Thoughts on October 8, 2018, Indigenous Peoples Day
First off, we’d like to thank all of you who have nominated titles for our future discussion. The number of comments is robust! That leads us to express our puzzlement: why so few of you have joined the book discussion? Too busy? Not inspired? Book discussion seems trivial compared to what’s transpiring on the national and world stage?
I must say that my mind is definitely slightly frayed on the edges these days: trying to keep my spirit up while keeping track of what’s going on in the news, from climate change, natural disasters, bi-partisan battles in the Senate, and accusations against prominent public figures in both the arts and the political realms. On this particular day of remembrance of the history of the indigenous peoples on this land, Steven, Sharon, and I want to draw everyone’s attention to a few things:
A reminder: Newbery Award was established and is administered by ALSC (Association of Library Services to Children) for the most distinguished children’s books in the United States, by a US Citizen or Resident. (Yes, you CAN be an immigrant, naturalized or not, and win this honor, like Margarita Engle or Neil Gaiman.) It is a literary award. And for decades, one of the often refrains from award committee members and the general public was that this is an award that should remain “purely literary,” meaning that the committee members do not evaluate which THEMES or MESSAGES a piece of literature delivers, but focus on how such themes and messages are evaluated. In the manual, it is even specifically stated that, “The committee should keep in mind that the award is for literary quality and quality presentation for children. The award is not for didactic content or popularity.”
Equipped with this end note, the committee members often choose books that are not the most beloved by adults for their teachability in the classroom setting. For example, when I served on the 2013 Newbery Committee, even though I think we picked books with deep and morally important titles, that year’s break-out and perennial favorite book, Wonder by Palacio, was not awarded with a Newbery seal. (I also can’t reveal whether the book was on the table for Committee discussion, just that it was eligible, like all other titles published in 2012.)
However, if you look at the entire current Newbery Committee service manual, you will see a section with three paragraphs under the title: Diversity and ALSC Media Award Evaluation,” which leads with these sentences,
“Inclusiveness is a core value of ALSC. It is the responsibility of each ALSC media award and notables committee to reflect this value in their approach to their work.”
For more background information to this addition since 2015, there is this recording of K.T. Horning, past president of ALSC, from 2015, discussing the importance of such practices with ALSC leadership: https://soundcloud.com/alsc-658268146/alsc-awards-and-diversity-discussion
So, is it fair to say that to serve on the Newbery Committee means for each Committee member to consider books beyond just the bulleted, sacred entries in the Terms and Criteria, but also to include consideration for the context of the society children’s books are created in and the impact to the society and young readers the final list of books have? How might such consideration change the process or outcome of the award? Here are Steven & Sharon’s thoughts on these questions:
I’ve had the “literary quality” element drilled into my head for so long (and have in turn tried to drill it into the heads of others) that it’s challenging for me to break out of the role of strict critical evaluation in terms of the Newbery. Social relevance and cultural diversity, in that view, are important only in relation to how they impact the book’s “literary quality and quality presentation for children.”
The section on “Diversity and ALSC Media Award Evaluation” that Roxanne mentions was added a few years ago after my last Newbery year. I see four main directives to the Committee in that section, and I think I understand three of them pretty well, but not the fourth:
- Widen the net. Make an extra effort to seek out and read diverse books in the course of the year. That hat might mean reading a specific book that has not been as favorably reviewed as another, more conventional title.
- Recognize biases and learn. The manual lays this out clearly:
[Members] should strive to be aware of how their own perspectives and experiences shape their responses to materials. Every committee member brings unique strengths to the table, but every committee member also brings gaps in knowledge and understanding, and biases. Committee members are strongly encouraged to be open to listening and learning as well as sharing as they consider materials representing diverse experiences both familiar and unfamiliar to them.
These points are important in regards to all elements of evaluation, but certainly apply when it comes to reading books that feature experiences and cultural elements that are unfamiliar to the member. I see nothing but good coming from this.
- Don’t assume a book with strong cultural content will be recognized by another committee. This one’s not so hard. Committees have no idea what the others are considering or ranking highly. You have to focus so completely on the books in front of you, there’s no time and no reason to take what other committees are doing into consideration. (Also, just about any time I’ve had a passing thought that this or that book might win a Coretta Scott King or Pura Belpre medal, I’ve been wrong)
- Include the level of diversity as a factor in comparing books. This is where I’m less confident. I may be misreading it, but I don’t believe the Manual is telling the Committee to do this. Here’s my oversimplified version of what I take from the section is: Read diverse books. Evaluate all books with recognition of your own biases and experiences. And with those two actions, the resulting selection of the “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” will more fully “reflect the diversity found in our nation and the wider world.” Am I not taking the Manual’s direction far enough? I’m afraid it’s not as simple as I’m trying to make it.
I do assume that last year’s wonderfully diverse list of Newbery honorees happened not because members felt that their selections had to “reflect the diversity,” but because these were the most distinguished books of the year for that group of 15. At the same time, it’s possible their net was wider because of the call for inclusiveness in the Manual; I’m thinking specifically of CROWN: AN ODE TO THE FRESH CUT, because it can be challenging any year to get widespread support for a picture book. And it’s possible that some members or the committee as a whole may have made that extra effort to reflect on biases and learn (from committee members, from other adults, from child readers, from reading) in the course of their evaluation.
It makes me wonder, too, about my most recent Newbery year (also Roxanne’s). I couldn’t be prouder of the four books that group selected (THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, BOMB, SPLENDORS & GLOOMS, THREE TIMES LUCKY). I think back on discussions we had of other books, including many with more diverse content, and still feel like we did everything we should have done and landed on the best result. But yes, it’s possible that my biases and limited experiences prevented me (and continue to prevent me) from seeing things I should have seen in other books from that year.
Roxanne asks if the Committee should consider “the impact to the society and young readers the…books have.” That’s a great question. If that’s the leap the Committee needs to make, I don’t think I’m ready for it yet. For example, I felt that REFUGEE by Alan Gratz was one of the most important books of last year. I want it in all libraries and I want kids to read it and teachers to know about it. I couldn’t really say that about WELL, THAT WAS AWKWARD by Rachel Vail, but I felt that had stronger literary content and it was higher on my Newbery list. I might make a similar comparison this year between GHOST BOYS by Jewel Parker Rhodes (we’ll discuss this one soon) and CHECKED by Cynthia Kadohata. The former seems like it will have greater impact to society and young readers…but the latter may be a better book (in my opinion). And then you get to a book like THE BOOK OF BOY, where the specific content is not directly relevant to today’s society in the way that GHOST BOYS is, but the themes of kindness and inclusivity surely are. Obviously I’m still struggling with all of this, and I’m interested to hear more viewpoints on the topic…
Roxanne and Steven have made many of the points I would make. One way I tend to think about is that part of this is challenging our initial instincts around what is both distinguished for children and even around what is “appropriate” for children. When a group of people sit in a room and think only of the children they serve and interact with they are doing a huge disservice to children who come from other backgrounds. When a room has traditionally been filled with mostly white, and mostly women librarians, even when they are from different parts of the coutnry, are we really able to represent children in their entirety?
I have heard many librarians, in different forums, state that a book is “too complicated” “too sad” “too harsh” or “not interesting” for children because it is all of those things to the children *they* interact with day-to-day and know most well. In so many of these cases, though, these titles are representative of the lived experience of so many children in this country.
This is why diversity is important. This is why Own Voices are important. And this greater understanding has, finally, made its way into the Newbery Manual and into the hearts and minds of more people in the world of children’s literature. There’s a long way to go, but we are getting there.
Recognizing that the most distinguished voices in children’s literature may be voices of people whose lived experience is different than the majority is vital to the mission of serving all children.
So, on this, The Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and in the spirit of casting a wider net, Heavy Medal presents these titles by Native writers from 2018 to our readers:
We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Frané Lessec. Charlesbridge.
Middle Grade/Younger YA::
Two Roads by Joseph Bruchac. Penguin.
Apple in the Middle by Dawn Quigley. North Dakota State University Press.
Give Me Some Truth by Eric Gansworth. Arthur A. Levine Books.
Filed under: Process
About Roxanne Hsu Feldman
Roxanne Hsu Feldman is the Middle School (4th to 8th grade) Librarian at the Dalton School in New York City. She served on the 2002 and 2013 Newbery Committees. Roxanne was also a member of 2008-2009 Notable Books for Children, 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults, and the 2017 Odyssey Award Committees. In 2016 Roxanne was one of the three judges for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. You can reach her at at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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