Terry Pratchett’s Nation is so exciting and funny that’s it’s almost too easy to forget the tragedy at its center. Young Mau is paddling back to his tiny island nation after spending a month alone as part of his manhood ritual. When he gets there he finds that everyone has been wiped out by a massive tidal wave. Yes, the meat of the book is Mau’s fumbling relationship with Daphne, the English girl who washes ashore, but it’s the story’s opening catastrophe that gives their world-building its urgency.
Pratchett’s acceptance speech at the 2009 Michael L. Printz Awards (administered by ALA’s Young Adult Library Services Association and sponsored by Booklist) captured a similar swirl of emotions. His speech was prerecorded and projected on video, but that hardly dampened the impact. Mostly, Pratchett was funny: he kicks off by saluting his “fellow librarians” and mentioning how he was able to score 156 “library tickets” to check out books as a child (154 more than was allowed). And who else would ever interrupt his own speech to gesture at the steaming vat behind him and say, “Oh yes – I’m making a sword. I got knighted a few months ago by the Queen.” Future Printz winners, have fun topping that.
Seeing Pratchett in his natural habitat – rumpled, dirty, standing amidst long grass and clutching work gloves – is a delight. And hearing the story of Nation‘s genesis and research is fascinating. “I lived on that damn island,” Pratchett says, and the tone of his mutter makes you believe it.
Near the end of the speech, Pratchett expresses desire to congratulate his fellow winners by name, but confesses that he “has a kind of Alzheimer’s” and can’t remember their names. It’s a charming, even humorous moment, but like Mau’s vanquished nation it reminds you of the frail humanity at the center of any great adventure.
[The Printz Award speeches appear on Booklist Online with the permission of YALSA.]