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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

National Book Awards: Worth Your Weight in Tiny Food

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending my first National Book Award ceremony.  That I had not attended one before is not surprising since (A) it’s pricey and (B) I am not in the publishing business or (strictly speaking) a member of the press.  As it happens, my lovely President of NYPL invited me along with a crew of fellow catty librarians.  Then he got hit with a nasty bit of bronchitis and had to bow out.  I was disappointed.  I don’t often get a chance to speak with my President.  This would have been a lovely chance to do so.

In preparation, earlier in the day I freaked out over the fact that the event was to be black tie and so I made the executive decision to put on make-up.  Skin related make-up at that (which I’ve very little experience with).  Fun Fact: If you’ve never done powder for your face before, be careful with it else you may find your powder has exploded all over your clothing and you’ll need to wear that t-shirt you keep in the drawer of your desk for the rest of the day.  Not that I’d know, of course.

I was seated with two of my former Jefferson Market Branch mates, my former boss Frank and Billy Parrott.  When Billy first started working at the branch Frank took an inordinate amount of pleasure in saying “Betsy Bird?  Meet Billy Parrott!  Billy Parrott?  Meet Betsy Bird!”  As you can see, it was perfect.

Frank, by the way, has apparently made a video of an adult version of the song “Where is Thumbkin?” which is a fabulous idea.  Read the words aloud to yourself sometime and make them dramatic.  Most fun you’ll have all night.

Of course my primary interest in the evening was children’s literature based.  In terms of the NBA for Young People’s Literature, I figured it was entirely between One Crazy Summer and Mockingbird.  Not that I thought the YA wasn’t any good, but rather I hadn’t read any of it and therefore wasn’t counting it in my brain.

That isn’t to say that I wasn’t gung ho about hearing Jon Scieszka introduce Joan Ganz Cooney, though.  How cool a connection is that?  And best of all, Kevin Clash made a surprise appearance with Elmo out of a clear blue sky.  He and Jon riffed for a bit, suggesting that in case this whole children’s book / daytime children’s television stuff doesn’t work out, they can always take their show on the road.

Here’s Joan with Jon lurking behind and Elmo being uncharacteristically silent, next to Kevin.

After that, food.  Andy Borowitz was the host that evening and separated his time between being amusing and insulting the sponsors.  Tom Wolfe was honored as well and gave the history of the 60s and 70s as he experienced them at length.  1989 Caldecott acceptance speech long, if you catch my drift.  I became that horrible person who tweets and reads tweets at fancy events, and did manage to quote him once when he said (almost out of the blue), “I don’t know how many people remember but everything in the automat was yellow.” Lines like that make for good tweeting.

You know how the Oscars always leave the big awards to last and begin with the things that folks don’t care quite as much about?  That may explain why the children’s awards were the very first announced.  After we’d finished our dinners (fish, potato thing, rabe, dinner roll, chocolate warm thing) they immediately plunged right into it.  Tor Seidler presented the children’s side of things, which was cool as I’d never seen him before.  As you have no doubt heard by now Kathryn Erskine won and everyone rightly congratulated her.  She gave a lovely speech in a deep green dress and helped Penguin to become the only publisher that night with two National Book Award wins (the second being poetry).  Well played, Penguin!

The press, as it happens, doesn’t get the food of the other folks at these awards.  They live in what Rocco Staino (shown here) dubbed the press bleachers.  They get a sandwich and a brownie, but that’s about it.  It was cool watching them work on their laptops.  Made me slightly envious, but only slightly.

Other folks won as well (Patti Smith, notably) and it was just the loveliest evening.  I left before the after party went into full swing (with more tiny food, like hot dogs in rolls, which I adore).  A big thank you, then, to my President for inviting me along.  It’s fascinating seeing the adult and children’s side of publishing mingling together at last.  I hope to get a chance to see it again someday.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. WAIT A MINUTE!!! The final, biggest winner, the winner for fiction, was from KALAMAZOO — and you don’t mention this???? (I’ll grudgingly let pass that you don’t mention that a Kalamazoo writer has been one of the five fiction finalists two years in a row — last year’s being Bonnie Jo Campbell — But Jaimey Gordon WON!)

    Did I mention she’s from Kalamazoo?

    • Elizabeth Bird says

      Uh . . . zat true? I didn’t read the program bios so uh…. whoops. Well that’s good! But honestly if they don’t write for small fry they don’t show up on my radar much. Tell Gordon to follow up that win with a middle grade novel and then you’ll see me plaster the name “Jaimey Gordon” from here to kingdom come.

      Yay, Kalamazoo!

  2. I quite enjoyed this insider’s guide–thank you! And I am still laughing about Betsy Bird and Billy Parrot. I think I’d find that hard to resist saying as well.

  3. I’m disappointed that Mockingbird won. Hope the Newbery Awards aren’t such a shock!

  4. I don’t think I’ve even seen Mockingbird on ANY of the “best of year” lists by SLJ, Kirkus, PW. I definitely wouldn’t call it the best of the litter!

  5. Well, really, what is a “best of” list by SLJ, Kirkus or PW, other than the opinion of a group of people? The NBA judges are another group of people. If SLJ or PW had had a few staff changes at some point, they might have chosen it. Amazon did choose it, FWIW. Another NBA committee might not have.

    It’s all subjective. Congrats to Ms. Erskine and to all the finalists.

  6. I had major problems with Mockingbird, as did many others. I was just shocked that a whole committee of people thought it was the best book, given that it seems to be a quite divisive book in the children’s lit field this year.

  7. Plus, PW and Kirkus both picked around 40 books, give or take to be the “best” books of the year, and SLJ picked over 60 books . . . not once is Mockingbird mentioned. What are the odds of a book being picked for THE National Book Award without getting on ANY of the “best” lists? In addition, according to Titlewave, it only has two starred reviews.

  8. I’m aware of the divisiveness over this book. I guess I can only say that for everyone who didn’t care for it, there is someone else who thought it was amazing, and this year’s NBA committee seems to be in that camp. As I said, it’s subjective. Another committee–even one different person–might have chosen differently. If you look at the stars on Amazon, it’s gotten all fours and fives, other than the two from our dear Fuse8, who is as entitled to her opinion as the five-star givers.

  9. Mark Flowers says

    @ Angela: As far as I can see, Mockingbird has been divisive because some people absolutely loved it, and others very much did not. Apparently, the judges on the NBA committee were among those who loved it.

    I don’t think the National Book Awards have ever tried to go for a “consensus” vote of what was recognized as great by everyone. I’m personally ambivalent about Mockingbird, but I think it is great that the NBAs don’t feel pressured to confine themselves to what other groups have seen as “great” but are willing to stake out on their own.

    I’ll also mention that library journals, as important as they are for collection development, are not necessarily at the forefront of literary analysis and thought (and I say that as someone who writes for SLJ on occasion).

    None of this is to say that Mockingbird was the “right” choice (I think it was the “wrong” one – especially with One Crazy Summer in the running), but just to defend NBA’s right to act independently.

  10. @ Angela K — Mockingbird received a starred review from Kirkus and if I am not mistaken, from at least one other leading review journal. BEST OF lists, of course, don’t include all starred books, but it’s not like Mockingbird was panned by all the review journals and then went on to sneak in by its pinkie nail to win the NBA. From before its publication, there were plenty of people in love with this story.

  11. And the above should read “from before its publication *date*” meaning that the journal reviews which would have been written before the book was even in stores.

  12. Linda Urban says

    Golly. I flat-out loved this book and I’m delighted for Kathy Erskine.
    I’m also glad that the NBA finalists often highlight a different crop of books than the Newbery and Printz do. There aren’t many awards for young people’s lit that actually reach the notice of the mainstream press and I’m thrilled that the difference usually displayed between the two committees means that more books are recognized.

  13. I know Mockingbird received two starred reviews. I already mentioned that above. And I know that the committee doesn’t pick books based on others’ opinions/reviews. But, just for it even to be on the nomination list is somewhat incredible, when you realize there are SEVERAL other books this year that have received 4 and 5 starred reviews from professional journals, and many of these also appeared on the “best of the year” lists. I don’t EVER base the quality of literature on Amazon reviews based on the fact that anyone can write them – you have to consider the source. Many had a lot of problems with Mockingbird, myself included, and was just shocked when it was nominated, and became absolutely dumbfounded when it won. For a whole committee to say that it was the best book of the year was just incredible to me, and not in a good way.

  14. Angela K — I understand your personal opinion of Mockingbird. I just want to add that one of the great things about award committees is that sometimes, when a small group of people have to consider a mess of books side by side, they discover something wonderful that the reviewers missed. One of my favorite middle grade novels is Cynthia Lord’s book RULES which, if I remember correctly, got lovely reviews upon release — but not a single star. I’m very grateful that the Newbery committee had its own fresh take on that novel and gave it the recognition it deserved.

  15. I hate to sound like a Pollyanna but I thought all of the nominees this year were outstanding books. My personal favorite was “One Crazy Summer” and I was crushed when it didn’t win, but I can see why the judges appreciated “Mockingbird,” too. The judges — being writers themselves (rather than librarians or critics) — may just value different literary accomplishments, and the major accomplishments of “Mockingbird” are voice and point of view. I would argue that Erskine is a writer’s writer.

    Betsy, don’t miss the terrific YA NBA nominees. Second to “One Crazy Summer” I loved “Dark Water.” I think it may be the best YA book I’ve read this year.

  16. “What are the odds of a book being picked for THE National Book Award without getting on ANY of the “best” lists?”

    See, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. These lists are good for collection development (which is what I’m using them for now), but to think that a book not on any of these endless “best of” lists doesn’t deserve an award bothers me.

    The Higher Power of Lucky was not on SLJ’s Best Books list. Don’t know about the others, but I know that it received very little fanfare when it was published.

  17. Well, the “best” lists serve as a marker of the best distinguished writing of the year. it’s not like the “best” lists focus on just 10 books. If they were shorter, more exclusive lists, I wouldn’t have such a problem with Mockingbird not being on any of them. Out of 60+ books on SLJ’s list, it wasn’t chosen, out of 40+ books on PW it wasn’t chosen, and out of 40+ books on Kirkus’ list it wasn’t chosen. That means that three separate committees of reviewers felt that Mockingbird wasn’t even in the TOP 40 of the year (or TOP 60 for SLJ). So forgive me if I find it incredulous that not only was Mockingbird nominated for the National Book Award, but that it came away with top honors! I had major problems with this book and really did not find it to be anywhere near the “best” of the year.

  18. KT, Good to hear about Dark Water; it is the only one I have not yet read (it’s in the queue). I loved Ship Breaker and would not be at all surprised if it continued winning awards in January.

    My pick for NBA and every other award is ONE CRAZY SUMMER, which I adore (with about five other books not on the NBA list). However, I also appreciate MOCKINGBIRD. I did not have time (and still don’t) to pick apart Betsy’s criticisms (in a kind and loving way), so it pleases me to be able to say, “Neener neener neener” (also in a kind and loving way).

    Back to my first graders!

    • Elizabeth Bird says

      I return your kind and loving gesture with a big hug and a reminder that an NBA winner hasn’t won a Newbery since Holes. And love Mockingbird though you may, would you call it the next Holes? Not that I begrudge it its win. She seems like a very nice woman.