Monday, December 29, 2008

Morris Shortlist: Graceling

Kristin Cashore
2008; Harcourt; 978-0-15-206396-2 (hardcover)

Summary: Katsa is Graced. Some people in her world, those with eyes of two different colors, have a special ability or talent. It can take many different forms: being able to cook divinely, predict the weather, or climb trees like a squirrel. For Katsa, her Grace is killing. She can kill anyone, with hardly any effort on her part. Her uncle, the King, has taken full advantage of her "gift". And then, Katsa meets a prince from another kingdom. A prince who is a Graceling, too.

My Humble Thoughts on Why This Book Was Shortlisted for the Morris Award

#1: A complete, all-encompassing world.

The world envisioned in Graceling is one that is easy to fall into. Rather than relying on the extreme description found in some fantasy novels, Cashore chooses a more restrained approach. Only those sights that have an impact on Katsa are described, lending additional weight to the emotions experienced by her.
"The buildings of the city were brown sandstone, yellow marble, and white quartz that sparkled with the light from sky and water. And the domes and turrets of the structure that rose above the others and sprawled across the skyline were, in fact, gold: Ror's castle and Po's childhood home. So big and so bright that Katsa hung from the riggings with her mouth hanging open." (page 403)
Katsa is a no-nonsense, compelling character, and the tone of the novel suits her story. The description and language allows us to see Katsa's world through her eyes: a world of danger and destruction and hardship but also one of beauty and friendship and love.

#2: An appealing heroine.

To an observer, Katsa is a hard, dangerous young woman. Stories about her Grace--and how her uncle has made her use it--have spread far. There are only a few people she is able to relax around, to show her true self. Throughout the course of the novel, Katsa struggles to let Po in, as well as with her Grace. Having insight into Katsa's tangled throughts creates sympathy and interest within the reader for this character. This is not to say that the other characters aren't compelling. Several of them, such as Po, Bitterblue, and Raffin, leap off the page. In fact, there are too many interesting characters, some of which you're left wanting more of.

#3: A relatable conflict.

Katsa has many challenges, and perhaps foremost is her struggle with her Grace. She discoverd her abilities as a small girl, when she accidentally killed a man who scared her. That experience marks Katsa, leaving her in great fear of losing control. Yet gradually, Katsa comes to realize that perhaps there is more to her Grace than just killing. Like so many teenagers, Katsa is questioning what she's thought before with how she feels. Part of becoming an adult is learning to listen to yourself, to trust your instincts, while still accomodating other people's viewpoints. Katsa's progress along this path is sure to keep teens reading, for her struggle is the same as other teens, the external trappings to the contrary.

Graceling is a novel that sucks in readers almost immediately. With a score of well-rounded characters and a plot that balances action with introspection, Kristin Cashore has written a book that creates a rich fantasy world that will appeal to non-fantasy readers. I was left wanting more at the conclusion of this novel, and I hope to see more of this world, and more from Cashore.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Morris Shortlist: Me, the Missing, and the Dead

Me, the Missing, and the Dead
Jenny Valentine
2008 (2007 copyright date); HarperTeen; 978-0-06-085068-5 (hardcover)

Summary: Lucas is an average sixteen-year-old in London, living with his mom and siblings, visiting his grandparents, and hanging out with his friend Ed. The not-average thing about him? His father disappeared five years ago. Ever since then, Lucas has refused to let his father go--even wearing his dad's old clothes. But now, something even more not-average has happened: Lucas rescues an urn of ashes, left behind in a taxi. And the ashes inside? They have something to tell Lucas.

My Humble Thoughts on Why This Book Was Shortlisted for the Morris Award

#1: An intriguing story that reveals how coincidences aren't always coincidences.

This novel starts with a commonplace mystery--what happened to Lucas's dad? Then it adds in the mystery of the urn and why the urn was left in a taxi. It's no surprise, really, that these two mysteries connect. But the joining of these two stories, and the eventual solution, isn't about the mysteries themselves. No mystery is ever about facts like who the killer is or what really happened. It's about the process of learning those facts. Valentine constructs a believable sequence of events as Lucas navigates his way to the truth about not just the missing and the dead, but about himself.

#2: True-to-life characters that we all know.

Unlike other teen novels, there are no quirky, larger-than-life characters in this book. The actions of average people can be just as enthralling as the unusual or the eccentric, however. Violet Park and Pete Swain are dynamic and exciting people--and they are the dead and the missing of the title. As such, while they make a momentary impact, they are still ciphers to us. Like a stone falling into a pond, these characters shake people up, yet the reader is left knowing more about the pond. The subtle shifts in Lucas's moods, the peaks and valleys of his relationships, are fully detailed throughout the novel. There's also Lucas's disappointed mom, his senile grandfather and his live-wire grandmother. Common characters, yes, but all executed well by an observant writer.

#3: That little something extra.

Valentine reveals a gift for language that's not flowery or over the top. Consider these sentences from early in the book:
"It was dark in the alley, blue-black with a sheen of orange from the street lamps on the high street, almost dawn and sort of timeless. My shoes made such a ringing noise on the cobbles, I started to imagine I was back in time, in some Victorian red-light district." (page 3)
There's no odd metaphors or really strange juxtapositions: just descriptive prose that captures a character's feelings and creates a mood.
"It wasn't just paper in the boxes from the attic. It was clothes and records and cuff links and jewelry and brushes and sunglasses and a guitar and a ashtray I'd made out of clay when I was about seven.
I looked at it and I thought, It's all that's left of him.

Then I thought of him in some other place, with new records and clothes and photos and kids who made ashtrays; and I thought that he was still the same poor excuse for a man, however much shopping he'd done, the bastard."
(page 138)

Me, the Missing, and the Dead on the surface would appear to be a standard teen novel: a step up from the more fluffy titles available to teens and with a broad appeal. Yet due to the quality of the writing, this debut shows that you can write economically and truthfully for teens without becoming melodramatic or false. It indicates a restraint and a talent in Jenny Valentine that I hope will continue to be developed.

The William C. Morris Award

On Monday, December 8, the shortlist for the first-ever William C. Morris YA Debut Award was announced. This is the only award bestowed by YALSA that creates a shortlist, and the five titles being considered are:

A Curse Dark As Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce
Graceling by Kristin Cashore
Absolute Brightness by James Lecesne
Madapple by Christina Meldrum
Me, the Missing, and the Dead by Jenny Valentine

Over the next few weeks, leading up to the ALA Midwinter Conference and the announcement of the winner, I'll be reading and reviewing each of the shortlisted books. I hope you enjoy my perspective on each of these books.

If you're curious, the Morris Award will be "honoring a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrating impressive new voices in young adult literature." (About the Award)

The three qualifications that these shortlisted titles have are:
  • Compelling, high quality writing and/or illustration
  • The integrity of the work as a whole
  • Its proven or potential appeal to a wide range of teen readers
Let's see how these five books meet these qualifications!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Opinion: The Ongoing Newbery Debate

I noticed today in my local coffee shop/favorite lunch spot that the Washington Post had just added some fuel to the Newbery fire: Critics Say Newbery-Winning Books Are Too Challenging for Young Readers.

This headline is rather misleading, as this is a fairly even-handed article, talking about how the Newbery denotes a lot of status, not to mention sales increases--yet many people are not aware of what requirements are needed for a book to win the Newbery Medal. As the article cites, many people believe that the award is for books written for children that are between the ages of eight and twelve. But as us librarians know, the Newbery is awarded to the work of children's literature of the highest quality--a book that is appropriate for a child up to and including the age of fourteen.

It's always interesting to see how the outside world views the work we do, especially when it comes to something like the Newbery that has gone beyond libraryland. This article does a fairly good job of looking at this issue from various points of view. Regardless of how you feel about Anita Silvey's original article, I think this new article gives us some more food for thought on this ongoing issue.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Review: Janes in Love

Janes in Love
Cecil Castellucci, writer; Jim Rugg, illustrator
2008; Minx (DC Comics); 978-1-4012-1387-9 (softcover)

Summary: P.L.A.I.N. (People Loving Art in Neighborhoods) is back! Jane and her friends--who all happen to be named Jane or some variation--have created a street art movement that is both embraced and threatened in the small town of Kent Waters. Yet after making a stand for art, Jane isn't so sure that beauty really exists--not when so many people try to discourage it. Plus, the Janes are fighting, Cindy won't speak to Jane, and there's still the majorly confusing Damon. Will Jane break under the pressure and confusion, or will she find strength in her art?

Side Note: There's apparently two different covers for this graphic novel! The one I read features Jane with red hair, whereas the covers available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble show her with black hair, as was established to be her hair color in the original graphic novel.

Four Things to Know About Janes in Love

#1: Lightning doesn't always strike twice.

Janes in Love is the sequel to the widely-acclaimed The Plain Janes. The first graphic novel was named a Great Graphic Novel for Teens and seemingly established Minx as a comics imprint to watch. Unfortunately, Janes in Love doesn't match the appeal of The Plain Janes, although there is plenty to like in this sequel. That's always the risk in following the events of one book in another: the magical alchemy that created the first book is just a little off the second time around. The focus on romance in this graphic novel draws too much attention away from P.L.A.I.N.'s efforts to create art in their neighborhood and Jane's recovery from the trauma of the Metro City bombing. And that's a real drawback to this graphic novel, even as there are other good story lines in play. Perhaps this was supposed to be a transitional novel, setting up the next book in the series. However, the unfortunate cancellation of Minx has set the future for any Minx-published books into great doubt.

#2: Where should art be found?

Janes in Love continues the discussion about art and beauty begun in The Plain Janes. P.L.A.I.N. is still seen as vandalism in Kent Waters; rather than support a public garden on a long-vacant lot, the town holds out hope that a developer will buy the property. Like so many towns, Kent Waters seems focused on a development-friendly policy, to the point of losing the town's identity. From the viewpoint of the town's powers-that-be, it could be P.L.A.I.N. today, terrorists tomorrow. Yet this argument only reflects the lack of logic that pervades government that prizes being "safe" above all else.

#3: How does art survive?

As Sondheim said in the song Putting It Together, "Advancing art is easy-financing it is not." Jane's ideas have outstripped their allowances, so she writes a grant application for funding to create a neighborhood garden. There are challenges from both the grant organization and from the town, creating roadblocks to Jane. Yet she keeps working to create the garden, helped by her friends. When their project succeeds, P.L.A.I.N. is lauded for their work, especially since they're just high school students. This success is all the sweeter for the hard work and setbacks that we see Jane experience.

#4: Friends and love: sometimes they mix, sometimes they don't.

Love is in the air, and all the Janes are crushing on different guys. Some work out, some don't. Front and center is the messy friendship--or maybe more?--between Jane and Damon. Full of mixed messages, longing, and jealousy, these two never seem to be in the right place together. At the end of the story, they're friends, although it's played ambiguously. While this ambiguity is unnecessarily murky, not to mention enough to make the reader want to shake Jane until she's over her crush on Damon, it's an interesting way to end a novel that has featured so much romance.

Janes in Love works as a stand-alone graphic novel, yet it is more fully enjoyed after reading The Plain Janes. For those artsy teens who are always drawing, pass them these two graphic novels to help them expand their vision.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Review: Planet Pregnancy

Planet Pregnancy
Linda Oatman High
2008; Front Street; 978-1-59078-584-1 (hardback)

Some cover, isn't it? You can't see it on the picture, but the cover features a small dimple to represent the protuding navel on the pregnant belly. This is a great example of a cover that serves the story and then some.

Told in the first person, Planet Pregnancy relates the journey that Sahara takes when she discovers she is pregnant. When I started this book, I was surprised by the free verse that it's told in. There's been plenty of novels in verse in the YA world. Yet the verse in this book is full of rhymes and sing-song rhythms. It reminded me of the poetry I wrote in middle school, very earnest and equally determined to rhyme. While this helped me see Sahara's perspective much more easily, I was also a bit taken aback to see an author going there: writing verse that was not technically accomplished, but that served the character so well. For that reason, I have to applaud Linda Oatman High for showing this kind of restraint by valuing character over craft.

While this book doesn't say anything new about teen pregnancy, it still offers a visceral look at one teen's struggle with how her life is changed now that the stick has a pink line. This might be a good read-alike option for fans of Sonya Sones, once they've exhausted her published works.