I was really looking forward to hearing yesterday's nominations for the National Book Awards...especially when I learned that the NBA had a new slogan this year: "Where Amazing Happens!"
So when the list of nominated titles finally showed up online around noontime, I quickly scanned past the categories of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, eager to see what amazing books for young people were nominated. (I was reminded of Bill Murray presenting his Academy Award picks back in the early days of Saturday Night Live. "Supporting Actor and Actress?" he'd say, wiping the names of the nominees off his magnet-board prop with the brush of a hand: "Who cares?") Adult fiction, nonfiction, and poetry? Who cares? (...Well, I actually do care, but I just care a lot more about the children's book category.)
Finally I found the list of this year's nominees:
Laurie Halse Anderson, CHAINS
Kathi Appelt, THE UNDERNEATH
Judy Blundell, WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED
E. Lockhart, THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS
Tim Tharp, THE SPECTACULAR NOW
I already owned two of these books, but rushed out to find the others. "This must be good," I told the clerk at the bookstore while she rang up WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED. "After all, the NBA's slogan is 'Where Amazing Happens.'"
"Uh...that's the slogan for the National Basketball Association, not the National Book Award."
Suitably chagrined, I reverted from Bill Murray to another SNL favorite, Emily Litella, and said, "Oh. ...Never mind."
(Well, to a children's book person, the NBA is the National Book Award.)
Since I haven't yet read all this year's nominees, I have no idea if they are amazing or not. Some past winners are true classics (Louis Sachar's HOLES is one example) while others have long since been remaindered and pulped (that paper coffee cup you're drinking from? In a past life it was the NBA winner from 1979, BERT BREEN'S BARN.)
The National Book Awards began in 1950 as an "award given to writers by writers." A category for children's literature did not exist until 1969 when Meindert DeJong's A JOURNEY FROM PEPPERMINT STREET beat out fellow nominees THE HIGH KING (Lloyd Alexander), CONSTANCE (Patricia Clapp), THE ENDLESS STEPPE (Esther Hautzig) and LANGSTON HUGHES (a biography by Milton Meltzer.) DeJong wrote some classic books in his time, but I'm not sure that PEPPERMINT STREET ranks among his very finest. It seems more like a "career capper" in honor of the author's entire body of work. Actually, many of the early winners feel that way to me. Consider the following year when Isaac Bashevis Singer won for A DAY OF PLEASURE : STORIES OF A BOY GROWING UP IN WARSAW over Vera and Bill Cleaver's WHERE THE LILIES BLOOM, Edna Mitchell Preston's POPCORN AND MA GOODNESS, William Steig's Caldecott-winner SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE and Edwin Tunis's THE YOUNG UNITED STATES, 1783-1830. And they did it again in 1971 when Lloyd Alexander won for the okay-but-certainly-not-his-best MARVELOUS MISADVENTURES OF SEBASTIAN over GROVER by Vera and Bill Cleaver, BLOWFISH LIVE IN THE SEA by Paula Fox, FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS by Arnold Lobel and E.B. White's THE TRUMPET OF THE SWAN. You can almost hear the committee thinking, "Well, Lloyd didn't get it for THE HIGH KING, so let's make it up to him this year."
The following year things got CRAZY.
The children's category included one fairly dismissable book (THE ART AND INDUSTRY OF SANDCASTLES by Jan Adkins); one controversial story which included even more deaths than THE HUNGER GAMES (WILD IN THE WORLD by John Donovon); and a passel of great and greatish books including THE PLANET OF JUNIOR BROWN (Virginia Hamilton), HIS OWN WHERE (June Jordan), THE TOMBS OF ATUAN (Ursula K. LeGuin), MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH (Robert C. O'Brien), HILDIDID'S NIGHT (Cheli Duran Ryan), THE BEARS HOUSE (Marilyn Sachs), AMOS & BORIS (William Steig), and FATHER FOX'S PENNYRHYMES (Clyde and Wendy Watson.) So what won? THE SLIGHTLY IRREGULAR FIRE ENGINE OR THE HITHERING THITHERING DJINN, a surreal and psychodelic volume by adult literary writer Donald Barthelme which would probably best be appreciated by other adults living in that surreal and psychodelic era. As I recall, even one of that year's judges was furious about the book's selection.
1973 gave us an expected and unexciting winner, THE FARTHEST SHORE by Ursula K. LeGuin over a mostly-unexciting field: THE HOUSE OF WINGS (Betsy Byars), TROLLS (Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire), Newbery winner JULIE OF THE WOLVES (Jean Craighead George), CHILDREN OF VIETNAM by Betty Jean Lifton and Thomas C. Fox, THE IMPOSSIBLE PEOPLE by Georgess McHargue (who wrote some great books in the 1970s and then pretty much disappeared from publishing), THE WITCHES OF WORMS by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, and DOMINIC by William Steig.
In '74, Eleanor Cameron won for the rather muted time-travel fantasy THE COURT OF THE STONE CHILDREN over the much more raw and emotional candidates A HERO AIN'T NOTHING BUT A SANDWICH by Alice Childress and SUMMER OF MY GERMAN SOLDIER by Bette Greene; Caldecott winner DUFFY AND THE DEVIL by Harve and Margot Zemach; Norma Fox Mazer's breakthrough-novel A FIGURE OF SPEECH; strong entries from Vera and Bill Cleaver (THE WHYS AND WHEREFORES OF LITTABELLE LEE) and E.L. Konigsburg (A PROUD TASTE FOR SCARLET AND MINIVER), as well as THE TREASURE IS THE ROSE by Julia Cunninham, GUESTS IN THE PROMISED LAND by Kristin Hunter, and POOR RICHARD IN FRANCE by F.N. Monjo.
Virginia Hamilton made history in 1975, winning both the Newbery and NBA for M.C. HIGGINS THE GREAT. Milton Meltzer made another kind of history, scoring two finalists on the same list: REMEMBER THE DAYS and WORLD OF OUR FATHERS. Natalie Babbit was nommed for THE DEVIL'S STORYBOOK, along with Bruce Buchenholz for DOCTOR IN THE ZOO, James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier for MY BROTHER SAM IS DEAD, and Jason and Ettagale Laure for JOI BANGLA! : THE CHILDREN OF BANGLADESH. I'd like to make special mention of the final three nominees: I TELL A LIE EVERY SO OFTEN by Bruce Clements, WINGS by Adrienne Richard, and THE EDGE OF NEXT YEAR by Mary Stolz -- all great books that no one seems to think about or talk about these days, and all deserving of re-discovery.
The aforementioned coffee cup, BERT BREEN'S BARN, won in 1976 and it's actually a pretty strong, solid historical novel. Competition included Eleanor Cameron for TO THE GREEN MOUNTAINS, Norma Faber for AS I WAS CROSSING BOSTON COMMON, Isabelle Holland's OF LOVE AND DEATH AND OTHER JOURNEYS, Nicolasa Mohr for EL BRONX REMEMBERED, Belinda Wilkinson for LUDELL, and David McCord for his classic poetry volume THE STAR IN THE PAIL.
In 1977 the NBA went to Katherine Paterson for THE MASTER PUPPETEER -- the first major award for this author who went on to win TWO NBAs and TWO Newberys...for four different books! Other nominees were Milton Meltzer for NEVER TO FORGET : THE JEWS OF THE HOLOCAUST, John Ney for OX UNDER PRESSURE (was this a weak year or what?), Mildred D. Taylor for ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY and Barbara Wersba for NOTES FOR A SMALL HARMONICA.
...And if you thought 1977 was a weak year, what about 1978 when the NBA went to a nonfiction book, THE VIEW FROM THE OAK by Judith and Herbert Kohl, which almost no one remembers, and the other nominees were Betty Sue Cummings for HEW AGAINST THE GRAIN (another mostly-forgotten book, though I remember liking it), Ilse Koehn for MISCHLING, SECOND DEGREE (raise your hand if you've ever heard of this book. ...Anyone?), David McCord for ONE AT A TIME and the redoubtable William Steig for CALEB & KATE.
Katherine Paterson was back on top in 1979 with THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS, beating out Lloyd Alexander for THE FIRST TWO LIVES OF LUKAS-KASHA, Vera and Bill Cleaver for QUEEN OF HEARTS (I love this book!), Sid Fleiscman for HUMBUG MOUNTAIN and Paula Fox for THE LITTLE SWINEHERD AND OTHER TALES.
This marked the end of the National Book Awards as we knew them. In 1980 the NBA gave way to the American Book Awards which honored titles in a ridiculous number of categories including prizes for paperbacks which, peculiarly, had 1979's winner THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS competing for top paperback just a year after it won the NBA (and losing to Madeleine L'Engle's A SWIFTLY TILTING PLANET.) In 1982 Paterson would be nominated for the paperback version of her NBA-winning THE MASTER PUPPETEER and she'd lose again. The mind boggles.
By 1987, the National Book Awards were restored, but it wasn't until 1996 that a category now called "Young People's Literature" was included. Since then the focus has been on books for older kids and young adults -- and there have been some great winners (HOLES is the only book since M.C. HIGGINS THE GREAT to win both the NBA and the Newbery) as well as some that have left me scratching my head (HOMELESS BIRD by Gloria Whelan is a nice-enough book, but....) It's also served to introduce some exciting new voices (THE PENDERWICKS by Jeanne Birdsall; THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie.) I almost feel like the awards from the current decade are so recent that I haven't had time to develop a perspective on them. I prefer looking back on the earlier years to see which books have held up over time. And see which books have not. To look at which authors were honored (Milton got five nominations, William Steig got four, and so did those clever Cleavers, Vera and Bill) and which were ignored. And I love comparing the NBA winners and and Newberys from year to year.
For whatever reason, the National Book Awards have never acquired the same cachet as the Newbery, though some feel the NBA selections are often more kid-friendly than the titles that end up winning the Big N. I try to make a point of reading all the titles nominated for the National Book Award each year -- mourning the fact that the number of nominees is now strictly five, whereas there used to be as many as ten back in the day. Yes, I've found a fair share of clunkers among the NBA nominees, but I've also discovered many new books that I love. Because you never know where amazing is going to happen.