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ALA Annual 2011: Printz Honor Awards Presentation

We were all really excited to hear from the winning authors at the 2011 Printz Award ceremony. Everyone was enthusiastically yelling and cheering for them and their worthy publishers. For many of us, it’s the highlight of the conference. Here are some of the highlights of the Printz Honor speeches. The fabulous speech by Paolo Bacigalupi, Printz Winner for Shipbreaker, will be featured in a separate blog post soon.

The first speaker of the evening was Stolen author Lucy Christopher. Christopher said her Printz Honor book about a girl, captured and held in captivity in the hot and bright desert of Australia, was not unlike her experience standing before the audience. She joked that, “it’s hot and the lights are bright here too in NOLA.” She said that the most important part of the book was getting the world right. The great sandy desert in Australia where the book is set was aptly named and really helped her to shape the book into the captivating read it is. She said that a part of what she’d felt and experienced she used in the book. She said, “I was not kidnapped, not even once, but in a different way this life is an entirely true story.” Christopher was born in Wales and she said her family moved to Australia  when she was 9 and she didn’t want to go. She had to take special education classes to catch up and at lunch time she went to the library where it was air-conditioned. The librarian, an American, said she could sit under the AC but had to read. She read a lot of Australian authors – she adored every word John Marsden (When the War Began series) ever wrote. Australia in those stories was beautiful and terrible.  She was torn between being scared and in love with it and wanted to write about a land she both loved and hated. Stolen is about fear, excitement, alienation and yearning – all things that teens can relate to. During the writing process, she said she often wants to throw herself from a 10 story building but is inspired by a motto that David Almond has on his wall that says “Be Brave.” She ended by saying that, “My journey began in a strange new world at a strange young age.” We were all glad she took that journey.

A. S. King began her acceptance speech with a promise to herself, and to the audience, not to cry.  The inspiration for her Printz Honor book, Please Ignore Vera Dietz, began when she was a teen and her mother suddenly became very ill.  While visiting her in the hospital, her mother’s heart stopped, and for several minutes, King was a teen experiencing an adult trauma, the death of a parent, and she wasn’t sure what to do.  Her mother was resuscitated, but given the grim diagnosis of only a few months to live.  King spent her time in a strange limbo, unsure of how long she would have her mother, which brought her to a strong, but unspoken, understanding with her father.  Young adult authors are told that you can’t write about anyone but teens, King said, and in her first versions of the book editors told her to take out the voice of the Pagoda and Ken Dietz, Vera’s flow chart-loving father.  But King demanded to hear the voice of the adults in Vera’s life “because no one lives in a bubble.”  King stressed that we can’t expect teens to deal with things on their own, and it is our job to ask them what they think.  We need to ask for their opinions and questions, and answer them honestly.  King broke her promise when she proudly announced that not only did she survive those difficult times, but that her mother is alive, twenty-six years later.

Marcus Sedgwick, Printz Honor winner for Revolver, said in his charming English accent that he was overwhelmed on Sunday night during ALA Midwinter when he received the call he’d won. Having to come to speak at NOLA is a close second. As on overseas author, he said it’s harder for an author to get recognition so that’s why the Printz was so special. He said that this is his tenth or eleventh book but it’s the “first time that the feeling in his head is what came out on paper.” He recounted that he’d done lots of research for the book – “It’s a damn site easier doing research than writing it!”  He went to the Arctic Circle and Lapland to do research where the only radio station played nothing but Norwegian death metal and he become very fond of it. We all laughed as he recounted  falling through the snow up the his waist, and, as he was waving and clawing himself out, the Norwegian people waved happily back probably thinking “silly English man – doesn’t he know about the snow?” When invited to walk across the ice on the lake, Sedgwick said he sent his 14-year-old daughter out in front of him first. Revolver contains some strong content, including rape and murder, but Sedgwick said it was written obliquely, not in a coarse way. He said he wrote of it in a subtle way, not because he was writing for teens, but because it was better writing to do it that way. He believes that we underestimate teens and said, “We tend to just put our heads down (as authors) and do our things, and it’s not up to him to judge content in what we do.”  He also said that we project our own insecurities on our kids – wrap them up in cotton wool, but asked us to think back to being a teenager – “What frightened you?” It’s a more honest approach. “What better place is there for a teen to address these issues than in a book?”

Juggling three versions of her speech, a nervous Janne Teller explained that it is only through a story that she can truly say what she feels.  She expressed her thanks by telling the history of her Printz Honor winning book, Nothing.  This book was a surprise to her, she normally writes for adults, but eleven years ago, when her Danish publisher asked her to write a book for teens, she accepted the challenge and tried to write the book she would have wanted to read at fourteen.  When writing Teller truly becomes the characters she creates, she was the boy in the tree, she was the students on the ground, she felt their loss and passion (or apathy) and learned with them.  After finishing the book, her publisher rejected it as being too dark for children.  And even after finding another publisher for the novel and winning a prize, it only sold 600 copies.  Even in the liberal Denmark, most people who read the book seemed to think that any teen who read it would kill themselves.

Then Nothing came to America, thanks to a brave publisher, Atheneum, and has enjoyed a very positive reaction.  Teller speculated that the reason Nothing resonates with teen readers is that today is a very difficult time to be a young person.  We have created a culture of competition, and although not all bad, by definition we can only have one winner and the rest will be losers.  We idolize movie and music stars, but we can’t all follow in their footsteps.  Teens know that they want (and need) something better than what society is offering, but they don’t know how to change it.  She encouraged the audience to use this book, and others to talk to teens and discuss the big questions of life.  We all have a Pierre Anthon in our head, asking us why this or that matters, she said.  But when we open the windows and talk to him, it isn’t as scary.  â€œBecome friends with your Pierre Anthon” she concluded.

All of the authors were amazingly grateful to the members of the Printz committee and librarians for putting their books in the hands of readers.  They made it clear that we may be their biggest fans, but that the feeling is mutual.

-coverage for this event provided by Sharon Rawlins and Kate Pickett

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Kate McNair

Kate is the Young Adult Librarian for the Johnson County Library in the Kansas City metro area. She loves, playing roller derby, crafting and being surprised!

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