What’s an award without the occasional scandal to make sure everybody’s paying attention? Marisa Tomei winning the Oscar. Wicked not winning the Tony. Rush Limbaugh being named Author of the Year.
That last should not have been a surprise, though. The Children’s Book Council’s Author and Illustrator of the Year awards, part of their Children’s Choice Book Awards program, are chosen by amateurs. I say this not to deride Mr. Limbaugh’s win but because it is literally true: the five candidates for each of these two awards are chosen on the basis of how many books they have sold; the winner is determined by an online free-for-all vote. It really is a popularity contest.
I’m confident enough in Horn Book readers to believe they can dismiss this as just so much gimmickry and nonsense that means nothing. We watch the People’s Choice Awards on TV because we like to see celebrities in fancy clothes, not because we think the awards themselves are actually important. (Not that we necessarily think the Academy Awards are important, either, but they do have demonstrable effects beyond one starry night.) Does anyone remember who won last year’s Author of the Year award? No offense intended to that winner — Jeff Kinney — but the fact that we don’t automatically think, “Ah, yes, the 2013 Author of the Year,” when we hear his name means that the award is superfluous. (We already know he sells a lot of books.)
Not so the distinguished Newbery and Caldecott medals, whose prestige and influence we honor in this, our annual ALA Awards issue. These awards generate gossip and parsing and debate and drama — all good things — but have remained admirably if boringly scandal-free. But I am afraid that ALSC’s recent attempt to keep the awards that way is only going to bite itself in the butt.
While previously content to merely caution award committee members not to violate the confidentiality of committee discussions, at ALA’s Midwinter Conference earlier this year the ALSC Board of Directors approved revisions to its “Policy for Service on Award Committees.” The policy now states that “[committee] members should not engage in any print or electronic communication outside of the committee regarding eligible titles during their term of service.” If this seems little to ask, remember that any book with text is an “eligible title” for the Newbery Medal and that “any print or electronic communication” means not just The Horn Book and SLJ, etc., but also blogs, Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, and professional listservs. Oh, and your e-mail.
Of course I have a vested interest here. I’m sorry that I and the other Horn Book editors may no longer serve on ALSC award committees. By swearing to refrain from public commentary on the books we read, when such commentary is exactly what the public is counting on us for, we are being asked to stop doing the job that presumably brought us to the attention of ALSC in the first place. But the larger problem is that ALSC is asking all of its award committee members to neglect their professional responsibilities for a year in favor of an awards program that needs more fresh air, not less. No librarian worthy of the name should ever put herself in the position of not being able to promote good books.
This is lawyering up with a vengeance, and it does the awards no good, putting them in a critical vacuum. And as far as keeping the discussions untainted by outside pressures goes, it is laughable, given that committee members are allowed to publish unsigned opinions — the perfect basis for a whisper campaign — and remain free to revel in the attentions of publishers eager to wine and dine them. ALSC is fixing a problem that isn’t a problem with a solution that is only going to create problems of its own. That’s a scandal just waiting to happen.
From the July/August 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.