Part 2 – Exploring the Printz Finalists (plus a bonus)
In Part 1 I looked at three of the finalists which featured highly stressed main characters – a gangbanging Haitian buried in rubble, a girl with severe Aspergers, and a street boy in 19th century London. Another common element, which I did not note in that post, is that none of these books depend upon a traditional central teen romance.
The two remaining books break from this pattern. In Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Benjamin Saenz tells a love story with a conventional arc. Two teens become fast friends, one clearly smitten, one resistant. The story opens with the 15-year-old Americanized, but Hispanic male narrator awakening to a feeling of loneliness and inadequacy. He is close to his mother, distant from his father. His sisters are 12-years-older, his only brother, also older, is in prison. It’s pretty clear in the opening pages that this will be a more self-reflective, interior journey. As such the strength of the book isn’t so much the tale, but the telling.
In Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wien spins a fantastical historical adventure whose central element is the intense friendship between two teenage girls. It begins with a sort of diary being written by one of the two girls; a diary which reveals the setting of WWII, and the circumstances: she is being held a prisoner of a sadistic German SS officer who is torturing her by making her live in her underwear (this is, of all the books, the one most clearly a TEEN book). By making it a journal, Wien is allowed to spin the tale from first person without revealing the fate of the teller. This is just the first gambit in what is a cleverly convoluted plot. The journal entries begin to tell the story of this friendship and solve for the reader how the narrator has come to her dire straits.
The third book I’d like to examine is the recently published Eleanor & Park, another more traditional romance, in which Rainbow Rowell partners two misfits: a loner half-Korean boy named Park from a well-adjusted loving family, and an impoverished eccentric Eleanor whose family situation is dangerous and dysfunctional. The story of their falling in love is so delicately and beautifully wrought that the book is clearly an early contender for the 2014 Printz.
One lesson to take away from three books which rely on a romantic (well, Verity is virtually romantic) attachment between two teens, is the amount of stress the authors layer onto the relationships. In Aristotle and Dante it is sexual identity, in Eleanor & Park it is Eleanor’s crippling home life and peer pressure, in Verity the friends are both brought together by the war, and then torn apart by it. Nothing comes easily to these relationships and only one of three ends well. All three are worth reading to find out which couple survives.