Books To Blow Your Mind | Pondering Printz

This year’s top YA titles help us escape, look inward, and navigate our times.


Pondering Printz logoWe are swirling dizzily towards book awards season. Before we get there, we’ve got to vote in a defining election, fight a global pandemic, and face crucial conversations about race and class. This year has delivered some powerful and dazzling books that help us not only look within, but provide the necessary relief of escape, and sometimes help in navigating the times we find ourselves in.

I served on the 2017 Printz Award Committee—the committee, along with many others, that selected March: Book 3 by the incomparable John Lewis. I understand how incredibly emotional book awards discussions can get, and I do not envy this year’s committee, which will be deliberating virtually—I’m sure a first in Printz history. This year, there is no shortage of exquisitely written books. As I attempt to predict the winner of this illustrious award, the books here have brought me joy, clarity, or just “blew the top of my head off,” as my high school literature teacher would say. If you haven’t seen your favorite on this list, please recommend it to me! The only thing I love more than reading a good book is reading about the love someone else has for a book.

Black Flamingo coverThe Black Flamingo by Dean Atta
This coming-of-age novel in verse is the 2020 Stonewall Award winner, so it’s not a leap that it’s a strong Printz contender. (It’s being published in the United States this year, making it eligible.) With stunning prose, Atta tackles the intersections of sexuality, gender identity, race, homophobia, internalized racism, and colorism with bravery, ferocity, and love. Michael is a biracial Brit of Jamaican and Greek descent growing up with a single mom. He learns at the age of six that wanting a Barbie doll doesn’t fit within a so-called norm. This realization sets Michael on the path of unraveling other expectations and stitching together an authentic experience in the drag ballroom scene. Beautiful, timely, and necessary, this book is a top candidate for the award.

Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam
This is a compulsory novel in verse coauthored by Salaam, an exonerated member of the Central Park Five. Amal is a poet and an artist. When he encounters people with the ability to affect the course of his life, he's seen as a thug, a criminal. Themes of mass incarceration and the disenchantment and disenfranchisement of young Black men put this book right on the pulse of the Black Lives Matter movement. This striking composition tugs at hearts and engages minds.

[Read: Current Events Reflect Current Reads | Pondering Printz]

The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen
This is the quintessential immigrant story told in a lush and loving way, with ethereal, heart-wrenching, mesmerizing artwork. A son trying to tell his parents he’s gay. A mom trying to tell her son she supports him. Tiến bonding with his mother through reading library books is a permanent mood. I teared up more than once while reading. Nguyen has given readers something really special.

We Are Not Free by Traci CheeWe Are Not Free cover
This is the powerful and timely story of 14 teens surviving the Japanese internment camps during World War II. Alternating voices and styles while including newspaper clippings, photographs, and notices from the era, Chee has created a riveting and heartbreaking novel that forces readers to examine this very dark chapter in American history and how it echoes in our present.

Dancing at the Pity Party: A Dead Mom Graphic Memoir by Tyler Feder
I read this early in the year and it has stayed with me—it might be one of the best tributes to a mother that I’ve read. Relatable, poignant, witty, this is the book to read when you’re grieving, like many of us are, and you need a voice that “gets it.” Feder introduces readers to her mother, and within the first few pages, Feder makes her mom a person you want to know. Feder immortalizes her mother’s sense of humor and cool quirks, and by the time we arrive at her cancer diagnosis, the reader is in shambles. I was moved to tears throughout this book...sometimes from laughing, and sometimes just sitting with my emotions. I’d be ecstatic to see this win the Printz, but if it doesn’t I wouldn’t be surprised if it picked up a few other awards on the youth media awards circuit.

Christina Vortia is a magnanimous Media Specialist and social media sage at Adams Middle School of the Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, FL. When she isn't reading books, she writes about them for Kirkus Reviews. She's served on the 2017 Printz Award Committee, the 2019/2020 Coretta Scott King Book Awards Jury, and is currently serving on the LA Times Book Prize Jury for Young Adult Literature.

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