When Hedberg Public Library teen librarian Laurie Bartz and I learned we would both be part of the 2013 Michael L. Printz Award committee, we hoped this might be our chance to get our teens reading and discussing books from a critical perspective. We had tried before to form teen clubs around critical book discussion without success. Kids were happy to come talk about books, but all we ever got out of them (no matter what strategies we employed) was so much plot that no one else in the room needed to read the books.
So when we invited some teens to read 2012 books we thought were “important,” we said we expected them to talk about the books the same way the real Printz committee was going to discuss their books. Our high school faculty partners asked us to create a rubric from the criteria and, armed with that rubric [doc] and Book Discussion Guidelines [docx] from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, we began our exciting, year-long adventure.
The Printz Book Club started with three stalwart readers, who initially struggled with my insistence that I didn’t care whether or not they liked or didn’t like a book. What I wanted to know was whether or not it met the criteria in the rubric. And then … it clicked and we were off and running. When summer came, we began meeting for library-provided lunch and we added three more teens (including one boy — woo-hoo!) who read like crazy to catch up.
By fall, the kids were on fire. Because of their busy schedules, we started meeting for dinner and discussion focused almost entirely on the literary value of the books we were reading — to the point of setting aside some well-loved books that they felt didn’t live up to the literary standards set forth in the Printz criteria. All of us, teens and adults, participated in the discussions and all of us had the experience of seeing something in a book that proved enlightening to others. In fact, one of the girls said, “I come here and I think I know how I feel about the book and then I listen to everybody and sometimes I change my mind.” Yes!
Two weeks before Laurie and I set out for Seattle for the “real Printz” deliberations, the students held their mock-Printz event. Of the 29 books they read, they selected 10 they felt were deserving of the award. All ten books were discussed and then, using the same procedures the real committee would use in that locked room in Seattle, they balloted until they had a winner and three honor books. Their winner was In Darkness by Nick Lake, and their honor books were Dying to Know You by Aidan Chambers, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, and The White Bicycle, by Beverly Brenna. I believe their choices (Laurie and I did not participate in the mock-Printz discussion or balloting) put to rest comments of armchair quarterbacks who confidently declare that literary books will “never be popular with” or “will never be read by” teens.
In fact, when we were cleaning up the food (we can’t seem to talk about books without eating), the kids asked if we had to stop just because our Printz year was done. We agreed to continue and now we’re reading books from the 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults nomination list, but we’re still talking about quality, not popularity — by their choice. They will come up with their own Top 10 or 12 titles of the year and we’ll publicize their selections and use them for readers’ advisory. They think the new book club name is hilarious.
We’re hoping to bring them to Chicago for the Printz Award program — they’re very excited to be part of the celebration that includes the work they’ve done. And they’re delighted to hear “their authors” speak about books that hold a great deal of meaning for them. If you see them at the event, be sure to ask them about what they’re reading — they love to talk about books.
I never had the privilege of meeting Mike Printz, but I did have the pleasure of seeing him in action with teens at Best Books for Young Adults meetings on several occasions. I think he would have enjoyed this terrific group of kids and I hope that, in some small way, we’re carrying on his legacy.
— Sharon Grover, currently reading Monument 14 by Emmy Laybourne