Nov 20, 2010

Young People's Literature National Book Award: Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

Congratulations to National Book Award winner for 
Young People's Literature:

In Caitlin's world, everything is black or white. Things are good or bad. Anything in between is confusing. That's the stuff Caitlin's older brother, Devon, has always explained. But now Devon's dead and Dad is no help at all. Caitlin wants to get over it, but as an eleven-year-old girl with Asperger's, she doesn't know how. When she reads the definition of closure, she realizes that is what she needs. In her search for it, Caitlin discovers that not everything is black and white--the world is full of colors--messy and beautiful.

About the author:
Kathryn Erskine was a lawyer for 15 years before she devoted her time to writing. Her first young adult novel, Quaking, was one of YALSA’s Top Ten Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers. Mockingbird is her second novel, and she has a third, The Absolute Value of Mike, coming out in June 2011. To read an early interview with her, check out I am a Reader, Not a Writer. To read a post-award interview, click here.

The mission of the National Book Awards is to "celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of good writing in America". In 1987, the awards were "reestablished...with an emphasis that the Awards are given by writers to writers. Since 1996, independent panels of five writers have chosen the National Book Award Winners in four categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature."

One of the things I find most fascinating about awards like this is that very different novels are considered every year depending on factors like what books were published and submitted for consideration, who the judges are, and (in my opinion) issues like the current political climate.

For instance, let's compare 2008's finalists and judges...

What I Saw and How I Lied: A young girl moves from innocence to desire, from prejudice to justice and from the tumultuous bonds of family into a sad, enduring wisdom.

Chains: In the story of the slave girl Isabel's struggles to claim the freedom bequeathed her, and unjustly denied, Laurie Halse Anderson has created not only an adventure story with a resourceful and intelligent heroine, but also a rich vision of Revolutionary Manhattan, inhabited by imperfect human beings, their judgments and choices impaired by fear, shaped by necessity and greed.
The Underneath: Haunting in tone and resonance, The Underneath weaves a heartrending and magical tale that speaks to love and hope, loneliness and loss, ancestral forgiveness and a deep abiding reverence for the natural world that surrounds us, the ethereal world that entices our imagination and the real world that may bruise us, haunt us, but eventually set us free.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks: Sixteen-year-old Frankie, frustrated by the exclusion from her school’s all-male secret society, infiltrates the group, sending the unknowing boys on a spree of ingenious pranks. Subversive and clever, this young adult novel is a stunning story of gender, entitlement, and the making of an anti-heroine.

The Spectacular Now: The Spectacular Now perfectly juxtaposes hilarity and tragedy in the character of Sutter, a high school senior with a bevy of generous and caring ex-girlfriends, a desire to help those in need, a careless charm, and an insistence on being the life and soul of the party. With so much to recommend him, it's easy to overlook how often he's drunk.

(Or in other words noir, historical, haunting fiction, subversive contemporary fiction, contemporary teen social issues.)

...with last year's finalists and judges...

Claudette Colvin: Phillip Hoose’s riveting and intelligent portrait incorporates photographs and other galvanizing primary source illustrations, as well as Claudette Colvin’s own voice, to draw the reader fully into 1950s Montgomery, Alabama.

Charles and Emma: Through meticulous research, vibrant prose, and inspired integration of journals and personal correspondence, Heiligman reveals how, over a lifetime of love and loss, success and setback, the Darwins’ religious differences evolved into a portrait of mutual respect and devotion. 

Stitches: Vivid and assured cartoon illustrations accompanied by evocative, pared-down text bring the reader fully inside a family tortured by anger, repression, lies, and mental illness, and then take the reader along with Small into healing and understanding.

Lips Touch: Lips Touch pulses with vivid imagery yet remains economical in its world-building, its unpredictable plot-spinning, and its compassionate characterization. Taylor draws from multiple literary and historical sources to spin a wholly original and unforgettable reading enchantment that is nothing short of a tour de force. 

Jumped: Acclaimed author Rita Williams-Garcia intertwines the lives of three very different teens in this fast-paced, gritty narrative about choices and the impact that even the most seemingly insignificant ones can have. Weaving in and out of the girls’ perspectives, readers will find themselves engrossed in not one intimate portrayal but three.

(Or in other words: historical, historical, memoir, 3 interwoven stories [based on history, mythology, & folklore], 3 interwoven stories [contemporary].)

...with this year's finalists and judges:

Ship Breaker: In America's Gulf Coast region, where grounded oil tankers are being broken down for parts, Nailer, a teenage boy, works the light crew, scavenging for copper wiring just to make quota--and hopefully live to see another day. But when, by luck or chance, he discovers an exquisite clipper ship beached during a recent hurricane, Nailer faces the most important decision of his life: Strip the ship for all it's worth or rescue its lone survivor, a beautiful and wealthy girl who could lead him to a better life. . . .

Mockingbird: In Caitlin's world, everything is black or white. Anything in between is confusing. That's the stuff Caitlin's older brother, Devon, has always explained. But now Devon's dead and Dad is no help at all. Caitlin wants to get over it, but as an 11-year-old girl with Asperger's, she doesn't know how.

Dark Water: Fifteen-year-old Pearl DeWitt and her mother live California, where her uncle owns a grove of 900 avocado trees. Uncle Hoyt hires migrant workers regularly, but Pearl doesn't pay much attention to them--until Amiel.

Lockdown: When I first got to Progress, it freaked me out to be locked in a room and unable to get out. But after a while, when you got to thinking about it, you knew nobody could get in, either.

One Crazy Summer: In a humorous and breakout book by Williams-Garcia, the Penderwicks meet the Black Panthers in 1968 Oakland, California. And congratulations to Rita Williams-Garcia for making the short list 2 years in a row!

(Or, contemporary political issue, contemporary social issue, contemporary political issue, contemporary social issue, historical.)

Notice a difference in the novels' subject matter from year-to-year?
This isn't meant to be a criticism, a complaint, or a condemnation, but simply a topic to ponder and discuss.

On a personal note, I wonder what it says about my own reading tastes that I had read 3 of the 5 books chosen for the 2008 awards prior to their being chosen, but I have yet to read a single 2009 or 2010 shortlisted title.

Anyone have thoughts on this (or previous years') finalists/winners?


  1. I was excited that Ship Breaker had been nominated, but really had no idea which book would end up winning. You are SO RIGHT about all of the contemporary political/social issues. I've seen so many more books and tv shows this year that feature children on the autism spectrum. I want to actually read Mockingbird so that I can form my own opinion of it, but at the moment it just seems not-too-surprising that a book about a young girl with Asperger's took home the big prize. Congratulations to Kathryn Erskine!

  2. It doesn't seem right that MG and YA books are thrown into one category. They seem like two completely (or very different) genres. Especially with the popularity of YA, I'd think it would benefit from it's own category.

  3. Kate - I always appreciate your comments; thanks so much for posting your thoughts. It's true, I don't want to take anything away form Kathryn Erskine or Mockingbird, but the subject wasn't a shock. You'll have to let me know what you think once you've read it.
    Alison - good point. The Newbery (generally awarded to a middle grade novel) and the Printz (generally awarded to a young adult novel) help level the field a bit, but for the National Book Award, it's dog-eat-dog, I'm afraid. Thanks for commenting!


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