1999 Blue Ribbon Dissents
Sigh. They're an ethical lot, those Bulletin Blue Ribbon committee members. Their opinions cannot be swayed by love, money, or homemade cookies. Sometimes, despite passionate argument and total committment, heart-held titles fail to make the final cut. In 1997 we began a yearly tradition of going on record with the one book each of us most regretted omitting from the list. In keeping with the unofficial motto of the Bulletin website ("It's Our Website, and We Can Do Whatever We Want"), we would like to welcome you to the 1999 Bulletin Blue Ribbon Dissents.
-Janice M. Del Negro, editor
Call it middle-aged Catholic guilt, if you will. But when a panel of wise, perceptive, sensitive reviewers declines to include this wonderful novel on The List, I feel it must be due to my failure fully to articulate its merits (did the November Big Picture miss its mark?) rather than anything lacking in the book itself. Or perhaps these overworked women simply didn't have my luxury of time to read, reread, and re-reread the volume and marvel time and again at its clever construction, delicate prose, and knock-your-socks-off, three hanky rapprochement between son and father. No, fans, Cormier hasn't gone sentimental and soft here; he simply peeks behind a new door in Frenchtown and shows us a family as complex, fragile, and loving as (I suspect) many of our own.
While I said my fairly extensive piece on this book in the March Big Picture, I'm still willing to say more. In my end-of-the-year reread, I found it lost none of its impact or appeal; its imaginative premise (boy triumphs on bicycle imbued with spirit of ghost horse) remains original and effective.
When pulling together the Blue Ribbons list, our committee acknowledged a larger problem in judging children's literature: we tend to slant towards standards that favor some kinds of books and devalue others. Once we start considering novels, for instance, the ones that get respect turn up on the higher end of the grade continuum and appeal to more sophisticated young readers; in striving for readers who eventually bypass all limits, we downplay the merits of books written for the readers that are--at eight, at ten, at seventeen--and not just the readers that we hope for.
I have my qualms about this tendency even without its necessary implication that children's literature must by definition be lesser than adults'. I want different standards, standards that follow the lead of arts such as architecture or gardening, where merit lies in using the available resources and seeing restrictions as guidance and opportunity. An elegant sonnet, written within its restrictive form, is an amazing thing.
So too is Griffith's Cougar, an elegant and slender novel that keeps its text under tight rein. The writing is spare and straightforward but never insufficient; there is excitement, emotional engagement, atmosphere, and a hero to root for. Griffith's compression is careful and unlabored, her style fluid. She's built a structure of rugged beauty on land that other architects often overlook. Open the door and let the kids in.
Deborah Stevenson, Associate Editor
This young adult romance is told from the alternate perspectives of the two teenaged lovers: Louie (Louise) and Willa, classmates at a girl's high school in the small New Zealand city of Dunedin. Louie--outgoing and verbally adept, a school leader and the star of Drama Club productions--lives with her family in an upscale architectural statement; working class Willa is an unconventionally beautiful loner who lives with her mother in an apartment over a bar. Louie looks forward to university and law school, Willa to a career in restaurant cooking at a culinary institute. Although not quite strangers across a crowded room, they have an immediate affinity that is first expressed in improvised rounds of the children's game of Truth Dare or Promise. Once the two begin to connect, the electricity between them is strong and undeniable. Happily for the reader, both girls recognize and accept their mutual attraction with a minimum of sturm and drang. Louie's moment of realization comes while watching Willa compete in a sporting event: "I'm in love with that girl" she said out loud in amazement, because she knew that this was a life-changing thing and life-changing things should be said aloud, should have a moment in time, a place in the air, some molecular structure to make them real. I'm in love with that girl, she heard as it reverberated inside her head. And it was a truth, she realized, as things are which you don't think, but discover have always existed."
Parental disapproval--particularly the heavy-handed protectiveness of Louie's mother--is the chief obstacle the girls must contend with. Their initial acquiescence to family pressure to end the relationship is followed by the painful despair of separated lovers. Despite their parents' well-meaning but misguided determination to protect their daughters from themselves, it is finally too hard for the girls to remain apart. Instead of scoffing at the predictable outcome-- or of the formulaic reliance on one lover's near-death experience (in a car crash, no less) as the impetus to reunite the two--this reader found herself cheering Louie and Willa on, that heartfelt yes! that a truly skillful writer elicits with a well-crafted story.
Do we need one more story of star-crossed young lovers overcoming all obstacles in their quest to be together? In the case of same-sex romance, the answer is undeniably yes. Of the more than 100 young adult novels with any gay/lesbian content that have been published since 1969, approximately one-fifth depict a romance involving a gay or lesbian protagonist. Unfortunately, half of those romances do not survive to the end of the book. In reality, the duration of most teen romances--heterosexual or homosexual--may not be long, but in the world of romantic fiction, such a mortality rate would be unthinkable As a same-sex romance with an optimistic ending, Truth Dare or Promise is a rarity. Happily, it also has vividly drawn characters, quirky humor, an unusual setting, and a somewhat unlikely but entirely believable plot.
A recipient of the New Zealand Children's Book of the Year award, the book includes a one-page glossary for translating the New Zealand colloquialisms that add flavor to the characters' conversations.
This page was last updated on January 1, 2000.