Why Has a Children’s Book Author Never Won the Nobel Prize in Literature?

Kenny Brechner -- October 20th, 2016

Selma Lagerlof

As I was reading the debate as to whether Bob Dylan was a fitting choice for the Nobel Prize in Literature, regardless of his being a great artist, it suddenly occurred to me to ask why it was that no children’s book author had ever won the award. If lyrics were a suitable medium for the award, how could children’s literature not be as well? One would think that enriching, sustaining, and supporting the lives of children around the world over time, and with literary artistry, would eminently suit the Nobel Prize in Literature. Why the absence?

When I say children book author I mean primarily a children’s book author.  A handful of Prize winners have written a children’s book among their body of work yet none were understood to be primarily a children’s book author.

Interestingly the early years of the award had more recipients who had written a childrens book than any period since. The great historical novelist Henryk Sienckiewicz (1905 winner) wrote one book for children, In Desert and Wilderness. Similarly the Swedish author Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf (1909) wrote two excellent children’s novels, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils and The Further Adventures of Nils. Rudyard Kipling (1907) is best remembered today for his Just So Stories and The Jungle Book but that was not the reason he won the award. Toni Morrison (1993) has written several picture books, but all subsequent to the award. William Golding (1983) is remembered for Lord of the Flies, a book mostly read in school today, but it was not written as a children’s book.

There have been many children’s authors who ought to have won the award during their lifetimes of course, Tove Jansson, Edith Nesbit, Dr, Seuss, Jean Craighead George, Madeleine L’Engle,  and Roald Dahl, for example, but given that the neglect of children’s book authors by the Nobel Prize committee can only be rectified in regard to a living author, the question becomes whose current body of work is most fitting for the Nobel Prize?

It’s a toughie, to be sure. For sheer impact a strong case for J.K. Rowling would be easy to make. It would be hard to argue with the selection of Gary Paulsen. Personally, however, I think Judy Blume would be the best choice, given the scale of her impact on readers’ lives, along with her courage, and the lasting immediacy of her work.

Two questions for you. Who would you choose? What can we do to awaken the Nobel Prize committee to their inexplicable neglect of the value of children’s literature?

7 thoughts on “Why Has a Children’s Book Author Never Won the Nobel Prize in Literature?

  1. SF Said

    I think Ursula Le Guin and Alan Garner would both be worthy winners of the Nobel Prize, though they’ve both written for adults too. How about Philip Pullman? His Dark Materials remains, for my money, the most ambitious and thrilling literary undertaking of our times.

  2. Deana Rosen

    I would agree that Judy Blume should get the Nobel Prize for Literature. I would also have to add Kate DiCamillo and Katherine Paterson.

  3. Sue Bursztynski

    Is this for body of work or an individual work? It seems to fluctuate. Bob Dylan, for example, would be body of work, while others are for individual books. You know what? A lot of writers who are well loved and remembered and still in print never won a Nobel. Others who have been forgotten and are out of print did.

    I’d have a hard time deciding which children’s writer to choose, there are so many amazing ones. Morris Gleitzman, perhaps, for body of work. Just his Once series would do it for me, but there are so many others. They may seem funny, but are serious at the same time. And kids love them.

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