Monsters, Magic, and Mech Suits: Genre Picks for the Printz | Pondering Printz

Paula Willey considers the ghostly, mysterious, and all around non-realistic books in contention for this year’s Printz Award.

Pondering Printz logo

When SLJ asked me to contribute a Pondering Printz column, I had a moment of panic. I was on the Printz Committee in 2018, and after a year of reading and re-reading YA novels spanning every conceivable theme and genre I devoted 2019 to reading rather escapist fare. Amid all the monsters and mech suits, had I read anything—you know—Printz-y?

But as I scrolled through my 2019 reading history, I noticed lots of big feelings and compelling themes. Coming-of-age stories were nestled comfortably in alternate time lines or combined with supernatural forces. After all, growing up is mostly a process of learning new sets of rules while negotiating unfamiliar terrain—which matches up nicely with the structure of non-realistic fiction. And exceptional writing can occur in any world. So despite my best efforts, I have ended up reading quite a few books this year which, while loaded with magic, ghosts, nanotech, and postapocalypses (postapocalypti?), are also interesting Printz candidates.

The line between literary and genre has never been solid, and seems to become more porous all the time. Fantasy titles by Laini Taylor and Maggie Stiefvater have won Printz Honors, as did Scythe, the first book in Neal Shusterman’s “Arc of a Scythe” sci-fi trilogy (the conclusion of which, The Toll, is eligible this year). Elana K. Arnold’s Damsel won an Honor last year, and it had a dragon in it, for Pete’s sake. Fantasy doesn’t get any higher than that.

Thirteen Doorways coverLaura Ruby’s Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All strikes an interesting balance—at once an action-packed thriller and an aching meditation on abandonment. Ruby’s book Bone Gap, which won the Printz in 2016, was praised for its lush writing and skillful interweaving of folktale, natural magic, and intimate characterizations. Thirteen Doorways maintains the connection to old stories of magic: it serves as the structural foundation for her characters’ own stories of injustice and neglect, but this time, her narrative takes place amid historical events in Chicago. The A plot focuses on Frankie, consigned to an orphanage with her younger sister by their father – a not-uncommon practice during the Great Depression. She is observed with compassion by Pearl, a ghost with her own story of heartbreak and abandonment. More ghosts appear throughout the book, showing us the experiences of women and people of color inside the 1919 race riot, the Great Depression, and World War II.

The world in Akwaeke Emezi’s Pet has been “fixed”—after generations of sometimes-bloody struggle, racism, gender hangups, cruelty, and corruption have been rendered obsolete. Peace, harmony, and respect are all Jam has ever known—a status quo that is never called into question. So when she accidentally conjures a bloodthirsty creature that insists it can sense a “monster,” that is, a violent and cruel person, a shocked and fearful Jam must investigate without help from her trusted adults. The true monstrosity lurking in Jam’s utopian town is served up in sharp relief. This short morality fable is like Mark Twain’s “The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg” crossed with “Goosebumps,” but with a deep sense of love and respect for its characters—and readers.

Zombies, werewolves, witches, and other similar creatures show up a lot in YA literature, often serving as metaphors for the emotional changes, transforming bodies, and expanding abilities of adolescence. In Hal Schrieve’s Out of Salem, grieving, genderqueer, and now-undead Z may not have technically survived the crash that killed their family; while Aysel has always kept to herself—as an unregistered werewolf she is vulnerable to legal repercussions, and as a gay Turkish American fat girl she’s vulnerable to jerks at school. The two find themselves becoming friends, discovering community, and stretching into their identities at the same time that the town is experiencing a wave of paranoia and violence against monsters—the true moments of horror in this book come as the reader experiences Z and Aysel’s fear of exposure and persecution. Set in a misty small town reminiscent of Forks, WA, Out of Salem is like Twilight for real people.

Tochi Onyebuchi’s sci-fi novel War Girls is set in a future Nigeria War Girls coverin which the disastrous legacies of colonialism are still playing out. Civil war between Biafra and Nigeria has never ended. The cultural and religious differences between ethnic groups, as well as the economic disparities of the region, coupled with nuclear catastrophe and the consequences of global warming have made the region almost uninhabitable, although rich in precious natural resources. Sisters Onyii and Ify are part of a tiny band of women, weary of maltreatment, who live hidden from both warring armies in a small settlement deep in the forest. Once discovered, the girls are conscripted by opposing sides, each exploited for their gifts. While Onyii straps on a mech suit to do aerial battle, Ify is groomed to become a high-tech spy. War Girls is at once an exciting action novel and an unflinching examination of the traumatic effects of violence and oppression. With luminous moments of beauty, love, and friendship (not to mention super-cool tech), this book hits all the sci-fi sweet spots.

The Wild West—or, in the case of Charlotte Nicole Davis’s debut novel The Good Luck Girls, the Weird West—is a ripe setting for explorations of morality. Sisters Clementine and Aster have grown up in a “welcome house” in a mining town, put to work at age 16 as sex slaves. The world beyond the walls of their house is one of privation and danger, rigidly defined by class, gender, and culture hierarchies and plagued by the vengeful dead. As the sisters and their friends flee through the mountains, they taste freedom and power, becoming bandits and befriending rebels. Each girl carries scars from their time in the brothel—addiction, anxiety, and anger—but Aster in particular grapples with the escalating violence that accompanies their flight. Set in a richly described landscape, The Good Luck Girls recalls Westworld, but skipping to the part where Dolores picks up a gun.

High school can be bewildering, terrifying, a Wilder Girls coverdaily struggle in a world where the rules do not necessarily make sense and trusted adults might not be worthy of trust. Rory Power’s Wilder Girls combines boarding school relationships with uncontrollable forces and a hostile environment. At the Raxter School for Girls, located on an island off the New England coast, high school is a social and emotional gauntlet—plus you might be growing scales. A mysterious contagion has killed most of the adults and wrought horrifying mutations on the flora and fauna, including the humans. The girls have been quarantined for years, rationing the meager supplies boatlifted from the mainland and defending the school from the fanged deer and carnivorous bears that roam the island. The effect is an island mystery with a shifting, haunted quality.

City of Beasts by Corrie Wang asks readers to imagine a completely gender-segregated society. In a lawless post nuclear world, the women of Buffalo, NY, have migrated across the Niagara River to Grand Island and blown up the bridge. They live a self-sufficient communal lifestyle free of threat from the “beasts” on the mainland. This state of affairs is disrupted when an (increasingly rare) child is kidnapped from the island. Glori, who has never seen a beast, must cross the river in a daring rescue. Preconceptions and gender roles are shattered in this weird blend of action, sci-fi, and political intrigue. It’s reminiscent of Escape from New York but with a healthy dose of Robin Cook–type medical tomfoolery.

Reverie by Ryan La Sala sets up and knocks down an entire Tumblr feed worth of genre tropes and wish-fulfillment fantasies. Kane wakes up from the accident that destroyed the mill—an accident that should have killed him—with only partial memory of what happened or even who he is. It takes most of the book to figure out what occurred, but his identity—at least, his position in the high school social system—becomes clear soon enough: he’s the quiet gay kid without many friends. Is that who he really is, though? As a classic team of unlikely allies Dig coverassembles around Kane to do battle in dream realms, uncomfortable insights about escapism and discontent filter to the surface amid blasts of rainbow magic, hoverbikes, towering monsters, and wizard duels.

My ultimate pick for the Printz this year, though, is Dig by A.S. King. Dig is about racism and violence and toxic masculinity and about how those things—and the fear and distrust that accompany them—are gradually titrating out of our systems. Not inevitably, and not quickly—these changes occur at generational speed at best—and sometimes they cause devastating collateral damage (this is where the ghost comes in). Repetition and practice are themes in this book, as they are themes of adolescence—one character shovels, one takes drive-through orders, another puts her pets through kind but rigorous training. The message of all this practice is—none of it is easy. All of it takes diligence. Sometimes practice makes us better at doing the thing, other times it makes us realize the thing is ultimately pointless. But whether the experience is futile or life changing, the very act of doing always teaches us about ourselves and the world around us.


See also:

Read 300 Books, Vote for Three | Pondering Printz 

Transforming the Canon | Pondering Printz 

New Year, Past Winners | Pondering Printz

Paula Willey is a librarian and critic in Baltimore. A member of the 2019 Printz Award Committee, she reads picture books, graphic novels, prose novels, nonfiction, or her yogurt container if none of the above is available.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

Emily Schneider

I am constantly surprised when YA lists omit one of this year's best books, Someday We Will Fly by Rachel Dewoskin. It is set during World War II among Jewish refugees in Shangai. One would think that they actual dystopia of the setting might be as important as the fictional one of so many YA books, and the historical material is certainly as important as that of the books on this list.

Posted : Dec 17, 2019 05:28



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing