Tuesday, November 9, 2010

We Get No Respect

A while back I was asked to be a judge for the NSK Neustadt Prize for Children's Literature. The award is presented every other year for "significant achievement" in children's books and is sponsored by World Literature Today and the University of Oklahoma. And aside from a nifty silver medallion, the recipient also gets a very hefty check for $25,000. That certainly got my attention.
At first I was going to turn down the request. I was already a judge for another book award, had several articles to deliver, and, oh, yeah, I was trying to write a book or two. Then I looked at the list of past nominees. Of the previous 26, only a small handful were dedicated writers of nonfiction. The number was a little disappointing, of course, and I'm sure I scowled. That's when I noticed something else. No one had ever put forward David Macaulay for the award!
Now that I couldn't believe. I remember the impact Macaulay's first book, Cathedral, had back when it was published in 1973. It was such a dazzling departure from what had been done in the past that it changed the world of children's books forever and even (in my opinion anyway) influenced the way picture books are created (think Chris Van Allsburg; think Mordicai Gerstein's The Man Who Walked Between the Towers). And he followed this first book with a long list of other amazing, humorous, and informative titles that earned him one award after another.
Step 1 as a judge was to write a piece explaining why our nominees deserved the award. Mine was six pages long, a passionate and detailed look at his books and the impact they had (and if anyone would like to read it I'd be happy to e-mail it to you). For step 2, we had to choose a representative book of the individual's work. I chose Mosque, not only because it is a clear and beautiful description of the construction and many uses of a mosque, but also because it was published after 9/11, which I felt made a brave and needed statement about a misunderstood and often maligned religion (and a glance at recent headlines suggests it's just as relevant today). The written pieces and books were then shared among all eight judges.
When I and the other judges met later via a phone conference, we began by making an oral presentation of our candidates. Before the actual voting there was a brief period of time to make additional comments. Here's where things got a bit sticky. After a few minutes of amiable small talk, a soft, hesitant voice said, "I'm not sure how anyone else feels, but I responded the least to the David Macaulay book...." She said more, but what I heard instead were several other judges making sounds of agreement.
Yes, I did rush to defend Macaulay's work, but it was clear he stood no chance. Don't get me wrong. All of the judges were thoughtful, extremely intelligent and articulate, and caring people who clearly loved children's literature. And every author nominated deserved to win. I know several of them and secretly hoped they would take the award if Macaulay didn't.
What hurt was that the non(ie., not)fiction book was probably toast before the race actually began (even though I'd still argue that Macaulay's contribution to children's literature has been monumental). The emotional impact of fiction is immediate and visceral, and moves readers in a profound way (which is as it should be). Nonfiction is in many ways more complex and subtle, and, I could argue, it's more difficult to achieve that ground-shaking emotional response. Not only does Macaulay have to have absolutely accurate information, but he has to integrate it seamlessly into the story of the mosque's construction, and provide stunningly dramatic and accurate illustrations. He does this so effortlessly that I think his artistic achievement is often overlooked.
That has been the general fate of nonfiction, I'm afraid. But I came away from my NSK Neustadt experience with a new resolve: to emphasize whenever and wherever possible the passion and artistry that goes into all of our nonfiction work. It's one of the reasons I'm so happy to be a part of INK and INK Think Tank. But I think I (we?) need to do even more, to widen my field of vision and be more agressive in pushing forward nonfiction as a unique artform. It's why I take time every day to read other blogs and to respond when appropriate (and even recommend and advocate for other people's books). It's why I'll soon be taking tentative steps into FaceBook and Twitter land and any other social media that can get our message out. Not that this is a new or revolutionary idea (after all, you have been doing this here at INK for a long time). But every so often a little shock makes me realize the need to tell the world exactly what we do and how hard it really is. In time, maybe the message will sink in.


Unknown said...

Here! Here! Jim. In the past several months I've been wandering through the blogosphere and everywhere are self-indulgent writers who have no consideration for the reader and why he/she should care and even continue reading. We NEVER forget the reader. It's an important discipline. Also, we have to know our subject in depth so we know what we can effectively leave out. These are two good reasons to read us, even if you're not a child.

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Jim, I'm a writer of fiction, but a devoted reader and fan of nonfiction. My Cynsations blog covers the body of youth literature. Please just holler if you'd ever like to chime in with a guest post on this topic.

Unknown said...

I'm with you, Jim, David Macaulay’s body of work is amazing. At least he has had plenty of sales, so clearly many people have recognized his achievements by voting with their dollars.

Linda Salzman said...

I love a little righteous indignation. Thanks, Jim!

Gretchen Woelfle said...

We writers of nonfiction have the sublime pleasure of discovering the Story of our amazing history/world. It's almost enough for me. But I agree that our Books deserve more recognition.

Cheryl Harness said...

"...responded the least..." I'm thinking that I responded the most to those three little words. How are we to go about warming up recalcitrant readers, inviting and inveigling responses out of them if not with banquets of images of their world and well-told stories about people who actually lived and, moreover, w/o the need to suck the blood from their neighbors' necks?


Angela said...

Thank you for posting about this and for being part of the process for the award.
When you venture out to FB you can find me by name (I also have an account on twitter, but it's gathering dust)
Best of luck!

Unknown said...

Thank you all for reading my long post (I promise to be more economical with your time in the future) and for your good thoughts and comments. Yes, I guess it was a bit of a rant, but it was a nice jolt for me to be more active on nonfiction's behalf. Now the goal is to follow through....