As the winter awards season comes to an end with the conclusion of the Oscars, it reminds me of our own awards season in January when the American Library Association announces its YA literary awards.
SEE MORE OF YALSA'S PICKS FOR BEST FICTION FOR YA 2011 HERE.
When you get right down to it, the major YA awards have Academy Award analogues. The Michael L. Printz is, of course, the literary version of the Oscar for Best Picture, while the Margaret A. Edwards is clearly a Lifetime Achievement award. The relatively new William C. Morris Debut YA Debut Award is analogous to the Academy’s Best Short Film category—both suggest promise and both entries can be considered practice shots taken in advance of Best Picture/Printz competitions. The Stonewall Children’s and YA Literature Award carries the same prestige as the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It can be said, that in both books and film, award winners usually represent works that vast audiences are comfortable supporting.
This year, like most, I had seen few of the Best Picture contenders. Similarly, I hadn’t read any of the Printz award winners. In fact, I’ve only read two of the Stonewall novels—the winner, Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher (Delacorte) and an honor book Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan (Dutton)—and read one of the Morris finalists, Hush by Eishes Chayil (Walker), and I didn’t really like it that much.
When it comes to notable YA reading, my tastes lie within the 99 books selected for the ALA's Best Fiction for Young Adults (BFYA)—I’ve read 10 of the titles on that list, but none from the “top 10”—and Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers (I’ve read eight of these titles, one of which was in the top 10, Rikers High by Paul Volponi (Viking), and it was probably one of my least favorite books of the year.
What does it mean that I am more drawn to books on the BFYA lists, those that the ALA considers of “demonstrable or probabl[e] appeal to the personal reading tastes of the young adult,” than the literary heavyweight Printz novels? What is it about these books that the ALA is betting that “teens, ages 12-18, will pick up on their own,” books that will appeal to the “teenager who, for whatever reason, does not like to read” that draws me in nearly every time?
Admittedly, ALA’s Quick Picks list includes several high concept and even sensational titles that I somewhat regret reading. Yet both the Quick Picks and BFYA lists include titles that resonate with me in spite of or because of their rich “genre-ness” or their popular slants.
Jonathan Maberry’s Rot & Ruin (Simon & Schuster), mentioned on the current BFYA list, is definitely on par with 2010 Printz honor book The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey (Simon & Schuster). Fourteen years after the zombie apocalypse, Rot & Ruin describes 15-year-old Benny’s apprenticeship to his brother Tom, a zombie bounty hunter. Comparable but not identical to Carrie Ryan’s Forest of Hands and Teeth novels (Delacorte), Rot & Ruin suggests that there are worse enemies than the undead.
The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith (Feiwel & Friends) is another BFYA title worth a second look. Blending the realistic problem novel with dystopian fantasy in a distinctly postmodern way, third-time YA author Smith practically invents a new genre. The author’s latest novel is comparable to 2007’s Surrender by Sonya Hartnett (Printz honor book, Candlewick).
A lot of folks have talked about Matthew Quick’s Sorta Like a Rock Star (Little, Brown), the simultaneously upbeat and heartbreaking YA debut featuring first-person narrator Amber, a high school student living in a school bus with her alcoholic mother. While practically any short summary of Quick’s novel would make it sound almost unbearably saccharine, consider this a mix of the best parts of Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison (2001 Printz honor book, HarperTeen) and True Believer by Virginia Euwer Wolff (2002 Printz honor book, Atheneum).
I’m not really a fantasy fan, so I never thought I’d consider a more traditional fantasy-like novel. Megan Whalen Turner’s A Conspiracy of Kings (HarperCollins/Greenwillow) is among my imaginary award picks. I was pleasantly surprised by this one, just as Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy (Candlewick) is arguably about war and the political machines that stoke its flames, A Conspiracy of Kings is a smart look at monarchic leadership set in a classical-cum-medieval world that defied my expectations. The descriptive, realized setting of Whalen Turner’s novel reminded me of the mythical land of Opium described in Nancy Farmer’s 2003 Printz honor winner The House of the Scorpion (Atheneum).
Hopefully, I’ve more than demonstrated the “acceptable literary quality” of a few more notable titles on this year’s BFYA list. Consider this my bid for the longevity of the merely “best” books and the beginning of my campaign for Christopher Pike as the next Margaret A. Edwards award winner.
Amy Pattee is an associate professor of library and information science at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College in Boston. She documents her reading on her blog, YA or STFU, at alanis.simmons.edu/blogs/yaorstfu/.