Monday, February 13, 2012

Postcards From No Man's Land, Printz Award, 2003

Postcards From No Man’s Land is an introspective coming-of-age story. Pieces of Jacob’s life and Geetrui’s weave together to create a satisfying narrative. The style is very mature, with a broad vocabulary and deep themes. To a unpracticed reader, the book may be boring, offensive, or hard to understand. One reviewer said, “It’s just this sort of book that causes YA readers to shun books with an award medal on the cover.” I disagree. It’s the sort of book that is literary, methodic and meaningful. Yes, it’s very different from the fast-paced active stories that teens are used to reading for entertainment, but it’s not inferior.

The voice is authentically teenage most of the time–self-centered, angsty, energetic, and eager. However, much of the vocabulary seems contrived. At one point I put the book down, thinking, this prose is ridiculous. The passage that struck me this way is as follows:
“How often with the aid of a couple of mirrors he had scowled from every possible angel at that offensive hooter, that hideous snout, that swollen trunk, that tumescent nasal evacuator. He would sometimes squeeze and manipulate the end of his embarrassing blower between finger and thumb, like a sculpture molding clay, hoping to reshape it into at least a presentable, if not a handsome conk.”
Jacob’s internal dialogue is far too literary for his age and personality, which may contribute greatly to the negative reactions to this book by other reviewers.

The format of switching between two stories is straightforward, although I spent far too much time trying to figure out how the two stories were connected. The dual-narrative format could also be an obstacle to less experienced readers. The format especially tripped me up at the insertion of other accounts of the 1944 battle from page 152 to 185; these accounts seemed out of place and unnecessary.

The two main characters are fascinating. While other characters are not fully round, they accurately represent what the two main characters could practically know about them. The reader meets the side characters as Jacob and Geertrui do. Emphasis is on their emotions and impressions rather than the actual description of the characters. For example, Geertrui does not initially tell us what the older Jacob looked like, only that “He had eyes that made me melt” (16).

Two settings serve to further the themes, contrasting an old Dutch village and new Dutch city. The descriptions are vivid, so it’s easy to imagine Geertrui’s house, the hotel turned military hospital, Daan’s apartment, the museum, the river, the little shops and restaurants in Amsterdam, and the graveyard.           

Themes in Postcards From No Man’s Land include identity, self-discovery, sexuality, self-honesty, grief, bravery, and integrity. I appreciate Chambers’s open discussion of issues like sexuality, euthanasia, and moral dilemma,  but Postcards addresses so many issues that it starts to feel like a heavily didactic story. This may be on purpose. In the story, Daan equates education with corruption (not meaning dishonesty or vice, but meaning distortion and alteration of form), and makes a valid point that new education inherently challenges old ideas and norms. I can't say how much Daan’s opinions about love resonate with me.
                        “There are no rules about love. Who you love. How many people you can love. Like love is some kind of commodity  . . . . Love is not finite. It is not that we each have a limited supply of it that we can only give to one person at a time. Or that we have one kind of love that can only be given to one person in the whole of our lives. It’s a ridiculous thing to think so.” 

I did struggle through this book, but the last few chapters completely changed the way I view it and personally connect to it. Although I could have done with a hundred less pages, I absolutely believe Postcards From No Man's Land deserved an award for its skillful narrative, authentic characters, challenging ideas, complex emotional journey, and advanced themes.

Kit's Wilderness, Printz Award, 2001

I expected a lot after reading the back of this book – I expected an intense plot, detailed stories about the past, and a search for ghosts. I didn’t get any of those things. Kit’s Wilderness has a rambling plot, which, even as magical realism, seems unrealistic. My opinion may stem from the drastic difference between the English culture portrayed in this book an my own – the repeated use of “eh? eh!,” the lax authority of all adults in the text, the classroom focus on the arts, the use of such a terrifying story as a school play, and Kit’s family’s responses to his grandfathers illness all seemed illogical to me.

Almond effectively uses a storyteller character’s voice as the narrator. The style of switching between story narration and Kit’s writing propelled the story through a slow part of the plot. The short story about Lak and his baby sister fascinated me, but the writing seemed far more mature Kit would be capable of. I would be very surprised to read a passage like this written by a 13-year-old – “He moved quickly with hope in his heart. The baby slept, contented. Behind him, the great dark birds spiraled from the sky, flapped heavily down into the hollow.”

Kit’s wilderness is full of unrealistic and undeveloped characters. I don’t know enough about any of them to care about their life or understand their decisions. Kit’s grandfather and Allie were the most interesting characters to me, but neither were active in the resolution of the story. The ghost children, as characters, served no purpose in the plot. They created a sense of magic and horror, adding to the tone of the story, but did not actively help or hinder Kit and Askew.

The theme of the books seems to be something grand about the struggle between life and death and the uncertainty of death. I think the story tries too hard to be heavy and important. The symbolism is hard-hitting and unmistakable. Askew is darkness and death but he’s capable of light and life. Allie is light and life but she’s capable of darkness and death. Kit is caught in between, trying to decide which he’d rather be with.

As a side note, the interactions between Kit and Askew really rub me the wrong way. Their passive-aggressive friendship mirrors many negative romantic relationships in more recent YA lit. John is a bully and focuses much of his anger on Kit, but Kit still befriends him and follows him into a frightening situation merely because Kit feels responsible to save him. The last scene in the mines makes this point for me. Askew lights a fire in the mine, and Kit cautions, “This is lethal. If there’s gas around . . .” Askew clearly cares for no one’s safety, responding “Kaboom! Great flash of fire and we’re all gone.” Kit stays in this dangerous situation only to repeatedly remind Askew that his “mother is searching for [him].”

The strongest aspects of Kit’s Wilderness are tone, history, and setting. The tone is beautifully bleak, like The Graveyard Book. The history of the small town is beautiful, and I wanted to know more about it. The sub-theme of the magical effects of history on current reality creates a far more fascinating concept than Kit’s struggle between life and death. The setting, with landscape descriptions, weather, and small town charm, really comes alive.

Monster, Printz Award, 2000

While the story Monster takes a unique tack with the teenage-victim-of-racism angle, it’s a bit boring and predictable. Reminiscent of John Grisham novels and every court-room drama aired on television, the novel makes use of sensationalism, extreme villainization, revelations of prison atrocities, and a protagonist of questionable morality.

Steve’s voice seems authentically masculine and teenage, and effectively uses a mixed media to convey story.  However, his voice is at times whiny and angsty. For instance, in one scene Steve watches a baseball game on tv and says, “They were playing baseball as if baseball was important and as if all the world wasn’t in jail, watching them from a completely different world.”

Because the voice is first person, it seems absurd to leave Steve’s guilt or innocence vague. A boy like Steve, so set on proving how horrible his situation is, would most likely answer that question in his own journal. The author gets around it by having Steve say, “I thought about writing about what happened at the drugstore, but I’d rather not have it in my mind.” Instead of coming across as a genuine emotion of the character, this reads as a contrived way to keep the reader in the dark.

The style keeps the narrative at a relatively quick pace, but format design could be confusing or annoying for some readers. The style is also completely “telling,” since Steve controls the entire narrative to the extent that all characters become untrustworthy.

The setting is real and raw, full of minute detail and colored by Steve’s emotional lens. For example, Steve describes his janitor duty with this sentence, “On the floor there were big arcs of grey dirty water and swirls of stinking brown bubbles.”

Steve as a character is hard to like. He doesn’t develop or reveal an interesting personality. All we know about Steve by the end of the novel is that he loves film and his family and that he was put in jail and on trial for a crime he may or may not have committed. The antagonists were flat, stereotypical characters, simply there to be villainized. Those supposedly supporting Steve weren’t much better.

Themes include racism, prison life, gang violence, fear, loneliness, name-calling, and labeling. The ambiguity of Steve’s guilt provides discussion opportunities. However, constant reference to race seems to be promoting or at least accepting the racism of the system instead of challenging it.

Steve wrestles with the question, “Am I a monster?” Through Steve’s emotions, Meyers points out that this “bad kid” labeling is harmful. Myers could have made this point better by clearly stating Steve’s guilt or innocence. But instead of correcting the wrong perpetuated by the adult characters, the story wallows in it. The final response to the question is a confirmation to Steve that he is a monster. The prosecutor turns away, Steve’s father leaves, his interactions with his mother are never the same, and he is left only with this label and nothing else. Because Steve’s guilt is unclear, there is no final moral point for the reader, no growth or redemption for any character. The tragedy is simply displayed and not condemned. I can see no award-winning quality in that.