Speech in Acceptance of the
L. Printz Award 2003
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.
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?'
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.
from the encouragement of the award, however, it is also a special
pleasure and a particular satisfaction for reasons I'd like
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.'
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.