Absolutely zero shade to the American Library Association. I don’t want to know what the world would look like without nonagenarian and centenarian medals like the Caldecott and Newbery, nor the newer honors like the Printz, Pura Belpré, or Stonewall Awards. HOWEVER. There are actually other book-honoring bodies out there doing the incredibly taxing, incredibly rewarding work of accepting package after package of books, reading them, and discussing them with fellow children’s book awards jurors. I’ve been lucky enough to serve on two YALSA award committees and one YALSA list, and I’m in my second year of serving as juror for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature. Do not shed too many tears for me, but just know that it is not a total picnic to do this job. There is a heavy load of reading, imposter syndrome to contend with, and sometimes gag rules keeping you from blogging, tweeting, or reviewing when you serve on an award committee. Using entirely made-up math, I would say this (usually unremunerated) job is 80% picnic, 20% What Was I Thinking When I Said Yes To This!?
Awards: What They Are and Aren’t
How dare some random person decide whose book is The Best? Isn’t that subjective? Is anybody truly qualified to make the choice? How many people are on the committee? What does winning a book award really mean in the grand scheme of things? Is there money involved? Who cares what other people think? What is the difference between an award, a medal, a prize, or a list?
I chew over those questions a lot as a reader-reviewer, as a former librarian, as an author, as an award juror. I think there are plenty negative outcomes associated with medaling books, and you’d have to be deliberately obtuse not to recognize the problems with how overwhelmingly white, heterosexual, and male a lot of winner and honor lists are. And of course, the makeup of the committee in a given year has everything to do with who wins. Nobody can be truly impartial, and every reader is unique. Even if your job is to try to read from a particular perspective, there’s always You behind it all.
A list is effectively an annotated bibliography of excellence with no hierarchy; you’ll often see it labeled as a “notables” or “outstanding” books list. As to medal, award, or prize, those words are generally used interchangeably, though you might see “prize” associated more often with those that come with a financial award for the creator of the book.
If nothing else, I hope an author considers it a sincere compliment if they win or receive an honor for an award. Even if there’s no check to take to the bank, winning an award does have implications for that author’s career. Often, authors on award lists are invited to festivals, conferences, and ceremonies to celebrate their achievements. That’s exposure and networking. A coveted seal on a book all but guarantees it won’t go out of print in the near future, and it can also serve as leverage when a literary agent tries to secure a more lucrative deal for the author’s subsequent books. Some book contracts have bonuses written into them if the author wins an award for a title. And don’t forget sales and reprints! Some librarians are required to order all titles on ALA award lists. For the rushed or uninformed shopper who just wants to find a nice gift for a baby shower or middle school promotion ceremony, an award list is a nice place to look for a quick, already vetted title.
Different rules regarding unanimity versus majority, interpretation of decades-old criteria, and committee procedures can affect the decisions being made. I have had the experience where none of the finalists were books I loved, but they were books I liked that also showed up on my fellow jurors’ lists. If I had been alone on that committee, the finalists would have been totally different!
Then there’s the question of criteria. Awards like the Newbery or Printz intend to recognize The Best children’s or YA book (respectively) of the year. That means technically every single book published that year is eligible. I do not envy anyone on that committee. Other awards restrict the pool of nominees by a number of different factors, such as author career longevity, book content, racial background of the author, or genre. And then we run into another problem: like affirmative action, the point of many of awards like the Coretta Scott King or Schneider Family awards was to correct a problem inherent in the older ones—too many people from one walk of life and not enough from another were getting recognized—but then you might hear, either behind closed doors or from the peanut gallery of Twitter, that people think a book eligible for a “minority award” should be taken out of contention for the Big Deal awards, either officially or privately, because “it’ll just win that one anyway.” And that’s just siloing diverse books further.
Awards and governing bodies have as diverse a list of desired qualities in their jurors as they do in their eligible books. You have to be a member of ALA and of the sponsoring chapter or group to be on one of their committees. For other awards, you may have to be a person from a particular marginalized group, a professional with X years of experience in your field, a resident or citizen of a certain part of the world…or you may have to affirm that you are not a certain type of person. For example, if your debut YA novel is publishing this year, YALSA’s Morris Award for debut YA book is not appropriate for you. Clear conflicts of interest can endanger the integrity of the award or public perception of it.
Whether you want to be an Arbiter Of Literature yourself or you just want a perspective on children’s and YA excellence from readers who aren’t all librarians or library-adjacent (though I think you’d be hard pressed to find a committee without at least a couple librarians among its alumni), there are some other awards you should keep an eye on each year. All of the prizes on this list are national, but you can be sure that each of the 50 states has its own award(s) as well. I’m no expert on what goes on outside the United States in the book honoring sphere. If you are, I would love to know about the big deal literature awards in your neck of the woods!
AAAS/Subaru Prize for Excellence in Science Books
Yes, that Subaru. Along with their co-sponsor, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, this group has four categories for their award: children K–4, middle grades 5–8, young adult, and hands-on science for K–8. Informational books do not make many appearances on literary awards (not fair!), so this set of four books fills a real gap. “Hands-on” is so obvious when you think about it—what kid doesn’t like doing crafts and science experiments?—that I’m shocked I’ve never seen any other awards specifically recognizing the hard work of developing an engaging, motor-skill-appropriate, and parent- or classroom-friendly activity.
Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award
Ten committee members decide on the winner of this award, which is sponsored by the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English). Honoring a pioneer in the YA world, the Walden Award identifies fiction that “possess[es] a positive approach to life, widespread teen appeal, and literary merit.” Up to four honor books are selected. See, it’s not only librarians who get to do fun book stuff. Teachers get a chance, too!
Boston Globe-Horn Book Prize
Since 1967, the legacy newspaper and Boston-based children’s literature magazine have co-sponsored this award, which is presented at another kid lit institution, Simmons University (home of the nation’s first master’s degree in children’s literature), during a weekend colloquium on campus. Their particular definition of “excellence” is pretty hush-hush, but they stand out for their annual eligibility, which doesn’t go by calendar year but rather by fiscal year. There are three categories: picture book, nonfiction, and fiction/poetry, with up to two honor books in each.
Golden Kite Award
This one is peer-awarded, not bestowed by a shadowy cadre of critics (I kid, maybe). The Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, or SCBWI, invites its members to submit their own work for consideration in one of seven categories: picture book text, picture book illustration, illustrated book for older readers (such as graphic novels), middle grade, young adult, nonfiction for younger readers, and nonfiction for older readers. What’s so cool about this one is there’s not just a cash prize for the winners, but they are also allowed to direct a smaller cash prize to the charity of their choice! What a great way to support your colleagues and a cause you believe in.
The Lammys are given to adult books and children’s books with queer content. Their driving philosophy is: “For a community that often finds ourselves the targets of legislative and actual violence, we also need and deserve pleasure, joy, and celebration.” In a rare occurrence of happy news in 2020, I learned they have been forced to split their YA/middle grade/children’s award into YA and children’s/middle grade…because there has been a boom in LGBTQIA+ content in youth literature and the pool of eligible books has grown considerably! Gosh, how tragic. I look forward to the day their administrative work gets even more complicated because they have to add a separate category for picture books, graphic novels, and on and on…
National Book Award for Young People’s Literature
Though it’s not officially the case, the committee for each of the National Book Awards is often a jury of one’s peers, just like the Golden Kite. If not an author, a juror is often a well respected and established member of the kid lit community such as a college professor or bookseller. There are a lot of financial obligations for submissions ($135 per book submitted) and winners (publishers must kick in promotional dollars). At different points during the year, a longlist, shortlist, and winner are announced. What you may not know is that when it’s not handing out prizes, the NYC-based National Book Foundation also works on various literacy initiatives, such as private readings, teen press conferences, and support for public housing residents.
Genre-specific, the Nebula Award identifies the best of science fiction and fantasy. Unlike many other awards, the separation of most of its categories has to do with length of the work (novel, novella, novelette, short story). The other three—script, game, and middle grade/YA—were added in 2000, 2018, and 2009, respectively. Administered by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc., the award focuses on genres often ignored or forgotten in more “literary” awards but totally worth celebrating! Just don’t confuse it with another SFF award that has had its share of scandals over the years…
Street Literature Book Award Medals
This award and accompanying blog are on indefinite hiatus, but I want to identify them because of the very important mission and the encouraging reason they’ve stopped handing the award out. For about ten years, the Street Literature blog was the center of discourse about urban communities and the way they are (or aren’t) represented in literature. Founded by Dr. Vanessa Irvin, presently at the University of Hawaii, the awards covered books for adults and youth but have not been presented since 2016. Irvin’s explanation: “Since street lit has become pretty mainstream in publication and readership, discourse on the topic has slowed, which is actually a good thing.” I agree, but as the most famous awards still remain pretty white, I wouldn’t be sad to see a program that elevated so many marginalized authors come back.
The Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature
“Prolific” doesn’t really seem adequate for Myers, who wrote more than 100 books, tirelessly advocated for kids and teens of color, and supported diverse creators—including his son Christopher Myers, an award-winning illustrator. It’s fitting that his estate was willing to loan his name to We Need Diverse Books for their book award founded in 2016 and split into two awards in 2018 (readers 9–13 and readers 13–18). Like the organization that produces it, the award is all about diversity. Diverse authors who write diverse stories that “address diversity in a meaningful way” are eligible for the prize.
A brand spanking new award, the Whippoorwill covers people from or living in rural areas. (Check out the Hey YA! episode Kelly and I did on this topic!) It will cite ten young adult books that give dignity to the often-stereotyped or denigrated communities such as the bayou, Appalachia, remote islands, or reservations.