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Find more Guest Speaker
When I was hired as a temp by Booklist back in the summer of 2000, one of my first tasks was to retype the speeches delivered by the winner and honorees of the inaugural Michael L. Printz Award. This was a time of fax machines, a time when hard copies were sometimes the only copies.
I was 22, and not a particularly functional adult. I didn’t have a bank account (or know how to open one). I was living in a walk-in closet, directly beneath my clothes. I knew at the time I had a problem, but did not yet know that it was obsessive-compulsive disorder. I’d washed out of divinity school before ever really starting. I had no career path in mind. I was not, like, promising. And yet there I was, a temp at Booklist, surrounded by books and people who loved them.
The speeches I retyped were written by Ellen Wittlinger, David Almond, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Walter Dean Myers. With that lineup, I needn’t add that they were brilliant, but I knew nothing of YA lit, and so I was astonished by those speeches. I borrowed the four winning books from Booklist’s library—Hard Love, Skellig, Speak, and Monster. Those books were my introduction to young adult novels, and what a crash course! They explored trauma and conscience and love with care and nuance, speaking not only to the young adult I’d been but also to the young adult I still was. I’d always wanted to write, but after reading those books, I knew what I wanted to write. Each was a consolation to me, but also a challenge—a challenge to imagine others better, and to expand my understanding of human experience.
That first Printz committee set the tone for what “literary merit” would mean in the context of YA novels. It’s hard to pick a favorite from among such wonderful books, but I’ve returned again and again over the last 17 years to Walter Dean Myers’ Monster. It’s such an unapologetically complex novel, and so innovative, both structurally and thematically. Monster has the intense ambiguity of real life. It’s written for teens (and perfectly so), but there’s nothing easy about it. I remember once saying that Monster was a great novel, but I wasn’t sure teens would get it, only to have a Booklist editor explain as gently as she could manage that if I could get it, teens certainly could.
Christopher Myers once said of his father’s work, “All his books were about rendering the invisible visible.” This was true when it came to the kinds of people Walter Dean Myers wrote about—from Motown and Didi (1984) to Fallen Angels (1988) to Monster, he placed marginalized characters in the center of the story. He also rendered the invisible visible when he wrote with such clarity about conscience and memory and how we bend them to make sense of ourselves. And he rendered the invisible visible by showing readers that there were black and brown heroes in American history and also in everyday American life, helping readers of color to see themselves in stories while also helping white readers to reckon with some of the ways we benefit from, and often fail to recognize, deeply unjust power structures.
As Booklist celebrates a half-century of YA, I want to thank those first members of the Printz committee for their work to define literary merit in the context of YA literature, and I want to celebrate the enduring genius of the award’s first winner, whose books continue to challenge and inspire kids—and 22-year-olds.
John Green’s Honor Roll
Here are four books Green credits as influences and inspirations.
Hard Love, by Ellen Wittlinger (1999)
Monster, by Walter Dean Myers (1999)
Skellig, by David Almond (1999)
Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson (1999)
John Green is the author of Looking for Alaska, The Fault in Our Stars, and, most recently, Turtles All the Way Down.
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