At Work

At Work
If you wanna be a writer you gotta be a reader.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Best of the 2011 Books for Young Adults

If you've followed the 2011 National Books Awards, it means you're a reader.  You are interested in what's going on in American literature and, what with the controversy of the "mistaken novel", you might be particularly intrigued by what happened in the Youth lit category.  A mistake was made, the wrong novel announced, etc.  Hopefully that's old news by now, because it's time to shine a light on the true, young adult "final five." 
Below are those novels, one of which will be the winner at the awards ceremony in New York City on November 16.  As a way of shifting the conversation, our five judges each have written a summary of one book.  It doesn't matter which judge wrote which summary; we are a group, a cohort of authors that read, discussed, had conference calls, argued, lobbied, laughed, cringed (at the error when the finalists were announced), got angry, discussed--well, you get the drift.  So below are our choices.  I think you'll like all of them, as we did.  And, as the old Sinatra song goes, "Let's start spreadin' the news."

My Name Is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson
Set in Alaska above the Arctic Circle, My Name Is Not Easy interweaves nature, culture clash, religion and science into a vivid, multi-voiced narrative. The time is the early 1960s at the Sacred Heart Boarding School near Barrow. Eskimo, Indian, and White kids huddle at their own tables. Nothing is easy for kids uprooted from their villages: the food is not what they’re used to (where is the caribou meat, the whale fat?), the Catholic school rules are forbidding, the Cold War looms. This novel is deeply informed by the history and landscape of the high arctic region, where the relentless march of modernity presses on native culture. Back home the villagers still hunt, but now with the help of snowmobiles, not sleds. Though, as a wise elder remarks to a young hunter, “How is that snow machine going to find its way home in a blizzard?” This novel is deeply authentic; Edwardson lives where she writes, and she never falls into cliché. Even the nuns and priests are fully realized characters, with dilemmas of their own. This novel gives voice to an overlooked, outlier part of America, yet the dilemmas and victories of the characters are universal.

Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt
If you were fortunate enough to read the Newbery Honor book, The Wednesday Wars, you’ll be familiar with the main protagonist here. In the summer of 1968, Doug Swietek moves to a small town in upstate New York, which he fondly refers to as “The Dump.” Not that it would matter much where he lived, since he’d still have to contend with an abusive father, a delinquent brother who routinely mistreats him, while sorely missing the oldest, most beloved brother who is away in Vietnam. Desperate for inspiration, Dough clings to a one-time encounter with a baseball star in this tour-de-force. What are the stats? A town that offers up a literary dugout of eclectic characters with bite and wit: a librarian/art teacher, an eccentric playwright, past her prime, a feisty female friend who proves she is more, and a host of grandmotherly neighbors who show Doug was kindness looks like. Schmidt uses these, along with Audubon’s Birds of America, to layer a rich story about choice, inner strength, and the transformative power of art. In fact, this is the first work of fiction I’ve come across that actually takes the reader inside of the process of creating art, while allowing him to experience, along with the character, the wonderful ah-ha moments that comes with exploring the creative process. An additional element that made this book a standout was the prominent place of the library in this narrative. Altogether an amazing achievement!

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
Immigration was a recurring theme in the books we read this year but this one, which happens to be a novel-in-verse, was the clear standout. In a pure and authentic voice, a girl named Ha tells the story of her family’s harrowing escape from Saigon as it falls, the horrific ship-ride to America, and the other-worldly experience of landing in Alabama where the coldness of strangers awaits them. Ha, a tough and tender ten-year-old fights for her place in America while relying on the strength of the culture that gave her birth. The emotional impact of this story is felt as much in the words that aren’t said, as in the words that are. With hints of humor throughout, the poetry carries the rhythms of the Vietnamese culture. Readers will think more kindly toward the immigrants in their midst after spending time between the pages of this book. For me, this was love at first read!
Flesh and Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin
This work of non-fiction explores the infamous Triangle Fire, one of the worst, and most preventable, work-related disasters in American history, eclipsed only by the events of 9/11. In the hands of Marrin, the scope of this story is deep, and wide. The book traces key points in the history of Southern Italians and Russian Jews—the primary victims of the fire—exploring the reasons their forebears immigrated to America, and what brought their descendents into the factory sweatshops of early New York. Readers learn about the so-called “Black Italians,” the impact of the Mount Vesuvius eruption, the Russian pogroms, the Pale of Settlement, right up to Ellis Island, once known as “the Island of Fears,” and the fall of Tammany Hall, illuminating bits of history connected to the Triangle Fire event. The book then follows the impact this disaster had on shifting labor laws and practices to create the more humane, and safe, working environments we all enjoy today. Mirren also brings to light unheralded heroes and heroines of the American Labor movement who rose up to lead reform, and organize unions to push for necessary changes in the workplace. There is drama, poetry, and music in the language here, allowing this history lesson to flow with ease.
Chime by Franny Billingsley
Don’t be fooled by the cover. There is nothing cookie-cutter about this novel. Take twin sisters, a boggy landscape, a handsome young stranger, a ghost or two, then add a magic cauldron, and stir. This book features some of the most lively, original, engaging line-by-line writing you’ll find anywhere. What’s more, the lush language is at the service of a story which manages to explore a dark psychological bond that will be eye-opening for alert, self-reflective readers, and heart-pounding for fans of romance in a kind of steampunk fantasy landscape. This book will be a stretch for many readers, but the remarkable use of language makes the journey a singular experience.
Now that you’ve had a chance to learn something about these outstanding books, I hope you’ll check them out for yourself. They are well worthy of your attention and the authors deserve all of our support. Just imagine, for a moment, if you were one of these authors.

New Young Adult Lit to Look For (guest blog by Nikki Grimes)

Will says:  This summer and fall I had the pleasure of working with four wonderful writers in our role as panelists (judges) for the National Book Awards, Youth Lit division.  I've blogged some about about our experience, but now that we've gotten through almost 300 novels, we are starting to come up for air and to share what we've learned.

Below is a fine and useful blog by friend and fellow panelist, Nikki Grimes.  Check out her website and blog.  Here  Nikki writes:

". . . First, a couple of caveats: I don’t generally talk about specific books on this blog because that’s not what it’s for. I’m making this lone exception because, as a judge for this year’s National Book Award, friends have been asking me what wonderful titles I found along the way. So, this once, I’ll give you my two-cents worth of commentary on some of the latest, and what I, personally, consider the greatest YA titles entering the marketplace this year. Again, this is a one-time thing, so please don’t send me any books to review, because I won’t. That’s not my gig. You’ll also notice, I did not include publisher, price, or grade-level. Again, not my gig.

Second, the titles on this list are not the only good books published in 2011. There are many more, I’m happy to report, but you won’t find all of them here. These, in addition to the five finalists, are simply my own, top-tier favorites.

I love me some novels-in-verse, don’t you know. Besides Inside Out and Back Again, I found three titles to add to my collection. Hurricane Dancers by Margarita Engle gets my vote. An evocative story of adventure on a pirate ship and an island along the Caribbean Sea, this is a gem of a book with a lyrical lure. Eddie’s War by Carol Fisher Saller shows us the impact of WWII on a farm boy in the Heartland. True and tender. Then there’s Allan Wolf, who does not disappoint. This time around, his tome is The Watch that Ends the Night, a novel about the Titanic. Written in the voices of those intimately connected with the story—including the iceberg! (I love that)—Wolf steers the story place it’s never gone before. Kudos, Allan!

I’ve never been one for sci-fi novels, but one novel so catalogued got my attention. Awaken by Katie Kacvinsky was fascinating, and thought provoking. It answers the question “What if online communication completely replaced face-to-face human interaction?” The answer will give readers a lot to ponder, and they’ll enjoy the journey along the way.

Sara Zarr is up to nothing but good once again. How to Save a Life, a novel about a baby in need of a parent, and a parent in need of a mother, is a big story with an even bigger heart. When you’re done, you’ll want to give this book a hug.

Speaking of babies, do pick up Pregnant Pause by Han Nolan. I guarantee you’ve never met a character quite like Eleanor Crowe, nor thought of placing a pregnant teen in a so-called fat camp. Yes, there is some hilarity, but that’s not the half of it. What can a pregnant teen learn about herself in this environment? Read to find out.

I love books about tough-talking girls, and I could not put down The File on Angelyn Stark by Catherine Atkins. This smart, and smart-mouthed, teen is rough around the edges, and with good reason. But she fights to claim the good in herself, and discovers the courage to set her life on a healthy path. She’ll make you a believer.

Bird in a Box, by Andrea Davis Pinkney, is a break-out title about the impact boxing legend Joe Louis had on Depression-era America, in general, and on the African American community, in particular. The voices are authentic, and often joyful, and the historical detail brings the period to life. An uplifting story about hope and the human spirit, this would make a great classroom read. The author’s note and back matter expand nicely on the historical detail. Fabulous job, Andrea!

Another novel of note for its historical theme is Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Supetys. This novel explores a Holocaust story few have heard before. This book reveals the horrors suffered by citizens of the Baltic States, under the heels of both Hitler and Stalin. A powerful story of survival, compassion, and amazing grace. Another title that cries out for the classroom.

Dancing Home by Alma Flor Ada is a small, but important contribution to the national dialogue on immigration. This gently written story takes readers inside the duality of being a first-generation American, with a foot in two cultures. The reader is challenged to examine what it means to be an American.

As most of you know, I am not a fan of profanity in books for young readers, but sometimes it’s necessary to make an exception. Compulsion, by Heidi Ayarbe is one. In this novel about a boy wrestling with OCD, the rough language is a powerful expression of the severe frustration this character experience every day of his life. He struggles, and often fails, to hide or control his symptoms, often teetering on the edge of despair. But he never gives up on himself, and neither will the reader. This is a great book for engendering empathy for those around us who battle their own disorders, whether they are physical, psychological, or economic. This book is one worth checking out.

Miles from Ordinary by Carol Lynch Williams stole my heart, broke it, and then pieced it back together. This is a beautiful book about hope, with a character who emerges in layers. Loved, loved, loved this book!

There’s another Lynch on my list. The wonderful Chris Lynch rocked it out with Angry Young Man. In this story about, quite literally, being our brother’s keeper, we are reminded to check the timber in our own eyes before judging the mote in someone else’s. That will make little sense until you read the book, and I suggest you do. And, oh yeah, there’s a bit of eco-terrorism thrown in, so I’d call this title rather timely. Lynch is a master of the powerful voice, so you’ll be hooked in no time.

Wonderstruck, by Brian Selznick. Need I say more? A light-filled combination of visual and literal storytelling, as only Selznick can produce. This tale is richly imagined, and gives a glimpse of the World’s Fair in NYC, then brings the story forward. This book is a treat. Do yourself a favor and get this one.

Hey 13! by Gary Soto
Paper Covers Rock by Jenny Hubbard
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
Dragon Castle by Joseph Bruchac
Camo Girl by Kekla Magoon
Lie by Caroline Bock
Bloody Times by James Swanson (non-fiction)
A Girl Named Faithful by Richard Bernstein
Joseph’s Grace by Sheila Moses
The Summer of Hammers and Angels by Shannon Wiersbitzky
Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy
Heart and Soul by Kadir Nelson (absolutely stunning!)
Never Forgotten by Patricia McKissack
We Are America by Walter Dean Myers
The Cheshire Cheese Cat by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright
Secrets at Sea by Richard Peck
The Flint Heart by Katherine and John Paterson
Eliza’s Freedom Road by Jerdine Nolen
St. Louis Armstrong Beach by Brenda Woods

So, there you have it! I’m sure I left off some important titles, but after reading 279 books in one summer, I’m doing good to be able to narrow the list at all! So forgive me. I hope this list gives you a good starting-off point. That’s the most I can hope for."

Sunday, October 16, 2011

More on National Book Awarding Judging

As an NBA panelist this year, I can tell you what the judging is not about. It's not about settling scores. Not about rewarding career achievement. Not about "side-lining already successful titles." Not about lifting up lesser known authors. In fact, it's not about literary politics or really anything described above: it's about the book at hand. Is it successful? That is, a good story extraordinarily well told? If so, the novel will rise up from the pile of hundreds of submissions, and find its way to the judges' final selections. Indeed, the panelists are so overwhelmed by the volume of reading that who wrote or published the book is far down the list of considerations. We don't much care about the author; but we care greatly for his or her book.

(in reaction to “What Does The National Book Award Stand For?  What Should It Stand For?”, Oct 14, 2011)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

National Book Awards: The Judging Part

Update on my work for the NBA this long summer and fall:  finally got through several hundred (yes) YA novels, along with my four colleagues on the Youth Lit panel.  We met first in New York City to get acquainted, then had our meetings on a Google document/spreadsheet where we reviewed and ranked each novel.  We also had many conference calls.  I will write at length about this process for the HuffingtonPost, then repost that here--so won't go on at the moment.

I'm actually back on my heels and then some.  After all our hard work, there was a public relations fiasco at the very end.  The list of five finalists the committee submitted was announced wrongly on National Public Radio.  Two of the books had a similar name, and the wrong one was announced as a finalist.  The "real" finalist was quickly added to the list, but the damage was done.  Damage control is ongoing by the NBA as I write, and going way too slowly for my tastes.  More to come on this.