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Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

Stars vs. Printz: Round One!

So, starred reviews and the Printz award. We’re going to cover this topic in at least two posts this year, so whatever I don’t address (or get dead wrong), Karyn will cover in a couple of weeks!

I’m a visual, list-making sort of person, so as I mulled over this topic this week, I found myself making a mental chart of how they relate, in terms of their functions as well as how they’re determined.

So, what do starred reviews do? What are they for? They’re very similar, after all, but not the same. Very briefly, both stars and the Printz (and here, I include both winners & honor titles) should signify & reward excellence, bringing wider attention to deserving books. I have three perspectives on stars and awards: as a reviewer (a recommender of stars for deserving books), a librarian (a purchaser and recommender of starred and award-winning titles to readers) and a reader (you know, reading them).

As a reviewer, I didn’t think much about the impact of starred reviews on award committee members before my Printz experience. I just followed the criteria of the review periodical I was writing for, and relied on my best judgment. I will say that I am stingy with stars (and, when I reviewed for VOYA, was stingy with the high rating of 5Q), but have rarely regretted either the recommending of a star or the decision not to recommend one.

As a librarian, I would often prioritize the purchase of both starred and award-winning titles, and sometimes made a point of showcasing them in displays and booktalks. When I was a high school librarian, I always had a few students who really cared about awards, especially — all kinds! Pulitzer, National Book Award, you name it, they cared about best-ness — so I would cater to them.

As both a librarian and a reader, one starred review will make me go, “interesting!” Multiple stars, meanwhile, make me sit right up and say, “oh, ho! What’s going on here?” As a reader, I think I’m at the far, obsessive end of the bell curve — after all, how many garden variety avid readers who are not also librarians pay attention to starred reviews? (I’m also one of those people who stays to the end of credit sequences at the movies and who reads all of the liner notes of her CDs, and once upon a time, tapes. But I digress.)

Now, how are they different? Well, that’s a much bigger, more complicated question, but for my money, it comes down to two things: criteria and community.

First of all, the criteria for starred reviews differ from review publication to publication. I could find three publications that commented publicly or gave counsel to reviewers on giving stars to books:

  • SLJ asks its reviewers to complete a checklist for each type of book under review — fiction, nonfiction, professional reading, poetry, picture books, and reference — and under a section marked “outstanding books”, notes: “Star (*) books distinctly above average in quality, appeal and/or usefulness. If you have given the book an outstanding review and yet do not feel it should be starred, please explain. Stars are an editorial decision but we want your comments.”
  • VOYA‘s Review Codes page explains their unique Q/P (quality & popularity) system of reviews and cautions reviewers to “consider carefully before assigning the 5Q rating to any title. This designation tells our readers that the book is the cream of the crop, one that is “hard to imagine . . . being better written.”  5Qs are VOYA’s Best Books. Make sure your review justifies the 5Q rating.”
  • Kirkus is quite circumspect on how their stars are administered, saying simply that “A star is assigned to books of remarkable merit, determined by the editors of Kirkus.”
  • I looked for, but could not find, references to the star-administering process for The Horn Book, Publisher’s Weekly, or Booklist. If any of you do find something about it, please let us know in comments!

What leaps out at me from both the above references and my own experience, is that while star criteria are certainly stringent, they are profoundly different from those for awards like Printz, where the entire point is literary merit. Even the famously tough Kirkus takes into consideration appeal to readers: “Our eye, of course, is always open for books of particular literary merit or popular appeal, and these we acclaim as they deserve.” (emphasis mine)

In any case, a star is the result of a conversation among, at most, three: the book, its reviewer & her editor.

Meanwhile, an award like the Printz is decided upon after months of discussion, both via e-mail and face to face, or “at the table” as we award folks like to say.

I often recommend stars on the basis of one reading — a careful reading, but still: one. My emotional response to the book is usually part of the calculus. I read this year’s Printz winner and honor titles at least twice, often three or four times, depending on my notes, questions from other committee members, and how hard I wanted to fight for the title. Printz winning and honoring has to do with how well a book stands up to repeated close readings by nine people — NINE — and based on totally different criteria. A star is one person’s opinion, supported by her review and affirmed by her editor.

Certainly, on the RealCommittee, we looked at and for starred titles, but when it came time to vote, we didn’t consider those stars. At all.

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Comments

  1. evan roskos says:

    This is a really great post and I look forward to part 2.

  2. Roger Sutton says:

    On the first page of the book review section in every issue of the Horn Book Magazine, we state “[star symbol] indicates a book that the editors believe to be an outstanding example of its genre, of books of this particular publishing season, or of the author’s body of work.”

    As for how it works: reviewers and editors alike can nominate books for stars. A list of nominees is compiled and circulated among reviewers and editors; then the editors meet and make choices, guided by comments from the reviewers as well as their own reading. I agree with you that star-picking is a really different animal from award-committeeing!

  3. Jen B. says:

    On the CIP page of the Bulletin it simply notes *Asterisks denote books of special distinction. What I remember vaguely from my kid lit class with Janice Del Negro (a previous editor of the Bulletin, I believe) is that their reviewers meet as a committee for each issue and decide on stars there, but I definitely could be simplifying that or remembering incorrectly. Couldn’t find anything about Booklist in a print copy or at Booklist Online. Couldn’t find anything about stars on the PW website and don’t currently have access to a full print issue.

  4. Sophie Brookover says:

    Thank you, Roger & Jen! I was so chained to my laptop while writing this post that it didn’t even occur to me to reach over to my bedside table for one of the issues of HB that I keep there. Silly, silly me. Roger, your comment reminds me — didn’t you write a From The Editor on the topic of stars & what they mean some years back? If so, is it still available on the Horn Book website?

    Another thing I forgot to mention in my original post is that with stars, reviewers & editors are not only allowed, but sometimes explicitly encouraged to compare works — not only works by the same author, but books that are linked thematically or stylistically. You can’t do that on Printz. I imagine there are similar rules about making comparisons on Newbery & Caldecott, too.

  5. Roger Sutton says:

    Hi Sophie–that article can be found at http://archive.hbook.com/magazine/articles/2006/sep06_sutton.asp

  6. Sophie Brookover says:

    Thank you so much, Roger! I love this “ask & ye shall receive” pattern we’ve got going here. Should I request a pony next? :-)

    People, I urge you to read Roger’s September/October 2006 editorial (and not just because I am quoted in it — oh, what a fun reminder of days gone by!) — it is FULL of super-quotable insights that tie into & resonate with this tricky issue. While Roger smartly keeps his focus on the matter of stars, excluding their relationship to awards, it’s very, very germane to our discussion.

  7. Hope Baugh says:

    I love Roger’s article and I love this post. :-)

  8. Jen B. says:

    Just got the May Bulletin which includes their starred review of The Fault in Our Stars making that the first of the year to get 6 stars.

    Last year only two books got 6 stars – Chime and Why We Broke Up – and one of those was an honor and one was shut out.

    The only book I see this year with 5 stars so far is a picture book, so not eligible.

    4 stars gets longer now with 10 titles and a couple more that I’m not listing because they just barely ping the lower age limit):
    Wonder by Palacio is probably too young, but a couple of the reviews are definitely within the younger age limit (8-14 from Kirkus; Gr. 5-8 from Booklist)
    Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by Hopkinson
    There is No Dog by Rosoff
    No Crystal Stair by Nelson
    The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Danforth
    Grave Mercy by LaFevers (next on my reading list)
    The Drowned Cities by Bacigalupi (I have the first hold in my library system on this one. I loved Ship Breaker so I’m super excited to revisit this world)
    The Disenchantments by LaCour
    The Boy on Cinnamon Street by Stone (probably too young again)
    Bitterblue by Cashore

    Lots of 3 star titles as well – 15 titles including a fair amount of non-fiction.

  9. Peg Williams says:

    You left out Everybody Sees the Ants in your star listing. It had 5 or 6 I think. If you make lists like I do I thought you’d want to know.

  10. Jen B. says:

    Thanks, Peg! It did indeed have 5 stars last year when it came out (Kirkus did not star it). This list however is all of this year’s titles with multiple stars (at the point when I posted it at least, I haven’t updated in awhile). I only mentioned the two titles from last year because The Fault in Our Stars was the first title this year to achieve complete star domination and I wanted to note that having 6 stars doesn’t necessarily indicate anything when it comes to the Printz.

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