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October 1, 2014

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Printz and the Power of Story: Honorees Get Personal at Awards Reception | ALA 2013

Though it may seem to some that the American Library Association’s annual summer conference winds down by Monday afternoon each year, many young adult literature aficionados consider the evening’s ticketed Printz reception the high point of their conference experience.

Printzcomittee1 Printz and the Power of Story: Honorees Get Personal at Awards Reception | ALA 2013

The Printz Award committee flanks honoree (front row, from left to right) Beverly Brenna, winner Nick Lake, honoree Benjamin Alire Sáenz and honoree Elizabeth Wein. Photo courtesy of YALSA.

The event is a chance for honorees to celebrate and speak about their books, then mingle with fans over drinks and dessert. This year’s author speeches, like the books recognized, ranged in topic from the personal to the intellectual—but one central theme emerged: the power of storytelling and its ability to connect kids to larger truths about the world.

The Young Adult Library Services Association gives the Michael L. Printz Award each year to the “best book written for teens,” and the award committee can also name up to four honor titles. In January 2013, five books published in 2012 were recognized: winner In Darkness, by Nick Lake; and honor books Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz; Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein; Dodger by Terry Pratchett; and The White Bicycle by Beverly Brenna.

Sáenz opened the evening, and he could have closed it as well. His incredibly touching speech left the audience sobbing. His book is a coming-of-age tale about two Latino boys in Texas. He shared with the audience his own painful journey to coming out at age 54, “a wounded man—but what are wounds to a writer?” He spoke about how he nearly abandoned Aristotle and Dante because it was “too close to home,” and explained that he ultimately, accidentally, came back to the novel. “There should be roadmaps for boys who were born to play by different rules…born gay. I suppose I became a cartographer.” His speech was personal, painful, and passionate, much like Ari and Dante’s journeys, and in the end, he thanked the committee and the audience, saying “today I feel like a boy again.”

He was greeted by a spontaneous standing ovation, prompting Elizabeth Wein to start her own speech with a good-natured grumble about the agony of following him. Fortunately for her—and for audience, still sobbing—she moved away from deeply personal topics (which she had previously covered in her USBBY speech the day before) and started with history. Her own history, yes—but even Wein’s journal, which she read from, is a crafted, precise piece of accomplished writing, laced with literary references, sly humor, and an astounding wealth of detail.

In the reading, it became clear just how deeply Wein poured her own self into the creation of Julie, the narrator of Code Name Verity. “Like me,” Wein said, “she’s writing because it transports her.” As she spoke, it became clear that in fact this speech was just as personal and Sáenz’s, but focused on the act of writing. Code Name Verity is “about voices being silenced and found,” Wein said, and while it’s easy to see that it’s a story of friendship and World War II, it’s also about “the power of words.”

The theme of words as power—and literature as a means to a deeper truth—echoed throughout the evening; Sáenz brought it to life and Wein made it explicit. Terry Pratchett’s speech (given by his US editor Anne Hoppe) touched on the same ideas, in different form.

Dodger was written as a testament to the real Henry Mayhew, a man whose words, in the form of a comprehensive study of the poor of Victorian London, changed the world. But because it was written by Terry Pratchett, who admits that his “mind packs more rats than Hamelin,” the testament to Mayhew might have morphed a bit; Victorian London, after all, “is cut in the mold of fantasy.” Pratchett’s speech was laced with his customary wry humor, clear even when voiced by someone else, and, while he was missed, appreciative chuckles sounded throughout the audience, along with a murmur of agreement at a piece of truth: “you don’t have to invent that much if you have a good grasp of social history.”

Next up was Beverly Brenna, who started by thanking the audience for being there—because she’s actually shown up a night early, only to be greeted by empty chairs! Following up on the thematic scope of the evening (leading a few listeners to speculate that there might be a secret online forum for Printz winners and honorees where they had planned this perfectly aligned set of remarks), Brenna said “stories are important. Stories can change the world.”

And as she recounted a story her own mother told her, it became clear that Brenna is a consummate storyteller; she had the rhythm down perfectly, changing inflections and intonations for different moments. It’s no surprise that the aspect of The White Bicycle the committee and readers always reference is the voice. And indeed, Brenna admitted that she wrote her book with purpose: to give voice to those on the Autism spectrum, whose voices are still too rarely heard.

Speaking of the voiceless, Brenna was followed by Nick Lake, whose In Darkness gives voice to the poor of Haiti in the immediate aftermath of the terrible earthquake of 2010. Lake’s speech was laced with philosophy—Nietzsche, Campbell’s hero’s journey, and the idea of magical truths: “the shaman and the geneticist both would say, ‘My ancestors live inside me.’”

Above all, Lake spoke about circles and connections, within his book and within the world. “Something small can contain eternity,” and a book can contain a universal truth, he said. He spoke about how hard it is to grow up, and—winning the hearts of every listener, said “reading is an incredibly important part of young adults becoming functional adults.” He also managed, remarkably, to work in references to The Hunger Games, Daniel Kraus, John Green, and—of all things—“poo.” Because nothing puts life in perspective like winning an award and immediately having to deal with a 2-year-old’s diaper: the circle of life made all too real and much less intellectual in one fell swoop.

The speeches should be available on YALSA’s website in the near future.

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