Susie Wilde: Some surprises among award-winning young adult books

Mar. 06, 2013 @ 10:51 PM

I’ve recently gotten a new take on the importance of awards as one of the only ways to find quality books in the vast number of those churned out by the children’s book marketplace. 

When I write the Wilde Awards every year, my hope is to connect people with the most books. But I also have to admit to a bit of professional twitching. 

Every year I worry that I’ll pass up books that are distinguished by the American Library Association, especially when it comes to finding the best young adult novels. This year, I’m grateful for the Printz Award. Otherwise, I would have missed two amazing young adult novels.

Nick Lake’s “In Darkness” (Bloomsbury, ages 14-adult) won. It’s a complex book and I might not have kept going if I didn’t know a gold medal boasted its greatness. 

The two heroes write in alternating chapters titled “Now” and “Then.” The first is Shorty, 15, who is trapped in the rubble of a hospital collapse after an earthquake. In truth, Shorty has been trapped most of his life by growing up in Site Soley, one of the poorest, densest, most dangerous areas on earth. Site Soley is a gang-war battleground, and before Shorty’s reached double digits, his father has been cut up into little pieces, his sister has been kidnapped and he’s joined a gang to survive. 

The other narrator is Toussaint L’Ouverture, an 18th century Haitian slave who is determined to find freedom for himself and others. He leads a rebellion, calling for justice, not vengeance.   

Early on, his sensitivity and horror toward violence is made clear, and this gives context and contrast to Shorty’s narrative and establishes their connection.

“In Darkness” describes the troubling tone of this book. It’s emotionally painful and also artistically complicated. The dialect, unusual notation of dialogue and lesser-known setting make entry a bit difficult. Readers must also accept the magical realism that connects the two heroes so strongly that both they (and the reader) feel it as a physical manifestation. 

The author has so clearly established their relationship that, for me, it worked as beautifully as the author’s lyricism. The book is heartbreaking, horrific and haunting and definitely deserved the Printz.

Another happy award-provoked discovery came in Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Printz Honor book, “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” (Scholastic, ages 13 to adult).

The main character, Ari, lives in a world is full of secrets - his father’s hidden memories of Vietnam; his imprisoned older brother who’s neither mentioned nor seen in the collection of family photos.

Maybe worst of all, for Ari, is the evasive secret of who he really is.  

At 15, he’s distant from his peers, longs for his father’s love and feels the problem with his life is “that it was someone else’s idea.” This latter is the kind of poignant turn of phrase that darts in and out the gripping novel. 

When Ari takes on swimming as a summer feat, he meets another Latino, Dante.  Like him, Dante seems different and detached. Unlike him, Dante seems to know his place in the world. Ari attributes this to the open affection and intellectual curiosity in Dante’s family. Demonstrative love comes when he takes confusing actions that he can’t explain to himself, or anyone else. 

This book’s simplicity is strength, as is the boys’ relationships with their families. Often, parents and families disappear in YA books, but both sets, though different, are warm, loving, willing to do whatever possible to ease the difficult transition from the “universe of almost-men.”

Even as I was appreciating this YA artistry, I was acting as an audio judge for the best memoir. The worst was Greg Allman’s “My Cross to Bear” (Audible, about 10 hours).  What I’ve learned is that the adult market, like children’s books, has been polluted by celebrity writers or, should I say, non-writers. Actually this book had a co-author, but my sense is that Allman didn’t listen to his wisdom. 

I’m no prude, but Allman drops an f-bomb almost every other word. While this may establish his redneck persona, it gave me more sense of disgust than voice. The memoir is shapeless, a rather long list of “and then” events wherein the latest anonymous girl he’s sleeping with is given the same emphasis as his brother Dwayne’s death. Name dropping vies with the sex, drugs and rock and roll. Allman holds himself up as someone who is not judgmental, and yet woven into his memoir are his condemnations and praises of musicians and others in his life. Would I have kept listening if I didn’t feel obligated by judging? Probably not. And somehow it made me more upset that this audio scored Will Patton as a narrator. Patton, one of the best narrators in the business, deserves better material.


Read more at Susie Wilde’s website,