A Graphic Memoir, a Sequel, Debuts, and More | Pondering Printz

A former Printz committee and current Coretta Scott King Award Book Jury member discusses her possible Printz picks for 2019.

The Michael L. Printz Award has recognized distinguished young adult literature since 2000. The Printz uses a specific set of criteria to determine whether a book is not only literary but also appealing to readers ages 12 through 18. The criteria include story, voice, setting, accuracy, characters, theme, illustrations, and design. Committee members read through hundreds of books per year to arrive at, hopefully, a winning book, and up to four honor books. Bear in mind that the committee does not have to choose any winning books if it deems no titles meet the above criteria. Fortunately, since the start of the award, that has never happened.

I have selected these five books that I firmly believe are possible Printz contenders this year. All of the five works have received at least three stars, which often (but not always) indicates Printz potential. Since I am currently on the Coretta Scott King Award Book Jury, I have refrained from listing books that are also eligible for that award.

1. Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka (Scholastic/Graphix)

This graphic memoir is an incredible and timely story of how this acclaimed author/illustrator of many popular children’s book series survived a troubled childhood to become one of the most beloved voices of the kid lit community. The story is heartbreaking. Krosoczka’s mother abused heroin and was in and out of jail and halfway houses. Krosoczka’s grandparents raised him. Art was a driving force in his life, enabling him to find a positive outlet that would stay with him for life. Narrated through the eyes of Krosoczka, the memoir presents him as a vulnerable youth grappling with the family secrets that haunt his dreams and keep him separated from his mother. The illustrations add another layer of nuance, accurately depicting the late 80s and early 90s setting with detail—from the ubiquitous D.A.R.E. commercials to playing Nintendo. He even weaves wallpaper in between each chapter, along with letters, memorabilia, and pictures that create a distinct feel of place and time.

Through text and art, Krosoczka crafts complex characters who are incredibly flawed yet loving. Readers can see the effects of alcohol in Krosoczka’s grandparents and infer how that may have contributed to his mother’s addiction, which started at the age of 13. The theme of family, addiction, perseverance, and hard work are timely as ever as this country stands in the midst of a crushing opioid epidemic. The format brings all of these things together to create a graphic memoir that is truly unique. The illustrations, along with real letters and photographs, document a raw story that will stay with readers for a long time, and hopefully help many families.

Will 2019 be a repeat of 2007, when Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese was the first graphic novel to win the Printz? Or better yet, just two years ago, when March, Book 3, the graphic memoir about John Lewis, took the top prize? The only National Book Award finalist among my picks, this is a strong contender.

2. Thunderhead (Arc of a Scythe: Bk. 2) by Neal Shusterman (S. & S.)

It’s rare when a book comes along as a second in a series and matches the magic of its predecessor, but that is what Thunderhead gives us. This sequel picks up where Scythe, a 2017 Printz Honor, left off and continues to leave readers grappling with questions of morality. Rowan and Citra are back, firmly on opposite sides of the Scythedom. Rowan has become a vigilante scythe while Citra uses her political ideology to glean with heart and purpose. The introduction of new characters offers fresh perspectives. Over it all is the Thunderhead, unhappy with the amok ruining this supposed utopia. With deep religious and political symbolism, Shusterman provides readers with a truly unique and captivating story and well-constructed world-building, tightened even further in this follow-up novel. Has a sequel ever won the Printz? Dreamquake: Book Two of the Dreamhunter Duet by Elizabeth Knox was a 2008 Printz Honor, and one could argue that March, Book 3, was technically the last book in a trilogy. As long as the work can stand alone, it has a shot at the Printz.

3. Sadie by Courtney Summers (Wednesday Bks.)

This haunting novel addressing dark and disturbing themes of violence and the sexual assault of children is a must read. This story alternates between the protagonist, Sadie, and the podcast of radio personality West McCray. Sadie’s 13-year-old sister, Mattie, was found dead, and Sadie is determined to bring the killer to justice. McCray becomes obsessed with the story when he learns of the crime and uses his platform to try to locate Sadie. This book explores the intrigue of gore and true crime and society’s fascination with missing girls. It doesn’t shy away from tackling taboo subjects. Summers goes to the dark and unsettling places of human behavior and holds a mirror up to the cruelty within our culture. The well-fleshed out characters along with the complicated family dynamic between Sadie and her sister Mattie make for a genuinely riveting novel. The innovation of format and storytelling style makes for a compelling Printz pick, and the timeliness (and timelessness, sadly) of the narrative certainly puts this title in the running.

4. The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan (Little, Brown)

This affecting novel about grief chronicles the story of Leigh, whose mother takes her own life. Leigh is convinced that her mother has turned into a bird, and begins asking questions about her mother’s Taiwanese heritage and the grandparents in Taiwan that she’s never met. This story beautifully showcases how the teen uses color to understand her emotions. Implementing threads of gorgeous magical realism, Pan captures what it's like to experience depression. This lyrical and symbolic book elegantly tackles challenging themes of suicide, culture, family, and grief. The exploration of identity (Leigh is biracial) is especially resonant and the sentence-level writing is superb. This debut novel certainly has a shot at the William C. Morris Award for debut novels, if not the Printz itself.

5. Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram (Dial)

Speaking of debuts, this is another lyrical work by a first-time author that might garner some recognition during ALA’s Midwinter Conference, when the awards are announced. Darius is a biracial (Iranian and white) young man who doesn’t quite feel like he belongs. He doesn’t belong with his peers, he doesn’t belong at his job (a blasphemy for this connoisseur of tea), and he doesn't feel like he belongs in his community. When his family visits his mother’s country, Iran, things start to click for him. He befriends Sohrab, who helps him navigate this love for his mother’s homeland and helps him come to terms with his own identity. Khorram places readers directly into the Iranian setting through striking and vivid prose. The characters are memorable and intricate. Themes of acceptance, mental health, and coming to terms with oneself make this novel remarkable. Perhaps not as buzzy as the previous books mentioned, this title’s quiet but powerful story line, characterization, and voice are unforgettable and might strike a chord with committee members.


Check out our previous Pondering Printz post.

Christina Vortia is a librarian, social media analyst, book blogger, reviewer at Kirkus and School Library Journal, and a writer at Book Riot. She served on the 2017 Printz Award Committee and is currently serving as a juror on the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee.

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