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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.


  1. Sarah, I never thought about the math of it before. Now I wonder if somene does have a weighted excell spreadsheet like that . . . When I was on Printz with Karyn, I used those terms like Karyn said: as a cheat sheet for both rereads, and as a constant to remind myself I wasn’t reading for “me” and what I liked, or reading for work and possible readers advisory & booklists, but reading for something different and here are the things to keep in mind while reading.

    Loving your posts!

  2. KT Horning says

    I have a question about how the honor books are chosen. From the terms, it looks like you take another vote, minus the winner and any books that didn’t gets votes in the last round of balloting, to select the honor books. Is it a weighted ballot again, and is there ever more than one vote for honors?

    • Karyn Silverman says

      Every book, aside from the already-selected winner, is in the initial straw poll to determine the honor titles. I was not the committee chair, so my recollection is a little fuzzy (especially as we’d been locked in a room for an awfully long time by the time we voted!) but I am almost certain the honor books are also a weighted vote, among all titles which received votes in the post-winner straw poll. I will check into this, though, because I also remember the honor book process feeling more complicated than the process of selecting the winner, and I can’t recall whether that was because the process itself was actually more complex, or that we had less immediate consensus about honor titles, or perhaps just that four is harder to select than one, especially when you aren’t comparing books.

  3. Mark Flowers says

    I can’t say that I particularly like the style in which the criteria are written, but I think what they are going for is basically an anti-Newbery criteria. Over at Heavy Medal, it seems we are constantly discussing some fine point of “but is it distinguished” in xyz category, instead of talking about what should be the point: is it a great piece of literature. Frankly, I think this is what leads a lot (not all, or even most) of Newbery winners to be so dull (I’m looking at you, Richard Peck). And in its short life, the Printz has done an excellent job of choosing books that are, to say the least, not dull. They can be crazy, off the wall, have all kinds of loose ends and flaws, but still be great literature. I love it.

    • Karyn Silverman says

      Mark, I agree that the Printz criteria are absolutely a response to the (bloated?) Newbery criteria. More than that, they feel to me like one of the lines in the sand where YALSA says (waving a fist in the air): “We are not ALSC! Teens are different from children! And serving them is not only a good thing, it’s cool. See how loose and cool we are?” And while this is perhaps not a surprising stance to take (being a YA librarian is too often the red-headed stepchild position–although as a redheaded stepchild I’ve never quite understood the idiom), I think it does risk serving the membership poorly by leaving committee members with too little guidance. There must be a middle ground, which is neither confining and filled with possibly irrelevant minutiae nor so generous and general in its guidance that outside research into literary excellence is needed to provide some sort of guidepost. Also–and this is always what made me most frustrated–the criteria reads a bit like a discussion rather than a set of criteria, and spends way more time discussing what isn’t excellent than what is, making the whole a discussion in negative space. All that said, I do appreciate the freedom and flexibility and would much prefer too loose to the alternative.

  4. KT Horning says

    Thanks for the quick response about Honor Books, Karyn.

    Mark and Karyn, I think another reason the Printz is so different from the Newbery is that the Printz has much more open eligibility rules. Also, frankly, I think at this point in history, we see much more “venturesome creativity” in YA lit than in children’s.

  5. Karyn, you think the Newbery criteria are bloated? Yikes, they are a model of concision compared to the Printz, whose “rules” still read more like Hazel Rochman’s notes than a finished document. And I wish somebody would copyedit the damn thing: the usage of “quality” without a qualifying adjective (good quality, poor quality) drives me crazy, as does “a realistic hope – well, what about Robert Cormier’s Chocolate War or Brock Coles’ The Facts Speak for Themselves?” What does that even MEAN? (Forgive the all caps but if the Printz CRITERIA can so INDULGE than so will I 😉

  6. Sarah Couri says

    Karyn, I agree — I, too, prefer more freedom and flexibility to something too confining.

    And while I think that the Printz criteria would benefit from rewriting, ultimately I like that it feels like a discussion, or a starting place for discussion. As a committee member, it felt like permission to thoughtfully consider what constitutes excellence in reading. I didn’t feel intimidated or constricted by someone else’s version of awesome. That (very general) list seemed like permission to take each book on its own terms and ask, was this particular title successful? Does it merit further discussion? Another read? Although the criteria themselves are largely rooted in the negative, the end result for me was that they functioned as a reminder to read from a positive place: what was good about this title?

    And now I’m curious about what criteria look like for other awards.

    Very quickly, this is what the National Book Award says: “Each panel reads all of the books submitted in their category over the course of the summer. This number typically ranges from 150 titles (Poetry) to upwards of 500 titles (Nonfiction). In September, each panel compiles a “shortlist” of five Finalists. They may arrive at these choices using whatever criteria they deem appropriate, as long as they do not conflict with the official Award guidelines.” And the official guidelines are here:

  7. KT Horning says

    Roger, you’ve hit on my own major pet peeve — the use of “quality” to mean “high quality.” I cringe every time I hear an English teacher say she’s looking for “quality literature.”

    You’re right about the criteria sounding like Hazel Rochman’s notes, specifically, her responses to suggestions others had made about what they wanted to see included in the criteria. It is rather odd that they stand as the official guidelines so many years later.

    I think Sarah and Karyn’s excellent dialogue seen here about the criteria should become part of the official criteria. Their comments are illuminating. I’d love to hear from other people who have served on the Printz Award Committee about how they used or interpreted the criteria.

    • Karyn Silverman says

      Thanks KT!

      Roger, please note that I said “bloated?”, and that was a very carefully considered punctuation mark! I haven’t served on the Newbery committee (and given my definite upper YA bias am unlikely to do so), so it seems a bit presumptuous to comment too strongly on something I haven’t lived by. I have lived by the Printz criteria, and whether I say discussion or you say notes, we all mean the same thing: the criteria do not feel finished, which has some definite drawbacks. I think the dialogue (which Sarah and I modeled here, and which happens in various forms for every incarnation of the committee) is critical to the process, but it would be lovely of the dialogue could focus not on grammar and unfinished or unclear notions but only on the meat: what are the markers of (high) quality? When we say literary excellence, what components play into that?

      My gut sense is that the criteria have been locked into this seemingly nascent form due to the YA need to say “We’re not the establishment! Yay!” That doesn’t excuse the grammatical issues, but it might explain why specific books are cited years after they have stopped being the best examples of books without moral or uplifting endings, which seems to be what “realistic hope” actually means. Years after a moral or uplifting ending is even expected as the only option. We’ve come a really long way in YA literature. We’ve come a long way as a profession too, and YALSA has had huge momentum as an organization, but we just can’t get over the past: we apologize. We feel the need to state what YA isn’t (problem novels) instead of shouting about the awesome things that it is. We’re still the scrappy kid sibling in the kidlit world (kidlit, the prevalence of the word children’s in publishing imprint names) and I wonder how much of that we bring on ourselves by behaving like the kid? That’s only tangentially related to this, though, so I will stop there and save what could be a rant for a post, perhaps in January.

  8. Karyn, that’s probably the most interesting aspect of the Printz, that the YA genre has grown and changed so substantially since the award began. But as the criteria are written (and this is one thing they *are* firm about) only books published by juvenile divisions of publishing companies are eligible, as they are the only books that get the age-level designation that the criteria demand. Perks of Being a Wallflower was famously ineligible in the award’s early years, and I wonder what the committee misses now because of this restriction.

    It may be that the Printz doesn’t need the etched-in-stone criteria of the ALSC awards. The National Book Awards, as someone pointed out somewhere in this discussion, don’t have criteria beyond eligibility, and the Boston Globe Horn-Book Award judges are only told to honor “excellence.” Could that be enough for the Printz?

  9. Sarah Couri says

    The line between YA and Adult is very slippery, Roger, but it does sometimes err on the YA side. Look at Book Thief. Look at everything Margo Lanagan has ever written, ever. Look at First Second, which refuses to give any kind of age recommendation at all. YALSA has been firm about that eligibility, but I’m not convinced that it’s meant that we’ve consistently lost amazing titles.

  10. Sure enough, Sarah. And I’ve never understood how American Born Chinese won the Printz despite First Second’s refusal to call it YA. Whenever I have asked them if a particular title was published for teens or not they’ve said “we leave that for you to judge.” Which is fine for the Horn Book’s purposes (we passed on Level Up, for example, which I loved but found “collegey” to coin a word) but would seem to disallow all their books from Printz consideration.

    Limiting consideration to YA-designated titles still leaves the committee with an embarrassment of riches but it also excludes books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time or, this year, Ready Player One, not a great book but certainly YA and a crowd-pleaser. It also takes away what should be at the core of YA librarianship, the responsibility to find and promote materials of value to teens from all kinds of publishers and producers, not just those for whom it makes financial sense to label their products “YA.” What if Book Thief had been published as adult, the way it was overseas? It seems to me a shame and an abnegation of professional responsibility to allow publishers to make the first cut for an award that–I think–should mirror the intrinsic crossover nature of YA librarianship and literature. Oh God, I’m ranting. Sorry!

    • Karyn Silverman says

      Roger’s “rant” is starting to sound like all of my (and others’) arguments when the BBYA changes happened (for those newer to these discussions, what is now the Best Fiction for Young Adults list from YALSA was once the Best Books and adult books were fair game). But strangely what was a passionate cause for me for the list doesn’t bother me at all for the award. Possibly in part because I read an average of 300 books each year on BBYA (closer to 400 my first year) whereas I only finished about 100 books when I served on Printz, in part because of the criteria but also because the playing field was narrower. To assess all of the adult books would be nearly impossible, especially with appeal removed from the equation (although really if the Printz were open to adult books that element of the criteria would also have to change otherwise how could one state that it was in any way a book for YAs?). I also like that the Printz as a YA-only award has raised the bar for what is published as YA. That’s a good thing.

  11. I just want to say Thank You for both this blog and this discussion. The Printz has always kind of puzzled me, and as a YA librarian I am ashamed of my puzzlement! I’m kind of glad that even people who have served on the committee admit to not being entirely clear on it sometimes! Keep up the good work– I don’t feel qualified to pitch into much of the discussion myself (I think I’m more of the “I just liked/didn’t like it” type), but I will definitely be reading along.

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