Thinking about ALSC awards and diversity/racism

Reading Shelley Diaz’s 2014 piece “The Givers: what it takes to serve on the Newbery, Caldecott committees” this week for my Children and Adolescent Reading Motivation Techniques class, I thought a lot about the ways that book awards like those the ALSC runs are not only a way to give quality literature larger audiences and adequate recognition, but also a way to cement librarians and book professionals as expert tastemakers.

My friend Kyle Lukoff  is a children’s librarian at Corlears School and Manhattan and is also a picture book author. Every year, he does a unit on awards for children’s books for the elementary school students he teaches. Over several weeks, he reads old and new Caldecott, Newbery, Coretta Scott King, and Stonewall award-winners (among others) to his students, and they discuss what they notice about the winning books–what they have in common, and what differs between old and new book titles. I’ve had the privilege of sitting in on some of these sessions, listening to Kyle read from newer Caldecott winners like Javaka Steptoe’s Radiant Child to rapt audiences of third graders. Children admired the pictures and discussed the time and research that had gone into the non-fiction biography of Black artist Basquiat.

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While I was visiting the school last week for observation, Kyle also showed students a copy of  Baboushka and the Three Kings, illustrated by Nicolas Sidjakov, the 1961 Caldecott winner. Many of the students marveled at the fact that compared to newer books, the pictures in this one….just weren’t that compelling or beautiful to them. The lines were flat, the colors were simple, and the expressions of the characters weren’t clear. Additionally, the story didn’t grab them. Kyle and his students discussed as a class why that book had been chosen as the most distinguished illustrated book for children that year. Students suggested that perhaps there weren’t any other good ones, or that the people on the committee had different ideas of beauty.

baboushka

Who participates in committees matters enormously, as does the criteria, secret or otherwise, that they use to determine the winners of Caldecott and Newbery awards. As Laurie Hertzel noted in an article in Feb 2018, recent winners of the Newbery and Caldecott medals have been notably more diverse than in the past–and committees, too, have become more diverse in terms of the ethnic backgrounds of participants. But, as Hertzel also points out, this hardly compensates for decades in which panels of white librarians and book professionals handed awards to overwhelmingly white authors–or where the occasional author of color who was recognized was tokenized and then forgotten. It’s important for us as librarians to note that the patterns in children’s publishing, literary fame, and racism within the world of literature is not natural, but the product of forces like awards committees that elevate some voices while consistently marginalizing others. By demystifying awards processes and noting the human and professional motivations of Newbery award participants, we can better critique these processes and commit to decolonizing our professional field (which is overwhelmingly historically white).

A 2017 article  for the Atlantic by Pooja Makhijani which I read recently reminded me of how much the composition of awards committees impacts the direction of literature. As Makhijani notes, the first author of color to win a Newbery award was Dhan Gopal Mukerji, who published a children’s book (illustrated by Boris Artzybasheff) about a carrier pigeon who accompanies his Indian owner to WWI.

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Makhijani notes that this could have, in a better universe, been part of a trend in the U.S of recognizing authors of color. Because of U.S immigration policies which briefly allowed Asian immigrants to become citizens at the turn of the twentieth century, Mukerji was part of a wave of South Asian immigrants to make a home in America. Educated at Stanford, but with ties to the nascent independence movement, Mukerji significant artistic contributions to make which bucked earlier trends in children’s literature and told stories which had not previously been available to American audiences. Initially, they were successful. While he cannily relied on American fascination with jungles and tigers, he also introduced readers of his book Gay Neck to the tragedies Indian soldiers faced in a war which never benefited them.

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illustration from Gay Neck. Pictures by Boris Artzybasheff

However, in the years after his Newbery award, Mukerji struggled with intense depression. While Makhijani notes that part of this could have been because Mukerji worked himself extremely hard, travelling on cross-country lectures for most of the year, it was also probably exacerbated by the increasingly perilous position of Indian immigrants in America in the years after the case of Baghat Singh Thind vs. The United States, where it was ruled that South Asians could not only not be naturalized going forward but could also have their citizenship revoked on account of their race. Additionally, Mukerji, who was friends with Nehru, was aware of the increasingly violent treatment of Indian independence advocates by the British occupation in his homeland. He committed suicide in 1936–after which his works fell into near complete obscurity, despite his Newbery Award book Gay Neck remaining in print.

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illustration from Gay Neck. Picture by Boris Artzybasheff

The next Newbery Award to be handed to an author of color went to Paula Fox, whose mother was Cuban, for The Slave Dancer in 1974. No other South Asian authors have ever won a Newbery medal, and the three Asian-American authors who have won the Newbery (Lynda Sue Park, Cynthia Kadohata, and Erin Entrada Kelly) received their awards only after the turn of the 21st century. This is absolutely the fault of the selection committees, who again and again had the opportunity to prioritize marginalized voices and chose instead to elevate white authors and white narratives at the expense of children’s literature–which could be so much richer and more complex. While part of the blame rests with the publishing industry, which until the 1960s rarely devoted promotional money toward any works by black authors (with rare exceptions), librarians had a responsibility that they ignored. This is part of the legacy of our profession. Too many white librarians have operated under the assumption that the books we happen to come across are the best representatives of literature, when in fact the systems that put books into the world already put many authors of color in America and internationally at a disadvantage. Future committees need not only to be diverse but to be culturally aware and critical during every step of the process. While things right now seem to tilt the scale toward more diverse books, we have to understand how and why this trend is happening, so it isn’t reversed in the future.

I think as young librarians like myself move forward in an increasingly politically polarized world, as we join committees and reach consensus on our favorite books and consider hundreds of nominations, we should consider our responsibility to work to make those committees representative of as wide a range of experiences and backgrounds as possible, and to work as much as possible to pay attention to narratives which come from authors of color, trans authors, disabled authors, and migrant authors.

 

Diaz, Shelley. (2014) The Givers: what it takes to serve on the Newbery, Caldecott committees. School Library Journal, 60(1), p26-29.

Hertzel, Laurie (2018, Feb 16).The Newbery and Caldecott – as well as the other ALA awards – are bringing recognition to diverse books. The Star Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.startribune.com/bookmark-the-newbery-and-caldecott-as-well-as-the-other-ala-awards-are-bringing-recognition-to-diverse-books/474223993/.

Makhijani, Pooja (2017, Oct 3). What a Forgotten Kids’ Book Reveals about U.S Publishing. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/10/what-a-forgotten-kids-book-reveals-about-us-publishing/539709/

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