Conversation: Common Printz themes in the 2011 Printz winners

The Winter issue of the Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults had an article examining themes of the Printz Award winners of the past decade  The article, titled The Printz Award Winners Under a Microscope: Content Trends, Committee Challenges, and Teen Popularity, identified six common themes in first ten winners of the Printz. Those themes are: journeys (literal and figurative), teen angst leading to self-actualization, family relationships, romantic relationships, controversial topics, and diversity. In light of that article, and the upcoming Printz awards banquet at this year’s ALA, we decided to examine this year’s Printz winner and honor titles in light of the six themes highlighted by the article.  

This post is a conversation between Joel Bruns and Emily Calkins, both YA librarians.

Emily: So Joel, what inspired your interest in the JRLYA article?

Joel: I think what most caught my attention about the article was the idea of exploring similarities among the Printz books which are often some of my favorites of the YA award winners.  How about you?

Emily: Yeah, it’s interesting to consider what makes a book for teenagers great. Since YA as a genre is pretty new, I also think it’s a way to think about YA in general. None of the six themes were particularly surprising to me, but I think that’s probably because I read a lot of YA. The Printz winners are YA at its finest, so it makes sense that they should touch on themes are common in lots of YA.

Joel: I had the thought that you would be hard-pressed to find a YA title that doesn’t have some kind of teen angst.  Although I’m sure they exist, they are the exception.

Emily: I felt the same way about the “journey” theme. Literally journeys are pretty common in YA, but since coming-of-age is such a huge YA theme, I think it would be hard to find a YA title without some kind of journey in it.

Joel: True.  Also, a literal or figurative journey is kind of the point of most novels.  You want the characters to undergo some kind of transformation or realization by the end.  Otherwise things might be a bit stale.

Emily: Agreed.

Joel: With that being said, the titles that I read for this year definitely fell into the six themes of the article.  I read Stolen by Lucy Christopher and Revolver (which I loved) by Marcus Sedgwick.  Shipbreaker is next on my list.  It’s sitting on my nightstand right now.

Emily: I read Shipbreaker before I read the JRLYA article, and I almost had to laugh as I was reading the article, because I think Shipbreaker covers all six of the themes. There’s a literal journey from the protagonist Nailer’s home to a major city and then the sea. There’s also a figurative journey that involves Nailer embracing the potential in his life (I don’t want to say too much!) There’s a little romance, and the relationship between Nailer and his father is one of the most important relationships in the novel, so there’s the family theme. The characters in Shipbreaker are diverse in many ways – ethnically, culturally, religiously, socioeconomically, just to start. Shipbreaker is probably one of the least controversial titles in terms of the content, but it does touch on lots of environmental issues that are politically contentious today, and it contains some language that not all parents will approve of.

Did either of the books you read go six for six on the JRLYA themes?

Joel: Stolen came pretty close.  I think the only theme it missed was diversity.  But I had a similar experience to what you were referring to with Shipbreaker. I read stolen after I had read the article and realized that we had covered just about all of the themes in the first 20 pages.  The main character, Gemma, walks away from her bickering family in the Bangkok airport (family relationships); she goes to the coffee shop where an older guy (romance) buys her coffee.  He then drugs here and abducts her (journey/controversy) and takes her to his desert hideaway where she definitely battles with some angst.  Only late in the story does she come to any self-actualization that is probably the most controversial aspect of the book (I don’t want to say to much either, suffice it to say she’s got a pretty serious case of Stockholm Syndrome).

Emily: I have to say, I loved Stolen, and part of the reason is that Christopher did such a great job of capturing Gemma’s confusion. I felt as ambivalent about the situation as she did, and I can see that causing some controversy. The “bad guy” isn’t nearly as bad you want him to be.

Joel: I thought of how the book might be challenged by some as being too sympathetic to the “bad guy.”  I think we’ve become accustomed to super-villains who are always evil.  The moral ambiguity of the villain might be difficult for some to accept.

Emily: Speaking of potential challenges, I’d be surprised if Nothing by Janne Teller doesn’t get challenged at some point in the future. It’s a very, very dark book, and while it doesn’t touch on as many of the JRLYA themes as some of the other books, it definitely has controversial content. It’s about a class of Danish seventh-graders. Pierre Anthon, one of their classmates, had realized that nothing matters. He’s dropped out of school and spends his time taunting his classmates; in response, they begin gathering objects with meaning to prove him wrong. It starts out almost as a game, but soon the students are challenging each other to give up more and more important things to the heap of meaning, and things go very wrong from there. There’s no romance or real family drama, but there’s enough angst to make up for both of those things. What’s interesting about Nothing is the lack of self-actualization. Although the character experience some serious life-changing events, they don’t grow from them in a way that’s more typical of YA.

Joel: There is definitely still a part of me that expect the old problem novel version of YA fiction from my youth where all things are wrapped up nice and tidy and everyone has learned their lessons and become better for the experience.  YA fiction no longer seems to operate in this narrow way, and I think it’s so much the better for the diversity of ideas expressed.

Emily: This year’s crop of Printz winners really demonstrates that diversity. Even in the titles that do have some more traditional self-actualization, the range of genres, topics, styles and storytelling techniques is pretty amazing. In Please Ignore Vera Dietz, for example, there are multiple narrators, including Vera and her dad, but also a dead kid (no spoilers, I promise, it’s in the first or second chapter) and even a building! In other ways, Please Ignore Vera Dietz adheres more closely common YA themes. As in Shipbreaker, the relationship between Vera and her father is one of the most important in the book. Ken Dietz is one of the more memorable parents in recent YA literature, and I appreciated that we as readers were given insight into his thoughts and feelings. Often parents in YA are either entirely absent or seen only from the biased view of the teenage protagonist. Please Ignore Vera Dietz, more than any of the other titles I read, focuses on the romantic relationship between its two central characters. Much of the book is about Vera dealing with the death of her best friend Charlie, who she’s been in love with for most of their lives.

Joel: The parents in Revolver are central to that story as well.  The main character, Sig, has to reconcile the lessons that he has learned from his parents.  His mother was a strong Christian, and his father describes his Colt revolver as the most beautiful thing in the world.  In the end, Sig resolves these two divergent themes in a way that is unexpected and clever.  The book probably doesn’t cover more than a couple of the six themes, but the ones it does examine it does in a brilliant way.

I think that most of this year’s Printz books contained at least two of the six themes, but I’m struck by the diversity of the stories they tell.  There’s literally something for everyone from dystopia to historical fiction, romance to action. 

Emily: I agree. It will be interesting to see if, in ten years, the same six themes are still common in Printz winners. If I had to guess, I’d say they will be, because even within those six themes, there are endless stories to be told.

Joel: Thanks Emily.  Happy reading.  What will you be reading next?

Emily: I’m just finishing up Neil Shusterman’s Unwind, which is great, and I’m hoping to get through Revolver before I head to New Orleans for the annual conference. What’s next on your list?

Joel: Shipbreaker is next for me, and then I’ve got a bag full of YA titles to read for our state book award committee.  I’ll be busy this summer for sure.

Emily: Sounds fun! Thanks for the great conversation. 

Joel: You too.

–Emily Calkins, reading Unwind by Neil Shusterman, and Joel Bruns, about to start Shipbreaker


4 thoughts on “Conversation: Common Printz themes in the 2011 Printz winners”

  1. Interesting article from the JRLYA. Thanks for sharing it! I think several of the six themes the article identified are almost central literary elements of teen literature — family relationships, romantic relationships, angst/self-actualization — and are unlikely to change in the future in the way that trends like “paranormal romance” change.

  2. I’m surprised Nothing isn’t already being challenged! I read it last month and I was surprised to see such dark material covered in a YA novel. That said, it’s absolutely fantastic and I probably would rank it in my top 5 or 10 all-time YA books. Lots of insightful commentary on what may actually matter vs. what we think does as well as contemporary news media culture.

    1. Well, if you think of ‘The Outsiders” (1967) as the first YA novel, about 45 years. I know that’s not particularly new given how quickly things change today, but it’s younger than most kinds of literature! I also think YA has come into its own in the last 15 – 20 years. There were great YA novels before that, but they were few and far between – it was mostly the problem novels Joel talked about it.

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