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What We Talk About When We Talk About Children’s Books

Well I can’t say that this hasn’t been an interesting season on Heavy Medal.  Jonathan and I will be announcing our shortlist shortly, but I’m due a reflection on the last few weeks. Rather than loop back into the specifics of the HIRED GIRL discussion, or the similar one that is going on regarding A FINE DESSERT (both of them all over the blogosphere at this point),  I would like to take a moment to talk about how and why we talk about cultural authenticity and stereotypes within a critical literary analysis and Newbery discussion.

To do that, I’m going to pull out two recent comments at the HIRED GIRL thread, to demonstrate two different ways people seem to be reacting against questioning racial stereotypes in a literary analysis:

Steven asks reasonbly:

The author made a literary choice. But some of the concerns here are focused on the possible effect of that literary choice on particular children. It can be useful and thought-provoking for us to consider those effects, but should the Committee be concerned at all? If they’re truly focusing on literary quality? I also wonder about the “not for didactic content” guideline. If the concern is that this book may teach harmful things, doesn’t that fall into those didactic elements? I think we usually think of that as a warning not to reward books for positive messages, but can we also view it as a reminder to stick to literary quality (which come from the author’s choices) rather than whether we like or dislike the messages (which comes from reader responses).

To which May December replies:

But Steven, if we were to look at the book for the Newbery criteria, we would have nothing to be outraged about. That would force some of the most vocal here to talk about the literary aspects of the book (good bad or otherwise), which doesn’t seem to be of much interest.

What is going on here?

First, I’d like to try to reply to Steven’s comment, which has been voiced by others.  There seems to be a desire to put discussion of culture and race in a completely separate bucket from “literary quality,” as if the two have no connection.  It is true that the Newbery award is “not for didactic content.”   But this doesn’t mean we don’t examine what the message of a work is, who it is for, and how well it is delivered. Literary elements that involve race and culture can and should be examined critically, within an entire literary analysis of the book.  I think the majority of the commenters at the HIRED GIRL thread, on all sides of the argument, have been doing so, in an illuminating way.  As we look at that book, and any other, we are looking at what the writer wrote and asking questions like “How effectively does the writer portray this character?”  “How accurate is this information?” “What does the writer ask of the reader here, and how does that affect the reading experience?”  And ultimately “Does this work for a child reader of the intended age and interest (if any is intended)? How well does it work?”   These questions are all squarely within any literary analysis of books for children and the Newbery criteria.   And the portrayal of race and culture is a one of many aspects in most books: effectively rendered, or not.  It something we have to talk about.  The privilege of not talking about race (commonly afforded white people in the US), is not a privilege we have here, because our readers don’t all share in it.  (If you missed Amy Koester’s post entirely in the din, now might be a good time to revisit it. )

So it concerns me when there are comments that typecast the bringing up of questions of cultural authenticity or portrayal of race within literary analysis as an aggressive and inappropriate act. Here are some selections from the HIRED GIRL thread, left anonymous:

“I am once again utterly astonished that the analysis of another book has been completely hijacked by one characteristic.”

“The affront of the young readers’ intelligence is not committed by the author but by the arbitrators here in the comments.”

“…how come this one sentence was picked up and used to destroy the whole worth of the book.”

And Roger Sutton at his blog, an oblique jab suggesting my line of questioning would necessarily lead to censorship:

“If the hurt is enough to keep The Hired Girl from winning the Newbery — as Nina Lindsay in a comment on Heavy Medal says it should — doesn’t it follow that the hurt is enough to keep it from library shelves altogether?”

These commenters are not responding, even though they may think they are, to what was being said in the thread, because none of what they are claiming was actually present in anyone’s argument.    So then what exactly are they reacting against?  Why do some people feel it is dangerous or destructive (as the language above suggests) to talk about race and culture in children’s books?

I am grateful for the many many of you who’ve taken on the challenge of looking at portrayals of culture and race and digging deep.  It is hard, and it is not as fun as some of us may have thought we were getting into, with children’s books.   We have and will hurt each other’s feelings, and feel defensive…and I’ve not always replied in comments in the way I wish I would have on later reflection.    But for those of you who find yourself reacting against these questions being raised at all…  I ask you to examine where that feeling is coming from.  Questioning how well someone writes what they write is a part of literary analysis. Questioning how well a book works for child audience is a part of the Newbery criteria.  This is what we talk about.


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


  1. Beautifully said, Nina. Thank you.

  2. Thanks, Nina.

  3. Oblique? Hardly. And I do worry that your line of thinking does lead to censorship. When a book is deemed “harmful,” as both the examples you mention have been so labelled in recent weeks on this blog and elsewhere, it seems reasonable to think that they have no place in children’s libraries. I don’t see why you think this is a big leap, and I’m sure there are many librarians who will quietly not purchase these books, either in agreement that they are harmful or for fear of being accused of harm. How is this not on point?

    Everyone is of course free to discuss books however they wish, but when we assert that a given book will hurt children we are implicitly asking that it not be shared with same. That has consequences for libraries.

    • Roger, I agree with Nina that there is a big leap between pointing out the problematic and potentially harmful aspects of a book and censorship. This big leap is such because sharing (i.e., implicitly promoting) a book is quite different from including a book in a collection. I collect thousands of titles a year, but I only share a few dozen. Censorship would be keeping it out of the library altogether, whereas the majority of what I’ve heard professionals say in these conversations is that they are going to refrain from book talking and/or hand selling problematic titles. This is not censorship–it is choosing the best possible materials to share with our audiences.

      I think there is quite a slippery slope fallacy at play when the response to criticism for a title is “but this line of thinking leads to censorship,” when in fact professionals are saying they are going to curate and share books thoughtfully. And while I’m sure there are folks, in particular those with limited book budgets, who will refrain from purchasing titles that have been discussed as potentially harmful, I would argue that they are doing so not out of censorship but out of the professional judgment that other books will better serve their communities.

      I also think it’s quite likely that we’re arguing different points. Your thesis seems to be that discussing and criticizing books, in particular for brief textual moments, can lead to censorship, while mine is that discussing and criticizing books is vital to allow selectors and youth librarians to determine what best to share directly with children. Your seems to be a statement of what gets on the stacks, while mine is what we curate onto our book lists.

      • KT Horning says:

        Nina, thanks so much for this thoughtful piece.

        I once led a mock Newbery discussion at my public library with third and fourth graders, and about four weeks into the process, one of the participants’ fathers came to see me.Our conversation went like this:

        Dad: So this Newbery thing. Is that the award that was given to SIGN OF THE BEAVER?
        Me: Yes, it was a Newbery Honor book a while back.
        Dad: My daughter had to read that book for school and it was a really bad experience for her. My daughter is Hochunk and I am Hochunk, and that book had really negative images of Indians in it. Is she going to be reading any books like that?
        Me: Well, not that one specifically, but we’re reading lots of eligible books from this year so there may be something similar.
        Dad: I don’t mind if she reads something like that because I can’t protect her from all the negative images out there. All I ask is you let me know if that happens so I can read it, too, and discuss it with her.

        Two takeaways from this conversation that are relevant to this discussion:
        1) SIGN OF THE BEAVER hurt this girl’s sense of self-esteem. Luckily she had a parent who was there to rebuild it. He took the time to read the book himself and discuss it with her so he could point out what was wrong in the book.
        2) All the father knew about the Newbery Medal was that it was associated with a book that was an insult to him and his daughter, and to Native Americans in general. Is this what want the Newbery Award to mean to people?

        As the father said, he couldn’t protect his daughter from every negative image of Native Americans that exists in books and in popular culture. But I think it’s sad to think the book we as librarians hold up as “the most distinguished contribution to American children’s literature” would contribute to that accumulation of negative images in our culture.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Well, Roger, you hid it in a parenthetical as if you were making an aside, which is pretty loaded. In doing so you also ignored the context of the discussion, which was whether the book should win the Newbery. No non-Newbery-winning book belongs on a library shelf?

      • Nina, I practically breathe in parentheses. Please don’t think it was an attack!

        My point is that selection for the Newbery takes place within the context of librarianship. Obviously, only one book wins the Newbery each year and yet we buy many more for our shelves. But if it’s ok to discuss “harmfulness” in deciding the medal (note: I’m not talking about stereotypes here, but about the deleterious effect we think a book will have on at least some young readers) doesn’t it make sense to apply that same criteria to collection development in general? I don’t think it does, and I don’t think you do, either, but it seems like a logical extension of the same discussion, so we need to consider those ramifications.

        Honestly, I think if you surveyed Twitter about whether A FINE DESSERT belonged in public libraries you could limit the choices to “No” and “Hell, no” and nobody would feel left out. I believe it is the responsibility of librarians–if not Heavy Medal, particularly–to say why this is a problem.

      • KT Horning says:

        So, Roger, you’re saying that you and Nina are the only two librarians smart enough to distinguish between censorship and selection?

        Amy Koester speaks to real-world practices. There is a lot more to being a children’s librarian than just buying books. What a librarian chooses to put on the library shelves differs greatly from what a librarian chooses to highlight in a program, put on a book list, use in a story hour, feature in a display, or promote in a book talk. Most librarians rely on professional review journals for making book selections, and most don’t have time to read every single book that crosses their desks. These sorts of online discussions are invaluable in helping them choose which books they will read and discuss with their colleagues as they consider what to do with a book — or what not to do with it — once it’s on their shelves.

      • Not at all, K.T. But I was taught in library school that you never purchase a book for a collection without some plan for what it’s going to do there. While there was that one librarian I knew who deliberately mis-cataloged anti-abortion books under military science, we generally don’t purchase materials with the hope that no one will read them.

      • Allie (Allie Jane?), there is a difference between saying “gee, this character doesn’t ring true” or “that character feels like a stereotype” and “don’t buy this book because a white person tried and failed again to convey the truth of the gay (for example) experience.” Or in the case of A FINE DESSERT, a reviewer can describe the essence of the scene between the enslaved mother and daughter without editorializing that such was the wrong way to present slavery in a book for children. I don’t think that’s a reviewer’s job.

      • This issue has come up many times before, but Roger those distinctions are the editorial policy of The Horn Book (namely, that reviews shouldn’t editorialize about how a book presents slavery, for example. Still wondering if this means you also wouldn’t pass judgment on textbooks or other nonfiction that referred to enslaved people as “workers”.) Other publications have different guidelines and do include such assessments in reviews. Do you think the New York Times and Kirkus are engaging in potential censorship?

      • Allie, if you can’t address my response to the example *you* cited, surely you can do better than THE BIRTH OF A NATION. I mean, why not go full MEIN KAMPF?

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Roger, KT and Amy have really covered it, but I will just add that librarians consider, every day, the harm that exists for children in stereotypical gender portrayals in books, in consumer media tie-ins, in the lack of adequate materials in general to suit all reading and learning styles, in economically-regressive lending policies (i.e. fees and fines),…. if all of this kept books off our shelves, we’d be closed. Thank goodness children are resilient, loved, and smart. This doesn’t take away for our responsibility to consider ALL aspects of a book when we are talking about what should represent the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.

      • Totally fascinated and trying to understand this discussion. Roger, by your logic, how is your “Rainbow Sprinkles” editorial not advocating for censorship? How is any negative review NOT censorship?

      • OK, take a scene like the infamous one from Alvin Ho in which characters play “indian” in very stereotypical and dehumanizing ways and nobody calls them on it, for which the Horn Book reviewer was “thankful.” (The quote is: “Thankfully, neither event results in a moral”). How is that not editorializing?

        AND EVEN IF THE WORD THANKFUL WAS LEFT OUT. Roger… how do you know that the “editorializing” you describe is, in fact, editorializing? How do you know that… to describe such a scene withOUT saying that it is wrong… ISN’T editorializing???

        In other words… what if there is such a power imbalance in this world that your own perception of what is “neutral” is incorrect, and is, in fact, part of the problem?

        Like D.W. Griffiths (filmmaker, Birth of a Nation) who led the anti-censorship charge that took him all the way to filming “Intolerance” because he felt so wronged by the Black people who were trying to censor Birth of a Nation–because they simply didn’t understand that he wasn’t HURTING them, he just THOUGHT DIFFERENTLY FROM them. But, see, it did hurt them, because it was one of several factors that led directly to the second coming of THE KKK.

        I’m not saying some children’s book is going to lead to the next wave of the KKK. I am saying that when someone tells you “ouch, this hurts”, you shouldn’t respond to that with “I know better because I’m neutral.” Your perception of neutral isn’t so neutral, Roger.

      • I don’t know if this reply is going to fall in the right place, but it is to Allie’s question about Alvin Ho. While I know that other review editors feel differently about this, i don’t think it’s the Horn Book’s job to take a position on the moral advisability of “playing Indian.” When our review praised the handling of that scene (“thankfully”), she meant that the author did not violate the subversive tone of her book with a message that might be socially laudable but at odds with the overall tone of the book. In the case of The Hired Girl, Debbie faults the author for not “calling out” the children playing Indian, but to my mind that would have been ludicrous, as white people of that time and place would not have looked askance at it in the way many of us would today.

        Sarah, if we reviewed a nonfiction book that soft-pedaled slaves as “workers,” I’m sure we would call it out for euphemism and bad history.

  4. michael grant says:

    If we want more diversity in books then the way to make that happen is not by making it more difficult. Basic economics, really: If you want more of something (diversity) you lower the barriers, you don’t raise them higher still. If any white writer who writes a diverse character has to expect ‘friendly fire’ then what possible incentive does that writer have to include diverse characters? A jesuitical pursuit of the perfect representation is what’s known as a perverse incentive which will lead to the unintended consequence of fewer books with PoC characters.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Michael, any writer should expect criticism. It’s known as a perverse incentive to poor writing.

      • michael grant says:

        Of course, as I’m sure you’d agree, the value and credibility of criticism rests upon the consistency and rationality of the criteria underpinning said criticism. If, for example, the criticism stops being about literary quality and becomes a search to root out ideological divergence, then the criticism becomes heretic-hunting and ceases to be of any value beyond the circle of like-minded ideologues.

        Librarians have always been the most reliable of allies in opposing censorship and ideologically-driven intimidation or exclusion. Like all writers, I’ve always loved librarians for that. No matter what, whether the attack came from the right or the left, librarians have always stood up for free speech, for the rights of writers, and especially for the rights of readers. When it comes to the defense of writers and readers, librarians have always been the Spartans at Thermopylae, oiled-up, swords sharp, ready to rumble.

        So I am distressed to find librarians treating books as if they were sticks of dynamite, as dangerous objects. I am distressed to see readers treated like so many Fabergé eggs prone to shattering at the first stress. Had any librarian presumed to preemptively block little Jewish Michael Grant from reading The Merchant of Venice (Shylock), I would have considered it presumptuous interference and resented it. I urge a careful re-examination of any belief system that brings us to a point which seems so opposite to the long-standing tradition of librarians.

    • Michael – in reply to your second comment… I understand your concerns. At the same time, though, I don’t think we should treat authors like so many Faberge eggs, either. Criticism of quality and content comes with the terrain, and I would think that an author would want to hear critiques in a hope to improve what they do. It can be uncomfortable… and we might not even agree with some of the ideas shared (and will none of us agree with the personal attacks, I hope). Still, until I’m perfect, I’m open to hearing.

      And your example about Merchant of Venice is interesting, since that is a piece of work subject to hundreds of years of criticism much of which would today fall under the conversation of diversity. The criticism includes context, history, literary choices, and did not keep little you from getting a copy of the book to read.

      • michael grant says:

        Greg, I must have written my comment poorly because I’m not implying that writers should be exempt from criticism. Indeed, with Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, Google more generally, Goodreads, Kirkus, Booklist, VOYA, the Bulletin, PW, SLJ and Horn Book it’s impossible for an writer to escape a constant drumbeat of criticism, as you know.

        I’m talking about the criteria for criticism. As I said in the opening sentence: “Of course, as I’m sure you’d agree, the value and credibility of criticism rests upon the consistency and rationality of the criteria underpinning said criticism.”

        This is not “writer trying to avoid critics,” this is, “writer suggesting the ideological underpinnings of much of the criticism around race is fundamentally flawed.” Very different question. I think we all agree critics have a right to be critics, in fact as an ex restaurant critic myself, I’d be hard put to argue otherwise.

        The question is whether the ideology (although it’s not quite an ideology, more a feeling or a posture) that forms the basis of the criticism has value and makes sense. Then there is the related question of whether this particular posture actually impedes a goal I assume we all share of promoting diversity. This is basically a “political” question.

        I think the answers are ‘no’ and ‘yes’ respectively. I don’t think the “ideology” (again, for lack of a more precise word) does make sense. I think it eats its own tail. I think in many cases it goes so far off the left side of the table that it pops back up on the right as a rationale that actually supports racism. And as a political matter, criticism this thoroughly divorced from actual readers, this far out of the mainstream, ends by reducing support for diversity.

        So, rather than suggesting that critics stop criticizing, I’m suggesting that they force their heads to think through and make sense of, notions of which their hearts (and mine) approve. I like people who’s hearts are in the right place. But a bit more rigor would allow them to pursue our mutual goals without subverting and discrediting those goals. Less jerking of knees and bleeding of hearts, a bit more logic. Not so much Dr. McCoy, a bit more Spock.

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        Michael, I will assume you are white, as I am. You and I may talk about our “postures” towards the use of racial stereotypes in a book, and call it ideology. However, these stereotypes are real, they are used in our culture in a “consistent and rational” way, and they are not “feelings” or “postures”. They, as any other part of the written work, affect the reading experience in a very real way.

      • michael grant says:

        Just to add one more thing. Among those not exempt from criticism are critics. When I was reviewing restaurants the critics of my criticism often expressed themselves in terms of death threats and boycotts. But, hey, if you set yourself up to criticize some dude’s business, you have to expect some pushback.

    • Hi, Michael – we agree that critics are not exempt from criticism. What I struggle with in your response, though, is that I simply don’t agree with you that this is a “posture” or that this line of criticism in any way impedes the goal of diversity in books. It certainly impedes the goal of token attempts at diversity that aren’t true to the lived experience of others (which I also know would not be your goal) or are sloppily done. I don’t think that’s bad, though.

      I also think that you (and I and all creators of art) should practice more rigor in seeking to understand how our work impacts others, intentionally or not. We can then chose to act on what we learn or not. This, too, goes back to that line of criticizing a work but not speaking to the intent of the author (unless such intent is explicitly stated by the author). If we all listen rigorously and do our work well, there’s not likely to be “friendly fire” even though there will be mistakes made, criticisms thereof, and owning of our mistakes as needed. I don’t think that’s too high a barrier. I don’t think you think that either, but what will happen as we continue is that we’ll see we simply start from a different place… our “line” is in a different place as to what is something that hurts diversity vs. creates it. So we can argue, discuss, and parse… but we’re actually having slighly different conversations. At least that’s what it feels like… since we’d probably agree on 95% of the “big picture” stuff. Challenging, but I’m grateful to have the conversation and appreciate the back and forth.

      • So if the Horn Book were to review “Birth of a Nation” tomorrow, it would say it’s “a wonderful, epic movie with beautiful cinematography, and thankfully there is no ‘lesson learned’ that enslaving other people is wrong, as this would be at odds with the nostalgic, Romantic tone of the movie.”

        See, Roger, what you call “not taking a position” is, in fact, taking a position. It’s condoning. Racism is a perpetual motion machine. And all that it requires to keep on chugging is for people to do nothing to interrupt it.

  5. This discussion is fascinating. It has also moved The Hired Girl to the top of my to-read pile because I need to know what everyone is so worked up about. I’ll hopefully be reporting back to the Hired Girl post in a few days with my findings.

  6. May December says:

    Nina, I appreciate the follow-up on this contentious issue. However, I still think you are missing some of my point, or intentionally omitting it. When I was referring to literary analysis about The Hired Girl, I didn’t mean to say that there couldn’t be a discussion about the issues that you have been brought up. What I have been looking for is *in addition* to these concerns raised. There has been some discussion about Joan’s characterization, but I haven’t read very much about how readers have felt about the plot aside from some pacing concerns. How about the setting? Does Schlitz depict 1911 Baltimore accurately? How about her handling of other characters besides Joan? It was referred to by some as a dime-store novel, but I would love to hear more about the writing – which seems different to me than her widely acclaimed quality in Good Masters, Sweet Ladies and Splendors & Glooms. So these are the sorts of things that I feel have been lost. Thank you for your time.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      May December, I did miss the point, as there *was* other discussion of other elements of the book. I hear, from your clarification, maybe not enough, but most of our discussions don’t get 100 comments.

  7. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Nina, I appreciate the opportunity to step back from the conversations about THE HIRED GIRL and A FINE DESSERT and talk about the bigger picture . . .

    I do think that stereotypes and cultural authenticity are fair game in the Newbery conversation. To my mind, they most clearly fall under accuracy, but some people may choose to also speak about them in terms of children’s abilities, understandings, and appreciations. No matter how fleeting such references are, I still think the committee is obligated to take them seriously.

    But is it possible that a book is problematic in terms of stereotypes and cultural authenticity when viewed through one lens and entirely unproblematic when viewed through another one? Can two such readings coexist in the same book for different readers? Must it be an either/or situation or does one reading have to the right and proper one, pre-empting any other interpretation?

    • Since I just read the comments on this Reading While White post, I’ll point you to Allie’s explanation of “Yes, and” reactions:

      There’s a recent YA book with a queer character that I found stereotypical, ill-informed, and personally infuriating. Someone whose opinion I trust found it complex, well-written, and commendable. My reading doesn’t invalidate hers, and hers doesn’t invalidate mine. I think both of our readings, and our future selection/recommendation decisions, benefitted from comparing notes, so to speak, because we each came at it from different, well-informed contexts. (I am purposefully choosing an example where both readers understand this particular book’s context in the field of YA literature and are well-versed in LGBTQ depictions and stereotypes. When there is a vast difference in knowledge/lived experience, I do think the less-informed party has a stronger obligation to listen.)

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Thanks, Kate! I read that post, but hadn’t returned to follow the discussion. It’s interesting that each side in this kind of a conversation can feel like the other is trying to shut them down. Allie’s point is well taken, but I also think in the context of a Newbery discussion that both sides can see “problematic” as synonymous with “fatal flaw.”

      • We can also speak of stereotypes as an aesthetic failing, surely, as it indicates a lack of individuation of a character. But I would distinguish between a stereotype and a portrayal we just don’t approve of.

      • Gail Shepherd says:

        Kate B, would you name the Y/A book with the queer character you and your friend disagreed about? I’m interested. Thanks.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Another post worth catching up on comments, as I did last night:

      Though it starts from a different place, many of the comments are relevant here, and I want to paste in a quote from Jordan Brown’s comment at:

      “All together now: *We can respect and even enjoy a piece of media while still being critical of its problematic aspects.* Admitting that there is perhaps a problem with some passages of a book does not mean that the book is worthless, or that the author is a racist, or that we are racists for having read it and not had issues with it. I know it’s difficult to hold both ideas in our heads simultaneously–that we can continue to recommend a book as worth reading even as we point out and discuss places where insidious aspects of cultural prejudice slip into it–but this is imperative, and not only because these conversations are going to continue to dead-end like this until those of us in the majority can learn to do understand this.”

      • This continues to be a fascinating discussion. I agree with the premise that a particularly troubling passage, quote, setting, character, etc. doesn’t necessarily take away from a work’s overall merit. Here’s where I disagree. Many commentors in this comment section, and in the comment sections shared/linked as part of this overall discussion, seem to be taking that argument a step further. Arguing that because one person (or even a group of people) finds something problematic in a book, that thing (where it be a plot, a passage, a character, etc.) automatically is problematic. I think that is a dangerous step to take.

        Jordan Brown’s comment from the “Read the Whole Book” post illustrates this well, “Admitting that there is perhaps a problem with some passages of a book does not mean that the book is worthless, or that the author is a racist, or that we are racists for having read it and not had issues with it.” On the surface, this seems like a perfectly reasonable, middle of the road response. He seems to be saying, if you’ll pardon the cliche, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. But let’s examine, for a moment, the comment’s implication. It implies that before we can even discuss the work’s overall merit, we must first agree that it has a problematic passage.

        I think it is unwise to be so quick to label something in a book problematic. I confess, as a person of faith, I am quick to do this sometimes when I critique a work that has, what I consider to be, inappropriate sexual content. I have recently been striving to be more precise with my language to stop myself from doing this. A plot is not automatically problematic because I think it is inappropriate. Nor is it automatically problematic because my church finds it inappropriate. It is fair for me to say that I personally find a plot problematic. But my opinion, or my church’s opinion, does not render that plot problematic to all. And it would be illogical for me to suggest that it did.

        Going forward, I think it would be wise for us, as critical readers of children’s literature, to agree upon a statement like this. “Admitting that some in our community might find a particular passage problematic does not decrease a work’s overall literary value.” Can we all agree with that?

  8. Nina Lindsay says:

    Jonathan, I’m continuing to think about your question. First of all, I wonder if we could retire the term “fatal flaw” at least temporarily. It’s been a convenient shorthand that I have used, but I think is unnecessarily incendiary in the current discussion. “Tipping point” might be more apt.

    So, you ask, “But is it possible that a book is problematic in terms of stereotypes and cultural authenticity when viewed through one lens and entirely unproblematic when viewed through another one? Can two such readings coexist in the same book for different readers? Must it be an either/or situation or does one reading have to the right and proper one, pre-empting any other interpretation?” I think you’re asking if we all have to agree on the tipping point. Of course different readings can co-exist. And interpestations are different through different lenses. But…. I would ask, for those who don’t see a problem, are they from the dominant point of view? Because then I’m not necessarily satisfied with “I dont see a problem,” until that person can express that they do see, and fully empathisize with, the person who sees a problem, and can demonstrate effectively that it is….really not a problem. I haven’t yet been convinced in the current discussions.

    I think this is what has got us going round in circles. And why, as exhausted as I know we all are, I’m not willing to let it go. Because stopping the discussion is the same as saying “I don’t see a problem here.” I just don’t understand how we can stop there.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      There is a history of people trying to shut down conversations on this blog with an appeal to various criteria–age of audience, book in a series, words vs. pictures. Even if that is not their intention, these concerns often dominate the conversation at the expense of the strengths of a book. The real committee will probably start off with positives first, and thus could have a dramatically different conversation than what we’re seeing online. We’ve seen that happen in our live mock discussions. I do like the phrase “tipping point.”

      I think it’s frustrating when people like me say, “I see a problem here,” but then are dismissive or indifferent because, of course, if we really did see the problem then we wouldn’t have that response, would we? But is it possible that we can see the problem and be just as troubled by it, but choose an entirely different course of action?

      I think so and here’s why. I could just as easily have KT’s conversation with any number of offended children and parents. I’m sure THIS ONE SUMMER has ruined the Caldecott for various fundamentalist Christians, for example. Of course, fundamentalist Christians aren’t a marginalized group in the sense that American Indians are. But if we acknowledge that this is the difference between our responses, then haven’t we moved away from protecting children as our fundamental priority? Is it possible to look at this as an intellectual freedom issue, even within the context of awards?

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        Jonathan, I’m mostly with you here, but I think the key is that we need to be clear in such discussions that everyone really IS listening, IS seeing, and is giving credence to voices that challenge a white-privileged point of view.

  9. Good morning!

    I’m a bit late to this. I’m thrilled to see so much discussion around issues of representation, especially within the context of the book awards. It packs a whammy for all of us.

    As an academic, I like to drill down, see the history, etc., of how things came-to-be. So, I started poking around to see what kinds of statements there are with respect to diversity within the materials the various committees use. This search is within the same framework as an earlier discussion on Roger’s blog, about the CREW Manual and its statements about bias, stereotyping, selection/deselection.

    I did a search using these words: diversity caldecott manual guidelines

    And I got to a manual from 2009. At the bottom of the page(s) it says it was formatted in August of 2015. Then, I did a search of the document, using diversity, and found some way-cool information in a subsection titled “Diversity and ALSC Media Award Evaluation” on page 25. Like this sentence in the first paragraph:

    “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.”

    And these three, at the end of the second paragraph:

    “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.”

    That seems to me to speak directly to the conversations we’re having about A FINE DESSERT and THE HIRED GIRL. It says “be open to listening.” As we’ve seen, people are open to listening, but many are not swayed by that listening. Still, I’m glad to see that paragraph, and now (again as that academic), I’m hunting for older versions of the manual. I wonder when that language was added to the manual? Maybe former committee members can pull out their manual and have a look see? Apologies if this question/comment kind of derails the conversation.

  10. Sara Ralph says:

    I think the biggest problem here is any discussions the real Newbery and Caldecott Committees will have/would have about the issues with _The Hired Girl_ and _A Fine Dessert_ would remain private. Discussions on these mock sites are very public and become forums to attack the author and in some cases, call for censorship of the titles. As librarians (the blog host and hostess are librarians), we need to fight particularly against the latter. I always thought it would be fun to know how people voted and what the discussions were, but after seeing how angry the _A Fine Dessert_ conversation has gotten, I guess it is better that the committees’ processes remain confidential.

  11. michael grant says:

    Nina, you insist on using the word “stereotype,” because it carries automatic negative associations and images of Little Black Sambo. What’s been discussed in DESSERT and HIRED are not stereotypes. That’s the issue. That’s what I meant by a jesuitical (Jacobin? Soviet?) approach, an obsessive search for things about which we must be outraged. The problem being that there’s nothing outrageous there, aside from your outrage.

    If there’s an outrage it’s a blog called Writing While White in which white people set up shop as tribunes of black people, defenders of PoC. This is at heart a case of the White Man’s Burden trope. Here’s the quickie intro:

    “This trope is about a plot where an ordinary, ethnically-European (white) person meets an underprivileged non-ethnic-Euro character. Taking pity on the other character’s plight, they selflessly volunteer themselves as the other’s tutor, mentor, or caretaker to make things better.”

    It also rests on the Magic Negro trope. The insistence that “we” have simply to listen to “them” and we will hear a stream of wisdom, is dehumanizing of PoC. There are roughly 40 million black people in the US, they are not a singular, they are a plural. They do not have “a” black experience, they have a range of experiences. Rather like white people. Or even just, people. No one would ever suggest that listening to a random white person imparts an understanding of all white people, but the reverse is endlessly proposed as a panacea for writing characters of color. It is condescending in the extreme.

    Finally (because I could go on, but I’m not trying to filibuster) there’s the name of the blog itself. Imagine, Nina, you’re in the library and in walks some white kid who says, “I’m so inspired by your blog that I’m forming a reading group called, “White Reading Group” and I want you to sponsor it. Non-whites would be allowed, of course, but we’re calling it White Readers Group.”

    How would you handle that? How would you explain that his group will be inevitably (and rightly) seen as racist, but your blog is not? How would you explain it to your PTA? And the answer cannot be, “But I’m a good white person with a good heart.”

    I have no doubt that your heart is in the right place. Not sure you’ve really quite thought the matter through.

    • Michael – you start your post by telling others that they can’t be outraged about something and then saying that YOU know what is outrageous, and you end with what reads like a patronizing pat on the head (that I truly doubt is your intent, but which I’ve seen written about so many hundreds of times I practically gasped to see it from you). This is why I said before that I don’t think we’re all really having the same conversation here – you’ve decided what’s what (and others have, too, no doubt), and argue from that “unassailable” position only. Much of the frustration (that can turn to outrage) comes from miscommunication, interpretation of intent (often based on a lifetime of experience), and the fact that we’re all typing these things on the fly in that not-really-real-time-conversation internet way where everything spins out of control and where a mistake or misinterpretation can change a whole conversation irrevocably because we’re not sipping coffee and clarifying what we meant. Like seriously – I suspect we all agree on a lot of this, but the perspectives that differ make it so that we all end up talking about different things and not understanding how folks can’t see our point. It’s a bad cycle.

      • michael grant says:

        We do agree on the essential goal – doing a better job of representing the American population in books. But I’ve been part of or at least supportive of, more than one movement that ate its own tail ideologically, or lost the thread entirely. The moment when I saw the anti-war protests in the Vietnam era become pro-VietCong; the point where environmentalism became anti-capitalism; the point where Occupy. . . well, whatever that fiasco was. I get tired of watching things I care about become ridiculous, peter out and fail, the cause of death inevitably listed as suicide.

        The fact that Nina or you don’t understand that this is an ideological issue, that her race-based literary criticism represents a particular political point of view, a point of view that is wildly out of the mainstream, is evidence of an echo chamber in operation. I’m a San Francisco lefty and an awful lot of what I read here is cringe-inducing at the very least. The arrogance of white people setting up as arbiters of what is or is not some vague shadow of racism, and then obsessively parsing some poor author’s words according to God-only-knows what vision of ideological perfection, is bizarre and disturbing. I think you guys need to get out more. I think maybe you’re spending too much time with academics. But dude, picking on a book because it has an illustration of a slave smiling, is nuts. Slaves smiled. Slavery wasn’t a bad weekend, it was centuries, and generations. Of course people smiled at times. I’ll lay it out here right now on behalf of my people, that Hebrew slaves smiled in Babylon. Because that’s how people are.

        And if this kind of absurd hypersensitivity combined (because truth is absolutely stranger than fiction) with a blog called “Reading While White,” all of it wrapped in a thick layer of smug and condescension is what diversity is all about, well then you just lost everyone to the right of me. Which would be about 90% of people. Which is the point where people like me start having to say, “Yeah, I’m, uh. . . not with those people.”

        I will tell you right now that two years from now (at the outside) Nina will have disappeared that blog. And I’ll throw in a bonus prediction: over the next two years we’ll see an uptick in diversity because of what’s in the pipeline, and then, thanks to the tireless work of the well-meaning, we’ll see it drop again and five years from now we’ll get a PW piece wondering what ever happened to that whole diversity thing.

        But, that said, I am done filibustering. I will no longer darken your towels.

      • I’ve seen the same things you have (perhaps not as many, or perhaps not the same ones but enough). I think it’s wise to be aware of biases, straw men, false equivalencies, echo chambers and all that and to be vigilant about how we listen to the world around us. I also think we need to beware of hypocrisy (like my Facebook feed showing me Bernie Sanders supporters urging him to start attacking Hillary Clinton. You know… despite all the things he stands for like his refusal to campaign negatively. But I digress off topic).

        I appreciate your last reply, by the way. I don’t think it was a filibuster but a response with some excellent detail. You don’t darken any of my towels and as noted above, I enjoy the posts. Still, I do want to add that I don’t hang out with academics. (My dad was one… and having seen a faculty meeting from the inside at a young age, I’ve not gone that way.) I also don’t hang out with librarians. I read and listen, I suspect, just as widely as you do, though probably not to all the same voices.

        More to the point, though, I understand fully that there’s politics and ideology involved in all this. Your statement that I don’t is simply you assuming or projecting, reading and responding with your own biases. This is why I’d say again, as I said before, that we’re not really engaged in the same conversation.

    • Sam Bloom says:

      Pardon me for interrupting your rant, Michael, but didn’t you say somewhere that you weren’t trying to filibuster? I think that ship has sailed, sir. Signed, Sam from Reading While White

  12. michael grant says:

    I assume my previous comment is in moderation because it includes links?

  13. Thanks, Kate B. for the additional pages you found, and the recording, too. I’m glad to know, Nina, that it is in the other manuals, too.

    Great information, things to think about, and study, as our nation becomes unstuck from that all white world of power.

  14. The other strand I’m looking at of late is the “Commitment to Client Group” in the ALSC Core Comps:

    1. Demonstrates respect for diversity and inclusion of cultural values, and continually develops cultural awareness and understanding of self and others.

    2. Recognizes racism, ethnocentrism, classism, heterosexism, genderism, ableism, and other systems of discrimination and exclusion in the community and its institutions, including the library, and interrupts them by way of culturally competent services.

    3. Recognizes the effects of societal factors, new knowledge and tools, income inequality, health and food insecurity, etc., on the needs of children.

    4. Understands theories of infant, child, and adolescent learning, literacy development and brain development, and their implications for library service.

    5. Understands current educational practices, especially those related to literacy and inquiry.

    6. Assesses and responds on a regular and systematic basis to the needs and preferences of children, their caregivers, educators, and other adults who use the resources of the children’s department, including those unserved and underserved by the library.

    7. Cultivates an environment for enjoyable and convenient use of library resources, specifically removing barriers to access presented by socioeconomic circumstances, culture, privilege, language, gender, ability, and other diversities.

  15. Mike Jung says:

    I find it both fascinating and encouraging to see the very recent diversity-conscious changes to the assorted award guidelines. It gives me real hope to know that the work of achieving truly inclusive representation is finding its footing in closed-door arenas that aren’t accessible to everyone with the ways and means to speak up online. We’re stoking fires of conscious, multi-faceted thought in places where decisions are made in seclusion; we’re waking up in ways that go beyond discussion. The work we’re collectively doing is no picnic, but look at what we’re accomplishing. Look at us go.

  16. I see many assertions in your post, Nina, but I don’t see much of an argument or evidence to back them up. All the questions you pose in that long, middle paragraph (what I think you’re presenting as your argument here) can be answered quite differently depending on whether you’re asking from a literary viewpoint or a sociological/cultural one. Let’s take, for example, your first question: “How effectively does the writer portray this character?” A literary concern would ask only that the storyteller portray how characters ACTUALLY behave–in other words, Ezra Pound’s “accuracy of statement is the one sole morality of writing.” A sociological/cultural concern would ask that the storyteller portray how characters SHOULD behave, or how they WOULD behave if they had a progressively enlightened adult whispering in their ear. That’s a big difference between the two concerns, and despite your assertions, here and elsewhere, I still don’t see how you reconcile them into one.

    But what I’m wondering is why try to pass off sociological/cultural concerns as literary ones in the first place? Why not just say: “Literary concerns are racist/bigoted, because they don’t take into account the feelings of underrepresented groups, and they should take a backseat to sociological/cultural concerns in our judgment of a book, because cultural concerns take those feelings into account.” What’s so great about literary concerns, anyway? Could your desire to conflate the two concerns be itself a sign of white privilege?

    • Ebony Elizabeth Thomas says:

      (Thanks a million for your post, Nina.)

      Bradin – can you say more about the distinctions you’re making between “literary concerns” and “sociological/cultural” concerns? I’m not certain that the gulf between and betwixt is all that wide. Literary criticism is a many-splendored thing, and not all literary critics would agree that “a literary concern would ask only that the storyteller portray how characters ACTUALLY behave.” Sociology and cultural studies are different animals altogether, but literary criticism hasn’t been devoid of “cultural concerns” for several decades now. Curious to know what’s being asserted here.

      • Sorry, just saw this comment for the first time this morning. (My subscription to this thread went to my Spam folder.) I’m happy to explain myself further.

        What I’m saying is when a critic comes along and dismisses the value of a certain artwork because they think, for example, a passage within it might “make First Nations/Native readers feel terrible,” they’re dismissing it for a cultural reason not a literary one. I believe a sociological/cultural concern, at its core, prizes a certain ideology over the artwork itself. The cultural critic will judge an artwork through that ideological lens, and no matter how excellent the quality of an artwork’s form (no matter how well-written, how well-drawn its characters, etc.), they will have no problem dismissing that artwork if it offends the ideology in some big or small way.

        So, for example, a cultural critic might look at the Little House books and straightaway dismiss them because of Pa’s (or some other character’s) racism. Now, maybe, one could make an argument against this portrayal of racism on aesthetic grounds. (If so, I’d like to hear it.) But I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. The critic is thinking about readers that might be harmed by such a portrayal and they’d prefer to not endorse something that might harm them, and so withhold their endorsement. But that kind of judgement is hardly thinking about how these books stand up as works of art, or, at the very least, literary concerns here are playing runners-up to other concerns.

        Let me emphasize I’m not trying to pass judgment on cultural concerns or critics here, or arguing the supremacy of one concern over the other, but I am saying I remain unconvinced–from Nina’s argument, especially–that there’s no meaningful difference between the two concerns. Also, as the end of my original comment hinted at, I’m starting to wonder if this desire to pass off cultural concerns as literary is a kind of pandering to the powers-that-be, an attempt to appear more serious, as though cultural concerns aren’t sufficient to stand on their own but must also be counted as literary, if they’re going to be counted of any worth in the world of children’s literature.

        Thanks for engaging me in discussion, Ebony. Looking forward to your pushback.

    • May December says:

      Thank you, Bradin, for so eloquently explaining my concerns. And doing so much better than I have earlier in this thread and others.

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        Bradin, it seems to me in your assumption of a difference between a “cultural” assessment and an “aesthetic” one that you assume that we respond, aesthetically, with no emotional engagement, without any context of where we stand in the world. I’m not trying to pass anything off as another thing; just trying be real. Our aesthetic judgments include cultural context, and if one is making a judgment for an audience broader than oneself, you should consider other’s contexts, not just your own.

      • Eric Carpenter says:

        I would love for you to expand on this idea of cultural context in formal analysis. When I read a detailed literary analysis such as Jonathan’s breakdown of I Broke My Truck from a few years back I struggle to see where cultural context comes into play. Perhaps you or someone else could take this piece of literary analysis and point out the ways cultural context informed the aesthetic judgments. I think this might make your argument more clear.

  17. I am also very happy to see the new guidelines– and thanks for finding them, Debbie!

  18. Eric Carpenter says:

    Apologizes for the length of this one.
    Every time I look at the Newbery Terms and Criteria something else sticks out to me.
    Today it’s this line: “The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text.”
    Does this mean the committee should treat each book as a “found object” (like the Russian Formalists and later the New Critics would have) ignoring the identity and background of the author as that isn’t ‘the text’?
    Is it possible to focus strictly on the six text based criteria by only looking between the covers of the book itself?
    I think this goes to some of the larger questions we’ve all been working through this fall. Can we find distinction inf the interpretation of a theme or concept even if it is a theme or concept we find abominable? (Same question when we insert plot, characters, or setting for theme or concept above).
    Allie brings up The Birth of a Nation in her comments. That is a film that, from an aesthetic perspective, is undeniably well made and is certainly one of the most distinguished contribution of American cinema. Do we find the themes, concepts, and characterizations revolting? Absolutely. But while doing so, we can still recognize that excellence in the delineation of plot through DWG’s use of cross cutting in the climatic scene which many consider the culmination of the 20 years of cinematic experimentation that proceeded it.
    This is certainly not the only example of films that are morally objectionable yet still incredibly distinguished. Since Roger mentioned Mein Kampf, let’s consider Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia and Triumph of the Will. Two of the best made propaganda films in the history of cinema. Olympia is aesthetically beautiful even though its purpose is reprehensible. Triumph of the Will’s influence can be seen far and wide (and even in a galaxy far, far, away). By any aesthetic criteria these films are distinguished contributions to cinema, and as such (like Birth of a Nation) continue to be watch, studied, and copied today.

    When we are asked to consider formal aspects of a work of any work of art (including literature) such as: 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, and appropriateness of style, we need to look at these aspects divorced from their meaning. It’s not whether it is a “good theme” but whether the theme is interpreted with distinction. (Likewise for characters, plot, setting, etc)
    So criteria leaves us with only one “weapon” against the reprehensible or objectable. That is of course criteria 1b: “Committee members must consider excellence of presentation for a child audience.” Here is where we point out the reprehensible and culturally objectionable aspects of a work of art and from there determine a title is not the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Eric, you ask me to play I BROKE MY TRUNK against MEIN KAMPF?

      Of course you can find aesthetical skill in what you also find morally objectionable. Where have I suggested you can’t? But I do question why you think “we need to look at these aspects [plot, delineation of characters, delineation of a setting, and appropriateness of style] divorced from their meaning.” Text has meaning, and the author’s aesthetic skills bear in how well they present that meaning to their audience. Why try to “divorce” these, when they are inextricably linked? What is the point of a book beyond what the reader takes from it?

      However you feel, morally, about the meaning of I BROKE MY TRUNK is for you. How a child audience *responds* to the meaning is for our discussion, and because our culture informs how we come to a reading, that is part of our “formal” analysis, to a greater or lesser extent depending on what the author has chosen to write. Not do you like the message. Not whatever the author hopes they have written. But what they actually wrote, how they delivered their message to their audience.

      • Eric Carpenter says:

        Divorce the text from its meaning because the criteria says “The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text.” (I read this as “the text” not “the text and the meaning gleaned by the child trader from the text”. I don’t mean to imply that this is the right or only reading of this sentence, which is why I brought it up. I’d love clarification as to how this is generally been understood by committes in the past.)
        Those standing up for THE HIRED GIRL are doing so by ignoring the implications of what the text may or may not be saying (regardless of intent) and focusing on how well the text says it. Based on the newbery manual this seems like a legitamate way of thinking about the book in terms of 1a. It’s not simply finding skill in what we find morally objectionable, it’s whether we are willing to find excellence and distinction in that skill.
        I agree that the text has meaning but I can’t find in the terms, definitions, and criteria where that meaning is relevant to the newbery discussion other than, as I stated above, in 1b –presentation to a child audience.

        Also, where did I ask you out anyone release to play I BROKE MY TRUNK against MEIN KAMPF? That certainly wasn’t my intent.

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        Eric, I think that “those standing up for the Hired Girl” are indeed talking about the implications of what the text is saying.

        You asked me to parse I BROKE MY TRUNK by “my” interpretation of literary analysis while you did … I’m sorry, it was Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will. You referenced Roger’s reference to Mein Kampf and it just stuck. I just found the playing of extremes a little odd.

    • It’s probably late enough so that you won’t see this comment, Eric, but I think the idea of dominant narratives being ideologically neutral (and, by extension, of aesthetics being something that can exist divorced from meaning) goes to the heart of the issue. At base, I think it’s another way of saying that those writing and reading from dominant positions are themselves neutral. To me, these discussions often come back to that faulty perception– that white people, for example, do not have race, or are not affected by race. That race exists only for others.

      This is the only way I can see that it’s possible to understand aesthetics and “ideology” as separable. You had asked for specific examples. I’d point to Malinda Lo’s series on book reviewing, if you haven’t read it already. She looks at specific instances where reviewers’ perceptions of what you’re calling “aesthetics” are, in fact, culturally informed. The way readers respond to things like pacing, narrative structure, imagery, language… all, of course, come from a relationship between the text and our own selves– which includes our own cultural expectations.

      I think this very much goes for theme, too. To look at the examples that have been much discussed here: there is a common theme I see in many children’s books, and especially in award winners, which presents an arc of racial or ethnic conflict resolving through personal understanding into interpersonal harmony. This arc, or theme, is present in both A Fine Dessert and Hired Girl (and I really don’t mean to single out those books, as I think it is pervasive.) I’d say that many books white readers describe as “satisfying,” or as books that achieve “resolution” or that “come full circle” have this thematic arc. But this sense of satisfaction or “good plotting” is related to an ideological expectation. For example, I *don’t* find the ending of The Hired Girl to be a believable or satisfying resolution, because to me there is a striking discord between its presentation of antisemitism and racism and their resolution among the characters, and my own understanding of the realities of antisemitism and racism in that time and setting. (As Ebony has pointed out elsewhere, this also gets to the question of historical accuracy– an aesthetic consideration that often seems to be trotted out to defend period bigotry in a text, and then deemed insignificant when that presentation of bigotry does not actually match historical records.)

      I’m aware that there’s another question that’s being asked here, which is the recurring one about whether what’s really being judged are behaviors in a text that readers don’t like. This is a straw man that I find especially frustrating (it appears often in discussions of the treatment of sexual violence in fiction, too.) Many have already said this, but I’ll just repeat that what’s being discussed is precisely the aesthetic choices authors have made in their depictions of those elements– choices that are part of every aspect of writing, and of our responses as readers. And echoing the thanks for this post, Nina!

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        “At base, I think it’s another way of saying that those writing and reading from dominant positions are themselves neutral.”

        I don’t disagree with this statement at all, but doesn’t it follow that those writing and reading from not-dominant positions are also not neutral? If there are multiple readings of a text and these readings are all inherently subjective, then is there any objective set of criteria that we can use to judge them aesthetically?

      • Sheila Welch says:

        This discussion is fascinating. I find myself reading, thinking, changing my mind, returning to my original opinion, wondering . . .

        This whole concept of privilege reminds me of a map of the world where one’s own country is the largest and right in the center. Or how each of us thinks that we do not have an accent of any sort — just other people talk funny. I read Amy’s post a while ago, and I was left with a feeling that Jonathan expresses above, “. . . is there any objective set of criteria that we can use to judge them aesthetically?”

        I would like to make one point even if it’s not exactly on topic. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that children are the audience for these books. How much protection from the contents of books do kids need? I get uneasy when we start to be concerned about how a child will be harmed by what they read in a book. In my experience as a teacher in an inner city school many years ago, and as the mother of seven children, six of whom were adopted from foster care, I’m convinced that the real world is the place where harm is done. If a book is truly harmful, damaging to children then maybe it shouldn’ t be read by children at all. But who decides? Based on what? Maybe the children should have more say in what they read. Or maybe teachers should be more open to children’s reactions to the books that are read in classrooms. I just think that labeling a book (or a few sentences in a book or one illustration in a book) as potentially harmful may be more problematic than helpful.

        And I do think Roger Sutton is correct when he says, ” I’m sure there are many librarians who will quietly not purchase these books, either in agreement that they are harmful or for fear of being accused of harm.”

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        Sheila, I continue to turn it over in my head too; and I think it’s important to think about the difference between “discussing” a book and “labelling” it. I agree with pretty much everything you say in your middle paragraph. I think that the semantics of assigning a book itself the power to “harm” is problematic (and I may have been sloppy in this, semantically, myself; it gets tossed around so much it is very hard not to slip into it.). And while Roger Sutton may be correct, I afford librarians as much trust (and responsibility) in making their own right decisions for the right reasons as I do children for taking their own reading from a text.

        Jonathan, do we need to have objective standards? Can we agree that we create these, communally, learn from them, change them, over time?

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        (Jonathan, still thinking. I just don’t believe that objective standards exist, sorry. I think we have collective subjective ones, and get caught in the trap of imagining they are objective. If we can recognize they are not, then we can ask who is in the collective, who controls it, who is excluded, and why.)

      • Of course those writing and reading from non-dominant positions aren’t neutral– but has this ever legitimately been in question? To me, that lack of neutrality is always placed front and center. It’s part of what “otherness” is. I’d say that what’s being discussed are power dynamics in which only some people’s subjectivity is recognized. But I’m also not sure that defaulting to “then it’s *all* just subjective” addresses those power dynamics, either. For example, if a consensus of Native readers see a portrayal of a Native character as stereotypical, do the opinions of an award committee made up of mostly white people just reflect a different, equivalently subjective reading? What about the power dynamics behind who ends up sitting on that committee, and the power dynamics behind whose stories are acquired and promoted, and the power dynamics reflected in stereotypes themselves? What of the larger dynamics in which individual books operate? Saying that all readings are subjective and therefore equal negates an environment in which there *isn’t* equality.

        (Also, not to be too esoteric, but I think the question about the possibility of objective criteria can be a bit of a trap. I don’t think there’s a final answer to this– it isn’t either/or but a relationship– and the real issue here, again, is power.)

        As to the subject of harm, I’m still not sure why there is so much resistance to this idea. I definitely absorbed stereotypes from books I read as a kid, and have had to work to unlearn those messages and images. And I’ve been on the receiving end of those dynamics, too. If books can teach empathy, they can also do the opposite. I understand that of course it’s impossible to define the harm from one book for all readers, but here too there are larger contexts. A book that reinforces stereotypes about Muslim Americans, for example, sits beside other books and comes in the current context where there is active prejudice and violence against Muslim Americans, and few stories to counter those stereotypes. And again, deciding whether to honor and elevate a book with an award isn’t the same as the decision to place it on a library shelf.

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        Sarah, thank you. I did default to…as syntactically impossible as it seems…a singular “we” there. I should have said, multiple collective subjective responses (as well as individual subjective ones), and then there is inherent power, and inequality, as some dominate over others.

        My issue with assigning a book the ability to “harm” is the rhetorical argument used to dismantle it (“books don’t harm, people do.”). I feel like you’ve persuasively pointed it out to be a straw man; I was searching for a different way to the make the point. A book acts something like an agent, or, less-anthropomorphically, a catalyst. It gets read, and used, in different ways..but this can’t be used as an argument to remove responsibility for the text from the author. Their “intentions” aren’t good enough. They way they express them, *what they wrote*, is what readers have to work with. When we allow a dominate collective subjective response to parade as an objective one, we are shutting out other legitimate responses, as “less important” or “not central.” Sorry, I think this is obvious, I’m just trying to think this through again.

        A book, then, like Amazing Grace (which I’ve been thinking about over here:, gets held up over and over and over for the “positive” message it teaches (“you can be whoever you want to be, even if you are a girl, and Black”), while the arguments about the harmful messages that are also being taught through it (whose stories can you choose from; and here’s how to appropriate them like a colonialist) are dismissed. The argument seems to be: “I ‘hear you’ but since the harm you’re talking about isn’t practiced on me (or, I don’t notice it being practiced on me), there no harm done when I read it this way.” i.e. The book can’t do “harm” because I don’t take any offense.

      • Thanks, Nina. The formatting here is strange, so my comment nested under yours but I was replying more to other comments above it (and specifically to Jonathan’s question.) I very much agree about the ways critiques are dismissed. And thanks for the link to that post on RWW, which I had missed.

  19. I think all of us, on both sides of the debate, have been considering deeply what the text of THE HIRED GIRL is saying and its implications. We just have different views about it:) There are so many different forms of literary criticism; it would seem to me that all are valid in a Newbery conversation.

  20. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I don’t know that we need to have objective standards when it comes to Newbery conversations. As you know, just because a committee discusses a potentially problematic book such as THE HIRED GIRL doesn’t mean that they ever come to consensus on any of those potential problems. People that hypothetically chose not to vote for it may do so for different reasons. One person may decide the American Indians are the tipping point, for another person it may be the Jewish content. Another person may find that it’s more suitable for ages 15 and up. Somebody else could find a problem with the pacing. And still others could find nothing at all wrong with the book, but just find three books that that they believe fit the criteria better. Nobody is accountable to other people on the committee as to where they ultimately stand on these issues because of the secret ballot. There is no simple answer for why a committee did not recognize a particular book. The relatively simple answers are reserved for the winning books and the press release.

    Still thinking about your questions, Nina . . . More later.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Jonathan, while technically no one committee member is accountable to another because of the secret ballot, there is an accountability of the entire committee to readers, and I feel like this informs individual accountability. While we will never know how each individual committee member chooses to hold themselves in relation to this, I have to trust, and hope, that they are not ultimately leading with their purely individual subjective response to a book. That they’ve worked all year to re-read and listen and understand the multiple reader responses out there, and that they go to their secret ballot with their best understanding of these responses, disrupting the power dynamics that value certain responses over others. That they bring their expertise and judgment to this, necessarily, but that they’ve allowed what they know about children’s literature and reader responses to help them learn more about what they didn’t know, before this year.

  21. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    This is an old thread and the sequencing of the comments makes it hard to follow the discussion, so I’m hoping that in the next round of discussion on THE HIRED GIRL that you will both recapitulate some of these points so that we can restart the discussion.

    I also want to say that regardless of how much we disagree on problematic representations in potentially award-winning books that nobody here is challenging the idea of representations of diversity in award choices. We may not agree that THE HIRED GIRL is Newbery worthy, but I think many of us would love to see at least one (or more) books recognized by diverse authors. This is not a response to any person arguing otherwise. I just think we lose sight of our common ground in these contentious discussions.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      This thread, in particular, has gotten very tangled because I think there are so many different discussions that people are referencing. We will do a recapitulation of the HIRED GIRL in particular soon.

      I hope people recognize that a difficult discussion does not mean we don’t recognize or value common ground, and that we don’t fear to tread outside the common ground (i.e. the status quo) because of it.

      Thanks to everyone who continues to add their developing thoughts.

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