Over the last year, I’ve read a lot of books — and a ton of debuts at that. Part of why I like to read so many debuts, aside from the fact I get exposed to completely new and fresh voices, is that I like to play the “how many can I guess” game come awards season. Plus, the lively discussions (or debates) you can have when you’ve read the books that do get award nods are much better than if you haven’t read any.
This year, when the Morris Award finalists were announced, I was pretty pleased with myself because I’ve read four of the five titles (but Kimberly has reviewed that title here). Of those, three were ones I’d pinned as potentials list-makers after reading them. Since I’ve never fully reviewed any of the titles, here’s a look at the four I’ve read and my thoughts on them. Any thoughts you have are more than welcome, of course. I love a good discussion!
Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s Under the Mesquite takes place in Eagle Pass, Texas (and a bit in Mexico, as well) and it follows the story of Lupita, who is dealing with a cancer-stricken mother, a host of brothers and sisters, and the daily challenges of living in a border town. Of all the verse novels I read this year — and I’m pretty sure I’ve read every young adult verse novel this year — this one was one of the strongest in form. It worked around each page and pass, and I really felt like it captured Lupita’s voice very well.
The story itself is compelling, especially because it really digs into the challenges that come with devoting oneself to family while pursuing one’s dreams. It’s one of those issues that’s particularly important in a lot of first generation immigrants, and it’s one with which readers definitely will identify. McCall offers readers a relatable character, and she tells a story that’s culturally pertinent right now and will continue to be relevant. I read this one immediately after reading Ashley Hope Perez’s What Can'(t) Wait (another debut), which explores similar themes and came away thinking that finally (!) there are authors writing really good stories about the challenges of growing with one’s latino/a heritage in America.
My problem, however, was that the resolution in this story comes out of left field. What Lupita chooses at the end didn’t make sense in context of the rest of the story, simply because what she does was something that never came up throughout the book. I’d have bought it in a heartbeat had she mentioned her desires to do what she did, but she didn’t. This is where I think Perez’s story is much more successful. While I think McCall’s book was strong in writing, it lacked in cohesive plot resolution, and I think compared to other titles on the shortlist, it doesn’t stack up as strongly. It does, however, have good reader appeal, which is a factor (however small) in the decisions of the Morris committee.
Where McCall’s book did feature reader appeal, I feel like Jennifer Hubbard’s Paper Covers Rock lacks. Admittedly, this book was one I had a hard time reading. I would read a page or two, put it down, not want to pick it up, pick it up reluctantly, and the process would repeat.
Here’s the deal: it’s set at a private, all-boys prep school in the 1980s. There are secrets and scandals. And it’s very, very literary. But it’s not just literary, it’s a wink and a nudge to a whole host of literary novels — especially the classic and canonical A Separate Peace. There’s also a lot of reference to Moby Dick and even though that is My All-Time Favorite Classical Read (capitals important because I’m not being sarcastic, actually), I couldn’t revel in them like I wanted to. In being so heavy in references, the story for me got so lost and convoluted. I don’t remember anything about the plot from this one, other than the fact it made tons of use of the references and made me anxious to be finished. The story becomes too aware of itself. As soon as I finished, though, I noted that it reminded me of an awardy book. And, bingo.
Obviously, this one had all of the things I dislike in a book. The arbitrary 1980s setting only enhanced my frustration with the read, and I say as a librarian, I have a hard time figuring out who the readership is for this book other than an adult/award committee. Don’t get me wrong here, though. Hubbard does what she does well. The writing is strong and the ability to make all those connections to other works is masterful. But at the end, I still wonder whether the style ended up taking over substance. Or rather, the substance of the style overtook the story.
Let’s talk now about the non-reluctant reader for a second. I mentioned in the book above I had a hard time figuring out an audience for such a heavy, literary novel. In the case of John Corey Whaley’s Where Things Come Back, I have no trouble knowing that readers who would appreciate this one are those who like their works challenging, substantial, and literary. Where the Hubbard book lacked a strong storyline for me, Whaley’s nails it.
I’ve actually talked about this book before (briefly), so I won’t go too much into what worked for me. This is a book where two very separate storylines compel the reader forward to figure out how they are related to one another. It’s layered and nuanced and complicated, but it doesn’t become overly aware of itself in the process. We are grounded in the story, rather than caught up in the technique to make the story.
As soon as I finished reading this book earlier in the year, it became the top runner in my mind for Morris consideration, and I’m thrilled to see it made the list. I’d love to see this one take the top prize come January because I think that it not only deserves it, but I think it give this gem a little more attention than it’s already received. Cullen’s voice is authentic, memorable, and, I think, relatable to so many readers, particularly those who aren’t city kids but rather are your average, small town kids.
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys was a non-surprise for me on this list, and that’s not meant to be a bad or a good thing. The book got loads of good attention, and it’s one that I’m glad I read. I had no idea about this facet of history, nor that Stalin actively deported Lithuanians. It was a horrifying read because of how eye-opening it was. And for me, I don’t see a problem with teen appeal here at all. The teens I’ve worked with are fascinated by World War II stories and devour them. Giving them a book that takes such a different approach to the war and opens up an entire new story is exactly what I want to do, and I know they’ll read it.
However — and I know this is going to be unpopular — I’m not sure how well written the book itself is. Lina, the main character, seems to take forever to develop a real voice. It’s a story of horror and fear and torment and that’s all there. But I often question while reading a book set in this era or similar ones how much of that is the work of strong writing skills versus how much is the weight these events carry on their own. While Lina does eventually gain a voice (and a killer one that led me to mark a few really powerful and moving lines), it took a long time to come. I’m conscious of the fact it’ll be overpowered by the events, as it should be, but at the same time, I go back to the question of whether that’s necessarily a fair argument to even make given the situations themselves carry so much.
For me, the story was completely there, but I would have liked tighter, maybe even more compelling, writing throughout, rather than at the end of the book. I think what pleases me about the Morris shortlist is that, despite my issues with the writing in this book, Between Shades of Gray deserves its spot because of the story itself.
Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns is the one book I haven’t read so far, but I’ll link again to Kim’s review. Even though I’m not a fantasy reader, I’ve put this one on hold because I’m curious enough to pick it up (see, Morris awards have another great purpose!).
What I know about this book, though, is that it’s huge on appeal. A strong girl main character in a fantasy world and comparisons to Tamora Pierce? I don’t see how this book doesn’t sell itself to those readers.
I’m pleased to see that a book which has huge reader appeal made the list, as well as those which have more limited appeal. Even though I don’t get caught up on the idea of balance when it comes to award lists, it feels like this year’s field of Morris shortlist titles is quite well balanced. There are some titles I’m sad didn’t see the list, but on the whole, I think this is a pretty good, albeit not all that surprising, roster.
In the end, my money’s on Where Things Come Back. I’m really looking forward to being able to attend my first Youth Media Awards ceremony and knowing I’ll have read all of these books by then only makes it that much sweeter.