- Panning for Gold:The 2017 Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry
Nikki Grimes. Garvey's Choice. Honesdale, Pennsylvania: WordSong, 2016.
Kwame Alexander. Booked. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. Jorge Argueta. Somos como las nubes / We Are Like the Clouds. Pictures by Alfonso Ruano. Translated by Elisa Amado. Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2016.
JonArno Lawson. The Hobo's Crowbar. Woodcuts by Alex Dempster. The Porcupine's Quill, 2016.
Some honors are burdens, and burdens have a way of desensitizing you to beauty. Way back in 2005—in our very first Lion and the Unicorn Poetry Award essay—founding judge Richard Flynn remarked,
The amount of bad children's verse published in 2004 has us worried that publishing operates according to Gresham's law (the bad drives out the good), and we are quite certain that it operates according to Sturgeon's law (ninety percent of everything is crap).(431)
Year after year the bad swamps the good, and the good sometimes sinks in the swamp, disappearing like Atreyu's steed, swallowed up by the Swamp of Sadness. Every year since this award's inception, our judges receive boxes of books of poetry, and we've eagerly looked forward to reading the new, hot-off-the-presses volumes. There is a sense of promise, of the [End Page 386] possibility of finding something alive in the boxes. As we open each new book we look for the "cool web of language," as Robert Graves writes, "to wind us in" (283). This year (our award's twelfth) as we opened our boxes of beautiful new books looking for the kinds of magical transformations rooted in our love of poetry, we found, for the most part, flat verse of exactly the kind that had left us cold and empty in books we had seen submitted and about which we'd written before. Repeatedly. We received fact books (this time about alligators and birds and Antarctica); books with bad puns (Bob Raczka's Wet Cement: A Mix of Concrete Poems); a requisite book on jazz (Roxane Orgill's Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph); and verse novels raising yet again the "why verse?" question. A few books were exceptional—and we will get to those in a minute—but our shared initial response was that we had seen these books before, not these particular books, of course, but books so much like them that we could, as Joseph suggested only partly in jest, simply recycle an old essay and change the titles. We are not going to do that, but Joseph's response awakened in all of us a desire to return to the original impulse that prompted the creation of this award. As we had all learned so much from the Signal Poetry Award essays, we wanted to continue the drive toward critical conversation about children's poetry but in a distinctly North American way. We wanted excellence. And, yes, we found some, but we hoped—after twelve years of writing about the good, the bad, and the ugly of poetry for children—that we'd find more good and less bad.
But that's a foolish (if understandable) hope. Of course there's more bad than good. And as it's our honor to receive these books, to be afforded the chance to write about them, it's also our burden—and our responsibility—to pan the gold from the sediment, to read carefully and responsively even in the face of book after flat book, in the face of those books that seem to be in print only because someone in some marketing department knows that there will be guaranteed sales for yet another book to be used in schools for Black History Month or for units on Birds or Insects or whatever.
So we returned to our river of books to look for gold with fresh eyes. Lissa, unfortunately, found it first in books that are ineligible because they are not North American: the exuberant, wickedly funny, Dancing in the Rain by Trinidadian/British author John Lyons, and a wonderful Norwegian...