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Someday My Printz Will Come
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Anticlimactic: I don’t believe in Printz Genre Bias

So I’ve been writing and rewriting a post on genre bias and the Printz for — I’m not kidding you — the past two weeks. But it boils down to a very drama-less post about a lack of genre bias in Printzland and how things seem to me to be fine. Which: good news for Young Adult Literature, but bad news for an interesting post, eh?

If you take a look at winners, they’re all over the place (in a good way!). Science fiction, fantasy, contemporary, historical fiction, nonfiction (OK, not a genre, but work with me here) — all there. Emily Calkins at The Hub broke down winners for us. While contemporary certainly dominates, there’s a strong mix of everything. And if you include honor titles as well, things generally even out. (And I should note, as Emily did: assigning genre is hard. I made some judgement calls on a few. You may not agree with where I landed, but I think the general trends are accurate, even if we disagree on one or two titles.)

printzgenre Anticlimactic: I dont believe in Printz Genre BiasOK, contemporary represents more than half the titles — 53%, in fact — but that aligns with my sense of YA publishing; there are a lot of realistic, contemporary titles out there! I don’t have firm numbers on the Realm of Young Adult Literature as a whole (do any of you? You do always amaze me with the knowledge and data you pull together!). Taking Kelly Jensen’s post on “Best of” Lists by the Numbers (again from the Hub), things…mostly line up. (Yes, that represents only a single year. Yes, that represents only some of the books published that year. No, I don’t think you can make sweeping pronouncements from this. But we’ve gotta start somewhere!)

I do think that people can have genre bias, but I think by and large most librarians come to the Printz table aware of their baggage, ready to be professional, to read outside of their comfort zone, and to listen to other committee members when disagreements come up.

So maybe you can add some drama in the comments. Am I way off base? Do you see genre bias?

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About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. Emily Calkins says:

    Hey, thanks for the shout out! I’m glad you liked the post. I think you’re right; for the most part, there isn’t much evidence for genre bias (sorry, no drama here!). I will say that contemporary seems slightly overrepresented and paranormal is underrepresented, even if it’s included under fantasy. For a great breakdown of genre in Young Adult Literature as a Whole, check out this post on 2010/2011 YA book deals from Kate Hart: http://www.katehart.net/2011/03/two-for-tuesday-genre-grudge-match.html

    You’re right that contemporary is the biggest chuck (39%) but paranormal is second and I don’t think there’s a single paranormal Printz. On the other hand, it’s also a relatively new genre, and if these deals were made in late 2010, early 2011, the books probably aren’t even out yet (or are coming out now? I don’t have a good sense of the publishing timeline for YA).

  2. Mark Flowers says:

    I totally agree with you Sarah. In fact, I can’t even get my count of contemporary fiction to add up to 33. Would you mind listing which titles you classified that way?

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Gosh! When I go into B&N the only thing I see are publishers chasing Harry Potter and Twilight. If it weren’t for the Printz Award I might think contemporary realistic fiction is extinct. Here’s the 2011 Teens Top Ten.

    Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare (Simon & Schuster)
    Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic)
    Crescendo by Becca Fitzpatrick (Simon & Schuster)
    I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore (HarperCollins)
    The Iron King by Julie Kagawa (Harlequin)
    Matched by Ally Condie (Penguin)
    Angel: A Maximum Ride Novel by James Patterson (Little, Brown & Company)
    Paranormalcy by Kiersten White (HarperCollins)
    Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver (HarperCollins)
    Nightshade by Andrea Cremer (Penguin)

    How many are contemporary realistic? Not saying these titles are necessarily Printz-worthy, but it’s clear that teens like genre fiction in a way that their librarians don’t.

  4. Mark Flowers says:

    I’m having trouble counting to 33, Sarah. Can you post a list of the titles you count as falling into contemp. fiction?

  5. I love that the Printz covers so many different genres. I wasn’t sure if the committee made a special effort to do so or not but I’m happy nonetheless. At a glance, I see this less with Newbery, though I’d actually have to go and check the genre to be sure, a daunting task considering it’s history.

    I agree that being on a committee opens your ears to what others are saying about the book and a member tends to put their bias aside for the greater purpose. I do that as a school librarian too! If I only bought books I wanted to read, argh, poor students!

  6. Sarah, I agree that it would be so great to have the statistics (even if only for a year) of how many books are published in each genre. If I understand correctly, you’re using Kelly’s “best of” genre breakdown as a proxy for this missing data, to see whether Printzes are awarded in numbers that fairly represent what’s being published.

    I think your numbers seems to argue that there is a genre bias, though. The Printz winners have 53% contemporary, while Kelly’s “best of” lists have only 33% contemporary. The Printz winners have only 11% fantasy and sci-fi, while the “best of” lists have almost 33% fantasy/sci-fi. Thus, it looks like contemporary is over-represented relative to fantasy/sci-fi, at the very least.

    Moreover, using the “best of” list as a proxy for how many books are published in each genre might pose a problem: if there in fact is a genre bias in judging literary works, it could already be showing up in a “best of” list to some extent. If this is true, it would mean the Printz winners are even less reflective than they seem of what’s actually on bookstore and library shelves.

    Implicit in all of this is the assumption that the winners should (over time) fairly represent the percentage of each genre that’s published. That sounds right to me, philosophically, but I wonder whether there’s anyone out there who’s willing to argue with that premise? (I can think of arguments I don’t believe.)

    P.S. And boy are you, Emily, and Kelly right that determining genre is an art, not a science, and that Printz winners are often blends…

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Oh! I was away, and then comments were broken-ish, and now I am back and I am suddenly not sure I agree with Sarah, even though I totally thought I did.

      Huh.

      First, I want to take a run at something Elizabeth said: “Implicit in all of this is the assumption that the winners should (over time) fairly represent the percentage of each genre that’s published. That sounds right to me, but I wonder whether there’s anyone out there who’s willing to argue with that premise? ”

      Me! Let’s take a look at the paranormal and dystopic fiction. The bookstores and the top 10 are full of these books because they are everywhere. Right now, there is no question that these would be a large percentage of titles out in the past year, and while things are shifting some for next year (I have seen a lot of soft scifi at previews), these are still dominant trends. So if the award should reflect the books that are out there (which, btw, the criteria explicitly state is NOT a goal, so there’s that, too), there should probably be at least two recognized titles that are paranormal and/or dystopic every year for the past few years. BUT. But. The trendiest genres are always full of books that we politely term commercial. Many might be conceived by packagers, many are formulaic, and many are published not because the agent or editor or even the author said “this is great literature” but because they thought the book would sell.

      I strongly support formulaic, reads-just-like-the-last-five books. They are critical for developing reading fluency, even at the YA level. They are easy and fun. They are the blockbusters, as per Joy’s comments when we talking stars v awards. But I don’t support awarding them honors just because there are so darn many of them. That’s like saying pigeons and rats get some sort of most awesome animal award in NYC, just for being prevalent. And I think this holds true even if we are taking the long view. In the end, awards are about the criteria of the awards and the books that best embody that criteria, and for the Printz, genre is immaterial.

      But then, what about the lack of recognition for brilliant fantasy over time? Is there genre bias? Sarah said no. Sophie thinks yes, and hopefully will toss some thoughtful arguments into the mix, because I think she’s thought about this a lot. I’m… not sure. I think that there can be bias in a committee, however hard they try to recognize the bias and move past it. Sometimes, the bias is because there is an uninformed readership, and so there are things that no one catches that are part of the brilliance of a text. Not because the committee has said “we hate mystery, so let’s ignore the mysteries” but because they don’t know the tropes that are being played with (usually, the books that are great do something more with, or completely disregard, the tropes and conventions of genre, otherwise they’d be formula books). I really believe that no committee is biased on purpose. But I do believe that a committee as a whole may have a bias based in previous baggage. You can put your baggage aside, but you can’t make up for having never read a nonfiction book, or a poetry book, or fantasy, or mystery, or whatever, ever before. And certain genres, especially those we call “genre books” — fantasy, science fiction, and mystery — do have a history of a smaller readership, which can result in less recognition as there might be not one person on a committee who can see what makes a specific title exceptional, because everyone lacks some needed context.

      Then again, any given committee can also, in the same way, fail to be well versed in a more mainstream genre or style, so over time, I think it will balance, especially as the post Harry Potter world has a lot more people familiar with fantasy books, since we all had to become knowledgeable in order to do reader’s advisory.

      So where are the arguments for genre bias? Sophie, Jonathan, anyone else?

  7. Jody says:

    No drama, just a boring post.

  8. Mark Flowers says:

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