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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

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:

Steven

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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.

  1. 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)
  1. 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…

Sharon

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:

Picture Book:

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Frané Lessec. Charlesbridge.

wearegrateful

Middle Grade/Younger YA:: 

Two Roads by Joseph Bruchac. Penguin. 

tworoads

Apple in the Middle by Dawn QuigleyNorth Dakota State University Press.

appleinthemiddle

YA:

Give Me Some Truth by Eric Gansworth. Arthur A. Levine Books.

givemesometruth

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Roxanne Hsu Feldman 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 roxannefeldman@gmail.com.

Comments

  1. Leonard Kim says:

    Though I have opinions about the questions and issues Roxanne, Steven, and Sharon raise, I don’t know that that would add much. I do want to offer the following observation about the Newbery process: the ALSC President can wield enormous indirect influence on how the Terms and Criteria and Manual are approached through her or his responsibility to appoint almost half (7 of 15) of the Newbery Committee, including the chairperson. In theory, that could be a factor in the different “characters” of Newbery selections in a given year. (The ALSC President serves for 1 year.) Sharon points out that the Committee has traditionally been composed mostly of a certain demographic (“mostly white, and mostly women librarians, even when they are from different parts of the country”). I do think this could be shaped through this responsibility of the President.

    (As Roxanne implies, it’s hard not to view everything through the lens of current events. It’s tempting to view this in terms of the Supreme Court, with the Committee as the Court, the Terms and Criteria and Manual as the Constitution which can and has been approached in different ways and even occasionally amended, and the President as the President.)

    • Leonard, what are your opinions?

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      The ALSC President does have some influence, as does the ALSC Nominating Committee, which selects 14 people for the Newbery Committee Ballot (7 are chosen). In the recording Roxanne sites above, KT Horning mentions how challenging it can be to find enough diversity on for the spots from professions that are still struggling mightily to fill positions with more diverse staff. That “mostly white, mostly women” composition of committees is also evident in youth librarianship in general. That’s not to say that the President and Nominating Committee shouldn’t widen their net, just as Committee members should with books, and I assume they do, but I imagine it still may be hard to do. I don’t know if the make-up of ALSC Award Committees have moved towards diversity in recent years…does anyone have a sense of this? I hope it’s changing some, even if it’s changing more slowly than we’d wish.

      • Another consideration is also that all committee members are attending the conferences on voluntary basis without compensation — and have to use their own (or their job’s PD) funds to “serve.”

  2. To me, Sharon’s thoughts about a book being considered “too harsh” or “too sad” tie in directly with Steven’s thoughts on GHOST BOYS. My husband is a 4th grade teacher and he read GHOST BOYS to his class last year and they had incredible discussions (I don’t know how he didn’t cry at some points while reading it out loud). I had a conversation with a mom who said that it caused some really great discussions in their house about Emmett Till, and she was also honest that she was concerned at first that the topic was too intense for her kid but that she was ultimately so glad that they read the book at school and had such good discussions at home. There are many who would say GHOST BOYS is too sad/too violent for kids, but we mostly mean it is too sad for us as adults to think about letting kids know the harsh truth of the world.

    I will be honest – I have not felt much like reading books the past two weeks and that has made it hard for me to keep up with the discussions but I have been reading your posts and will hopefully step out of this brain fog soon.

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