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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Discussing Diversity

As our discussion of GHOSTS slowly unfolds, I’m reminded of how very unNewberylike it is.  Part of that is because it’s virtually impossible to simulate a face-to-face discussion in an online setting, but I also think that another part has to do with process.

The committee trades suggestions anonymously through the chair throughout the year.  It’s possible that GHOSTS had several suggestions before any of the critical online discussions happened, and that it may have continued to accrue some throughout the controversy.  In order for the book to be discussed at ALA Midwinter, however, somebody would need to nominate it.  Members get 3 in October, 3 in November, and 2 in December.  There might be a brief facilitated discussion of “accuracy” online in which members share sources with each other in order to continue their individual and collective vetting process, but this is at the discretion of the chair.

Members would be keenly interested in any critical points brought up online, and there have been many regarding this book.  Many of these need to be reframed in the context of the terms, definitions, and criteria; some others may be irrelevant, misleading, or false.  The committee has to evaluate these sources of information as well as seek out their own.  Of course, they will consult child readers, especially Mexican-American children and Native children, if possible.  They will likely consult friends and colleagues with these backgrounds and solicit opinions, and they may also consult academic sources whether in the form of written articles and books and/or discreet conversations.  This has always been encouraged, but with new language that Sam quoted from the Newbery manual, this is more necessary than ever.  If this book makes it to the table, I think the online discussions on GHOSTS will merely represent the tip of the iceberg.  Of course, not every member can be as thorough in their vetting of every book, but with 15 people on the committee, it allows for a fairly rigorous process.

As for that aforementioned reframing process.  Here is the relevant language–

2. A “contribution to American literature for children” shall be a book for which children are an intended potential audience. The book displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations. Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen, and books for this entire age range are to be considered.

1. In identifying “distinguished contribution to American literature,” defined as text, in a book for children,

a. Committee members need to consider the following:

  • Interpretation of the theme or concept
  • Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization
  • Development of a plot
  • Delineation of characters
  • Delineation of a setting
  • Appropriateness of style.

Note: Because the literary qualities to be considered will vary depending on content, the committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements. The book should, however, have distinguished qualities in all of the elements pertinent to it.

b.Committee members must consider excellence of presentation for a child audience.

When it comes to the face-to-face discussions, most committees use a variation of book discussion guidelines developed at CCBC that allow for positive points to be made first before mixed and negative ones are introduced into the discussion, preferably as questions.  

So a hypothetical Newbery discussion of GHOSTS would open with strengths of the book–people have mentioned the relationship between the sisters most often here, but there are others we have probably neglected in our rush to focus on concerns–then mixed or negative comments would be introduced.  I might say, for example, “Given this obvious inaccuracy, does this book respect the abilities, understandings, and appreciations of children? All children, both Mexican-American and Native children?”  I feel like our conversation here might have benefited from more of this kind of structure.  We didn’t enumerate many strengths of the book–I’m not sure that either Sharon or I are the best advocates for this book–and we referred people to earlier conversations about problematic concerns, rather than explicitly spelling them out, or citing specific textual examples.  I think the real committee won’t take the shortcuts that we have here, but they may ultimately end up at a very similar place, one where it appears difficult, if not impossible, to build consensus around this title.

As I reflect on the imperfections of both FRANK AND LUCKY GET SCHOOLED and GHOSTS, I’m reminded that a genius once said that even flawed books can positively impact readers.  They won’t positively impact all readers, of course, and that doesn’t mean that flawed books need to win awards.  Then, too, neither Lynne Rae Perkins and Raina Telgemeier need help finding readers for their books.  On the other hand, like Nina, I’m encouraged by the recent performance of the ALSC awards in regards to diversity, not to mention the Kirkus Prize shortlist and National Book Award finalists this year. Here’s hoping that diversity–in all forms–becomes the rule rather than the exception.

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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Jonathan. It is an excellent reminder which I am glad to get.

    You also write the following — ” I might say, for example, “Given this obvious inaccuracy, does this book respect the abilities, understandings, and appreciations of children?”

    Isn’t there a preliminary discussion that needs to be had, though, about accuracy in children’s and/or teen fiction? Maybe it is a bigger or smaller issue than many of us think. I suggested toward the end of the GHOSTS conversation that a reasonable standard for accuracy in fiction is “plausibility,” as opposed to “accuracy” or “authenticity.” This is a different standard from non-fiction. Plausibility gives a lot more leeway to to the fiction writer, but still holds her or him to some standard of truth.

    I wonder what you and others here think about this subject. It can help frame the kinds of questions that will arise in the latter part of the discussion, after the strengths section is handled. (And thanks for the reminder on that structure. It matters).

    Also, thank you again for helping to host Heavy Medal.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      It’s tempting to front load discussion with such a conversation, but I think that given the diversity of opinion on any single point and the time constraints on the committee during that particular weekend that it’s probably best to let these emerge organically out of the discussion. Responses may confirm the inaccuracies (“My sources noted the same problems”) or challenge them (“Is there a difference between plausibility and probability?). Others may want to explore the impact on readers. Maybe Joe would share how much his Mexican-American students loved the book; somebody else might have Mexican-American readers with the exact opposite result. We might talk about how children might receive this book differently as 13-14-year-old readers versus 9-10-year-old readers, for example, and how that impacts our view of this book in these respects. Having a specific example in front of the committee is, I think, more helpful oftentimes than having an academic discussion.

  2. I agree with you here, Jonathan.

    Last year discussing the “insensitivity” in THE HIRED GIRL was important because it was so beautifully written and fully-realized, and therefore had a shot at the Newbery. (Alas, alas, alas.)

    Discussing GHOSTS to this degree seems like a moot point. It doesn’t hit any of the criteria for me, but even if it did, I don’t think it would measure up against the likes of, say, WHEN THE SEA or even FULL OF BEANS (which I just finished and hope we discuss this season!).

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      If we only discussed the 5-10 books that we thought had a serious chance of winning, then it would get old fairly quickly. I enjoyed both WHEN THE SEA TURNED TO SILVER and FULL OF BEANS and imagine that we will discuss them sooner ratter than later. The former book may prove a nice foil to GHOSTS in terms of cultural appropriation/cultural diffusion. We shall see.

  3. Leonard Kim says:

    Thanks, Jonathan. With a new section in the Manual, there’s definitely a lot to think about. Here are some of my questions:

    1) I’m curious how you feel the addition of the Diversity section to the Newbery Manual, which begins, “Inclusiveness is a core value of ALSC,” relates to another, oft-quoted section of the manual regarding a “small but unique readership.” You and Nina have both used that latter section to defend Newbery consideration of books that may have a limited readership, a stance which is potentially at odds with an inclusive ideal. I do think it is reasonable to read that section of the manual as specifically addressing the age question only. But the age question has often been used as a proxy for content that readers could find inappropriate or offensive. In theory, using the Manual’s question of, “Is there any 14-year-old for whom this book is suitable?” one could potentially argue that questionable portrayals of race and culture should not be a Newbery consideration for the sufficiently mature “ideal reader.” I think essentially that argument was made by some defending The Hired Girl last year.

    2) I see nothing in the new Diversity section that would exclude consideration of socially conservative, racist, or privileged viewpoints in children’s books as these too are part of “the diversity found in our nation and the wider world,” and “diverse experiences both familiar and unfamiliar.” It so happens there is a book this year to which my objections are essentially a moral stance: SAMURAI RISING. Whether I “reframe” my objections in Newbery terms or not, my problem really is, at heart, that I find it kind of repugnant. Does the Diversity section protect my viewpoint or those of the many readers (whose opinion I respect) who loved SAMURAI RISING?

    3) Do you think the Diversity section intends that the slate of winning books should reflect diversity or that each individual winning book should? Is Diversity honored if The Hired Girl were one many different kinds of winners including Last Stop on Market Street? Or do books like The Hired Girl and GHOSTS have no place even among several winners? I confess I’m the kind of person who has problems with the latter view – doesn’t seem inclusive or diverse to me as I define it.

    By the way, both old and new versions of the Newbery Manual are still available on the ALA website. The link from Heavy Medal points to the old one, which does not include the Diversity section.

  4. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    We’ll have to replace our Newbery Manual link. Thanks for the heads up!

    I think the canon as a whole should be more diverse, rather than pointing the finger at specific books or specific years. When most of us hear diversity we automatically think human diversity (racial, ethnic, gender, sexuality, ability), but to my mind it’s more broad than that, encompassing diversity of formats, audiences, and genres. Our shortlists here at Heavy Medal over the years have tended to look more like the Kirkus Prize shortlist than the National Book Award finalists.

    I think the intention of the diversity section is to more strongly affirm that every child has the right to be the ideal Newbery reader. No longer can we pretend that the best half dozen books of the year are all middle grade novels for, by, and about white people. There are years that the best books may be that way, but I’m not sure that we always need lots of honor books in those years, or that the phenomenon should repeat itself year after year.

    Not to re-open a can of worms, but I think THE HIRED GIRL is a diversity book, having been recognized by two Jewish book awards. It also won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, was shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and was a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor for Fiction and Poetry.

    • Can we do away with the construction “a diversity book”? To me, it implies that our collections, and our award lists, are made up of “normal books” and “diversity books,” and scoring enough Diversity Points wins. I agree with your wish that “the canon as a whole should be more diverse, rather than pointing the finger at specific books or specific years,” but diversity has to be measured at a population level. It seems more accurate to say that you think THE HIRED GIRL contributes to the increasing diversity of the canon of award winners, or that said canon is more diverse because it won.

  5. Layperson question: how do stories about animals, with animal concerns, fit into award committee diversity discussions? Would they gain points for skirting no contested cultural territory, or lose points for offering little fodder for a diversity conversation to begin with? Given two worthy animal books, and supposing neither was offensive in any way: would the author’s ethnicity automatically become a key factor to weigh in a book’s favor, in the service of canon-building?

    • Sharon McKellar Sharon McKellar says:

      Well, thinking about it with “points” isn’t how it is handled. Books with animals and animal concerns will be discussed with the Newbery guidelines, as JOnathan outlined above, the same as other books. It is hard to know how this will play out, since this part of the manual is so new, but I imagine that if two such books rose to the top of the discussion, that is when this would become a factor? And by factor, I merely mean that it would come up in discussion and maybe influence how people choose to vote. I don’t know? Jonathan, what do you think? But ultimately, we are still using the terms, definitions and criteria to find the Most Distinguished Book of the year. I think it is more about guiding people to value a diverse audience and diverse literature in their consideration. For example, when you think of presentation to a child audience, be conscious that in your head child audience doesn’t mean middle-class white child audience, but the whole audience of children.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Nobody thinks that random groupings of 15 African Americans or 15 American Indians or 15 Latinos would yield 3-5 books year after year that celebrate white people. ALSC membership is overwhelmingly white, and the leadership has been keenly aware of this for decades and actively seeks to represent those viewpoints on the committee, and still the average committee seems to have 1-2 people of color. It behooves those of us who do serve to read outside of our own experience because in a perfect world the membership would be proportionate to the population at large, meaning that there would be five people of color on the committee every single year. Do we have an obligation to the populations they would serve if they had a place at the Newbery table?

        The diversity language in the new handbook is not restricted to human diversity; I believe it also encompasses diversity of genre, format, and audience.

  6. Thanks for the info, Sharon. My only exposure to this being through this blog, I wasn’t sure how explicitly committee members could move away from discussion of the books proper.

    “Do we have an obligation to the populations they would serve if they had a place at the Newbery table?” Jonathan’s wording makes the award committee sound more like a ward system, as though people of color have a kid-version of themselves in their heads, and Sharon’s “whole audience of children” were not their purview. And perhaps it is not – but I would be leery of presuming that.

  7. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I think we can only speculate about how committees will approach diversity discussions. While I think it’s fairly easy for any one member to make a comment along these lines when discussing a particular book, whether it leads to a brief or extended discussion will depend largely on the disposition of the committee and the leadership of the chair. The new diversity language is a scant three paragraphs, and is included in the manual. It reads as follows–

    “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. ALSC award and notables lists provide librarians, teachers and parents with information about books and other media our association holds in the highest regard. Everyone benefits, children most of all, when the titles recognized within and across ALSC awards and best-of-the-year lists authentically reflect the diversity found in our nation and the wider world.

    “Each year there will be overlap among individual committees in terms of titles being considered for recognition. The Caldecott, Notables, and Pura Belpré committees, for example, inevitably end up considering some of the same books. It is the responsibility of each committee to consider a work based upon how it meets the criteria of their specific award rather than speculating whether a particular title will receive another award. If a title is recognized by multiple committees, it does not diminish the work of any of those committees; rather, it draws greater attention to a particular work’s excellence.

    “As individuals serving on committees evaluate materials according to the criteria outlined for their specific charge, they 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.”

    Personally, I think the effect of this would be stronger if it had been incorporated into the terms, definitions, and criteria because then it can be more explicitly recognized within the discussions. As it stands now, I think it is more likely to come up in certain places in the committee process: as an agenda item in the meetings leading up to the final deliberations, as a final reminder before those meetings begin, perhaps late in the deliberations after several rounds of discussion have exhausted the thinking around the terms, definitions, and criteria, and perhaps again when the committee considers honor books. But this is my speculation only.

    I’ve argued repeatedly here that the aforementioned language also embraces diversity of format, audience, and genre. But truthfully that language is already embedded in the terms, definitions, and criteria when it says that there is to be no limitation as to the character of the book save it be original work and that all forms of writing–fiction, nonfiction, and poetry–should be considered. I also think that *all* children is implicit in the wording of the terms, definition, and criteria. I have strongly stated my opinion above, but it’s really only that: my opinion. Others are free to disagree with me, and you shouldn’t take this as a belief that is universally, or perhaps even widely, held among committee members.

    Doesn’t every committee member have a kid-version of themselves in their head? I know I do. That kid-version of me doesn’t identify as white, though, he identifies as a fantasy reader. I think we all have several different reading identities, and it’s easy to default to them during this process. While I think that the dearth of committee members from minority backgrounds is one factor, it’s not the only factor. The books have to be there, and that’s on the publishing industry.

  8. I’m very late to this discussion because I’ve been traveling (personal and professional) this month and haven’t been able to read Heavy Medal (or much of anything, really).

    One trip was to speak at the Arne Nixon Center at Cal State Fresno. Such talks usually include visits to classrooms during the day. This visit included an afternoon lecture on campus. My guess is that four different professors sent their students to it. The room was like three university classrooms in size. The post-conversation centered on books about missions. My presentation included my critiques of GHOSTS and ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS. Students remembered ISLAND and having to read it, and they expressed several concerns about it and the way the missions are taught. Most reported doing the diorama activity where they make little missions. They are taught that Serra was good and the missions were good… the teaching sounds just like what is depicted in Politti’s SONG OF THE SWALLOWS, which won the Caldecott in 1950.

    Students asked what they can DO about being required to teach about the missions. A professor stood and said that they are required to teach about it, but aren’t told HOW to do so. She said that most people default to the good-mission narrative, but they could approach it critically instead. My overall sense of the conversation is that these pre-service teachers in California do not want to misrepresent history. It was misrepresented to them, and they don’t want to repeat that cycle.

    The student body at Fresno is 47.7% Hispanic, 21.1% White, and 13.7% Asian (see http://www.fresnostate.edu/academics/oie/data/). I’ve spoken at a lot of universities over the years, but the conversation I had there, with those students, stands out. There was a conviction to the things they said that stands out. As we think about books and diversity, I think it important to share my experience there. Demographics in the US are changing. Books must change, too.

  9. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Debbie, it’s correct that they have to teach the missions, but not necessarily how. You can see the new CA History-Social Science Framework for 4th grade here, and Native American content specifically appears on pages 90-99.

    http://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/hs/cf/sbedrafthssfw.asp

    The problem is that most teachers rely on the textbook to teach the curriculum, or supplementary materials such as historical novels in ELA.

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