Awards presented to artists are intended to introduce good works to the larger public. Awards declare – Hey! Look at this! – to suggest outstanding merit for artwork worth checking out. Awards are intended to help enlarge the artist’s audience. Awards are most often the best method that an artist’s peers can commend one of their own for their hard work, talent, and sacrifice. Awards celebrate artists to help finance, encourage and give them confidence that they may continue on their path, because it is to everyone’s benefit. The greatest benefit of awards is that they help to produce a culture worth celebrating; after all, the culture of a country, simply put, is what its people celebrate. And it starts with saying, Hey! Look at this!
At the American Library Association’s conference in Philadelphia in 2008 I walked the crowded floors promoting my books, randomly hassling librarians. One of them turned out to be the Librarian of Congress, Dr. Billington. He was happy to order my book, The Boy from the Sun. I was elated by our quick meet. Later that day I watched as various children’s book awards were announced on big screens to a huge audience eagerly awaiting the results for the biggest prize of them all.
At the announcement of the winner of the Caldecot award thousands of librarians who came from across the United States stood up and cheered. It was an amazing sight. You couldn’t help but get excited by their enthusiasm. And Brian Selznick’s book is a great children’s book, well deserving the accolades and promotion.
Winners of the Caldecott Award in the United States for picture books receive national attention with radio, television, and newspaper coverage – fantastic coverage that sell enough books allowing the author to live off the proceeds for years. And the recognition allows them to continue working in their field for the rest of their lives. This is of great benefit to the public, especially children, as the books will grow in quality. Awards, with this kind of backing are key in making children’s book culture viable in the United States.
The coverage where I currently reside, Thunder Bay, has been great. Reporters call to ask what I’m working on. My Alma Mater, Lakehead University graced me with an alumni award and plugged me as one of three local talents in a successful campaign to promote itself. I was awarded grant money from the Ontario Arts Council, which has kept me working on new books. I’ve sold a few paintings – one that paid my way through Europe. I’ve done readings, workshops, held art shows and helped a few local artists with their careers.
Elsewhere it’s a different story, but before I get to the meat of this story I need to relate a relatively minor incident that occurred at the National Library of Ottawa after the 2007 Governor General’s Award winners gave readings to the public.
The authors had piles of books on their tables and boxes of books stuffed beneath, ready to be sold and signed for eager buyers. I had twelve copies of my book, The Boy from the Sun. I should have given my twelve copies away for free because the Canada Council purchased these twelve copies from the local Chapters down the street when they discovered beforehand that there were none available for my table. I know this because I happened to be in Chapters before the readings when a woman from the CC bought the twelve remaining copies. I spotted the books sitting in a box behind the counter ready to be picked up.
After the reading and selling my twelve copies I had to disappoint maybe thirty eager buyers before Michael Ondaatje came to my table. Smiling, he asked for a copy of my book.
“I’m sold out,” I said. “I had only twelve copies.”
Michael, downcast, stated gruffly, “That’s disgraceful!” I smirked and shrugged. I made sure to get a copy of his GG award winning novel (his fourth GG!), Divisidero.
“That’s disgraceful!” I hear Ondaatje’s voice over and over, every time I think of the lost opportunities and the failures of others to simply do the job they were obligated to perform – with contracts – made as valuable as a piece of paper, by breach, inaction and neglect. I thought winning two of Canada’s top awards for children’s books might change things for me. It has, but not as I had hoped.
The Toronto Public Library has 99 branches in the Toronto district serving 2.7million people. It is the largest library system in North America with a budget of over $180 million. A committee (I’m told) at the library decided not to order a single copy of my children’s picture book after the book had won the Governor General’s Award in 2007. In 2008 they did not order a single copy of my book when it won the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Award. Regarding the GG, this is the first time the Toronto Public Library did not order a single copy since the category (in which I won the award) was created in 1978. The Schwartz award was selected by grade 3 and 4 child jurors from Ryerson Community Public School, founded in 1877 in the heart of Toronto.
The prize money for both awards had been dramatically increased from the previous year with the hopes of helping authors and illustrators in their careers, and to attract more national attention to good quality books. Some in the children’s book business consider the Schwartz Award more valuable for a children’s book author because it is children who choose the winning book from a selection of books from across the country.
Normally the Toronto Public Library orders 50 to 70 copies of the book that wins in the category of children’s book writing and illustration for the GG.
In Toronto in the summer of 2008, I discovered that only one copy of The Boy from the Sun existed somewhere in one of the 99 branches. I headed downtown to the Toronto Public Library and the first librarian I spoke with was Brenda Livingston. Casually, I asked how many copies of my book existed in the system. She happily turned to her computer, and after a couple clicks she became quickly embarrassed. She asked me not to get angry as I sat bemused. She was certain that copies would be ordered.
Months later when no books showed up in the system I spoke on the phone with Theo Harris, the children’s service specialist. She informed me that a committee had decided not to order the book. She refused to tell me why. She refused to tell me who the head of the committee was. She refused to say whether or not more copies would be ordered.
Eventually eight more copies turned up in the system. One that went missing earlier had returned making the grand total, ten copies.
When I decided to make a serious query, I checked the library’s database and discovered that copies of my other two books, Night Wall and Spacesnake had been removed: 19 copies of Spacesnake and 17 copies of Night Wall – altogether, 26 copies – leaving 7 and 3 respectively. I wrote to Brenda Livingston who told me it was likely the books were removed because they had been damaged, not removed because of lack of circulation as they were circulating well.
I realized some time later that if the 26 books removed were damaged it was within a one-month period, the time within which I had last checked the library’s database – that’s 26 books damaged in one month in many different libraries. Damaged books are “weeded,” Brenda told me, exclusively by librarians in individual branches. “Kids can be really rough on books,” Brenda wrote.
Brenda had forwarded my email regarding the removal of the 26 copies to Leslie Koster, the Senior Collections Specialist, Children’s Materials. Koster offered no explanation. She informed me that she would be ordering more copies of The Boy from the Sun, but it was up to individual librarians of the many libraries to reorder my other two books.
With yet another email I enquired how many copies of The Boy from the Sun Koster planned to order. The reply: 26 copies – the same number of my other two books that had been removed, supposedly due to damage.
Mystery unsolved I emailed a list of questions to see if Koster could explain why The Boy from the Sun wasn’t ordered in the first place, why so few later, who was the head of the committee, and exactly how it was that so many of my other books could be removed from the library system in such a short time period. I am still waiting for a reply to these questions and a few others.
Margaret Atwood liked The Boy from the Sun. She was on the jury that chose my book for the GG Award. So was Michael Martchenko, illustrator for Robert Munch’s books. I wrote to Margaret and she replied in a letter, “Canadians are dubious about success, which includes prizes. They are still not sure that it’s ok to be good at something (except hockey).”
To help Americans understand and celebrate awards and artists, The Horn Book recently printed a special awards issue. Joanna Rudge Long points out that the Caldecot is judged only by the merits of the book itself, without external factors of fairness, ethnicity, previous winnings, history, or audience.
Roger Sutton adds in the next article; “Children’s book awards are not given to confirm the public’s taste but to reward those authors who most richly demonstrate what a book for children can be.”
The Horn Book also featured articles by the award winners in which they shed light on their books and careers. I hope one day to have this opportunity.
Dr. Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan, the luminary and father of library science, proposed five laws for libraries. The first three relate to my case: 1. Books are for use. 2. Every reader his (or her) book. 3. Every book its reader.