Wow, tell us what you really think! Seriously, I think you’re being too harsh on the National Book Awards. You mentioned The Penderwicks–and what about Holes and The Canning Season and What I Saw and How I Lied?
Actually, as I looked back over the list of National Book Awards for Young People, there were a couple of things that struck me, and it wasn’t the politics.
First was the preponderance of YA books among the nominees. I know the award covers the whole span from birth to 18 (presumably–I couldn’t find any place on the website that actually gave an age range). But the main thing I noticed was who the judges were. The whole intention of the National Book Award is that it is “given to writers by writers” (who, by the way, must be U.S. citizens). Publishers submit the books (along with a fee of $125) for consideration.
The panels that select the books are authors. The NBA says, “Judges are published writers who are known to be doing great work in their genre or field, and in some cases, are past NBA Finalists or Winners.” So a lot of the same names crop up–sometimes people are judges and then become winners, sometimes it goes the other way. Looking at the past several years, the judges have been mainly YA authors (Coe Booth, Nancy Werlin, Gene Luen Yang, Carolyn Mackler, Angela Johnson, Daniel Handler, Pete Hautman, Patricia McCormick, Scott Westerfeld, etc.)
And, finally, there is no set criteria for picking the winners. The website says that the panel “may arrive at these choices using whatever criteria they deem appropriate, as long as they do not conflict with the official Award guidelines.” And since the office award guidelines are mainly about eligibility issues, that leaves it wide open.
So I was musing about this last night, and it seemed obvious to me that it wasn’t too surprising that authors were going to choose different books than librarians choose. For one thing, as loosey-goosey as the Printz criteria are, they’re a lot stricter than “whatever criteria they deem appropriate.” And, of course, the Newbery criteria are quite detailed. So right there, you’re going to see a difference.
And I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m guessing that by and large authors don’t read nearly as much as librarians do, and that they have less experience doing readers’ advisory with actual kids. So when faced with reading two or three hundred newly-published books, they are going to be looking at them in a different way. They may well be struck by things that librarians see as old hat. They may find themselves reacting to things that they wish they had done, or that they know they could never do, but admire nevertheless.
When thinking about book prizes, I always remember a line from Richard Jackson’s 2005 Arbuthnot lecture: “We all recognize–don’t we?–that awards reflect a moment in time and chemistry around a table as much as they do acclamation or a single book’s infinite superiority.” And I’ve certainly seen that. I can look at Printz committees of the past, where I have known many or all of the members personally, and I can say, “Yes, I see why this particular committee chose this particular book.” And it is rare to have a group of people where one or two don’t have a disproportionate influence on the final result. Consensus, yes–but the people who care most passionately and speak most eloquently are likely to win over the rest.
So as for this year’s finalists, who knows? Of the five, the only one I have read so far is Bomb, although I intend to read Never Fall Down in the next couple of weeks, since I expect to be hearing Patricia McCormick speak YALSA’s YA Lit Symposium in early November. I think Endangered sounds intriguing, and Out of Reach is a debut novel, so it will be interesting to see what the Morris folks think about it.