The winners of the 2009 National Book Awards will be announced tomorrow night. Will the results in the category of young people’s literature be affected by the sponsor’s decision to allow one judge to judge the work of her illustrator?
This year’s shortlist for the National Book Award for young people’s literature is unusually strong but may be tainted by an apparent conflict of interest on the judging panel. The five finalists include Stitches, David Small’s graphic memoir of his youthful experience of throat cancer. One of the five judges for that award is Kathi Appelt, the author of a 2008 National Book Award finalist that Small illustrated, The Underneath.
No one could have known that Stitches would make the shortlist when the National Book Foundation, the sponsor of the prize, tapped Appelt as judge. Appelt may have been selected long before any books were nominated. But now that Small’s memoir is a finalist, she should recuse herself or be replaced to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
When Atheneum paired Appelt with Small, he had won the most prestigious honor in the picture-book field, the American Library Association’s Caldecott Medal, for his So You Want to Be President?. Appelt had received many honors but had not earned one of the ALA’s top awards. So Small’s willingness to illustrate her book could be considered a favor, however much he was paid for it: It was comparable a Wimbledon winner’s agreeing to be the doubles partner of a someone who had never made the finals of the tournament. Since the publication of The Underneath, Appelt’s career has soared. And Appelt has acknowledged Small’s contributions to her novel. Asked about its characters, she said: “He brought them to life in a million ways.” Small has also praised Appelt. “I was amazed by the twists and turns of the story,” he has said of The Underneath, “by the range of characters, both animal and human, and by the tone of mournful, nostalgic poetry in the prose.”
Does such a connection mean there’s a conflict? Some past National Book Awards judges may have voted for or against books important to people to whom they had close ties – for example, books edited by their editors. But the relationship between an author and illustrator is unique. Judging a book by someone who illustrated your book – and whose work may have had a direct effect on your sales — is different from judging a book edited by your editor and from which you can’t benefit financially.
The issue here has nothing to do with the integrity of Appelt, Small, or the National Book Foundation. Nor does it involve whether Appelt can be “objective.” Perhaps she can be. The issue is that Appelt’s ties to Small raise questions of fairness to the other four finalists: Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and Emma (Holt), Phillip Hoose’s Claudette Colvin (FSG), Rita Williams-Garcia’s Jumped (HarperTeen), and Laini Taylor’s Lips Touch: Three Times (Scholastic). If Stitches wins, how will the losers know that Appelt’s support for her illustrator didn’t make a vital difference?
Winning – or losing – a National Book Award may be the most important event in the professional life of a finalist. Apart from the money it brings, it has the power to transform careers. All finalists have a right to know that the decision was made fairly. The best way to ensure that literary justice prevails is for judges to avoid not just conflicts of interest but the sort of appearance of a conflict of interest that exists this year.
— Janice Harayda
Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland who has been a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can also follow her (@janiceharayda) on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where she has posted other comments on the 2009 National Book Awards.