On Diverse Books

So, we’re doing a unit on the other ALA awards (not the Newbery and Caldecott), and one of the questions was whether or not the “ethnic” awards divide us. A woman in the class answered and said that while she likes having a diverse selection in her library, as long as it’s mixed in with the other books (most of my classmates are either teachers or working librarians; I think I’m a strong minority in not being either), she wonders where/if all the highlighting of diversity will stop. Besides, she said, wouldn’t there be an uproar if there was a “Caucasian” award?

I responded to this by saying, essentially, let’s give All the Awards. It allows space for voices to be heard at the table of children’s literature, especially since, for so many years, the authors who won the Newbery and Caldecott were white. Why not let other groups have a voice, let them highlight the awards.

She responded by saying that that’s all fine and good, but (for argument’s sake…), it’s not fair that minority authors get to “double dip” and can win not only, say, the Coretta Scott King Award, but also the Newbery and/or Caldecott. (Or in the Case of Crown, get an honor in all three!) and white people can’t. Because there would be a backlash if there was a white-only award.

This was my response:

To be honest, my reaction to the idea of minority authors “double dipping” is “So?” But let me try to back up with some data why I think having awards specifically geared toward minority authors/books is a good thing.

I think it may boil down to fairness, equality, and the purpose of the awards. No, it’s not “fair” that minority authors could possibly double (or triple) dip in the awards. If everything were fair, there would be one award, it would be given to the best book, and everyone would be happy.

But, we’re not starting with a level playing field to begin with: in 2016, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin, out of 3400 books published that year, only 94 were by African Americans, (2.7%), 23 by First Nations/Native Peoples (.67%), 217 by Asian/Pacific Islanders (6.4%), and 104 by Latinx authors (3.05%). That doesn’t even come close to reflecting the population demographics  of those groups. So, if we’re going to be fair and have just one award to determine the best book, then we need to do better publishing more books by authors of color.

So, we need to make things more equal — in this case defined as giving all authors, regardless of ethnicity, a voice — we need awards to highlight different authors. Why, you might ask? Because I think it’s important for all readers to see themselves in literature. It’s important for the black child in school to have a book that reflects her lived experience. And while she might like Diary of a Wimpy Kid or the latest Newbery winner, it is not *her* experience. And, while reading is reading is reading, there is a value added — one of belonging and experience and representation — to an African American girl who is able  read a book by an African American author.

But, you might say, what if white authors just write books with characters that are multicultural? Do we still need to highlight, to focus on, minority authors? Won’t kids see themselves in books as long as the characters aren’t all white? To which I say, no, they won’t. It really is about representation. Minority children *need* to see authors who look like them, to read stories about characters who are like them. And white people — even if we do research and have sensitivity readers and check all the boxes — just can’t *get* what it means to be black, or Latinx, or a member of a first people’s tribe.

Which is another reason why we need these awards: to make white people more aware of these books. Would you have picked up a book by an African American or Latinx or disabled author without this module? (if yes, then great!) I know I tend toward books by authors who are like me: a white woman. I have to challenge myself to read outside that comfort zone. These awards help me know where to start. Help me find new authors and help me stretch my understanding of the world. Which, in turn, helps me become more empathetic to those who are not like me.

So, yeah, maybe someday everything will be fair and the best book, regardless of the color of the author’s skin or subject of the author’s book, will be chosen for an award. But, until that day comes — and it may be a long time coming — I think having awards that highlight all the different aspects of children’s literature is a good thing.

What do you think? I’d love any/all input and thoughts on this.

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One thought on “On Diverse Books

  1. I agree with you, Melissa. Also, as a librarian, I buy most of my books based on review. Books by and about minorities tend to be put out by small presses, which are then less likely to get reviewed in mainstream journals. And as quality isn’t uniform especially in small press books, having awards to highlight the good ones really helps get them into libraries, even if most patrons don’t care about anything past the Newbery and Caldecott.

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