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Editorial: Some Best Books, and a Best Man

In this July/August issue we present our usual record of the American Library Association award winners’ speeches* as well as our annual “Mind the Gap” awards, the Horn Book editors’ choices of good books left out by ALA. We also announce the winners of the 2018 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards. In all, that’s more than half a hundred people offering you considered, deliberated advice about what books are best. Best at what? Best for what? Best for whom, best for when — all of that.

These awards don’t contradict one another. Each one — Newbery, Caldecott, CSK, BGHB, what I guess we can call (and deludedly hope catches on) MTG — is rewarding books for a different reason, for being best at a certain thing, even while they are largely looking at the same population of titles. (BGHB does have that peculiar June through May calendar and broader eligibility, so its books are roughly half-different.) But implicit in all the awards is a call to action. If, at the ALA press conference, we all just said, “That’s nice,” and moved on, those awards would not last long. So what do we do with the news? What difference does it make to the world?

This is where best at becomes best for. None of the awards mentioned above reward popularity, so the call to action is not — despite what well-meaning adults might think — to press any given winner upon any given child. I’m thinking of Sendak’s story about the mother who told him that her child screamed every time she brought out Where the Wild Things Are, but she persisted, because the book had won the Caldecott. Awards do reward their winners as far as approval and possible financial gain go, but that’s not what or who they are for, either. Let’s face it: we’re already talking about what might win next year.

Awards provide focus, a lens through which we view not just the books that win, but all those books around them. The lens changes: the welcome ethnic diversity among this year’s winners cannot be put down to an increase in the diversity of what or who is published because, as the Cooperative Children’s Book Center reminds us every year, that diversity is not increasing. And this diversity among winners didn’t happen because any of the rules were changed. It happened because the people in the children’s books world are rethinking what’s encompassed in the criteria “distinguished” (for the ALSC awards) and “excellent” (for BGHB). Children’s book awards are not for What’s Out There; they go to those books that show us where we want to be. They seek — we seek — that “wider vision” for awards that Martha V. Parravano and Lauren Adams so radically (then) called for in their January/February 1996 Horn Book editorial, more than twenty years ago. May we keep on keepin’ on.

* * *

I can’t leave the subject of awards alone without noting the passage of one of my favorite prizewinners, Richard Peck, who died just before I handed this page in. I can’t think of a writer for young people whose voice was so instantly recognizable and whose moral force — even when it might scandalize you — was in every page he wrote. He never let kids off the hook and was a bracing presence in the children’s book world for more than forty years. He was a dear friend, too, and I shall miss him.

*Jacqueline Woodson’s Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal Acceptance speech [Ed. note: renamed Children’s Literature Legacy Award on June 23, 2018, post Magazine print publication] is not included in this issue because she was not able to get it to us by press time. But given the year she’s having — Wilder Award, Young People’s Literature Ambassadorship, Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award — blessed but overstuffed, we completely forgive her.

From the July/August 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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