It’s Their Choice

Most book addicts got hooked early in life. It was some 45 years ago that I first experienced the “can’t put it down” syndrome. Its symptoms escalated to extreme proportions when I reached the last page and burst into tears. I didn’t want the story to end.

Perhaps Harry Hartman had a similar experience in his youth. He seemed to have a deep sympathy for juvenile bibliophiles for some reason. A popular bookstore owner in Seattle during the first half of the twentieth century, Hartman is credited with creating the Young Reader’s Choice Awards (YRCA).

The Pacific Northwest Library Association reports that Hartman approached their organization in 1938 with a letter, in which he wrote, “For quite a number of years we have wished that some recognition would be given to a book for children which your readers endorse as being an excellent story. The reading habit is best developed through reading those books which are most entertaining and instructive from the young persons point of view.” Acting upon his suggestion, the PNLA presented annual YRCA at their annual conference in 1940, and they continue to administer the awards today.

The contest’s stated purpose is to promote reading for enjoyment by children and young adults. The winners are chosen by students in grades 4 through 12. And kids know what they like. If a book wins this award, you know it’s been thoroughly kid-tested and –approved.

Publishers may not nominate titles; that privilege is reserved for children, teachers, parents and librarians in the Pacific Northwest — Alaska, Alberta, British Columbia, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. Nominations may include fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, anime and manga. Series sequels will not be considered. Nominated titles must be published in the U.S. or Canada three years prior to the award year (that is, nominees for 2010 must have a copyright date of 2007). Librarians can’t try to push their favorites to the forefront; all nominations must already be popular with young readers.

Until 1990, one prize was awarded each year. From 1991 through 2000, two awards were given, in Youth and Senior divisions. Since 2001, prizes are awarded in three divisions: Junior (grades 4-6); Middle (grades 7-9); and Senior (grades 10-12). Books are assigned a division based on reading level, interest level, and age appropriateness, among other criteria.

The Pacific Northwest Library Association stresses its commitment to intellectual freedom and diversity of ideas, stating, “No title will be excluded because of race, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation political or social view of either the author or the material.”

Children, teachers and librarians may recommend titles to their state or provincial YRCA representative at any time, but are due by February 1 each year. They will be reviewed and voted on by a committee assigned to a particular division, and the YRCA Chair has final authority in selecting the titles that appear on the ballot. These are limited to no more than eight and no fewer than six titles in each division. The final list is posted by March 1.

Fourth to twelfth graders residing in the Pacific Northwest are eligible to vote between March 15 and April 15. Voting is generally conducted in a student’s school library, but some public libraries also participate. Students must have read at least two of the nominated titles in the division they’re voting in. However, they do not need to limit their vote to their own age group, provided they’ve read at least two of the titles in whatever other division they choose to vote in. The winners are announced in mid-April of each year.

So what do kids in the Pacific Northwest like to read? This year, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo won in the Junior division. In this book, which has been described as a cross between The Velveteen Rabbit, Don Quixote, and The Wizard of Oz, a china rabbit goes on a journey and encounters numerous adventures. John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a Holocaust tale told from the perspective of a nine-year-old boy, took the Intermediate award. The Senior division prize went to New Moon by Stephanie Meyer, a 563-page vampire story. (A 563-page YA book? Really?)

Though the list of past winners shows a variety of genres and topics, I detect a tilt toward fantasy, magic and the macabre. This is particularly true in recent years, with six of the past nine winners fitting that bill; but the genre is no newcomer. The first winner in 1940 was the fantastical Paul Bunyan Swings His Axe, by Dell McCormick. Animal stories ruled the roost in the early years; we saw a lot of Beverly Cleary in the ’60s and ’70s; but there’s a whole lot more. Check it out for yourself!

Remember when you had the freedom to curl up with a good book and just read until you were finished? Well, why not set aside a few hours next weekend to do just that? Pick one of these prize-winners – either an old favorite from days gone by, or something geared toward the modern reader – and indulge in a second childhood. Sometimes all it takes to rediscover the joy of youth is to read for the sheer fun of it.