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What Is This Quality Thing, Anyway?
What is a Printz-worthy book? How do we gauge merit? Is great literature a definable thing?
There are so many questions and so few answers, but if we’re going to analyze all these books in light of the Printz award, it’s probably a good idea to think about what it is we’re hoping to see recognized come February 2.
When we first launched, three years ago now, Sarah and I took a stab at dissecting the RealPrintz Policies and Procedures (P&P), our first time wrestling with defining the undefinable. And when I look back at the two posts we wrote then, I find that a lot of what I thought still applies. But because the actual RealPrintz Committee is almost 100% new every year, we wanted to revisit the discussion — sticking to our first analysis and interpretation seems counter to the changing nature of the RealCommittee membership. Also, we’ve added Joy to our roster of reviewers, and we wanted her to have a chance to talk this through too.*
More than anything, we want to repeat the conversation with the larger community of you all chiming in, because one of the great strengths of committee work is the way in which the group shapes the thinking (this would be the good version of groupthink, although that’s technically an oxymoron). So with no further ado, let’s take a look at the P&P.
(Excerpts below, but we recommend everyone goes and reads the full document over at the official YALSA page.)
To select from the previous year’s publications the best young adult book (“best” being defined solely in terms of literary merit) and, if the Committee so decides, as many as four Honor Books.
This is all pretty straightforward, although there are books every year that push the definitions (see: Boxers and Saints).
The short (paraphrased) version: 2014 US publication (previously published elsewhere is fine), any genre, “designated by its publisher as being either a young adult book or one published for the age range that YALSA defines as “young adult,” i.e., 12 through 18.”
Self-published and e-only publications are not eligible (until and unless they are picked up by a “US Publishing House”).
Moving on to the good stuff…
What is quality? We know what it is not. We hope the award will have a wide AUDIENCE among readers from 12 to 18 but POPULARITY is not the criterion for this award. 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.
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.
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. 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.)
What we are looking for, in short, is literary excellence.
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:
Design (including format, organization, etc.)
For each book the questions and answers will be different, the weight of the various criteria will be different.
The ALA press release announcing the winner should stipulate why the title has been chosen for its literary excellence.
So, what is literary excellence? Are these really criteria, or — as Roger Sutton once said — are they just a draft of what probably should have become a more polished set of guidelines?
I’ve never been on the Newbery, and once scoffed at the infamous manual, but sometimes when I read Heavy Medal I find myself envious of the massive handbook Newbery committee members and speculators can reference. On the one hand, more text surrounding the criteria can be incredibly limiting, but on the other, it’s nice to have some signposts along the way.
Here’s another doozy of a question — how do we objectively assess excellence? My perfectly paced slow burn of a novel might be your slow-as-molasses-in-January, so-boring-you’d-rather-clean-the-bathroom burden of a read. Does it come down just a vote, since voting is what the committee does in the end? Is it about the most articulate or loudest voice in a room, objectivity be damned?
That should be enough questioning to get our thinking caps wet with the sweat of a furiously working brain, so let’s chat in the comments.
(*review is a mostly accurate term for what we do around here, but please keep in mind that we are reviewing for such a specific purpose that we sometimes praise books we admire but don’t love, and sometimes critique books we adore and recommend highly but still find flawed from the narrow lens of the Printz.)
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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