November 20, 2006

The Cybil Nomination is ....OVAH!

Midnight, Eastern Standard Time was the hour that the Cybils closed, and can I just say first a serious thank-you to everyone who participated? You rock! Our team has ...drum roll, please... EIGHTY TWO books (at last, bleary-eyed count) to consider for our part of the award. Eighty-two! And now can I just say an exasperated "thank GOD the list is closed!" There are five of us. There are eighty-two books. We are reading as fast as we can...

This continues to be good fun.

As I've been reading for the Cybils, I've sometimes had a little moment of surprise and/or a "Yeah, it's good we're talking about this" moment at some of what I've read. When dealing with YA literature, there's always been the school of thought that it must be edgy, must be hip and 'now,' and that what "now" is, is quite mature in ways many of us were not, at least in our 13 - 17 year old days (and possibly in ways some of us still aren't now!). I've been pleased to find that our nominations span both ends of the spectrum -- the relatively tame, and the completely... lively; the relatively shallow, and the comparatively deep. Since it's my feeling that there are just as many shades of young adulthood as there are themes in literature, it's great that our nominations run the gamut.

I'm not sure how I'd feel about some of the 'gaumuting' in Middle Grade or Picture Books, though. I'm glad I have nothing to do with stuff for younger readers, it seems like someone is always throwing down a challenge and stalking school board members when it comes to literature for younger kids. Sometimes it must seem to parents that writers of children's books write them solely to talk about the things that they, the parents, don't want to talk about -- and don't want anybody ELSE talking about to their kids... For instance, a book in literal black-and-white by Dutch author Dolf Verroen received the Gustav Heinemann Peace Prize in Germany this week for talking openly to children about ...racism. The story is told from the point of view of a white slave-owner's daughter, who receives a slave for her birthday. He is dumb, she thinks, and is almost instantly bored with him. Verroen sets up the slave owner's daughter not as a "bad guy," but as a person for whom there is no other lifestyle - she acts the way she does because she doesn't know any better. The very banal description of the inhumanity in the way she treats her slave makes for discussion and social commentary in and of itself. At the close of the controversial book, the slave is sold, and the girl goes away to boarding school, and while it's less likely that UK parents are going to go to war with the school board, there are a whole lot of confused and unhappy parents there. Oh, and the title of the book? "Wie schön weiß ich bin" ("How Nice and White I Am"). Wow. Can't wait for the reviews.

On American shores, ABC News reported just last week on writer and activist Zekita Tucker's controversial children's book dealing with the n-word. I was surprised that I haven't heard much else about this book, so it must not yet be widely circulated, as it has been out since March of this year. Some people see it as a godsend, while others are bewildered that this topic has to be discussed with children in the 6-8 year old range at all.

This sentiment of 'why are we discussing this' also came to the fore this week at Shiloh Elementary School in Illinois, where parents requested that a picture book on the true story of two male penguins who adopt an egg at a New York Zoo, be restricted to a section for mature issues, and maybe even require parental permission before their child can check it out. Parents requested this because the story stated that the penguins "were in love," and felt that the picture book introduced homosexual themes that their children were too young to understand. (Although if the kids were too young to understand those themes, why, then, could they not just read a story about penguins adopting? Never mind.) (I surmise the same parents who vociferously protest this story also don't know that the so-called "gay" penguin "couple" has "broken up". And yes, we will anthropomorphize everything in our path!). Although the challenge has not succeeded in Illinois so far, parents in other schools in nearby states are bewildered and frustrated by the book's presence in their elementary school library.

As a writer, I know that sometimes there are stories I want to tell - that I feel need to be told. I am careful about things that other writers aren't as careful about, mainly because I'm still leery of my mother reading something of mine and having a stroke, or my teachers coming after me with the soap. But seriously, while a writer doesn't want to censor themselves, I think a lot of us do think about what we include in our work. How racy is too racy? How intimately do you want to depict... well, intimacy, or how graphically do you want to portray violence? People are always asking Chris Crutcher about language, and why he "makes" his characters swear. Is authenticity in literature only possible when the character uses multi-syllabic profanity? Maybe... Maybe not. The thing is, as a writer, it's impossible to know where to draw the line for how far one will go based on one's readers... because there are as many readers and as many lines as there are books ... and you will never please everybody.

That's somewhat of an awful thought, as well as a freeing thought: you, writer-whomever-you-are, wherever you are, you cannot make everybody happy with your work.

So, just do what you're going to do.

I continue to laugh at myself for presenting this as The Big Thought, and I'm sure I've written about it before, but it's a compelling truth, one that I have to rediscover repeatedly: I cannot make everyone happy with my writing. I can't make anybody like what I've done, or what I do. I have to be true to my of whatever. And go with it.

So, I'll do what I'm going to do my way (and my agent will moan, "For God's sakes, let your characters swear!" which is the single funniest line I've ever heard anyone utter inadvertently), and you do what you're going to do your way.

And that's all.

Oh, and good luck with the school board.


DaviMack said...

Swearing is merely an art form which neither You nor Chris have mastered; it's not something you were allowed, and you haven't bothered, but Chris continues to try. The question is whether you want to put all that much thought into it or not.

Our niece, in the back seat the other day, swore, "oh snap!" She could've used a good honest swear word, but instead used a cheap replacement with just as much gusto and just as much crudity. It's the euphemisms which will get you into trouble sometimes, too, as I still don't know which swear word she wanted to utter in that moment, but I'm clear that she wanted to swear.

So ... there's a boundary, and nobody knows where it is, it's hard to find, and whether to push that boundary is up to you as an artist.

Consider "modern art."

Jen Robinson said...

You know, I think that the "you cannot make everyone happy" thing applies to blogging, too. I've reviewed books that made me unhappy at both ends of the conservative vs. liberal spectrum (because said books were too much about passing along a MESSAGE rather than a story), but reviewed them anyway (with caveats). I've had good friends disagree me about the King and King controversy (which happened to take place in the town that I grew up in). I thought that writing a blog about children's books would be a non-controversial thing - how naive am I? But it's all interesting, and I'm continuing to find my balance and my voice. Your post helps.

And, I got the YA list down to 80. The best I could do, under the circumstances. Happy reading!