Check It Out: Showcasing excellence in young adult literature

If you haven't met before, I'd like to introduce you to the Michael L. Printz Award. For readers familiar with the Newberry Medal (for children's literature), the Printz Award is the equivalent in the teen category.

The Printz is awarded by the American Library Assn. (ALA) and administered by the Young Adult Library Services Assn. (YALSA). It honors the best book published in the previous year for young adults, "best" being defined by the committee solely in terms of literary merit.

The books honored with the Printz Award share high-quality craftsmanship and the kind of storytelling that keeps readers hooked. They are books that, frequently, challenge the reader's intellect while simultaneously entertaining. The 11 years of winning and honored titles are a great place to start, if you're curious about the best and most engaging books in the young adult category.

Following are four examples of winners and honorees. These and most Printz winners are available at the Newport Beach Public Library. Each location has a selection of young adult books and the staff to help you select what is best for you and/or your teen reader. Search the catalog at or visit our teens page at

"The First Part Last," by Angela Johnson (Simon & Schuster, 2003): Bobby, a contemporary teenager who was scared and nervous about becoming a father at 16, has fallen in love with his baby daughter, Feather. Contrary to expectations, Bobby refuses to give Feather up for adoption.

The story is told in short chapters alternating between the past and the present. In a book of only 131 pages, not a word is wasted. The reader experiences Bobby's attempts at being responsible as well as the loyalty and love he feels toward his family, his friends, the mother of his child, and, most especially, his little girl.

"American Born Chinese," by Gene Luen Yang (First Second, 2006): This is the first and, so far, only graphic novel to win the Printz Award. It tells three stories: that of Jin Wang, a son born in America to Chinese parents; the Monkey King, a mythological deity; and Danny, an American teenager with a very special cousin.

Each character feels he exists just outside of the dominant culture and must navigate society as well as his own self in order to find happiness. "American Born Chinese" is a perfect example of how a graphic novel should function. The stories are a seamless union of the visual and the written. It's funny, satirical, challenging, and thoughtful. It's also easy to read and its themes of identity and culture are clear yet complex.

"The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks," by E. Lockhart (Hyperion, 2008): In her sophomore year, Frankie transfers to the elite prep school her father attended and immediately sees its clubby dynamics. Frankie is both attracted by and scornful of this culture and the (mostly boys) who are part of it.

She's also a smart girl with a mischievous sense of humor. She's soon out-pranking the prankster set. Narrated in Frankie's unique voice, the tale of her escapades is filled with clever word-play and authentic conflict as this young woman learns to use her considerable intelligence not just for the good of humanity, but to discern who she wants to be.

"Charles & Emma, the Darwin's Leap of Faith," by Deborah Heiligman (Henry Holt, 2009): One of only a few nonfiction titles to be honored, "Charles & Emma" tells the story of a marriage potentially fraught with conflict.

Emma Wedgwood was a devout Christian. Charles loved Emma and wanted to marry her. But his observations of nature had caused him doubts about Christianity and its theory of Creation. Honestly discussing their concerns, the Darwins forged a strong union.

Heiligman's writing is succinct and uncomplicated, weaving the science of Darwin into the personal lives of the family. Heiligman paints vivid pictures of her subjects using their own words from letters, journals, and published works and she references all her sources. Once introduced to Charles and Emma, reading their story is both a compulsion and a pleasure.

CHECK IT OUT is written by the staff of the Newport Beach Public Library. All titles may be reserved from home or office computers by accessing the catalog at For more information on the Central Library or any of the branches, please contact the Newport Beach Public Library at (949) 717-3800, option 2.

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