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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Lifting the Veil

So we’ve had some back and forth on Peck’s Season of Gifts this week. Jonathan’s heading out of town, but I don’t think he’ll mind me stirring the pot a little, at least to collect some of the great thoughts that have popped up in the comments.

Jonathan suggests I’m making a moral argument about the book, and straying from the criteria.  I can’t pretend that I don’t have moral feelings about the content of the book, and I don’t try to hide it: I think the best way to effectively critique a book is to recongize exactly what your personal feelings are, so that you can figure out when they are informing, or, getting in the way of, your critique.  I have to work on this with every book I read…as much as with books I "love" (When You Reach Me…still thinking about it) as with those I don’t.

I recognize that many of the scenes in the book regarding the "Kickapoo Princess" are hurtful to readers. Native readers, mostly, but also other children and adults who are discomforted by the hurt, and, well, generally put off and embarrased by what Peck’s done.

Personally: I think that’s bad.

As a librarian: it gives me qualms about the book. But I also recognize its strengths, and I have everyone’s reading interests in my community at stake, so I’m willing and bound to have the discussion about it.

Putting on a Newbery hat and looking it from those criteria, I see that the hurt and discomfort disengage Peck’s audience. This is what makes it not distinguished. I’m considering these criteria specifically:

Interpretation of the theme or concept 
Appropriateness of style
Excellence of presentation for a child audience

I also think that by making racially insensitive remarks without adequate context for his readers, he’s falling down on "presentation of information."  Yes, this is a work of historical fiction, but it’s only accurate to a twisted viewpoint that he presents to be understood as perfectly straightforward. That is: he suggests to the reader that it’s a goodness and a kindness to dig up another culture’s remains and bury them in a Christian ceremony.  The entire success of his emotional, narrative and characters arcs depend upon reading the funeral scene in this way. Many of his readers won’t.   I’m intrigued by Wendy’s comment to Jonathan’s post:

"While I get that you don’t find this book racially insensitive, will you take this question–if a book is racially insensitive does that affect its distinguishedness?"

Because I can picture the picking up of my argument above: "Does the Newbery winner have to appeal to everyone? If it’s distinguished to some people doesn’t that do it?"  There are clearly Newbery winning books (like the ones Jonathan and my own committees recently selected, he coyly points out) with narrow audiences.  And this isn’t stated in the Newbery criteria, but I think it’s a fair assumption based on the ALAs concerns for equal and unbiased access to libraries and materials…shouldn’t the audience for the Newbery–whatever its limits may be in taste–not exclude readers by culture?

In my last post, I asked people to:

"Please think about it for a minute. Picture a funny historical novel in which the bones of a Jewish ghost are dug up to create some advertising for the new local Methodist Ministry (but "all in good fun" of course)….and tell me there’s not something a little un-distinguished going on here."

A couple of commenters noted that the Jewish parallel doesn’t work. Well, you’re right, it doesn’t, because it’s loaded.   The point is to pick any other real or imaginary culture with a non-Christian-belief-system that has been decimated by another culture.  To, indeed, as Anon1 called it "Please take everything out of context for a minute." Anon1 later rescinded many of his/her remarks, but this one is apt: that’s exactly what I am asking people to do.  Sometimes taking things out of context is what it takes to see things from a different perspective. When you can see beyond the veil…then re-enter the context of the argument, with a little wider point of view.

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Nina Lindsay 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 ninalindsay@gmail.com

Comments

  1. Sondy Eklund says:

    I think you make your case clearly and well here, Nina.

    I find it interesting that, based on this discussion, I find myself with no desire to read the book. I hadn’t read the books that went before, but thought I would read this to see how it stacks up against other contenders. I find myself feeling some distaste at the idea of such a culturally insensitive scene. (I’ve come to respect Debbie Reese’s opinion, and a fellow student in Library School got me a little more sensitive to these issues.) It doesn’t sound like as “good” a book as it might be without it. But isn’t my idea of a “good book” as a reader similar to the idea of a “distinguished” book?

    On the other hand, with historical fiction, how much do you superimpose the beliefs of the present on your characters? Surely that scene is believable historically. But just because it’s believable, I’m not sure it’s a great idea to highlight it in fiction. Not to whitewash all our history — but to highlight a book that includes something like that and call it distinguished? That makes me uneasy.

  2. faith says:

    Errr. I’m not sure I really want to go out on this limb because I haven’t decided how I feel yet, but I think it is worth discussing. I’m hoping the discussion will help me out.

    I can’t talk about the book specifically, but I can address Wendy’s comment about racial insensitivity, and your characterization of cultural exclusion and, well, geez, yeah, I think it’s okay in the terms of the Newbery criteria.

    If there were a book and you knew that its audience was going to be African American and that it was the bomb would you give it the Newbery? What if you knew that it just wasn’t going to work for most white people? Say they will see its distinction but it won’t rock their socks quite the way it will rock the socks of its intended audience? What if the grandmother in the book hates white people and this attitude is neither questioned nor explained–because the intended audience doesn’t NEED to have this questioned or explained. Would you give it the Newbery? As I said, I am still not settled in my opinion, but I think I would.

    Not all books have to be for a broad audience. Criss Cross certainly isn’t. Doesn’t each audience, however you limit it– good readers, struggling readers, fantasy readers, historical fictions readers, privileged readers, underprivileged readers– don’t they have an equal right to have a book explicitly for them? So why would race or culture be the one way you can’t define your audience?

  3. Wendy says:

    Faith, I’m not sure you’re getting what I’m saying. This isn’t about whether racially insensitive material in a book limits its audience; as you say, a limited audience definitely doesn’t have that much to do with a book’s Newbery quality or eligibility. The question is whether we should honor racially insensitive books at all. Everyone is hurt when a book is racist, no matter what background they’re from or who a book’s intended audience is.

    Also, your third paragraph makes me think you might not be familiar with the oft-used definition of “racism is prejudice plus power”. I don’t think the comparison works, and I don’t think it has anything to do with the problem we face in A Season of Gifts. If I’m misunderstanding your point, please explain further.

  4. faith says:

    Wendy,

    You’re right. I wasn’t addressing your point about honoring racially insensitive books. I was addressing the Newbery criteria and if it would be inappropriate according to them to honor a book that was specifically addressed to an audience that would have a particular cultural make up.

    I would like to think that books addressed to minority audiences wouldn’t be disqualified on the grounds that they weren’t inclusive. This is my own particular ax I am grinding–I feel that books with minority characters shouldn’t have to have an overarching responsibility to “explain” a minority culture to the main stream. I apologize about that.

    My problem with my own position is that there may be a conflict between ivory tower ideology and reality on the ground. If these ARE the criteria and if they produce winners that are all white all the time, then maybe there would is an argument for altering the criteria?

    As I said, I can’t speak of A Season of Gifts at all because I haven’t read it.

  5. Nina says:

    Faith, thanks for seeing the weakness in my argument.

    I agree with you that *books with minority characters shouldn’t have to have an overarching responsibility to explain minority culture to the mainstream* and that a distinguished book whose narrow audience happened to be African-American should have just as much ability to win the Newbery as one with a narrow White audience. So, I didn’t state what I was trying to get at very well…and I think it’s what keeps the discussion spinning it’s wheels.

    With the Peck specifically, some readers who don’t find the material gratuitously racially insenstive feel this book is distinguished. They are a narrow audience, and the Newbery criteria are fine with a narrow audience. I’m asking that audience specifically: even if this material doesn’t offend you, can you acknowledge that it’s racially insenstive, and that the narrow audience you are a part of tends to be defined by race/culture, and as the matieral in question is gratuitous (meant to make the reader chuckle or feel heartwarmed…not meant to make them uncomfortable, as such material is in other books Jonathan notes like Roll of Thunder), shouldn’t *that* indicate to this narrow audience that the book is NOT distinguished.

    Oh dear, that was not any clearer. I’ll keep trying.

  6. Nina says:

    (Faith, you pick up on another interesting point. Though the Newbery criteria don’t produce winners that are ALL white ALL the time…they do produce winners that are MOSTLY white MOST of the time. I think this is less a matter of the criteria themselves than of the number of published children’s books written by racial minorities (no, you don’t have to be of a race to write about it, but it does help, and if you look at the numbers I think it’s fair to say that white people tend to write about white people…) and the racial makeup of the professions (librarians mostly) that serve on the committee. In both cases, mostly white, most of the time. Though there are great pains taken to make the committee as diverse as possible, it just is what it is.)

  7. faith says:

    Nina, yes, I am afraid that changing the criteria would do more harm than good. And my argument is a bit of a mess as well.

  8. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Nina, I’m not clear about some of the arguments that you are making above, but you’ve stated that they weren’t very clear so I am probably misunderstanding.

    1. You imply that those who like A SEASON OF GIFTS and don’t find it racially insensitive are a narrow audience. I’m not sure we’ve proved that one way or another, have we? I mean I feel like I’m in pretty good company with Booklist, Horn Book, Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly taking my side . . . But do we really want to turn this into a popularity contest? If you are right, you are right regardless of whether anyone agrees with you. Likewise for me.

    2. You also imply that those who like A SEASON OF GIFTS and don’t find it racially insenstive do so because of their race and culture, and to be sure, that is very probably a factor, but only one of many. It’s too simplistic. It’s like me trying to dimiss your arguments by saying they are explained by an overly dogmatic adherence to political correctness, by saying that you are turning is from a conversation about literary merit into one about political ideology.

  9. Nina says:

    1. Nope, haven’t proved it one way or another. But since the opposite seems to have been the assumption, I’m simply trying to turn that assumption on its head. BL, HB, Kirkus, SLJ and PW may yet turn out to be a narrow audience…they are all of a type. In the whole world of readers of American Children’s Literature, who do these reviewers (a class that included me) really represent?

    2. I am being simplistic. I think it’s silly not to recognize that our own race and culture are a part of the way we see this issue. Simply a simple rejoinder to a simple assumption that was parading behind the status quo. You’ve taken it for what it’s worth (*very probably a factor*), and that’s enough.

  10. Jonathan Hunt says:

    1. Point well taken. I just wanted to make sure that we weren’t trying to decide questions of morality and ethics by a popular vote.

    2. Point also well taken. Again, I just wanted to make sure that we also acknowledge that not all whites think alike and not all liberals think alike either.

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