Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Printz Award Winners: 2000

So I mentioned I was taking a break from reading and blogging about Austen and remedial classics to try something new this summer. I'd been thinking about revisiting classic children's books from my childhood, or going through all the Newbery winners, or maybe reading sci fi novels that won the Nebula Award (I had a couple winners/nominees as biography subjects). But then I realized what made the most sense would be to look at the winners of the Michael L. Printz Award, given annually by the American Library Association (ALA) to "the book that exemplifies literary excellence in young adult literature." After all, I have been reading quite a few YA novels lately, including some that have been Printz honor books, but I've only read a couple of the winners. The Printz medal was first awarded in 2000, so that gives me eleven years of books to read, a manageable number. I figure I can cover one year every one or two weeks, reading the winner and one or two of the runners-up (maybe more if I have time or have read some previously).

So I'm starting with the first awards, given in 2000 to books published in the U.S. in 1999. The books recognized were:

Monster by Walter Dean Myers
Honor Books:
Skellig by David Almond
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger

My first thought after finishing a couple of these books was, "Boy, am I glad I didn't have to choose between these books!" Not only were they uniformly excellent, they were so very different in their subject matter and tone. Here are my thoughts on each:

Almond's Skellig (honor book): I first read this in 2006, coming home from the SCBWI New York conference at which the author, a Brit, gave two very interesting presentations. I picked up a couple of his books and began reading this one on the flight home. What a short flight it was! I was hooked within the first page, in which the young narrator Michael talks about the day he discovered a creature living in the dilapidated garage of his new home: "He was filthy and pale and dried out and I thought he was dead. I couldn't have been more wrong. I'd soon begin to see the truth about him, that there'd never been another creature like him in the world." Whether the creature is a monster, an angel, or something in between is never answered, but the story about how Michael and his new friend Mina return him to health is interwoven with the story of Michael's severely ill baby sister in a beautiful, poetic language. This book reminded me of the best magical realism ... although I have to admit the title did not stick with me. I checked the book out of the library last week and realized two pages in I'd read it before. I was just as hooked the second time, though, and devoured the book in one sitting. (Note: Skellig also won the Carnegie Medal and the Whitbread Book Award, Britain's two highest literary prizes for children's literature.)

Anderson's Speak (honor book): This book, the first novel written by the Edwards Award-winning Anderson, has a towering reputation. (The Edwards Award is given by the ALA for lifetime achievement in young adult literature.) It was groundbreaking in its subject matter, portraying how a girl deals—or rather, fails to deal—with a traumatic event. (I'm not going to be specific about it, in case you haven't read the novel yet, because the event isn't revealed until midway through the novel.) The story of how freshman Melinda became an outcast and how she finds a way through her pain is told in language that is vivid, emotional, and witty. ("I stand in the center aisle of the auditorium, a wounded zebra in a National Geographic special.") To give you an idea of the effect the book had on readers and the YA market in general—it became a bestseller and has become a staple of the high school curriculum—two years later Anderson's publisher named a new imprint after the book, creating "Speak" Books to publish "classic and cutting-edge YA fiction to the forefront of the paperback list." When I first read it last year, I thought it lived up to its considerable hype—a pretty tall order, considering I'd been reading and hearing wonderful things about the book from people in the know. (Note: Speak won the SCBWI's Golden Kite Award and was a finalist for both the National Book Award* and the Edgar Award for best YA mystery of the year.)

Wittlinger's Hard Love (honor book): This book is definitely the most dated of the set, as it concerns a teen boy who meets a girl through their common love of writing zines and falls in love with her even though she is a lesbian. Since zines (small, self-published magazines) have largely been superseded by the internet and blogs like this one, this book is fast becoming a relic of the "turn of the century." That wasn't why I found this the hardest of the four books to get into; I think it was the closed-off nature of the narrator that made it difficult to get involved—that, or the funky typesetting. That said, I decided to read a few pages before turning one night and ended staying up to finish the book. This novel had a clear character arc that made sense, allowing the narrator to grow on me, and it was fairly groundbreaking in its portrayal of a lesbian character. (Note: Hard Love also won a Lambda Literary Award (given the best LGBT fiction) for children's YA fiction.)

Myers's Monster (winner): I have to confess, I hadn't read any of Myers's books before this year. (Since he's also an Edwards Award-winner, a two-time Newbery Honor medalist, and five-time Coretta Scott King Award winner, it's pretty sad that I overlooked this pioneering African American children's writer. My excuse is that his books are so ... full of boys doing boy things. Not that I don't like reading about boy characters, but I usually prefer them in fantasies, not realistic fiction.) But I read his Newbery Honor-winning Scorpions (1988) earlier this year, and enjoyed his tale of a young boy struggling to find his place in a dangerous neighborhood. Monster follows similar themes, telling the story of a 16-year-old New Yorker who is on trial for felony murder, standing accused of playing lookout for a robbery gone bad. The most interesting thing about Monster is not that Myers never fully answers whether his protagonist Steve was involved or not, but that he has Steve present his story in screenplay format. It's Steve's way of both trying to figure out how he has ended up in this situation—in jail, on trial with his life on the line—and distancing himself from the "monster" the prosecution claims he is. It's a striking, affecting way to tell the story, and definitely made me think. (Note: Monster was also a King Honor Book and a National Book Award finalist*.)

So, how would I have voted that year? Hard to say; I would have had a tough time deciding between Skellig, which is right up my fantastic alley, and Speak, which was emotional and clearly groundbreaking. Judging on the past ten years, though, I think Speak would win the day; it definitely holds up well and has had lasting significance, whereas Monster seems more a product of its time.

Coming up next time: Almond wins, and I read two books by authors unfamiliar to me.

*The winner of the National Book Award for Young People's Literature that year was When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, by Kimberly Willis Holt. The NBA is awarded to children's novels for all ages, and Holt's book seems targeted for a slightly younger than YA audience, which may be why it doesn't overlap with the Printz list ... although it made that year's ALA Best Books for Young Adults list. "YA" is in the eye of the beholder, though, and the dividing line between "middle grade" (ages 9-13—??) and "young adult" (13 and up??) is very poorly defined.

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