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Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

What Are YOU Carrying?

Baggage Dept

CC-licensed image by Noel Zia Lee, via Flickr

Reading is an immensely personal experience. Except when it isn’t.

This conundrum is at the heart of reading for a committee, or list, or award. We talk about this a lot. Today, we will talk (in full paragraphs!) here, so that everyone knows what’s going on in our heads and can chime in.

Karyn: A (short) while back, in her review of Everybody Sees the Ants, Sarah talked about a wall she had hit (Lucky’s dad’s age) that caused a crack in her windshield (we’re gonna beat that metaphor to death by the time January rolls around, so consider yourself warned).

There is no such thing as an objective reader. It’s just not possible. We bring ourselves to the books we read.

We bring:

  • cultural knowledge.
  • Geographic knowledge (please don’t try to ride the “underground subway” that goes to Flushing; it doesn’t exist outside of books).
  • Every book we’ve ever read before (ever notice how the more you read the fewer books blow you away?)
  • biases, assumptions, peeves, and emotional baggage: in short, everything that makes us who we are.

Sometimes the subjective part of the equation makes a great book suck. Even as the objective part is noting the language and the immense craft and oh! the characterization, a reader can get stuck on some small detail. A store on the wrong street. A pivotal scene set in a dark parking lot that you (ok, I) just parked in yesterday, and it’s got street lights all around so there is no way that thing in the book could have happened there. (In case you wondered, I get really hung up on incorrect geography, much as Liz mentioned in the Ants comment stream. Tosses me right out of the book, every time.) Or it’s something that hardly registers for most readers, like slang, or poor fashion sense, or the age of the parents — it might not even be incorrect for another reader, but for you, with your baggage, it sets up that itch, and then the windshield cracks.

And that’s not even talking about serious baggage: material that works like a trigger, and reading it is so painful that you can’t, because in that case the writing quality doesn’t even matter.

On the other hand, sometimes the subjective part of the reading experience turns a mediocre book into a personal favorite. A commercial rom-com that should be forgettable happens to have a scene just like that one time? In high school? And suddenly it’s the most uproariously funny book ever, or it feels so real, but really what’s funny/true/sad/special is the memory of those awkward, angsty moments in our own pasts. Sometimes a book that is probably not actually all that good (come on, we can admit it) hits us right there, in the solar plexus, WHAM!, and we defend it against all comers, even as our friends and colleagues are all, “No, really! It’s just not good.” This can be particularly difficult in committee discussions, when a defense for a book amounts to “it’s just like my own experience” or “but it really happened this way” — just because a thing is true, or possible, or happened once to someone doesn’t mean it feels true to readers, and when we’re talking about selecting an award winner, it needs to work for readers as a whole, not just me and my baggage.

Or maybe you just have a visceral response, and you might love a book or hate it but can’t explain why, because it’s just chemistry, or the fact that the sun was shining for the first time all week when you read it, or you were having a really bad day: something that might not even be about the book itself, but about the circumstances of reading.

So, ok, no book exists in a vacuum. But reading as our own complete selves, baggage and all, is a luxury when we are reading professionally. When it’s for collection development and reader’s advisory, we can acknowledge our baggage and move on to a different book. But for the Printz, we have to rise above. How does that work?

Sarah: One way it works is that we are used to reading with multiple hats (and of course we’re not the first to point this out; this post just came through our twitter stream) — we manage to read professionally for collection development and reader’s advisory just fine. Through this practice, we learn to differentiate when we’re responding with our adult reader identity and when we’re wearing our teen hats (Karyn’s mentioned hers before; mine is a carefully worn Cardinals baseball hat). We know when we’re reading with our librarian hats on (those, I’m convinced, are witch hats as Terry Pratchett describes, I think in one of the Tiffany Aching books). While it can be tricky to sort through those various levels of reaction, doing so is really great practice for committee work, which is (in some ways) another level of reading. Committee work is not just about serving your own community, which you probably know well and are able to read for without much mental gyration. It’s about serving the entire country.

With committee work, when we sense that we’re responding naked and un-hatted, we have the luxury of asking our fellow committee members.

I firmly and fully believe that listening is the heart of librarianship. We have to listen to our patrons, to the people we serve, so we’re pretty good at it. But when we’re on a committee — any committee, not just Printz — we have to be ready to hear what our colleagues have to say. Creating a list for a national audience, or bestowing an award on a title for the whole country, means that we have to look beyond our own experiences, thoughts, or prejudices and that we must remember that it’s not just about the teens we work with every day.

For like a million reasons that we don’t need to get into here, I have what can only be described as an entire personal set of baggage about ideas about parenting and what motherhood looks like. When a book triggers that reaction (which, obviously, Ants did, with its innocent use of the year 1951), it’s my responsibility to ask the committee — in this case, anyone reading this — for your reaction. And then it’s my responsibility to listen, to really pay attention, to what you have to say. After hearing the responses to what I said about Ants, I need to go back and look at it again.

Karyn: In the end, committee work is part gut response, part objective reading, and lots of committee input.

Sarah: And yes, I know there’s the maxim about committee work being responsible for the camel (the one referenced here), but I don’t buy it. Committee work is what makes sure we wear our witch hats. It’s what keeps us responsible, what keeps us open-minded, what allows us to best serve the committee’s charge. Going through the committee process is necessary.

And why all the camel hate, anyway?

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.


  1. So well put! As an editor, I, too, read in multiple ways, depending on the situation. I find the most interesting challenges are when I read something for reference, book group, or even pleasure with both my critical editorial hat and my “I’m just an avid reader” hat on.

    The tug between personal and critical reaction to a book is always fascinating, and this year we have a few books that could really challenge committee members in this way. One is Chime, which people either love or hate and which I’ve seen well defended in either direction, but which really seems to come down to whether or not a reader responds to that kind of lush, stylized language. (I do, and I loved the book as both a reader and an editor.)

    Another is Okay for Now, which many, many people adore even as they acknowledge what they see as problems with the plot and believable actions from characters. I’m one of those readers who saw problems in Okay for Now and just did not care because I fell in love with the parts that do work beautifully. This book in particular feels like a case of heart vs. mind, and it will be so interesting to see which of those wins out for the various awards committees that are surely considering it as a serious contender.

  2. Excellent point about wearing multiple hats while reading & how important it is to be aware of it for committee work. Being on a committee means that (and I think I’m quoting Karyn?) one has to both be persuasive and willing to be persuaded at the same time. To realize what I love individually isn’t the same thing as having a book meet/exceed award/list criteria.

    The strength of the committee system is that mutliple members provides that balance and alternate viewpoint/reading of a book.

    Sometimes it’s also about what needs to be put aside, forever. For me, that is law in most ya books; after a few throw-book-across-room moments early on, the way I rationalize poor/inaccurate legal issues in books (whether criminal or civil) is “the writer is using totally made up statutes and case law, so it’s OK. It’s all fiction.” That said, mentally I give gold stars to those who get it right…and realize, as you say, that is more an individual thing than a “so this book meets criteria” thing.

  3. Who does not like Okay For Now?! Send them to meee… *shakes fist threateningly*

  4. tess, i adored the voice in OKAY FOR NOW. But I have questions about certain plot points. Wearing my collection development hat? Buy. Wearing my reader hat? Loved the voice. Wearing my readers advisory hat? I can recommend this to different readers. Wearing a committee hat… that is when it gets tricky.

    • Karyn Silverman says

      It’s the committee hat that kills me every time. Reading for the Printz (even if it’s only for make-believe, as here) is the hardest, because it’s not about me, it’s not about my kids. It’s about the book, somehow divorced from all of my baggage and all of my kids baggage, and suddenly things I can forgive when I am wearing any other hat loom larger. It’s also part of the joy: it’s really exciting to read with so much purpose and such tight scrutiny, and to give voice to the inner critic and get to argue with it (and with everyone else’s inner and outer critics!)

      My money’s on Chime at this point not because I loved it (although I did) but because a close second read still left my inner critic pretty chill. So in the end, I guess I’m looking for five books that don’t wake her up. Five books that are written so well that I have no major concerns about plot points or characterization, even after listening to–really listening, not just nodding in time to–everyone else’s concerns and critiques.

      Some years, there are no books that don’t trigger someone’s baggage, but as long as it’s just the toiletry kit, that’s ok.

  5. This post brings up so many excellent points. As a committee member (Best Fiction for Young Adults), I sometimes struggle with balancing our criteria, my own reading prejudices, and teen responses. It’s hard to gauge appeal of a title (a part of our charge, but not part of the Printz’s charge) when you are reading the book in a vacuum. There are some books my teens will never pick up, but I want to make sure that someone out there would want to read the selection, even if it isn’t one of my teens. I don’t have the privilege of (or time, to) reading books multiple times, but I would imagine that in doing so, I’d see different things each time and could more easily try to read the book as one of my colleagues, or even a teen reader does. There are so many lenses we wear when reading, even as we try to be as unbiased as possible. At this point, the lens of having read so many books is weighing heavily on my considerations. The more I read, the less I like! I have to keep remembering to put on my “teen reader” lens, as few teens regularly read 300 books a year!

    • Sarah Couri says

      Jenn, teen feedback is one of my favorite things to think about and talk about when doing committee work. It’s all so very tricky. When I was on Quick Picks, books really lived or died due to teen feedback (even more than Best Fiction!), and it never meant anything about the book itself, just that maybe it wasn’t very appealing (or, more optimistically, it was TOTALLY appealing) to a reluctant reader. I loved being able to bring teen voices to the table; it felt like such an honor to share their words. Especially because, for QP purposes, these were teens who generally didn’t spend much time talking about books with me. But it made me aware of how important listening is. And how very very important asking the right questions can be. I really had to watch out to avoid asking leading questions and find ways to get honest teen opinion without my own biases and baggage clouding things up. It was harder than I ever expected, but it also fundamentally changed (and helped, I hope) the way I approach committee work. QP reading was never quite as intense as BFYA, but it was so difficult in other ways. I could go on (and on and on), but that’s even less connected to the original point. In summary: I cannot believe the amount of books you BFYA-ers go through, and the care you all manage to put in to each one. The discussion at the table is so passionate…you guys make it look easy to balance all those hats.

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