You may have heard of the Michael L. Printz Award, which is given yearly to an outstanding work of young adult fiction. But how much do you really know about the award and how you can use it? From October 3 through October 31, YALSA is offering an online course called “Secrets of the Seal: The Michael L. Printz Award”, in which you can learn about previous winners, how the winners and honor books are selected, and (for librarians and teachers) how to use the award and honored books in your library or classroom.
The class will be taught by Brenna Shanks, who kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the course and the Printz Award for us.
To get started, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your relation to young adult literature?
I’ve worked as a young adult librarian since I graduated from the University of Washington ISchool in 2001. Currently, I am the Teen Materials Selector for the King County Library System. I’ve participated in YALSA for much of my career. I was a member of the 2011 Printz Committee, and I chaired the Margaret Edwards Award committee in 2008.
Your course is going to go into detail about the origins and history of the Printz Award, but can you give us the short, sweet version for readers who may be unfamiliar with it?
The award began in 2000. YALSA wanted a literary award for teens (a counterpart to the Newbery) and had formed a committee to plan its creation. They were ready to proceed with it when Mike Printz, a Kansas school-librarian and active YALSA member, passed away. The membership named the Printz Award to honor Mike’s memory and his life-long commitment to YA Lit.
Tell us a little bit about why the Printz Award matters to fans of YA lit.
We have many, many ways to gauge the popularity of teen books (best-seller lists, holds, movie adaptations), but few ways to highlight their literary value. As the body of YA literature has grown, so has its scope and capacity. We see books published for teens today that would have been coming-of-age, adult literary fiction a generation ago. The Printz helps us showcase these books, some of which have received general commendations and some of which may have been otherwise overlooked. The Printz Award may not point you toward your next guilty pleasure, but it may lead you to a reading experience that lasts long after you’ve closed the book.
The award is based on “literary excellence.” Can you elaborate a little bit more on what that means to committee members?
I think everyone goes into a committee with their own idea of literary excellence! That said, we do have professional guidelines to fall back on. When a committee reads for literary excellence, they are looking at how the parts make the whole. They look at story, voice, character, setting, themes, etc. A book doesn’t have to have all of these qualities in equal measure, but it should have a few stand-out examples of one or two. It’s not about genre or format (or at least, it shouldn’t be); it’s about storytelling. Did some part of this book speak to you at a deeper level and stay with you after reading? And, of course, a big part of the process is discussing those qualities as a committee. What impresses you as an individual reader may not survive dissection by the committee. Likewise, consensus may come quickly and reveal the books that have impressed everyone.
Compared to ALSC’s Newbery and Caldecott awards, first given in 1922 and 1938 respectively, YALSA’s Printz Award is pretty new to the scene, first being awarded in 2000. Since the other awards have been around longer, we’ve been able to see how winners have aged over time. Is this longevity something the Printz committee considers when it’s selecting a book?
Longevity isn’t one of the committee’s charges, and I would argue that not every Newbery/Caldecott title has aged well. We tend to compare award winners to each other, when in reality, the committee compared them to other books published that year. The field of contenders in a given year can be very wide, so the “best” book of one year may compare poorly to a list of other “bests”! That said, I think each committee hopes the books will have longevity.
Similarly, language and trends in YA lit and teen culture change rapidly, which means that how relevant a book feels to teens can change quickly, too. Is relevance to teens (not necessarily popularity, but how it speaks to teens) considered, or is it just straight literary quality that determines the winners and honor books?
In terms of criteria, the committee looks for straight literary quality. Popularity is not a factor and is explicitly excluded in the award policies. But popularity is measurable, while relevance is a bit trickier to define. Luckily, relevance doesn’t mean using the hippest language or the trendiest references. In fact, those things can kill a book for teens even before the language or trend is obsolete. Relevance ties into criteria that are outlined for the award. Themes, voice, and characters can all provide relevance. The Printz committees look for qualities that are universal and lasting. What it means to be a teen, to experience certain emotions and learn certain life-lessons, those things don’t change. So far, I think we’ve seen that the Printz winners are often ahead of their time. They’ve dealt with issues of ongoing importance, set trends in teen literature and showcased new authors and unique characters.
Beyond literary excellence, is there anything that you’ve noticed that all of the Printz winners have in common?
There are trends, some of which I mentioned above. Several of our winners and honor books have been the work of debut authors and many of those authors have gone on to produce other important YA books. Printz winners have pushed the boundaries of genres and formats. We also have many winners and honor books from other countries, showing that these stories really are universal in some way.
How can we on the front lines learn to spot a potential Printz contender or other books of great literary merit before the awards are announced?
Reading starred reviews is a good way to start. Following reading blogs or Mock Printz lists may prove useful too. It’s always hard to know what an individual committee will choose. The committee process, by its nature, means that the final choices are arrived at by consensus, and aren’t the product of one person’s taste or preference. Even the committee members might not be able to tell you which titles will win until the final day of debate. Our professional review literature and the ever-expanding fan base does a pretty good job of picking the “best” every year. You might have a few surprises when the awards are announced, but you will probably see a few familiar books on the podium too. Part of the fun is seeing where your favorites end up!
Our thanks to Brenna for giving us a peek behind the scenes with the Printz Award! If you’d like to learn more, registration for “Secrets of the Seal” is open now!
— Gretchen Kolderup, currently reading The Devil’s Paintbox by Victoria McKernan and Little Bee by Chris Cleave for separate book groups
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