17 March 2007

Postdating Awards - Best since 1983?

Rounding out this week of Cybils nominees, I quote an anonymous commenter over at Read Roger who said of such awards:

It can't be easy to choose one book as the best contribution to literature for children in a given year. I am sure it is easier with hindsight. Could we have a prize, maybe called The Postdated Newbery, for the best book published five years earlier?
I suggested something similar in history back when Michael Bellesiles’s Arming America was finally accepted as fraudulent. The book had received the Bancroft Prize, among the top honors for an American historian. Bellesiles had also received the Binkley-Stephenson Award award from the Organization of American Historians for the best historical paper of 1996--a paper that became the seed of his book, and which was also based on spurious evidence.

During the controversy, with gun-rights advocates calling for Bellesiles’s head, many academics defended a deliberate evaluation as necessary for scholarship. It may take months or years to judge a complex historical work, they said: checking citations, considering what other sources might have to say on the topic, testing the analysis, etc. But of course the OAH, the Bancroft committee, the Pulitzer committee, and other organizations give awards for the best of the past year.

Eventually Columbia University rescinded its Bancroft Prize for Arming America. People asked whether the OAH would rescind its award for his paper as well. Executive Director Lee Formwalt explained the answer:
After lengthy discussion, the board decided not to rescind the prize noting that the decisions of the organization to award a prize or publish an article are based on the best information available at that time. The post-publication vetting, through the process of scholarly give and take, ultimately determines the viability of any historical interpretation.
In short, the process of granting formal awards for best history article or book is often too short to really determine the best history article or book.

Novels eligible for the Newbery don’t have citations to consider, but hindsight can still be useful. Among middle-grade novels published in 1964, Harriet the Spy has clearly proved more influential and beloved than Shadow of a Bull or that year’s Honor Book, Across Five Aprils. Of the 1966 honorees, Honor Book The Black Cauldron has kept more fans than medalist I, Juan de Pareja. But then there are years with more than one landmark title on the short list, and time hasn’t produced a clearcut choice among them.

Furthermore, there are advantages to giving book awards fairly soon after publication. Bancroft and Newbery recognition can help a first-time author or first-time nominee become established. With the store shelf life of books shrinking, a bright gold sticker five years later might have to go on remainder copies.

In 1993, the Booker organization in the UK designated a special award for the best Booker Prize-winner of the previous twenty-five years. That went to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, winner in 1981. Though Rushdie no doubt benefited from sympathy in 1993 (he was still in hiding), his novel truly is a magnificent achievement and a landmark in how British fiction expanded in that period.

Would the same process work for Newberys? Of all the Medalists (and Honor Books, if one chooses) from 1983 through this year, which shows the most quality, influence, and staying-power? If you had to choose one title as the Newbery of Newberys in this period, could you do it?


gail said...

Believe it or not, I've actually heard of Michael Bellesiles (whose name I hope I will never have to say out loud). I have his earlier book Revolutionary Outlaws: Ethan Allen and the Struggle for Independence on the Early American Frontier, which I read when researching The Hero of Ticonderoga. I've never totally understood what he's supposed to have done with Arming America that got him into so much trouble.

Which, of course, isn't the point of your post at all.

J. L. Bell said...

No, but I'm happy to reply. So happy you might start to regret bringing this up.

a) The name's pronounced as if it were French, which I'm sure it originally was: bel-LEEL.

b) The book misquotes sources, which could just be carelessness. It cites statistics on probate records which some law professors in Chicago found were mathematically impossible. Again, that could just be carelessness. But Bellesiles made many statements over several months about where he'd found those probate records which were also impossible, and could not have been the result of carelessness.

I wrote a bit about the case and provided a link to the findings of his university's special outside committee here.

I haven't heard any such complaint about Bellesiles's Revolutionary Outlaws. And ironically I think that's the type of history book that Arming America's biggest critics would like: political-military history about a bunch of armed men. (I caricature, but only a bit.) So it's probably a solid work of history that's now tinged with doubt forever.

julia durango said...

That's a tough task. My favorite Newbery from that time period is THE HERO AND THE CROWN, but I guess I'd choose THE GIVER with HOLES a close second.

Mordena said...

Can't choose one, but I can choose two: The Thief, and The Ear, The Eye, and The Arm.

J. L. Bell said...

Fuse #8, in a pointer to this article, notes the Phoenix Award, given by the Children's Literature Association to "a book originally published in English twenty years previously which did not receive a major award at the time of its publication."

A number of the winning or honored Phoenix titles were also Newbery Honor Books years before. Does that mean the Phoenix committee thinks they should have won the Medal instead? Not necessarily, since any Medalist is ipso facto ineligible for a Phoenix. So there's no head-to-head, Rocky II-style rematch.

Anonymous said...

j.l. bell,

the newbery is supposed to go to the most distinguished contribution to children's literature in a given year. of course, no one knows exactly what that means. do you think a book can be really really important, but that that importance can be short lived? as opposed to a book who appeal is timeless? which one would you give the prize to? say that steinbeck's books weren't quite so well written, but still had the impact they had because of their content. steibeck opened a lot of eyes when he first published. call it a "social commentary" book. "Sold" might be an example. Do you think it should get a prize because it tells children something important that they should know? What if that information is going to be dated? Not that I think Sold will be, unfortunately. I could wish. But we might look back at a book that opened children's eyes to events in Vietnam, and today it might seem so naiive. Would we wonder why it got the Newbery when The Black Cauldron was so much more enduring?


J. L. Bell said...

I think the word "distinguished" might encourage judges to look for books that seem serious, as opposed to fantastic or funny.

As for "of the year," I doubt that limits the judges as much, in terms of making them think of how the book reflects this year and its concerns. After all, historical fiction does especially well in the Newberys. And I think judges, especially librarians, tend to know they're choosing for the long term.

Obviously judges can't ignore the mood of the times in which they live any more than a fish can ignore water. Looking back, we can see how Johnny Tremain reflects the concerns of WW2 and My Brother Sam Is Dead reflects the concerns of the Vietnam era. But at the time, the Newbery judges probably thought each was "distinguished" absolutely.