Thursday, March 13, 2008

Hard books and awards

Australian Sonya Harnett has won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, an honor that speaks to the discussion we're having about Nina Lindsay's comments about "shelf-sitters." Completely deserving of the many awards her writing has won, Hartnett is, however, no crowd-pleaser. While as a culture we are used to the fact that adult fiction with a small audience routinely beats out bestsellers at awards time, we don't seem to like it so much when something similarly "literary" for children competes for shelf space, attention and awards alongside books that have wider appeal. "No kid is going to read this" is something we have all said. That can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, of course, if the person who says it therefore decides not to review it or buy it for a library.

This is a situation as old as libraries but has become more prominent as a) libraries have become less elitist and more responsive to popular taste and b) book budgets have shrunk, making it more attractive to purchase something that will circulate twenty times rather than twice. It's hard to imagine it now, but there was a time when juvenile hardcover fiction was only found in libraries. Expectations were smaller, so were print runs, and thus smaller books had a chance. Is this still true? Could Sonya Hartnett thrive in America?

10 comments:

Elizabeth said...

OK, I'll dive in here. I was with you until "...and thus smaller books had a chance." Had a chance at what? Being the books that libraries selected, and thus found by children?

I'm not so sure that's true. In the early 70s, I remember a lot of starred reviews and attention for the writer William Mayne. And when I asked a friend, a librarian in Lexington, Mass, if Mayne’s books were popular with kids, she said (with genuine sadness in her voice) "I've never seen a child read a Wiliam Mayne book." But I know she had every one of Mayne’s books in her library’s collection.

What are those little books so oft referred to by all of us longing for the glory days (I include myself in that group) that can’t get published now? And are they really that good? We as an industry are publishing MORE original fiction, by new writers, than we did in the early ‘80s.

We published a really good book Sonya Hartnett called Sleeping Dogs when I was at Viking, and the reviews were terrific. If memory serves, we probably sold around 6-8,000 copies. We considered it a success. And Hartnett has a Printz honor book, which had to have helped her sales on that book, Surrender. So how are we letting her down, exactly? She’s published and she’s packaged well and we have a major award that helps promote good teen books, and she has a medal for it. If anything, Hartnett is an example of the fairly literary writer who is well published. So are you really just complaining that other YA writers, such as Libba Bray and Stephanie Meyer, get reached for much more often?

thom.barthelmess said...

Abusus non tollit usum.
Why do we persist in twisting our knickers when books (or authors) of limited popularity win awards? Most awards have very specific criteria against which contenders are measured. If those criteria can be boiled down to "This will circulate a bajillion times without any help from you," I guess it would be fair to get upset when Sonya Hartnett wins. But the criteria rarely say that. They talk about distinction and cultural value and literary excellence. Where the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Prize is concerned, a "body of work must uphold the highest artistic quality and evoke the deeply humanistic spirit that Astrid Lindgren treasured." If that's what you're looking for, I think Sonya Hartnett is on the money. I've been the public librarian who has to help a reluctant reader select and make her way through a Newbery book. It's not always easy. There can be a disconnect between the books on that "list" and the perennial requirement for kids to read them. But it doesn't make sense to me to blame the award. I was lucky enough to participate on a Newbery Committee (and, for the record, we picked one of those shelf-sitters, which I will defend to my dying day), and we executed our duty with vigilant attention to the terms and criteria. I imagine that it's almost always that way. As I see it, the problem is not with the award but with the way people use it. Why are we insisting that kids read from this list? Why are we buying these books as gifts (without knowing anything about them beyond the seal on the front of the cover)? For me, the question isn't so much "Why do award juries tend to choose shelf-sitters?" as much as it is "Why do librarians think award-winning books should possess some sort of universal appeal?"

Roger Sutton said...

What I'm wondering is if Sonya Hartnett--or a Sonya Hartnett--would be published here (not copublished, as she is now) if you knew she would probably sell 6,000-8,000 copies? The industry is definitely publishing more first novels but an awful lot of them are commercial fiction, not Sonya Hartnett or William Mayne. And I wonder if she is the new him (not the convicted child-molester part, of course!)--beloved by reviewers and librarians, not so much by kids. Another difference between Hartnett and Mayne is that she is publishing at a time when more adults (besides librarians) are reading the older-YA books. But you're making me remember Earthfasts--what a great book.

There's also the other part of the librarian's job--you can't just buy the books, you have to do what you can to make sure that their audience finds them. For some books, face-out on the shelf is enough; others take more work.

emay said...

Would I be silly to assume that the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Prize is intended to encourage writers to emulate Astrid Lindgren in creating wonderful books that children enjoy? I can't imagine anyone calling Pippi Longstocking a shelf-sitter.

Anonymous said...

what is this parenthetical comment about Wm. Mayne? A "child molester"??? Or is that a sarcastic allusion to another reviewer's view of Mayne's work? Casual "jokes" like this (if it is a joke) can disconcert.

Roger Sutton said...

No joke, in fact very sad, and I should not have referred to it so lightly. Mayne did (may still be doing) hard time for sexually abusing several young girls in the 1960s who only came forth with their charges (which he conceded) in 2004. I still think he's a great writer.

Anonymous said...

Thanks (I guess) for that prompt explanation. One of those things one would rather not know - but at
least I don't have to wonder about the matter. He's still a favorite.

gail said...

I think part of the reason you see concerns about "literary" children's books with small audiences of readers winning awards is that the award winners are selected by adults who, technically, are not the target audience. With adult books, members of the target audience get to pass judgment upon them so that even if the winners are not widely read, well, at least it's another adult saying we should respect this piece of writing. It's not someone who is not like me telling me what I should value. (Well, not someone who is a lot not like me.)

With the awards for kids' books, I think there's often a feeling that adults are imposing their literary value system on kid readers and that may be where some of the dissatisfaction with the awards comes from. Not only do you have your traditional literary fiction vs. commercial fiction divide but now you have adult gatekeepers vs. kid readers divide, too.

Roger Sutton said...

That is another wrinkle, Gail, a big one. I wonder if anyone has ever isolated and analyzed "children's librarians literature": books prized by that group while essentially unknown by others. For some reason I think of a lot of the Brits here--some, not all, of Alan Garner, Mayne, Jill Paton Walsh, Aidan Chambers--but wonder if that is a case of loss in translation. Does anyone know, for example, if Garner's Stone Book Quartet is or was read by children in the U.K.? The Horn Book loved it, I love it, it was handsomely published here by Collins in the early 80s, but I bet there wasn't a kid who cracked it. I'm sure glad it exists, though. Betsy Hearne has postulated that books like Garner's and others, such as some of the more experimental reaches of Virginia Hamilton, open things up for other writers, who may absorb some of those books' techniques into more child-accessible work.

Anonymous said...

I'm having the flip side of this problem: a book that I think is artificial, heavy handed, moralizing and crap, but that I don't think will be seen that way by a large part of the teen audience. I think they'll love it because they won't recognize it for what it is, a facile attempt to play to their thirst for voyeuristic and moralistic fiction: OMG, don't be mean to people, or like, someone might DIE.


How do you review something that you think teens might like, when you think the author is taking advantage of the audience?