What were those librarians thinking? A former book awards judge offers possible answers
By Janice Harayda
First, I have no inside knowledge of the workings of committee that gave the 2007 Newbery Medal to The Higher Power of Lucky, which uses the word “scrotum” on the first page. Second, if I did have it, I would be skeptical, because the leakers in book awards contests are often judges who are sore that their choices didn’t win.
But I have followed the American Library Association’s awards for years and, as a journalist, and have interviewed former members of the Caldecott committee, which awards the prizes for picture books. I have also served as vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle and, as such, helped to judge its annual awards program.
Based on that experience, I’d like to offer a half dozen possible reasons why the Newbery judges might have given the 2007 medal to Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky:
1) The majority of the Newbery committe thought The Higher Power of Lucky really was the most distinguished work of children’s literature published in 2006. If so, I disagree. But the committee made a defensible choice. This was not one of those ALA awards — and there have been more than a few of these — that make you say, “Was the medal winner threatening to go public with Britney Spears-type crotch shots of the Newbery committee members?” I am fully prepared to believe that somebody did have crotch shots of the librarians during the years when they gave no award to Tuck Everlasting and only an Honor Book citation to Charlotte’s Web.
2) The librarians thought that the word “scrotum” was no big deal in a novel for 9-to-11-year-olds given that you regularly hear 3- and 4-year-olds saying “penis” and “vagina.” If so, I agree.
3) The Higher Power of Lucky is upbeat. The ALA committees tend to favor books that are upbeat, unlike the judges of adult books, who often seem to equate bleakness with meaning. This could explain why the organization didn’t honor Tuck Everlasting. Although Patron’s heroine doesn’t have an easy life, The Higher Power of Lucky has a happy ending.
4) Apart from its use of “scrotum,” The Higher Power of Lucky won’t offend anybody. Yes, that’s a big “apart from.” But this is plausible. The ALA choices don’t really honor the most distinguished books for children so much as the most distinguished books that librarians can recommend to everybody. And Patron’s book meets the current tests of ideological “correctness” (with, for example, a young heroine who likes science and isn’t afraid of snakes).
5) Book awards often to go everybody’s second choice. Again, this happens in book contests of all kinds. Often prize judges disagree so strongly about which book should win that they all have to abandon their first choices and pick a title that everybody can agree on. So the award goes to everybody’s second choice instead of a few people’s first. Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is much richer and more complex than The Higher Power of Lucky. But it is so clearly a Christian allegory – with a full-page picture of a crucified rabbit and many biblical parallels – that you can see how librarians who preferred it might have had trouble building a consensus.
6) Susan Patron is a librarian and the librarians were “taking care of their own.” Could be. Patron has worked for years as a librarian in Los Angeles, which has one of the largest public libraries in the country. I would be surprised if she hadn’t served on Newbery or Caldecott committees or didn’t know some of the librarians who helped her get nominated. And personal ties can play a role in who wins book awards. Undercutting this idea is that the ALA didn’t “take care of” Laura Amy Schlitz, a Baltimore librarian who wrote the gripping A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, the Wall Street Journal called “a classic” and was many people’s first choice for the award.
Which explanation is most likely? I don’t know. But I do know that every bookstore and library has many books that children could enjoy as much as The Higher Power of Lucky. Most of those books will never win medals from anyone.
For a review of The Higher Power of Lucky, please see the Feb. 19 post on One-Minute Book Reviews, archived in the Children’s Books category. You can find more information in the Reading Group Guide to the novel posted on this site yesterday.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.