Friday, February 3, 2012

Roger Sutton: "I loved terrible books" (an interview)

What's more fun, Roger Sutton (editor of The Horn Book) or the Scott O'Dell Award? Happily, we don't have to choose, because Roger Sutton is the chair of the Scott O'Dell Award committee.

Here's what the medal
looks like, on a book chosen 

totally at random.
I love the Scott O'Dell Award. I love it because twice it wasn't awarded when the committee didn't think anything was good enough--a bold move when the award is given for juvenile historical fiction set in the Americas, which makes up about 80% of kids' books published today*. I love it because once they awarded it to Scott O'Dell himself. I love it because there's a cash prize attached** and most authors I know*** are not rolling in independent wealth.

I love it because I love historical fiction. The website is great. You can get a list of the books grouped into historical periods. They say this is for teachers; I say it's for me, because I am more interested in some periods than others, and because it makes posting those statistics I love**** so much easier.

Roger Sutton is a busy man, as well as a witty one. He generously took some time out of his day recently to discuss the award with me. I borrowed his five-question format. Because otherwise I would have tried to talk historical fiction with Roger Sutton all day.

Wendy: When you are choosing books for this award, what works really well? What makes great historical fiction?
RS: We're always looking for a book that needs to be set at the time and place that it is. Not just a story kind of thrown into another era, nor is it a book that has great history, but there's no story.
Wendy: That's interesting, because it was suggested on Heavy Medal that Dead End in Norvelt wouldn't win [the Scott O'Dell] because it didn't have enough history in it*****.
RS: Well, when else could that story have taken place? I thought that story not only told us a lot about that time and place, which in itself was historically significant--I think what also pushed the committee in its favor was that its character is so interested in history himself.

Wendy: What is something that you see over and over again in the books you read, a common mistake that authors make [in writing historical fiction]?
RS: The thing that always bothers me the most, both judging this award and reviewing books, is undigested historical information thrown into a story. There was this great article in School Library Journal by Joan Blos called "Bunches of Hessians" where she talks about the various mistakes that are made in historical fiction. She said to take something from a historical novel--for example, a mother making dinner--and translate it into contemporary fiction. And then she wrote this hilarious passage about "Mother stood in front of the white box and carefully adjusted the black dial." It has to be natural to the person telling the story. They shouldn't be noticing things that only an outsider would be paying attention to. That always pulls me right out of the story.

Wendy: Now, considering this award, I'd like to know something about the logistics--how many books each of you read, and what it's like for three people to come to a consensus.
RS: Probably about sixty books were submitted [by the publishers], but the committee is not limited to books that were submitted. I would say, personally, I probably read close to 50 books. Some of them I could dismiss very quickly; carefully read... maybe 20 books.
Wendy: Was there a list of books that you discussed seriously as a committee?
RS: It's a very casual process, because we've known each other for thirty years. I would say we seriously discussed fewer than half a dozen books.
Wendy: A very different experience from the Newbery, I imagine.
RS: Oh, yes. I mean, there are criteria that you can see on the website--the author has to be an American, the book has to be set in the New World--which I'm guessing is a term we're not supposed to use anymore. Do you know?
Wendy: Yes, I was describing it to someone who wasn't familiar with the award and said "it has to be set in the New World--I mean, I guess I should say that it has to be set in South, Central, or North America"--and then I wondered why they didn't say that in the first place.
RS: Well, I'm guessing that's Scott's wording. And he was very big on that, that he thought we needed more books told to American kids about their own history, rather than books that go back to Europe.

Wendy: So, speaking of setting, is there a particular setting or historical period that you'd like to see more of?
RS: I haven't really thought about it... The last two books have been set in the sixties. I feel like we're doing pretty well with colonial times, Civil War does well. In more recent years it's been the twenties and the thirties... what are we missing?
Wendy: I would love to see more books about Latinos and American Indians, South America.

I have one more question. This award has only been around since the early 80s. Is there a work of historical fiction that stands out to you from your childhood, a classic, or something that you feel like is a great exemplar of historical fiction?
RS: Oh, I loved terrible historical fiction when I was a kid. I loved the We Were There series. That's what I read over and over and over again. Don't look to my personal reading history for excellence here.

Thank you, Roger! I found this most enlightening.

* not intended as a factual statement.
** Scott O'Dell donated his prize money to charity.
*** Read: "who have twitter feeds I follow"
**** 17% of winners have a World War II setting.
***** What Jonathan actually said, which shouldn't be taken as a criticism of the book: "I also think they tend to prefer books where the history is front and center, rather than a backdrop. So I’d be inclined to think that because OKAY FOR NOW, DEAD END IN NORVELT, and THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA don’t have those easy taglines–WWII, Civil Rights, etc–they might not contend as strongly as some of the other stuff."

I am contractually obligated as a Betsy-Tacy fan (you think I'm joking) to mention Maud Hart Lovelace on every occasion, at least where it's applicable. So let me sneak in that Scott O'Dell was buddies with Maud Hart Lovelace and her husband Delos, and they gave him advice about writing, and Maud read the manuscript of Island of the Blue Dolphins and was the first to tell him he'd written a children's book, a very good one.