One of the books I read this summer was the much acclaimed, Newbery Honor book Wonder which I would like to share my impressions of, but I would also like to use that as a springboard into a discussion about book awards*. I highly recommend reading this short post over on Crossreferencing by Mark about the Morris and the Excellence in NonFiction awards. Not only is it funny, it touches on a lot of my thoughts about awards.
First Wonder. From GoodReads: August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He’s about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you’ve ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie’s just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, despite appearances?
It was a very enjoyable book. The story was sweet and very middle grade appropriate. But it felt, to me, like the author was trying very hard to make a bullying/tolerance book not feel like a bullying/tolerance book. Auggie was a great kid, but he was too perfect for the role. His family was just a bit too perfect and up to the challenge of raising a child with great needs. (Also they must have a ton of money because keeping him home and sending him to expensive tutors and eventually prep school couldn’t have been cheap. Not to mention the medical bills. I wonder if having a family that simply struggled more financially would have made for a more authentic and interesting story?) The kids at school felt strangely like tropes- the free-spirt non-judgmental girl who didn’t take a second look at Auggie’s deformity, the kid too easily swayed by his peers, the mean kid who has equally mean, insensitive parents, etc. Maybe these complaints are typical of middle grade novels, but the more quality middle grade I read, the less I think so. Wonder was not the Newbery winner, but bullying and tolerance are hot, hot topics right now and I wonder if they weren’t so hot would Wonder have garnered the same attention it has. As I said, it’s a good book, but I’m not convinced it was a great book or even one of the greatest books of last year.
More often than not I scratch my head over the book award winners. I suppose they are trying to find books with broad appeal, but I think that can get in the way of selecting a winner. They also often feel like they are following trends or pushing an agenda (as with Wonder and bullying). Sometimes I feel like award committees have chosen pretentious books that are not all that good and wouldn’t really appeal to their target audiences, but adults seem to like them and/or feel they are necessary for kids to read. The Excellence in Nonfiction Award has nominated a book about the Kennedy assassination this year (The President Has Been Shot by James Swanson), but the Kennedy assassination doesn’t have the same significance even to people my age, let alone current middle and high schoolers. I’m sure there are kids who are interested, but they are probably a lot more interested in the World War II titles that were nominated.
On the flip side, awards can draw the attention of adults who put books in kids hands to books that are well done but about topics kids might not pick up on their own. I’m thinking specifically here about drawing the attention of teachers who might find books like The Milk of Birds, In Darkness, Never Fall Down, and The Good Braider and use them in their classes (I discussed this a bit here). Sure these books could fall into the category of adults-think-you-must-read-this, but they are so wonderfully written and do work for their target audiences I think some of that is negated.
And maybe this is where my arguments and thoughts about awards are wrong. Maybe awards are simply for the best books of that year. Maybe they aren’t intended to take into account popularity, interest, and target audience. Maybe I need to be scratching my head over why they don’t take these things into consideration and whether they are worth taking into consideration. Who are the award lists for, the target audiences of YA, MG, and children’s literature or for the adults who curate and select that literature for students, children, and patrons?
Ultimately I wonder, should I be reading through the awards lists? Do I read the nominees, the honors and winner, or just the winners? Do kids pay attention to these lists and/or actually read these books and, more importantly, enjoy them? I honestly don’t know. I would like to use them as a convenient way to beef up my list of books I could recommend and my backlist I can draw from. But if kids don’t read them and don’t like them, it isn’t worth the time. Does anyone out there have thoughts or ideas? I am very curious to know. Mark’s thoughts, that aren’t exactly glowing recommendations for the awards lists, are the first I’ve heard expressed in that vein.
*When I say “book awards” I am primarily referring to the awards given out by ALA and most specifically by YALSA and ALSC.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 04, Dec 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
This summer I picked up two books that featured refugees from the Southern Sudanese conflict. The Good Braider is a novel in verse about Viola’s escape from South Sudan to the United States. While her life should in theory be better is is wrought with the trauma of what she lived through and the difficulty of finding a place in a new culture. The Milk of Birds is a correspondence between K.C., a girl from the US, and Nawra, a Sudanese girl who is living in a refugee camp.
Both books really shed light on a conflict that, despite Angelina Jolie’s best efforts, is not well known in the United States. When I reviewed In Darkness and Never Fall Down I talked about how important I think it is that kids have an awareness of what life is like for people who live outside the Western world and the first world. The question for me, though, is how do you get kids to read these books. All four are beautifully written with incredible stories, but how do you sell a book that is so tragic? They feel like books that a special kid would pick up, an already interested and compassionate student. While it’s great for those kids to read these books, I want others to read them too.
I could certainly see reading any of these four books in an English and/or History class. That would certainly broaden the audience…assuming the students actually read their assigned novels. In fact reading the books across disciplines and discussing both the writing, the novel format, the story, and then the history would be very powerful. But…but. How many teachers will use current YA literature in their classes? It’s not a classic so why read it in school? I don’t have an answer to this conundrum (if you do please share!). I’m simply thinking out loud here. I just really wish these beautiful, terrible novels had a bigger audience.
As a side note, while I enjoyed both The Good Braider and The Milk of Birds immensely, I thought The Milk of Birds fell a bit flat with K.C. I haven’t read a lot of books with two narrators, especially narrators that are so different, so maybe this how two-narrator books work. K.C. was a bit flighty and sounded so modern. This was compounded by the more formal tone of Nawra’s letters that alternated chapters. At one point I thought it might have worked better to not include K.C., but after finishing the book I think it wouldn’t have been as powerful. I think the fact that she has her own issues is really important. Although she has champagne problems, they are still relatable and they are still issues. Nawra, despite her incredibly difficult situation, never once belittles K.C.’s problems. She understands that they are just as real to K.C. as her own are to her. K.C.’s voice was also incredibly authentic. She sounded exactly the way I would have sounded if I were writing letters at that age. I think as an adult reading this book I was just left wanting a more mature narrator to complement Nawra. Especially since Nawra was so wise and mature beyond her years. In the end the book was so well written it didn’t matter that K.C. wasn’t the narrator I wanted.