The Smell of Other People’s Houses- Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

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Alaska in the 1970s, a typical summer day

Alaska was a lost place in 1970… a location which no one can particularly relate to. Except of course Hitchcock, who grew up there, creating an aura of the authenticity of the poverty and setting. It was time of social revolution, where in this novel the boundaries between child and adulthood are blurred beyond conception.

There are four protagonists Ruth, Dora, Alyce and Hank, with the story being woven between their viewpoints. It creates an intriguing variation for the reader because their lives are revealed through this medium, with the stories being surprisingly knitted together by the closing chapters.

Ruth is arguably the pivot of the plot: her parents have by tragic circumstances fled (as no self-respecting book these days can have a child with 2 living parents it seems) and this leaves her with a strained grandmother and a plethora of rules. This environment creates a palpable sense of tension, especially when Ruth becomes rather involved (ahem) with a popular boy.

On other hand, Dora has the predictable cocktail of the hapless mother slurring her Sundays with beer, and a father who thinks it’s fun to beat her up. Just to make things more interesting, Hitchcock also decided to make her have Inupiat origins so that there could be scenes of racism as well. Which is fine if this was a creative writing project of how many different social problems you can portray in one sitting, however if you’re reading it the main thing that comes across is a desperation to: reveal the scope of characteristics you can write about, appeal to every liberal audience and seem to be supremely intelligent. Which is fine, as long as you don’t want anyone but your inflated version of self to like your book.

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Alyce is sadly a stereotypical story: girl has dream, but family duty calls. Goes to do family duty (here fishing because for some reason the father can’t hire someone or has any friends) and wishes that she could be persuing her dream, ballet-dancing. Readers supposedly are emotionally invested in this girl because of the “heart-wrenching” situation, until (after she has a supernatural whale moment which is frankly weird) she eventually goes to this ballet audition after months of no practise and aces it, which in reality would never happen, but neither do random whale moments. Sorry to ruin the story, but you know you already saw it coming,

Then just to add a male voice so that there was a vague stab at equality (which was never truly reached) there is another storyline. I know, you’re bored already of all these characters vying for attention and so am I. Hank, who it seems thought that running away from his mum and despicable stepfather (because no one in Alaska can have any unclichéd background) was a great idea. The best Hitchcock could do was describe him as a ‘mangy stray dog’ and ‘short and squat, with stubby legs’. Because if a parental figures has stubby legs, you know you’re trouble.  I honestly don’t think if you are living in Canada that just because you hace a bit of family disagrements you will take your two brothers and just go off. That’s all there is to it: people are not that stupid. And then to have a brother who fell off a ferry, (ditto earlier comment as this is out-right stupidity) be magically saved by whales. Really.

So in short, it’s disastrously confusing and although the writing is at first enchanting, by the fifth page it’s clear that the deep-seated editing went into the opening scene and that by the end of the first chapter they thought that ‘Well, if they’ve read this far, they’ve probably bought it and the hook of elaborative worked, so who cares what they think later on.’ Even the better language is simplistic with deer’s hooves being described as ‘pointy like a ballerina’s toes’. (Yes, because there is only one pointed thing in the entire universe, with it also an inappropiate comparison as it makes things more muddled as this girl has no interest later in dance as opposed to Alyce.)

Surprised how this came to be on the Carneige Shortlist.

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Who should judge YA awards?

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The Alex Award, the Carnegie Medal, Michael L. Printz Award and the Bookseller YA Book prize. Just a few of the most prestigious YA awards on Earth, prestigious to such an extent that if any young adult author was bestowed one, happiness and pride would be positively emanating from their being. Yet who should be on that committee: who truly deserves to have the right to decide which authors can smugly plaster ‘award stickers’ across their novel’s front covers, and others be content with the trudge to the longlist? When the award is related to Young Adults, there are many controversies as to who should be in charge of making the final decisions.


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Who makes up the actual audience of YA books? 

When considering who should be the judges of a YA book award, it is essential to consider the intended audience, because what appeals to elderly women will probably not coincide with the interest of teenage boys. Of course, young adult books are read by a vast amount of teenagers, but that isn’t the full extent of it; ultimately the actual audience must be taken into consideration, as the novels must be judged against the suitability for the audience. Yet today more adults from across the age spectrum are immersing themselves into the genre too- does that mean that having adults as adjudicators is wrong though? Because if they aren’t the direct target audience, then the novels aren’t aiming to please them, and shouldn’t their opinions then be ignored? Definitely not! If there are enough people from a certain catergory interested and engaged in that type of novel, then what they think is just as important as young adults.

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Who is judging YA awards right now, and why?

Right now, the vast majority of prizes are awarded by a committee of adults. This irritates me, because surely it should be the reverse: that most of them should be awarded by adolescents, with only a sparse number of adults on each judging board? Generally what appeals to teens, regarding their experiences and perspective on the world, will be different from that of an adult- this can affect what aspects of novels engage and please them.I only mention this, because for example, toddlers can’t decide who wins picture book prizes, as they are not objective enough yet. This situation is not similar, and is  unique because of the entire intended vs. actual audience dilemma, and which would be the better in terms of decision making.

As for the why, well I feel that all we need to do is look at the YA Bookseller award’s committee: the judges are embellished with impressive titles, like Director of World Book Day, Director of the Hay festival and columnists from famous newspapers like the
Guardian Weekend. The point is, these people are leading industry figures, and thus have a certain type of status- something which appeal to some people as it can warrant their final decision as more reasonable, if any dispute should come of it like it did with the book that won the Carnegie, The Bunker, a few years ago. Even if the choice is controversial, it is widely accepted because they have these fool-proof CVs. This is most likely intended because when comparing the judgement of a  person with an accolade of impressive experience that of a student, unfortunately people are often prejudiced to vote against the student.

Naturally this is merely a hypothesis, but I think that teenagers are being excluded from judging committees because they aren’t renowned in literary circles and haven’t built a name for themselves. (I must mention that with this particular prize, teens themselves are involved with the final standings, but I am referring to prizes in general, not the YA Bookseller prize in particular). The frustrating element is that this doesn’t mean young adults can’t spot a decent novel, just because they haven’t personally edited 25 themselves! Similarly, despite the unescapable fact that most young adults haven’t been a senior librarian for over 5 years, it doesn’t mean that they are any less adept and useful as part of the judges board. As a whole, young adults cannot gain the qualifications to become “renowned enough” to be a judge and have these various required occupations (such as librarian) that are after sought after if you would like to apply, because they are actually previously engaged with a marvellous pastime called school.

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What am I suggesting as a solution?

I suggest that more teenagers become involved on judging panels, and that their view is represented fairly with the majority of awards. This is not disrespecting the previous outcomes of awards in the past, because it is clear to see that amazing novels have been shortlisted previously, but I believe that introducing a contrast in age on the committee will involve in offering differing perspectives, the younger generation’s perspective, and will change the outcome these honours for the better. I think that we can initiate this change by nominating adolescents with a keen passion for reading to be on the these boards, and perhaps one day our point will get through!

So what do you think of this idea? Do you think that more young adults should participate in judging the winners of prestigious YA awards, or are you satisfied with the current state of affairs?