Some Celebrating Is in Order
The National Book Award finalists were announced this week, and I was thrilled to see Kathi Appelt’s the Underneath www.kathiappelt.com/ on the list. Kathi and I taught together at the Vermont College children’s and young adult literature MFA program, and she is a wonderful combination of the most warm-hearted supporter of her colleagues and students and an impassioned advocate for fine writing. And while this book is clearly fiction, she speaks up for nonfiction — which of course endears her to me.
Readers of this column will surely have noticed that the NBA has historically been slow to select nonfiction books as finalists and has never picked one as a winner in the young readers category. But rather than complain, I think we need to realize that that very silence indicates how nonfiction for younger readers is changing. I suspect that the judges (writers themselves — and the NBA foundation tries hard to recruit nonfiction writers to serve) simply are not quite sure how to judge nonfiction today, and especially against fiction. Our books are not dutiful, informative slogs. They are not fictionalized "faction." They include illustrations — which, by the NBA rules, the judges cannot consider (which is also why picture books really have no chance). So if you, as an author, parent, or teacher, have not been reading much nonfiction you may suddenly be asked to judge a strange creature and to weigh some of the issues we have seen authors talk about here — Betsy on what to leave in and what to cut; Susan on the moral challenges of doing interviews on death row; Susanna on making sense of her subject’s own myth-making. I think the silence of the NBA suggests that we are creating our own branch of literature — which is something we should be proud of.
Finally on the celebration front, I just spent a glorious day with a mixed group of 8th graders from a Brooklyn public school and juniors and seniors from an Afro-centric prep school. All of the kids were so bright, outspoken, and engaged it was just a delight to be with them. Patty Cempbell sent me this link, about teenagers and fiction — it is well worth reading. www.citypaper.com/special/story.asp I’d just add that those same teenagers can also be terrific readers of nonfiction.