What with one thing and another, I just sat down and re-read all of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books. These were books I loved as a child. Several of the copies I re-read were, in fact, my own childhood copies. In the front of Ramona Quimby, Age 8 I had written, in neat cursive, “I Love Ramona Books!” I think I must have been, oh, eight or nine? So, that was about twenty five years ago. And you know what I realized re-reading them? I still love Ramona books!
How did she get it so damn right? I thought as I read them again. How the smallest things can define your world, (the time you threw up in front of your whole class) how it seems your parents take your sister so much more seriously than you, how it sucks when your parents don’t have enough money for treats, how you want your teachers to actually like you – it’s all there and it’s all so good.
And it hasn’t aged at all! Can you believe that? Ramona the Pest was written forty two years ago, but there’s nothing in that explicitly marks it as taking place in 1968. Children still want to play in mud in shiny new boots they didn’t just inherit from their neighbors. Children still feel puzzled by substitute teachers.
There’s still so much funny material in, so many true moments of longing and joy, so much that is relatable.
And, I couldn’t help it, I thought about the Newbery too.
Out of all those books, how did the Newbery Committee(s) know that the two that are the best, literary-merit-wise, are Ramona and Her Father and Ramona Quimby, Age 8?
I thought about the Newbery because I was thinking of what it means to be on an awards committee. As most of you know, this year I have served on the 2010 William C. Morris Award committee. It’s my first time ever on a selection committee and what a twelve months it has been!
I thought that my years and years and years of reading, my years and years of reading YA literature, my years of reading YA lit as a professional, I thought all of that would prepare me for being on a selection committee. And, I guess, maybe to some degree it did, but serving on a selection committee is entirely different.
First, these books take priority. Over every other book. I read five debut novels for every non-debut, maybe more. If I wasn’t reading a debut, I felt guilty. The Ramona re-read was an indulgence I allowed myself only after 80% of the committee work was done, it was my first re-read of the year, which is just crazy talk for me. But this year all my focus, more than I even realized, was on first YA novels.
Second, it wasn’t just me. The Morris Committee is nine people and have you ever had nine people instantly agree on one thing? Being able to bounce ideas off each other, discussing the books at length and in depth, their meanings, their style, their literary merit, their teen appeal – that was as much fun, as awesome, as I’d hoped, even more! It was inspiring, it made me see things in books I’d never imagined, it made me want to read deeper, be a better reader.
In fact, that was part of what really motivated me to create this blog. I loved the deep discussions, the chance to ruminate and rant and think big thoughts about what books meant and what they were trying to accomplish. I wanted a place I could continue that.
Third, it wasn’t just me. Wait, I already said that one, right? But this is what I mean this time … why do these awards matter? I thought about that a lot this past year and I thought about it while reading Ramona. What do these awards really matter? The universal, unanswerable question, right? But I think I feel close to the answer. I think …
Selection committees exist so that, together, a group of professionals can do their best, after a year full of reading and discussion (and re-reading and more discussion) to come up with one book that is representative of the best in the entire field. That IS the best. It would be pretty boring (and useless) if it was just ONE person saying, “This wins the Newbery because I like dog books!” or “This could never win the Printz because I don’t ‘get’ graphic novels!”
It’s not just me – it’s a whole committee and that means something.
Last week, YALSA announced the 2010 Morris shortlist. The selecting is not quite over yet! It won’t be over until the Youth Media Awards announcement in San Diego on January 10. But now, from all those novels, we’re down to just the five. Check out the shortlist: not only is there something for everyone, but there’s lots of something that is special and great and dazzling, if I do say so myself.
With the announcement of the short list, I was prepared for some puzzlement and for some “but I’ve never heard of that!” and “but I didn’t like that!” and “but what about?” from the library world. During some moments over this past year, I can assure you that everyone on EVERY selection committee has had thoughts just like that. But here’s what makes committees so great, here’s what makes them matter: someone else had an answer.
I don’t claim to have all the answers, no person or committee ever can. I know how much fun it is to play the “what about…” game. One of my favorite Roger Ebert-isms is that the reasons lists of “the greatest films” exist is so that we can debate them, argue about them, and defend movies we would include – that they exist to make us think about why love movies in the first place. For me, that has been the greatest reward of serving on a selection committee. I hope that some of our choices this year will grab you and mean something to you – will make you think about why you love YA literature in the first place.
I hope that, in twenty-some odd years, some adult might revisit one or more of the books on this shortlist and be amazed at how much it got right about being a teenager, might think about what it meant in their life when they were sixteen, might be filled with admiration and even solace.
I hope, somewhere, someone is writing in one of these books in cursive.