Transforming the Canon | Pondering Printz

In this month's Pondering Printz column, Lalitha Nataraj considers titles that center underrepresented voices and the inherent value of all books, whether or not they take home the award.

In contemplating potential Pondering Printz logowinners of the 2020 Michael L. Printz Award, I am reminded of the uniqueness of each committee’s selections over the years. These choices reflect how the committee approached its work: What could they all collectively agree upon, and what did that say about them as readers? When I was on the 2016 Printz Committee, each of us consumed several books that we felt passionate about, but didn’t, for whatever reason, pass muster with the majority of the committee. Yet those titles are no less laudable than the ones we chose to honor.

I hope people will realize that just one reader’s—any reader’s—glorious praise of a book holds incredible value for that title and its author. My serious contenders for the 2020 Michael L. Printz Award center underrepresented voices and experiences and, whether or not these books end up winning, I hope they will transform a literary canon that has historically made little room for them. Here are my selections:


The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus

The Stars and the Blackness Between Them coverJunauda Petrus’s stunning debut focuses on two black girls (who happen to be named after real-life trailblazing black feminist activists) from culturally distinct backgrounds who, despite the incredible odds stacked against them, find a deep and sustaining love with each other.

After she is discovered with her girlfriend by her religious mother, 16-year-old Audre is sent away from Trinidad to live in Minneapolis with her father. There she meets Mabel, who cares for her and helps Audre acclimate to a new life. Mabel has been preoccupied, processing feelings about her ex, Terrell, and her growing attraction to girls, as well as the mysterious illness she’s been experiencing all summer.

Petrus sensitively explores questions around the intersections of cultural identity, sexuality, and mortality, unpacking the many layers of otherness and marginalization.


The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

The Downstairs Girl coverThough she feels somewhat out of place in 1890s Atlanta, Chinese milliner Jo Kuan tries to make the best of things until she loses her job. Needing income, she accepts a position as a lady’s maid to the cruel daughter of a wealthy family. Feeling mired in an oppressive and unsatisfying role, Jo begins moonlighting as advice columnist “Miss Sweetie,” sharing feminist opinions that she can’t openly voice, including her thoughts on suffrage.

Lee’s elegantly written story upends traditional narratives around the early suffrage movement by centering the experiences of an Asian American woman. Despite its specific historical setting, there’s a contemporary feel around the handling of race and gender issues, which makes this novel feel especially singular.


This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura

This Time Will Be Different coverSeventeen-year-old CJ Katsuyama lives with her mother and aunt in Silicon Valley,  where she is perfectly content with her flower-arranging gig at the family flower shop. Her legacy is intimately intertwined with the store’s history—it was sold to a white man, Robert McAllister, for a small fraction of its worth, while her family was sent to an internment camp during World War II. Though her family regains the store, their fortunes do not increase, and CJ challenges historical injustices of the past through social activism that puts her at ideological odds with her mother.

In CJ, Sugiura has created a complex, three-dimensional character who explores race, sexuality, Asian Americanness, and, of course, the problematic model minority myth. The narrative is elevated by an equally well-rounded cast of diverse characters and a wholly believable and richly imagined setting.


We Contain Multitudes by Sarah Henstra

We Contain Multitudes coverI admit, I have a weakness for dual narrative and epistolary novels, and this one did not disappoint, evoking teen angst with authentic poignancy. Classmates Jo and Kurl are two opposites that eventually attract when they are assigned to be pen pals. A fan of poet Walt Whitman, Jo writes about the bullying he experiences daily; Kurl responds with pent-up frustration and blames his pen pal for being an easy mark.

Over a year, these two draw closer, eventually engaging in a secret romance that tugs at the heart with its exploration of sex and self-discovery. Henstra’s moving depiction of male vulnerability stays with the reader long after the last page is turned.


Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson

Shout cover Anderson’s writing has always been soul-baring, striking deep at readers’ core; no matter your background or experiences, there is always something in her prose that resonates. Related in three parts, in spare free verse, Anderson begins with the generational impact of trauma as she details the profound struggles experienced by her father, a World War II veteran. She reveals her own rape at 13 by a boy she liked, and the ensuing pain and intense recovery.

Her memoir is alternately tragic and uplifting, and by Part 3, she shares how her privilege as an author allowed her to hear the raw stories of young boys and girls who overcame sexual abuse. Anderson disavows the censorship that curtailed some of her speaking engagements, and proposes a powerful call to action in the #MeToo era, noting that real change happens when we collectively rise against the systemic oppression and control of women’s bodies.


See also:

New Year, Past Winners | Pondering Printz

Lalitha Nataraj (she/her) is an academic librarian at a public university in Southern California. Prior to her current role, she was a children's and teen librarian for several years and has served on numerous ALA youth award and selection committees, including the Amelia Bloomer Project, the 2016 Michael L. Printz Award, and the 2019 John Newbery Award.

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Maggie Bokelman

Great list! Another one to add that JUST came out: Nikki Grimes' verse memoir, Ordinary Hazards. Her story is both heartrending and uplifting, and the poetry is brilliant. I think it is Grimes' best work, and that is saying a lot, considering the awards she has already won (including ALA's Children's Literature Legacy Award).

Posted : Oct 16, 2019 10:51

Lalitha Nataraj

I agree - Grimes's Ordinary Hazard is AMAZING. :)

Posted : Nov 18, 2019 09:29

Emily Schneider

Every book here is certainly worthy of attention. It always strikes me how absent are books with Jewish themes from this type of list; apparently, they are not considered to be underrepresented.

Posted : Oct 16, 2019 02:20

Lalitha Nataraj

Thank you for your comment - my list of titles is very small and I accept that there are some books that weren't included (see Maggie's comment). But that doesn't make them any less worthy of representation.

Posted : Nov 18, 2019 09:34



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