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Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award Committee

Sigurd Olson Children's and Young Adult Literature ConferenceWe’re in the midst of award sea­son, when best of the year lists and spec­u­la­tion about award win­ners pro­lif­er­ate on the social media plat­forms swirling around chil­dren’s and teen books. In Novem­ber, we attend­ed the award cer­e­mo­ny at the Sig­urd Olson Envi­ron­men­tal Insti­tute’s Chil­dren and Young Adult Lit­er­a­ture Con­fer­ence, which takes place at North­land Col­lege in Ash­land, Wis­con­sin (on the awe-inspir­ing south shore of Lake Supe­ri­or). Inspired by the authors, nat­u­ral­ists, and librar­i­ans who speak at this con­fer­ence, we inter­viewed the ded­i­cat­ed com­mit­tee who select this impor­tant award each year.

How do you select the awarded books?

We have a committee of eight members who all have an interest in promoting both the natural world and high quality literature for children. Because committee members remain on the committee from year to year we have a dedicated, knowledgeable group of professionals. Each member first ranks books and then those results are tallied. The top ranked books becomes the focus of a committee meeting. A final vote is taken with numerical rankings following that in-depth discussion.

What are the criteria for this award?

The Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award for Children’s Literature is given to a published children’s book of literary nature writing (nonfiction or fiction) that captures the spirit of the human relationship with nature, and promotes the awareness, preservation, appreciation, or restoration of the natural world for future generations. (Here's a full list of SONWA books since 1991.)

How do you gather the books?

Since most, if not all, publishers are on Twitter, we established a SONWA Awards Twitter account two years ago (@sonwa_awards). For the past two years, we’ve promoted the awards through our feed and by directly tweeting to publishers. We also post to the SOEI (Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute) Facebook feed periodically.

We active­ly ask pub­lish­ers to sub­mit books that fit the cri­te­ria. Since we’re one of the few nature writ­ing awards for young adult and children’s lit­er­a­ture, the pub­lish­ers of this type of book are aware of us.

What selection criteria do you apply?

First of all, as the name of the award suggests, the book has to be about some aspect of nature and written for children appropriate to the age group. In addition, it has to be written in the year prior to the year the award is received.

After that, we look at:

  • Human Rela­tion­ships with Nat­ur­al World: Does the book cap­ture the spir­it of the human rela­tion­ship with nature?
  • Lit­er­ary Val­ue: Does the book take on ele­ments such as char­ac­ter devel­op­ment, metaphor, cli­max, allu­sion, theme, motif, etc?
  • Val­ues: Does the book pro­mote the val­ues for nature this award seeks to pro­mote for future gen­er­a­tions: aware­ness, preser­va­tion, appre­ci­a­tion, restoration?
  • Illus­tra­tions: When books meet all the above cri­te­ria, then illus­tra­tions and the art­work are considered.

What is the impetus you feel for donating your time to this award process?

Living in the Northwoods, whether an outdoor person or not, creates a strong connection to the earth and concern for its future. Our committee is also well aware of how literacy can impact our humanity. This award process allows us to commit to two efforts that are important to us. We hope the chain from writers to publishers will be validated for their efforts. And we hope the reader will be enriched in multiple ways.

You are housed within, and sponsored by, the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute. Why is this a good fit for a nature-writing award?

The mission of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute is to promote experiences of wildness and wonder, while also working to protect wildlands for future generations. Literary depictions and accounts of wild nature and the wonder it evokes in people often inspire readers to seek similar experiences, or, if they’ve already had those experiences, the literary works help to further affirm the value of those experiences.

Sig­urd F. Olson’s writ­ing is one of the rich­est and most influ­en­tial parts of his lega­cy, and the nature writ­ing award is one of the ways that we car­ry that lega­cy forward.

Northland College

You’ll find the Sig­urd F. Olson Envi­ron­men­tal Insti­tute on the cam­pus of North­land Col­lege, Ash­land, Wis­con­son (in the fore­ground of this pho­to). That’s Lake Supe­ri­or in the background.

Your focus was initially regionally written adult books. Why did you develop a specific award for children’s books?

In part this was a circumstantial decision: each year publishers were submitting children’s books, even though they didn’t meet the criteria we had established for the original adult award. Although we could not consider these submissions for the adult award, we were impressed by their quality and wanted to recognize and promote the work of the authors and illustrators of the children’s books.

Of course, we also rec­og­nize how impor­tant it is to cap­ture the imag­i­na­tions of chil­dren and the role that sto­ries can play in shap­ing their val­ues and visions for them­selves and their future. We want chil­dren to grow up hav­ing and valu­ing expe­ri­ences of wild­ness and won­der in their lives, and the children’s nature writ­ing award, as well as our children’s lit­er­a­ture con­fer­ence, help us to real­ize this goal.

Having read so many nature-themed children’s books, what trends are you noticing?

We do see topic trends from time to time. A few years ago it was whales and then water the next year. Just like publishing in other areas, the trends tend to follow what is going on in the world. This year we have a few hurricane books. Often times, grandparents are depicted as nurturer, guardian, or storyteller of nature.

 We are see­ing more diver­si­ty and inclu­sion. There are more pic­ture books with more white space but with detailed author notes or sup­ple­men­tal added val­ue. In recent year, non­fic­tion books for old­er read­ers will have side bars, graph­ics, cap­tioned pho­tos, and more along­side the main body. This can be either an enhance­ment or a distraction.

What themes or topics do you wish were being addressed in children’s books?

We are always looking for books that have a strong relationship to human interaction with the natural world. Books for older children with this aspect are not as readily available. There are always some that stand out in this area but we would happily welcome more.

___________________

Thank you for your com­mit­ment to read­ing and rec­om­mend­ing the very best in nature writ­ing for chil­dren and teens. Your focus on human inter­ac­tion with the nat­ur­al world is crit­i­cal to the lives of our chil­dren and our plan­et. Impor­tant work you’re doing!

[The sub­mis­sion dead­line for 2018 award con­sid­er­a­tion is Decem­ber 31, 2017. Learn more.]

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