Oh, I’m so going to get in trouble for this post title, but here’s the thing: why doesn’t the ALA provide shortlists for the Caldecott, Newbery, and all the other awards they dish out at their annual midwinter conference?
Obviously, I’m writing about this because the awards were announced this morning, but not because I had any particular dog in this race. Do I have friends who are writers, people whose book I feel deserve some recognition? Sure, but I’m not writing because they didn’t get a mention either as Winner or as Honor books, I’m writing because the question came up in Twitter buzz about this being a “strong” year with fewer than “expected” Honors given. Then I shot my mouth off about a particular book not getting attention, calling the award committee “chicken” for not wanting to take a stand on deciding who the books true author was, and the next thing I know I’m back in the mire of my problem with the ALA awards.
Unlike other awards, like the National Book Awards, or the Carnegie or Greenway medals, the American Library Association’s awards for children’s books are announced without a prior shortlist being made public. When the ALA awards are announced (as they were this morning) the public first learns of the Honor books in the category and then the winner of the award in question. The number of Honor books varies as each award committee selects and awards books in secret up until the awarding of the titles (with the exception of the authors who are called early in the morning before their names are announced). This means that until the books titles are named there is no way of knowing which of the 24,000 children’s books published annually will be mentioned during the award ceremony.
Watching the announcements via a live webcast, each of the titles mentioned get cheers and applauds from the ALA members in attendance at the conference, but what goes on with the public (as witnessed on a live Twitter feed) is a collection of individual responses varying from cheers to confusion. Everyone has personal favorites they’re rooting for, and when little-known titles pop up the initial confusion is “Huh, I wonder if that title is truly better than the ones I’ve read.” So the public (or at least the public concerned with children’s books) collectively look at the honor book, then the winner, and they think From this pool of great books a winner was chosen.
Or: A winner was chosen from this pool?
But this year there were only two Honor books for the Newbery Award, which caught a number of people off guard. Normally there are three or four honor books, rounding out the general pool of consensus about which books were considered “the best,” which is what the award looks to celebrate. The problem with only two Honor book is the suggestion that, along with the winner, there were only three books considered good enough for the award. I think everyone in the kidlit community could draft a shortlist of TEN books that would be honor-worthy, and to see only two books honored feel like something is wrong.
What’s wrong is that the process really only looks to award ONE book and Honor books are a bi-product of the committee’s process, not a true designation of all that could be considered contenders for “the best” in that category. Or, as one author suggested, when there is more consensus on the award winner and less dissention within the committee, there are fewer honors. Which if true suggests that if the entire committee agreed on the winner there could be NO Honor Awards that year, not unless they manufactured a list of also-rans.
This is the problem I have with the secrecy of the selection process, it just isn’t transparent.
But should it be?
It’s the ALA awards and they can run the show any way they like. The way they run it now, each award category has its own committee and those committees select and vote on titles in seclusion from the rest of the ALA until the midwinter conference. I have heard tales of books being put forth to the rest of the committee at the conference itself, forcing the members to read and evaluate this last-minute nominee and depriving them of sleep (and consensus) in the process. One could argue that this suggests an openness to be as inclusive as possible in the efforts to find and put forth the best books possible… or that the nature of the process is flawed that the committees are not forced to agree on a shortlist in advance of the award.
Here’s why I think not having and announcing a shortlist in advance is a mistake: it removes the discussion of books from the public, which fails to engage a wider audience to actually care about the awards.
Once an award has been delivered, it’s a done deal. When you announce awards without any lead-up (like the public discussion that proceeds almost every other award) you fail to build an audience who cares. A year ago when the TODAY show decided to bump a segment on the ALA awards in favor of a visit by Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi to promote her new book the only people who cared were people in the kidlit community. The general public? Eh. They weren’t following the awards prior to the announcement, so they probably didn’t even know the winners were announced. They certainly hadn’t had a chance to review a shortlist of possible winner to factually know whether or not Snooki’s book might have merited more attention than the Printz or Newbery winners – it didn’t, but who knew? And that’s the point. You can’t care about an award you don’t know about, and you can’t build excitement or anticipation over an award whose judging criterium is a mystery beyond simply a group-think definition of “the best.”
While working on my MFA in creative writing our instructors (many Caldecott and Newbery Award winners in the bunch) warned us that you cannot write with the intention of winning awards, that you have to write the book that wants to come out. This is true of any art, really. But what was unsaid was that there was no way in hell you could possibly write toward winning a children’s book award from the ALA because the reality is that the criterium are a mystery. The selection committee changes from year to year, and the decision-making process and awarding of winners and honors is subject to a secrecy elevate to the art of whim.
Given how these award winners are held aloft and foisted onto kids by parents and teachers you’d think the awards were etched in stone from an omniscient god whose decisions are unerring. Instead, we get a tin-can-and-string announcement from a cargo cult committee of self-appointed elders.
And, damn it, I still hope to win one of these awards some day.