2001 Blue Ribbon Dissents
Unanimity and consent are all very well and good, but sometimes pure passion needs its own outlet. I'm speaking, of course, of the passion for a particular title, a title that didn't manage to make the Blue Ribbons list but nonetheless aroused in its admirer the desire to praise, to advocate, or maybe even to whine a little. Here, then, are our consolation prizes, our chance to appeal a book's case to the world: our 2001 Blue Ribbon Dissents.
--Deborah Stevenson, Editor
Carmen, Tibby, Lena, and Bridget have been friends practically since birth and have managed to spend every summer together until this one, when each girl is going her separate way: Carmen’s visiting her dad, Lena is traveling to Greece to stay with her grandparents, Tibby is staying home with a summer job at the local drug store, and Bridget is off to soccer camp. The girls vow to stay close in spite of their separation through the sharing of a pair of seemingly magical jeans (discovered by Carmen in a thrift store) that miraculously fit and flatter all four girls. The perspective shifts from one girl to the next as they pass the pants around and write letters to each other over the course of the summer. Each girl makes a few mistakes (some more damaging than others), experiences both joy and pain, and comes out all the better for it; through all of this, the bond of friendship is constant as each girl draws strength from the others. Teenage girls everywhere are going to love this one and with good reason. Brashares manages to make this greater than the sum of its parts as she successfully juggles four perspectives and still keeps the storyline running smoothly. Though each girl is only given a quarter of the book’s space, each is a well-defined and richly realized individual; these girls are immensely likeable yet none of them is perfect and all of them struggle and strive to mature over the course of the summer. Strong characters aside, the ultimate appeal of this title is the powerful friendship among the four girls. There’s no back-stabbing, pettiness, or catty conversation going on here—these girls really love and support each other and are secure of their places within the group. The traveling pants link the stories of each girl as they are passed to each in turn and then passed back again and their journey symbolizes the circularity and never-ending-ness of this "sisterhood." Few YA novels so effectively portray this much unity among this many girls with this much warmth, wit, and wisdom. Like a broken-in, well-worn pair of blue jeans, Brashares’s first novel is a perfect fit.
--Jeannette Hulick, Reviewer
It's an apparently simple folktale--a girl is lured off by a marauding rabbit into marriage, but she manages finally to escape with a piece of desperate trickery--but Meade allows all the lurking subtexts full play without ever losing the straightforward focus or youthful appeal of the story. Her verdant watercolors are a suitable background for her girlish maiden and the slightly eerie, size-shifting rabbit. The palette consists of the clear greens and yellows of burgeoning spring, touched with the passionate red of the rabbit's eye and the maiden's wedding dress. This storybook can be viewed on so many levels it's practically a literary hall of mirrors: chimera-like, the story and the images it evokes change shape from page to page in ways that seem to just escape the eye. While adult readers may see the lure-and-escape sequence as a stripped-down story of seduction and redemption, younger readers and listeners will see the maiden as a curious everychild, the rabbit as the forbidden adventure, and the conclusion as the longed-for return, unscathed, to safety. The crisp brevity of the language makes it impossible to detour from the action.. The psycho-sexual implications of the tale will test the comfort level of adults even as those implications resonate with them; youngsters, however, will applaud the sheer nerve of the risk-taking little girl. The Rabbit's Bride embodies that which we all desire: the wild adventure, with a safe return home.
--Janice Del Negro, Contributing Editor
Primrose Squarp describes herself as being in a "funny, detached, dreamlike state" as she divides her domestic loyalties between the house where she currently lives with her uncle Jack, the house where she lived with her parents, now missing after a terrible storm at sea and presumed dead by everyone but Primrose, and the house of Primrose's babysitter, Miss Perfidy, where Primrose keeps some of her clothes. "Funny, detached, and dreamlike" also describes Primrose's narration in this original novel that flies in the face of clichés and instead offers the strange unexpected, tucked in between thematically relevant recipes (some from Primrose's local restaurant and sometime sanctuary, which serves everything on a waffle). It's that grave, wondering tone that makes Primrose's narration so funny and so poignant as she fends off the poisonous good intentions of the school guidance counselor, survives the loss of her sweaters, the tip of her ring finger, and a baby toe, and gains the knowledge that she "would never go home again in quite the same way, but that was okay too." In Horvath's world, both events and their effects are unpredictable, and Primrose, like the rest of us, has to decide for herself what to rely on in the face of life's depredations. There's presence and absence, love and longing, food and hunger, guinea pigs and real estate, fingers and toes. There's everything. And it's on a waffle. What's not to like?
--Deborah Stevenson, Editor
This book is not perfect: it’s better than that. In style and content, Bad Boy is richly detailed, starkly honest, compelling; it’s also rambling, allusive, and full of abrupt transitions. But this is a life story that needed to be told, and I suspect that it needed to be told in this idiosyncratic and immediate way in order to reach those readers who can relate to the shapelessness of Myers’ life, his (often misdirected) energy, his cluelessness, and his increasingly desperate struggle to find a context in which to develop his individual identity, one that only superficially fit in the clearly defined slots marked "black" and "male." Myers’ appreciation of his family and culture are understated, but his values are clear, and though readers (like young Walter) may not understand everything they read, they are being prepared by it for higher things. In some ways, the most powerful chapters are the last two, in which it is asserted--and then proven--that Myers has attained the unarticulated goal of so many young people: "a world in which I am respected, where the skills I have are respected for themselves." The last chapter contains a list of Myers’ publications and an exhaustive list of the awards and honors they’ve earned (including two Bulletin Blue Ribbons). Because this is a memoir, and because Myers has been almost brutally honest about the actions and re-actions that earned him the label "bad boy," young adult readers have to believe that there is hope for them. Mr. Walter Dean Myers has had quite a year: "not at all shabby for a bad boy" indeed! In this reviewer’s humble opinion, Bad Boy is a brilliant performance.
--Fern Kory, Reviewer
Young adult fiction with gay/lesbian content began appearing in 1969 with the publication of John Donovan's I'll Get There. It Better be Worth the Trip. Since that time, more than 120 YA novels with gay/lesbian content have been published. Although they differ from each other in setting, plot, and style, the books' gay/lesbian content is manifest in a few basic characters and scenarios: the single gay male living an isolated but exemplary life as sidekick or mentor of a straight male protagonist; two gay/lesbian teens whose mutual attraction blossoms into romance; and the straight teen who comes to terms with the gay identity of his/her father, uncle, older brother, mother, aunt, or teacher. Most of the stories are told from the perspective of a heterosexual protagonist, and the message is one of "getting to know you" toleration with genuine acceptance somewhere on the horizon. Fictional teens struggling with sexual identity issues rarely imagine--much less come in contact with--any sort of gay/lesbian community. And the sympathetic friends that gay/lesbian teen characters do find are invariably straight. A fictional teen who acknowledges his/her gay/lesbian identity is courageous, resourceful--a survivor. But after coming out--and after the tumult and the shouting die--the fictional gay/lesbian teen will generally remain a brave-but-lonely outsider as he/she stoically waits for the (eventual) appearance of Mr./Ms. Right. Only a handful of YA novels with gay/lesbian content do not include any of these patterns. Rainbow Boys is one of these exceptions.
The book's story is told from the alternating perspectives of Jason, Kyle, and Nelson, three high school classmates, each of whom is wrestling with issues of sexual orientation. Jason, a high school jock with a longtime girlfriend, struggles to come out to himself as he acknowledges his growing attraction to men. Kyle, an intelligent but shy ugly duckling with glasses and braces, accepts his own gay identity but struggles to quell his seemingly hopeless long-time crush on Jason. Nelson, Kyle's flamboyant best friend, is an out gay teen whose multicolored hair, multi-pierced ears, and camp sensibility reflect his certain acceptance of his own gay identity. Nelson, however, faces perhaps the most overt struggle of the three in his continual battle with--and resistance to--the ongoing verbal and physical harrassment from his homophobic classmates.
These are the Rainbow Boys, and the story is their story. The narrative is told from behind their eyes in three shifting personal narratives. And through the perspective of Nelson, the flaming queer finally has his say. To his straight classmates, Nelson is Nelly, an object of ridicule and target of abuse. But to his friends--and the readers who come to know him--he is a quick-witted and verbally adept survivor. While there is a same-sex romance, it is the fact that the reader sees three gay teens who are mutually supportive friends that makes this a truly remarkable novel.
Rainbow Boys portrays a gay/lesbian community that these three protagonists can move in and out of as they attend Rainbow Youth meetings, campaign for a Gay-Straight Alliance, and just hang out after school--eating brownies, listening to music, doing homework, and looking forward to the large and interesting world that awaits them after high school. After 33 years and more than 120 books, it's about time.
--Christine Jenkins, Associate Professor
I know that poetry is supposed to be subjective, but give me a break, folks, this should be on everyone's Best Books list! Twenty-eight one-page, free-verse poems relate the daily events of two sisters often thrown on their own as their mother works to keep the family together in their father's absence. We learn quite naturally thorough the children's arguments that Daddy forged a check and went to jail ("It is too stealing, Essie told Amber,/ and it's very bad"). Their lives are detailed poignantly but without nostalgia. They comfort each other by cuddling into a "Best Sandwich" with Wilson The Bear "right in the middle up against them both." Integrated with the text are graphics as varied as the girls' experiences. The opening full-color portraits and equally bright concluding picture album sandwich the body of the text in a tonal reflection of the girls' own "Best Sandwich." In both sections, striking colored pencil lines accent the vertical and play sudden contrasts of hue against subtle blends. The first portraits show the backs of Amber and Essie first and then their faces, an arrangement that signals we will get to know these characters through a back door of action and dialogue that reveals their core of strength and joy. (The fact that their father is much loved despite the girls' inner conflict over what he has done introduces a complexity unusual in this compressed a story.) A heavy multicolored line extends through the text under each italicized poem title, tying together the full-color illustrations in the beginning and end. Facing a number of the poems are full-page, heavily outlined, black-and-white drawings that echo the typeface and even seem to form a rhythmic visual extension from the black marks that form letters, to the black marks that form pictures. Every poem ends with an unobtrusive diamond-shaped icon pointing the reader toward another page. The fact that such varied formatting and design does not call attention to itself but rather serves to unify effects for cohesive impact is a tribute to creative bookmaking. Meanwhile young listeners and readers, who mainly want to know what happens next, will find out with bonuses of rhythm and brevity. Virginia Euwer Wolff says that "poetry should have more ergs per word." With that standard in mind, we can measure Vera Williams' achievement here by its compactness: an artistic mini-epic with two mini-heroes overcoming all odds of the inevitably bewildering, irrepressibly hopeful journey called childhood.
--Betsy Hearne, Consulting Editor
There’s a prospective playmate (who’s white) in the house next door, but the narrator (who’s black) knows that acquaintance is off limits, due to her mother’s order not to cross the fence that separates their properties. The girls eye each other wistfully yet cautiously, and the picture-book audience will quickly sense that they’re destined to be friends. But how? In the time-honored way kids have always defied parental strictures--by taking Mom at her literal word and hanging out together on the fence. Any child who has run headlong into parental arbitrariness will recognize the logic to the girls’ solution and delight in the score: Kids-1; Parents-0. But listeners of a reflective bent will easily discern that there’s a larger issue than one-upmanship here. The mother’s reasons for the separation are left purposefully terse and unsatisfying, and Woodson thus leaves the door wide open for exploration of the myriad reasons, excuses, and justifications that keep people apart. Lewis’ sun-splattered watercolors evoke a rural milieu that offers room for everyone to play, while the looming fence literally and metaphorically bisects the natural expanse and ultimately draws the girls together. Woodson magically pours a twenty-gallon problem into a pint-sized serving--tasty, but with a hint of bittersweet. Some of us just couldn’t let this year’s Blue Ribbon List slip by without one last rousing cheer for The Other Side.
--Betty Bush, Reviewer
This page was last updated on January 1, 2002.