When this year's Printz award winner, In Darkness by Nick Lake, was announced, a flurry of e-mails came through the Young Adult Library Services Association listserv. Most came down on one side or the other of a divide over whether it is right that the Printz award explicitly excludes in its criteria any consideration of the books' popularity with teens. For any unfamiliar with it, the Michael L. Printz award is the big award for teen literature - the older sibling of the Newbery. The question now is whether it is a cool older sibling that makes you eager to reach high school because you're sure it's going to be just like on Buffy and you and all your friends will be attractive and have fun all the time and never actually seem to go to class, or a really smart but kind of socially awkward older sibling who can be super pretentious sometimes and also makes people uncomfortable by talking about all the suffering going on in developing nations and then glaring around accusingly. The corollary is, which of these siblings is really a better one to have?
I admit, I see both sides of this. We had a lot of people saying, "The Printz needs to focus only on literary quality, because we have to have something to distinguish teen books of high literary quality and it helps them get noticed and sell well and also brings prestige to YA lit as a whole." We also had a lot of people saying, "I cannot get teens to pick up the Printz winners, but I'm still expected to buy them with my limited budget and store them with my limited space."
(Then we had one guy who freaked out with plenty of colorful language about how anyone dared to criticize the decision of the hard-working Printz committee, and then an avalanche of people decrying his lack of professionalism on this professional listserv. I bet you thought librarians were quiet!)
Anyway, to the latter of the two main opinions, I would add, "And it might make teens feel like the Printz winners are really not chosen for them." When I was a kid, I would basically read anything with words on it that held still long enough, but I learned quickly to avoid the shiny round Newbery sticker. My associations with it were exactly my associations with books assigned by my teachers: adults like this and think you'd better read it, but they know they have to do something to make you, or else you never would because it's no fun at all. I had vague ideas that adults judged the quality of a book by how many characters died in it, or how many dragons and mysteries and smooches and other intriguing things were NOT in it.*
And if Teenaged Nic looked at the Printz winners, I suspect she'd feel much the same. I did enjoy Ship Breaker (a previous winner), but I looked at In Darkness - because, as a teen services librarian, I'm now ordering a copy for our collection - and thought sadly that it sounded like a total depressing chore with absolutely minimal dragons, smooches, etc.
That said, I do see the value of having an award based just on literary quality. I think it's just a matter of really considering who the award is for. Is it for teens who enjoy really good writing? Is it to tell teens what they "ought" to read? Is it for adults looking to choose books for teens (teachers, parents, etc.)? Or is it really just the favorite among, or most impressive to, the (all adult) judges?
I guess what I wonder is, if popularity with teens is not included as a criteria, is any criteria considered that reflects the book being a good one for teens? (No such thing appears in the official posted criteria.) One of the YALSA listserv contributors made an interesting suggestion: due to the surging popularity of the YA category of books, it may be that publishers are putting out books as YA that would really be more appropriately classed as adult but, for example, have teen protagonists. These books, really meant for adults, might appeal very much to the adult judges who allocate the Printz awards.
*I still think some people judge books this way.