The Printz Award: What Does It Mean to Be Excellent in YA?

The Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature (aka “the Printz”) is one of the top honors in the YA community. But what exactly is the Printz Award? How are books chosen and why? Who makes the decisions?

Someday My Printz Will Come, which takes a look at YA lit and the award throughout the year, has a great series going about what the award actually is. One of the big issues raised is “excellence” and what that actually means.

Another part I thought that interesting:

“No one on the committee is carried over from the previous year unless the AA goes on to become a committee member, which means that each committee operates in a vacuum. This in turn means that each committee must grapple with the hard questions anew. Which was, at times, incredibly annoying, but is also very freeing. It doesn’t matter what last year’s committee said about series titles, or how they felt, as an entity, about nonfiction. It only matters what you and the eight people on your committee think.”

So a book that could have dominated in one year could be completely left out the next. I think that ultimately levels the playing field (the award never goes to one kind of book), but I’m sure that’s frustrating when you consider that your book may have been nominated last year but not this year.

Make sure to check out both posts for a good insight into what makes the Printz happen.

Medals Aren’t Just For Olympians

Two things I love: children’s literature and trivia quizzes. And where better for the two to meet than in the Horn Book’s medalist matching game round up? Thanks, Horn Book!

Click through to test your knowledge of Newbery/Caldecott authors and their favorite Newbery/Caldecott books. And don’t worry about clicking on the wrong answer. Instead of shaming you, the Horn Book sends you to even more awesome book trivia. Best quiz ever!

I ended up guessing about 2/3 of the answers correctly, which I’m pretty happy with. Now to go back and make sure I know all the other trivia, too. Have fun!

Forever Tuck

My childhood copy of Tuck Everlasting.

Over vacation, I reread Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt. I read it a million times when I was in elementary/middle school, but I hadn’t read it in at least ten years. A little part of me was afraid it wouldn’t hold up. I mean, it was one of my favorites. I remembered it being so compelling. How could it stack up after so many years?

Guys, it was even better than I remembered.

The writing is stellar. I don’t think I really noticed that when I was a kid. It’s a beautifully written novel, and Babbitt is a master craftsman. For example:

“Mae’s husband, on his back beside her, did not stir. He was still asleep, and the melancholy creases that folded his daytime face were smoothed and slack. He snored gently, and for a moment the corners of his mouth turned upward in a smile. Tuck almost never smiled except in his sleep.”

Did I mention that it’s also signed? Squee!

What a gorgeous introduction to the patriarch of the Tuck family. You Tuck’s gentleness and sadness perfectly, and he’s not even awake yet. It’s brilliant writing. I’ve seen her speak on a couple of panels and both times she’s mentioned that children’s literature shouldn’t be dumbed down in any way. Children are savvy readers and deserve excellent literature. Her philosophy is obvious in her writing–the language is sharp, the characters are compelling, and the themes are moving.

Obviously, Tuck Everlasting is a children’s lit classic, and for good reason. Recently, I also came across Italian author Italo Calvino’s list of what makes a classic. A couple of points on the list struck me in relation to Tuck Everlasting:

  • The Classics are those books which constitute a treasured experience for those who have read and loved them; but they remain just as rich an experience for those who reserve the chance to read them for when they are in the best condition to enjoy them.
  • A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.
  • A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.

I came across Tuck Everlasting when I was a fifth-grader in the mid-90s, twenty years after the book was first published, so I’m hopeful that kids today are still reading it. When I was reading it over vacation, I kept thinking I wish I had a fifth-grade class just so I could use this book on my syllabus.

After finishing it recently, I thought: This totally won a Newbery, right? It’s brilliant. Of course it won. Then I checked the Newbery Medals and Honors list.

Shock: it didn’t.

The 1976 winner was The Grey King by Susan Cooper, so I can understand that winning. But there were only two Honor books listed–The Hundred Penny Box by Sharon Bell Mathis and Dragonwings by Laurence Yep. Considering the committee can include more than two Honor books, why didn’t they call out Tuck Everlasting?

I’m sure the committee had there reasons, but for me it’s a good reminder that even beautifully written, emotionally compelling books don’t win all the awards. Maybe your novel is absolutely amazing, but there will still be agents and editors who pass on it, critics who write bad reviews, and awards you won’t be nominated for. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer or your book isn’t good. It just means that sometimes the literary world is tough.

Really glad I returned to this beloved classic. Are there any books that you loved as a kid and reread as an adult only to find they’re still fantastic?

Distance in YA: Where Things Come Back

From YARN’s interview with John Corey Whaley, author of this year’s Printz winner, Where Things Come Back:

YARN:  WTCB has a retrospective feel, with Cullen looking back on the way he felt “back then.”  Can you shed any light on how old you imagined the narrator being at the time he tells this story?  And also—this is an unusual choice for YA fiction, which is so often told in the immediate here-and-now of the teen’s life.  Why did you choose this more distant and—dare we say—more adult form of narration?

JCW: Great question…and a tough one. I can’t say I set out to write from a specifically “adult” perspective, but that’s just sort of what happened. I guess I wanted to be able to include observations on life and details in the story that couldn’t have worked out if Cullen had been telling it in the present tense. As far as how old I imagined Cullen as he’s telling the story goes—I can’t really say. I want to say he’s at least out of high school, but I don’t really examine the character’s “life after the book” so much.

Really interested to see this. The question of narrative distance is huge in discussions about how YA novels differentiate from adult novels. Really glad to see Whaley talk about perspective and time in WTCB, and that he didn’t limit himself to the here and now. I think it’s a great example of you can break pretty much every rule in YA. It doesn’t need to be from an intensely immediate perspective. I recently read WTCB, and I think giving Cullen that little bit of distance was a huge help to the narrative.

Make sure to check out the whole interview through the link.

Reading Faulkner

Love this article on the joys of and struggles with reading Faulkner. The assertion here is that Faulkner is often first encountered as assigned reading in high school or college, which can lead to frustrated readers who assume that Faulkner is all effort. This is certainly not the case:

“We too often see images of Faulkner as the stern silver-maned, sharp-mustachioed aristocrat in the houndstooth jacket, pipe in hand, who now foists his terribly dense prose on precocious students. But he was also a young, artsy, hilarious and unforgiving observer of human nature. The issues and themes that Faulkner treats in his novels and stories are eternal. Like any great writer, he crafted permanent monuments out of elementary materials—the old verities and truths of the heart, if you will—in the same tradition as his predecessors. Strangers come to town in “Light in August” and “Absalom, Absalom!” The Chaucerian journey is made in “As I Lay Dying”. Epic farce is on display in “Snopes”, and family drama gets positively freaky Greeky in “The Sound and the Fury”. The difference is he did it better than most.”

I’m a huge Faulkner fan, so I fully support a closer look at his work. In high school we were assigned “The Bear” (part of Go Down, Moses). I didn’t love it, but I liked the writing enough to check out some other Faulkner. Of course, I ended up getting The Sound and the Fury out of the library and diving right in. I probably missed most of the book, but I loved the language and the glimpses I got of the Compson family. I eventually studied more Faulkner in college/grad school, but I kind of liked having that first major Faulknerian experience be just the book and me. You don’t have to “get” everything the first time to enjoy the experience of being immersed in language and story.

If you’re a Faulkner fan and haven’t read his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, do it now. Or you can listen to Faulkner give his address here.

In a Word

At The Millions, Bill Morris takes a look at one word titles and when they work. As someone who stresses over titles, it’s interesting to see this collection of titles ranging from Hamlet to Swamplandia! to Salt. He also notes that “seven of the 32 books on the current New York Times hardcover fiction and non-fiction best-seller lists – a healthy 22 percent – have one word titles.” That’s a solid showing.

The focus in this list is on adult literature, so I was interested in single word titles for YA and children’s books. Looking at the Newbery and Printz lists, my first impression is that children’s books tend toward longer titles. In the last twelve years of Newbery winners and honors, only four have had single word titles (all honors, not winners).

Single words fair a little better for Printz titles–twelve total, with one winner and eleven honors. The inaugural year featured a one word title winner (Monster by Walter Dean Myers) and two one word title honors (Skellig by David Almond and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson).

One guess as to this divide: single word titles tend to suggest a higher level of intensity, which you’re more likely to find in a YA novel. (Monster and Speak aren’t exactly light books.) I think there’s a greater potential for whimsy in Newbery books, which probably works best with multi-word titles. (You can get a little more sass in there.) Obviously that’s not a hard and fast rule, but it was my first assumption. Any other guesses?