The American Library Association (ALA) annual conference is upon us, and I’m vexed with both Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC) and Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA). As I tool around the country helping folks engage with nonfiction and the Common Core, I keep seeing evidence of deeply-seated and unexamined prejudice against nonfiction in those two divisions.
I followed with real interest the discussion of the Caldecott Award at 75 on the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) listserv. The first posts were about identity: the overwhelming number of winners that were both male and Caucasian. I asked about nonfiction in terms of genre and format. How many nonfiction winners have there been? And, how frequently has photography (often used in nonfiction books) been honored?
Though there were moving and passionate posts about Tanya Hoban and Nic Bishop, (I’d add Susan Kuklin and Charles Smith, to begin), no committee has seen fit to honor them. Indeed the only exceptions I’ve heard mentioned emphasize my point: Jacqueline Briggs Martin’s medal winner Snowflake Bently (Houghton Mifflin, 1998), illustrated by Mary Azarian, is about a photographer, without his photographs, while Patrick McDonnell’s honor book Me…Jane (Little, Brown, 2011) has, drumroll, a single photo. Why, one might ask.
The answer rests in a rule that gets to the heart of the issue I am raising: Caldecott criteria require original artwork that has not been previously published. That means that a picture book that incorporates archival photography or images from a research institute can’t win. At a stroke, the medal eliminates from consideration any book that uses, say, NASA images. The award can go to a deceased artist, but I was told by an expert that the medal was initially designed to support living artists, thus the focus on new work.
The problem is that Caldecott criteria state that the award is presented in honor of “the most distinguished American picture book for children,” and defines distinguished as: “Marked by eminence and distinction; noted for significant achievement. Marked by excellence in quality. Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence. Individually distinct.”
If the Caldecott is an award to encourage living artists, then (contra what I argued in The Horn Book years ago) we should have awards designed to encourage every brand of living artist. Affirmative action is affirmative action–let’s identify deserving sets of artists and make sure they get their due. But, if the Caldecott honors the most distinguished picture book, it cannot exclude a title that requires the primary use of archival images. When I read through the list of medalists, I see marvelous books and a line-up of wonderful artists deserving of their honors. But the members of that all-star team, no matter how luminary, are solely masters of ink and brush, paint, and pixel.
The Caldecott does not honor the most distinguished picture book; it honors the most distinguished rendered picture book. That is a crucial distinction because it signifies that great artistry can’t be found in the selection, layout, design, and display of images that have survived from the past. Indeed, one person who posted on the CCBC listserv intimated that she, and she assumed most others, believe photography is not an art form in the same manner as drawing, painting, or collage.
Another person pointed to the Robert F. Sibert medal as meeting the need for a nonfiction award. But that is not fair given that the Caldecott criteria state that the award selects and honors distinction. The Caldecott is the ne plus ultra, the cynosure, of awards–it cannot both assert its primacy, and–implicitly–disqualify whole categories of books. Moreover, Caldecott is an ALSC award–a division that stretches up to 8th grade, as once again the award rules stress. Surely those older readers of picture books–and we all know they are legion–often prefer photographs over drawings they see as childish. And yet this ALSC award inherently excludes those older books from consideration.
That brings me to YALSA. I’ve been furious ever since that ALA division decided to remove nonfiction from its Best Books for Young Adults (BBYA) list. BBYA is now best fiction. While YALSA has made efforts to improve its nonfiction prize, it has never recognized a key flaw in its plan: the BBYA meetings were a public forum where future librarians, authors, and editors, and could listen and learn, and its nomination list was often used by teens as a reading/discussion list. There is no longer an up-to-date list of young adult nonfiction titles for reading groups to consider, or a public venue where stakeholders can discuss teen nonfiction. It’s ironic that this has happened just when librarians, authors, and editors are asking for guidance in how to select and craft quality nonfiction.
So there we have it. Sure, individual books are honored, as Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb (Macmillan, 2012) was this year. But nonfiction remains marginal–so marginal that neither ALSC nor YALSA seems to notice their abiding bias. The question is, why?
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