When I was a kid, way back in the previous century, the only literary awards I was aware of were the Newbery and the Pulitzer. (We were a newspaper family.) Newbery winners were a mixed bag. I mean, look at the winners from the 1970s, when I was young:
--dead dog book
Summer of the Swans
--this has NEVER sounded interesting to me, and the copies that were around looked like they were forty years old when they were four years old.
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
--great book my fifth grade teacher read aloud to us
Julie of the Wolves
--cultural appropriative nonsense
--jeez, just those two words together make me cringe
MC Higgins the Great
--this early attempt at "edgy" YA was okay, but kids in these books talked like adults thought kids talked, if you know what I mean.
The Grey King
--I didn't read this series until I was in college, but I would have loved it as a kid, and I have no idea why I was oblivious to it.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
--I appreciate that there was a book about black kids on the list, but did not like this one.
Bridge to Terabithia
--I liked it, but only enough to read it once and be forever scarred by a kids' book that kills off a main character
The Westing Game
--okay, this one is truly amazing and unique and I adored it as a kid.
That's two I really liked, one I would have liked, and seven I didn't care for or could never even work up enough interest to attempt. Yes I only gave links for the ones I like. #petty #sorrynotsorry You can understand why as a kid, and ever more so as an adult, a Newbery is not enough to make me pick a book up. If anything, I am slightly suspicious that they are the boiled broccoli of books, something other people say is good for me, but that I find completely unpalatable.
Luckily for today's youth, there are all sorts of awards now--both the adult ones that existed all along and plenty of more recently created or revitalized young adult and children's literature awards. From state awards (Oregon started an Oregon Spirit
award in 2005 and a reader's choice award
in 2010) to the diverse set of awards for Latinx
authors, African American
authors, books about the LGBQTIA
+ experience, books that honor physical and mental diversity
, and more, a wide range of shiny award stickers can be slapped on an excellent book. But if my extremely amateur participation in selections for Cybils awards and OBOB lists have taught me anything, it's that one person's favorite book is another's complete dud. There just aren't any awards given by committee that will work for all the readers all of the time, or even for one of the readers all of the times.
The Printz award, founded in 2000 to "celebrate literary excellence in young adult literature," gets pretty damn close. Winners include modern classics like The Poet X
, Looking for Alaska
, and American Born Chinese
. Runners up are just as terrific: A Heart in a Body in the World
, Strange the Dreamer
, Long Way Down
, Code Name Verity
, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
, Please Ignore Vera Dietz
, Scorpio Races
--so many of my five star books of this century have been honored by the Printz committee.
I have even created a semi-official challenge to myself to read all of the winners, then all of the honorees. I inadvertently had already read all of 2004's books, but somehow have yet to read a single entry from 2008. There have been a few that I personally would not have chosen as the very best book that year but there haven't been any that missed the mark entirely. I can see why they were chosen, even if they're not MY favorite. (Unlike, say, the 1953 Newbery, which went to Secret of the Andes
instead of runner-up Charlotte's Web
. Can you IMAGINE being on that year's committee? The shame!)
According to the YALSA website,
the committee has vague yet lofty criteria for choosing books:
What is quality? We know what it is not. We hope the award will have a wide AUDIENCE among readers from 12 to 18 but POPULARITY is not the criterion for this award. Nor is MESSAGE. In accordance with the Library Bill of Rights, CONTROVERSY is not something to avoid. In fact, we want a book that readers will talk about.
Librarianship focuses on individuals, in all their diversity, and that focus is a fundamental value of the Young Adult Library Services Association and its members. Diversity is, thus, honored in the Association and in the collections and services that libraries provide to young adults.
Having established what the award is not, it is far harder to formulate what it is. As every reader knows, a great book can redefine what we mean by quality. Criteria change with time. Therefore, flexibility and an avoidance of the too-rigid are essential components of these criteria (some examples of too-rigid criteria: A realistic hope - well, what about Robert Cormier's Chocolate War or Brock Coles' The Facts Speak for Themselves? Avoiding complicated plot - what about Louis Sachar's Holes? Originality - what about all the mythic themes that are continually re-worked? We can all think of other great books that don't fit those criteria.)
Which makes me wonder--who advocates for avoiding a complicated plot in award winning books?
But otherwise, this is a great explanation.
Stay tuned to this space for follow-up posts on who Michael L. Printz was in the first place and a list of my top ten Printz books!