Over on The Cockeyed Caravan, Matt Bird had an excellent series (which I hope he continues) called What Should’ve Won That Could’ve Won, in which he went through the winners of the first several Academy Award for Best Picture and discussed the movies that had a chance and decided what really should have won. I like this idea so much that I’m going to
steal borrow it for this website, except looking, of course, at YA books.
So for my inaugural piece, I’ll look at the very first Printz award in 2000:
The Winner: Monster by Walter Dean Myers
The Honor Books: Skellig by David Almond; Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson; and Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger
Other Books to Consider: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky; Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis; When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling
What Should Have Won: Speak
I admit that I haven’t read Hard Love or Zachary Beaver (the winner of that year’s National Book Award for Young People’s Literature), but this is really just a two way race between Speak and Monster. Both books were on the Printz list and the NBA list. Twelve years later, they were in the finals against each other at the 2012 ALA Pre-Conference discussion, which I discussed here. It is incredible that they both came out in that first year of the Printz, as they managed to set a pretty impossible gold standard for YA Literature right out of the gate.
And Monster is, obviously, a tremendous book and a worthy Printz winner. In fact, I might be willing to argue that it is the best book to have won the Printz Award. Myers’s trenchant examination of American legal system, especially as it functions with respect to poor, young, black, men is (unfortunately) seemingly timeless. And the way that he intersects the intricacies of legal guilt with the vagaries of moral guilt (while cleverly concealing from the reader key information about Steve’s actions) is nothing short of amazing. Add to that his formal innovation of having the text consist almost entirely of Steve’s screenplay of his life–a trick which offers an entirely new and interesting take on the unreliable narrator–and you have a really stunning book.
So why shouldn’t Monster have won? Well, mostly just because it happened to be released in the same year as probably the best YA book of all time. But I do have some slight criticisms of the novel as well. The screenplay style, which is so effective most of the time, does lead to a few pitfalls. There are two brief flashbacks to Steve’s film class which complement the action in the courtroom–these scenes work perfectly when considered as Myers’s comments on the drama, but when you take them (as the reader is supposed to) as being introduced by Steve himself, they become too cute by half. The screenplay technique also gives Myers just a little too much of an excuse to load the beginning of the novel with exposition. Still, these are very minor concerns, and there are very few YA books out there that are better than Monster.
But one of those is Speak. Speak actually shares many of Monster‘s strengths–a subtle look at a difficult social topic (in this case rape), an engaging but somewhat unreliable narrator, the decision to withhold crucial facts from the reader for a time, the contrast between the public and private selves of the protagonist, the theme of art as redemption, and probably more that I’ve missed. But in my view, Anderson handles these strengths even better than Myers, and adds a few.
I’ve said many times, that I think the novel’s greatest strength is Melinda’s voice, and I think it is much stronger than Steve’s–most importantly because of her biting humor, which helps to obscure how many pain she is in. In terms of the “art as redemption” theme, though Myers is more committed to his theme, by allowing Steve’s art to take center stage, I find Anderson’s use of the theme more convincing, for several reasons: 1) because of the flaws in the screenplay technique, described above, 2) because we are able to see Melinda’s growth as an artist and gradual commitment to it, as opposed to Steve’s seemingly already fully formed artistic ambitions, 3) for the much more fully explored relationship between Melinda and her art teacher–as opposed to the underdeveloped character of Steve’s film teacher.
And of course there is Anderson’s prose. Not to take anything away from Myers, but Anderson is the better stylist. From the well-known first paragraph (“It is my first morning of high school. I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomachache”) on, Anderson loads her text with sentences that are at once witty, well-formed, and freighted with meaning.
There is much more to be said about both of these novels, but I’ll leave it there for now. There are many many devoted fans of The Perks of Being a Wallflower–I wonder if anyone wants to make a case for it over Monster and Speak? Or should I have taken another look at the best book in the Hary Potter series? Or either of the highly touted books from that year that I’ve never read?