On Monday, July 1st at the American Library Association’s Annual Conference, the five authors recognized by this year’s Michael L. Printz Award were honored with a ceremony and reception. Unlike some award ceremonies, both the winning author and all of the honor list authors are given the opportunity to speak. Their words are always moving and enlightening, and this year was no different.
Benjamin Alire Sáenz opened the evening with a heartfelt speech about how he had to learn to accept himself as a gay man before he could write the story of a gay Latino boy finding love. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe was nearly never published: he’d written a draft but found it too painful and filed it away until one day he rediscovered it and felt like he was reading someone else’s book. He described the book as a road map for “boys who were born to play by different rules.” He also spoke about his mother, who died the day the book was published. He was able to show it to her before he passed away, and “she patted her heart and smiled.” Because the circumstances around the book’s publication were so bittersweet, he said that the day he received the call from the Printz committee saying his book had been selected as an honor title, he was finally able to celebrate the book. He told the members of the Printz committee in attendance, “You gave me a second chance. You gave me back my book.”
Sáenz was followed by Elizabeth Wein, who shared a diary entry she’d written in 1992 while in Oxford working on her PhD. It told the story of a day when she and a classmate decided to ride their bikes to another village for tea, encountering misadventures like nearly leaving a map at a pub and having to mend two flat tires — misadventures very familiar to readers of Code Name Verity! She spoke about friendship and how her own friendships (like that with her and her classmate) informed the relationship between Julie and Maddie in the book, and she talked about how Julie wrote to escape. Then she drew parallels to each of the other books being honored, identifying moments when the characters use different coping strategies (like writing) to escape or to comfort themselves. Wein spoke about the power of words and the power of names, reminding us, “Fiction is a lie that tells the truth.”
Terry Pratchett was unable to attend the ceremony and accept his Printz Honor in person, so his editor, Anne Hoppe, read his speech in his stead. (She also did this when Nation was honored.) Pratchett wrote that Dodger was a tribute to Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, which Pratchett read as a young man. He joked, “Authors tend to have packrat minds, and I suspect mine packs more rats than Hamelin,” and described how over his years of studying history and reading Punch, he picked up so much Victoriana that writing the “real” parts of Dodger was easy. He said that he was fascinated by the idea of creating the character of Dodger, winding him up, and then setting him loose in the world, meeting prominent Victorians, but telling the story in his own way. Pratchett closed with words about the value of history and the value of stories, noting, “We lose the past at our own peril.”
The last of the Printz Honor authors to speak was Beverley Brenna, who began by joking that she was so glad to see everyone, because she’d thought the ceremony was the night before and was puzzled when she turned up at the ballroom and no one was there! She then said, “I think stories are important. I think stories change people,” and proceeded to tell a story her mother told about an episode of racial discrimination she’d witnessed as a child in which she didn’t intervene. Brenna said that she thought her mother told the story because while she couldn’t change the past, she could change the present and the future. She then spoke about how diversity can put up walls, but it can take down walls, too. She noted that in her research, she’d found that people who are differently abled often don’t get to travel in books for young people, so she wrote three books (including The White Bicycle) about Taylor, a young woman with Asperger’s, who first travels to a national park, then to Wyoming, and finally to France. She closed her speech by expressing how honored she was to be associated with Michael L. Printz, a school librarian, advocate for young people, and lover of literature, and then thanked everyone for being librarians who support books for young people that break down walls.
The evening was closed out by this year’s Michael L. Printz Award winner, Nick Lake, who spoke about his inspiration for In Darkness, what he thinks the book is about, the interface between psychology and myth, and the prevalence of stories of rites of passage in books for young people. The primary motif of his speech was circles — the circle as a symbol that wards off evil; the circle between Shorty and Toussaint; the circle of genetics and how it connects family members past, present and future; the circle of the rite of passage or spirit journey where a young person is prepared, goes on a journey that changes him and the world, and returns to his previous life; and the circle between reader and author. He speculated that the reason so many young adult books include this rite of passage, this journey that changes the protagonist is because the transition from childhood to adulthood is no longer as distinct and defined as it once was, and that through reading books that include such a transition, it prepares readers to be adults — the hardest transition that we make as humans. Through the experiences in their books, these protagonists circle back to where they once were, but they are no longer themselves — and this helps them let go of childhood and move into adulthood. He closed with the idea that “On dark days, [we know that] books for young adults are doing more than increasing their earning potential” — they’re helping kids grow up well.
If you missed the Printz speeches, they’ll be available soon on the YALSA website.
— Gretchen Kolderup, still reading Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
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