What Should’ve Won: Printz 2000

Mom,

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:

Monster-MyersThe Publishing Year: 1999

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.

speak-laurie-halse-andersonBut 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?

– Mark

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13 Comments

Filed under Books, Teens

13 responses to “What Should’ve Won: Printz 2000

  1. Sarah Flowers

    I don’t know this for sure, but I have it in my head that there may have been issues about the eligibility of Perks. It was published by MTV, and there may not have been a way to determine if it was “published for the young adult market” or whatever the exact phrase was then. I still think that both Speak and Monster are better books, though.

  2. Sharon Grover

    You’re right about the eligibility issue, Sarah. It was not designated as published for young adults and that probably knocked it out of contention.

  3. Jonathan Hunt

    What about SIR WALTER RALEGH for at least an honor? Won the first Sibert and the BG-HB Award. Would have to retread SPEAK, but I thought the plot faltered a bit at the end. Both great books, though. Think the both went head to head in the Edgars, too.

    • Mark Flowers

      I’m seeing SIR WALTER RALEGH as a 2000 pub date, and was planning on talking about it in the next entry on Printz 2001.

      I have definitely heard that complaint about SPEAK’s plot faltering near the end, but it’s not one that I happen to share.

      And yes, they were both nominated for Edgars as well (although don’t get me started back up on the Edgar criteria . . . )–they just really dominated the whole field that year.

  4. Pingback: The Art of the Memoir | crossreferencing

  5. Thanks for the shout out, and I’m glad to see someone else picking up the idea. I was neurotically devoting too much time to that series, compulsively re-watching the top few contenders for every year to double-check my decision, so I had to let it drop, but I’d love to go back to it some day. I’m glad to hear it’s missed!

    • Mark Flowers

      I know what you mean – I’m just starting to look through the second year of these books and I can already envision this series eating up my entire life. But in a good way

  6. I don’t necessarily think Hard Love is a “better” book than Monster or Speak (they’re just towering giants), but it is definitely worth a read. Ellen Wittlinger is such a sensitive writer, and I feel like she goes a little unsung in the YA world. Her books are heartbreaking and joyful explorations of some really difficult issues–gay/lesbian identity, transgendered youth, navigating blurred lines of societal expectations–and they are SO well-done.

    • Mark Flowers

      Thanks Lauren. It’s definitely on my (very long) to-read pile. I admit I sort of copped out a bit on this first post, because everyone and their brother things Monster and Speak are the two best of 1999. But you’ll see in today’s post, I’m already getting more obsessive about trying to read all the possible contenders 😉

      • I just read today’s post! I had a similar reaction to your choice of Stuck in Neutral as you did to Hard Love–it’s definitely in my TBR pile, but I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. I did, however, ADORE Kit’s Wilderness…so atmospheric and riveting! (I kind of hate the title, but that’s another issue…)

      • Mark Flowers

        That’s actually a great idea for a post–great books with terrible titles (in fact, it’s probably been done somewhere). But I agree, Kit’s Wilderness is a great one with a dreadful title–not a fan of the cover art either. A very hard sell.

  7. Pingback: What Should’ve Won: Printz 2002 | crossreferencing

  8. Pingback: Responses | crossreferencing

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