Newport Branch’s Valerie Davis talks Chairing the Printz Award
Browse the Young Adult section and you may notice the glimmer of the Printz Award. Newport Branch Manager Valerie Davis has a hand in that.
The Michael L. Printz Award is given to books that exemplify literary excellence within young adult literature. Administered by YALSA, or the Young Adult Library Services Association, Davis has been involved in various committees and processes with the organization for over a decade. Last year, she chaired the Printz Award committee.
“When I started in YALSA a decade plus ago, the majority of the people that were on it tended to be coastal,” says Davis. “I never saw the representation of libraries that were anywhere in the Midwest with the exception of Chicago. It’s not that those are bad places, I just never saw what my teenagers needed.
“A lot of the books that made awards and made lists showed more of New York and everything else and so I wanted to make sure that the teens here—what they liked, what they saw and what they were going through—were represented.”
This year’s Printz winner was All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir with honorary books being Icebreaker by A.L. Graziadei; When the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha Lamb; Scout’s Honor by Lily Anderson; and Queer Ducks by Eliot Schrefer.
As chair of the committee, Davis says they told the 2023 honorees via Zoom that they were being recognized. Davis recalls that the author of Scout’s Honor cried; Anderson told the committee that she hoped this award would mean Barnes & Noble would carry her book. Spoiler alert: Now they do! (And so does the library.)
“It was a great honor,” Davis says of being the one to inform the authors. “I would say it makes the work worthwhile, but with or without that, the work is worthwhile. [Telling the authors] is just the cherry on things.”
None of the authors knew what they were getting on the Zoom call for, only their publishers. So the announcements came as a surprise.
“[Sabaa Tahir] gets on the screen and you could see her looking at faces and not knowing anyone,” says Davis with a laugh. “You could see the calculation. And I said, ‘Good afternoon! How are you?’ And she goes, ‘I’m fine… I think.’”
The intent of the call cleared up quickly. When the news broke to Tahir that All My Rage won, Davis says that Tahir momentarily froze before the tears came.
“[Tahir] talked about the fact that, with everything that libraries and librarians are going through, that they were still willing to look at her book said something,” recalls Davis, adding that the author reminisced on libraries being a safe haven for her as a young person.
While the COVID-19 pandemic made things go virtual, Davis has previously traveled to YALSA conferences throughout the United States, where she’s gotten to meet authors like Goosebumps legend R.L. Stine and Carnegie Medal-winner Ruta Sepetys.
Being a part of a committee is a volunteer gig, so those involved are there for passion’s sake. When facilitating conversations as chair, Davis is cognizant of the fact that everyone feels strongly about different books and hail from communities across the United States.
“You’re doing your best to see [the book] from how a teenager would see it and how a teenager needs to process it,” says Davis. “But, as an adult, you’re also trying to keep things that are problematic and could be detrimental from appearing in it.”
How many books did Davis read in preparation for 2023’s Printz? Davis estimates around 296 titles, with her all-time high being 382 books, a feat secured when she served on the Best Fiction for Young Adults committee.
“By the end of it, you remember the really good and the really bad,” says Davis. “And if it falls in the middle, it becomes kind of hazy.”
Printz highlights the best-written Young Adult novel so, in deciding the winner and honorees, a few things were kept in mind: it must have well-written characters, a fleshed-out plot and a solid point of view. Davis also asked her group to read books in their favorite genre and, if one was nominated from those, the whole committee had to read it.
“That brought a really good diversity to the list so that it covered more than realistic fiction,” says Davis. In fact, this year marks the first time that non-narrative non-fiction was honored: Queer Ducks (and Other Animals): The Natural World of Animal Sexuality by Eliot Schrefer.
This coming year, Davis will take the reigns again, this time as the Margaret A. Edwards Award committee chair, which honors an author, as well as a specific body of work, for their lasting contribution to young adult literature. Now Newport Branch Manager, Davis previously served as the branch’s adult/teen librarian for nearly two decades.
“It kind of became a thing of, everybody as a teen doesn’t feel seen,” says Davis of ultimately deciding to be a teen librarian. “I wanted to do everything I could to make them feel seen. It’s kept evolving from there.”