In this blog we try to look at books specifically through the eyes of the Newbery Committee. Following my article The 2015 Youth Media Awards: A Crossover Year for Diversity, Amy and I talked about our own experiences reading critically for the committee, and Jonathan and I invited her to share her thoughts here.
Amy Koester is Youth & Family Program Coordinator at Skokie (IL) Public Library, and she is Chair of the ALSC Public Awareness Committee. She blogs as the Show Me Librarian.
In the time since my stint on the Newbery Committee ended (2014, Flora & Ulysses), I’ve continued to think a lot about literature for children. It would be impossible not to–after reading such a high volume for the committee, and reading critically, I can’t help but read in similar ways even now that I’m just reading “normally” again. I’ve also been thinking a lot about how discussions of children’s books unfold. Discussion has been pure joy–after a year of talking about books with only a small group of people, and under particular conditions, it’s wonderful to get to talk about books freely again.
This combination of habits–of reading critically, and of discussing freely–has put into sharp relief one aspect of the discussion of books that I wish I had become cognizant of sooner: privilege. More specifically, how personal privilege impacts the perspective through which a reader reads, understands, and discusses a book.
(Now would be a good time to review Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Especially so if you feel feathers becoming ruffled by the word “privilege” atop this post.)
The type of privilege I’m talking about here is the white, systemic kind, in which those who resemble and have been brought up in the values of the dominant white society (ahem, librarianship) experience the world in a manner such that they are inherently biased toward thinking that their own experiences and perspective are representative. Because this white, privileged worldview is overrpresented in literature for youth, it naturally feels to the privileged readers as if their experience and perspective is right. It’s universal.
This is both a comfortable and a dangerous status quo.
The assumption that there are such things as universal experiences–the familiarity of recognizing ourselves and our worldview in books–manifests into an inability to actually discuss so many wonderful books. Sure, we can talk about any book. We can talk about its characters, its distinction, its style. But we when a reader does not recognize their own privilege, deep, honest discussion simply isn’t possible.
To elucidate, I provide general examples from my non-confidential discussions both before and after my Newbery tenure:
A reader discounts a book for poorly developed plot because the experience of a character with special needs does not resemble the experience of the reader’s child with special needs.
A white reader argues that a book in a series does not work on its own because the non-white characters are not adequately developed; a similar book with white characters receives no such objection, perhaps because a white experience is more familiar and thus requires less in-text development for the reader.
A reader suggests a book’s plot and character are underbaked, claiming, “Who would ever act like this?”; the assumption is that all people would act in a manner that is relatable to the reader.
All of these scenarios–and again, I’m trying to be general and vague, because I believe we all aim to do our best with the knowledge we have–illustrate one thing: privilege influences our perspective as readers. More specifically, it influences what we perceive is possible within the boundaries of theme, plot, character, setting, and style.
May I remind that the definition of “fiction” implies that the boundaries for these literary elements are, in fact, infinite?
Evaluators run the risk of their privilege drastically impacting their critical reflection and discussion of a book, and that impact falls disproportionately on books that fall outside of the parameters of the typical children’s book. Call them the diverse books, if you will, but regardless of how you classify them, they are the books that require more intentional reading because they do not automatically reinforce the privileged reader’s worldview.
Committee members–nay, all who discuss books in any capacity–need to recognize when they have privilege; and if you are white, you have privilege, full stop. Evaluators need to recognize that this privilege makes it easy and comfortable to discuss the typical children’s book precisely because it reads familiar. And privilege simultaneously makes it harder, and more uncomfortable, to discuss the other 10% of titles.
It is the work of those who discuss books to do this, to acknowledge and actively seek to cast aside the effects of a privileged perspective to equitably discuss all the eligible titles.
For me, this recognition of privilege has meant that I can never rest on my laurels when something feels unfamiliar or implausible in a book. When I encounter a character, a storytline, anything that makes me say to myself, “Well, I don’t think that makes very much sense/is very clear,” my reaction is a signal to dig further. I consider it my responsibility to lean into the aspect of that book that initially feels problematic, and to do everything I can to figure out why. More often than not, I’ve found that what at first reads problematic later reads powerful or distinguished when I am able to step outside of my privileged perspective. When I step outside of my experience to better understand mental illness, the book with a character dealing with her mother’s bipolar disorder diagnosis glitters in technicolor. When I read about a schoolyard ritual in a text that feels over the top, I look at the recess yards in my neighborhood and see them enacted where I had never noticed them before; the real world is captured upon the page. In these instances, there was nothing inherently wrong or off in the text; rather, it was the rigid confines of my privileged worldview that made me see a problem where there was nuance and, often, remarkable writing.
I’m writing this post, I suppose, to entreat all who read books with children in mind to be aware of the privilege you bring to your reading, and the impediments it casts in your discussion of those books.
I suppose we could just continue to ignore those obstacles of privilege, as we’ve done for so long. But what type of distinguished books are we recognizing if certain titles are out of the running from the beginning simply for not being more like us?