ALA Award Envy

Elizabeth Wein and Katherine Kirkpatrick, Setauket, New York, 1999

On Monday, January 27, 2014, I’ll be watching the webcast of the American Library Association’s Youth Media Award announcements, broadcast live from Philadelphia. Everyone in children’s and young adult publishing will be eagerly anticipating the results. In our field, the garnering of a Newbery, Caldecott, or Printz Award is equivalent to an athlete winning a gold medal in the Olympics.

My annual February/March readathon, a time of discovering new books and engaging in stimulating discussion, begins after the announcements. Some years, I’ll read not only every Newbery and Printz winner and honor book, but I’ll also work my way through YALSA’s Best Fiction list. Other years, I’ll stop reading after only a few books; especially if a title of my own has come out. While reading an award-winning book that I don’t feel is worthy, I snap it closed and return all the others to the library unread—shelving the feelings of frustration that their gold and silver seals invoke.

I know better than to view the ALA awards as the be-all and end-all of my writing life. Nevertheless, I get caught up in the annual fervor. The truth is there are thousands of us authors out there, and there are thousands more of our books published every year than there are ALA awards and citations to go around. No matter how good a book may be, chances are excellent that it will go unnoticed among the vast sea of other titles.

In my clearer moments I realize that notions of awards and their perceived value are dark, swirling storm clouds in our minds: If we can guide the plane above such foggy distractions, the view will be beautiful, bright, and expansive. For we can all enjoy a true and lasting sense of abundance on a higher level when we give up our limited definitions of success.

The image of the airplane is an apt one to illustrate the story I’m about to tell.

Last year, on Monday, January 28, 2013, I was in the audience at the ALA Media Awards press conference in Seattle when I heard that my dear friend of 27 years, Elizabeth Wein, won a Printz Honor for her aviation-themed book Code Name Verity.

Elizabeth Wein and Katherine Kirkpatrick in Avebury, England, 1999

I’d surmised from the buzz at the ALA Midwinter Meeting that Code Name Verity was a contender for the Printz. My friend, half a world away in Scotland, suspected it, too. Her enormously popular breakout novel had already garnered a ton of starred reviews and media attention. But of course, ALA award announcements often defy expectations, and frequent surprises add to the drama of this high-stakes event.

I wanted Elizabeth to win the Printz, really and truly. But at the same time, as I took my seat that morning in the mobbed auditorium of the Seattle Convention Center, I wasn’t completely sure what my reaction would be if she did. I gave myself a little talk: If Elizabeth wins this award, and if you, Katherine Kirkpatrick, are not one hundred percent happy for her, then you are a miserable, selfish, covetous wretch and you don’t deserve to win any awards in the future.

For those of you who watch the live webcasts of the ALA press conference, let me tell you, there’s nothing like attending the event in person. You notice the MC’s bright red socks. And hear how incredibly loud the audience applauded. And feel the heat of the bright lights and movie cameras. Experience the palpable excitement in the air.

The MC encouraged us to cheer as he read the names of the Printz judges, and I shouted heartily along with everyone else. I had no idea who they were; it didn’t matter. It was fun to get caught up in the energy of the crowd.

Katherine Kirkpatrick and Elizabeth Wein, Errwood Hall, Goyt Valley, England, 1984

When I heard the words “Code Name Verity” in the honor category, my heart stopped. Honor? Why not winner?! Not that I’d yet read the winning title or any of the other honor books. But at that moment I felt childishly defensive of Code Name Verity, while also knowing that attaining a Printz Honor is almost equally as awesome, weighty, and life-changing as receiving the grand prize.

It wasn’t until about an hour after the press conference that the good news really sank in. I remember standing by myself at the top of the convention center’s escalator under a sky-high ceiling, surrounded by towering walls of glass. A feeling of expansive joy came over me. I was, and am, so proud of Elizabeth and happy for her, for getting her pilot’s license, for writing her fabulous breakout novel, for receiving the fame and recognition she deserves.

I felt happy about myself, too, for being a good friend and for feeling a generosity of spirit. As I was telling a complete stranger at the coat check, your character is tested when someone you’re close to gets something you’ve always wanted.

Friendship, all forms of love and true caring, exist outside of man-made rankings and hierarchies. I feel this truth profoundly when I think about Elizabeth and the good times we’ve had together, before and after college graduation, dreaming of becoming authors, having books published, getting married, having children. We traversed the map of Britain together, and even flew in a private plane to the Isle of Wight.

I wouldn’t trade this friendship for the Printz Award.

Katherine Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth Wein and daughter, with the Piper Warrior, Isle of Wight, England, 1999

Christmas Card from the North Pole

Floodlights cast yellow circles over the snow, over blocklike buildings, over a dark ocean full of icebergs. Small figures dart from the direction of the ocean toward the buildings. Under this photo, e-mailed to me from Qaanaaq, northwest Greenland, the hunting culture’s most northerly town in the world, the caption reads: “I wish you and your family a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Our weather is fine. Right temperature for the area with snow. All my best, Navarana.”

Qaanaaq, Northwest Greenland

Qaanaaq, Northwest Greenland

There may not be a Santa Claus, but there are indeed people living 550 miles (885 km) from that invisible point in the Arctic Ocean known as the North Pole.

Navarana is one of many interesting friends and acquaintances I’ve made over the years through my writing. A native speaker of Inuktun, she helped me with words and phrases for my forthcoming young adult novel, Between Two Worlds (Wendy Lamb Books, Random House, April 2014), a historical fiction adventure story about an Inuk girl on Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary’s ice-locked ship in 1900. Based on a number of true characters and incidents, the book features sixteen-year-old Eqariusaq, also known as Billy Bah, who lived in America with the Peary family for one year, returned to the Arctic, and sewed furs for members of Peary’s expeditions.

Getting to know people like Navarana, whose backgrounds are very different from my own, is my favorite perk of being an author. Here I am in Seattle, the “emerald” city of towering evergreens, and there she is in the treeless polar Arctic, surrounded, at least at this point in the year, by snow and ice.

For the next seven weeks, Navarana will live in total darkness, though the springtime will bring brilliant sunshine and, with the melting snows, patches of green with an abundance of plants and flowers. All summer, beautifully and intricately formed icebergs pass by in the fiord in front of the town. Temperatures in the winter months can drop as low as -30 degrees Celsius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit). The town has cars, pickup trucks, SUVs, a water truck, an oil truck, and an ambulance, though people also travel by foot or dogsled; the only outside road leads to a small airport. At most times of year, residents use motorboats for hunting and other transport.

Navarana has Internet access at home and through her work at the local hospital, where she serves as interpreter and translator. In this community, Danish, Kalaallisut (or West Greenlandic) and the predominant local Thule dialect, Inuktun, mix together with low, wonderful gutteral sounds and long complex words that form whole sentences. Here’s a sample of Inuktun: takuleqangakkit nuannaartunga (“I am happy to see you”). And yes, natives of the hunting culture use cell phones, though, speaking from personal experience, the around-the-world service is a little erratic and very expensive.

Navarana Sørensen

Navarana Sørensen

Over the past four years or so, while answering questions for my book, Navarana has occasionally offered intriguing glimpses into her life. Once, while explaining a several-month hiatus from her computer, she told me she’d been filming a documentary movie called Vanishing Point (National Film Board of Canada, 2012). During two successive summers, the directors had taken her on narwhal hunts both in her local waters and off Baffin Island. Scenes in the film include Navarana and her group traveling on sea ice by dogsled, hunting, preparing narwhal meat, and feasting. Another scene shows the group capturing little auks and stuffing them in sealskin bags for fermenting into a delicacy to be eaten later. Making the movie was great fun, she said. While in Canada, she’d also enjoyed a visit with her two daughters and grandchild.

During the final editing of my manuscript last winter and spring, I tried reaching Navarana a few times, to no avail. My book had changed titles from Box of Secrets to Between Two Worlds. Because the title represents an important theme in the book, I wanted to include the Inuktun phrase for “between two places” somewhere in the text, but the translation cannot be found online or in any printed dictionary. (It’s pivvit mardhuk akornganni, as I later learned.) What had happened to my living-and-breathing, and occasionally whale-hunting, resource?

Worried when I didn’t hear back from Navarana, I contacted the director of an Arctic museum in Maine who’d first referred me to her; the museum director, too, had unsuccessfully tried to reach Navarana. She confirmed what I’d vaguely suspected: Navarana was ill.

A few more months passed with silence from that wintery top of the world. In early summer, my publisher returned first proofs to me with further language-related questions. By this time, nearly a year had elapsed since my last communication with Navarana. I feared the worst, but I thought I’d try to reach her again anyway.

To my surprise and delight, Navarana, ever her cheerful, friendly self, shot back an immediate reply with many apologies. She’d been in Denmark for medical treatments, she said, but she’d recovered and was overjoyed to be back among her own people again.

What happy news! All that day, I walked about with a light heart. My friend and collaborator whom I’d thought dead was alive. We exchanged a few more e-mails. I sent her my book cover, which shows an Inuk girl running against an icy landscape. She wrote back, “Waow!” which, I think, means she likes it.

Between 2 Worlds cover

It’s happened to me so many times now but it still seems miraculous that I can reach out across continents and oceans to touch another life, and that a faraway person can touch my life in return.

I’ll close with the memory of another holiday card: the now ubiquitous UNICEF image of children of different ethnicities holding hands and encircling the globe. However diluted the message has become through commercial use, it’s still true, powerful and relevant:

The world is one big family.

Teen Interviews YA Author/ YA Author Interviews Teen

Part 1: High school student and young artist Victoria Yeh interviewed me for a school project.

Victoria Yeh

Victoria Yeh

Victoria: Why did you choose to be a writer?

Katherine: I always wanted to be a writer from the time I was in sixth grade.

Victoria: What personal attributes are necessary for success?

Katherine: To be a successful writer, you need to have a “thick skin,” which means that you can’t take criticism too personally, and you need focus, persistence, and the ability to work hard.

Victoria: What kinds of skills are essential to succeed in your field?

Katherine: Successful writers not only know their craft but also have a marketing sense about what the public wants.

Victoria: How plentiful are the job opportunities in your field?

Katherine: In my case, I’m freelance (I work for myself), so there are unlimited job opportunities if I’m able to find and take advantage of them. Sometimes it’s difficult to sell articles and book ideas but good writers are always in demand.

Victoria: What are the approximate starting and maximum wages?

Katherine: Fiction authors receive advances anywhere from $10,000 per book to $100,000 or even higher. How much you earn depends on the type of market there is for any given book.

Victoria: What are the fringe benefits (dental, retirement, medical)?

Katherine: The fringe benefits are traveling, learning new things, meeting lots of different kinds of people, and often making new friends. As far as dental, health, retirement, and those kinds of benefits, none!

Victoria: What are the hours like? Can you determine them yourself?

Katherine: I generally work three to four hours a day, in the mornings. Yes, my hours are entirely flexible.

Victoria: What kind of education is necessary for a job in your field?

Katherine: A college degree is very helpful. A graduate degree isn’t necessary, but helpful if you want to teach writing; many writers also teach. I advocate a broad education, studying a wide variety of different subjects. Volunteering for high school, college, and community-based publications is a great way for students to receive writing practice and exposure.

Victoria: What did you major in during college?

Katherine: I majored in English Literature with a minor in Art History.

Victoria: Were you focused completely on studying, or did it ever help you to play sports or be involved in extracurricular activities?

Katherine: I didn’t play on any sports teams in college, but I did swim on a regular basis and enjoyed other extracurricular activities such as drawing, painting, and music. Right now I’m learning to play the harp. It’s always good to try new things outside of your field of study or career. It’s hard to quantify exactly how these activities affect your career, but they do. Music, for example, is very enriching. Do what makes you happy! When you know how to relax into these other activities then you can sometimes carry that stillness into your daily life.

Victoria: Do you ever regret choosing this career? If you could change your career, what career would you choose?

Katherine: I do not regret my career choice. In a way, my career chose me, as I’ve always been a writer. I also considered archaeology as a profession. Fortunately, I can write about archaeology, so I can satisfy this other interest.

Victoria: What are the best and worst aspects of your career?

Katherine: The best parts about being a writer are learning new things, traveling, meeting people, and seeing the books finally go into print. The worst aspect of the job is waiting for months for responses from editors. Sometimes it’s several years before a book goes into print, and always there are delays. So I tend to work on several book projects at the same time.

Victoria: What advice or wisdom would you give a high school student about his or her career choice?

Katherine: Follow your passion. Aim high. Know that you can accomplish large tasks by breaking the tasks down into smaller tasks and tackling them one by one. Try to smile and be cheerful and get along with people. Establish trust by assuming the best from people. Try not to choose sides in any disagreement. If people around you are having disagreements, try to look at the underlying causes. Generally when people are angry there is a feeling of someone not being respected. Do not judge. Instead, try to understand the context of people’s lives and why they act the way they do. Turn negative energy into positive energy; choose not to be offended, as everyone you will meet in life is carrying some burden.

Talk less and listen more. Feel in your heart what the person’s words are saying. Speak personally from the heart. Don’t offer advice; do not argue or criticize; do not interrupt. Be a professional, and you can start right now by assuming a “professional attitude” by respecting yourself and others, presenting yourself in an appropriate and balanced way, not indulging in outbursts or moods, and refraining from giving mixed signals. Being a professional also means pulling yourself together and dressing appropriately for the job at hand. Always write a thank-you note to someone who helps you; a handwritten note is better than an e-mail note in many cases. Try to be flexible and open to outcomes.

Try to be upbeat. Be kind. Remember, energy flows from intention. Envision yourself being happy and successful in your chosen career. Let go of the idea that success is about striving and effort. Have fun, try to relax and enjoy yourself, and what you do won’t seem like work—in a sense you can “do nothing” and achieve everything.

Part 2: In my first post, Victoria Yeh, a high school student interviewed me. Later, after I’d commissioned her to create a cover for the Kindle version of my novel Trouble’s Daughter, I interviewed her in return.

Victoria Yeh's Kindle cover art for Trouble's Daughter

Victoria Yeh’s cover art for Trouble’s Daughter, now available on Kindle

Katherine: How old are you now, and how long have you been drawing and painting?

Victoria: I am currently fifteen, and have been drawing since I was four. I started painting at around nine or ten.

Katherine: When did you decide you wanted to be an artist?

Victoria: Ever since I started drawing I wanted to be an artist when I grew up, but I only recently started to seriously consider exactly what kind of career in art I want.

Katherine: Are you currently taking art lessons? If so, how long have you been studying?

Victoria: Yes, I am currently taking art lessons, and have been taking them since I was six.

Katherine: What is your favorite medium?

Victoria: Currently, my favorite medium is oil paint.

Katherine: What medium did you choose for the Trouble’s Daughter cover?

Victoria: I sketched the cover of Trouble’s Daughter on an 11-inch x 14-inch paper and inked the drawing with black pen first. Then I scanned it into my computer and colored it digitally using Photoshop.

Katherine: Tell us about that cover. How did you decide on the subject matter? Did any of the details on the cover come from details in the book?

Victoria: Trouble’s Daughter is about Susanna Hutchinson’s captivity. I believed that I should focus on her emotions over the course of the story, so the initial sketches portrayed her fear right before she was captured and her determination and fortitude through her captive years. Susanna wasn’t unhappy, and even grew to love her Native American family, so I didn’t want to make her look listless or depressed in the illustration. A small detail in the book described Susanna to have small clefts in her nose and chin, which is slightly noticeable in the cover illustration. The clothing Susanna is wearing is an outfit from a scene in the book, and the turtle shell rattle she is holding has some significance in the story.

Katherine: Tell us about your process for making the cover. Did you start out by making rough sketches? How many?

Victoria: I made two rough sketches with different compositions first to show you. After hearing your input I surveyed a few of my classmates and chose the sketch with more votes.

Katherine: Did you learn anything when you were creating the cover for Trouble’s Daughter?

Victoria: Artwise, I learned about lighting, color choice, and how to vary values as much as possible, because Kindle only displays black and white, which makes distinctions between colors obsolete. The illustration needed to look good in both color and black and white. I also learned about how to manage time between schoolwork and drawing the cover.

Katherine: What are your plans for the future?

Victoria: I hope to attend Rhode Island School of Design, which is known for being the best art school in the country. I visited the school during April 2012. I will probably major in either Illustration or Animation.

Katherine: What is your advice to other young artists?

Victoria: Practice all the time and learn the basics before trying to create your own style.

Victoria Yeh's cover art for Keeping the Good Light, available on Kindle in 2014

Victoria Yeh’s cover art for Keeping the Good Light, available on Kindle in 2014