Last week, I raved about Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, winner of this year’s Morris Award for best young adult debut. But because the Morris is my favorite of the young adult literature awards, I actually read all five nominees this year before the winner was announced. While Gabi was definitely my favorite, it was a great group of books (it usually is – thus the status of the award as my favorite!) While they didn’t all appeal to me personally, there’s no denying that all five Morris nominees were written by talented authors, and are books that will find fans. Music seemed to be a theme this year, with three out of the five books dealing heavily with music in some way. The books featured dragons, girls with wings, and Kurt Cobain. They were set in the present, across numerous decades, and in the 80s or 90s. They took place in Canada, Ireland, and the US. But one thing all these books had in common was that they were written by talented authors who I expect great things from in the future.
I already talked about Gabi, A Girl in Pieces (and if you haven’t put it on hold yet, I highly recommend you do so! This book is most definitely worth your time) but I thought today, I’d give some mini-thoughts on the other four nominees.
The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley
Description (from goodreads.com): It’s 1993, and Generation X pulses to the beat of Kurt Cobain and the grunge movement. Sixteen-year-old Maggie Lynch is uprooted from big-city Chicago to a windswept town on the Irish Sea. Surviving on care packages of Spin magazine and Twizzlers from her rocker uncle Kevin, she wonders if she’ll ever find her place in this new world. When first love and sudden death simultaneously strike, a naive but determined Maggie embarks on a forbidden pilgrimage that will take her to a seedy part of Dublin and on to a life- altering night in Rome to fulfill a dying wish. Through it all, Maggie discovers an untapped inner strength to do the most difficult but rewarding thing of all, live.
Thoughts: This was my other favorite of the bunch. I loved the small-town Irish setting, from the mud and damp to the pub to the old man in his farmhouse up the hill. The romance seemed to jump from “crush” to “in love” a little quickly for my tastes, but I liked Maggie and Eoin so much that I didn’t really mind. I think the way music entered into the story was great – I’ve never been a huge Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins fan, but I still felt sucked in to what these bands and concerts meant for Maggie, and it was easy to remember the magic of concerts I’ve been to and feel connected with Maggie’s experiences. Overall, I loved this book – and I wasn’t the only one! The Carnival at Bray also received a Printz honor (the Printz award recognized the best literary young adult fiction.)
Scar Boys by Len Vlahos
Description (from goodreads.com): A severely burned teenager. A guitar. Punk rock. The chords of a rock ‘n’ roll road trip in a coming-of-age novel that is a must-read story about finding your place in the world…even if you carry scars inside and out.
In attempting to describe himself in his college application essay–help us to become acquainted with you beyond your courses, grades, and test scores–Harbinger (Harry) Jones goes way beyond the 250-word limit and gives a full account of his life.
The first defining moment: the day the neighborhood goons tied him to a tree during a lightning storm when he was 8 years old, and the tree was struck and caught fire. Harry was badly burned and has had to live with the physical and emotional scars, reactions from strangers, bullying, and loneliness that instantly became his everyday reality.
The second defining moment: the day in 8th grade when the handsome, charismatic Johnny rescued him from the bullies and then made the startling suggestion that they start a band together. Harry discovered that playing music transported him out of his nightmare of a world, and he finally had something that compelled people to look beyond his physical appearance. Harry’s description of his life in his essay is both humorous and heart-wrenching. He had a steeper road to climb than the average kid, but he ends up learning something about personal power, friendship, first love, and how to fit in the world. While he’s looking back at the moments that have shaped his life, most of this story takes place while Harry is in high school and the summer after he graduates.
Thoughts: Scar Boys is unquestionably a book I would never have picked up if it hadn’t been nominated for the Morris award. Something about the description just didn’t engage me. So for that reason alone, I’m glad this was nominated for the award! I ended up liking Scar Boys a lot more than I expected to, even though it wasn’t my favorite of the nominees. What can I say, books about teen punk bands in the 80s just aren’t my thing, I guess, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them! And there was a lot I really did love about the book – the set-up of a college admissions essay was unique, the main character Harry was both extremely loveable and extremely obnoxious at the same time, which I liked, and I loved the book’s focus on male friendships, something I don’t see a lot of in books I read.
The Story of Owen by E.K. Johnston
Description (from goodreads.com): Listen! For I sing of Owen Thorskard: valiant of heart, hopeless at algebra, last in a long line of legendary dragon slayers. Though he had few years and was not built for football, he stood between the town of Trondheim and creatures that threatened its survival. There have always been dragons. As far back as history is told, men and women have fought them, loyally defending their villages. Dragon slaying was a proud tradition. But dragons and humans have one thing in common: an insatiable appetite for fossil fuels. From the moment Henry Ford hired his first dragon slayer, no small town was safe. Dragon slayers flocked to cities, leaving more remote areas unprotected. Such was Trondheim’s fate until Owen Thorskard arrived. At sixteen, with dragons advancing and his grades plummeting, Owen faced impossible odds armed only with a sword, his legacy, and the classmate who agreed to be his bard. Listen! I am Siobhan McQuaid. I alone know the story of Owen, the story that changes everything. Listen!
Thoughts: Owen is probably a book I would have read eventually on my own, though I moved it up my list once the Morris nominations were announced. Alternate history, dragons, and a bard? Sign me up! Unfortunately, maybe because my expectations were so high, I was kind of underwhelmed by this book. Although I loved the alternate history with dragons, I did feel like parts of the world-building were a little thin (if dragons are attracted by carbon emissions, why wasn’t solar or steam or some kind of alternate energy developed years ago?) And one of my favorite characters just disappeared from the story part way through. But I did like the way the book explored dragon slaying as both a service and a spectacle, and tied the lives of dragonslayers in with the lives of those telling their stories, and I loved the concept of dragons in our modern world. But ultimately, for me, there just weren’t enough dragons to satisfy!
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton
Description (from goodreads.com): Magical realism, lyrical prose, and the pain and passion of human love haunt this hypnotic generational saga.
Foolish love appears to be the Roux family birthright, an ominous forecast for its most recent progeny, Ava Lavender. Ava—in all other ways a normal girl—is born with the wings of a bird.
In a quest to understand her peculiar disposition and a growing desire to fit in with her peers, sixteen-year old Ava ventures into the wider world, ill-prepared for what she might discover and naïve to the twisted motives of others. Others like the pious Nathaniel Sorrows, who mistakes Ava for an angel and whose obsession with her grows until the night of the Summer Solstice celebration.
That night, the skies open up, rain and feathers fill the air, and Ava’s quest and her family’s saga build to a devastating crescendo.
First-time author Leslye Walton has constructed a layered and unforgettable mythology of what it means to be born with hearts that are tragically, exquisitely human.
Thoughts: Here’s the thing. While there are exceptions (there are always exceptions), overall, magical realism and multi-generational stories are not my favorite things. I couldn’t tell you why, something about those types of stories tends to just not work for me. So being both, Ava Lavender was never going to be my favorite of this year’s Morris nominees. That said, there was a lot I did like about this book. As far as magical realism goes, a girl born with wings is a pretty fascinating thought. The descriptions of food were mouth-watering and awesome. And the book did a really good job of exploring some interesting themes, and most of the magical realism helped to enhance and frame the issues of family, love, faith, freedom, and obsession (among others,) and give physical form to some abstract thoughts and ideas. I think this was a great book, and the fact that I personally couldn’t really get into it doesn’t mean a whole lot – I think this would be a great book for anyone looking to explore magical realism, or some of the themes I mentioned before. Just make sure some pastries or a loaf of bakery bread are at hand, because you will want them!