Monday, May 19, 2014

As Easy as ABC: Awards, Best Sellers, and Critical Thinking

The author with one of his many awards.
Award-winning,* best-selling** author Greg Pincus here. I wanted to write a little today about the ABCs - awards, best sellers, and critical thinking.

This past week, Rush Limbaugh won Author of the Year at the Children's Choice Book Awards, an award sponsored by the Children's Book Council. Much as when his nomination as a finalist was announced, there was much gnashing of teeth inside (and outside) the children's book world with the award announcement, including many comments about how the award and even the CBC had lost credibility.

It's easy to feel outraged when there's a sense of being snookered or betrayed, but the reality is that the Author of the Year award has always been determined the same way - qualification is based on sales, then there's a popular vote to pick the winner. That didn't change this year.

So, if the award had credibility before, it has credibility now, even if the winner seems "unworthy" somehow. If you weren't aware of the criterion for the award and how it was picked, at the end of the day that's on you, not the award. And not liking the results doesn't change that at all.

If we ask who gave this particular award whatever credibility it has, I'd say that the answer is that we did, collectively. Perhaps, in this case, it's trust in the creators of the award or the fact that it's part of a mission that we love (celebrating children's books!) and that talented authors have won it before. Regardless, our celebration of award winning status in general definitely is a factor. And that, again, is on us.

Awards for creative endeavors are a tricky thing. In a blog post that's well worth a read, Emma Dryden touches on some of the challenges and pitfalls of them and how we value them. Yet it's not easy to change this - there's all sorts of psychology in play here (including confirmation bias, social conformity, and more), and it's hard to overcome. Awards should mean something, we've decided, so when we see an award (particularly from an organization that seems legit and good), we give it value.

And yet that's abdicating our personal responsibility to practice critical thinking and view each situation individually.

*For example, I honestly am an award-winning author. I'm not talking about awards for my debut novel The 14 Fibs of Gregory K. (which, I note, was a finalist for the Cybils and Crystal Kite... but not a winner) or my screenplays. Nope. I won an award in middle school at the Ready Writing Contest at Mansfield State College. My Punt Pass and Kick trophy from when I was eight could count, too - it's an award for me, after all, and I am an author. Context and critical thinking matter again, clearly.

How we view the status of "best seller" falls into this same arena, at least to me. Best-selling sounds "good" and "impressive," and it's easy to see why an author would link that to his/her name. And yet...

Best Seller!
**I can legitimately describe myself as a best-selling author: upon release, my ebook of poetry, The Late Bird, topped Amazon's Kindle Children's Poetry best seller list for over a month.

I also know that my sales during that period tapered off rapidly and included weeks of single digit sales. (10 of you feel free, as a social experiment, to buy The Late Bird and watch me top the same chart again. Go for it. I'll wait here :-)).

So, does Best Seller by itself really carry any weight? Again, we collectively have given it status and credibility, but perhaps we've done so without always considering context.

It's very easy to accept that statuses like "award winner" and "best seller" are impressive and meaningful, but if we don't think critically - asking questions like who gave an award, what was the purpose, what were the qualifications, what was the process, how were "sales" measured, where was it a best seller - then we're following blindly and not thinking for ourselves. And that? Well, that's sad no matter who has won what.

What do you think? Do we trust awards, best seller lists, reviews, and the like too much? Is the recent outrage only political in nature and not about our responsibility to think critically? Or...? I look forward to your thoughts.

Friday, May 02, 2014

30 Poets/2 Years/1 Day

April and 30 Poets/30 Days are done, but I wanted to wrap up the month that just passed here on Poetry Friday (and you can see the roundup of PF posts at Write.Sketch.Repeat). This year, I re-issued the poetry from the first two years of the event, so there were 60 poets and 60 poems in one month's time.

And I just have to say it was a privilege, again, to share the amazingly diverse work - in content and style - by an amazing group of talented poets. And to be among them? A thrill. Totally.

So, here, then is what I call 30 Poets/2 Years/1 Day!

April 1: Jack Prelutsky and Alice Schertle
April 2: Rebecca Kai Dotlich and Joseph Bruchac
April 3: Charles Ghigna and Laura Purdie Salas
April 4: X. J. Kennedy and Calef Brown
April 5: Ann Whitford Paul and Carole Boston Weatherford
April 6: Jaime Adoff and Jorge Argueta
April 7: Marilyn Singer and Susan Marie Swanson
April 8: Adam Rex and Ralph Fletcher
April 9: Joyce Sidman and Alan Katz
April 10: Bruce Lansky and Carmen T. Bernier-Grand
April 11: Avis Harley and Charles Waters
April 12: Nikki Grimes and Kathi Appelt
April 13: Lee Bennett Hopkins and Kurt Cyrus
April 14: Linda Sue Park and Arthur A. Levine
April 15: Mary Ann Hoberman and Eileen Spinelli
April 16: Betsy Franco and Bobbi Katz
April 17: Jon Scieszka and James Carter
April 18: Kristine O'Connell George and Elaine Magliaro
April 19: Arnold Adoff and David L. Harrison
April 20: Jane Yolen and Brod Bagert
April 21: Greg Pincus and Tracie Vaughn Zimmer
April 22: Janet Wong and Heidi Mordhorst
April 23: Nikki Giovanni and Charles R. Smith, Jr.
April 24: J. Patrick Lewis and Georgia Heard
April 25: Julie Larios and George Ella Lyon
April 26: Joan Bransfield Graham and Jacqueline Woodson
April 27: Kenn Nesbitt and Graham Denton
April 28: April Halprin Wayland and Francisco X. Alarcón
April 29: Douglas Florian and Liz Garton Scanlon
April 30: Pat Mora and Walter Dean Myers

Yeah, it was a fine month. Of course, poetry runs year round here at GottaBook, and if you want to keep on top of it, I hope you'll sign up to my poetry email list. That way, when a poem appears here, you'll get it via email for super-easy reading and sharing (plus there have been giveaways and other small extras, too). If you want in, just enter your email address in the box below then click subscribe:

Thanks again for hanging out here for 30 Poets/30 Days. I'm already looking forward to next April... and the 11 months in between, too.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Meet Andrew Huang ("A Genius!" Says I)

I don't think I'm prone to hyperbole, so I truly mean it when I say that Andrew Huang is the type of brilliant, creative talent I believe makes the world a happier place. So, when I decided to make a book trailer for the 14 Fibs of Gregory K., I knew I wanted him to create the song for it. And he did, and it makes me happy EVERY time I hear it.

I've followed his music for years - from his albums on Bandcamp (many owned by this family, I must add!); the amazing Songs to Wear Pants To; all of his fantastic videos. He a multi-instrumentalist who crosses genres and styles and does stuff like make music with 1000 pairs of pants or puts e.e. cummings to music or rap in which the only vowel he uses is the letter E:

(All proceeds from that song, by the way, benefit Habitat for Humanity. So, like, he's a good egg on top of his ability to dismiss all vowels besides E with the line "these excess letters - delete".)

Anyway, I interviewed Andrew via email and now have a chance to share it with you. And please - check him out at any of the above links. You won't be sorry.

When did you discover your love of music? 

Summer by Andrew Huang
I have been experimenting with a lot of musical stuff since an early age, whether it was plinking away on the piano or recording myself on a tape deck. I always considered myself more of a visual artist though until my teens when I started being introduced to music outside of the pop and classical that I grew up with - stuff like punk rock, trip-hop, bebop, cool jazz, weird underground electronic stuff... I realized I loved it all.

Your song challenge videos/songs are incredibly creative. How do you even approach something like "make a song only using the sounds you can make from 1000 pairs of jeans"? Or "only use water sounds." I mean... seriously?

Those found sound videos are fun. It's really a process of discovery. I might have an inkling of where I could take something, but I basically start out by trying to get every possible sound I can out of whatever the challenge calls for. Usually, each sound I can make ends up translating in my mind into a representation of an instrument - tapping a box might work as a snare drum, for example. And then it's back to the normal matter of arranging a piece of music. The palette is limited depending on the materials of course. Most often in these kinds of pieces there isn't something very suitable to use as a bass.

You make music in so many different styles and genres. Do you have a favorite?

Couldn't ever pick a favorite. What I listen to changes all the time. In terms of what I create - sonically speaking - pop, rap, and the wonderfully broad "electronic" would form the backbone of the majority of my work, but I think I also bring a sense of structure and orchestration that comes from what I know and love in classical music. And my songwriting craft was honed more from listening to rock, folk, and country. If we throw all that in the pot it'll keep me happy (most of the time).

You just released a new album on Bandcamp. What's next?

Haha. "You just released a new album on Bandcamp" is a phrase that applies to me about once a month. (Greg's note: you really have to check out his stuff on Bandcamp.)

I'm working on a bunch of new stuff that will be seeing the light of day soon but the biggest thing is this sort of dark, brooding pop album called The Coldest Darkness. It's been years in the making and I haven't often been this excited about a project. There will be a really awesome physical package to go with it to, and I'm working on some out-of-the-ordinary ways that fans will be able to get themselves an early copy.

Andrew is also touring the West Coast of the US with Hank Green this summer. Perhaps I'll see you at a show?

Besides YouTube and Bandcamp, you can find Andrew on Twitter and Facebook and elsewhere as @AndrewIsMusic.  I leave you with his Gravy and Toast, a song he wrote on commission. I mean, really - he turned toast and gravy into toe tapping singable fun. I rest my case!