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Reviews of the 2013 Printz Award winners

In Darkness by Nick LakeWinner: In Darkness by Nick Lake (Bloomsbury)
“I am the voice in the dark, calling out for your help.” Amid the devastation of the recent Haiti earthquake, in a collapsed hospital, lies a teenage boy, waiting, hoping — possibly in vain — to be rescued. As he waits, his mind turns not only to the events in his own life that have led him to this point but also, in alternating sections, to the life of Haiti’s great revolutionary, Touissant L’Ouverture — and the parallels between Haiti in the past and Haiti in the present are not lost on the reader. The boy lives in one of the bleakest slums, and his life has been defined by violence, crime, and corruption: his father murdered, his sister kidnapped, his own innocence compromised by gang activity — and all of it sanctioned by the corrupt relationship between the government and the gangs. There is a mystical thread that connects this boy not only to Aristide but to L’Oueverture, whose presence seems to visit the boy in his ordeal. The boy draws strength from the inspiring but heartbreaking story of this noble revolutionary leader, providing the impetus to re-evaluate his own life when he is rescued from the rubble. The leisurely pacing allows Lake to develop his unforgettable characters, bleak and harrowing settings, and lay the foundation for his timely and relevant themes. JONATHAN HUNT

Aristotle and Dante Answer the Secrets of the UniverseHonor: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (Simon)
Aristotle — Ari for short — meets Dante at the pool one summer day in 1987, and the two boys quickly strike up a friendship that will change their lives in ways both subtle and profound. Ari admires Dante’s gregarious personality, his intellectual curiosity, and his close bond with his parents, especially his father. In contrast, Ari’s own father, a Vietnam vet, remains aloof, damaged by his experience of war, and both parents refuse to discuss his imprisoned older brother. When Ari saves Dante’s life but breaks his own legs in the process, it not only strengthens their friendship but cements the bond between the two Mexican American families. When Dante’s father leaves El Paso for a one-year position at the University of Chicago, the boys stay in touch through letters. Dante had telegraphed his sexual attraction to Ari, but now comes out to his friend in writing. When Dante returns, the two cautiously resume their friendship, but when Dante gets beat up in an alley for kissing another boy, it’s a catalyst for Ari to examine how he really feels about Dante. Ari’s first-person narrative — poetic, philosophical, honest — skillfully develops the relationship between the two boys from friendship to romance, leading to the inevitable conclusion: “How could I have ever been ashamed of loving Dante Quintana?” JONATHAN HUNT

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein Honor: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (Hyperion)
Wein’s exceptional — downright sizzling — abilities as a writer of historical adventure fiction are spectacularly evident in this taut, captivating story of two young women, spy and pilot, during World War II. Wein gives us the story in two consecutive parts—the first an account by Queenie (a.k.a. Lady Julia Beaufort-Stuart), a spy captured by the SS during a mission in Nazi-occupied France. Queenie has bargained with Hauptsturmführer von Linden to write what she knows about the British war effort in order to postpone her inevitable execution. Sounding like a cross between Swallows and Amazons’s Nancy Blackett and Mata Hari, she alternately succumbs to, cheeks, and charms her captors (and readers) as she duly writes her report and, mostly, tells the story of her best friend Maddie, the pilot who dropped her over France, then crashed. Spoiler: unbeknownst to Queenie, Maddie survived the crash; part two is Maddie’s “accident report” and account of her efforts to save Queenie. Wein gives us multiple doubletakes and surprises as she ratchets up the tension in Maddie’s story, revealing Queenie’s joyously clever duplicity and the indefatigable courage of both women. This novel positively soars, in part no doubt because the descriptions of flying derive from Wein’s own experience as a pilot. But it’s outstanding in all its features — its warm, ebullient characterization; its engagement with historical facts; its ingenious plot and dramatic suspense; and its intelligent, vivid writing. DEIRDRE F. BAKER

Dodger by Terry Pratchett Honor: Dodger by Terry Pratchett (HarperCollins)
Who would have the skill, the sensibility, and the sass to put Charles Dickens into a novel and then proceed to write that novel in full-octane Dickensian style? Terry Pratchett, of course. A la Oliver Twist, Dodger is a street urchin (“if you wanted to be a successful urchin you needed to study how to urch”) who makes his way in early-Victorian London as a tosher, a sewer gleaner. One rainy night he gallantly rescues a young woman who is being beaten up, and a complicated plot is set in motion. The cast includes Dickens, minor European royalty, Disraeli, Sweeney Todd, Charles Babbage, a philanthropist named Angela Burdett-Coutts who alone is worth the price of admission, and Queen Victoria herself — but none of them upstages Dodger, a boy on the make and on the brink, with his own highly developed moral code. His original take on the world and his deft way with language make him a wonderful guide through sewers, morgues, theaters, drawing rooms, pea-soup fogs, and barbershops and a story of espionage, romance, action, skullduggery, double-dealing, and heroism. It’s a glittering conjuring act, but there’s real heart here, too, as Dodger’s horizons expand to include nature, art, and love. SARAH ELLIS

The White BicycleHonor: The White Bicycle by Beverley Brenna (Red Deer Press)
see post at Out of the Box

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