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

The former “Heavy Medal” blogger makes a case for Neal Shusterman’s sequel and points to a strong crop of middle grade titles that might have a chance at the medal.

The best Printz book of the year is an easy call for me—Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman. Picking up all the threads from its predecessor, the Printz Honor–winning Scythe, Shusterman delivers another compulsively readable story with exceptionally strong literary elements. Shusterman earns bonus points for degree of difficulty here because middle books often feel like bridges between the first and third volumes rather than stories in their own right. That should hopefully mitigate any series-book prejudice, nudging Thunderhead ahead of a very competitive fantasy field that includes Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, Dread Nation by Justina Ireland, The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, and Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo is another easy prediction. Already one of the most decorated books of the year, it was shortlisted for the Kirkus Prize and won the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Fiction and Poetry and the National Book Award in the Young People’s Literature category. While Acevedo’s verse novel is unquestionably the best poetry book of the year, it’s also easily one of the stronger contemporary realistic novels.

Dream Country by Shannon Gibney, on the other hand, doesn’t have much Printz buzz despite fabulous reviews. It’s the story of one family across five generations and two countries: the United States and Liberia. This book is epic in every sense of the word, from the numerous characters and various settings to a deep exploration of how slavery and racism resonate through the history of two continents.

It’s been a very good year for comics, and the easiest book to build consensus around may well be Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka. As a subgenre, graphic memoirs have always fared well in terms of acclaim and awards; look no further than Maus, Blankets, Persepolis, and March. Krosoczka’s affecting story of being raised by his grandparents is effectively rendered through a somber, restrained palette and sketchy lines. Truth be told, however, there are a number of comics I can get behind this year. The following have small flaws and idiosyncratic appeal, but they would be each be pleasant surprises: Check Please! by Ngozi Ukazu; Grand Theft Horse by G. Neri, illustrated by Corban Wilkin; Lost Soul, Be at Peace by Maggie Thrash; On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden, Photographic by Isabel Quintero, illustrated by Zeke Peña; and The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang. It’s also worth noting that some of the best teen LGBTQ books of the year are listed here.

The Printz hasn’t been kind to research nonfiction over the years: John Lennon, Charles and Emma, and Vincent and Theo are the lone selections from 91 total Printz books, a fact that says more about the collective literary taste of the committees than the quality of books in the genre. The best bets to buck this trend are Boots on the Ground by Elizabeth Partridge and Attucks! by Phillip Hoose. The former is an overview of the Vietnam War, featuring an impeccable balance between the personal and political—with Partridge’s unparalleled eye for selecting photographs that complement and extend her textual narrative. The latter is the story of Oscar Robertson, his championship high school team, and how they changed the racial landscape of the basketball-crazed Hoosier state. Hoose mines this historical story for its inherent drama and suspense, even as the intersection of sports and social justice continues to make headlines today.

The Printz also hasn’t been kind to books that appeal more exclusively to a middle school audience: Skellig, The House of the Scorpion, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, and Navigating Early are the sole middle school titles to have been honored. But the stark reality is that the overwhelming strength of this publishing year is at the younger end of the Printz range. It remains to be seen whether the committee will embrace some of these younger books (as the National Book Award judges did) or whether their picks will be more idiosyncratic but with greater high school appeal. If Front Desk by Kelly Yang, The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis, Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina, The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson, and Sweep by Jonathan Auxier all seem too young for the Printz, it’s not because they are ineligible under the rules but because previous committees have eschewed their ilk so frequently that they seem ineligible. For me, however, the cream of this middle school crop is The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin. This masterly political satire in the form of a fantasy novel feels more relevant to our current political strife, two years into the Trump administration, than any book published this year.

Jonathan Hunt is lead coordinator of library media services at the San Diego County Office of Education and frequently judges literary prizes, such as the Newbery Medal, the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, and the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards.

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