom Robinson and Calpurnia saw it. I celebrate Harper Lee for keeping it real.


Friday, January 30, 2015

Printz Award 2015



I'll Give You the Sun
By Jandy Nelson


Once inseparable, twins Noah and Jude are torn apart by a family tragedy that transforms their intense love for each other into intense anger. Timelines twist and turn around each other in beautifully orchestrated stories of love and longing (from the YALSA website).


Lauren Oliver for the New York Times Book Review:

"Bold, even breathtaking. You get the sense the characters are bursting through the words, breaking free of normal metaphors and constructions, jubilantly trying to rise up from the prison of language . . . The book celebrates art’s capacity to heal, but it also shows us how we excavate meaning from the art we cherish, and how we find reflections of ourselves within it. . . . I’ll Give You the Sun is a dazzling mirror."

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Printz Award 2014

 

Midwinterblood
By Marcus Sedgwick


Doomed love circles back through the centuries in a series of seven intricately plotted, interlocking stories set on a mysterious, isolated island. Forgetting and remembering, blessed and cursed, modern and ancient, these dualities brilliantly infuse the novel’s lush landscape (from the YALSA website).

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Printz Award 2013



In Darkness
By Nick Lake


Fifteen-year-old Shorty awakens beneath the ruins of a crumbled hospital in Haiti, where his weakening mind begins flashing back through his own violent history, the loss of his twin sister, and his mystical connection to Toussaint Louverture, the nineteenth-century revolutionary who helped liberate his country (from the YALSA site).

Monday, January 30, 2012

2012 Printz Winner!


And the Michael L. Printz Award goes to . . .

Monday, August 22, 2011

01. Mock Printz Award Winner

Monster By Walter Dean Myers

Annotation:
Jurors must determine if Steve Harmon is a monstrous menace to society or an innocent victim of it. He’s young, Black and on trial. What else do they need to know?
Recommendation:

HAMLET: Denmark's a prison.
ROSENCRANTZ: Then is the world one.
HAMLET: A goodly one; in which there are many confines, wards and dungeons.
             -- Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act II, scene ii


Part screenplay, part diary, part philosophical fable -- Walter Dean Myers has crafted a truly novel courtroom drama in the creation of his Monster.

The story of Steve Harmon's murder trial is told from the 16-year-old African American photographer’s own shattered perspective: "Sometimes I feel like I have walked into the middle of a movie." In contrast to the dark danger and crowded confines of his situation, the spacious landscapes of language in Harmon's multimedia meta-narrative create a broad-ranging, bright, and often illuminating look at life without the possibility.

Despite advice from his high school film club coach -- Mr. Sawicki -- to "keep it simple," Monster ends up being a profoundly complex work.

The disjointed dialogue fragments and quick-cuts through time and place offer almost no clues about the person calling the shots. It hardly matters. We're satisfied to busily piece together the moving parts of this murder mystery, since we are aware that the protagonist could be any one of the thousands of powerless young Black men written off by the American justice system every year.

But at some point, the fill-in-the-blank, film format shifts the focus back to us -- the viewers. The jury. We're forced to rewind and re-think some of our assumptions about what we are reading -- and what we think we know about the writer.


HAMLET: Assume a virtue, if you have it not.
That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this.
             -- Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act III, scene iv


This monster turns out to be more like a modern-day Hamlet of Harlem. He has us contemplating identity, culpability, moral ambiguity, objective vs. subjective truth and the relationship between perception and reality. His ingeniously conceived movie manuscript/suicide note forces us to respond, reflect, evaluate, and face the dilemma of truth or consequences.

To become, or not to become. That is the question.

Like all good literature, Monster transports us to new places and provokes new understandings. One of the most effective scenes on the way to Steve Harmon's final verdict on himself -- is the testimony of Mr. Sawicki. Speaking to the court, and through his student, Sawicki advises that "to make an honest film one has to be an honest person."

Steve Harmon has honestly compiled his collection of sounds and images, thoughts and feelings. He has told his truth, his whole truth, and nothing but his truth. You decide the facts. The work itself rings true and is finally the only evidence we should need of Steve Harmon's humanity, his depth of character, and his innocence.

Walter Dean Myers' Monster manages to provide a new perspective on what a novel can be -- and do.

While the book's cinematic format, deadly serious subject matter, and poetic power give it wide appeal, this work is likely to be particularly engaging for young adults of color. One of the central issues Steve Harmon grapples with is the idea that the color of his skin automatically assigns him a level of guilt. This, of course, aligns the book with the central tenet of the American jury system -- the presumption of innocence -- something even Steve Harmon has to learn to give Steve Harmon.




Nomination: Yes

Genre Classification:
Printz Winner, Realistic/Edgy, Multicultural

Citation: Myers, Walter Dean. Monster. New York: Amistad, 2001. Print.

Video Book Trailer!


Walter Dean Myers biography
http://www.walterdeanmyers.net/bio.html











Words of a Feather

Invisible Man 
by Ralph Ellison

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
by James Weldon Johnson




Sunday, August 21, 2011

02. Graphic Novel

American Born Chinese By  Gene Luen Yang

Annotation:
The separate and simultaneous self-discovery journeys of Jin Wang,
an Asian American middle school student growing up in a White suburb, and ancient Chinese folk hero . . .
the magical Monkey King!

Recommendation:

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what Gene Yang’s cosmic, coming-of-age comic book is – or why American Born Chinese is so great. Yang’s multi-story, multicultural graphic novel draws on traditions as varied as Ancient Chinese mythology and bad TV situation comedy to create an entirely new kind of contemporary fantasy.

Unlike its protagonist, Jin Wang -- the teenage son of Chinese immigrants who is desperate to fit in at his predominantly White school -- the book is determined to assert its uniqueness at every turn. The medium is truly the message here. The story of self-acceptance and self-realization starts out looking like the very sort of cartoon fantasy Jin might be reading during lunch while sitting alone at an isolated cafeteria table; it begins with the crazy-good adventures of the Monkey King.

The force and power of the Monkey King’s story is so great, it pulls you, funny-bone first, into Yang’s novel. The awesome antics, splendidly rendered, make the Monkey King simply irresistible. Although the book moves on to Jin’s journey, the Monkey King stays with us.

Before we can get a handle on Jin’s situation, we’re introduced to the star of yet a third storyline -- Chin-Kee -- a walking collection of negative Chinese stereotypes who is ruining his cousin Danny’s life with his yearly visits.

Somehow, the various people and plotlines in Gene Yang's book are magically transformed into a single, satisfying conclusion.

For all its over-the-top bizarreness, American Born Chinese is an amazingly subtle novel about the cost of pretending to be somebody you are not. The writing is flawless. The pictures are perfect. Yang’s work is a warm, insightful and thoroughly delightful masterpiece of young adult literature.



Nomination: Yes

Genre Classification:
Graphic Novel, Printz Winner, Multicultural, Humor

Citation: Yang, Gene. American Born Chinese. Color by Lark Pien. New York: First Second, 2006. Print.


Gene Yang info:
http://geneyang.com/



Words of a Feather

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty
by Greg Neri, Illus. by Randy DuBurke

Maus
by Art Spiegelman

Pride of Baghdad
by Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon

Watchmen
by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons


.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

03. Coming of Age · Search for Identity

How I Live Now By Meg Rosoff

Annotation:
A journey. A statue. A feeling. A war. A soul mate. A day. A difference. A phone ringing. A garden. A chance.

Recommendation:

This is one of the things I most dislike about nature,
namely that the rules are not at all precise.



Art, it has been said, is anything you can get away with. If so, Meg Rosoff has gotten away with a novel for young people that has violence, incest, war and . . . cigarette smoking! Rosoff even gets away with murder in her novel, How I Live Now, as she has penned a truly brilliant work of literary art.

When a book is really good, you're compelled to keep turning its pages. When the writing is exquisite, you're forced to pause, and sometimes grab a bookmark and stop reading for a while -- so you can think, or breathe, or just let it wash over you. It took me a long, long time to read Rosoff's short 200-page novel. I kept stopping to linger in the magical reality of her world of words -- and to laugh at the surprisingly funny observations of her protagonist: Daisy.

Daisy, a sophisticated, 15-year-old New Yorker, is on vacation visiting relatives in the English countryside when terrorists attack London, plunging the world into prolonged war. That's what the plot's about. The story however, is about personal culture, perseverance, self-acceptance, love, loss, chance and change.


But the summer I went to England to stay with my cousins everything changed. Part of that was because of the war, which supposedly changed lots of things, but I can’t remember much about life before the war anyway so it doesn’t count in my book, which this is. 

Mostly everything changed because of Edmond. 

And so here’s what happened.

 
Powerful, provocative and poetic, it is a timeless story, beautifully told. As for the taboo romance, violence and cigarette smoking . . . that's how we live now. America's youth are growing up while trying to make sense of a post - 9/11 world at war. Meg Rosoff's masterful work of art may well be of some help in that endeavor, for in the reading of her novel, we learn what it is to experience more than we understand.




Nomination: Yes

Genre Classification:
Coming of Age Novel, Printz Winner, Realistic/Edgy

Citation: Rosoff, Meg. How I Live Now. New York: Random House, 2004. Print.

Meg Rosoff info:
http://www.megrosoff.co.uk/













Words of a Feather

What I Was 
by Meg Rosoff

Love
by Toni Morrison

Shattered: Stories of Children and War
ed. by Jennifer Armstrong

Faithful Elephants: A True Story of Animals, People, and War
by Yukio Tsuchiya,  illustrations by Ted Lewin

Friday, August 19, 2011

04. General Nonfiction Text

Getting Away with Murder:
The True Story of the Emmett Till Case

 By  Chris Crowe

Annotation:
In August 1955, two White men kidnapped and killed a Black child in the Mississippi Delta but were acquitted at trial by an all-White jury – sparking such national outrage, the story became a cause célèbre of the civil rights movement.

Recommendation:

Looking at its well-designed cover -- Brigham Young University English professor, Chris Crowe, is listed as the writer responsible for Getting Away with Murder. Positioned beneath the dramatic title is a sepia-fashioned photo collage, and a subtitle: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case. The book is unambiguously billed as a work of nonfiction on the outside jacket flap. What's actually inside, however, proves to be a different story.

Along with the old adage to "never judge a book by its cover," Crowe's slickly packaged but poorly synthesized research points to another, equally meaningful old maxim:


That which is probable
is the greatest enemy to truth.


Chris Crowe’s handsome publication features dozens of photos and drawings. Text and tone are appropriate, as is Crowe’s thesis – that Till’s case was for many, "the last straw in centuries of racial oppression and abuse." The information is well organized and easy to read. Using a creative nonfiction format, Crowe employs primary sources -- testimony, news reports and interviews -- to produce a narrative story.

Theoretically, this book could be used in classrooms as a history text as well as a model of research techniques. However, Crowe clearly did not know Till's full story, and he filled in the blanks of his research with his own assumptions about what probably happened.

Crowe failed to critically analyze previously published material on the matter. He also missed an opportunity to introduce young people to the real Emmett Till -- the fun-loving, 14-year-old at the center of the most infamous act of racial violence in U.S. history.

Regardless of the prose and photos, in order to succeed, a book – any book – must finally deliver the truth. That’s actually harder to do in a work of nonfiction than in a novel. One cannot objectively check the facts in a novel, any more than one can objectively judge the colors in a painting. But the facts in Crowe’s colorful account of Emmett Till’s story are verifiable.

In many instances, Crowe’s facts are wrong.


Along with several arguably minor factual errors and name misspellings, Crowe’s nonfiction narrative includes two major falsehoods: the claim that Curtis Jones accompanied Till on his train ride (pages 35, 47, 55), and the assertion that Jones was an eyewitness to Till’s alleged "wolf whistle" toward Carol Bryant (page 55). Jones publicly recanted his statements in 1985, almost twenty years prior to Professor Crowe's publication.

Significantly, other than Jones, Carol Bryant is the only adult who claimed Till made the lewd remarks and whistles that later led her husband to seek revenge. Carol Bryant’s testimony is questionable, since her tale changed and grew over time.


A probable story
is the first weapon of calumny.


Of course, legally, the truth about Till’s behavior is not even at issue. But socially and culturally, the "wolf whistle" is central to this story. It goes to the truth of Emmett Till’s character.

In Crowe’s story, "the boy who triggered the civil rights movement" was playing with fire. Crowe first admits "it’s impossible to know exactly what was said or done in a small country store some fifty years ago," but then says the "evidence suggests" Emmett Till was guilty of disrespecting the White female – an offense which, for a Black man in 1950s Mississippi, was considered by many to be a capital crime. In the court of public opinion -- if you play with fire, you get burned.


In truth, there is no evidence to prove, nor any reason to believe Emmett Till let out with a suggestive “wolf whistle,” or that the happy-go-lucky boy threatened Carol Bryant in any way.

Crowe has built his narrative on rumors and reports which characterized Till as an uppity Black from the North, unaware that his boldness would get him killed in the Deep South. Those were lies, yet Professor Crowe writes of Till's "cocky and naive indiscretion in Money, Mississippi."

Getting Away with Murder also uncritically includes the two confessed killers' outrageous depiction of their victim as combative and relentlessly mouthy throughout the kidnapping, torture and killing. Chris Crowe's implication, that Till showed heroic resolve by repeatedly standing up to his abusers, is a clumsy cultural misstep, and a factual improbability. Most importantly, such behavior is inconsistent with the upbringing, good sense, and true character of Emmett Louis Till.





Nomination: No

Genre Classification:
General Nonfiction, Multicultural

Citation: Crowe, Chris. Getting Away With Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case. New York: Dial, 2003. Print.

Emmett Till info:
http://www.emmetttillmurder.com/














Words of a Feather


Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America
By Mamie Till Mobley and Christopher Benson

The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative
Edited by Christopher Metress 

Website:
Famous Teenagers in History

Thursday, August 18, 2011

05. Multicultural Work

Sons By  Alphonso Morgan


Annotation:
Aaron is an African American teenager living in Brooklyn NY. While attempting to come to terms with his secret homosexuality, he must come to terms with survival in a world where people routinely disappear, or go to prison, or turn up dead.
Recommendation:

As is the case with every fine work of young adult literature, Sons by Alphonso Morgan, captures the intensity of adolescence -- but his novel is unique in many ways. Minnesota-born Morgan uses unique plot, language, structure and character development to evoke a seldom examined type of coming of age intensity: urban, Black and gay.

Sons introduces us to the hidden humanity of the bold, Black and gold, larger-than-life thugs that run the streets of New York. Running among them is Aaron, the sensible, secretive 16-year-old at the heart of this story.

Aaron's tightly-held policy of ignoring his emotions has successfully concealed his homosexuality, from  himself and everybody else. However, it has left him unprepared to handle a confrontation with the toughest brother on the block -- Sha -- and the exquisite mix of emotions in the romantic relationship that develops.

Rarely explored, the language of urban gay-only-for-pay hustlers, Black drag queens and boys "on the down low" is raw and cryptic, electric and dazzling. Morgan's manipulation of the obscure street code to reveal emotion is astonishing. Even more amazing is the supremely complex, spoken-wordiness of the book. Although the hyper-hetero Brooklyn badboys rarely and reluctantly articulate their feelings, words fight for a space in their lives, and in Morgan's novel.

There are times when the landscape of language in Sons places you at a decided distance. Particular plot developments, poetic motifs and points of social commentary rise up to dominate the story’s skyline, providing definition and dimension. But there are moments in Morgan’s novel when the language becomes so thick and dense, it closes in like a bank of behemoth buildings encircling you in mid-town. Images appear and disappear, and come back to vie for your attention, echoing the effect of graffiti, billboards and store-front ads on a city block, each determined to assert its own message and meaning.

Structurally, the narrative feels like an impulsive improvisation. Without warning, the setting changes, or the perspective shifts. To turn a page of Morgan’s book is to blindly turn the corner in a big city. You never know what funny, or pitiful, or lucky thing you'll encounter.

While reading the book, you realize you’re in a motel, or a drug store, or a stairwell, but don’t remember how you got there. This sort of disorientation would be easy to accomplish with murky shadows and moonlight, but Morgan’s mystery takes place in the sun. Aaron's vulnerability, youth and energy control the overall tone of the piece.  Whatever slick transitions or structural foreshadowing there is to be done -- by Morgan or his characters -- will have to be done in the bright, dawning light of day.

Characterizing and contextualizing the complexity, in what initially seems to be a completely different book, is Aaron’s little sister, Anise. Smart, funny, impetuous, resentful and capable, Anise is so well dramatized, and so delightful, she nearly overtakes the novel. Anise contends with her own secret joys and horrors, quite separate and apart from Aaron’s journey. The parallel plots eventually merge -- but only through theme and feeling. The developing emotional inner-life of the people in Morgan's novel is beautifully crafted and strikingly original. I know of no sub-plot that works so well to highlight emotion and extend meaning in the main storyline without direct involvement in it.

The mystery and misery of the metropolis make the City, not just a setting, but another central player. The City empowers and protects its children -- hugging them, hiding them, guiding them, shining on them "the glitter of history, the certain gleam of a future."

In the end, this is Aaron’s story. It is not a story so young and vulnerable a boy should have to negotiate. And it is not a story just anyone can read. There is strong language. There are sexual episodes. There is sudden violence. How could there not be in a coming of age saga set in the streets of Brooklyn? At no point is the book salacious or sinister. It is, in fact, lyrical -- not sweet -- but literate and gracious.

The adolescent sons and daughters in Morgan’s manifesto grow up too fast and die too soon. It isn’t light, but it is enlightening. The author accurately renders the real world and real lives of millions of urban young adults. Their complex stories do not make for easy reading.  After I finished this book, however, I knew I would read it again and again.

I have never encountered a book quite like Sons. Alphonso Morgan’s work is electrifying from start to finish. The rhythm, the poetry, the ideas, the pacing – all of it working together in a way that brilliantly brings the action to life.

Morgan’s book feels more like a movie – a movie of words, starring teenagers that most of America does not know. They are the big city's fast, explosive, fatherless Black sons. They shine so brightly, these Brooklyn sons – that we cannot see them for the glare. In this rare opportunity, when we can finally get a good look, we see that they are just children. Just young boys. Nervous. Goofy. Rough. Optimistic. Normal. Morgan has allowed us to recognize that these are our brothers. These are our sons.



Nomination: Yes!

Genre Classification: Multicultural Work, Coming of Age, Realistic / Edgy

Citation: Morgan, Alphonso. Sons. New York: Lane Street Press, 2005. Print.

Alphonso Morgan website:
http://www.alphonsomorgan.com/

















Words of a Feather



Will Grayson, Will Grayson
 John Green & David Levithan

Babylon Boyz
Jess Mowry


Annie on My Mind
Nancy Garden

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

06. Supernatural · Horror Title

Queen of the Cold-Blooded Tales
Stories by Roberta Simpson Brown

Annotation:
A collection of stories about scary people, haunted places and creepy things.
Recommendation:

Roberta Simpson Brown has every right to call herself Queen of the Cold-Blooded Tales. The twenty-three chilling stories in her collection are macabre and marvelous. Well-written and well-paced, each yarn is a quick, five to ten pages in length. Though original, they are patterned in a well-known oral literary tradition.

Roberta Simpson Brown's tales are set in familiar, normal places: living rooms, schoolyards, campgrounds, shops, farm houses. The students, housewives, hotel clerks and other characters in Brown’s stories are all familiar people – but that’s where "normal" ends. Brown's plot-lines each have a bizarre, scary twist or unexpected turn toward horror.

Beware! These cold-blooded tales are not like the slinky vampire romances that currently have so many publishers under a spell. Nor are they the dark, ugly, Stephen King-style stories of rabid dogs and killer clowns. The wonderfully warped stories of Roberta Simpson Brown are thoughtfully constructed in classic formats.

These are good, old-fashioned, great American ghost stories!

Individual readers will no doubt like some selections better than others. My personal favorite is Whispers, the disturbing fable of a little girl who, despite her parents’ wishes, is determined to purchase a pair of evil-looking earrings. Stylistically, I found the subtle strangeness of Sleeping Bags to be particularly effective. The story, about a young woman on a camping trip, has a blend of simplicity and supernatural-ness that put me in the mind of Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology.


        "Be sure to bring your sleeping bag," she said.
        Susan looked at the flowers and left them on the seat. She
        took the bag and followed Angie up a path lined with stones.
        "Everyone is sleeping on the hill tonight," explained Angie. 
        "You'll see them later."


All of the horror chronicles included in Queen of the Cold-Blooded Tales have strong themes. What's more, the gore and ghastliness is never gratuitous. Running throughout Brown’s devilish collection is a solid moral sensibility. Fate delivers a fitting justice to gold-digging girlfriends, nosy neighbors and greedy little boys.

Roberta Simpson Brown has delivered a fine collection of spine-tingling fiction that would be wicked fun to tell around a campfire!



Nomination: Yes

Genre Classification:
Supernatural / Horror Title

Citation: Brown, Roberta Simpson. Queen of the Cold-Blooded Tales. Little Rock, AR: August House, 1993. Print.

Roberta Simpson Brown home page
http://www.robertasimpsonbrown.com
















Words of a Feather


Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
by Ransom Riggs

Spoon River Anthology
Edgar Lee Masters

Website: How to Write Scary Stories

Website: How to Read a Scary Story Aloud


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

07. Science Fiction · Fantasy Work

Black Juice by  Margo Lanagan

Annotation:
Ten glimpses into the darkness of the human condition.
Recommendation:

Black Juice, by Margo Lanagan, is a disturbing and disturbingly difficult read. I have repeatedly forced myself back through the slog and slap of the book’s ten (mercifully) short stories, and yet they still remain foreign to me. I cannot fully determine the meaning or the mission of this phantasmic fiction. That isn’t to say Ms. Lanagan's writing is of low quality – but rather, that I am unable to read it.

The inability to read a text is a stark and humbling kind of horror. Along with feelings of personal inadequacy and shame, there is a sense of futility, and a frustration that prompts anger -- or potentially, hopelessness. If the author intended to evoke these negative emotions in young adults, then the writing proves successful. But then, it would mostly succeed at undermining the teenage reader by aiming at the central vulnerabilities of adolescence.

Assuming Lanagan's Black Juice was not intentionally cooked up as some sort of literary poison -- and further assuming that this wonder-starved fantasy fiction has been crafted to confound -- I'm left to wonder what could account for my own bizarre, emotional, and disturbing reaction to this material.


Margo Lanagan is from Sydney, Australia; I'm from Pittsburgh. So perhaps the disconnect is cultural. The stories are filled with unusual phrases and word usages. Lanagan's language is possibly more familiar to Australian readers, but I have no way to map meanings or negotiate the logistics.

Not only is much of the lingo nearly incomprehensible to me, the general subject matter in Black Juice is sour and grim. The tone is never horrific or overly violent, but the atmosphere is consistently and thoroughly morose. Many of Lanagan's fantasy worlds project a harsh indifference. A number of the pieces have young protagonists, but beyond that, the arabesque opacity in Lanagan's narratives of damage, damnation and negligence simply do not belong to the culture of youth.

The experience of reading Black Juice is akin to walking into a very dark house and figuring out what’s there only when you trip or bump into something. The pleasure of recognition is undercut by the unpleasantness of the encounter. Ms. Lanagan's work frequently hints at an austere, brittle kind of beauty. Appreciating it however, demands an enormous amount of patience. The author is clearly a skilled language technician, so the requirement for patience is also likely a cultural matter.

Of the ten tales included in the book, three stand out: Singing My Sister Down, Red Nose Day and Sweet Pippit.

Singing My Sister Down, is the first story in the collection. It concerns a woman forced to sink into a tar pit and die, presumably as punishment by the people of her town for some crime or community transgression. That is apparently what this story is about, but few details are supplied. The image of the woman sinking lower and lower into the tar is a fitting metaphor – in that it describes the experience of sinking down into a text that is incomprehensibly thick and dense. The story seems to contain some sense of cultural significance, but I lack the necessary cultural literacy.

Red Nose Day is easier to get through, but no less frustrating than Lanagan’s first story. Shy on particulars, Red Nose Day involves two assassins who have set about to kill a cabal of clowns. Why they have become clown serial killers is not examined. Reading between the lines, one can imagine that perhaps the clowns are criminals, though no such statements are directly made. We are given little information about the snipers or the clowns. As a result, we cannot much care. Some fantasy fiction has a "Twilight Zone" - type inner-logic that one can grab onto through careful reflection and receptivity to its symbology, but considering the senseless killings involved, Red Nose Day is not attractive enough to invite that level of contemplation.

Arguably the simplest piece is Sweet Pippit. At some point we grasp that the characters are talking elephants on a mission to find Pippit -- the much loved trainer from their zoo (or maybe circus?). Pippit was removed from the elephants for reasons never fully explained – to them or us. Again, the metaphor of animals searching seems to mock the reader’s hunt for answers. Once rescued, Pippit and the pachyderms continue searching – maybe for a new zoo (circus?). The reader is left searching back through the story for clues as to what any of it might signify.


Based on what was found while stumbling about in the pitiless penumbra of this book, I plainly see only one thing: the humorless atmosphere, enigmatic prose, and harsh themes of the collection would not have wide adolescent appeal. It is not clear to me if Margo Lanagan has purposely used dense writing in order to make Black Juice difficult to comprehend, or if I am simply too dense to understand it. Either way, I found the book exhausting and unpleasant.




Nomination: No, as I am unable to read this book at the present time.

Genre Classification:
Fantasy, Supernatural, Horror, Edgy, Printz Honor

Citation: Lanagan, Margo. Black Juice. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. Print.

Margo Lanagan interview
http://www.sfsite.com/09a/ml159.htm















Words of a Feather

House of Discarded Dreams
by Ekaterina Sedi

The Harlequin and the Train
by Paul G. Tremblay

Tender Morsels
by Margo Lanagan

White Time
by Margo Lanagan

Yellowcake
by Margo Lanagan





Monday, August 15, 2011

08. Challenged · Censored Text

The Bluest Eye By Toni Morrison

Annotation:
Claudia MacTeer recalls Lorain, Ohio in the summer of 1941, and the psychological devastation of a young African American girl, Pecola Breedlove, who believed life would be better if she only had blue eyes.
Recommendation:

Toni Morrison is considered by many to be one of the preeminent novelists of our day. Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye, is not a book one is ever finished reading. Like all great works of art, the initial encounter with this text mainly conveys the sense that there is more on the page than meets the eye. Just as a great piece of sculpture cannot be absorbed in a single viewing, the first read of Morrison’s novel is only the beginning of a conversation.

The Bluest Eye is a complex work with multiple narratives and perspectives, including the childhood recollections of Claudia MacTeer. At the heart of the saga is the story of young Pecola Breedlove. Pecola nightly prays to have the blue eyes of America’s sweetheart, Shirley Temple -- convinced blue eyes would make her beautiful, and therefore, lovable. Through Claudia’s memories and other accounts of events in Loraine Ohio, circa 1941, we witness Pecola’s self-destruction in a quest for acceptance, self-worth and identity.

This is Morrison's most exciting novel in many respects and for many reasons -- not the least of which is that it is her first born. The author's sheer brilliance and bravery is evidenced on every page. The Bluest Eye is also special because, of all Toni Morrison's fiction works, it is the only one with structural elements, characters and themes that directly engage with the dynamics and developmental markers of adolescence.

 
"Long hours she sat looking in the mirror, trying to discover the secret of the ugliness, the ugliness that made her ignored or despised at school, by teachers and classmates alike."

Toni Morrison's text is received in the con-text of the purpose-driven pablum found throughout Fun with Dick and Jane and similar children’s primers. This utilitarian kiddie-lit came into prominence in the 1930s, pushed into popularity by publishers who claimed the primers were a pedagogical necessity. Having remained a staple in American schools and homes well beyond World War II, the repeat and reveal pattern (See Spot. See Spot run.) is so well known, the primer must be regarded as a unique literary genre.

The Bluest Eye is also, in a sense, a “primer” The novel’s fractured focus and multiple perspectives teach you how to read the story as you’re reading.

The Dick and Jane basal readers were authored by William S. Gray and Zerna Sharp, but were clearly patterned after other popular products. The idea behind these books was to combine learning to read with learning about other subjects -- family values, friendships, safety, health etc. -- thereby turning the traditional reading tool into what was essentially a cultural primer.

Toni Morrison was certainly not the first U.S. artist to explore the accidental Dada of the Dick and Jane-style novelino. Many writers noted the cultural homogeneity of these primers and the objectionable social and moral messages children were likely getting when reading between the insipid, repetitious lines. Morrison however, was the first to establish the extent of the psychological damage the Fun with Dick and Jane phenomena potentially provoked.


"It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights - if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different."

All of the characters in The Bluest Eye are influenced and, to some degree, victimized by the images and implied messages of America’s mass media. But beyond the social struggle of measuring up to idealized notions of family-life and relationships as prescribed by Madison Avenue and Hollywood, The Bluest Eye explores the deeper crisis of personal identity formation.


It’s fascinating to note that Pecola is not a Black child who hates her appearance and simply wishes for the lighter skin and hair that would allow her to pass as a White person. Along with praying to be seen by the world as beautiful and blue-eyed, Pecola desires to view the beautiful world she imagines those with blue eyes must see. She desires to share in the American vision – not just appear to be, but to fully be, an American.

Morrison's unique bildungsroman is experienced through Claudia's look back in time. Morrison's character development strategy prepares us for the devastating sexual violence suffered by Pecola at the hands of her father. What we are not prepared for -- and can never be -- is the shock of recognizing that despite such horror, no one seems to have paid much attention. Pecola drops out of school and out of sight. Seemingly without notice, she disappears into pure imagination. Other than in Claudia’s distant memory, the child, Pecola Breedlove, does not exist.

Morrison's final pages are devastating -- not because of the torment and anguish experienced in the aftermath of the tragedy, but by everyone’s complete and total disconnect with it, including Pecola herself. In our last glimpse of her, Pecola is every bit as chipper and cheerful as a Dick and Jane book. Not unlike the vacuous primers, Pecola’s descent into madness has reduced her to a meaningless, repetitive patter of desire: “Look. Look over there. At that girl. Look at her eyes. Are they bluer than mine? . . . Please. If there is somebody with bluer eyes than mine, then maybe there is somebody with the bluest eyes. The bluest eyes in the whole world.”


"Beauty was not simply something to behold, it was something one could do. The Bluest Eye was my effort to say something about that."
-- Morrison's Afterword, 1993

The Bluest Eye is a brutally honest confrontation with the raw realities of growing up poor and Black in wealthy, White America. Despite dealing with extremely difficult matters of race, gender, familial dysfunction and sociopathy, there is absolutely nothing in this shining work that could be considered harmful to young people or worthy of censorship. Yet, The Bluest Eye has suffered repeated attempts at suppression.

Morrison's novel is exciting precisely because she has found a way around the sensationalism and racialized societal tropes that have confounded America's conversation about race for centuries. Morrison's book was on the vanguard of radical changes in literature. She defied the censors and devised a way to reveal her African American story. It is a uniquely American story, yet it is the kind of story that traditionally, has been outside the scope of mainstream American literature.

While not every young person should or could read The Bluest Eye, one can't help but imagine how differently things would have turned out for 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove had she been given a copy of Toni Morrison's masterpiece.



Nomination: Yes

Genre Classification:
Challenged/Censored, Multicultural, Realistic/Edgy, Historical Fiction

Citation: Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Plume, 1994. Print.


Toni Morrison biography

The Toni Morrison Society
http://www.tonimorrisonsociety.org/
















Words of a Feather

The Woman Warrior
by Maxine Hong Kingston

The Color Purple

by Alice Walker

Sunday, August 14, 2011

09. ALEX Award · Adult Book for YA

Tunneling to the Center of the Earth
 By Kevin Wilson

Annotation:
A sorter at a Scrabble factory worries he will spontaneously combust; brothers come to blows over an origami contest; three bored college grads decide to dig a tunnel beneath their town . . .
Recommendation:

Kevin Wilson has created a work of the highest literary quality with his collection of short stories, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth. Mr. Wilson's razor sharp observations capture the broad bizarreness of the human experience. These are the universal and timeless works of a fantastically funny and imaginative literary genius!

Although not directly marketed to teenagers, the fast-paced, free-form fiction in this book will have wide adolescent appeal. All of the stories center on an unusual or unexpected juxtaposition of elements. For this reason, the book is a study in liminality – the bizarre, “between-ness” that is a hallmark of adolescence.

Along with being resonant and relevant, Kevin Wilson's work is wildly original.


Consider Go, Fight, Win! -- the saga of a cheerless high school cheerleader who prefers building model cars to boys. She muses: “sex seemed like chicken pox, inevitable and scarring.”  The coming of age story grows oddly touching when the teen decides to practice kissing with her neighbor – a geeky, 12-year-old pyromaniac.


Then there is, Mortal Kombat which presents a violent, Karate fighting video game and two lonely high school outcasts. The boys fall in love with the game, and though they fight mightily against it, they fall in love with each other.

Wilson’s extraordinary work resonates with the core developmental concerns of young people. Another case in point: The Dead Sister Handbook: A Guide For Sensitive Boys. Here, Wilson’s adolescent angst is delivered as crisp, catalog description:

"The sheaths that protect the upper end of the fingers of the dead sister contain small doses of tricyclic antidepressants (see also Attempts to Medicate). During stressful situations, the ingestion of the nails potentiates the action of catecholamines and creates a low-level sense of well-being and calm . . . In particularly bad moments, the dead sister will chew her nails down to the quick and into the flesh, leaving tiny crescents of blood on the papers of tests, the sleeves of her shirts, the skin of those she touches." 


All of the eleven stories in Tunneling to the Center of the Earth are wonderfully well written, and most are directly relevant to the emotional and social turmoil of the teen experience.
 

In Birds in the House, Wilson juxtaposes a Japanese war bride with her Tennessee farmer husband and three big, brawling boys. Per the instructions left in a will, the violent brothers must create a thousand tiny paper birds to determine who will inherit the ancestral mansion.

Wilson's dialogue is not what his characters say -- it's the conversation his clashing images have with each other. Birds in the House is the brutally honest delivery of delicate truths about culture.  


Surprisingly fresh and original, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth tests the boundaries and pushes the limits of the short story format.


The Baby's Teeth is a tale that desperately wants to be about many things: relationships, art, passion, dreams. Finally though, it's about a baby born with a full set of teeth. At a certain point in the plot -- the two, dueling narrators implicate us in the unfolding strangeness:

"In the coming months, there will be many things. Fights, accusations, declarations of love and hate. It is heartbreaking, but you only want to know of the baby, where it is, what it is doing, is it smiling. We have grown tired. The story is hard to tell. The evaporation of love makes us think of our own lives. We have tried to make you see this, but always the baby."



The tensions between unexpected elements make Wilson’s stories unique and bizarre, but his plots are credible and his characters carefully drawn. Included in the back of the book is an interview with the author. Wilson reveals that one of his greatest challenges in writing is: "Embracing the ridiculous nature of the story without making the concerns of the characters ridiculous." He has met the challenge with these compassionate portrayals.

Regardless of what publisher, Harper Collins designates, this is an outstanding publication for the young adult reader. Making a considerable contribution to literature that will stand the test of time, Kevin Wilson's Tunneling to the Center of the Earth breaks new ground!



Nomination: Yes

Genre Classification:
ALEX Award winner, Humor

Citation: Wilson, Kevin. Tunneling to the Center of the Earth. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. Print.


Kevin Wilson home page
http://www.wilsonkevin.com/














Words of a Feather

The Family Fang
Kevin Wilson's new novel!

William Faulkner’s Short Stories


 
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