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.