National Book Awards

It started way back in the spring–April, I think? And it’s finally over: my stint as a member of the panel for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. A fascinating experience.

I was very fortunate to work with four other *terrific* panelists: Ben Saenz, poet and YA novelist; Patricia McKissack, author of many books in several genres including one of my all-time forever-favorite picture books (GOIN’ SOMEPLACE SPECIAL); Jude Watson, midgrade and YA novelist; and our estimable chair, novelist Margaret Bechard. Reading and talking books with the four of them was truly a privilege.

We received some 280 submissions, and yes, we read them ALL. By e-mail and conference phone call, we discussed, argued, admired, critiqued–sometimes calmly, usually with passion, always with respect. Even when things got tough, I looked forward to our communiques. I learned so much from each of the other four judges, and I think we were all delighted that it was such a positive experience.

Here’s a photo of four out of five of us at the NBA dinner and award ceremony. It was held at the Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square, New York. (Alas, Ben couldn’t be with us as he was recovering from back surgery.)

From left: Margaret, Jude, me, Pat. We’re waving and saying hello for this picture especially for Ben, our fellow panelist in absentia. (All photos here were taken by Lee Bechard, Margaret’s husband–thank you, Lee!)

And another, without Pat but with Sherrie Young, our go-to gal at the National Book Foundation:

The five finalists had been announced in October. Here are their authors, on the ‘red carpet’:

From left: Gene Yang (AMERICAN BORN CHINESE); Martine Leavitt (KETURAH AND LORD DEATH); Patricia McCormick (SOLD); Nancy Werlin (THE RULES OF SURVIVAL); M.T. Anderson (THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING).

I’ve been asked by many folks how we arrived at this Fab Five. Our discussions of specific titles were/are confidential. In general terms: The submissions are publisher-selected, which presumably means that we received what the publishers considered the cream of their crop. Winnowing the top 50 or so from those 280 submissions was, I’m sorry to say, a piece of cake. That may sound harsh, but MANY books were a snap to eliminate–so easy that it’s difficult to believe somebody somewhere thought them possible contenders. The biggest faults? In my view, two main ones: 1) YA novels with weak story lines and protagonists whose whiny voices were indistinct from one another (LOTS of those); 2) Lackluster writing. Period.

The top 50 stood out for their compelling plotlines, great characterization, and especially, writing that was pitch-perfect for the story. Personally, I was looking for two primary qualities: I think of them as ‘in’ and ‘out.’ When I’m reading, I want to be ‘in’ the story. You know the feeling: I want to find it so compelling that I can’t bear to put it down. When I do have to put it down and am getting on with the rest of my life, that’s the ‘out’ part–I’m out of the story but I want it to be with me still. I’ll find myself thinking about it, wondering about the character(s), recalling scenes or images. A story both ‘in’ and ‘out’ for me: That’s what I was seeking.

From 50 down to 20 was more difficult, and the talent and variety were impressive. I continued to use my ‘in’ and ‘out’ criteria. At this stage, I found that several titles I loved *while I was reading* faded from mind fairly quickly. I couldn’t remember quite how the story developed, or I’d get a character from a book mixed up with one from a different book. As a panel, we were at this stage for several weeks, but we finally got the list down to around 20 books.

This was where it *really* got tough. I think every one of us had three or four or five titles that we would love to have seen in the ‘top five’ if the top five could have been ten instead! In the end, after more discussion and a couple rounds of voting, we came to overall agreement on the five finalists. And now, several weeks later, I still love our list. I hope everyone who loves books will read all five of them.

The winner, in case you haven’t already heard, was THE ASTONSIHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, by M.T. Anderson. (Aside: Technically the above sentence is incorrect. Both the NBA and the Newbery Medal are officially cited for the *author*. I’ve always been puzzled by this; I think the award citation should go to the *book.* In official parlance, the winner of the 2006 NBA for Young People’s Literature is M.T. Anderson for THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING.)

Congratulations to all the finalists, their publishers, and their families! (Gene Yang had his wife and parents with him, as well as his editor, and I don’t think any one group of people have ever looked prouder…)

Am I glad I did it? You betcha!!

Would I do it again? NO. It took too much time away from my own writing.

Would I encourage other authors to say yes if invited to be on the panel? YES. Because it’s a way of giving back to the reading community, AND because you will learn so much!

Happy reading and Happy Turkey to all!

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