Saturday, April 2, 2011

The ALA ate my wallet!

Moon Over ManifestI finally did it yesterday. I bought the 2011 batch of ALA award books. Yes, I know that the winners were announced more than a little while ago already, but every year I go through the same trepidation about making that quick purchase when they are announced. This has become an annual battle for me. I know that the publishers are counting on this quick purchase mentality from librarians. We're supposed to look at the list, realize that those books haven't weaseled their way onto our shelves, and panic about how the public will perceive our seeming noncompliance, enticing our collective mass to hightail it to the bookstore to pay that oh, so unappealing retail price for a book that might not even have any waiting readers back home. I suppose I haven't gotten that far into librarian thinking to do that yet. Give me a few more years.

Anyway, I haven't read any of the new winners yet. In fact, for the past few years, prior to seeing their titles printed on the ALCS homepage and in about a dozen pieces of junk mail from various book vendors, every one of the winners dwelled in that bottomless pit of books I'd never heard of. Sure, in 2008 I was aware that Neil Gaiman had published something new that I hadn't seen, but Neil Gaiman is almost always publishing something new that I haven't seen. The man is about as prolific as they come. (Neil, if by some miracle you're reading this, I am trying to keep up and I really loved Stardust. A novella about Tristran and Yvaine's adventures between the fair and throne would be much appreciated.) Getting back to reality though, the ALA awards are a bit like the Sundance Film Festival anymore. They select books that wouldn't make a big dent without a little help from their friends at the ALA. Don't get me wrong. I'm all for helping out the little guy. I'm just saying that that's how the awards seem to work now.

A few years ago, there was a spew of articles about how the award-winning books of the past decade or so have been so obscure and bizarre, that they were causing the ALA awards to lose their relevance. And at first, I thought, "No! This would be a tragedy that the entire world of children's books would suffer for!" Then, a couple of months ago, I learned from a rant (her word, not mine) by Jane Yolen that the Today show snubbed the Newbery and Caldecott Award winners from their traditional spot the day after the award winners were announced. In their place, Today had run an interview with Snooki, the reality television star. Jane was steamed. She had some choice words for Today, for Snooki, for anyone willing to listen. She blogged about it. She sent a letter of disapproval to Today. I shrugged my shoulders and wished I had a life that included the time to watch the Today show in the morning...or at least time to sit down for breakfast before work. Maybe the articles from a few years back were right on the money. Maybe there are just so many awards out there today that I can't get excited about the annual batch from the ALA like I once did.

In reality, I think I have simply come to the conclusion that an award doesn't mean that much. I'm happy for the people that win them. It feels good to be recognized for good work (though I realize there are innumerable awards whose purpose is to recognize things other than good work). Also, I recognize that there is more to an award than simple recognition, like prizes and monetary compensation, which I find equally acceptable. Who could make better use of some extra cash than the starving artists, after all? The thing that I find bothersome is simply the reverence that has come to be associated with winning certain awards.

Conversations that worry me go something like, "Oh, she won the Newbery? She must be great then!" There's almost a degree of validation that comes with the ALA awards, not dissimilar to winning a Super Bowl ring for great NFL quarterbacks. Yet an award from the ALA comes simply from impressing a small panel of readers, experts in the field of children's literature, whatever that means. As the old saying goes, there's no accounting for taste. The judges could've read everything the world of publishing has ever had to offer, but it doesn't make their opinion worth anymore than yours or mine. Does Dan Marino's lack of a Super Bowl win take something from an otherwise amazing career? Maybe. Does Chris Soenpiet's lack of a Caldecott take something from his contribution to children's literature? Not a chance. So maybe I'm a bit of a cynic. I don't dislike the thought behind a book award. It's the methodology behind selecting the winner that leaves me wanting something more.

One Crazy Summer (Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction (Awards))So I'll read Moon Over Manifest and I'll marvel over the illustrations in A Sick Day for Amos McGee. I'll even delight in the joys of Bink and Gollie and wonder at One Crazy Summer and Dave the Potter. I'll do all of that someday soon, I guess. But I'm not going to rush things. The mere fact that a dozen or so people got together in a room somewhere and decided that those were the best children's books America had to offer in 2010 doesn't mean I have to agree. It doesn't mean that I'll hurry out to the bookstore to fork over the hundred or so dollars it would cost to add the hardcover editions of each of those alleged masterpieces to my home collection. Paperbacks suit me fine. Congratulations to the winners. You worked hard and deserve a little respect for what you've done. I hope you get that. I promise I'll get to your books just as soon as my budget and frantic lifestyle allow for it. Just don't be surprised if it's not this year...or the next...or maybe the one after that.