2002 Printz Project Wrap-up

Fifteen books down in this Printz Award winning book reading project — five of which were award winners from 2002. (OK, if I’m being honest, as I typed this, I’ve already read 3 of the 2003 books, it’s very easy for me to just keep reading, and not take the time to write about what I’ve read!)

Another eclectic batch of books — a poetry collection! A novel in free verse! An immigrant’s story (as audiobook, no less), a fantasy, and a very unreliable narrator!

With the possible exception of Freewill, none of these were a chore to read — quite the opposite. And saying that Freewill was a chore isn’t right, either. It was a compelling read, it was just so disturbing and unsettling that even after several other books and time, that one has still stayed with me, troubling me at times.

I read so many books, you probably wonder if I do remember what I’ve read, and what I think of them. It really depends. Yes, there are many books that are practically throw away — in one proverbially ear and out the other. I’ve been known to pick up books and not realize I was rereading until halfway through. Other books, though, definitely stick with me. Regardless of whether I liked them or not, many of the Printz books will most assuredly be added to the list of books that are remembered.

“The Ropemaker” by Peter Dickinson

The Ropemaker Book Cover The Ropemaker
Peter Dickinson
Juvenile Fiction
Delacorte Books for Young Readers

2003 Michael L Printz Honor Book

When the magic that protects their Valley starts to fail, Tilja and her companions journey into the evil Empire to find the ancient magician Faheel, who originally cast those spells.

Robin McKinley is one of my favorite authors. Her retold fairy tales are amazing. I knew that her husband was Peter Dickinson, but I never had (or took?) the opportunity to read any of his books. Which, as it turns out, was unfortunate, because The Ropemaker was right up my alley.

That’s the trouble with this project, I keep finding these great authors and adding their entire bibliography to my already super-long to-be-read list!

I love fairy tales and retold fairy tales, and while this wasn’t a retelling, at least not of anything I know, it definitely had a lot of fairy tale qualities about it. I love fantasies with well thought out world building and interesting magic systems, and this had both. There was also a real sense of the endlessness of time — these things have happened before, they’ll happen again.

It’s not perfect, there are some threads of theme that don’t always go anywhere and several characters that are underdeveloped. In fact, at times, you wonder if the author dragged them just because he needed them later, but forgot to give them things to do and much of a character arc until their big moment when they were crucial to the plot.

Overall, I enjoyed it, and the main character, Tilja, was easy to like and want to see succeed.

Diversity in books is a big part of book conversations lately, so I’ve been trying to pay attention to that in the books I’m reading. I didn’t think of it for this book until I was almost done, and it’s strange, because I really don’t remember skin color being a part of the descriptions in this book. With the  names, it’s got a little bit of a Nordic vibe, but I’ve gone back to find descriptions of some of the character, and in the few minutes I’ve spent looking in palces I remember character descriptions, I’m not finding any reference to skin color — just hair. I haven’t looked very hard, but in one particular spot, one of the main characters is described as being “a slim, wiry, muscular man with almost jet black, short, curly hair and a look of fiery pride.” Another woman is described as having “a mass of glossy chestnut hair.”

When I was reading, I think I probably made an assumption — that these characters look like me. If I had a different color skin, though, would I be reading them as looking like ME, or would I assume they were white? It’s a question I can’t answer, but it’s something I will continue to be aware of as I continue to read.

“A Step from Heaven” by An Na

A Step from Heaven Book Cover A Step from Heaven
An Na
Juvenile Fiction
Listening Library

The Barnes & Noble Review
In a stunning novel debut honored with the Michael J. Printz Award for excellence in literature for young adults, writer An Na tells the story of a Korean family that immigrates to California in search of a better life, only to find that the American Dream is harder to achieve than they thought. Told through the eyes of Young Ju, who is a preschooler when the book begins and a young woman heading off to college by the time it ends, A Step from Heaven is a moving and sometimes painful tale about cultural differences, family dynamics, and the struggle to survive.
As little Young Ju's plane leaves Korea and climbs high into the sky, she thinks she is headed for heaven. In a way, so do her parents, who believe that America will offer them big opportunities and a more heavenly lifestyle. But life is much harder than they anticipate, and both of Young Ju's parents must work multiple jobs just to make ends meet while they share a house with relatives. Disillusioned and ashamed, Young Ju's father tries to drown the harsh realities of his life in liquor, eventually descending into a pit of alcoholism that turns him emotionally and physically abusive.
Though the family as a unit doesn't adapt well, Young Ju adjusts quickly and soon excels in school. But the shame of her family's poverty and her father's worsening alcoholism leads to several lies and cover-ups that prevent her from ever fully embracing her new life. Caught between two cultures and increasingly isolated by the growing tension within her family, Young Ju eventually finds herself at a crossroads, forced to make a decision that will likely tear her family apart.
A Step from Heaven is an insightful, enriching read that should appeal to teens and young adults on many levels. An Na tells the story through a series of vignettes, using poetic prose and well-drawn characters. And Young Ju's wonderfully engaging voice is a perfect match for the family's evolving reality, ranging from the starry-eyed wonder she has as a toddler to the quiet but hopeful reflectiveness she expresses as a young adult.(Beth Amos)

I had to laugh as I looked through some of the other reviews of this book — many of them started off the same way I thought I probably would — something like “This started really slow, but I enjoyed it more as it progressed.” There were also quite a few reviews, at least on the first page, that mentioned reading it because they were reading all of the Printz winners….

NEIBORS (my library’s ebook and audio lending library) had this available as an audiobook. I have to be in the right mood to listen to books, so I ended up saving this one until I had finished several of the other books from the 2002 winners. I did have a hard time wanting to listen at first. The narrator, Young Ju, is only four at the beginning of the book, and I didn’t care for the way the story started, which is unfortunate. If I had been listening purely for pleasure, I probably would have given up. I kept going, though, and the story and Young grew on me. But only up to a certain point — because it ended up being more about a family dealing with domestic violence, than a family learning to navigate the US after coming here from Korea. There were certain threads about immigration or their past that would come and go, characters that would be around at one point, but disappear for years, only to reappear again, suddenly. Where had they been all along? Why weren’t they involved again sooner?

And once we reach the ultimate crisis point — after that, everything is seemingly better in an instant? I was listening to the last part through a pretty intense sinus headache (hoping the story would distract me), so maybe that wasn’t the best listening conditions.

I guess that the fact that this was the 2002 award winner had me hoping for more. No time to dwell, though, I have more books to read.

“True Believer” by Virginia Euwer Wolff

True Believer Book Cover True Believer
Virginia Euwer Wolff
Juvenile Fiction
Simon and Schuster

2002 Michael L Printz Honor Book

Living in the inner city amidst guns and poverty, fifteen-year-old LaVaughn learns from old and new friends, and inspiring mentors, that life is what you make it--an occasion to rise to.

When I started reading this, I did not know that (a) it’s the second book in a series and (b) that it was written in free verse. Both of these were a little off-putting at first, but I need not have feared — I thoroughly enjoyed this book. There was enough backstory built in to the text (and not in an awkward way…) that it didn’t matter that I hadn’t read the first book. And the style of the book was absolutely wonderful.

“You get older
and you are a whole mess of things,
new thoughts, sorry feelings,
big plans, enormous doubts,
going along hoping and getting disappointed,
over and over again,
no wonder I don’t recognize
my little crayon picture.
It appears to be me
and it is
and it is not.”
Virginia Euwer Wolff, True Believer

The main character is 15 year old LaVaughn. She’s smart and funny and struggling to live up to the goal she and her mother have set: she WILL go to college. More than once, she could have made choices that might have changed her path, but she figures things out and is able to navigate through heartbreak and big expectations. I loved reading about her, and I think a lot of teenagers would, too.

And yes, she’s in the inner city and struggling with poverty and gang violence and teenagers having babies and homosexuality. But this was not a preachy book, nor was it a book where I think the reader will walk away feeling like they read a book with diversity and adversity and it was a chore. It was a good story with interesting characters — and yes, I learned a little about someone who is different than me. Especially in these times, with people rioting in Missouri and Maryland of all places, this is clearly not a bad thing.

“Freewill” by Chris Lynch

Freewill Book Cover Freewill
Chris Lynch
Bloomsbury Publishing
2004 (originally publish 2001)

2002 Michael L Printz Honor Book

Will knows he is meant to be a pilot. But instead he finds himself with a bunch of kids in wood shop, in a school that's known as Hopeless High. Will doesn't know what he's doing there—or mabye he just doesn't want to admit the truth. Once upon a time he made beautiful things like gnomes, whirligigs, and furniture. Now he's driven to create strange wooden totems—and he doesn't know why.

No one knows why local teens are committing suicide, either, one after the other. The deaths all have one thing in common: beautifully carved wooden tributes that appear just after—or just before—the bodies are found. Will's afraid he knows who's responsible for the deaths. And lurking just behind that knowledge is another secret, one so explosive that he might not be able to face it and survive...

Part thriller, part mystery, Chris Lynch's newest book is a rollercoaster ride through a passionate young man's psyche—and an unforgettable emotional journey through grief, guilt, and hope from a writer at the height of his powers.

Written in second person (you walk to the door, you pick up the phone, you can’t sleep, you have to concentrate really hard to keep everything straight….), about a young man who is what I would call an unreliable narrator, except you aren’t really sure if HE is the narrator, or it’s someone else, or perhaps he has a personality disorder? and the voices in his head are talking to him (you?) — needless to say, this book is complicated. This is not a book that very many people are going to love or even like, and a short trip through the notes of other readers on Goodreads confirm that.

I think readers who say it’s a terrible book and shouldn’t have won any awards have probably missed the point. (I’m not saying it’s a great book, and even several days later, as I have let this settle, I’m not sure if I’m going to give it an actual rating, or if I’m going to just let it go.) This was a book that required concentration, and I think it was meant to be extremely unsettling. I think you are meant to walk away wondering what the heck just happened? And is this kid going to be OK?  And even more troubling: how many kids and adults are wandering through our world feeling like this on the inside?

Even the readers that rated this highly on Goodreads seem somewhat conflicted by that response. I’m not sure I would go so far as to actually recommend this one to somebody, but I think I would like to talk to someone else that’s read it, to see what they think. Any takers?