Diversity, Debate, and the Magic of Books: A Look at the 2019 Youth Media Awards

The Youth Media Awards provided surprises, a diverse list of winners, and some committee decisions to debate.

The Seattle celebration of children’s literature is over. Authors, illustrators, publishers, librarians, educators, and kid lit readers are left with lingering excitement, simmering debates, and more than a few books added to the to-be-read lists.

The Youth Media Awards were not without surprises. Newbery winner Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina and Caldecott Medalist Hello Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall were not titles found atop most mock lists, but that’s what makes the YMAs great for many.

“I was excited, because there were several books I didn’t know, so I have a lot of reading to do,” said Krishna Grady, youth services librarian at Dekalb County Library in Covington, GA. Grady was a member of the 2017 Newbery committee and will chair the 2020 Newbery committee.

The Caldecott seemed to be the biggest surprise to most, particularly that Yuyi Morales’ Dreamers (which won the Pura Belpré Illustrator Award) wasn’t included in the five books recognized by the committee. 

“I think I was shocked that Dreamers didn’t win the Caldecott, just because it’s a beautiful and amazing book,” Grady said. “But Hello Lighthouse is beautiful and amazing as well. I’m just excited about the [committee’s choices]. I trust their process and the outcome. This has been a great day. It’s our Oscars, right?”

Amy Sears, librarian at the Teaneck (NJ) Public Library agreed, “All the choices were really interesting, and it’s clear [the committees] put a lot of work into it. … [Newbery Honor title] The Book of Boy was sort of out of left field for me. I was not expecting it. Overall, it’s such a good, diverse list.”

At home, Medina was not just waiting to hear her name called. She was also taking notes and making a list of books to read.

“I see more authors of color and from marginalized communities having their work recognized; that’s a great thing,” said Medina, who is on the advisory board of We Need Diverse Books. “I see all kinds of barriers starting to be broken, which is wonderful. It’s exciting not see new voices and the voices that represent what this country looks like now. All people. All different kinds of people. For me, that’s comforting thing. We still are not publishing them in great numbers, so it is kind of exciting to see that despite that we’re not publishing them in great numbers, what’s coming through are really strong titles and that these voices are capable people telling their story.”

For a long time, Medina said, the YMAs wouldn’t produce a diverse list like this and various excuses would be given: writers weren’t producing quality work, it wouldn’t sell, it wouldn’t have appeal.

“This flies in the face of that, right?” she said. “I’m thinking of [Stonewall Book Award winner] Hurricane Child. I’m thinking of [Asian Pacific American Librarians Association picture book winner] Minh Lê’s Drawn Together. There are just so many wonderful, nuanced books that tell the story of a specific people and tell the story of all people at the same time. That little spot where those two things meet—that’s what’s interesting, that’s what sings.”

The YMAs are where authors, illustrators, and publishers' work gets rewarded, while librarians gasp and cheer and take notes and plan additions to their collections. The shiny award winner stickers are a momentary distraction, but the focus remains on getting quality, representative literature to kids.

“It is an amazing and wondrous thing to partner with librarians in building a future of people who are included—of children who feel seen, of teens who feel seen, growing into adults who feel seen and make our world better,” said Victoria Stapleton, executive director, school and library marketing at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, which published the Caldecott Medal winner and two of the four Caldecott Honor books.

“I often say that I have the very best job in publishing, because it really is the privilege of my life to work with these creators making these books that I know, at some point, will arrive in the hands of a child,” she said. “And there is magic in what happens when a child reads—whether they read words or they read pictures or they read the experience of that story being shared.”

Kiera Parrott contributed to this article.

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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