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The Whys & Wherefores of the Printz Award, Part 1
I’m thinking if you’ve gotten as far as reading this blog, you probably know a little something about the Printz, more formally known as the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature.
But maybe not, because (and this is a matter of some concern for us) it’s not a well known award, although that situation improves every year. More than that, it’s not very well understood.
What the Printz is not:
-even remotely related to popularity
-in any way related to royalty despite the puns we love over here; it’s actually named for an amazing young adult librarian. For more about him, read the information over at YALSA’s award page.
What the Printz is:
-An award created to recognize literary excellence in young adult literature; as the main page for the award states, “The Michael L. Printz Award annually honors the best book written for teens, based entirely on its literary merit, each year.”
The 600-pound gorilla, or possibly pink elephant, is of course the definition of literary. And of excellence, really.
But let’s get the technical details out of the way first.
The Printz is determined by a committee of nine librarians. The chair and four committee members are appointed by YALSA, and the other four committee members are elected by the members of YALSA. There are two additional people at the committee discussions and deliberations, a Booklist consultant and an Administrative Assistant, usually appointed by the chair. The consultant and the AA can speak but are not voting members.
(In my year, they contributed only rarely and usually to ask questions or seek clarification, but those who served in other years may have had different experiences.)
No one on the committee is carried over from the previous year unless the AA goes on to become a committee member, which means that each committee operates in a vacuum. This in turn means that each committee must grapple with the hard questions anew. Which was, at times, incredibly annoying, but is also very freeing. It doesn’t matter what last year’s committee said about series titles, or how they felt, as an entity, about nonfiction. It only matters what you and the eight people on your committee think.
The committee must determine for itself how much weight to give stars or BFYA nominations, whether committee members can or should read reviews, and so on. In many ways, the committee is made by the chair’s leadership.
The committee will communicate by email throughout the year (unless they’ve moved to the ALA Connect platform? Anyone?), and nominations happen throughout the year as well. Nominated books must be read by all committee members, so a nomination is a pretty significant step. My experience was that nothing made it to nomination without at least a bit of back and forth on the email list. In my experience, the back and forth was usually pretty basic — committee member one says, “I’m thinking about nominating Jellicoe Road, has anyone else read it?” and committee member two might reply “Lots of typos in the ARC but it was pretty great anyway,” or maybe “Are your kidding? What about that thing with the postman? Totally hackneyed and predictible!” With response one, the nomination might get formalized pretty quickly; with response two, more conversation might ensue. I don’t think anything was nominated in my year without at least two readers, but that was a convention we adopted among ourselves, possibly because we had a few recent Best Books recoverees who spoke passionately about nominate in haste, repent at leisure.
Something else that I saw in my year, but may or may not be a standard, was that we had more nominations in the first half of the year. Once we had discussed that first crop and seen how some books rose to the top, I think we stopped nominating books if we didn’t think they could compete with the best of the first round of nominations, even if they were better than some of the other early nominations.
Rumor is that the ballpark for nominations is 40-60 per year, but since no one really talks about the details (it’s all secret, people, and writing this all out has me weirdly paranoid that librarians in black will show up at the door), I can’t state that authoritatively. Still, it seems about right, and that longlist gets whittled down at Annual and MidWinter, when the committee gets to talk face to face for hours on end in a closed room.
Eventually, after discussions and straw polls and more discussions and some caffeine and chocolate and more discussions, voting happens.
(I left out some of the discussions. 12 hour days. More discussion than I had ever known was possible, especially for the frontrunner books. It was FANTASTIC.)
By that point, the longlist has shrunk a LOT. Someone makes a point about a flaw in a book, and the book falls to the side. Or you look at the pile and it’s clear: they’re all great books, but a few are exemplary. And while there won’t be perfect agreement, it’s pretty darn impressive how close it gets. In 2008, going into the vote, I knew it would be one of three books, because it was clear that while we might not all agree immediately on which of the three was the absolute best, we all agreed that there was no question that those three were the three best.
Worth noting: the weighted voting (outlined on the Policies and Procedures page) means that the winner is the consensus, not the unanimous, winner. But honestly, once it’s done, you feel so good about the work you’ve done that it hardly matters; you look at the winner and the honor books a year later and can’t remember how you voted for the winner or how you voted for the honor books.
Also worth noting is that honor books are not the runners up for the winner; a book could get zero votes for the gold and still make the honor list. Many of them probably were in the running for the gold as well, but it’s not necessary, so every nominated title aside from the one already chosen as the winner could receive an honor.
So there it is, in fairly concise terms and based largely on my Printz year. Those who served in other years (or more recently and not in the first year postpartum) may want to chime in with additional details.
Our goal here is that the blog provides a sort of shadow committee experience for us and for any readers who want to participate fully, but played out in public rather than behind a closed door. We’d love to think the conversations we have over here, while obviously not the same as the RealCommittee conversations, display the same level of thoughtfulness and depth. There is room for passion and love, but in the end, this is about intellectual engagement. Get your thinking caps on!
And come back this weekend for part 2, the gorilla question of what is excellence, along with a closer look at the Policies and Procedures, which are the bible committee members follow.
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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