Winds Of Change at the YMAs | An ALA Midwinter Comic
(by Lisa Nowlain)
The announcement of the Youth Media Awards—the “Oscars” of children’s and young adult (YA) literature—is always a high point of the year. There are usually plenty of gasps and hurrahs, and a standing ovation or two at the press conference, held annually at the American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting. But something ticked up a notch on February 2, 2015. When I tried to explain it, I found myself breaking into tears. I was not alone. The emotional response that day, while focusing on different aspects of the award outcomes, seemed to stem from a single current. What was it?
Initial reactions to the winners have centered around diversity of all varieties. There’s the happy proclamation from Betsy Bird and Lori Prince during the School Library Journal Post-Game Show that the winners were “all diverse!” Then there was this comment on a blog (purposefully anonymized, as it is only one of many), regarding the Newbery selections:
“I sure hope that the committee wasn’t out to make a statement about diversity this year and overlooked other well-deserving novels in the process. As X says, these three titles are all pretty limiting in audience.”
The idea that “diverse books” limit potential readership assumes that the Newbery and Caldecott awards should, by default, reflect a white experience. Perhaps that assumption exists because, for much of their history, they have.
Building on recent conversations about diversity in children’s books was the subject of the January 30 invitational “Day of Diversity” (co-sponsored by the Children’s Book Council and the Association for Library Service to Children [ALSC]), which prompted many formal and informal conversations throughout the weekend. But as much as “diversity” was at the top of people’s minds as the award results unfolded, Junko Yokota, chair of the 2015 Caldecott Medal committee, was quick to point out that diversity is not a criterion of these awards. “However, as professionals in the field, we are attuned to issues related to diversity, and our personal commitments to representation are always part of the lens with which we view the world. That said, I cannot imagine a committee that would elevate a book solely for its [racial] representation.” The awards do consider child appeal, though with a broad definition of “child.” Winners of the Newbery, Caldecott, and Sibert awards must display “respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations. Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including 14, and books for this entire age range are to be considered.”
The charge is evident in this year’s winners, particularly in the Newbery and Caldecott awards, but also in the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal and other awards, all demonstrating child appeal for a diverse range of ages, interests, and experiences. Racial diversity stood out at first glance: how could it not? In the previous three years, the Newbery and Caldecott committees recognized just one person of color between them. This year: five. But perhaps more stunning was the diversity of genre and format among the lauded titles, most notably, the selection of a graphic novel for a Caldecott honor, This One Summer (First Second) by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, and a Newbery honor: El Deafo (Abrams) by Cece Bell.
The artful word balloon
Tapped as a favorite in many mock Newbery discussions, El Deafo challenged us to interpret the criteria: “The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text. Other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective.” How can one evaluate a graphic novel solely on its text? The criteria don’t require that the text stands on its own. Acknowledging that text and illustration in a graphic novel accomplish what they accomplish together, we can still isolate what part the text has to play in each step, and find it distinguished. Bell’s creative use of shading and artful word balloons can be likened to manipulation of font in narrative prose to characterize voice. The pacing of text from frame to frame conveys rhythm, just as author Kwame Alexander uses line breaks and spacing to create a rhythmic emotional architecture in his novel-in-verse The Crossover (HoughtonHarcourt), winner of the 2015 Newbery Medal.
The examination of a graphic novel under Caldecott criteria is utterly different. The Caldecott award honors “the most distinguished American picture book for children,” and “picture book” is further defined so that, when taken literally, it may include graphic novels. The 2008 Caldecott committee first overturned assumptions about the award by giving the medal to Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Scholastic), a novel told through both prose and illustration. As the award’s namesake Randolph Caldecott revolutionized “the picture book” in the 1870s, the 2008 medal gave the award’s definition of “a visual experience” broader meaning. The 2015 committee has affirmed that expanded definition by recognizing This One Summer (a traditional graphic novel), simultaneously reminding us that the award, like the Newbery, must consider books whose potential audience extends to age 14. Following the announcement, the outcry on social media against the book’s “mature” themes was balanced by its strong appeal to children at the award criteria’s upper age range. Age-level controversies have typically surrounded the Newbery award, but it seems the Caldecott has finally caught up. While this crossover age range poses real complications for many adults who have to explain why a Newbery or Caldecott book might not be appropriate for a particular grade level or is shelved in the YA section, this award reminds us that “children’s literature” is not defined by its labels, but by its readers.
More remarkable than either of these single awards going to a graphic novel is the fact that they happened in the same year, suggesting a “sea change,” as observed by Eva Volin of SLJ’s “Good Comics for Kids” blog. Still, these were not the only notable statements at the YMAs. The Newbery committee recognized no books with standard narrative prose, and poetry was well represented across the board, gaining recognition from the Coretta Scott King (CSK) and Sibert committees as well. The Caldecott committee recognized an unprecedented six honor books, most of them upsetting other titles with more “buzz.” And more titles than usual were recognized by multiple committees; for instance, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming (Penguin) received the CSK Medal, a Newbery Honor, and a Sibert Honor. Each of these awards is determined by an entirely separate jury, the makeup of which changes from year to year, ruling out the potential for any secret agenda. However, surveying the award winners collectively, we have to address the skepticism that the 2015 committees may have overcompensated in heeding the call for diverse books.
“D” is for distinguished
“Of course the diversity reflected in the awards is wonderful to see,” says Deborah Taylor, Sibert committee chair. “Having been on many awards committees, I know that the focus is always on the quality of the titles examined, and it was terrific that there were so many outstanding books created by diverse authors.” Newbery chair Randall Enos concurs: “I think the diverse selections reflect the publishers’ commitment to offering quality materials that reflect the diversity of our communities…the good news is that there were plenty of distinguished titles by authors from all segments of our population, but we chose the ‘most distinguished’ rather than representation from authors representing various groups.”
When I examine the Newbery and Caldecott selections and consider the charge of each committee, I don’t see so much a selection of diverse books, as more diverse appreciations of excellence in books—a broader view of our standards. Looking just at the Newbery, we find diversity in format: poetry/novel, free verse/memoir, and graphic memoir. Diversity in style: one sporty, one contemplative, one funny. Brown Girl Dreaming is the closest we get to a typical Newbery…and how is it that we can even say “typical Newbery”? What circumstances allow us to think such a thing exists? Given that the award is for ages zero to 14, and that “there are no limitations as to the character of the book considered except that it be original work,” how can we account for the homogenous nature of the long list of past Newbery winners and honors? Hasn’t children’s literature developed and broadened over the past few decades much more dramatically than we see revealed in the winners we have on record?
This year is about “us” finally starting to catch up, and it’s about recognizing appeal and reading interest for the diversity of readers the literature serves. This year’s awards have not answered the lack of diverse award winners, nor addressed the white privilege that stands in the way of achieving more diverse books, but they do, collectively, whether intended or not, ask us to confront it. They show us that it is not just the presence of “diverse books” that matters, but how we assign value to our standards for excellence among them.
In her guest post “Reader Know Thyself,” at the blog “Heavy Medal,” (which I co-author with Jonathan Hunt, county schools librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education), Vicky Smith, children’s and teen editor, Kirkus Reviews, asks: “Now, we all bring ourselves as readers to the books that we open, but how conscious are we as we do it?” Who determines what sets the standard for a distinguished book for children? The Newbery and Caldecott committees do. The criteria for these awards are fairly broad. They have to be, because literature changes over time. ALSC tweaks them occasionally, and carefully, but the gist remains. Every committee interprets the criteria, and may look to previous winners as standards of excellence. But when those standards are borne, over time, from the same generally homogenous experience represented by the mostly white, female, college-educated, non-working-class award committee members, we end up with a feedback loop.
A seat at the table
ALSC has committed, with variable success, to appoint diverse members to its award committees, but at some point is limited by the diversity or lack thereof in our professions. Amy Koester, blogger at “The Show Me Librarian,” says, “It can make all the difference if the members who sit around that table have the experience and worldview to be able to see stories that don’t resemble their own on the same plane as the stories that do. There are always distinguished diverse books eligible for awards, but committees are not always equipped to discuss them in the manner that they deserve.”
Why are some kinds of reading experiences valued and others are not? I think that any of us reading this would stake our reputations on striving against value judgments of this sort. Yet, we see it, in the range of books recognized over time, even recent time, by the Newbery and Caldecott awards. Jennifer Holliday, a former director of “Teaching Tolerance,” an educational project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, reminds us that white privilege has determined what is “valuable” in terms of education: “I rarely have to question the validity … how or why some things are valued and others are not—why some things are important to ‘us’ and other things are not” (from “On Racism and White Privilege,” Teaching Tolerance). Whiteness is only one element of the feedback loop we see in our awards, but it is the most important part to confront, because it is the barrier to the change we say we want. We have yet to tackle, publicly, the fact that the standards of excellence that we promote through these awards are defined by an all-white lens.
While the selections of 2015 committees suggest a different tack, in themselves they do nothing to permanently shift the enduring white privilege that defines today’s children’s literature. “Diversity” is not about more brown faces appearing in 32-page picture books or middle grade fiction, or about awarding a small handful of amazing books by diverse authors and illustrators. Diversity is about inviting and including more opinions and experiences in the tastemaking. It’s about “knowing thyself” not just as individual reviewers of children’s books, but knowing ourselves as a profession, honoring the value of what we’ve done so far, and recognizing that while we have done amazing work, we have also been shortsighted, relying too heavily on the default standards of our racialized society. Diversity is about empowering those outside the privileged culture.
Jason Low, publisher of Lee & Low Books, points out: “These results would have logically taken place at least three to five years from now in the future, after we as an industry had done some intense (blood, sweat, tears) work to get on the same page…I want to see what happens at next year’s YMAs. Is this a one-off or a cultural sea change?”
Something did change this year, and it wasn’t the diversity of professionals at the award-making tables. So if “diversity” was at play in this year’s committees’ decisions, I think that it simply equipped more minds to be open in their approach to validating “excellence” in children’s literature. Whose literature, and in what way? The 2015 awards suggest that these committees took a broader view of who the young readers are in this country and what appeals to them. I hope, and think, that they considered the diversity of readers out there and were rigorous in exercising the criteria to make sure they addressed today’s child audience. We see it reflected in the diversity of authors and illustrators honored. We see it in gutsy affirmations of graphic novels as “literature” and “picture books.” We see it in the breadth of reader ages and interests represented. As these winners force us to consider the award criteria more broadly, let’s also examine the privilege that led us to limit the approach in the first place. Only by doing so can we make this year’s seemingly dramatic change a real and lasting one.