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Was children’s literature really damaged?
It came as a bit of a shock in the passive, upbeat and immensely caring world of children’s publishing last Wednesday when Rush Limbaugh was named author of the year.
Take a moment to let that sink in.
Sounds shocking, right?
But it’s true. Rush Limbaugh was named the Children’s Book Council’s Author of the Year.
Now, kidlit is famous for being sensitive and inclusive, so how did Limbaugh, one of the most bombastic and divisive figures in the media, win a prestigious award?
Simple. And it’s the reason I really don’t care that Rush won.
Turns out, it’s a popularity contest. Author of the year is based first on book sales, and then people vote on the finalists. And no other author has a coast-to-coast media platform with a diehard following that even the host admits is incapable of thinking for itself. He calls them dittoheads because they simply parrot what he says. “Vote for me as children’s author of the year!”
That alone, of course, isn’t enough. Glenn Beck has nationwide reach but he didn’t win the award for his children’s book. That’s because he also has a much smaller audience and, unlike Rush, has fallen out of favor with much of the right. Limbaugh, on the other hand, is a powerbroker within the Republican Party who makes conservative candidates jump through hoops like poodles training for a B-grade circus act. His followers could now hold sway over the CBC like they do over the Tea Party. After all, just as elections happen every year, Limbaugh plans on releasing more books in his Time Travel Adventures with Exceptional Americans series. He’s already released two.
So what happened here? Did conservatives take over children’s publishing? Will there be more books catering to the conservative market? Hardly. There have always been publishers willing to publish books appealing to a conservative audience, but Rush is an anomaly with built-in buyers. The rest of the industry isn’t going to cave to meet some new demand. When the Colbert Nation floods the ballot box to give Stephen Colbert some honor, TV execs don’t rush to create another faux pundit. They may create more talk shows, but they don’t replicate his character. The industry goes on with hosts being themselves and Colbert being a major exception.
No, what happened here is that the award has been diminished. That’s it. Just as The People’s Choice Awards or American Idol don’t hold a candle to the Oscars and the Grammys, the author of the year award doesn’t seem as impressive as an award based on merit. If a book that received no starred reviews can win, what does it say about the quality of any book that wins (although some great authors have won this award)? That said, any author – including Limbaugh – should be proud to win it and put it on future book jackets, but the industry will now look askance it. It used to mean something, but it’s now as tainted as SuperPac money. It’s just another change, no matter how minor, that Limbaugh brings to another system. The CBC finds itself in the position of not only explaining how Rush won, but quietly apologizing for it, like Time magazine reflecting on its decision to name Adolf Hitler Man of the Year. They are in damage control, meaning that they, too, recognize that the award is in danger of losing its luster.
The award’s importance may be diminished, children’s books stand tall. Limbaugh’s followers will take it seriously, of course, just as they do every asinine and ill-informed thing that comes out of his mouth.
None of this changes my position on Limbaugh or children’s literature – just the award, because it now has an ugly side, like a race-baiting, rancorous, remonstrative rant from Rush Limbaugh.
An additional note: The main character of the book that led to Limbaugh’s win – Rush Revere – has bothered me since I first learned of it. This man who beats his chest while simultaneously placing his hand over his heart will continue to mythologize Paul Revere. I like that he’s trying to help children become interested in American history, no matter how skewed (like Braveheart, perhaps it will lead people to want to know the truth behind the man), but I’m offended by him co-opting this icon. My work relies on facts, not on self-aggrandizing to sell books. Well, at least he didn’t have Revere riding off to warn the British. I’m guessing that will be the subject of Sarah Palin’s first children’s book.
I am the author of the upcoming book Mary Dyer: Friend of Freedom (Atombank Books) about the civil rights leader whose death led to religious tolerance in America.