Wednesday, September 5, 2012

ICEFALL by Matthew Kirby, Winner of the PEN Award

Update Oct 24, 2012:  Read about PEN and the Award Festival held on October 22nd at the Beverly Hills Hotel at the INK blog in the October 24th post by Gretchen Woelfle, finalist for her book All the World's a Stage: A Novel in Five Acts.

September 5, 2012
I was honored this year to be one of the judges for the 2012 PEN Center USA Literary Awards for Children's Literature.  With the other judges, writers Jamie Lee and Rene Saldana, we had the enviable and challenging job of selecting one winner and three finalists from many wonderful books.  The winner is Icefall by Matthew Kirby, a powerful and suspensful novel set in Viking times on an icy fjord in Norway.  I'd like to share Rene Saldana's commentary on this book and the reasons it made it to the top of our list:

One English/Language Arts teacher in deep South Texas always offers up the following challenge to her students at the beginning of the school year, aimed specifically at reluctant readers: “Give a book, any book, at least 10%; if a book is 200 pages long, read at least the first 20 pages before making the very important decision to put a book aside.” She believes that a good writer will do what it takes to build up enough interest in that first 10% so that a reader will know to keep going or to return the book to the library and check out another. Matthew J. Kirby’s Icefall is a book that will appeal to a reader, even a reluctant one, well before the opening 10%. This Viking saga runs 324 pages in length, but by page 5, Kirby has already sucked the reader in: the kingdom is at war, and the king’s children, including Harald who is in line for the throne, are hiding in a fjord which is quickly freezing over and provisions are running low. By page 20, a boat arrives, “a drekar, a dragon-headed longship. A ship of war.” To make things worse, it is “an army of bears and wolves” that disembarks, berserkers, the king’s “personal guard,” who terrify Solveig, our narrator. But she is a storyteller in the making, a would-be skald who must become “the poet of the living past, bearer of our ancestors’ history, their tales of sacrifice and valor,” a responsibility oftentimes as burdensome as leading the kingdom into war. It is through this storytelling that Solveig must distinguish herself, but can she learn the craft while certain destruction surrounds her?
Among the various reasons the judges chose Icefall as this year’s winner, Caroline Arnold stated that because “even though the story is set long ago, the basic human problems are universal.” And, indeed, young adolescent readers will identify with Solveig in many ways. For one, she suffers from middle-child syndrome. As a result, she goes through life unnoticed; she feels she’s taken for granted by everyone. Her older sister, Asa, is the beautiful one, and Solveig has nothing of value to offer those around her. To further complicate her already confusing situation, Solveig begins to feel stirrings for members of the opposite sex. René Saldaña, Jr., felt that “this is a writer’s book.” In it, Kirby describes what it takes to become a storyteller. For instance, storytelling is both “exhilarating and terrifying,” but nevertheless, a writer’s task is to write. Jamie Lee was impressed that the story could read like a mystery novel and yet hold the lyrical quality of the writing throughout.  
With so much going for this story, it is no surprise, then, that all three judges in this category voted for Icefall.

Congratulations to Matthew Kirby for his wonderful book, Icefall! Congratulations also to the three finalists:  Trent Reedy: Words in the Dust (Arthur A. Levine Books)
Allen Say: Drawing From Memory (Scholastic Press)
Gretchen Woelfle: All the World’s a Stage: A Novel in Five Acts (Holiday House)

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