The countdown to the ALA award announcements day, arguably the most exciting day of the children’s-literature year, began, for me, in the fall of 2011, when I was appointed to the Morris YA Debut Committee. Not as well-known as its older counterparts, the Newbery, Caldecott and Printz, it has a very specific mission: to “[honor] a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens.” I have done a fair amount of committee work but always in the realm of children’s books, not books for teens. I thought that the Morris, with its relatively restricted scope, would be a low-impact way for me to dip my toe in the YA waters.
Ha. There were way more first books published for teens this year than I ever imagined there could be, and I was hard-pressed to find time to read anything that wasn’t a debut. Though technically the award is for any kind of writing, there were far more eligible novels published than anything else, so I spent my year splashing about in fiction of all sorts: fantasy and magical realism, science fiction and its popular little siblings, post-apocalyptic adventure and dystopian romance, mystery, historical fiction, gritty realism.
In December, the committee got together virtually to decide on a shortlist. We selected five books, and at the ALA’s Midwinter Meeting in Seattle, we will choose the winner, which will be announced on Monday morning, January 28. Re-rereading these five books to prepare was sheer pleasure. What I think I love most about this shortlist is the distinctiveness of all the narrative voices, one to the other. In alphabetical order by author, here is a sample:
Wonder Show, by Hannah Barnaby, mesmerizingly realizes the dusty, dingy but still magical world of the small-time freak show. It becomes a haven for 14-year-old parentless Portia, who escapes the positively gothic McGreavey’s Home for Wayward Girls and lands a job “crying the ballyhoo” at the circus sideshow. Barnaby’s meticulous, lyrical narration captures readers as it lovingly creates its setting: “they wove between the fading painted trailers, ducked under half-empty clotheslines, passed through the temporary town the circus became when it was settled in place. It seemed so familiar, this progression of shapes and structures, like the set of a play Portia had seen before.”
Love and Other Perishable Items, by Laura Buzo, takes readers to that most romantic of locales, a suburban supermarket. There, 15-year-old Amelia and 21-year-old Chris cope with unrequited love in blisteringly smart alternating narration. Amelia adores Chris with all her heart, but Chris is fixated on Michaela, his lost, first love. A spectacular example of what some are calling literature for the “new adult,” this nonromance nails both characters. And it is so, so funny: Amelia reflects that “I should have my own TV show, all right. It would be called Lifestyles of the Young and Powerless. Lifestyles of Them That Had a Mouthful of Metal Until a Short Time Ago. Lifestyles of Them That Still Let Their Mums Choose Their Clothes and Spent Last Saturday Night at Their Best Mate’s House Studying.”
After the Snow, by S.D. Crockett, takes place in a post-apocalyptic Wales in which global warming (probably) has triggered a worldwide cooling. Willo, a largely unlettered child who has grown up in the remote, mountainous countryside, speaks in an idiosyncratic, visceral vernacular that at first distances but soon draws readers in. His tightly filtered, present-tense perceptions give readers a taste of raw survival in a blasted, wintry landscape and wire them directly into his thought processes. “I shout at the snow quite a bit. The shouting aint helping me I know. It probably make me sweat more and my face get red I can feel it. But sometimes when you’re going to get angry it aint something you can stop just by saying it gonna be a good thing to stop.”
The Miseducation of Cameron Post, by emily m. danforth, chronicles the coming-of-age of a Montana lesbian in the ’90s—not an easy time or place. Twelve-year-old Cameron’s world is rocked when her friend Irene kisses her; it is upended entirely when her parents are killed in an automobile accident that very day. Over the next four years, she slowly grows into her identity, catastrophically falls in love and emerges on her own. Cameron’s voice is blunt, often extremely funny and achingly honest. Of her born-again aunt, who arrives to fill the void left by her parents, she reflects, “we were related, and here she was, and I was glad, I think. I think I was glad to see her. Or at least it felt, just then, like it was the right thing, the correct thing to have happen, for her to walk into the room.”
Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman, makes her home in the capital city of the fantasy kingdom of Goredd, with an architecture, culture and cosmology that owe a lot to medieval Europe. Seraphina is a court musician who hides a potentially deadly secret: She is half human, half dragon in a society that has only barely maintained a tenuous, decades-old peace with dragons. Her narration of the events surrounding the murder of a royal and a state visit by the ruler of the dragons effortlessly accommodates worldbuilding without sacrificing character development, her wry observations often startlingly colloquial yet always just right: “I knew some of these courtiers.…They usually joined the choir, but that fair-haired Samsamese across from me played a mean viola da gamba.”
Five great books, five great voices. Which will win?
Vicky Smith is the Children’s & Teen Editor of Kirkus Reviews.