Love Has No Place at the Table | Pondering Printz

In our last Pondering Printz column before this year's announcement, Angela Carstensen cautions that the award is not a popularity contest.

Pondering Printz logoPredicting book award winners is a fool’s errand, isn’t it? One reader alone is unable to read with the breadth and depth of a committee, nor is that reader (at least, nor am I) likely to read and reread the top contenders with the same intensity of attention as a committee member. Still, predicting winners is irresistible. This is why mock award groups are so popular—one can taste the thrill of the actual committee experience, including the all-important factors of preparation, persuasion, dissension, consensus, and elation.

In reading for the Michael L. Printz Award, the most challenging part of the process is keeping the criteria in mind and avoiding a popularity contest. YALSA’s Policies and Procedures state that books must be judged objectively for literary merit. Not appeal, not how they make you feel or whether you love them. “I love” has no place at the table. Passion does; personal preference does not. This is mitigated by the fact that the most impactful literary writing is often extremely affecting. Excellence creates a clarity that allows the author’s true intent to be communicated.

All of that being said, I find myself with a clear top three picks for this year’s award, and another handful close behind.

Laurie Halse Anderson’s Shout, a stunning combination of memoir and call-to-action, seems like a shoo-in for the big prize. Writing in verse lends it a gleaming, diamond-sharp honesty. I can’t imagine the courage it must take to expose so much personal trauma and family history—yet isn’t that the key to many of the best memoirs? There is something truly moving about the fact that Shout might never have been written without all of the experiences and conversations that the author’s Printz Honor–winning novel Speak brought to Anderson, and the contact with young people who have experienced sexual assault. (Also, though this is outside the purview of this column, do yourself a favor and listen to Anderson narrate the audio version of Shout.)

Birthday book coverThe brilliant structure of Birthday by Meredith Russo pushes it into Printz territory for me. Best friends Morgan and Eric were born on the same day and readers experience six of their birthdays as they age from 13 to 18 years old. More than mere gimmick, this structure lends itself perfectly to the development of these two vulnerable characters, their relationship, and the deep understanding between them that cushions the heart of this book. Eric and Morgan stay true to each other even as they change and become more fully themselves, questioning gender and discovering sexuality. Setting is also crucial here. The tropes of a rural, Southern, football-driven town are used to build suspense, as do the changes that are revealed each year. This is a powerful love story deserving of literary recognition.

Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby is an ambitious genre blend of historical fiction and ghost story, and it fulfills the requirements of both. The stories of two girls, one a ghost who observes the other, create a structure that amplifies the ways their experiences echo and intersect. Tone, plot, and character shine here, as does the World War II Chicago setting. It is unique and subtle, and the writing on a sentence level is the best of the bunch. If I were on the committee, I would read this a couple more times and test exactly how well all the connections work.

Other books I have read (and there are so many I haven’t!) that are likely under consideration:

Frankly in Love by David Yoon is more layered than I expected—much more than a clever romance told with a great voice. I am particularly impressed by the storyline around Frank’s father’s illness and his parents’ conflicts with their friends. There are some truly beautiful passages toward the end that moved it onto my best of the year list.

Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay brings religion and politics into a complicated, global family story that excels in setting, theme, and family dynamics, Patron Saints of Nothing coverthough I wonder if the writing itself is distinguished enough to keep it in the running.

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell has already been mentioned by other Pondering Printz writers. For me, that is thanks to its strong themes and characterizations, combined with the way the story and illustrations fit each other so beautifully.

Then there are the characters in Julie Berry’s Lovely War, who I still think about months after reading the novel—they feel like people I have met in real life. And the structure! Another book that begs multiple rereads. Also, the creepy unease and unique voice in Akwaeke Emezi’s Pet make it one of the most unique YA reads of 2019. And what about the fact that Angie Thomas’s On the Come Up is just as literary as The Hate U Give, maybe more so?

The worth of a column like this one, like the “Someday My Printz Will Come” blog that preceded it, is that it expands the conversation and spreads awareness of the best books of the year. After all, part of the purpose of the award as, yes, expressed in the Policies and Procedures, is to inspire wider readership in the genre and give recognition to its importance. Twenty years in, I think we can all agree that the Printz award has served and fulfilled that purpose. So, fool’s errand or not, let’s all keep predicting!


See also:

Monsters, Magic, and Mech Suits: Genre Picks for the Printz | Pondering Printz

Read 300 Books, Vote for Three | Pondering Printz 

Transforming the Canon | Pondering Printz 

New Year, Past Winners | Pondering Printz

Angela Carstensen has served as a school librarian since 1999. Currently, she is Head Librarian at Sacred Heart Greenwich, a private K-12 girls' school in Connecticut. She is author of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Teen Literature (2018) and Outstanding Books for the College Bound: Titles and Programs for a New Generation (ALA Editions, 2011), and former editor of School Library Journal’s “Adult Books 4 Teens” blog. Angela has chaired YALSA’s Michael L. Printz Award, Alex Award, and Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult committees.

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Sherry Guice

I will be surprised if we don't see PET on more lists. I think it is the "Snowy Day" for books that have transgender characters...I also would like to see a book with humor like Frankly in Love make the list; it is such an accessible book that doesn't scream its many life lessons to the reader...I also LOVED 13 Doors...

Posted : Jan 16, 2020 08:37

MaryAnn Burden

I have always struggled with the idea that teen appeal is not important when adults select the "best book written for teens". I consider appeal to be separate from popularity -- there are well written books that teens might not pick up on their own but easily become interested in when they learn more about them. There are other books that simply don't seem to appeal to them and teens are, after all, the audience we are trying to reach.
I do understand that this award recognizes literary excellence. I just believe there are special books every year that hit both of these marks (literary excellence and teen appeal).

I loved "Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All" and a few of these other titles so it will be interesting to see this year's winner!

Posted : Jan 15, 2020 09:10


I'm surprised that Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai isn't mentioned. It is both unique and universal, beautifully written, and a moving testament to the power of humans to reach each other's hearts.

Posted : Jan 15, 2020 08:20



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