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Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

Aaand We’re Off!

crowd 500x375 Aaand Were Off!

Here we are, a diverse, vibrant, occasionally unexpected crowd. Together, we’re going to analyze the $%&* out of some books.

Well, Labor Day has come and gone, which means our labors are beginning again!

Which means it’s time to say:

Welcome to Someday My Printz Will Come, 2013 edition.

The purpose of this blog is to speculate, with textual evidence, about books that are potential contenders for YALSA’s Michael L. Printz Award, given annually to a YA book for literary excellence.*

Speculate. Potential contenders. Literary excellence. What these words share is the unknown. We don’t know what the RealCommittee is looking at; we don’t know what they are discussing about the books; we don’t even know what this year’s committee will use as their measures of excellence.

So instead we operate as a kind of shadow committee, emulating the process as transparently as possible and having fun discussing the best books of the year on a level most of us rarely get to do.

There are three of us whose names can be clicked for information, but a committee of three is a pretty paltry thing, especially when the three members are so similar (we’re all NYC librarians currently working in independent schools). To keep it honest, we need a large, more diverse pool, so our shadow committee includes all of you who read and comment.

With that in mind, let me rephrase the welcome statement.

Welcome, committee members, to our virtual, speculative discussion!

Our first order of business is to determine what literary quality means.

Required reading for this discussion:

  • The RealPrintz Policies and Procedures, the go-to for the RealCommittee and for us.
  • The very long discussion (part 1 and part 2) Sarah and I had in Someday’s first year about the P&P, which raises many of the issues; the comments on part 2 are a great discussion in their own right.
  • Last year’s revisit of Literary Excellence as a concept, with some discussion of how a committee needs to determine the criteria as a group.

Okay, so have you caught up on all the previous discussion? Great!

The comments are open, so start talking — and listening — and let’s try to craft our own consensus about excellence, or at least have a rousing disagreement about how we each define excellence. Remember that love has a place in our reading, but for the Printz (Real or Pyrite) we are looking for the more tangible and less subjective standards. Objectively speaking, what is it that makes a book great?

*Our predictions, conversations, and speculation about potential RealPrintz contenders and winners reflect only our own best guesses and are not affiliated with YALSA or the RealPrintz committee. You probably figured that out on your own, but we like to make it clear!

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About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything (except current events, because she’s too busy reading YA literature to follow the news). Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. Kate says:

    I know this has come up before (it’s in the comments on Part 2 linked above, and I remember LOTS of chatter about In Darkness), but I would love to hear people’s opinions about the idea of “Accuracy” in either fiction or non-fiction books. Some questions I have:

    –what is the perceived obligation of the committee to actively investigate accuracy?

    –is accuracy paramount in non-fiction? historical fiction? hard science fiction? realistic fiction? realistic fiction set outside the US? realistic fiction about marginalized groups? At what point is inaccuracy a deal-breaker? When is it outweighed by excellence in the other criteria?

    –do you, as a reader or a librarian, perceive a Printz medal or honor for a non-fiction (or fiction) work as any kind of assurance of accuracy and/or high-quality scholarship?

    • Emily H. says:

      In fiction, a conspicuous mistake in accuracy will often bother me deeply, not because the mistake itself is vital to the story, but because it breaks my suspension of disbelief; it snaps me out of the story when I can’t stop thinking, “Why doesn’t the author know this? Why didn’t anybody correct them? Did they not care enough about getting it right?”

      “House of the Scorpion” is a fantastic book, and I’m looking forward to the sequel this year, but it killed me that the end turns on the premise that clones have identical fingerprints. Fingerprints are not genetic, and twins don’t have identical ones. Clones shouldn’t either, unless you explain the reason within the story. And I am actually quite surprised if Nancy Farmer didn’t discover this in the course of research! It felt a bit like cheating, because it let an unsolvable problem be solved. It was disappointing, but it didn’t feel like a book-killing flaw both because the rest of the book was so strong and because it’s not information that I’d expect any random person to have.

      The two books this year that are giving me problems with accuracy (though they wouldn’t be in my top tier regardless) are “If You Find Me” — the author seems to keep getting crochet and knitting mixed up, and there’s no such thing as crochet needles except in Tunisian crochet, which I really wouldn’t expect to find in that socioeconomic context — and “The 5th Wave” — there’s just no plausible mechanism for an electromagnetic pulse to immediately take out all plumbing, because most basic home plumbing is neither motorized nor electric, and should keep working for at least a day or two unless they can turn off gravity.

      Neither one is a book-killing flaw, but both make me think, “What else did the author not take the time to research?”

      • Wendy says:

        Yeah, the “crochet needles” thing was killing me. It’d be one thing if it was just the girls who didn’t know how to crochet or knit calling them that, but the stepmother was supposed to be an avid and expert crocheter. (I don’t think there’s any reason that people of any socioeconomic class wouldn’t do Tunisian crochet, which is found as “afghan stitch” in plenty of mainstream instruction booklets of the ’70s and ’80s as well as fancier books more recently, but I also don’t think there’s any way that’s what it was supposed to be.) But my rule for whether accuracy matters is (generally) whether it affects the plot, and irritating as it was to you and me, it wouldn’t be irritating or even noticeable to most people and it doesn’t affect the plot at all.

    • Emily H. says:

      I haven’t spoken to non-fiction at all. I *don’t* perceive a Printz award as necessarily a badge of accuracy, because I know that the committee is small, and it’s just luck if some person on that committee happens to have the knowledge to realize that a particular fact is wrong. But I would expect the committee to ask hard questions about how well the book cited and sourced information.

      At the same time, there are nonfiction books that really aren’t focused on instructing people in literal facts. I don’t think the recent graphic novel biography of Martin Luther King Jr, I See the Promised Land, is Printz-eligible, but it’s an excellent book — and its excellence is in the poetry of the language, and the way the language and the illustrations work together. For a book like that I would be unlikely to get hung up on small factual errors. For a more traditional work of nonfiction, like last year’s Bomb, that would be a bigger area of concern for me.

  2. Elizabeth Burns says:

    What is literary excellence?

    I’ll know it when I read it.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      NO! No no no.

      I mean, yes, ok, there’s a sort of point there; sometimes a book just rears up and bites you and you think WOW, now that was some good stuff.

      But honestly, that kind of thinking gets us nowhere, because it’s all about gut, and we’ve talked before about guts and hearts and their utterly untrustworthy habits.

      If you can’t prove the merits of the book, how will you ever convince 8 other people, much less all the librarians and teens and booksellers and YA Lit aficionados, that the book HAS merits? If we all went with I’ll know it when I see it, award discussion would be a lot uglier than it is, and would consist of pointless arguments from entrenched intractable perspectives.

      We need measurable elements. There may still be an element of recognition and gut — and, frankly, taste; lyrical writing may strike one reader as stunningly crafted and another as overwrought — but at least let’s have some stick to measure with.

      (I’ll save the rest of my thoughts until others have had a chance to speak up. I could probably go on forever…)

      • Wendy says:

        How can any of this be measurable, though? You can insist that people break it down, provide examples that show the book is excellent in various ways, but how can you measure literary quality?

      • Elizabeth Burns says:

        Seriously speaking, I think the “I know it” is what helps reduce the massive number of contenders to a short list of, say, only 150. That quick and dirty read that easily picks up flat language, cardboard characters, predictable plots, etc without going thru a ten step analysis. The other issues come into play, I think, not for what is or isn’t literary quality, but of the books being looked at which ones are better at it than others.

  3. Maureen E says:

    This type of discussion is always challenging for me. Partly because it’s not the way my brain naturally works, and partly I just don’t have an answer–at least not a coherent one!

    What I will add is that perhaps part of the issue is the lack of context, not so much in the criteria as in the question Karyn’s posing. After all, it’s not exactly that the RealPrintz committee, and by extension our virtual committee here, are trying to define literary quality for all books ever, as that they/we are trying to define it for a circumscribed set of books. So, personally speaking, I feel much less comfortable saying that this is the definition of literary quality we’re looking for than I am asserting that Title X is higher in literary quality than Title Y. It seems to me that the P&P criteria are attempting to acknowledge that, in this phrase particularly: “For each book the questions and answers will be different, the weight of the various criteria will be different.” Unfortunately they do so in a way which makes this more confusing and frustrating. What I’m trying to suggest is that looking at a set of books and weighing them against each other while trying to determine their literary quality is quite different than trying to define literary quality wholesale. On the other hand, it’s also important to have a shared definition of terms so that everyone is on at least roughly the same page, so it’s probably important to try to answer the original question.

    I like Kate’s points above–of course accuracy is the kind of thing that it’s much easier to pin down than some of the other suggested criteria. Certainly in terms of plot, huge plot-holes would probably be a factor in discussion, but how do you define huge? What about last year’s discussion of Code Name Verity, where some commenters saw a particular plot point as implausible and deal-breaking, while others didn’t read it the same way at all, or didn’t see it as deal-breaking?

    There are also, I suppose less English-class, or criteria-defined, ways of talking about quality–long-term impact of the book, for instance, or its highlighting of normally marginalized groups. These are certainly topics we’ve brought up here before, but they are 1) hard to predict (especially in the case of long-term impact) and 2) can lead to Message being given a lot of weight. If a book has a lot of flaws but also says something Important, does the one outweigh the other?

    I think I’ve given more questions than answers, but there you are.

  4. Beth Saxton says:

    Accuracy in my mind is more than just the facts, although getting the president wrong in a historical novel gets you chucked across the room. Accuracy is also about modes of speech -does your contemporary teen character call things “groovy”, do they use a pay phone? These seem like little things but they really throw me out of a story.

    Distinctive voice is very important for me. I also tend to notice characters. Are your characters believable, well rounded, or just tropes. Do you have five characters when two will do? Things like that

  5. Elizabeth Burns says:

    I think there are different types of accuracy. If someone is sloppy on facts, I tend to then be biased into thinking they may be sloppy about other things. Example: a book I read set in a certain area of NJ where the research was clearly based on Wikipedia, and nothing more.

    If its accuracy that is more opinion, then I think the book should get more slack because it’s playing into people’s own biases, not whether something is or is not accurate.

    In terms of accuracy, the best advice I ever heard was from the wonderful Kaye Vandergrift at Rutgers SCILS: she was raised in Pennsylvania Dutch area so it would be “easy” for her to read books in that setting and say “wrong.” But that would be wrong, because one person’s experiences growing up in that area is not universal or factual for all.

  6. Sondy says:

    Of course the big accuracy howler this year is really a book for younger readers — Navigating Early. It was proved in 1741 that pi is irrational. Yet she has a unversity mathematician supposedly conjecturing in the 40s that pi ends (that it is not irrational). And everything about that set-up is not the way mathematicians work. I will be embarrassed for librarians if that book wins an award — like I’m a little embarrassed about House of the Scorpion. Even if young readers won’t notice, I just hate to leave them with the impression that’s how mathematicians work.

  7. Karyn Silverman says:

    A few thoughts on accuracy: I don’t expect the committee to go crazy fact checking, although I agree with Emily that there is an expectation to check that the basics of scholarship are there; I know I also check reviews more carefully for nonfiction or historical/fact-based fiction because I am hoping if enough experts read any given text, any major flaws of research will come to light.

    Last year, I wrote up an entire post, but then never actually posted it, about Gaughen’s Scarlet. It’s a Robin Hod retelling, and it has a lot to recommend it but there were all these things that gave me pause — like main character Scarlet binding her breasts to pass as a guy and using muslin. Muslin, to me, was a regency romance material (meaning, I had come across it in that genre), so I did a bit of research and lo! Muslin wasn’t available in England until after the UK colonized India. There was also mysterious natural gunpowder, and claymores, and a few other things. Do these matter? I don’t know. But they ruined the book for me because they broke the illusion, cracked the windshield, etc. Accuracy can also be applied to believable dialogue, a consistent geography, and so on.

    Of course, I also find myself thinking about last year’s winner; I think a different committee might have had concerns about the “accuracy” of the depiction of Haiti (which we talked about last year) and that’s a more nebulous kind of accuracy; the facts that were presented were, generally, correct, but what do they add up to? Is the final portrait a true portrait? There was a book in my own Printz year that used a certain culture’s myths and legends as a basis of the story. Gorgeous writing, but the source stories were used in a way that added up to something that seemed racist — the exotic orient sort of thing — and this ultimately took the book out of the top 5. Are these accuracy issues? Something else? They get into the even more problematic territory of who has a right to tell stories, and I think in the end these are the issues that a committee has to talk through and balance against everything else.

    And what about everything else? For me, it’s about the whole — the whole needs to work (I think this is the “know it when I see it” Liz talked about that narrows things down early on). If the whole works, and the book lingers, I’ll take that closer look to see HOW the author did it, and this is where we get into the objective. If it was suspenseful, can I point to what the author did to evoke that tension? If the love story was powerful, what made it powerful? (Probably characters.) It’s not that we need to go in armed with a checklist, but we need to be able to defend a book if we want it to get anywhere. If I can’t find support for excellence within the text, then I should not be nominating the book. Of course, some of this is easier to do in negative terms — it’s not always easy to prove great characterization (because the whole book is the evidence), but it’s sometimes easy to find the passage that disproves it (where the character breaks character or acts inconsistently for plot purposes) — so sometimes it comes down to the least flawed. Or sometimes a book does one thing so marvelously that it outweighs the flaws, but I think we don’t get to that level until we’ve already narrowed it down to a limited number of books.

    It’s hard! But the more we talk about it and talk about what we notice/look for/appreciate as individual readers, the more able we are to discuss the specific books with an eye towards what the best books of the year really are.

    I love beautiful language, and I think I sometimes rate it higher than other elements, but language that doesn’t _do_ anything ultimately isn’t going to keep a book on top for me.

  8. Jen J. says:

    This seems to me like the hardest part of getting the discussion going, because we’re talking in abstracts – once we get to specific books and can compare them against each other that seems easier to me – although we’ll always runs into issues of personal taste and preferences for one literary aspect over another.

    But here’s my thoughts – I start with the sentence level writing. When I started thinking about this, I was going to mention grammar and such, but there are times when the grammar should be irregular – let’s say for dialect purposes or an idiosyncratic character’s mental voice. So I guess I would go with the writing style should be consistent with what the author is trying to portray or do – if we’re talking historical fiction, there shouldn’t be anachronisms, if there’s no specific character voice attempted, the grammar should match the mainstream society depicted. And I think this echoes what both Karyn and Liz are getting at – this is an easy way to disqualify a heap of books – if an author has noticeable sentence structure errors and that’s not part of a character choice, I’m done.

    Over at Heavy Medal, I’ve seen a couple of commenters break down their analysis of a title in the comments into Theme, Characters, Plot, Setting, and Style (which seems like a good basic set of criteria for fiction which is all they’ve looked at so far) – the Printz Policies and Procedures additionally name Voice, Accuracy, Illustrations, and Design (interestingly, they do not include plot – I wonder what to make of that?). What I keep coming back to as I think about each of these is consistency – a book’s illustrations may not be to my taste, but do they fit with the story either by contrasting or matching what the text is doing? Are all of these elements working together or is one falling down on the job or going in a completely different direction for no discernible reason? And this is where I think the committee comes in handy – because maybe I can’t discern why that element is going off into the weeds, but maybe someone else can causing me to reconsider my evaluation.

    For accuracy I assume that few enough non-fiction books are going to make it to the final consideration (that being Liz’s 150 books or so), that some research can be done – not into the topic itself, but into discussion regarding the book and reviews as other people have mentioned. For fiction, I like Wendy’s point about whether the inaccuracy affects the plot and I think the more common the knowledge the more it matters – hence Beth’s thoughts regarding getting the president right in historical fiction – lots of people know who was president when, it matters that you get this right. However, let’s say you get something wrong about My Little Ponies. I know a ton about My Little Ponies (long-time collector, although not currently really), but not all that many people do, so I would assume this would bother me, but not most other people so it probably doesn’t matter.

  9. Karyn Silverman says:

    Oh! I just got really excited to discuss Fangirl, because I don’t know anything about fanfic, really, but I loved the book and thought it was well written in many ways, but I know there are fanfic folks in our circles. Jen, your comment about My Little Ponies is, oddly, the thing that got me all revved up just now.

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