2003 Printz Project Wrap Up

Moving right along! I’m scheduling these posts ahead of time — I had actually gotten many of these most recent books read more than a week or so ago, but never got around to sit down and right about them. I’m almost caught up to what I’ve been reading, but I’m sure I’ll get behind again.

I’m finding it difficult to write about them all without being super repetitive in the kinds of things I say about these books.

This year’s list was an enjoyable one (even My Heartbeat, which I later had qualms about, was something I liked reading at the time). I think of all of them, The House of the Scorpion, was probably my favorite, perhaps because it’s most like the books I normally read. I still think it’s interesting that I avoided it for so long.

It’s also the only one that I might have picked up on my own, even thought I hadn’t ever done so. The others were good, but not on my normal book-radar, which is too bad. I think a lot of people get in a rut of “I only read X or Y or Z” and managed to miss out on a lot of really great books. It’s hard to know which a person will like, though, and which is something that will end up turning them off to another genre for good.

There’s also the problem that there are just too darned many great books out there and no one will pay me to sit and read all day long.

“Hole in my Life” by Jack Gantos

Hole in My Life Book Cover Hole in My Life
Jack Gantos
Biography & Autobiography

2003 Michael L Printz Honor Book

Becoming a writer the hard way

In the summer of 1971, Jack Gantos was an aspiring writer looking for adventure, cash for college tuition, and a way out of a dead-end job. For ten thousand dollars, he recklessly agreed to help sail a sixty-foot yacht loaded with a ton of hashish from the Virgin Islands to New York City, where he and his partners sold the drug until federal agents caught up with them. For his part in the conspiracy, Gantos was sentenced to serve up to six years in prison.

In Hole in My Life, this prizewinning author of over thirty books for young people confronts the period of struggle and confinement that marked the end of his own youth. On the surface, the narrative tumbles from one crazed moment to the next as Gantos pieces together the story of his restless final year of high school, his short-lived career as a criminal, and his time in prison. But running just beneath the action is the story of how Gantos – once he was locked up in a small, yellow-walled cell – moved from wanting to be a writer to writing, and how dedicating himself more fully to the thing he most wanted to do helped him endure and ultimately overcome the worst experience of his life.
Hole in My Life is a 2003 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.

I was aware of Jack Gantos from having looked at reading Newbery winners (Dead End in Norvelt), but I haven’t actually read anything by Gantos before. He was brought up recently when Drew Daywalt, author of The Day the Crayons Quit visited our school: Daywalt studied at Emerson College, Gantos was one of his professors.

I was pleased to see this come up on the list, but had no idea what I was getting in to — and it turned out to be a really fascinating ride! By turns funny, horrifying, touching, and inspiring, this is probably not a book for younger teens, but it was definitely worth the read (um, listen….I found an audio version, narrated by Gantos himself).

There are lessons to be learned, but this was not a preachy book, by any means. Gantos was matter of fact about the mistakes he made, that lead to his year long incarceration for drug smuggling. This is the kind of thing that maybe some parents would prefer their kids NOT know about the authors of the books said kids are reading: but I think it’s great that this is out in the world. He could have made so many other choices, but he figured things out and turned his life around.

Definitely a thumbs up on this one, must add his other books to my reading list…..

“My Heartbeat” by Garret Freymann-Weyr

My Heartbeat Book Cover My Heartbeat
Garret Freymann-Weyr
Juvenile Fiction
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

2003 Michael L Printz Honor Book

Ellen loves Link and James. Her older brother and his best friend are the only company she ever wants. She knows they fight, but she makes it a policy never to take sides. She loves her brother, the math genius and track star. She is totally, madly in love with James, his face full of long eyelashes and hidden smiles. “When you grow out of it,” James teases her, “you will break my heart.”

Ellen knows she’ll never outgrow it. She’ll always love James just the way she’ll always love Link. Then someone at school asks if Link and James might be in love with each other. A simple question.

Link refuses to discuss it. James refuses to stay friends with a boy so full of secrets. Ellen’s parents want Link to keep his secrets to himself, but Ellen wants to know who her brother really is. When is curiosity a betrayal? And if James says he loves her, isn’t that just another way of saying he still loves Link?

My Heartbeat is a fast, furious story in which a quirky triangle learns to change its shape and Ellen, at least, learns the limits of what you can ever know about whom you love.

I am really ambivalent about this book. It was short, and it read quickly, and I enjoyed it while I was reading. Might have even considered it a 5 star book.

However, the more I try to write about it, the more I realize that I have some pretty big qualms about it.

The main character, Ellen, sounded more like 40 than 14.

The families are pretentious, upper class white people living in NYC, who probably have more money than they need or deserve. The parents are mostly absent, leaving their 14 year old daughter to get up to some stuff she’s really not ready for. (But it’s OK, she’s just with this family friend that we’ve known for years….in his house all alone with no parental supervision…..)

No one talks the way book characters talk or think, books take dialogue up a notch. They have to, because no one wants to read dialogue that is 100% true to life. But these teenagers? This was a little over the top for being teenagers. Both in the things they said and thought as well as what they did.

The exploration of sexuality was really thoughtful, and while I’m sure some people hated the ending…once again, I was perfectly fine with the ambiguity. As with most of the books I’ve been reading, I find myself wishing I could talk to the people that picked this for the Printz honor list. What about it made them choose THIS book over any other book written that year?

I will say this: they surely didn’t pick this one for its cover — I can’t even believe how awful the original cover was (it’s the image in the book info. Yikes). Would definitely never have picked it up. The ebook “cover” was clearly done later and is much more in line with what I would have expected and would see on a book being published now.

I guess if you can ignore the cover, and ignore the fact that the main character sounds like a middle aged woman, and not the 14 year old girl she is supposed to be, this short read does have a lot of interesting things to say about being in love, and what love with different people can look like.

“The House of the Scorpion” by Nancy Farmer

The House of the Scorpion Book Cover The House of the Scorpion
Nancy Farmer
Juvenile Fiction
Simon and Schuster
2010-05-11 (originally published 2002)

2003 Michael L Printz Honor Book

MATTEO ALACRáN WAS NOT BORN; HE WAS HARVESTED. His DNA came from El Patrón, lord of a country called Opium -- a strip of poppy fields lying between the United States and what was once called Mexico. Matt's first cell split and divided inside a petri dish. Then he was placed in the womb of a cow, where he continued the miraculous journey from embryo to fetus to baby. He is a boy now, but most consider him a monster -- except for El Patrón. El Patrón loves Matt as he loves himself, because Matt is himself. As Matt struggles to understand his existence, he is threatened by a sinister cast of characters, including El Patrón's power-hungry family, and he is surrounded by a dangerous army of bodyguards. Escape is the only chance Matt has to survive. But escape from the Alacrán Estate is no guarantee of freedom, because Matt is marked by his difference in ways he doesn't even suspect.

Holy cow that was good.

This book has come up on lists as a recommendation for me for various reasons: “because you read” type lists — and every time I have read the blurb and thought “MEH.”

Wow. Should have believed the hype on this one, because I loved this book. LOVED it.

It had such an interesting dystopian view of the future — and even 15 years after it was published, the future envisioned by this book seems very plausible.

It was also very much a page turner! I think a kid (or adult….) that just wants a good tale to lose themselves in will love it, but there’s a lot more to dig in to, as well. Politics, technology, cloning, social and class systems, medical ethics, climate change…

There’s a sequel. It’s on my to be read list. I need school to be over so I can just read all day long. Every day.


“Postcards from No Man’s Land” by Aidan Chambers

Postcards from No Man's Land Book Cover Postcards from No Man's Land
Aidan Chambers
Juvenile Fiction
2004-06-01 (originally published in the US 2002)

2003 Michael L Printz Award Winner

Seventeen-year-old Jacob Todd is about to discover himself. Jacob's plan is to go to Amsterdam to honor his grandfather who died during World War II. He expects to go, set flowers on his grandfather's tombstone, and explore the city. But nothing goes as planned. Jacob isn't prepared for love--or to face questions about his sexuality. Most of all, he isn't prepared to hear what Geertrui, the woman who nursed his grandfather during the war, has to say about their relationship. Geertrui was always known as Jacob's grandfather's kind and generous nurse. But it seems that in the midst of terrible danger, Geertrui and Jacob's grandfather's time together blossomed into something more than a girl caring for a wounded soldier. And like Jacob, Geertrui was not prepared. Geertrui and Jacob live worlds apart, but their voices blend together to tell one story--a story that transcends time and place and war. By turns moving, vulnerable, and thrilling, this extraordinary novel takes the reader on a memorable voyage of discovery.

This lovely book was the award winner in 2003. It was first published in the US in 2002, but was originally published, presumably in the UK. It won a long list of awards that I think were well deserved.

It has both the elements of a good story with interesting characters that are compelling to read about, as well as lots of food for thought — and classroom discussion. Topics like assisted suicide, war and its affect on people and relationships, sexuality, family, and lots more. I would say this is a book for older teens, because of some of the subject matter, but not because it’s explicit. I think it just needs some maturity.

First and foremost, though, it was a STORY that was kept my interest. I was not bored, and I didn’t feel like I was being preached to at any point. I had guesses (which were mostly right) about some of the things that were going to happen, but I wanted to keep reading and see how things turned out. What choices were made and how they impacted everyone. I’ve found that many of these Printz books have ambiguous endings. Not a lot of happily ever afters, which is OK. Life isn’t exactly HEA, and I don’t always need that in the books I read.

I had a few minor quibbles, for one thing, the cover of this book does it absolutely zero favors. If I were browsing a bookstore glancing at covers, I don’t think I’d ever consider picking this one up. (And yes, I do judge books by their covers to some extent. Don’t you?)

And the title. I’m feeling kind of stupid about my thoughts about the title right now. I didn’t really care for it, I wasn’t sure what it meant, or why it was considered a good choice. Now that I’ve spent a few minutes thinking about it, though, I get it. And of course it is perfect. The significance of postcards isn’t really explained until the very end (though each of the contemporary Jacob chapters are labelled “Postcard” and have a quote.

And “no man’s land” — well, hopefully we all know what that phrase itself means. I’m going to call spoilers on why it’s an apt title for the book.

Should I have admitted that it took me until just now to get it? I guess that’s what I’m going through this exercise. To get myself to THINK more about what I’m reading, rather than just close the book and move on to the next thing. I guess maybe it’s working.