Friday, December 21, 2012

What is the best literary award for literature for young people?

First, head over to the booksluts to see my comic and post for the month of December.

Second, I forgot to include it in my review of The Hobbit last week, but it was nominated for the Carnegie Medal, and it won an award from the New York Herald Tribune for "best juvenile fiction." Both awards sound like well-respected literary awards for children's fiction, with the Carnegie medal described as "the UK's oldest and most prestigious book award for children's writing," and the New York Herald Tribune's award vying with the Newbery Medal as the most prestigious award for children's writing in the United States. With how popular Tolkien's novel was, you'd have expected it to win for something, right?

The thing is, not all awards are created equal. And an award for "popularity" is very different than an award for literary distinction. Twilight, for instance, was named by Publisher's Weekly as one of the Best Children's Books of 2005. The Hunger Games won the same distinction in 2008, as well as the California Young Reader Medal (voted on by students).

Now, I'll be up front about the fact that I am not an expert on these kinds of awards. Sometimes it's hard to find a description of an award that doesn't sound like the over-excited publisher's blurb on the back of a novel. So, suffice it to say that you'll want to make your own decisions about whether an award is as impressive as it appears from its Wikipedia article.

But I've spent a little time looking around different awards lists, and I've come up with a few that seem like good places to go if you're actually interested in finding great literature within the realm of novels written for young people. (Hint: Anything that included Twilight was a pretty quick cut).

None of the awards solely honor sff stuff, but there's still plenty to be found there. I've put the awards in a very rough order of most prestigious/coolest near the top, and less established or useful ones at the bottom. Do you have any awards worth adding? Any thoughts about the ones listed here?

Newbery Award:
I'd assume most people have heard of this one; a lot of top-notch teachers in elementary and maybe even middle school would have chosen books from this list. Going back to the days when I read stuff marketed this young, I see sff-connected (if not out-and-out sff) stuff like The Giver, Hatchet (if only The Hunger Games could have taken some cues from The Giver and Hatchet both!), Bridge to Terabithia, several of Susan Cooper's novels including The Dark is Rising, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, Lloyd Alexander's stuff including The High King, Charlotte's Web, A Wrinkle in Time, Ursula K. LeGuin's The Tombs of Atuan . . . I mean, this is GOOD stuff. Any one of these could at least stand up next to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Most of these probably skew a little younger than either Stephenie Meyer's or Suzanne Collins' target audiences, but I'd argue that each is better written, and more nuanced. For some short novels that a kid could read but that have real substance to them, this is clearly a great place to look. I've not read a lot of the more recent books, but I'd bet the trend continued.

The Carnegie Medal:
I'm not as familiar with the British Carnegie winners as I am the Newbery winners, and especially not the newer selections, but there's a clear trail of quality winners. You've got Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, Terry Pratchett's The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, Philip Pullman's Northern Lights, Richard Adams' Watership Down, C. S. Lewis' The Last Battle. I'm particularly interested in their "Carnegie of Carnegies" award given in 2007 to celebrate the award's 70th year, which mimics the "Booker of Bookers" that Midnight's Children won. Philip Pullman's Northern Lights won the Carnegie of Carnegies, out of a shortlist of ten novels, none of the others of which I've read, but now I'm making plans.

Margaret A. Edwards Award:
This one looks like it skews a little older than the upper age limit of the Newbery or Carnegie awards, including authors who are more well-known for writing adult fiction. It's also not nearly as old as the Newbery (going back just a few decades to 1988, when the YA labeling was really getting cemented). It honors authors who offer a "significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature," and just in the last decade it hit some big ones: Susan Cooper (The Dark is Rising), Terry Pratchett (Small Gods), Orson Scott Card (Ender's Game), Lois Lowry (The Giver), Ursula K. LeGuin (The Left Hand of Darkness). To get some of the best sff books connected to the world of literature for young people, this has got a pretty substantial list of the big authors.

The Alex Awards:
This is one of my favorite awards, because it honors one of the things that I think is such a special and valuable achievement for a novel: to be written for adults but to have "special appeal" for young readers, roughly from 12-18 in age. It's one of the newest (1998), but there are a bunch of nominees each year. Honestly, I haven't read a lot of the stuff on it, though some sff stuff really got some big buzz (Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, Lev Grossman's The Magicians, etc.). What sold me on this award, though, was the inclusion of a series of really intelligent, really important books like Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go (one of my all-time favorite books), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, The Kite Runner, Persepolis, and the fact that Neil Gaiman is the only author to have won the award twice. I mean, this is an award that I can really get behind, and it highlights the reality that really sophisticated novels can still be particularly pertinent for teens, complicating what many people obtusely label "mere" YA literature.

National Book Award for Young People's Literature:
It claims to recognize "outstanding literary work from US citizens," and is touted as awards "by writers to writers," with the panel of judges being five "writers who are known to be doing great work in their genre or field." You'd think that such a prestigious award as the National Book Award would seem a little more on-the-ball with its "Young People's Literature" category, but it actually completely dropped the category from 1984 to 1995. I'm not particularly familiar with the stuff written after 1995, but prior to 1984 (when the award included categories for "children's" literature, which even includes picture books) you'll find Lloyd Alexander, Lois Lowry, Madeleine L'Engle, Natalie Babbit, Ursula K. LeGuin. Lloyd Alexander (who I love) in particular is on there a whole lot.

The Boston Globe-Horn Book Award:
This claims to be one of the most prestigious awards for children's and young adult literature (including poetry), but I'm actually not as familiar with a lot of the titles here. Also, it doesn't look like they hit the upper teen ages, with books like Ursula K. LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea and Susan Cooper's the Dark is Rising and Jerry Spinelli's Maniac Magee winning early on. Still, it's kind of cool to find an award that recognizes non-fiction and honored The Way Things Work.

The Michael L. Printz Award:
This one I can't say as much about because it's relatively new (2000), and so I haven't read many of the honorees. I don't even know which ones hit the sff vibe. But it claims to recognize annually the "best book written for teens, based entirely on its literary merit." I'd be really curious to hear what others who are more familiar with the winners have to say about it.

The Cybils Awards:
This is the big award to bloggers, as it's actually given by bloggers. It's pretty new, only around since 2006, so you'd probably say it doesn't have much of a track record to run on, and it's probably still going through some growing pains. I'm not entirely sure what to make of its claim to address "an apparent gap between children's book awards perceived as too elitist and other awards that do not seem selective enough." Is it just me or is that kind of like saying, "Our award isn't for the best books in the field; it's for the books who wish they could be the best, but just couldn't quite make it"? According to Wikipedia, at least, the finalists are selected on the basis of "literary merit" and "kid appeal," two criteria that do not necessarily seem to align. I've not read a lot of the titles, but The Hunger Games won. On the other hand, so did The Graveyard Book. So, maybe it's something to keep an eye on.

Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature:
This portion of the award has only been around since 1998, so it's not got a lot of titles I recognize, other than Terry Pratchett's Nation. I'll let you be the judge.


  1. The Printz award is actually one of the only ones I actively follow. They really do pick good books - intelligent, well-written, and the type that teens can actually enjoy. Most of the winners aren't in the sci-fi or fantasy realms, but some are: Going Bovine is wonderful, and many of the honor books are certainly worthwhile (The House of the Scorpion is excellent, Airborn is a great example of young adult adventure, ...). My point is - it's a good award.

    1. Biblibio, thanks for the tips! I'll keep an eye out for future Printz award winners. And, "Going Bovine" immediately intrigues me.

  2. I'm a big fan of the Newberry Award. Every time I read a novel that has won a Newberry Award I am blown away. That award gives me hope for YA fiction. Besides Hatchet, The Black Pearl and Holes have won Newberrys.

    1. Ryan, me too. As far as I can tell, the winners are novels intended for a slightly younger audience than a lot of "YA" novels, and yet they also stand out as more sophisticated than the ones that get so much press (and ire) today.