The Michael L. Printz Award

When I was five years old, my mother asked me what I’d like to be when I grew up. “Queen of England,” I answered. After all, her name was Elizabeth. My name was Elizabeth. LOVED her wardrobe. She had me at tiara.
“You can’t be Queen of England,” Mom said. “You have to be born into that.”

I was disappointed to say the least.

When I was seven or eight, I announced that I wanted to be a champion figure skater. My mother looked up from her cross-stitch with her patented I Fear There Is Something Not Right About You expression. “You’ve never even had on a pair of skates!”
“I could learn.”
“We live in South Texas. There is no ice. You have to live somewhere cold to ice skate.”
I began to blubber. “Where is it cold?”
She went back to her cross-stitch. “Minnesota.”
“Then I’m running away to Minnesota!” I cried and ran upstairs. P.S. I did not learn to skate. Nor did I move to Minnesota.

Flash forward: I am sixteen. I have a hairbrush I sing into. I want to be David Bowie, but David Bowie is already David Bowie. He got there first, and that is that.

We all have them—the pie-in-the-sky dreams. The end-of-Purple Rain moment when everyone realizes that Prince is the baddest bad-ass in town. Rocky Balboa yelling, “Adrian!” We have them but we don’t think anything will come of them. They are comfort food for the mind. But this week, I had a pie-in-the-sky experience that felt better than being Queen of England, better than skating for Olympic gold, better even than being David Bowie, though no offense to Mr. Bowie who, I’m sure, really likes being himself.

This week, GOING BOVINE was awarded the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in YA Literature.
Whoa. Just…whoa.

Some people say that the Caldecott, Newbery, and Printz Awards are like the Oscars of children’s and teen literature. I like to think that the Oscars are like the Caldecott, Newbery, and Printz of movie making, only without those annoying musical numbers. (Although, there is an awards ceremony coming up in June and I’m not saying, I’m just saying…) I think it is safe to say that my feet have not yet touched ground, and the grin I’m sporting is starting to hurt my face.

Everybody talks about where they were when they got “the call.” I never thought I would be telling this story. So pardon me, but HOLY SHIT! I AM TELLING THIS STORY! PEOPLE, I GOT A PRINTZ! I FEEL NICE—LIKE SUGAR AND SPICE! (This calls out for a James Brown moment.)

So. Go back with me to last weekend. (Supplying flashback music: doodle-doodle-doodle-doodle-do.) Aaaand we’re here. The husband had gone up to Boston for ALA Midwinter Conference to meet with clients and pick up MORE books. My BFF Eleanor and my godson Nick had come in from Boston in sort of a Freaky Friday move, and the eating of snacks and seeing of sights and giggling like fiends had commenced. On Saturday, Eleanor and I were hellbent on dragging the boys away from the Playstation and over to the Brooklyn Museum to see the “Who Shot Rock N Roll” exhibit. As it was a Saturday afternoon, the museum was completely packed. We could barely move. The heater had been cranked up to eleven. The boys complained mightily. And that’s where I was, sandwiched between a photo of The Velvet Underground and about 4,000 Brooklynites, with a sheen of overcranked heater sweat on my brow, when I got the most exciting phone call of my life.

Now, I am notorious for not picking up my cell phone. This has been remarked upon by everyone from my long-suffering husband to my also long-suffering publicist to my dearest (and once more long-suffering) friends. I have a pal who asked me, quite sincerely, why I owned a cell phone that I never pick up. So when my phone rang, I was not quite sure what to do. I looked at it. It was not a number I recognized. My number happens to be one number off from a doctor’s office, and I frequently get wrong numbers and people who are annoyed that I will not give them an appointment with the doctor or—this was my fave—come pick up a patient who is ready to be transferred. I figured this was such a call. Instead, I answered and heard a whisky-warm, happy voice: “Libba? This is Cheryl Karp Ward with the Printz Committee.”

And that was when Time slowed.

The hipsters in their fedoras stopped mid-dismissive shrug. The Swedish tourists were frozen in place with their Fodor’s in hand. The crowd noise became a buzz-hum. My blood thumped against my temples in a Ska rhythm.
“Hi Cheryl,” I said, possibly manically. Okay, very manically. More like just-this-side-of-needing-to-be-medicated. The Boy tugged on my arm in impatience. I made a series of rapid gestures that roughly translated to “I will buy you a year’s worth of WOW privileges plus a pony if you will just leave me alone right this minute.”
“You’re a hard woman to reach,” Cheryl said, laughing.
I babbled. I threw words out at an astonishing rate and none of them made sense. The straight-up crazies had taken over my brain.
“I’m going to put you on speaker phone,” Cheryl said, because she is brave and had taken my crazy in stride.
“We want to tell you that Going Bovine has won the Michael L. Printz Award.”

I believe my incredibly mature and dignified response was, “Shut. UP!”

I wanted to kiss the Swedish tourists next to me! I wanted to jump into that picture with Jimi Hendrix and be bold as love! I wanted to sing next to the David Bowie video installation! (After all, I’d had plenty of practice with my hairbrush.) I wanted to…remain upright. Because, OMG, I suddenly realized that I was faint. Shaking knees and tunnel vision. Seriously. I negotiated myself onto the edge of a bench and bent forward to breathe. The Boy, who had never heard me utter “Oh my God!” so many times and with such fervor, looked alarmed. “What?” he mouthed. “What is it? What’s wrong? Can I go to the gift shop?”
“I’m fine,” I mouthed. “Gift shop, good. Buy Bono.”
The world began to swirl back into real-time motion. The Printz Committee (have I mentioned that I love them?) congratulated me and cheered, and I was suddenly afraid that I might burst into tears in the middle of the Brooklyn Museum because I was so surprised and overwhelmed and happy and I wanted to share that feeling with every human being on the planet. (But I had to wait until after Monday’s announcements.)
And then I waited for someone to say, “Psych!” Because that’s how my mind works. They assured me they would not say “Psych.” After more incoherent babbling expressing my forever gratitude, we hung up.

Still in disbelief, I stared at a picture of The Ramones. When I first moved to New York with dreams of being a writer, I used to see Joey Ramone walking around the East Village. I had concocted a whole fantasy in which he was sort of my secret saint, a good luck charm. Anytime I saw him, I’d assume it was going to be a good day. It was one of those beliefs I made up to keep myself going while I worked in publishing for $16,000 a year and had to cover the hole in the bottom of my shoe with duct tape because I couldn’t afford new shoes (no joke) and encountered rejection after rejection for my writing. Sometimes the rejections were form rejections, the we-won’t-even-consider-you kiss-offs. Sometimes they were brutal and snide and damaging, and then I would wish for the dismissive ones. On more than one occasion, I was told that my work was “weird” and “too much.” And now, many years later, I’d just gotten a phone call about possibly the weirdest, too much-iest thing I’d ever written, a book straight from my soul with detours through my heart and head, all my armor left on the floor, and a group of people I respect so much called and said, “Hey, you know your super weird book? Well, thank you for that.” The photo of the Ramones got fuzzier and fuzzier because the tears had come. Tears of joy. Gratitude. Validation.
And I thought, It’s a good day, Joey. A really good day.
I am happy to share the good day with all of you.

The one person I was allowed to tell was Barry. I called him and my voice was shaking and I said a lot more “Oh my God’s” and “Holy” along with the liberal use of my favorite swear word. We hugged over the phone and I got teary again and said, “They weren’t kidding, right? They know there’s a talking yard gnome in this book, right” and he said, “No,” and then, “Yes.” Then I felt sorry for poor Barry who was going to have to keep his Lady Gaga Ma-Ma-Ma-Ma-My Poker Face all weekend. I now know that you do not want to play poker with my husband because he will WIN. Dude is stone cold.

Since I am crush-groovin’ on all the members of the Printz Committee, let me introduce you so you can crush on them, too. They are:
Chair Cheryl Karp Ward, Broad Brook CT; Priscille Dando, Robert E. Lee High School, Fairfax County Public Schools, Va.; Sally Leahey, McArthur Public Library, Biddeford, Maine; Angela Leeper, University of Richmond, Va.; Teri Lesesne, Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas; H. Jack Martin, New York Public Library; Connie Mitchell, Indianapolis; Ann Theis, Chesterfield (Va.) County Library; Snow Wildsmith, Mooresville, N.C.; John Sexton, administrative assistant, Westchester Library System, Tarrytown, N.Y.; and Gillian Engberg, Booklist consultant, Chicago.
When I see them, I am going to hug them so hard they will call security.

I also want to shout out to all the Printz Honor books:
Punkzilla by Adam Rapp http://newyork.timeout.com/articles/40th-anniversary/60791/adam-rapp-interview-with-time-out-new-york

Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey http://www.rickyancey.com/

Tales of the Madman Underground: An Historical Romance, 1973, by John Barnes. http://us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780670060818,00.html

Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith, by Deborah Heiligman. http://www.deborahheiligman.com/
Please go to their websites and say congratulations and then read their books!

And a generous round of applause to Newbery winner, Rebecca Stead, for the extraordinary WHEN YOU REACH ME, and to the esteemed Jerry Pinkney for the gorgeous THE LION AND THE MOUSE. Here’s a link to a round-up of all the awards: http://www.ala.org/ala/newspresscenter/news/pressreleases2010/january2010/ymawrap2010.cfm

And last, but not least—I woke today to a celebratory video from the wonderful SHEBAMS. Thank you, SHEBAMS. I am not worthy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G97q4bOWLEw

All I can say is, Wow. The same word backward and forward. Here’s to sandcastles and ninjas. Calabi Yau!

One thought on “The Michael L. Printz Award

  1. You, the Printzer Award, and “Going Bovine” are all new to me. I love the spirit in your essay, of course it’s all in your use of words and language reminds me of the first novel I read by Barbara Kingsolver, though your styles are different. I’ll find a copy of your book, bet I’ll enjoy it and pass it on.
    I’m always looking for honest, boldly and humbly written books for YA, aka teenagers, right? Forty yrs ago I taught “Reading” (not “English”) to Middle School kids. One book we read was “Man Friday”, adapted from the play by Adrian Mitchell.
    I’m gonna read your essay again. I learned about your world and was happily entertained. Your Boy and husband are so lucky to be loved by you. And congrats on the award!

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