Fall 2007 - YALSA - American Library Association

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Fall 2007 - YALSA - American Library Association

feature

Author Perspectives

Printz Award

Honor Speech

By Sonya Hartnett

A

few weeks ago, not long after

Surrender was honored in this year’s

Michael L. Printz Awards, I drove

home to visit my mother in the dark-green

heart of Box Hill, the suburb of Melbourne

in which I spent my childhood and teenage

years. Rounding the corner into Mum’s

street, I passed a billboard advertising a

local theater group’s production of a play

called The Outsiders. I stopped the car,

reversed back. It was as I’d hoped: these

Outsiders were, indeed, S. E. Hinton’s

Outsiders. For twenty-five years, they and

she have lurked in the corners of my mind.

Now they are back in the bright light, having

skipped a generation in the ’90s, the

first generation of Australian teenagers who

read mostly Australian books. I couldn’t

help grinning like an idiot, as if I had met,

unexpectedly, a friend I’d thought gone

forever.

When I was a teenager in the 1980s,

Box Hill was a suburb still a little rough

around the edges; it was not somewhere

anyone aspired to. There was a lot of open,

unusable ground where creeks ran and

horses browsed, and the earth was swampy

in winter, and in summer tall gum trees

dropped their branches onto the roads.

The weekends spent roaming this wild

neighborhood fanned my imagination,

and maybe made a writer out of me, for

its silent streets and sullen houses have

featured in my work since the beginning,

as have its eucalypts and birds and green

grass and blue skies. On the other hand,

it’s this neighborhood that, years later,

makes me hesitate shiftily when someone

asks what I do for a living. An ordinary kid

from an ordinary Australian suburb could

never be a respectable writer of books: It’s

something I believed when I first started

writing, as a thirteen-year-old, and something

I still can’t help believing, for the

cultural cringe runs as deep in Australians

as does guilt in a Catholic. S. E. Hinton

could do it, but she was S. E. Hinton, who

had several unfair advantages. She had

a cool name, she had a flair for plot, she

invented charismatic characters and christened

them with ace nicknames, and, most

unfairly of all, she was American.

At thirteen, I had no clear image of

America as a country at all, but I did know

that its teenagers were worldly and goodlooking,

ran in gangs and hung out in pool

halls, had parents who were in prison, got

into knife fights and were handsomely

scarred, or even, occasionally, died romantically

as poets in each other’s arms. An

Australian teenager couldn’t compete with

any of this. No one I knew had bangedup

parents who’d left them in the care of

their sexy and curt but good-hearted elder

brother. No one I knew had been in a fistfight,

let alone been stabbed. When I was

a teenager, there were very few Australian

books being written for teenagers, but even

if there had been, I’m sure I wouldn’t have

read them. Australia, and the Australian

life lived by myself and my siblings and

friends, was unworthy of fiction. Australia

was a bland and unremarkable thing.

America, though, was a strange place, an

adventurous and dangerous place; one

where, if the novels were correct, a fearful

or outcast teenager was not a loser but,

rather, a kind of beautiful young god or

goddess. That promising world was the

one in which I wanted to live. It was certainly

the one I wanted to read about.

Looking back on my teenage years,

I feel kind of breathless at the thought

of what my life would have been like if

I had not had the triumvirate of Suzy

Hinton, Paul Zindel, and Robert Cormier

to bolster me against the ill winds that

blow through those tightly wound, easily

wounded, blindingly bright years. Hinton

gave me characters to aspire to create and

become. She showed me that words can

bleed. Most importantly, she showed me

that the world was much, much wilder

than I knew. Life in that wild world could

be fraught, but even fraughtness has

beauty and style when it’s lived by guys

with names like Ponyboy and M&M and

Tex. Paul Zindel was the joker who taught

me to cock an eyebrow at life’s quirks; the

loneliness and awkwardness and sadness

of his characters was something they could

laugh at, in the end. Like Hinton’s characters,

Zindel’s were brave, but brave within

an ordinary world—not brave during a

gang brawl, but brave throughout a horrible

day at school. Hinton broke a teenage

girl’s heart, but it was Zindel’s characters

who you wanted to be your friends.

And lastly, there was Robert Cormier,

whose work you picked up carefully, like a

precious gem covered in spikes. Cormier

looked at the world through dark eyes,

and saw as a teenager sees—that there is

hypocrisy and cruelty and unfairness in

the world, that things can go skiddingly

wrong, that everything hangs by a very thin

18 YALS | Young Adult Library Services | Fall 2007

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