Monday, March 10, 2014

My Ultimate Silver Birch Book

Recently, the Ontario Library Association, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Forest of Reading program, announced the winner of the "Ultimate Silver Birch Book". The Silver Birch Award is the oldest in the collection of tree-monikor reading prizes awarded by the voting young readers themselves and the deserving winner was Hana's Suitcase by Karen Levine. The "Ultimate Silver Birch" contest was an open ballot for anyone to participate; I missed the deadline to add my $0.02 but I thought I'd use my March Break blog time to write about the book that would have earned my vote.

Picking the best book from twenty years of fantastic winners and nominees can be a daunting task. There are several authors with multiple nominations that should receive special recognition (Eric Walters and Kevin Sylvester immediately come to mind, followed by folks like Helaine Becker, Deborah Ellis, and many others.) However, my choice for the Ultimate Silver Birch book comes from an author with just one nomination to his credit: Edo van Belkom's Wolf Pack.

You may be questioning my taste in literature (e.g. "Why would she pick this over Hana's Suitcase?"), but let me elaborate on why this particular Silver Birch book holds a special place in my heart.

1) The Selection

I was on the Silver Birch Selection committee in 2006 when this title was one of the nominees. When someone agrees to sit on a review or nomination committee, he or she usually signs a confidentiality agreement. (I just finished working with the Canadian Children Book Centre on a subcategory for their Best Books for Kids & Teens Spring 2014 issue and all I can and should reveal is that it was a very rewarding process for me.) Keeping the deliberations private is very important. Once the final list is announced, the selection committee must be united in their support for the list they jointly created, regardless of individual opinions expressed during the selection process. I've seen examples of selection committee members that have been less-than-discreet about their own views, and it really disrupts the program and spreads negative vibes. I presume that the code of silence continues beyond the specific year members contribute, so I cannot say too much about the selection process from that year, except to say that I was very happy when Wolf Pack made it on the list. 

2) The Controversy

2006 was a memorable year for the Ontario Library Association and the Forest of Reading for another reason. That was the year that Three Wishes by Deborah Ellis was a non-fiction nominee and a huge controversy arose because of this selection. The Three Wishes drama overshadowed the news that other titles from that year's list of nominees were also questioned on a smaller scale, especially Wolf Pack  and Ellen Fremedon. Many adults were alarmed by some of the issues, situations, and words described in the books. (If I remember correctly, Ellen Fremedon made grownups uncomfortable because there was a gay character in the narrative, and Wolf Pack was unpopular with some adults because the characters were high-school-aged.). Despite having some schools limit or restrict access to some of these titles, young people still continued to read. My own students loved the books and we had deep and rich discussions about the content.

3) The Impact

In this interview with Open Book Toronto, when Edo van Belkom was asked about his most memorable author experience, he cited meeting a Silver Birch reader who was passionate about his book. My students and I attended the Festival of Trees that year and saw (and especially HEARD) the reaction to van Belkom's book. The screams and cheers were deafening, especially when he won the Silver Birch fiction prize. 

Wolf Pack was unique in that it was a horror book - a horror book suitable to young readers. Most of our students or children aren't plagued with lycanthropy, but they could definitely relate to the feelings of isolation and alienation that the protagonists faced daily. The villain could have been dealt with in a gory finale, but van Belkom provided a satisfying ending that did not rely on the werewolves using their strength to punish the evil-doer. By including this book on its list of nominees, the Ontario Library Association demonstrated that genre books are legitimate forms of reading. Thousands of children participate in the Forest of Reading, and for many, this might have been their first foray into a new genre not usually shared in schools. This winner also established that the Forest of Reading program is not about books adults judge or think are "good and proper" for students - it's about recreational reading, reading for fun. Some sophisticated adults might roll their eyes at the actions of the werewolf teens (just like they do or did with another paranormal juggernaut, the Young Adult series Twilight by Stephenie Meyer), but it's not about the adults, it's about the kids. Young readers loved that book and I'm so glad the Silver Birch program gave it a profile so readers could discover it and fall in literary love. 

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