Shortly after the annual Youth Media Awards, novelist Ashley Hope Pérez (herself a fresh awardee: a Printz Honor for Out of Darkness) contacted me about helping facilitate a conversation she wished to have about diversity in kidlit—a hot topic these days, though Pérez specifically wanted to talk about it in terms of awards and best-of lists.
As a Booklist editor, fellow author, and frequent consultant to award committees, I was happy to help, though it was Pérez who rounded up our virtual panelists: Pat Enciso, professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults at Ohio State and member of the Tomás Rivera Book Award national committee; Marilisa Jiménez-García, research associate at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College, CUNY; Jason Low, publisher of Lee & Low Books, which focuses on multicultural children’s books; and Debbie Reese, publisher of American Indians in Children’s Literature, and tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo.
PÉREZ: Where are we now when it comes to diversity and awards/best-of lists?
LOW: For two years running the lists have been relatively diverse, which is the exact opposite of what is happening at the Academy Awards, so that bodes well for our industry.
ENCISO: Presumably award committee members have become educated about the value of diversity in books for youth. Stories may be read and evaluated as well-made in their own right; but in our society, stories do not stand alone without context. The intense and informed response to A Fine Dessert called attention to the ways dehumanization can be built into a well-made book—even when the intent is to humanize the characters. Context is not simply a matter of design or background. History matters. The implications for future relationships among readers also matter.
REESE: Major book award committees do seem to be reading in a different way than they have before and considering diversity more fully. That said, given the inclusion of problematic titles on best-of lists, I wonder if the people on those committees are having the same depth of conversation regarding diversity that may be taking place on the award committees.
KRAUS: Based on my limited observation, I can say with some confidence that discussions, like the more public one around A Fine Dessert, do happen in some committees, and at an impressive depth. For longer best-of lists, though, where committees are discussing hundreds of books, I wouldn’t think any title could be given that level of analysis, at least not during the in-person sessions. There are just not enough minutes on the clock.
PÉREZ: One could argue that committee members should pay close attention to the evaluations of communities represented in the works they are considering.
REESE: With respect to depictions of Native peoples, several books that were much discussed this year as being problematic still appear on best-of lists. I’m referring to The Hired Girl, where the protagonist thinks Indians are civilized because they wear clothes like everyone else, and Mosquitoland, where a character who thinks she is Cherokee uses her mom’s lipstick to put on “war paint.”
I understand the success of both books in this way: people feel that the themes in them are more important than how Native cultures and peoples are depicted. As long as people are willing to say that this or that demographic or theme is more important than Native people, we’re not likely to see any progress in how Native peoples are depicted.
JIMÉNEZ GARCÍA: I have long believed that children’s literature, and the word “child” itself, is coded white in America. Until recently, people were more comfortable thinking of anything non-white as “multicultural” or “ethnic.” But our cultures are not novelties; we have a part in forming the tradition.
It seems that some reviewers rely on taste more than anything, but taste is made. Taste depends upon traditions, expected ways of reading, and, often, privilege.
LOW: Movement toward diversity has long been stymied by the belief that only people of color are responsible for making this change. But now separate but simultaneous efforts across all media show real promise. Committees are thinking about diversity more, but the particulars of that consideration can be hard to pin down. For example, Lee & Low’s books earned more starred reviews in 2015 then any year previously, but we received no ALA/ALSC recognition.
KRAUS: My hunch is that starred reviews might elevate early awareness of certain titles, but once a book gets into that committee room, it re-starts from zero.
PÉREZ: Maybe the relationship between stars and committees highlights the difference between how award committees and best-of committees work. Best-of committees are selecting many more books, and so may rely more on reviewers to vet books for them. But what about the fact that books from smaller publishers often struggle to get three trade reviews, let alone five or six?
LOW: We need diverse reviewers in the pool, reviewers who can serve as a cultural sounding board when issues like nuance, perspective, and authenticity issues are in question. For instance, in responding to the Newbery winner, Last Stop on Market Street, some felt the story was didactic, but many others thought it was spot-on in terms of cultural nuances and references. That disconnect between getting it and not getting it is pretty significant.
ENCISO: It seems that some reviewers rely on taste more than anything, but taste is made. Taste depends upon traditions, expected ways of reading, and, often, privilege.
LOW: Kiera Parrot’s work at School Library Journal shows what diversity staffing numbers can do to inform, challenge, and direct inclusion efforts related to diversifying one’s reviewer pool.
KRAUS: Booklist is working hard to further diversify our reviewer demographics, and we’re talking more carefully with our current reviewers regarding evaluation. I would guess similar efforts are underway at most, if not all, of the major journals. A good deal of this was kickstarted by the Lee & Low Diversity Baseline Survey. The results are important; just as important, though, was making all parties, in a very concrete way, admit to themselves the reality of the problem.
We need to cultivate a system of children’s and YA literature— reviewers, librarians, educators, professors, publishers—that holistically integrates people of color.
JIMÉNEZ GARCÍA: We need more than books. We need to cultivate a system of children’s and YA literature— reviewers, librarians, educators, professors, publishers—that holistically integrates people of color. We need bridges. I recently did a survey of New York City curricula, and I found that classroom reading practices—even in majority-minority settings—closely followed the patterns in publishing with only very small percentages of classroom materials being by or about people of color. It is almost a crisis situation.
ENCISO: In my work with teachers, I often turn to a terrific book by Ozlem Sensoy, Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, which offers clear definitions and illustrations of the histories and discourses that contribute to and/or challenge contemporary myths of equality and their representations. We also read and talk about works like Juan Felipe Herrera’s Cinnamon Girl, Yuyi Morales’s Niño Wrestles the World, and George Ancona’s Barrio: José’s Neighborhood. We also look at reviews and the ways books by Latino authors can be completely misread. For example, in addition to reading Duncan Tonatiuh’s Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale, we look at the New York Times treatment of it as a failed picture book in comparison with other “Western” (cowboy) books for children.
PÉREZ: What would you all say to award and best-of committee members?
JIMÉNEZ GARCÍA: In the past, some have downgraded works such as those by Nicholasa Mohr for not having “role models” for children. But “appropriateness,” role modeling, and “morals” differ in works written from dominant perspectives and marginalized ones. I would want committees to consider the danger of the “single story,” which can appear in taste, in scholarship, and in social constructions. We need to unlock the narratives that exist not just on the page, but also around us.
LOW: The prestigious awards that you are about to bestow upon this year’s books matter a great deal to readers. Your vote may determine what librarians deem to be the very best books published in 2016. Last year in 2015, school age children under 5 years old became majority-minority. In 2020, the rest of the school population will become majority-minority. While the books chosen for the top awards in children’s publishing should be chosen based on merit, part of this merit resides in how these books appeal to all children’s lives.
REESE: Our kids do not fare well in school. Drop-out rates of Native children are so high! I wish for a Newbery or Caldecott book that will be the one that touches and inspires Native children in the ways that we know books can do. I long for the award-winning book that helps them to hang in there when things get rough.
The books you select will be assigned to Native children. What they get now is the sort of thing that pushes them away from books, from reading, from school.
We’re here. And we read, too. Remember Native children as you deliberate.
ENCISO: The books you select will become part of what famed children’s writer Virginia Hamilton described as the American hopescape, part of the story we tell current and succeeding generations about what and who is valued. Too often in our communities and literature, difference is treated as abnormal, and something that has to be managed so that the familiar is not strained or damaged in some way. But differences—deep differences—are part of being human.
Immigrant children, Native children, African American children, and children in many other communities often encounter superficial descriptions and tired ‘markers’ of their difference, not to mention wildly inaccurate or demeaning descriptions. Please consider the value and challenges of writing and reading those stories that seriously engage with deep cultural differences—not as adornment or foil—but as the story we have longed to read about our place in the American hopescape.
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