Winning the Michael L. Printz Award is the highest honor a writer for young adults can achieve. Some authors like John Green receive it for their first book (2006’s Looking for Alaska). I can’t speak for any of the winning authors and say that they aim for a Printz winner every time, but there have been a number of multiple winners in the relatively short time the award has been given since 2000. After winning a 2000 Printz Honor for Skellig, David Almond won it again in 2001 for Kit’s Wilderness. John Green followed his 2006 Printz win with a 2007 Printz Honor for An Abundance of Katherines. Even if they don’t win the award, all the winning authors have continued to publish an extraordinary body of work.
I just finished Adam Rapp’s newest, The Children and the Wolves. I feel like I always feel after I’ve finished one of his books: like I’ve been punched in the gut. Love him or hate him, his books illicit a strong response. Like 33 Snowfish and Punkzilla (a 2010 Printz Honor title) and Rapp’s other works, it’s a realistic, gritty story about kids who are marginalized by society–whether it’s because they are from broken families with parents just scraping by or too wealthy and self-centered with their own lives and careers to pay attention to their brilliant but troubled children.
Wealthy Carla (AKA Bounce), 14, is super-smart with a sociopathic love for violence (she loves extreme fighting, especially cage fighting) and a fascination with opening up animals’ innards to see what make them tick. She’s persuaded two 7th grade outcasts, Wiggins and Orange, who can’t resist her allure, and her prescription drugs, to kidnap a 3-year-old girl they call Frog and hold her hostage in Orange’s basement. Bounce was inspired to kidnap Frog after a local poet spoke to her Honors English class and railed against mass consumerism like TV, the internet, fast food, and the other evils that are imprisoning and limiting everyone’s freedom. Bounce likes mass consumerism, so she decides to kidnap Frog, then collect money on her behalf by using it to publicize the child’s disappearance and use it to buy a gun and make the author disappear.
The characters take turns narrating each chapter as the events unfold. Reading Rapp can be like watching a car wreck. You want to turn away, but you are compelled to keep reading. You keep hoping his troubled, immoral, and delusional characters will redeem themselves even as you know that, like life, there are no guarantees of a happy ending for any of his characters.
Dying to Know You by Aidan Chambers (who won the 2003 Printz Award), while it explores serious themes, is not nearly as bleak as Rapp’s book. Karl, 18, a sensitive and introspective plumber’s assistant in Great Britain, asks a 75-year-old local novelist, whose name is never revealed, to help him write answers to questions posed to him by his girlfriend Fiorella. She thinks that the best way to know someone is through their writing, but it’s not easy for Karl because he has dyslexia. The author understands Karl’s dilemma because he, too, had dyslexia and agrees to help–Cyrano de Bergerac style. The novelist becomes a friend and father figure for Karl since Karl’s father died when Karl was 12, and he never got over it. When Fiorella dumps Karl, he’s devastated and becomes so depressed that his mother fears the worst. With the author’s help, Karl discovers a reason to go on and an interest in sculpture. Despite the fact that the book is told in the first person from the novelist’s point-of-view and contains comments about his sciatica and other age related complaints, he and Karl find they both have much in common. Their shared experiences bring out the best in these two likable characters in this touching and beautifully written story.
We all know God spelled backwards is Dog. That’s the idea behind Meg Rosoff’s humorous and irreverent novel There Is No Dog. (She won the Printz in 2005.) Here, God’s named Bob and he’s a typical teenaged boy: a handsome slob obsessed with girls to the exclusion of everything he’s created in the world. Every time Bob falls in love, the earth erupts in natural disasters. His long-suffering assistant Mr. B is sick and tired of him and just wants to quit. Bob’s only friend is his penguiny thing, the last of its kind called Eck that his mother drunkenly gambled away in a poker game. When Bob falls for beautiful assistant zookeeper Lucy, humankind’s in trouble!
I’ve really been looking forward to reading Paolo Bacigalupi’s follow-up to his 2011 Printz-winning novel Ship Breaker. I wasn’t disappointed. In my opinion, The Drowned Cities is even darker and more gripping than Ship Breaker. Drowned Cities is set in the same world, but is not a sequel to Ship Breaker. In this future world, major cities, including Washington, DC, are flooded, and nature in the form of jungle-like vegetation is taking over. Warlords of various factions brutalize and murder everyone, forcing the young men they capture to become soldier boys. One-handed war orphan Mahlia and her friend Mouse are just trying to survive when they discover a hugely massive part-man, part bioengineered beast named Tool that’s wounded and are forced to try to help it survive. After Mouse is captured by a faction of soldier boys, Mahlia must decide whether to escape north with Tool or rescue Mouse. Although this novel is fiction, it parallels the atrocities occurring now in many African countries. It is a chilling, heart-wrenching, yet utterly compelling read.
Space limitations prevent me from mentioning John Green’s latest, The Fault in Our Stars; the newest by Walter Dean Myers (2000 Printz Winner for Monster), All the Right Stuff; or John Barnes’s (2010 Printz Honor Winner for Tales of the Madman Underground) current book, Losers in Space. I guess I’ll have to get to them in another post! Which Printz-winning author’s latest books are you most excited about?
— Sharon Rawlins, currently listening to Legend by Marie Lu