Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Year Without a Newbery?

Back in 1917, a committee convened to select the very first Pulitzer prize winning novel.

The members of this committe would later report, "Of the five books submitted in competition, all but one seem to us unworthy of consideration for the prize. We are unanimously of the opinion, however, that the merits of this book, though considerable, are no greater than that of several other novels, which though not included in the formal applications, have been taken into consideration by us in arriving at a final verdict. We recommend that the award be withheld this year."

The inaugural Pulitzer novel was finally named the following year (HIS FAMILY by Ernest Poole), but in 1919 the committee again recommended no prize -- until a last-minute decision was made to honor Booth Tarkington's THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. In 1920 the prize was once again withheld.

And so it continued over the decades, with no Pulitzer given for a novel (the catetgory was later renamed "fiction" to include short story collections) in 1941, 1946, 1954, 1957, 1964, 1971, 1974, and 1977. During some of those years the jury simply felt no book was worthy of the prize; other times they selected a title (FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS by Ernest Hemingway in 1941; GRAVITY'S RAINBOW by Thomas Pynchon in 1973; A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT by Norman Maclean in 1977) but were overruled by the Pulitzer advisory board.

It's rather jarring to read through a list of all the Pulitzer novel/fiction winners and stumble upon those "missing" years. One wonders if those years truly did suffer from subpar titles...or if the juries were just being extra picky. I feel bad for the authors whose careers and lives might have been changed if only they'd received Pulitzer recognition; their books may well have withstood the test of time and grown in importance over the years. After all, the non-winning FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS and A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT hold up admirably well compared to some long-forgotten titles that actually have won the Pulitzer, such as 1933's THE STORE by T.S. Stribling or 1944's JOURNEY IN THE DARK by Martin Flavin.

Great Britain's children's book prizes, the Carnegie Medal (for the year's "outstanding book for children") and the Kate Greenaway Medal (for "distinguished illustration in a book for children,") have also occasionally declared years in which no title was deemed worthy of the award.

The Greenaway did this in 1955 and 1958.

In 1943, 1948, and 1966 the Carnegie was, to quote the winners' list, "withheld as no book considered suitable." Despite no prize being given in 1966, the committee did cite THE BAYEUX TAPESTRY : THE STORY OF THE NORMAN CONQUEST by Norman Denny and Josephine Flimer-Sankey as "highly commended" and THE WILD HORSE OF SANTANDER (Helen Griffiths), THUNDER IN THE SKY (K.M. Peyton) and MARASSA AND MIDNIGHT (Morna Stuart) as "commended." (Apparently "highly commended" translates into "close but no cigar.")

Here in the United States, our two major book prizes -- the Newbery and the Caldecott -- are awarded annually and the rules allow no option for withholding awards.

But what if they could?

While there are many years when a number of truly distinguished children's books vie against each other to win one of the top prizes, there are other years when nothing TRULY distinguished is published and the Newbery or Caldecott goes to an acceptable-but-not-brilliant book. Would it strengthen the merit, intention, and stature of the Newbery or Caldecott for those medals to simply be withheld during such years?

It's hard to imagine a Newbery or Caldecott committee reading, evaluating, and discussing books for many months...only to decide nothing quite deserves that year's award. That kind of decision would take a certain amount of bravery...and chutzpah. And withholding an award would have other ramifications as well. It could hurt the sales of children's books and would certainly cast quite a pall over the one day per year that's devoted to celebrating children's books.

However, it certainly would get people talking -- and arguing, debating, and thinking about the state of children's books is always a good thing.


CLM said...

I am a huge K.M. Peyton fan but can't place that particular title - it must be one of the few I don't own, but now I naturally will hunt it down...

Greg Wright said...

Nice essay. What's your source on the last-minute award for Amberson's? I haven't heard that before.

Peter D. Sieruta said...

CLM: Maybe that title wasn't published in the States, or had a name change before being published here. I'll see what I can find out.

Greg & Jenn: Thanks. There's a fantastic recent series called CHRONICLE OF THE PULITZER PRIZES, which has a volume for each of the categories (fiction, drama, editorial, etc.) It's very expensive ($126 per volume) so I don't own it yet, but parts of these books can be accessed online. The volumes contain a year-by-year history of the awards, telling exactly which titles were recommended and also tells which years the jury's decision was over-ridden by the Pulitzer Advisory Panel. It's fascinating -- and I'm learning about a lot of "also ran" titles that I'd never heard of in my life.

Thanks for visiting my blog.

Bybee said...

Thanks for the heads-up about Chronicle of The Pulitzer Prizes. Yikes, that is expensive, but I only want the fiction volume.

Bybee said...

I'm stumped regarding a YA book I read a few years ago. I posted what I do remember at my blog. Hope you can help.

James Rosenzweig said...

I found this post really interesting, particularly as I'm currently attempting to read every Pulitzer Prize winning novel in chronological order (it's early yet--we'll see how I do). Do you know what novel was almost selected in 1917? I'd be very curious to find out!

And I agree concerning the withholding of an award--both the risks and the rewards. I'm inclined, though, to consider the rewards worth it--no one agrees with the AFI lists of top 100 movies, as far as I can tell. But I'm willing to bet the AFI list did a lot to bring some old movies to new eyes. The debate over a withheld Newbery could easily do the same, I think--certainly lists of deserving books would fly out of every corner of the blogosphere!