May I Have Your Attention, Please?

National Book AwardsImag­ine for a moment: you are an author devot­ed to cre­at­ing beau­ti­ful and inspir­ing books for chil­dren and young adults. Per­haps, some­where in the back of your mind, you won­der if, some­day, your work might be hon­ored to receive a Nation­al Book Award. Then imag­ine that the impos­si­ble hap­pens: You learn that your lat­est book was select­ed as a Final­ist! You are bare­ly over the shock and awe at your good for­tune, and are set­tling into hap­py antic­i­pa­tion of the com­ing awards cer­e­mo­ny, where—who knows— your book might even be cho­sen the win­ner! Then, sud­den­ly, all hell breaks loose. A book that was not select­ed is mis­tak­en­ly announced to the world as a final­ist. The after­math is down­right nightmarish.

Once the full truth comes to light, you are as dis­traught as every­one else for Lau­ren Myr­a­cle, the author in the eye of the storm. But, at the same time, you are heart­bro­ken because your spe­cial, once-in-a-life­time moment was swal­lowed up in a con­tro­ver­sy not of your own mak­ing. The nation­al press and social media are all over the sto­ry, of course, but the title of your hon­ored book scarce­ly comes in for a men­tion. Ouch!

Here’s the thing: the authors select­ed as this year’s NBA final­ists in Young Peo­ple’s Lit­er­a­ture are as blame­less in this fias­co as Lau­ren, and yet, in a very real sense, they too were harmed. How? In the midst of the firestorm that fol­lowed, their sin­gu­lar achieve­ments were over­shad­owed, over­looked, and almost com­plete­ly ignored. That’s just plain wrong.

I’m not going to rehash the details here. Every­body knows them already. Suf­fice it to say, griev­ous mis­takes were made, and have been cor­rect­ed, out­rage has been voiced, copi­ous amounts of mud have been slung, and apolo­gies have been offered. It’s done. Now, let’s take a deep breath.

For the record, there were a num­ber of extra­or­di­nary books that just missed being cho­sen this year, and each judge had a favorite title or two fail to gar­ner enough votes to secure a place among the final­ists. (I’m still in mourn­ing over the loss of one of my faves. I fought for it right up until the very last vote!) But that is the nature of the beast. There were more than 270 books sub­mit­ted for con­sid­er­a­tion, and there were only five spots to fill. We read, dis­cussed, and delib­er­at­ed over these books for four months, and we chose as care­ful­ly and thought­ful­ly as we could. The work was ardu­ous, and the hours long, but we con­sid­ered it an hon­or, and han­dled it accordingly.

Now, speak­ing as one of the judges for this year’s NBA pan­el on Young Peo­ple’s Lit­er­a­ture, I think—we all think—it’s time to shift the dia­logue, and give some over­due, pos­i­tive atten­tion to the books select­ed. Here, then, are descrip­tions of the five finalists.

My Name Is Not Easy by Deb­by Dahl Edwardson

Set in Alas­ka above the Arc­tic Cir­cle, My Name Is Not Easy inter­weaves nature, cul­ture clash, reli­gion and sci­ence into a vivid, mul­ti-voiced nar­ra­tive. The time is the ear­ly 1960s at the Sacred Heart Board­ing School near Bar­row. Eski­mo, Indi­an, and White kids hud­dle at their own tables. Noth­ing is easy for kids uproot­ed from their vil­lages: the food is not what they’re used to (where is the cari­bou meat, the whale fat?), the Catholic school rules are for­bid­ding, the Cold War looms. This nov­el is deeply informed by the his­to­ry and land­scape of the high arc­tic region, where the relent­less march of moder­ni­ty press­es on native cul­ture. Back home the vil­lagers still hunt, but now with the help of snow­mo­biles, not sleds. Though, as a wise elder remarks to a young hunter, “How is that snow machine going to find its way home in a bliz­zard?” This nov­el is deeply authen­tic; Edward­son lives where she writes, and she nev­er falls into cliché. Even the nuns and priests are ful­ly real­ized char­ac­ters, with dilem­mas of their own. This nov­el gives voice to an over­looked, out­lier part of Amer­i­ca, yet the dilem­mas and vic­to­ries of the char­ac­ters are universal.

Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt

If you were for­tu­nate enough to read the New­bery Hon­or book, The Wednes­day Wars, you’ll be famil­iar with the main pro­tag­o­nist here. In the sum­mer of 1968, Doug Swi­etek moves to a small town in upstate New York, which he fond­ly refers to as “The Dump.” Not that it would mat­ter much where he lived, since he’d still have to con­tend with an abu­sive father, a delin­quent broth­er who rou­tine­ly mis­treats him, while sore­ly miss­ing the old­est, most beloved broth­er who is away in Viet­nam. Des­per­ate for inspi­ra­tion, Dough clings to a one-time encounter with a base­ball star in this tour-de-force. What are the stats? A town that offers up a lit­er­ary dugout of eclec­tic char­ac­ters with bite and wit: a librarian/art teacher, an eccen­tric play­wright, past her prime, a feisty female friend who proves she is more, and a host of grand­moth­er­ly neigh­bors who show Doug was kind­ness looks like. Schmidt uses these, along with Audubon’s Birds of Amer­i­ca, to lay­er a rich sto­ry about choice, inner strength, and the trans­for­ma­tive pow­er of art. In fact, this is the first work of fic­tion I’ve come across that actu­al­ly takes the read­er inside of the process of cre­at­ing art, while allow­ing him to expe­ri­ence, along with the char­ac­ter, the won­der­ful ah-ha moments that comes with explor­ing the cre­ative process. An addi­tion­al ele­ment that made this book a stand­out was the promi­nent place of the library in this nar­ra­tive. Alto­geth­er an amaz­ing achievement!

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Immi­gra­tion was a recur­ring theme in the books we read this year but this one, which hap­pens to be a nov­el-in-verse, was the clear stand­out. In a pure and authen­tic voice, a girl named Ha tells the sto­ry of her fam­i­ly’s har­row­ing escape from Saigon as it falls, the hor­rif­ic ship-ride to Amer­i­ca, and the oth­er-world­ly expe­ri­ence of land­ing in Alaba­ma where the cold­ness of strangers awaits them. Ha, a tough and ten­der ten-year-old fights for her place in Amer­i­ca while rely­ing on the strength of the cul­ture that gave her birth. The emo­tion­al impact of this sto­ry is felt as much in the words that aren’t said, as in the words that are. With hints of humor through­out, the poet­ry car­ries the rhythms of the Viet­namese cul­ture. Read­ers will think more kind­ly toward the immi­grants in their midst after spend­ing time between the pages of this book. For me, this was love at first read!

Flesh and Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin

This work of non-fic­tion explores the infa­mous Tri­an­gle Fire, one of the worst, and most pre­ventable, work-relat­ed dis­as­ters in Amer­i­can his­to­ry, eclipsed only by the events of 9/11. In the hands of Mar­rin, the scope of this sto­ry is deep, and wide. The book traces key points in the his­to­ry of South­ern Ital­ians and Russ­ian Jews—the pri­ma­ry vic­tims of the fire—exploring the rea­sons their fore­bears immi­grat­ed to Amer­i­ca, and what brought their descen­dents into the fac­to­ry sweat­shops of ear­ly New York. Read­ers learn about the so-called “Black Ital­ians,” the impact of the Mount Vesu­vius erup­tion, the Russ­ian pogroms, the Pale of Set­tle­ment, right up to Ellis Island, once known as “the Island of Fears,” and the fall of Tam­many Hall, illu­mi­nat­ing bits of his­to­ry con­nect­ed to the Tri­an­gle Fire event. The book then fol­lows the impact this dis­as­ter had on shift­ing labor laws and prac­tices to cre­ate the more humane, and safe, work­ing envi­ron­ments we all enjoy today. Mir­ren also brings to light unher­ald­ed heroes and hero­ines of the Amer­i­can Labor move­ment who rose up to lead reform, and orga­nize unions to push for nec­es­sary changes in the work­place. There is dra­ma, poet­ry, and music in the lan­guage here, allow­ing this his­to­ry les­son to flow with ease.

Chime by Fran­ny Billingsley

Don’t be fooled by the cov­er. There is noth­ing cook­ie-cut­ter about this nov­el. Take twin sis­ters, a bog­gy land­scape, a hand­some young stranger, a ghost or two, then add a mag­ic caul­dron, and stir. This book fea­tures some of the most live­ly, orig­i­nal, engag­ing line-by-line writ­ing you’ll find any­where. What’s more, the lush lan­guage is at the ser­vice of a sto­ry which man­ages to explore a dark psy­cho­log­i­cal bond that will be eye-open­ing for alert, self-reflec­tive read­ers, and heart-pound­ing for fans of romance in a kind of steam­punk fan­ta­sy land­scape. This book will be a stretch for many read­ers, but the remark­able use of lan­guage makes the jour­ney a sin­gu­lar experience.

Now that you’ve had a chance to learn some­thing about these out­stand­ing books, I hope you’ll check them out for your­self. They are well wor­thy of your atten­tion and the authors deserve all of our sup­port. Just imag­ine, for a moment, if you were one of these authors.

6 Responses

  1. Nik­ki -
    Thanks for voic­ing this very real over­sight. It was a mess, but in a way I hope that a pos­si­ble hap­py out­come will be that atten­tion will be giv­en to all of these incred­i­ble authors and books. 

    I think it is easy to judge lists and their selec­tors from out­side the process. Hav­ing served on the New­bery com­mit­tee, I know how hard and heart­break­ing this ser­vice can be. 


    I haven’t read My Name is Not Easy, but have put it in my to-read pile. The rest of the books are just as amaz­ing as they are diverse. I hope peo­ple will take time to give them the atten­tion they deserve.

  2. Yes, thanks for post­ing this! I am definete­ly going to go out and get these books as well as Lau­ren’s. You do us all a great ser­vice in high­light­ing such fan­tas­tic new books and bring­ing the atten­tion back where it belongs.

  3. Did THAT ever need to be said! Thank you for say­ing the most impor­tant (yet, odd­ly unspo­ken) thing. There are no vil­lains or heroes here. It’s a shame a mis­take was made, but these were the hon­ored titles. Let’s give them the atten­tion THEY have earned!

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