White Darkness

All of us trotting around in the polar regions, including you penguins down in Antarctica, should be happy with Monday’s announcement that Geraldine McCaughrean’s WHITE DARKNESS had won the Printz Award for best book for young adults in 2007. I’m among the legions who hadn’t read or even heard of WHITE DARKNESS, but I plunged right into it and am finding it’s a remarkable read.

For those of you who read and/or write mostly for adults, awards may not bedazzle you. But in the world of children’s books, awards mean a lot. The readers of children’s books aren’t usually the ones buying the books. Adults – parents, librarians, sometimes teachers – buy books for children. So there’s this additional layer, the “expert” layer, that doesn’t matter much in markets where the readers make their own choices. Awards are well-meaning. But while committee members try hard to be unbiased, we’re kidding ourselves if we pretend that there’s not a certain amount of politics that comes to the award-granding table, subtle though it may be.

All that being said, WHITE DARKNESS is a lovely, richly textured book, fully deserving of honors. The intangible, haunting lure of polar places threads deeply through the story, with McCaughrean’s descriptions of the Antarctic landscape resonating long and deep. Take Sym’s first look at the “dazzling white shield of Antarctica, clinging to the curve of the planet”:

“…the filigree lace of blown snow on volcanic rock; the fancy knotwork of a seal colony; the towering ruck of an ice barrier, snow pluming off its rim; dark hummocks of stone that were really the tips of mountains buried up to their necks; the black axeheads of far-off mountain ranges.”

But this is hardly a book that wanders lyrically away with itself. It’s the story of a girl hovering between the real and the imaginary, struggling with who she is and whom she can trust. McCaughrean merges place and character with gong-sounding truth for those of us drawn to landscapes, especially those of the cold, arctic sort which we acknowledge as a metaphor for things we can’t or don’t dare to explain.

“God sketched Antarctica,” she writes. “then erased most of it again, in the hope a better idea would strike Him. At the center is a blank whiteness where the planet isn’t finished. It’s the address for Nowhere.”

I’m eager to see where McCaughrean takes this story. From what I’ve read so far, it’s a beefy read worthy of a few hours of anyone’s time, be they children or adults.

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