Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Tonight's the Night

Although it doesn’t carry the same prestige as either the Newbery or Caldecott, the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature is a significant prize that deserves the attention of both readers and book collectors.

In mid-October, the National Book Foundation announced the five finalists for this year’s award: CHAINS by Laurie Halse Anderson; THE UNDERNEATH by Kathi Appelt; WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED by Judy Blundell; THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE-LANDAU BANKS by E. Lockhart, and THE SPECTACULAR NOW by Tim Tharp.

The winner will be named tonight, Wednesday, November 19, at a gala event in New York City. Will the honored book go on to win other awards and become a modern classic like 1998’s winner, HOLES by Louis Sachar, or will it be a steaming hot mess like THE SLIGHTLY IRREGULAR FIRE ENGINE, OR THE HITHERING DITHERING DJINN, the Donald Barthelme stinkeroo that earned the 1972 NBA?

To answer that question, I read all five of this year’s finalists. I’m happy to report that none of them are embarrassingly awful. In fact, most are quite good. I would even call one of them “great.” Since these are books people will be reading and talking about today...and perhaps collecting tomorrow, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the five finalists in order of preference, beginning with what I consider the least successful book and working up to my favorite of the five.

by E. Lockhart
Hyperion, 2008

First edition points: The dustjacket has a price of $16.95 and there is an embossed illustration of a basset hound on the front panel (I mention the embossment only because these extra flourishes are often removed in later printings.) The copyright page must contain the following complete numbering sequence to be a true first edition: 1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2.

Difficulty in finding first editions: Lockhart is a popular author (DRAMARAMA; THE BOYFRIEND LIST) and this novel, published in late March, is already in later printings.

Frankie Landau-Banks spent her freshman year at the prestigious Alabaster Preparatory Academy, as a “mildly geeky” student who joined the debate team and tagged-along with her older sister’s friends. But after a physically transformative summer, Frankie returns for her sophomore year “curvy, lithe, and possessed of enough oomph to stop teenage boys in the street.” She soon acquires a boyfriend who is a member of the boarding school’s all-male secret society. By a mix of luck and skill, Frankie also acquires the club's handbook and wrests control of the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds from its alpha-dog leader, directing the group’s activities through a series of anonymous e-mails. Frankie is an engaging, think-outside-the-box character whose conversations are studded with what she calls “neglected positives” (“The neglected positive of immaculate is maculate, meaning morally blemished or stained.”) Therefore, readers may be disappointed that the pranks Frankie devises for the Basset Hounds (putting brassieres on school portraits and buildings; having the senior class wear dog masks) aren’t nearly as original or humorous as her oddball dialogue and thought-processes would lead one to expect. And the motivations for Frankie’s behavior remain rather hazy throughout -- perhaps even to Frankie herself. The novel’s most striking component is its deliberately arch and self-conscious writing style (“Information as to the locale and setting of Alabaster, its course requirements, and the sports activities required therein will be given in these pages solely on a need-to-know basis.”) which includes a few first-person interjections by the omniscient narrator. Even those who find the book to slow-to-start and Frankie’s exploits unremarkable may concede that the novel is a triumph of style over substance.

by Kathi Appelt; with drawings by David Small
Atheneum, 2008

First edition points: The dustjacket has a price of $16.99 and the title is embossed on the front panel. A date code of 0508 is on the bottom of the front dustjacket panel. The copyright page must contain the words “First Edition” AND this complete number sequence: 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1.

Difficulty in finding first editions: The book was published in May to great acclaim and fanfare. I don’t know how many copies were printed or if the book has now moved into later printings. I will say that many consider THE UNDERNEATH to be frontrunner for the Newbery Medal (and probably the only title among these NBA finalists having that distinction; the rest are better defined as young-adult novels.) If it does win the Newbery come January, first editions may be difficult to find.

Like the previous novel, THE UNDERNEATH also emphasizes writing style, though in this case it's often to the detriment of the story being told. Appelt braids three separate plot threads. One tells of the friendship between a pregnant calico cat and a hound dog, permanently chained to a porch by his cruel owner, a man known as Gar Face; the second concerns Gar Face’s quest to capture a mammoth alligator in the bayou. The third, and least successful, thread concerns a shapeshifting snake whose fate is ultimately entwined with the hound, the calico, and her eventual kittens. Those who enjoy animal stories (and can get past some painful scenes of animal abuse) will be moved by the relationship between the hound dog and the feline characters that lies at the novel's core. However, the lengthy narrative is slowed considerably by a lot of philosophizing and broad-based mysticism that draws on both legend (the shapeshifting snake is “cousin to the mermaids, the ondines, the great seafolk known as selkies”) and Native American culture. The author’s short fiction (KISSING TENNESSEE AND OTHER STORIES FROM THE STARDUST DANCE) and verse-memoir (MY FATHER’S SUMMERS) show her gift for economical poetic writing. The poetry is here as well, but not the economy. The florid, repetitive prose (“This boy, a boy who sneered at kindness, even from his mother, his mother who loved flowers and birds”) might lend itself well to read-alouds, but seems affected and occasionally silly on the page (“Beware this cruel boy, this boy of darkness” the narrative warns the reader), leading to a generally overwritten work. Some critics I trust are calling THE UNDERNEATH the year’s best; I think it’s an intriguing book that perhaps tries a bit too hard to tell an important story -- instead of simply telling a story.

by Tim Tharp
Knopf, 2008

First edition points: The dustjacket has a price of $16.99. The copyright page states “November 2008,” followed by the printing code 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 and the words “First Edition.”

Difficulty in finding first editions: Just released and should be widely available.

The judges who selected the five finalists for this year’s NBA, chair Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), Holly Black, Angela Johnson, Carolyn Mackler, and Cynthia Voigt were clearly impressed by highly-stylized writing. Like the two previous titles, THE SPECTACULAR NOW is written in a conspicuous “look at me!” narrative voice which, in this instance, is well-suited to the protagonist and his story. In a nonstop seriocomic monologue, high school senior Sutter Keely relates his frantic, antic experiences with girlfriends, at school, and on the job, through a haze of constant drinking and occasional drugging. Sutter’s brash “life of the party” persona becomes wearing over the course of nearly 300 pages, though there are occasional quiet moments that either allow us a glimpse of this teenage alcoholic’s emotional pain or reveal a startling moment of introspection. The complex relationship between Sutter and a guileless female classmate, which begins with sympathy dates and turns into something resembling love, is particularly well-portrayed. A character study in the guise of a problem novel, THE SPECTACULAR NOW contains a few unnecessary scenes that go nowhere (a runaway kid appears in the first chapter then is never mentioned again; a random revelation of statutory rape only clutters the plot) but on the whole it’s a strong work that comes to an unexpected conclusion that offers equal parts soaring hope and crushing despair.

by Judy Blundell
Scholastic, 2008

First edition points: The dustjacket has a price of $16.99 and the title is embossed. The copyright page must contain the complete printing code 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 and the words “First edition, November 2008.”

Difficulty in finding first editions: Just released and should be widely available.

The Second World War is over and Evie’s stepfather has returned from Europe. On a family vacation in Florida, the fifteen-year-old narrator finds herself enamored by fellow hotel guest Peter Coleridge, a former serviceman who coincidentally -- or perhaps not so coincidentally -- served in her stepfather’s army unit. Blinded by her own first love, Evie barely registers her mother and stepfather’s individual, but equally equivocal, responses to her new friend. The most conventional, least “literary” of the NBA finalists, this love story/crime novel smoothly delivers an authentic historical setting, a well-defined cast of characters (nearly every one living a lie of some type), and a yearning, lovestruck narrator who finds her world shaken by events which are outside her control and, initially, outside her understanding. Some may argue that Evie serves more as an observer to, rather than a participant in, the novel’s central conflict. More than one character describes her as a “watcher." Yet it is Evie who ends up resolving that conflict in a way that, for better or worse, ultimately changes her perspective on life and her place in the world. Lacking literary pretensions, this novel succeeds at exactly what it aims to do: tell an entertaining, thought-provoking story in an almost compulsively readable fashion. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

by Laurie Halse Anderson
Simon & Schuster, 2008

First edition points: The author’s name is embossed on the front of the dustjacket. The front flap has a price of $16.99 at the top and the words “A Junior Literary Guild Selection” and a date code of “1008” at the bottom. The copyright page must contain a boxed icon containing the words “FIRST EDITION” and a large “F” encased in a circle. Further, the complete printing code 2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1 must present.

Difficulty in finding first editions: The book was just published in October and I have no idea how large the first printing was...but considering the acclaim this novel has received, it might be a good idea to seek out a first edition sooner rather than later.

Many, if not most, slavery stories are set during the era of the Civil War. Not this one. In CHAINS, young Isabel is enslaved in 1776 New York, her struggle for freedom and independence paralleling the country’s burgeoning quest for the same. Though Isabel and her handicapped younger sister Ruth had been promised freedom by their former mistress, they are purchased by the Locktons, British loyalists raising money to support the Tory effort. When Madam Lockton separates the sisters, the enraged and heartbroken protagonist is determined to do whatever she can to earn her freedom and reunite with Ruth -- whether that means spying for the Patriots or volunteering to work for the British army. A vivid, exceptionally-detailed portrait of Revolutionary-era New York is brought to life in Isabel’s pitch-perfect narration which simultaneously conveys the personal atrocities of slavery (Isabel’s name is changed to “Sal” and she is branded on the face with the letter “I” for being insolent) as well as the character’s undying dream of liberty. This is the best historical novel I’ve read in some time and my favorite of the five National Book Award finalists.

...So, will CHAINS win? I’d like to think so, but I’m sure each of the five nominated titles has its supporters and detractors and frankly nothing surprises me these days when it comes to the hithering-dithering world of book awards.

Which of the five books is your favorite?


Charlotte said...

I dunno which will win, but I have plans to go visit my local bookstore today and get a copy of Chains, just in case...

Jen Robinson said...

I haven't read them all. But I'm still pulling for Chains. To me, it seems to be everything that a National Book Award winner should be.