Edi Campbell Picks Nonfiction Contenders for Top Prize | Pondering Printz

Could there be a repeat of 2017? The children’s literature scholar thinks two nonfiction titles about race in the United States could take the medal.

I used to view the Printz Award as an avant-garde award; one that sought out and chose to honor often obscure little gems that displayed literary excellence despite their lack of popularity. Consider how the committee honored Monster by Walter Dean Myers (HarperCollins) almost 20 years ago, and in doing so, the Award recognized a worldview that continues to be marginalized. But now after I’ve spent more time looking closely at the titles and the data accumulated through the years, I find the winners to be almost predictable. No, not in terms of the exact title, rather, in terms of the genre.

The author's identity in terms of their race and sexual orientation can too often be predicted as well. How diverse will this year’s selections be? While I think YA fictional prose by White authors will be top contenders for the list because they always are, I believe we just might see quite a variation from that theme this year.

Without a doubt, The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (HarperTeen), The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton (Freeform), Dream Country by Shannon Gibney (Dutton), Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (Holt) and A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Taheri Mafi (HarperCollins) are among top contenders. That was such a difficult sentence, only, selecting five works of YA fiction! I’m in the middle of a review for Pride (HarperCollins) and isn’t it a possibility? Ibi Zoboi’s strategic use of setting to develop her theme is unparalled. And there are those I haven’t read that could be just as good, if not better. And then there's.... OK, I'll stop.

We have to acknowledge that as an award for 12–18-year-olds, middle grade books are possibilities, too. I find this to have been a very strong year for middle grade. I would not be surprised if Varian Johnson's The Parker Inheritance (Scholastic), Paula Chase's So Done (Harper/Greenwillow), Meg Medina's Merci Suarez Changes Gears (Candlewick), or Torrey Maldonado's Tight (Penguin) are called on January 28 at the Youth Media Awards.

Yet these are not the books that I really think will be at the very top of that list when it’s announced in that full auditorium early that Monday morning. There are two other possibilities that I'm torn between as contenders for the Printz prize. We Are Not Yet Equal: Understanding Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson with Tonya Bolden (Bloomsbury) and Just Mercy (Adapted for Young Adults): A True Story of the Fight for Justice by Bryan Stevenson (Delacorte) are two of the best written books for young adults that I’ve read in quite a while. Both are adaptations from award nonfiction books written for adults. Both result from authors so passionate about their work that they chose to develop versions especially for teen readers. Anderson, Bolden, and Stevenson all reconstructed their text without losing the integrity of their original writing. Nothing is overexplained or glossed over for younger readers. Rather, the authors articulate nuanced histories that draw the readers in with storytelling that is as timely as it is thorough. They manage to describe intricate details of complicated events without confusing their readers. While they wear their passions on their pens, these authors manage to restrain hyperboles and innuendo.

Stevenson, a public interest lawyer and founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, writes in Just Mercy about his work as a young attorney and how he became embroiled in the U.S. penal system, particularly as it relates to those on death row. His topic is a timely one that brings attention to the issues surrounding mass incarceration, particularly the overwhelming presence of African American men locked away in the prime of their lives, not so much because of any guilt, rather because of the historical use of prisons to suppress black lives in this country. Stevenson never loses hope in this country. Through his work, through the small gains he’s able to make, he’s able to find enough mercy to fight through another day. And, he strategically (oh heck, even lyrically) expresses this to his readers.

It’s difficult to hope for books that need to be critiqued outside the Western literary norm of plot, character, setting and theme to win major literary awards. Historical nonfiction books don’t necessarily offer character development, but they offer complex settings, themes and plots. In uncovering the plot in We Are Not Yet Equal, we come to understand just what it means to be a white American, to be a black American, and that there is in fact, no singular “U.S. American” because our experiences have just been too different. Citizenship is racialized. Anderson and Bolden manage to present a detailed version of U.S. American history in less than 300 pages. Their level of research is obvious in the numerous details that they provide (and document), as is their knowledge of history. We know Tonya Bolden from Facing Frederick: The Life of Frederick Douglass, A Monumental Man (Abrams), Maritcha: A Nineteenth-Century American Girl (Abrams), and Crossing Ebenezer Creek (Bloomsbury). Carol Anderson, a Charles Howard Candler Professor of African American Studies at Emory University, is the author of several adult nonfiction works, including White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Nation's Divide (Bloomsbury), the 2017 winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. We Are Not Yet Equal is adapted from that text.

These authors weave a path through American history that makes it clear that as long as we rely upon fake and incomplete history that denies the crippling effects of racism on us all, this country will never be as great as it could be, and in fact, it never really it was. Their story is cohesive, clear, and concise.

This past year, everyone who is involved with young adult literature—from readers and writers to publishers, educators, bloggers, librarians and illustrators—has come to understand (hopefully) that books are political. They position our understanding of the world and our place in it. And this year, they've consciously been created to politicize our youth. Awards are political, too, in what they choose to honor.

I love YMA Monday mornings! They are so full of possibilities. The Printz suggests criteria, but doesn’t require strict adherence. The one absolute is literary excellence. This year, I’ve found it in We Are Not Yet Equal and Just Mercy.

Edith Campbell is an assistant librarian at Indiana State University. She's making plans to get back into the classroom and is considering innovative methods to teach African American Youth literature to undergrads. Campbell tweets at @crazyquilts and blogs at CrazyQuiltsEdi. She served on the 2018 Printz Award committee.

See also:

Sarah Couri and Karyn Silverman Kick Off Pondering Printz

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

Will a Middle Grade Title or a Sequel Win the Printz? | Pondering Printz

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