Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Spring Break Benefits-National Book Award

The mission of the National Book Foundation and the National Book Awards is to celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of good writing in America. 

This year the five finalists for the National Book Award in the Young People's Literature were Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine, Dark Water by Laura McNeal, Lockdown by Walter Dean Myers and One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams Garcia.  In an earlier post, November 8, 2010, I reviewed the outstanding Lockdown.   This past week during spring break I was fortunate to read the winner, Mockingbird as well as another of the finalists, Ship Breaker.

It is said that Paolo Bacigalupi is an up and coming writer in the genre of science fiction.  In the past six years he has been nominated for and won numerous awards in his field.  For his first young adult novel, Ship Breaker, he won the American Library Association, Michael L. Printz Award.  This award has been given annually since 2000 for books that exemplify literary excellence in Young Adult literature. 

Ship Breaker takes readers into a nail biting adventure that portrays a dark, gritty but believable future set along America's Gulf Coast area.  Groups living in a town of shacks scavenge for valuable metals and parts on beached oil tankers along the shore.  Nailer, due to his size, is able to crawl into areas where others dare not go.  It is a dog eat dog existence to say the least with work crews pitted one against the other; at times it is even worse between members of the same work crew despite having sworn a blood oath.  Within  the first few chapters Nailer has fallen into an unknown oil reserve within the depths of a ship. Trying to swim in what could be a fortune Nailer fears his death is imminent.
 Nailer's heart suddenly beat faster.  If this was some room accidentally filled with oil, then there had to be doors.  But they'd all be down below the surface.  He'd have to dive down and risk not making it back up.  Dangerous.  You'll drown anyway.  Sloth's not going to save you...You're dead already...It was a curiously liberating thought.  He really had nothing to lose...He dove...Nailer redoubled his efforts.  Gold and blue and red pulses filled his vision.  The wheel turned again, loosening.  He was frantic for air, but he stayed down, fighting the urge to kick for the surface, turning the wheel faster and faster until his lungs were heaving.  He launched himself upward again, hope running wild as he surfaced. 
To make his life even more edgy Nailer lives in constant fear of his own drug-addicted father's abusive treatment. 
After a storm that lasts two days Nailer and a crew mate, Pima, are out and about when they make a startling discovery; a shipwrecked clipper ship.  Among the wreckage it appears that those still on board are dead until a teenage girl barely breathing is found.  Her assurance that she is worth more alive than dead presents Nailer with a dilemma.  His conscience says keep her alive to collect more wealth than he can imagine.  Life has taught him that her death could also bring him great wealth from the wrecked ship.  Is she telling the truth about her identity?  Can they allude the group that is seeking her death?  Will the ruthless behavior of Nailer's father cost him his life?   
Readers will immediately be snagged by the descriptive action and events that unfold in this frightening and at times violent view of Nailer's world.  It is the mix of characters; those whose trust is tenuous at best, those who will murder as  justifiable means to a wealthy end and those whose values transcend their life circumstances, that make this work of Paolo Bacigalupi award worthy. 

It looks like a one-winged bird crouching in the corner of our living room.  Hurt.  Trying to fly every time the heat pump turns on with a click and a groan and blows cold air onto the sheet and lifts it up and it flutters for just a moment and then falls down again.  Still.  Dead.  These are the words that begin Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine. 
Caitlin's brother has been killed in a shooting at his middle school.  The chest in the living room that was his Eagle Scout project has been covered by their father, never to be finished by he and Devon.  Catlin feels the lose of her brother differently from others.  She has Asperger's.  Devon helped her make sense of a multi-textured world that for her is either only one way or the opposite.  The gray of outside is inside.  Inside the living room.  Inside the chest.  Inside me.  It's so gray that turning on a lamp is too bright.  It should be black inside and that's what I want so I put my head under the sofa cushion where the green plaid fabric smells like Dad's sweat and Devon's socks and my popcorn and the cushion feels soft and heavy on my head and I push deeper so my shoulders and chest can get under too and there's a weight on me that holds me down and keeps me from floating and falling and floating and falling like the bird.
This is just not a story about a young girl with Asperger's who has to deal with the death of her brother.  It explores how a community deals with this tragedy, how it has touched the individual students in her class at school and how her father coups with his loss and this special child in his care. It speaks to the issues that children with this condition have to face on a daily basis; brilliant about many things but unsure or uncomprehending about other life skills that many take for granted.  Erskine's use of language is so skillful that readers become Caitlin feeling her hopes, frustrations, thought processes, sadness and sense of her place in a complex and confusing environment.  Readers will also develop a compassion and empathy for Caitlin and those persons that are part of her day to day life.
While some feel that Erskine is trying to cover too many topics at one time, I feel that she beautifully placed all her parts with purpose and a preciseness that was designed to picture a sincere, true and heartfelt vision of the world in which all her characters lived.  How fortunate that we readers can pick up this piece of art, take it with us and view it at our leisure instead of having to see it framed hanging in a museum. 

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