How we think we read
Over the course of last week, my mind was mostly occupied with the Ferguson decision, and some of the resulting protests here in Oakland. Between that and Tamir Rice, I purposefully limited my exposure to the fallout over Handler’s remarks at the National Book Award, but I took some time over this weekend to catch up, particularly appreciating Jacqueline Woodson’s New York Times opinion, and many of the lucid comments at Roger Sutton’s post and his followup.
As I turn my mind back to the Newbery, I’m thinking about some of the comments on Roger’s post about the response to Nikki Finney’s piece: her voice, and the way she presents her argument. It reminds me of a question I keep asking myself about the Newbery and other awards, and children’s literature criticism in general. When we see the same kinds of books being buzzed each year, when we see a slate of awards going to all white book creators, it makes me wonder if we aren’t creating these limitations ourselves in the way we are willing to recognize excellence in children’s books.
As a for instance, I know many adults who have expressed a hard time appreciating KNOCK KNOCK: MY FATHER’S DREAM FOR ME as an excellent picture book for children, because it is “preachy” in tone. In the critical industry, we tend to equate “preachy” with “didactic”, and “didactic” with a lack of “respect for a child audience.” I am often one of the first to declaim a book that I think talks down to children, or is force-feeding them something they don’t want. But that’s not what I see going on in KNOCK KNOCK, where the oratorical voice is indeed reminiscent of preaching…and it works. (KNOCK KNOCK was an honor book in my committee’s selected 2014 Boston Globe Horn Book Awards, the winners for which are….all white. And most of all the winners and honorees are men. Hm.)
What do children appreciate in voice, character, and plot in their books…and does this vary by culture?
What does “appropriateness of style” and “excellence of presentation for a child audience” mean to you? Does this vary by culture?
Of course the answer is they do, and they don’t, there are commonalities and there are differences, and the differences are cut in as many ways as you can imagine: culture, race, gender, education, economic background, religion, etc. But that is the easiest way to answer this. The harder way is to ask ourselves whether and how we are biased in what we think are our unbiased opinions, and if so, how to make room for opinions that shift us from that comfortable position of feeling right.
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About Nina Lindsay
Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at email@example.com
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