- The Mainstreaming of Controversy in Children’s and YA Book Award Winners:How on Earth Did That Book Win?
Controversies surrounding book awards are not a new phenomenon, especially where children’s books are concerned. Concerns are raised continually about genre, format, content, and the composition of juries. Moreover, for many years there has been a building apprehension about whether book awards matter anymore or whether they are simply a way of showing how out of touch judges are with what is actually being read by children. In addition, there are ongoing discussions and questions about format: how do we judge graphic novels against novels, novels against poetry, or fiction against non-fiction, especially when [End Page 162] it comes to the larger, less specific awards such as the Newbery Medal (USA),1 the Caldecott Medal (USA),2 the Printz Award (USA),3 the Carnegie Medal (UK),4 and the Governor General’s Literary Award (Canada)?5 These discussions take place not only informally online but also among scholars of children’s literature (see Crisp; Driscoll; Kidd, “Prizing”; Kidd, “Not”; Silvey). I begin this review article with a discussion of shifts in award criteria and expectations related to issues of format, moving on to a more broad discussion of award criteria in general and to a focus on four award-winning texts from recent years. Each of texts listed above has been at the centre of controversy or shows evidence of out-of-the-box thinking from an award committee.
Many juries for children’s literature awards are made up primarily of dues-paying librarians, reviewers, and scholars, at least where the American Library Association’s (ALA) awards are concerned. Some recent award winners show that certain juries are able to expand their readings to include books that challenge the expectations of children’s librarians, children’s literature scholars, and book reviewers. The ALA’s Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature published in the United States provides a good example of this phenomenon. In 2007, Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese was awarded the Printz award and thus was recognized as the best of the best in young adult literature. This win raised many eyebrows and many questions about the place of graphic novels in the greater literary landscape. Since then, a number of niche awards have emerged—particularly in the context of North American literature awards—and graphic novels have become more recognized within other award categories, with accolades going to novels such as Yang’s Boxers & Saints (National Book Award shortlist, 2014), Cece Bell’s El Deafo (Newbery Honor, 2015), and Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki’s This One Summer (Caldecott Honor, 2015; Printz Honor, 2015).
While graphic novels and other innovative literary formats are becoming recognized to a greater degree—all three 2015 Newbery choices were novels in verse, and a number of non-fiction books that year were up for the National Book Award—perhaps the most complex area of controversy related to children’s literature awards is that of appropriateness, particularly in relation to sexual content. When Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky won a Newbery Medal in 2007, there was an incredible amount of backlash because the word “scrotum” appears on the first page of the novel (1). Many bloggers, columnists, educators, and librarians were offended that such a book could win the Newbery Medal, an award for children’s books that are considered to be of top quality. As editor and book critic Janice Harayda noted in her blog One Minute Book Reviews, a site aimed at librarians and book enthusiasts, “[S]ome people have reacted to The Higher Power of Lucky [as] though Patron had issued a...