Sarah Couri and Karyn Silverman Kick Off Pondering Printz

The former “Someday My Printz Will Come” bloggers Sarah Couri and Karyn Silverman present a look at the history of the Printz award and offer their first round of possible contenders.

The former “Someday My Printz Will Come” bloggers Sarah Couri and Karyn Silverman present a look at the history of the Printz award and offer their first round of possible contenders in this first installment of our brand-new award season column Pondering Printz. Every month leading up to the Youth Media Awards at the American Library Association's Midwinter Meeting, a new contributor will add to the conversation with their Printz picks.

No longer the new kid on the block

With the announcements of the 2019 winners on January 28, the Printz (officially the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, administered by the Young Adult Services Library Association) will turn 19. That means for readers aged 12–18, the intended audience for the winner and honor books, there has never been a time this award didn’t exist. The Printz is no longer the scrappy new kid on the block, and while the criteria are as loose and open as ever, the body of work speaks for itself. Looking at the books recognized, we can see that the award has, more than any single genre or style, recognized the fresh, the new, the books that stand out from the pack.

Of course, as is the case for any award, not every book honored stands the test of time, but many titles recognized 10, 15, or even 19 years ago still grab new readers each year. Monster by Walter Dean Myers and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, both recognized in the inaugural year (2000), still feel fresh and unlike anything else, even as their topics remain relevant in the world and in literature. In fact, that first lineup provided a template to work with that has stayed true in the years since: books that speak to the world around us, center the teen experience, and tweak or refresh what may have seemed like already-established genres, formats, or perspectives. This is evident in the winners, and even more so when the winners and honor books are considered all together. When we look at the slate as a whole, we see what can be accomplished in the robust realm of YA literature. Honor books may be more polarizing than winners—often an honor book is the one that didn’t quite have the consensus needed for the win—but sometimes the most interesting picks are the ones that push back and change the paradigms of what we consider YA. Margo Lanagan’s Black Juice (2006), Marilyn Nelson’s A Wreath for Emmett Till (2006), and Libba Bray’s Going Bovine (2010) fall outside expectations and paved the way for an ever-expanding definition of YA lit.

Possible 2019 Contenders

So in that context, let’s talk about 2019 award possibilities (which means books published in 2018). We have been playing the speculation game for a while now, so we know how absurd September speculation is: October is one of the biggest publishing seasons, so many heavy hitters haven’t been released yet. The National Book Awards for Young People’s Literature just came out; the year-end lists, often a good place to see early consensus in the field, won’t start trickling out for a few more weeks, and we’re just starting to see the shape of the year. And—full disclosure—we’re still reading books that are already out and have some traction. So to be clear, these are not predictions. They aren’t even the books we’d 100 percent pull for—because we might read something better next week! But right now, based on what we’ve read, here’s what feels like it has that perfect balance of literary merit and that know-it-when-you-read-it quality of fresh tingly intellectual stimulation.

When a slam poet writes about an aspiring slam poet—in poetry—you get The Poet X (HarperCollins) by Elizabeth Acevedo, already nominated for the National Book Award. Acevedo’s writing has a rhythm that carries readers through the pages, while the story showcases important themes of identity, race, gender, and family. It’s real and raw, while also being poised and assured, and—although appeal doesn’t matter according to the criteria—this, like last year’s The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, is a book that will speak to teen readers both as mirror and as window, a balancing act that always deserves a shout-out.

Speaking of debuts that might just have what it takes to sweep YALSA’s William C. Morris YA Debut Award and the Printz, Emily X.R. Pan’s The Astonishing Color of After (Little, Brown) is astonishingly beautiful. This work of Magic realism, or maybe just magic, this is the most potent exploration of grief I’ve seen in YA literature in a long time. Leigh (who is Taiwanese and white) doesn’t speak Chinese and her grandparents don’t speak English, but they are united by grief for Leigh’s dead mother. The nuanced exploration of cultural gaps across transnational families is one of those achingly specific scenarios that also speaks to a wide breadth of experience. The beautiful writing, the haunting sense of place: this incandescent novel distinguishes itself from the rest.

Lots of people are pushing Courtney Summers’s Sadie (Wednesday Bks.) as her breakout book, and they might be right. Novels about the ways girls are neglected, forgotten, abused, and ignored have become common in recent years, but this one plays with well-known tropes and mixes in a Serial-style podcast reporter (who is called on his cis white privilege while also being an ally). The result is a propulsive and metatextual book about how adolescent girls are commodified that is a commodity itself. It's a story about a girl lost because no one bothered to see, in which readers becomes both the lost girl and the voyeuristic audience. The writing occasionally falters, but this is one of those amazing literary but high-concept feats that committees love to recognize.

Marisha Pessl’s Neverworld Wake (Delacorte) was a book we awaited for a long time—Pessl’s adult debut knocked our socks off but didn’t stick the landing. Also, it probably should have been a YA book. Pessl’s YA debut is about friendship and secrets. The writing is gorgeous, and while it is in some ways a smaller story than the others we’re championing so far, it was also the one we enjoyed the most. It’s a little brain melty, a new take on the purgatory concept that crops up every few years, and it’s the book we find we want to talk about the most, a characteristic that makes excellent fodder for the committee table.

Tomi Adeyemi’s debut Children of Blood and Bone (Holt) is impossible to ignore—maybe another Morris/Printz run-away, huh? With a movie deal in the works and a ton of buzz, this is a book we’re all talking about. The tight action, great use of flashbacks and backstories to flesh out characters, social commentary, and a smidge of romance will give the committee a lot to praise. The inclusion of Yoruba culture and language bring a needed fresh perspective to epic fantasy, resulting in a fast-paced, thoughtful read. There’s a lot of violence, and sometimes the writing goes a little over the top, but these could be construed as minor concerns. We could see a lot of support for this as a nomination.

In a totally different direction—and another title recognized by the National Book Award—we have Elizabeth Partridge’s Boots on the Ground (Viking). Examining the Vietnam War, she gives her writing focus and deep emotion by concentrating on six individuals’ stories to illuminate the larger historical forces. This perspective allows her to weave heady, complicated themes while still giving readers a sense of the vastness of history. The photographs she selected also have immediate, massive impact; they’re carefully chosen for maximum effect. Sometimes the larger historical narrative isn’t quite as striking; the balance of the research and narrative just slightly falters. But overall, Partridge keeps both elements (the personal and the political) well balanced, making for a deeply stirring read.

So that’s what we’re excited about—but the year is young, the reading list is long, and we are going to get to hear from a lot of people before we get to January!

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Find her on Twitter @scouri.
Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Senior Project Coordinator at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School. Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She also regularly reviews for Kirkus. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books or board games. Find her on Twitter and Goodreads @InfoWitch.
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