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Defining the terms, part 1
The Printz is a funny animal. On the one hand, it’s loosely defined—no 90 page manual here. But at the same time, we all seem to know what it is when we see it (“it” being a book worthy of the award). How, with so little guidance, does each year’s committee come up with a winner and usually the full complement of four honor books? What is a Printz contender, and how do we know them when we see them?
The entire policies and procedures takes about 5 pages, the criteria just one. The criteria are the alpha and omega for committee members. We cited them frequently, and referred to them, brief as they are, numerous times throughout our discussions.
But they aren’t exactly black and white. In fact, almost every aspect is open to interpretation, making the criteria an exercise in decoding and application.
Let’s take it section by section — but be warned: this is one long post!
Criteria for the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature
What is quality? We know what it is not.
Sarah: Well, that seems clear. WAIT…
Karyn: Well, we know it when we see it, right. But then, is my quality the same as yours? Haven’t we all had the experience of reading a book and seeing the flaws only to find someone else thought it was astounding? Sometimes this is about gut reaction and personal resonance, but sometimes both positions are defensible with textual citations.
We hope the award will have a wide AUDIENCE among readers from 12 to 18 but POPULARITY is not the criterion for this award.
Sarah: Yeah, but who wants to be on a committee that picks a book everyone hates, y’know? I guess this is a good opportunity to talk about POPULARITY (since the criteria are yelling…) versus APPEAL. And whether either of those concepts have any business being in the conversation that is actually all about QUALITY. I mean, can something be really excellent but also…a snoozefest?
Karyn: As I see it, popularity means everyone wants to read it. Appeal, though, is another eye of the beholder. You say snoozefest, I say literary tour de force (and everyone reading just thought of some beloved title and I bet we all thought of different ones). When I was on Best Books, we spent ages imagining the reader to whom book X might appeal, assuming we championed book X and didn’t want lack of appeal to kill its shot at the list. “Well, for goth kids in Missouri who drive Hummers, have a parent in the military, twin siblings, and a cat, this is the perfect book.” One of the things I most valued about my time on the Printz was the chance to step away from what is really a guessing game and instead getting to assess texts as works of art, divorced from questions of readership. The truth is, I’m usually pleasantly surprised at how many things hold appeal for teen readers. They’re just people, with all the variation that implies, and every book finds its readers eventually.
Sarah: I am being very flip with my “snoozefest” there (and I feel the need to say here: I am currently thinking of some of my own favorite snoozefests right now!), but in a more serious vein: in many discussions I often find myself beating the teen appeal drum very loudly. I think because I feel like, as teen librarians, it’s our duty to remember that we’re the grown ups, and as such we are in a position of authority and privilege…as are the publishers, the editors, the writers—everyone else involved in the conversation except, you know, the teens. I guess I am just not comfortable with unacknowledged privilege, and it feels like teen appeal is how we as librarians need to open up that conversation; it keeps us honest. But you’re right. Teens read for so many reasons and find so much to love in books that it’s not at all fair to make blind, general assumptions.
Nor is MESSAGE. In accordance with the Library Bill of Rights, CONTROVERSY is not something to avoid. In fact, we want a book that readers will talk about.
Sarah: I’m not one to avoid controversy (or CONTROVERSY), but I have to wonder…is this what quality is not? I think we’ve wandered into new territory here. And are they saying controversy is necessary? I mean, I don’t think so, but with that wording, the argument could be made.
Karyn: I’m with Sarah here. Does it need to be controversial? What a limited notion of quality, where quality mostly means provocative. Now, a book people want to talk about, that I can get behind, but the way this is worded has always been a source of discomfort to me. I opted to read this paragraph as: didactic definitely does not equal quality. Prose driven by message lacks artistry (otherwise we’d never notice the message). And hey, if it’s controversial that’s a-ok.
But actively seeking controversial works feels like a message in and of itself, so, no. I do think that it would be a valid interpretation to take this as a demand for books that break new ground, but I opt for the most generous interpretation (anything is fair game, whether new or old, tame or sexy, or what-have-you).
Sarah: Interestingly, if you look at it as permission to look for books that break new ground, it seems that we have an award that will mirror the changes that our notions of literacy and quality go through; it’s adaptable while still requiring us to look for the very best in a given year. I don’t think it’s an accident, in other words, that the Printz was given to a graphic novel just a couple of years ago. I am excited to see what else will be recognized as amazing, you know?
Librarianship focuses on individuals, in all their diversity, and that focus is a fundamental value of the Young Adult Library Services Association and its members. Diversity is, thus, honored in the Association and in the collections and services that libraries provide to young adults.
Sarah: No offense to the writers of this criteria, but I’m confused. Still. Aren’t we supposed to be talking about what QUALITY is not? I mean, obviously diversity is incredibly important, but in the end we work with the exact diversity that is available in the YA field, right? And…that’s like a whole other conversation. An important one, but one we probably need to talk about in another post. So are they saying that we should look for diversity? Because: duh. But is diversity intrinsically a part of quality? And if so, why is this part of the “what quality is not” portion? I think the writers of this criteria maybe should have written an outline first. (Sorry, writers! Much love!)
Karyn: I think this is a plea to the committee members—the gatekeepers—to cast a wide net. To look for diversity in all forms: actual format (prose, poetry, graphic novel, etc.); perspective; voice; race, religion, or socioeconomic status of characters, etc. But I don’t believe that a quality book needs to conform to a narrow definition of diversity (which too often is code for characters-of-color and ignores the thousand other nuances) to be literary. Diversity should be sought in all aspects as a reader working towards finding the top five books of a given year, but if the best books aren’t that diverse (for instance, if they all feature crazy people, or all have Australian authors), so be it. Most years, I think the diversity is present across the medal and honor titles in various ways (of style and content) even if not within any given text.
Sarah: And again, we come back to that personal reaction we have as readers; there’s nothing very set in stone, right? Because there are years when there’s actually very little diversity of format across winners. I think — without going back and checking, just sticking with my gut — that there are more years when it’s the All Fiction All the Time Award. And so it’s about what you, as a reader, see in the year’s picks; it’s also about what You, The Committee, find each year in all the reading, rereading and discussion. So…I guess that translates to something like “diversity of format is nice but not a required part of our concept of Literary Excellence.”
Having established what the award is not, it is far harder to formulate what it is. As every reader knows, a great book can redefine what we mean by quality. Criteria change with time.
To see what we formulated, come back Monday for the second part of this (long!) post. Fair warning, though; no length is really sufficient to define these ideas and terms with any absolutes. That’s the work of each committee, reinventing the wheel each year so that no one narrow definition of quality can take over. And since this blog is, in effect, one big mock Printz, please chime in in the comments with your understanding, definitions, thoughts, experiences, or questions.
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.
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