An Award by Any Other Name

Posted February 27th, 2012

Planet Middle SchoolMy latest novel, Planet Middle School, was nominated for an IMAGE Award, the only award for which it was nominated, in fact. It didn’t win.

Planet Middle School received wonderful reviews including one star. It’s gotten great feedback from fans. Everyone who has read it loves it. But the novel did not win an award. Does that matter?

On the eve of the Oscars, my thoughts turn to awards. Actual awards are worth surprisingly little. I’m talking about the medals, statuettes, and crystal figurines themselves. They cost only a few dollars. Yet, we imbue those awards with meaning that makes them seem priceless. But, why?

Suppose I write a great book, but a panel of three, or six or twelve judges deem another book to be the year’s “best.” Is my great book no longer great? Is great no longer good? Is good no longer good enough?

Here’s a thought. We are not called to be the best. We are called to be our best. It’s crucial that we understand the difference between the two.

I love watching figure skating. It is the sport I follow most closely during the Winter Olympics. But one thing that always disturbs me is how often winning silver or bronze for an event is treated as a failure. All the emphasis—by athletes, coaches, and commentators alike—is on the gold. Win the gold and, well, you’re golden. Win anything less and so, it seems, are you. That’s certainly the way Debi Thomas felt the year she was beat out by Katarina Witt for the top prize. She took home the bronze in the ladies competition, the first African American woman to do so, as I recall. Yet, her third-place finish was practically mourned.

How many hundreds of athletes did every skater, skier, luger, have to beat out to even win a place on that Olympic team? For my money, anyone who makes the team is already a winner. How about celebrating that? The argument works for authors, as well.

I remember the first book convention I attended. it was the ABA conference held in Las Vegas (yes, I’m dating myself. This conference is not even called ABA anymore. But never mind.) I walked onto the exhibit floor and gasped. There were acres of books laid out before me, a sight I’d never even imagined.

As I strolled down aisle after aisle, past booth after book filled with newly published books, I wondered how on earth I would ever make my mark in a field so enormous. Then, the impossible happened. I did. So did a lot of other authors.

A few authors, a precious few, have won the Newbery, the gold medal of children’s literature. I’m not one of them, but I am in great company. (Jane Yolen, anyone? Gary Schmidt? What about Naomi Shihab Nye? The list is too, too long.) Does not winning the Newbery mean that our books aren’t good, or even great? Of course not.

We have all made the team.

We are already winners.

Out of the thousands, upon thousands, of manuscripts submitted to publishers each year, ours were selected for publication. Ours were noticed. Ours won fans. Ours moved readers to laughter and tears. We need to let that be enough. I need to let that be enough.

Say it with me: We are not called to be the best. We are called to be our best. You can’t get better than that.