Graphic Novel Wins Best Book Award For Teens

Feb 2, 2017

A graphic novel featuring U.S. Rep. John Lewis became the first non-fiction work to receive The Michael L. Printz award.

The award recognizes the best young adult book of the year, plus up to four "Honor Books" or honorable mentions.

March: Book Three is the final piece of a trilogy that tells the history of the civil rights movement as experienced by Rep. Lewis. It was co-written with Andrew Aydin, and illustrated by Nate Powell.

From 1963-66, Lewis chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) which led marches, sit-ins and other protests against racism, discrimination and police brutality.

"Congressman Lewis was at the front lines," says Melanie Koss, chairwoman of this year's Printz awards. Koss is also a Professor of Literacy Education at Northern Illinois University.

"He had his skull cracked open three times," Koss says. "During the march in Selma (Alabama), he actually was in the hospital, got up in the morning, drove to the march, protested, and had to go back to the hospital."

Koss says she and her nine-person committee judge a book on merits such as plot, character development and theme, but she acknowledges they don't read books in a bubble.

"What's going on right now in our society and our country makes this book even more relevant," she says, "with Black Lives Matter movement, and other issues coming to the forefront."

To earn the Printz, a book that's part of a series must also work as a stand-alone story. "And this one really does," Koss says. "The way the text and black-and-white illustrations play together, the close-ups and perspective -- it really gives you a sense of being there in the time and place with John Lewis."

Koss says her committee also chose four "Honor Books," including Asking For It, a novel by Louise O'Neill.

The story is about a young woman named Emma Donovan who wakes up one morning on the front porch of her home, unable to remember what happened during a party the night before.

Days later at school she finds pictures of various men having sex with her while she's unconscious.

"The author says she was inspired by the Steubenville rape case," Koss says.

That 2012 case involved an Ohio high school girl who was sexually assaulted while unconscious from drugs and alcohol.

Koss notes the fictional Emma is not a likeable character and behaves in ways that prompt some to question, "Was she asking for it?"

As in the Ohio case, the offending boys were popular. "And so the town sided with the boys," Koss says. "'Boys will be boys, don't ruin their future'. And Emma has to decide whether to prosecute or go on with life and brush it under the rug."

Koss calls O'Neill's writing "very powerful," and praised her use of time and setting.

Another "Honor Book" is The Passion of Dolssa, a novel about a young woman fleeing a medieval friar who wants to burn her as a heretic.

"This one's a fascinating book," Koss says, "and one that requires multiple reads to unpack all the amazingness that's in there."

This is followed by Scythe, Neal Shusterman's dystopian novel that Koss describes as "frighteningly parallel to some of the things that are happening today."

The final book on the list is The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon. This is a love story between an undocumented Jamaican girl, whose family is about to be deported, and a Korean American boy who's the son of immigrants.

"You need to suspend disbelief a little bit," Koss says, "but it is a romance and their story takes place in one day."

Koss says the Printz award will be presented this summer at the American Library Association's annual conference. But, in an unusual occurrence, Koss got to tell the winner in person.

This year's committee met at a conference in Atlanta, Koss explains, where they planned to call the winner and "Honor Books" authors to inform them of the news.

"But it just so happens that Congressman Lewis was in Atlanta," Koss says. "That's where he lives and where he led the women's march the day before."

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, right, and Melanie Koss.

Koss contacted Lewis's publicist, who arranged for a meeting. Then she and the other committee members met Lewis and personally told him that March: Book Three won a Printz.

"Getting to meet Congressman Lewis, and thanking him for everything he has done, was very unique and special," Koss says. "It was amazing to meet such an icon in person."