BOOKS AND ARTS JANUARY 26, 2011
For more than a decade, the winners of the prestigious Newbery and Caldecott Medals—think the Oscars for children’s books—have appeared on NBC’s “Today” show the Tuesday after the awards’ announcement. This year, however, those tuning in on January 11 to see Clare Vanderpool and Erin Stead, deemed to have respectively produced the best children’s book and the best picture book illustrations of 2010, were surprised to find Matt Lauer interviewing a different breakout author instead: Snooki.
The queen of the “Jersey Shore” guidettes, who once divulged to The New York Times that she has only read two books (ever), was touting her new novel, entitled A Shore Thing. “It’s pretty much like the show, but you’re reading it,” said Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi to a perpetually head-nodding Lauer. Basically, that means 304 pages of promiscuous, binge-drinking, fist-pumping, Ed Hardy tee-shirt-wearing, fake-tanned characters doing their thing. Polizzi taught Lauer words like “Bennie” (a New Yorker who comes to the Shore), “badonk” (butt), and the ever-popular “weenis” (the ugly flap of skin on one’s elbow.) Then, Lauer took on the role of teacher, explaining how, “when you bend the elbow it doesn’t get all wrinkly, it only gets wrinkly when you straighten it out.”
The Caldecott and Newbery winners, meanwhile, are already instant classics. Each year, the medal winners are routinely catapulted to the top of library reading lists and essentially guaranteed to stay in print for generations. Vanderpool and Stead’s book are currently Amazon’s list of top 100 bestsellers (while A Shore Thing is nowhere in sight). So why did “Today” eschew Vanderpool and Stead, after eleven years of honoring their predecessors? Was it bad planning on the part of the show? Just a coincidence? Or did “Today” choose glitz over substance? (It’s worth noting that Amy Chua, author of the wildly controversial, headline-making book “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” also appeared on the show the same day as Snooki.)
The children’s book world hasn’t taken the debacle lightly. The American Library Association (ALA), which selects the Caldecott and Newbery winners, issued a press release stating that it “did reach out to the Today Show, and multiple conversations took place between show producers and … ALA’s media relations firm. …Unfortunately, we were turned down.” The statement noted that, considering its history with NBC’s morning program, the ALA hopes “the Today Show can find room for us in the future.” The children’s book blogosphere erupted, and letters of protest were sent by the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) to “Today,” as well as to the Los Angeles Times and New York Times. (They have yet to be printed). A Facebook page was also created to advocate putting put the award-winners on the air for their annual segment.
Representatives for “Today,” however, feel the complaints that the two writers were bumped to make room for Snooki are inaccurate and “totally unfair.” According to spokesperson Megan Kopf, “Snooki was booked on TODAY well before the [Newbery and Caldecott] winners were even pitched to us. … [The] show was simply booked solid when we received the pitch for the winners.” She also said the ALA has not reached out to the show about a future segment.
In NBC’s defense, while appearances are usually pitched months ahead of their desired airdates, the ALA came to “Today” with less than a month of lead time. And the announcement of the medals, which happens at an ALA conference, occurred earlier than it has in previous years. Still, the “Today” segment is a longstanding tradition. What’s more, it’s hard to imagine that if, say, Lindsay Lohan got out rehab and decided she wanted to be on the show the next day to tell her story, “Today” would let the story drop just because of short notice.
Adding insult to injury, the award-winners don’t really have other TV outlets to turn to for publicity. With initiatives that include Al’s Book Club for Kids, “Today” is “the only name in town, and the only network that pays attention to kids’ books,” says author, children’s librarian, and School Library Journal blogger Elizabeth Bird. She also points out that Spike Lee and his wife discussed a children’s book they’ve written on “Today” the morning after Snooki’s appearance, raising further concern that the show is placing too much priority on celebrity, and not enough on substance. “I understand what Snooki is and that phenomenon, and [I’m] not saying that you don’t cover that,” adds Lin Oliver, co-founder of SCBWI, commenting on the lost segment featuring the Caldecott and Newbery winners. “[But] one seems to be a perennial, classic, high-minded ideal, and one is a fleeting flirtation with sensationalism.”
Indeed, the bottom line is that viewers shouldn’t have to choose sides; there is room on the TV continuum for both high-end and low-end entertainment, for longstanding awards and “Jersey Shore” antics. “Today” would be wise to invite the Caldecott and Newbery winners for their annual segment, and the ALA should keep the pressure on the morning show for this to happen. After all, segments last only a few minutes, and “Today” runs for four hours every weekday, in addition to its abbreviated weekend schedule. In other words, there’s plenty of time in which to honor Vanderpool and Stead’s accomplishments. And, next year, both sides should start talking early, to avoid another debate about who deserves airtime.
Laura Stampler is an intern for The New Republic.