An Award by Any Other Name

Planet Middle SchoolMy lat­est nov­el, Plan­et Mid­dle School, was nom­i­nat­ed for an IMAGE Award, the only award for which it was nom­i­nat­ed, in fact. It did­n’t win.

Plan­et Mid­dle School received won­der­ful reviews includ­ing one star. It’s got­ten great feed­back from fans. Every­one who has read it loves it. But the nov­el did not win an award. Does that matter?

On the eve of the Oscars, my thoughts turn to awards. Actu­al awards are worth sur­pris­ing­ly lit­tle. I’m talk­ing about the medals, stat­uettes, and crys­tal fig­urines them­selves. They cost only a few dol­lars. Yet, we imbue those awards with mean­ing that makes them seem price­less. But, why?

Sup­pose I write a great book, but a pan­el of three, or six or twelve judges deem anoth­er book to be the year’s “best.” Is my great book no longer great? Is great no longer good? Is good no longer good enough?

Here’s a thought. We are not called to be the best. We are called to be our best. It’s cru­cial that we under­stand the dif­fer­ence between the two.

I love watch­ing fig­ure skat­ing. It is the sport I fol­low most close­ly dur­ing the Win­ter Olympics. But one thing that always dis­turbs me is how often win­ning sil­ver or bronze for an event is treat­ed as a fail­ure. All the emphasis—by ath­letes, coach­es, and com­men­ta­tors alike—is on the gold. Win the gold and, well, you’re gold­en. Win any­thing less and so, it seems, are you. That’s cer­tain­ly the way Debi Thomas felt the year she was beat out by Kata­ri­na Witt for the top prize. She took home the bronze in the ladies com­pe­ti­tion, the first African Amer­i­can woman to do so, as I recall. Yet, her third-place fin­ish was prac­ti­cal­ly mourned.

How many hun­dreds of ath­letes did every skater, ski­er, luger, have to beat out to even win a place on that Olympic team? For my mon­ey, any­one who makes the team is already a win­ner. How about cel­e­brat­ing that? The argu­ment works for authors, as well.

I remem­ber the first book con­ven­tion I attend­ed. it was the ABA con­fer­ence held in Las Vegas (yes, I’m dat­ing myself. This con­fer­ence is not even called ABA any­more. But nev­er mind.) I walked onto the exhib­it floor and gasped. There were acres of books laid out before me, a sight I’d nev­er even imagined.

As I strolled down aisle after aisle, past booth after book filled with new­ly pub­lished books, I won­dered how on earth I would ever make my mark in a field so enor­mous. Then, the impos­si­ble hap­pened. I did. So did a lot of oth­er authors.

A few authors, a pre­cious few, have won the New­bery, the gold medal of chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture. I’m not one of them, but I am in great com­pa­ny. (Jane Yolen, any­one? Gary Schmidt? What about Nao­mi Shi­hab Nye? The list is too, too long.) Does not win­ning the New­bery mean that our books aren’t good, or even great? Of course not.

We have all made the team.

We are already winners.

Out of the thou­sands, upon thou­sands, of man­u­scripts sub­mit­ted to pub­lish­ers each year, ours were select­ed for pub­li­ca­tion. Ours were noticed. Ours won fans. Ours moved read­ers to laugh­ter and tears. We need to let that be enough. I need to let that be enough.

Say it with me: We are not called to be the best. We are called to be our best. You can’t get bet­ter than that.

5 Responses

  1. Besides, the trou­ble with awards is 1. They have to be dust­ed or 2. room must be found for them or 3. as it has hap­pened to me, they can set your good coat on fire!

    Jane Yolen (Hi, Nikki!)

  2. Thank you. Yes, this must be our mantra: We are not called to be the best. We are called to be our best.

    In the end, this is not the only thing, but it is the one tru­ly impor­tant thing, the one that matters.

    (I’m not even going to ask what kind of award sets one’s coat on fire, Jane. I’d like to see it though. On video, maybe.)

  3. Beau­ti­ful­ly said, Nik­ki. I was an edi­tor at Wom­en’s Sports & Fit­ness Mag­a­zine dur­ing the Witt/Thomas show­down, and I remem­ber that mood so well. How awful for any­one to leave the Games feel­ing like a fail­ure (or being made to feel that way) if you don’t win gold.

    When I watch singers audi­tion for The Voice or Amer­i­can Idol or peo­ple tal­ent­ed in oth­er ways, I’m amazed at how much tal­ent and artistry there is in our world. I always just hope each per­son does his or her absolute best so there are no regrets.

    Don’t get me wrong–awards, espe­cial­ly big ones–must be awful­ly nice and mighty handy for your career! But I don’t think they can be the goal.

  4. I know this has noth­ing to do with the book, but I was won­der­ing if it was pos­si­ble to have con­tact through email. I am doing a project on poets and poems and I need some infor­ma­tion on your life and/or work. So I was just won­der­ing if you could con­tact me at my school email. I hope I can hear from you soon. Thank you.

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