Today’s post comes to you compliments of Clair Segal, who I wisely hired pretty much before she even had her degree, just to make sure no one else would snatch her up. Clair is a great librarian. But she kept staring at me blankly when I started tossing around terms like BBYA or BFYA or Quick Picks or GGNT or Printz. And while the holes in her library education are mostly filled these days, Sarah and I thought it might be great to have her voice chime in with a much needed reminder about educating not only our teens and the public, but also our own library colleagues about what the Printz Award is and why it matters.
(I should also note that I might have been the one who hired Clair, or at least got her in for an interview, but Sarah is really the one who discovered her, when Clair was Sarah’s student in a Youth Services grad class.)
Clair raises some interesting points, and I am interested in hearing what others have to say about the underlying issue of the Printz being a stealth award to so many. The comments are open. So tell us, how do we spread the word and raise the profile of the award?
Ok, and now, with no further ado (finally!), here is Clair:
By the time I graduated library school, the entirety of what I knew about Printz books could be summed up in three neat bullet points:
- They were books. Someone had decided they were very good; everyone else seemed to be in pretty firm agreement.
- Printz books were the YA version of Newbery books. Which meant that instead of dogs/friends/horses/ the elderly dying to teach the protagonist a lesson about self-discovery and growth, a teenager would die/go into a coma/ get horribly abused by grownups to teach the protagonist a lesson about self-discovery and growth.
- Printz had a “z” in it, making these books at least 20% cooler than Newbery winners. (Z’s are much cooler than N’s.)
Things probably would have continued in this vein for a while, if I hadn’t graduated, landed a job in a high school, and started actually having to learn things.
The education of a young librarian in the trenches is hard. There’s a lot of stuff to pick up on the fly, a lot of skills you don’t have yet, and an awful lot of faux pas to make. There’s also the overbearing feeling that everyone else already knows all of this, what rock have you been living under for the past two years, and are you sure you have an advanced degree in this?
Between the lingo I didn’t understand (ARC? That’s like… a book, right?), people I should apparently already be familiar with (Libba Bray=somehow involved with a cow costume), and the piles upon piles of popular titles waiting to be shoved into young hands, reading Printz winners seemed to be the very least of my worries. Major freak-outs needed to happen over much more pressing matters. Covering books? How the heck do you cover a book? What am I covering it with—doesn’t it already have a cover? AAAH WHY CAN’T I HOLD THESE SCISSORS RIGHT TO CUT THE STICKY STUFF I’M COVERING THE BOOK WITH?!
Tack on the fact that, like most of my library school compadres, the students had no idea what a Printz book was and cared even less. I had twenty teenagers a day asking me how to print double-sided, find the reference section, or format this in NoodleTools. No one was asking for literature awarded a designation they’d never heard of by people they had never met.
Printz books were pushed to the bottom of my to-do pile: a rainy day reading list.
I’d like to say that my awakening to the awesome purpose of Printz books was the result of several deep hours of thinking, weeks of work, and a startling eureka moment during a late stay in the library. (During a thunderstorm. At night.) It sounds more Byronically romantic. But life is rarely that awesomely dramatic, and in reality it was when Karyn slipped me Jellicoe Road and I Am the Messenger.
Okay, so Messenger was an honor book, not a winner, and Jellicoe’s overarching motif of “NO ONE CAN BE HAPPY! DEATH! DEATH! ABANDONMENT! DEATH!” fed into my worst assumptions of what a Printz book was, but I didn’t care. Sitting on the train, consuming page after page, ignoring the world and the looks I was getting as my bottom lip trembled and I made the woobie face—I just didn’t care.
And then, half way through my baggie of tissues and the last chapter of Jellicoe, a literary miracle happened: I finally got it. (Eureka.)
And since knowing is half the battle, here’s what you need to know about Printz books as a new librarian:
They’re books. Someone has decided they are very good, and there is a very good reason for that. But don’t fall into the trap of viewing it as the only good literature—the be all and end all of what counts as quality YA. What Printz titles really are is a starting place—a reference for greatness. They are a learned librarian’s way of saying to you, the newbie: “These are some elements of a truly fantastic read, look for them in other books you buy and recommend.”
Most of my favorite titles are not Printz nominees. Most of my students’ favorite titles are not Printz nominees. I would never say to a teen “You should read this instead of that other book you’re holding—this one won a Printz!” But I would read a title and think “This is worth pushing to my patrons because it has these Printz-ly qualities and methods.”
Printz titles are examples of great literature—literature that is great both because of and in spite of being made for a teen audience. We single them out not because other titles are unworthy or less enjoyable, but because they are so good that they provide an example of what teen literature is capable of being. A perfect storm of YA.
If you’ve already partaken of the Kool-Aid, then you know this. If you haven’t, well, I just explained it, why are you still asking why Printz books are awesome? A more intriguing question by far is—“Okay, what do I do with them now?”
Someone else has gone through all of the work, kissed all of the frogs, and found you a Printz (badumchunk). Now you as a librarian have to get that Printz the recognition and reader access it deserves. How do you take a great book and get it into the hand of a patron who can devour it and get something out of it? A display when the announcements come out? An enigmatic nod and some wiggling eyebrows?
They’re good. We all know they’re good. Now ask yourself how you can get your teens to have their own personal “Eureka!” moment with a Printz title.
(Thunder and lightning optional.)