National Book Award nomination shenanigans: My Thoughts

This story has already been covered quite thoroughly by both popular media and the book blogging/librarian circuits. All the same, I thought it couldn’t hurt to compile my thoughts and some links to the coverage in question.

The basics: Last week the National Book Award finalists were announced. (You can see the full list on their website.) There are some great books getting some well-deserved attention in the Young People’s Literature category. Before getting into where things got weird, I want to really point out that these books have been getting a lot of buzz for months, several of them are on my “to read list” already, and the authors all deserve big huge congratulations. Being nominated for a book award, any award, but especially for a National Book Award is a SERIOUSLY big deal.

So this is the finalized list of nominees for Young People’s Literature:

Franny Billingsley, Chime
(Dial Books, an imprint of Penguin Group USA, Inc. )

Debby Dahl Edwardson, My Name Is Not Easy
(Marshall Cavendish)

Thanhha Lai, Inside Out and Back Again
(Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)

Albert Marrin, Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy
(Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books)

Gary D. Schmidt, Okay for Now
(Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Young People’s Literature Judges: Marc Aronson (Panel Chair),
Ann Brashares, Matt de la Peña, Nikki Grimes, Will Weaver

I say finalized because this wasn’t the list that was first announced. Chime was not on that original list; instead Lauren Myracle’s novel Shine was named as one of the nominees. Apparently the nominations were submitted via phone and somewhere along the way, Chime was confused with Shine. Which is still baffling since one would assume author names, publishers, etc. would be included with that initial nomination list.

Later, Chime was placed back on the list (it was the original nomination that was supposed to be there in the first announcement) and it was announced that Shine would stay on the nomination list as well. There were would be six finalists this year.

Then it was decided that would not happen. The upshot of all of this is that Lauren Myracle has since withdrawn from the NBA proceedings and the NBA has made a 5000 dollar donation to the Matthew Shepard Foundation to make up for their mess (my words not anyone else’s). And I get that decision. The judges chose these nominees based on merits, they evaluated them. A book shouldn’t get a pass because of a mistake no matter how ridiculous that mistake is. What I found so sad, and so troubling, was that the NBA took so long to make that announcement causing everyone involved even more distress.

Publisher’s Weekly has a brief article about the whole debacle. For me the money phrase there was when Harold Augenbraum, the executive director for the NBA, said “The integrity of the awards is paramount” and Myracle withdrew her name to preserve said integrity. Aside from being shockingly insensitive to Myracle’s position in this whole predicament (that would be as the person who did nothing wrong by the way), I thought it was interesting to talk about integrity after such an egregious error on the NBA’s part. Does an award get to have “integrity” when it can’t even properly announce a nomination list? What kind of “integrity” is needed to keep raising an unsuspecting author’s hopes only to let her down repeatedly over the course of a week or two?

Unsurprisingly, Libba Bray has a very eloquent post on her blog about this whole mess which voices some of my thoughts in a much more concise and compelling way.

Finally, Lauren Myracle herself shares her thoughts on the whole thing in an interview with Vanity Fair.

In the end, I do think the decision makes sense even if the NBA managed to find the most hurtful and unhelpful way to get there. I still don’t understand how such an important announcement can depend on one phone call. I’m happy for the nominees and still excited to read them. And I’m so, so impressed by Lauren Myracle’s grace throughout this whole horrible thing.

There’s a lot of things to learn from this about awards in general (not the least of which being the value of email communication) . While they are wonderful, much like standardized tests, they don’t have an inherent meaning. Any award is an endorsement given by a group of people saying they liked a book. I’ll be a part of one such group with the Cybils this year. But the thing is, these groups that give awards are human. And being human, there is a chance for human error. There are better ways to learn such things but I do think this was a unique opportunity to see behind the curtain and see that even at as high a level as the NBA, mistakes can be made.

What I choose to take from this whole thing is that there are some fine NBA nominees in Young People’s Literature this year and there are a lot of ways that the NBA can improve their operations.

At the same time this mess confirmed that the community of YA readers/authors/bloggers/librarians/etc is a wonderful group of people who not only was willing to talk about this but was willing to rally for something they believed. But then, if you are a YA reader, you probably already knew that too.