Children’s Book Awards

When I was a kid I didn’t care a lot about book awards. If a book had some kind of animal on the cover, that was pretty much enough. Maybe some of the books I read were award-winners, maybe they weren’t. I certainly didn’t keep track. Besides, if it was up to kids to give awards, they would probably pick them according to completely different criteria, the way I did – dinosaurs on the cover get first place, ones with horses and dogs get second, honorable mentions to ones that have elephants.

The awards aren’t really there to help the kids; they’re there to help the curators. If a parent or a teacher has a choice between two books, one with a shiny medal on the cover and the other without, which one are they likely to choose? The medal indicates that this book has been through a panel of people who all decided it was pretty great for one reason or another, and that must mean something.

And it does – don’t get me wrong! It’s just that different awards mean different things, so if you’re trying to create a diverse, useful library for young readers, it’s important to pay attention while keeping track.

Perhaps the best-known book awards are the Newbery Medal and the Caldecott Medal. These longstanding awards, decided by the Association for Library Service to Children, to distinguished contributions to American literature each year. These are meant to determine the cream of the crop, but with thousands of new books coming out for kids each year, there’s no way this can be comprehensive!

Fortunately, there are a number of other awards that can also be helpful. The Pura Belpré Award recognizes great Latino literature for children. The American Indian Youth Literature Award does the same for books about American Indians. Other awards that specialize in this way include the Tomas Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award, the Americas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, and of course, the Coretta Scott King Book Awards for outstanding African American authors and illustrators.

Using awards to help fill empty shelves, or the empty spaces in those shelves, might be a useful way to get good literature into the hands of eager young readers. Do you use awards as guidelines when purchasing books for your classroom or library? I’d love to hear more about it!

Review & Recommendation: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

The seventh and last book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, came out in July of 2007. Remember how sad you were when you read it all quickly and got to the end, and realized there was no more of that universe to immerse yourself in? That wasn’t just me, right?

I loved reading the Harry Potter stories, just as I loved reading The Chronicles of Narnia, Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series and Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles as a kid. Something about fantasy novels would tickle my imagination like nothing else. But I always felt a twinge of sadness at reaching the end of a book (okay, let’s face it – I still feel this way when I finish a good one). When a book sets the stage for a possible sequel or series, that sadness is ameliorated a bit!

That’s just one reason I really enjoyed reading Nnedi Okorafor’s YA fantasy novel Akata Witch.

The premise is familiar; a young girl comes of age in challenging circumstances. That young girl, Sunny, is a social pariah for a number of reasons. Born in America to Nigerian parents, her family only relocated to their homeland just prior to the narrative. Not only that, but Sunny is an albino. She can’t even play outside with other kids, because she’ll burn too badly in the sunshine. Sunny manages to make a ragtag group of friends, and Even an inexperienced reader can probably recognize where this is going, but knowing the way doesn’t make the journey any less fun, engaging, and imaginative.

The coolest thing about this particular work is that it takes readers to a completely atypical setting with a relatable protagonist. Africa is often exoticised in the U.S., even in history and social studies classes, but Okorafor’s writing helps make it a real place in the minds of young readers, and one that’s not so different from where many American kids live. But whether readers focus on the similarities or differences between their experiences and Sunny’s, they’ll find a totally new kind of magical world built up on a mythology that hasn’t been overdone yet in media.

Sunny and her friends do face off against a truly terrifying villain – a serial killer motivated by black magic, or “bad juju,” which might make it inappropriate for readers younger than 4th or 5th grade, but older readers – even early high school students – should find a lot to enjoy about this novel. And my favorite part – the sequel, tentatively titled Breaking Kola, should coming out soon.

Akata Witch was also a finalist for the Andre Norton Award for Best Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, An Amazon.com Best Book of the Year, a YALSA Best Book of the Year, and a Junior Library Guild selection, so you don’t have to rely on my word. But if you or your students do read it, drop me a line and tell me what you think!

Pedagogy and Power of the Pen, Part I

I was very fortunate during the past Power of the Pen season to judge every single possible round at the district, local, and state level. I was even tapped to judge the seventh-grade state finals (the prompt was a tough one; I don’t remember specifically what it was but they had to write in the style of Dr. Seuss). That’s a lot of reading, and there were definitely challenges with assigning scores and sussing out favorites, but it’s something I enjoy so much that it’s worth sacrificing a few Saturdays during the school year.

But, actually, let’s back up a little bit here. What is Power of the Pen in the first place? The Power of the Pen website describes it as “Ohio’s award-winning educational enhancement program devoted to excellence in creative writing at the middle school level.” I normally call it an alla prima creative writing competition for seventh and eighth graders.

However, neither of these definitions accurately describe what happens at a tournament, which can be chaotic and stressful and tons of fun.

Middle schools assemble teams of interested writers, and those writers come to the tournament bright and early and ready to write. The format is like a high school speech and debate competition, for those that are familiar – students are split into different classrooms in groups of five or six. One judge facilitates the tournament for that classroom during that round. This includes passing out the papers to write on (gotta get those carbon copies!), writing the prompt on the board, and keeping time. When time is up, the judge collects the stories and reads them all. The judge has to rank and score them and turn them into the tournament’s tab room, where they calculate students’ running scores throughout the day, and also the teams’ scores. Rinse and repeat for at least two more rounds, have lunch, and stay for awards, and there is your basic Power of the Pen tournament recipe!

I never competed when I was a kid (my middle school only developed a team in the past few years) but whenever I judge it is fascinating seeing how many different kids are involved, and how they operate during a round. Some seem laser-focused, jumping into the prompt immediately, sometimes generating pages and pages of material. Others take their time; they’re allowed some resources, like dictionaries and scrap paper, and they work more slowly and deliberately. Some clearly come in prepared with a story idea that they then have to adjust to fit to the prompt; others wait for new inspiration to strike each time. It’s obvious as a judge that many students change up their strategies from one tournament or even one round to the next, which I find fascinating. It’s getting to watch their writing process develop in real time! How cool is that?

That brings me back to the whole point of this post – what is the point of Power of the Pen? Sure, it’s fun, and yes, it’s always nice to get recognition as a kid, but does this sort of lightning-fast creative writing serve a pedagogical purpose?

I think it does. Having to write a lot in a short amount of time is certainly a skill that comes up a lot, especially in high school and college. There are definitely benefits to practicing creativity. But what, specifically, does Power of the Pen accomplish? Let me know what you think – I’ll be chewing on this question a bit for another post!