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June 1, 2016

Why Pay Attention to the Printz?

When I find myself in conversation with friends outside the world of children’s publishing or youth librarianship I notice that recommending a book by stating its Newbery or Caldecott award status meets with a spark of recognition, even from those who don’t spend their year predicting which books will win.

However, when I mention the Printz Award (formally the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature) I am generally met with blank stares. I feel compelled to explain it on the fly, usually making the somewhat inaccurate statement “It’s like the Newbery, but for teen books” and moving on with why they should really really read The Scorpio Races or American Born Chinese. To make up for all of those times, I’d like to offer an explanation for why readers should care about the award itself, not just the exceptional books that win it.

Compared to the Newbery Medal (first awarded in 1922 to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children) and the Caldecott Medal (first awarded in 1938 to the illustrator of the most distinguished American picture book), the Printz award is a baby, first awarded in 2000.

As stated on the official website, “The Michael L. Printz Award is an award for a book that exemplifies literary excellence in young adult literature.” Like the Newbery and the Caldecott, the award is chosen by a panel of dedicated members of the American Library Association, specifically YALSA, the Young Adult Library Services Association branch. However, unlike the Newbery or Caldecott, the Printz can be awarded to books by non-American authors, so the list has drawn attention to international authors such as Melina Marchetta and Meg Rosoff. The selections can include fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and anthology. Up to four honors may be awarded, in addition to the winner.

YALSA offers many exciting and excellent awards—for nonfiction, audiobooks, and one of my personal favorites, the Morris Award for first-time authors. All are worth paying attention to, but the Printz distinguishes itself by strict adherence to the quest for literary merit. In this day of blockbuster YA book success, it can be a tricky thing for committee members to grapple with. Not conflating literary merit with public reception can be difficult even for the most judicious readers.

Yet again and again they bestow the award on books that are truly exceptional, with unforgettable characterization, like Jellicoe Road or Fat Kid Rules the World. They select books that speak to the biggest universal issues of humanity—how community forms and how compassion sustains it, with winners such as Nation and The Book Thief. They embrace new forms executed brilliantly, such as in the graphic novel American Born Chinese; the novel-in-verse Your Own, Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath; or the inaugural winner, Monster, in which Walter Dean Meyers gives his protagonist voice through the screenplay he is composing.

As such, the Printz Award is not only drawing attention to important titles, it is creating a canon that speaks to the merits of young adult literature, to its boundary-pushing creativity and its important place in adolescent development. It is validating the need for excellently written books that speak to contemporary teen experience, as well as books that introduce language from past centuries embedded in stories with teen appeal, and formats that broaden reader horizons.

Paying attention to the Printz Award doesn’t just inform opinions about the types of books that are gaining recognition in the world of young adult literature, it informs our understanding of the teens (and adults) who read them and how they will continue to shape our reading society.



Bio about Author: Mia Cabana is a managing editor of online copy at Scholastic Book Clubs. She has also worked as a young adult librarian and dreams of someday joyriding around the country in her own bookmobile.

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January 14, 2014