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Defining the terms, part 2
Still with us after Friday’s mega post? Yay! This one tackles the second half of the criteria, and it’s actually a bit shorter.
So, picking up right where we left off…
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.
Sarah: Dude. Did I miss the part where we established what it is not? Because I kind of feel like I did.
Karyn: Quality literature is message-free. It probably isn’t popular. And—this more than anything—”quality” and “literature” are terms open to interpretation, because things change and with them our expectations and our bar.
Therefore, flexibility and an avoidance of the too-rigid are essential components of these criteria (some examples of too-rigid criteria: A realistic hope – well, what about Robert Cormier’s Chocolate War or Brock Coles’ The Facts Speak for Themselves? Avoiding complicated plot – what about Louis Sachar’s Holes? Originality – what about all the mythic themes that are continually re-worked? We can all think of other great books that don’t fit those criteria.)
Sarah: Karyn, I think you should take this one away.
Karyn: Um, thanks?
This is a passage that really speaks to how far YA lit has come. Only thirteen years ago we needed to overtly state that books didn’t have to be simple after-school specials with an uplifting moral. Does anyone think this is what YA lit is about anymore? (Okay, yes, but most of them haven’t read any in well over 13 years, and generally they are refuted all over the blogosphere). No one would ever dream of sticking criteria like this on literature for adults, and I think we (the collective we, generalizing wildly) now recognize that YA lit is just literature that happens to have thematic scope aimed at teens (or, let’s face it, literature that happens to have a slightly lower pricepoint in hardcover).
Sarah: You know, now that I look at this again, I wonder if we shoot ourselves in the foot with this part. It feels like an apology for YA lit, almost, and we know we don’t actually need to do that. Maybe if we elevate the conversation from within our own ranks, the outside conversation will elevate itself?
Well, OK, probably not; if you’re not keeping up with YA literature, you’re probably not paying much attention to the Printz criteria, either. Conundrum!
What we are looking for, in short, is literary excellence.
All forms of writing—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, art, and any combination of these, including anthologies—are eligible.
Sarah: And I’m not really seeing an actual description of literary excellence anywhere.
Karyn: Excellence is, by definition, that which rises above others. It’s tied into what the “others” are, where the base level is set. You’ll know it when you see it, and all the rest was just filler, really.
Also, I love that literary excellence just hangs out ready to be applied to any form, when in fact the list of criteria is vastly different for poetry or drama or a story collection. But this might get back to the idea that a book can change our idea of quality. I would argue that the building blocks of quality are not really redefinable (despite being open to interpretation in their application and effectiveness), but how the different pieces fit together could be transformed by a truly genre-blending text.
The following criteria are only suggested guidelines and should in no way be considered as absolutes. They will always be open to change and adaptation. Depending on the book, one or more of these criteria will apply:
Story • Voice • Style • Setting • Accuracy • Characters • Theme • Illustrations • Design (including format, organization, etc.)
For each book the questions and answers will be different, the weight of the various criteria will be different.
Sarah: While I am enjoying the flexibility and lack of rigidity here, this is starting to sound like math class to me. So do we say something like: Theme (Style + Setting) – Story = Literary Excellence? I mean, let’s be blunt: that’s your stereotypical snoozefest equation there, right? Oh! Or! Let’s do an equally stereotypical action-centric equation: Story + Setting – Characters = Literary Excellence. See, I CAN do math!
Karyn: I see this as a cheat sheet for those who didn’t do time in an English department! Or a checklist of things to talk about in the committee meetings. It’s the equivalent of “don’t just say it was good, prove it was good”. In other words, the committee members can’t just give book reports, they need to dig in and think about the whys and wherefores. Suddenly the fact that committee members have usually read the short list multiple times makes perfect sense; you need to move beyond the first, somewhat surface read (plot!) to see what’s really being done, especially with a skilled author.
Sarah: This reminds me of something we talked about when we were thinking about potential posts for this blog. I mean, every award winner, and every single honor book is picked on its own merits, separate from any other book. We’re not actually comparing books (although it’s tempting to do so); we’re finding works of literary excellence. So it’s kind of like comparing apples to bacon. Or something.
Karyn:Well, it’s a comparison in some ways. You can’t find the top book of the year (or the top five) without assessing the cohort as a whole. But in the end, we’re not saying, book X has better character development than book Y, and therefore X deserves a sticker; we’re saying out of this pile of excellent books, these books were standouts (in their own varied ways).
Have something to add? Questions about the criteria, responses to our interpretation? Leave your thoughts in the comments.
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, as long as all the things are books. 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.
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