A Disappointed Author, A Misheard Word, And A Mess At The National Book Awards
It started with confusion.
Last Wednesday, the finalists for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature were announced, and instead of the usual list of five, there was a list of six. There had been a "mistake," which pretty clearly involved naming the wrong book and then adding the one the judges had intended, for a total of six.
It didn't take long for people to suss out that the sixth book named, Franny Billingsley's Chime, sounded quite a bit like one of the other books on the list, Lauren Myracle's Shine. The judges, it seemed, had sent the message that they were nominating Chime, but the National Book Foundation heard and announced Shine. When the judges heard that, they sent the message back. No, not Shine. Chime. Thus, the list of six books.
At some point, the NBF changed its mind about leaving a list of six intact, because Lauren Myracle, whose Shine had been included by mistake, was originally told the book would be left in, has now withdrawn and said that she was asked to do so in order to preserve the intentions of the judges.
Everyone here was in a bad situation. Everyone. Myracle worst of all, because she was stuck between giving up a recognition she was accidentally given by no fault of her own and keeping recognition the judges hadn't actually intended to give her.
You can certainly understand how the judges must have felt. They work hard to come up with a list of five, and they wind up credited for a selection they didn't make. Whatever would have been their sixth choice doesn't appear on the list, but something that just happened to (1) be a very believable finalist and (2) sound just like one they picked was suddenly being named as a finalist.
And the NBF was over a barrel because ... well, because that's really embarrassing. They couldn't have confirmed author names in addition to one-word titles? Couldn't have confirmed via email?
The solution that Myracle says was chosen, though — asking her to take it upon herself to voluntarily withdraw — doesn't do much for their PR problem. If they wanted Myracle off the list, they had the option of withdrawing the nomination and saying, "We made an error, we still think it's a wonderful book and never would have made this mistake if we didn't consider it an entirely deserving choice, but we have to use the list our judges made, and we apologize." If they wanted to call it serendipity and essentially overrule their judges, they could have done that, too.
But asking her to withdraw — to solve the problem for them — when she had nothing to do with the creation of the problem in the first place seems a bit unfair. Asking people to voluntarily leave rather than be removed is often something done as a favor to someone who has done something wrong. It's an odd solution for someone you've already put in a disadvantageous position. Certainly, people have been known to say "resign to spare yourself embarrassment." This is more like "resign to save us embarrassment." Her decision to comply is easy to understand — at that point, any remaining bloom is off the rose of their initial decision to stand by her inclusion on the basis that she did in fact write a fine book — but it's awfully sad.
The NBF has tried to atone by donating $5,000 to the Matthew Shepard Foundation at Myracle's suggestion, because Shine deals in part with gay kids. It has also apologized, according to the L.A. Times, saying: "The National Book Foundation regrets that an error was made in the original announcement of the Finalists for the 2011 National Book Award in Young People's Literature and apologizes for any confusion and hurt it may have caused Lauren Myracle." (It may have. It just may have.) NBF executive director Harold Augenbraum is quoted by Publishers Weekly calling the mistake "unfortunate" and saying "we regret it very much."
If there's a harder punch in the stomach for an author to receive from an organization like this than to be nominated and then un-nominated, it's hard to imagine what it might be, short of actually receiving the award and then being asked to return it and turn it over to whoever bullied her in high school.
Because it's such a grisly mistake to make, the NBF (and anyone else who dabbles in handing out recognition) might be well-advised to double-check the next list of finalists before it announces anything. Either that, or look for a commercial endorsement for a better brand of phone.