Monday, September 3, 2007

Unique Among Award Winners

Rereading my last blog post, I started thinking about Alex Awards I have read. My Sister's Keeper, as I mentioned in my comparison with The Floor in the Sky, was a title I did not originally realize was an Alex Award winner. In fact, I first picked it up because some teens who came to talk to one of my classes last semester mentioned that they had read and enjoyed it. The multiple copies in my library are constantly checked out, and My Sister's Keeper remains the only Alex Award winner that a teen recommended to me. Is this just a random anecdotal incident, or are there truly differences between My Sister's Keeper and other Alex titles, like The Floor in the Sky, Never Let Me Go, Anansi Boys, and The Thirteenth Tale?

The difficulty of identifying what makes a book popular is that every reader has a different reason for liking or disliking a story. The Floor in the Sky, for instance, might be more successful in rural areas than the suburbs, and My Sister's Keeper, though popular in my town, will certainly not resonate with every teen. At the same time, I believe there are characteristics that make this novel unique among Alex Award winners I have read.

Here's what comes to mind:
  • The book is more of a standout on the shelf. Before a reader cracks the cover, he or she has to notice the book. The title and the cover (two teen girls leaning back-to-back) work well together and look more interesting than, say, a stack of antiquarian books a la The Thirteenth Tale.
  • The story is narrated in first-person, present-tense. A first-person narrator is more common in young adult literature, and while this alone is not unique, other stories like The Thirteenth Tale and Never Let Me Go involve an adult looking back on the teen years rather than teens telling their own stories.
  • The events of the story have immediate bearing on teen characters. Since the story is the present, not a memory, the events of the story do not explain how the past affected the present but how the present will affect the future. Furthermore, while The Floor in the Sky emphasizes the adult characters' decisions over Lila's, My Sister's Keeper spends equal time exploring adults' and teens' decisions and their complex effects on each other.
  • Finally, one of the major themes in My Sister's Keeper in the relationship between independence and dependence in a family. Anna's attempt to be more independent from her parents is central to the plot and resonates with teens who struggle to find a balance with being more independent but not being fully adult.

When it comes down to it, I think, as I've mentioned before, that adults just can't read like kids anymore. I don't mean to denunciate other award winners, because I have enjoyed every book I've mentioned in this post. On the other hand, I think we have a tendency to recommend books we think people should read rather than what really interests them. This is not only true of book lists for children and teens, but for adults as well. There's a marked difference between "best book" lists and best sellers across all age groups. It's too bad we can't often step back and see the good qualities in popular books more often.

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