Editorial: Honoring Mike

“Why is there no YA equivalent to the Newbery Medal?” When I asked that question fifteen years ago (School Library Journal, December 1983), it was hardly its first hearing. As far back as 1962, the Young Adult Services Division (now the Young Adult Library Services Association) of ALA had proposed an award for the book for young adults that “most provocatively stretches the imagination, demands an exciting orientation to new hypotheses, new ideas, new dimensions.”

This proposal came to naught, as did similar proposals considered by YASD in 1968 and 1976, but they’ve finally come through. At ALA’s Midwinter conference in 2000, YALSA will announce the first winner of an award for the “best young adult book of the year, based solely on literary merit.” While this criterion lacks the visionary pizzazz of the 1963 proposal and seems interestingly defensive, the inception of the award is surely welcome. It, like the literature it signals, has been a long time coming.

First, though, YALSA has some housekeeping to do. In 1995, the YALSA Board of Directors accepted in principle a proposal from “junior novel” pioneer Amelia Elizabeth Walden to fund a YA literature award (upon the execution of her will). Walden has attached some considerable strings to her gift, including criteria that would count popularity equally with literary quality and that would demand that any winning book, fiction preferred, provide a “positive approach to life.” (In Miss Walden’s still-fine basketball novels, the heroine wins her man and the state championship.) While YALSA should never have accepted this complicated albeit generous offer in the first place, it now must refuse it. You can’t have the same organization giving one annual prize for “the best book” and another for “the best book, with a positive approach to life, that kids appreciate.” It’s hard to know which winner would feel more cheated.

Let’s hope, too, that YALSA will rethink a considerable restriction on what is eligible for the award. Although laudably open as to genre (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or anthology) and origin (books previously published in another country will be eligible), the rules contain a walloping exclusion: “to be eligible, a title must be designated by its publisher as being either a young adult book or one published for the age range that YALSA defines as ‘young adult,’ i.e., 12–18.” What this means is that adult books cannot be considered. Since when do librarians, YA or otherwise, depend on publishers to determine which books are for whom? Even the rules for the Newbery Medal — awarded to a book for readers fourteen or younger — specifically allow for the consideration of books published as adult titles.

This restriction to the award denies the selection committee the use of skills honed through both professional study and work with young readers. It also contains a double irony. First, library work with young adults has always involved a blending of resources aimed at children, teens, and adults, and young adult literature is as much Catcher in the Rye as Chocolate War, as much House on Mango Street as House of Stairs. A prize that rewards only a part of the equation doesn’t add up and in fact begs two questions: are we protecting a certain class of books from what may be perceived to be stronger competition? Or are we protecting a certain kind of publishing — juvenile, primarily — from encroachment on its turf?

The second irony involves the name of the award. Although the formal details have not as yet been worked out, the award’s name will in some way honor the memory of the late Mike Printz, Topeka West High School librarian and winner of the 1993 Grolier Foundation Award for outstanding library work with children and young people. There could be no more fitting tribute to the man than a new prestigious prize for young adult literature. But Mike, whom I met when we were both members of YALSA’s Best Books for Young Adults committee, spoke eloquently for the whole compass of books for young adults. This award should do the same.
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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