Guilty Thoughts re: Nobel Prize

This isn’t exactly a review of any sort whatsoever. Call it more of a confessional.

See, if you don’t know me very well– I love poetry. A lot. My PhD was in 14th century Welsh and French poetry, but also, more generally, a love letter to how poetry sounds, how it evokes feelings and thoughts, and it was a personal attempt to puzzle out how I could talk about poetry with love but still say something sensible and useful.

I. Love. Poetry.

I also don’t know much about poetry as it is written today, and when the American poet Louise Glück won the Nobel Prize in Literature this year “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal,” I was quite genuinely thrilled. I looked around eagerly for more information, read a number of her poems, and was pleased to discover someone writing in the 21st century who has a sensitivity to the lyric and yet works in a concise and direct style. In all, she seems like a worthy choice, and between her this year and Alice Munro in 2013, that’s two strong choices I can really celebrate.

I don’t have a “but.” I do have an “additionally,” though, hanging at the end of that paragraph.

Look, this blog is called “The Children’s Bookroom.” Well, I think many kids, or at least young adults, can read Alice Munro and Louise Glück and get a lot out of them! I also think there’s not a literate adult living (although, sadly, there are many children out there who don’t grow up with the benefit of literacy, and we should never forget that) who didn’t benefit from stories and poetry as a child, and I do wonder why we don’t celebrate the authors of genuine worth who form those earliest impressions of literacy, beauty, humanity, and the worth of the world.

So much is at stake, when you think about children’s literature! As I hinted in the above paragraph, childhood literacy is a critical topic. No adult can sit with a volume of Louise Glück poetry, admiring her austere beauty and lyricism, without first having the beautiful, necessary opportunity to learn from Goodnight, Moon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I certainly don’t begrudge a brilliant poet today her prize– I laud it! But I have here beside me The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Andrew Hurley, illustrated by Peter Sís. An extraordinary book! And on the back cover there’s a nice blurb from Mario Vargas Llosa: “Borges is the most important Spanish-language writer since Cervantes…. To have denied him the Nobel Prize is as bad as the case of Joyce, Proust, and Kafka.”

If he can lament the awfulness of exclusions, I can, too. So I just want to think a bit about the contributors to our earliest senses of literacy and literary beauty. Who would be on my list? Who’s as bad an omission as Proust? (My husband reveres Proust, so I consider him the Highest of the High, lest I be cast out of the house.) Well, I want to think about those who I feel have been overlooked in the area of kids’ lit, and maybe you want to think about it, too.

Joan Aiken: creator of an alternate historical timelines in the Wolves chronicles, but also, quite simply, a creator of characters at least as fine as any in Dickens.

Diana Wynne Jones: for versatility of voice and style from mischievous humour to philosophical gravity, from the fairy tale to the cosmic significance.

Eleanor Farjeon: unmatchable in her ability to convince me that there must be a historical source or basis– wait, that’s really original? Unbelievably, it always is.

Ezra Jack Keats: for the honesty and truth with which he represented what and who were always there, exploding our ideas of what we thought was reality, with gentle kindness.

Maurice Sendak: has anyone matched his ability to speak to children on their own level, without ceding ground to interfering adults?

Margaret Wise Brown: like Julian of Norwich, she is often read today as almost kindly and banal, but, like Julian, there is a depth and nuance there– one which every child feels when read to at night, even if we forget the subtleties as we age.

Arnold Lobel: the raw, deep truths of love and friendship have never been better represented, for child or adult, than in the stories of Frog and Toad.

What if we were in an alternate reality where I was casting the deciding vote for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and I were to award the prize to someone in children’s literature in 2020– a sort of “lifetime achievement award”? Who would it be, what would be my reason?

The award, I think, would go to:

Eric Carle, “for his clarity, gentle truths, and directness in writing to the youngest of us, and his kindness in mentoring all those following him.”

With that, I’ll leave you with these links: the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art is cautiously open (with many wise restrictions), and the online shop is also open and ships with speedy regularity– I tested it for you, multiple times, just to be sure.

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