A Speech in Acceptance of the

Michael L. Printz Award 2003

presented at the

ALA Summer Conference

Toronto 2003

I revel in the exceptional honour of receiving the Michael L. Printz Award, and am grateful to the jury for their recognition. It comes at what is for me an interesting time in my career, as you can judge by the following email from a 15 year old reader.

'Mr Chambers. Our teacher made us read your book Postcards from No Man's Land. I now have to write about it. I was surprised to learn from your website that you are still alive. But I have also worked out that you are old enough to retire. Does this mean I will not have to read any more of your books?'

I took pleasure in telling this young correspondent that I will indeed be writing more books, but comforted him by adding that it takes me so long to produce a novel that by the time the next one appears he will be too old to be made to read it in school. I also told him about the Printz Award and said how much this encouraged me to go on writing.

Apart from the encouragement of the award, however, it is also a special pleasure and a particular satisfaction for reasons I'd like to explain.

There is one person and there are two institutions without which I would not have been able to write any of my books, least of all the one you are honouring today. What's more, such a person and similar institutions are essential, it seems to me, in the lives of all of us who become serious readers. I mean by 'serious readers', those of us who read not merely for pastime entertainment, and not only for information, but who read for its own sake, or, as Gustav Flaubert put it, those of us who read to live.

In my case, the essential person was called Jim Osborn. He was my English teacher during my last four years in high school. Until I met him, I was the kind of reader who wanted every book to please me because it was the kind I already knew I liked. Jim taught me that the best literature requires the reader to give him or herself up to it. He taught me how to become the reader the book wanted me to be. He taught me how to be the partner of the writer, doing the pleasurable work the writer had left me to do. And he taught me how to do that with the kind of thoughtful discrimination that was sympathetic without being uncritical, and which yielded the greatest enjoyment. Jim taught me how to live as a reader.

But of course, no reader can be a reader without books to read. And that's where the two essential institutions I have in mind come into play.

The first of these was the glory of a free public library service. I come from a poor family. Without the asset of a free public library I would never have had access to all of the books I knew I wanted and those Jim introduced me to. What's more, I would not have grown as a reader by the invaluable self-education of serendipity. It was while touring the shelves in my town's central library once a week during my teens that I stumbled across writers of whom I had never heard - writers with names like Balzac and Colette, Thomas Mann and Flaubert, Steinbeck and Turgenev, Viginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson, and many more.

Had my local library regarded itself as simply a warehouse of books that people already know they like - the books that are best-sellers and are often borrowed - such writers would not have been stocked. But in those days - the 1940s and 50s - the public library service in Britain regarded itself as a place where everyone could find the whole range of literature, not merely the popular and in-demand. I'm not sure we are so blessed these days, since the depredations of Philistine populism and crude market-accountancy have been applied to education and library provision. But, like it or not, it remains true that any democracy and its politicians can be judged by how vigorously supported and how well-funded is a free public library service. The fact is, if we want writers of many kinds, if we want to educate well, if we want a literature that is representative of all, is innovative and rich in nature, then we cannot do without the generous, cultural powerhouse of a comprehensive library service.

The second essential institution happened, in my youth, to be called Penguin Books. Every week I toured the shelves of my local public library, and every week I pored over the paperback bookshelves of my local bookshop. Like every serious reader, I wanted to own the books that mattered to me. I couldn't afford all of them - in fact I couldn't afford any of them - in hardback. Penguin Books were a godsend. They published almost everything I wanted at a price that allowed me to buy one or even two books a week with my meagre pocket-money. They were designed with a classic simplicity that was at the same time modern. I was proud to be seen reading them.

If we want a democracy that is also literary - a democracy that provides for serious readers from the least well-off homes - then we need inexpensive editions of all our literature, the rare and the difficult as well as the easy. And we need them to be published with as much care in design and typography and printing as the most expensive of books.

Now you can see why I am so pleased to be given the Michael L. Printz Award. I am receiving an award given under the aegis of a public library system, judged by librarians with a special interest in the young and named after a school librarian.

Michael Printz was a much-respected professional, who, like Jim Osborn, knew how to draw young people into literature. He could do this because he was a serious reader himself, knew literature as a whole, and the literature for young adults in particular, knew how to present books attractively, and how to make sympathetic critical discrimination a pleasure it itself.

The award that bears his name is given by the American Library Association's specialists in young adult literature. These are the inheritors of the librarians who, in my home town 50 years ago, maintained the service that nurtured me and provided the books my teacher Jim Osborn had opened up to me. Librarians deserve all the thanks, all the encouragement and all the support we can give them.

I know how hard and how rewarding the work of a school librarian is. I know because I was a school librarian myself for seven years during the 1960s. My commitment to this work is such that I am proud to tell you that a few days after I return home from this meeting I will be installed as President of the British School Library Association during our annual summer conference. I am therefore able to bring you the greetings of your colleagues in Britain.

Furthermore, Postcards from No Man's Land, the book you honour today, was published by Dutton, which is an imprint of Penguin Books. About this time next year, in June 2004, it will appear in paperback. Then, serious young readers who, like myself at their age, cannot afford hardbacks, will be able to buy it for themselves. That it will be published by Penguin Books adds to my pleasure in receiving this award.

So, you see, the award sums up my beginnings as a reader and a writer and honours not me but those people who made it possible for me to write any books at all. Among which is someone who adds another layer to the private satisfaction the award gives me. My wife, Nancy, was born and educated in the United States and is still a citizen of that country, even though she has lived in England since 1965. She began her career at the Horn Book. We married soon after she moved to England, and since 1970 she has published and edited Signal, her own magazine about children's literature. Without her aid and support, not to mention her editorial acumen, I would certainly not have produced the books which have brought me the Carnegie Medal, the Hans Christian Andersen and now the Michael L. Printz Awards. Nancy supported and encouraged me through all the years before anyone else thought my books worth much notice.

Finally, then, my thanks to the teachers who help us discover what we cannot discover by ourselves. My thanks to the librarians who preserve our literature, who enable readers to go beyond themselves, and who supply the needs of all our people, whether those be minorities or majorities. My thanks to the publishers who take the risk of publishing more than the narrow-minded confines of the instantly popular and the immediately profitable. And my special thanks to Nancy and those companions and editors like her who sustain authors during their unrecognised formative years.

And if I may, I'll end with some words sent to me by another young reader, this time one who was rather more approving than the young man I quoted earlier. 'I like your books,' she wrote, 'because each one is a little part of a long life.'

Thank you for honouring one of the little parts of what I hope will yet be a much longer life, even though I have reached the age when I am old enough to retire.

Aidan Chambers 2003.

 

 

 

Back to Top