With the ALA Youth Media award announcements just a little under a week away, I can’t help reflect over my own experiences this past year as a part of the Asian-Pacific American Library Association (APALA) Children’s Literary Awards committee, as well as an adjudicator for the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Now while I can’t share the exact details, I’d like to talk about what these activities meant for me as a writer. I’m also hoping that for those of you who might find yourself in the position of being on such a committee, to take the plunge! Not only will you learn so much, but you will be a better writer for it. Here are some of the simple but significant reasons I discovered for myself this year.
BUILDING YOUR READING MUSCLE
I’m one of those writers that finds it hard to make time for reading. But I finally decided to do something about it. When I joined APALA, I saw an opportunity to join the 2014 Children’s Literature Awards committee, and I pounced on it. This meant I had read anywhere from 15-20 middle-grade novels with Asian/Pacific-American themes, published in 2013. Not just read, but discuss them with the rest of the committee, to select the award-winning title that held the highest literary merit in depicting the Asian/Pacific-American experience.
Reading that many books in a short time really forced me to get to the end of a book, no matter what. The more often I did it, the easier it became. It was in short, a mental exercise for my brain.
As an adjudicator for the Scholastic Awards, I had to read through much shorter pieces (1000-3000 words) – but several over one weekend. That helped to build my reading muscle in a different way – and teach me to recognize patterns of writing from work to work. In fact, reading several works that share an element in common (i.e. the Asian-Pacific-American experience, or works all written by teenagers) taught me to spot similar motifs as well as unique ones. Which brings me to the next section.
SEEN-THAT-DONE-THAT VERSUS THE TRULY UNIQUE
There is nothing like reading a high volume of material to train you to recognize story ideas that are repeated – the best friend sidekick, the insatiable zombie, the nagging parent. And when you see these ideas repeated in different ways, you learn to recognize them in your own work – and avoid them.
On the flip side, you will come across some a startlingly beautiful piece of writing – a premise you might have never quite seen before, and as you keep reading, the best discovery of all – you are surprised. Not only that, you are happy you are surprised, and suddenly you keep reading with your breath held because it’s the same feeling you have if think you’ve discovered something no one else does, that you’ve been let in on some delicious secret. I think we have all experienced this feeling when we read that special book that moves us outside our own experiences, and stays with us even after we close the covers. As an evaluator, this discovery feels especially sweet.
FALLING IN LOVE WITH SOMEONE ELSE’S WORK
When you come across that rare piece of beautiful writing, when you find yourself not just surprised and happy, but moved, it’s the greatest feeling in the world –like falling in love. It’s a kind of love that’s loyal and fierce, and that prepares you to champion this piece to the end so it receives the recognition it deserves.
This type of love – I don’t know if it serves any writerly purpose from a craft perspective. But it’s a love that fills us in other ways, when we love something beautiful and true and authentic, and suddenly the whole purpose of writing becomes brighter for us. At least it did for me. Reading something that sweeps you off your feet is the greatest affirmation that you are doing exactly the kind of vocation you should be doing.
DISCOVERING THE WRITER YOU WANT TO BE
At the end of the day, the best part of reading such a wide and varied range of writing – funny or dark, historical or contemporary, high stakes or quiet tension, plot or character – is that you discover or confirm the kind of writing you want to write. You might see yourself aligned with a new group of writers, or you might be nodding quietly to yourself: yes, I really am a fantasy writer after all.
Most of all, reading many titles at a time is a fantastic way to take yourself out of your own writing, and your own comfort zone. The best part is that you don’t even have to be an evaluator to do this, you just have to be a reader. What gives me satisfaction at the end of my experiences is knowing that not only have I grown as a reader and writer, but that my contribution has been a part of a writer’s recognition, and that I am person along the way to light the journey for them.
Sheela Chari is the author of VANISHED, which was awarded the 2012 Children’s Literature Honor Award by APALA. She served on the APALA’s Children’s Literary Awards committee for 2013. Stay tuned for the announcements of this year’s winners at the end of this month, following the ALA awards announcements. Medal winners for the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards will be notified in March, followed by an awards ceremony in June.