Levine Wins Times Award for Powerful ‘Harmful to Minors’

Times Staff Writer

Judith Levine, whose provocative book on children’s sexuality created a firestorm of controversy even before it was published, was awarded a Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the current interest category Saturday night.

“Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex” presents the argument that children are often deprived of realistic advice about sex. She also makes a case that young Americans are entitled to safe, satisfying sex lives.

The award came as something of a surprise, given the topic and that one of the finalists was Samantha Power, who recently won the Pulitzer Prize for “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” which documents the United States’ failure to confront global crimes against humanity.


Levine was rebuffed by numerous publishers before the University of Minnesota Press accepted the manuscript. One publisher called the book “radioactive.” But the judges for the book prizes thought differently, calling the work “a cogent and passionate critique of the war against young people’s sexuality. An uncompromising humanist and feminist, Judith Levine exposes the moral panic behind such policies as ‘abstinence-only’ sex education and insists on adults’ responsibility to give affirmative support to children’s and teenagers’ sexual development.”

The judges also commended the University of Minnesota Press for its courage in publishing the book in the face of attacks by outraged state legislators. Levine was presented the prize, a commendation and $1,000 at UCLA’s Royce Hall as part of the 2003 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

The prizes reward excellence in nine categories to books published in 2002, including fiction, biography, current interest, history and poetry. Each category was judged by three notable writers from the genre.

Larry McMurtry, the iconoclastic and prolific Texas writer, was presented the Robert Kirsch Award for his distinguished body of work that “grows out of and reflects brilliantly upon the myth and reality of the American West in all of its infinite variety.”

The Kirsch Award, named for The Times’ literary critic from 1954 to 1980, is given annually to recognize an author living in or writing about the American West.

“He has managed the remarkable feat of reinventing and reinvigorating the most familiar and most thoroughly American of genres, the Western,” the judges said.


Other prize winners were:

Robert A. Caro in the biography category, for his third volume on the life of Lyndon Johnson, “Master of the Senate” (Alfred A. Knopf). “In this narrative of Johnson’s years as leader of the U.S. Senate, Caro delivers a dramatic portrait, as scholarly as it is readable, of a masterful politician and his era,” the judges said.

Ian McEwan won in the fiction category for “Atonement” (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday). “At times wickedly fun, at times melancholic, McEwan’s tour de force proves the novel remains a vital and contemporary form capable of conveying gray and complex history,” the judges said.

Michael B. Oren was awarded the history prize for “Six Days of War” (Oxford University Press). The book recounts the 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors. “This is a humane, evenhanded, diplomatic and military history that avoids both bathos and triumphalism,” the judges said.

Cynthia Zarin won for poetry with her third collection, “The Watercourse” (Alfred A. Knopf). “Her lines are so taut that one could play them with a bow, and the emotional chords produced are complex and ravishing,” the judges said.

The mystery/thriller category was won by George P. Pelecanos for “Hell to Pay,” (Little, Brown and Co.). The judges called the book a riveting thriller that “shows readers a part of our modern world that many choose to ignore, the truly mean inner-city streets of our nation’s capital and some of the citizens who live and die there.”

Brenda Maddox won the science and technology category for “Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA” (HarperCollins Publishers). The book chronicles the life of Franklin, one of the major -- and all-but-forgotten -- contributors to the discovery of DNA. The judges called the book “an elegant mixture of the scientific and the personal.”


The young adult fiction category was won by M.T. Anderson for “Feed” (Candlewick Press). Comparing the book to “Brave New World,” “1984” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the judges said “Feed” is an inventive story that “will show the dangers that lie ahead for independent thinking while delivering an irresistibly cool read.”

The Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction went to Arthur Phillips for “Prague” (Random House). The panel said “Prague,” which is set in Eastern Europe in 1990, is “a story of youth making its way in an uncertain age, distilled back into urgent relevance. The prose is swift and lyrical, rich in landscape detail, rich with shifting clouds of emotion -- a great ride and a resonant record of the zeitgeist.”

Some of the presenters and honorees talked about the War on Iraq, in particular the recent looting of a library and museum in Baghdad. Ronald Steel, professor of international relations at USC, said: “The sacking of a library or museum is a crime against humanity. Those who allow those crimes to take place, whether intentional or not, are accomplices.


Times staff writer Cara Mia DiMassa contributed to this report.