More to Worry AboutFrom the Department of Too Much Time on Their Hands, comes a disturbing report that Newbery-winning books are most often about white boys. It's disturbing to me because I'd always thought that these awards should be based on literary merit. Are we to expect Affirmative Action Newberys?
Figuring prominently in this article is the book, Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis.
In "Bud, Not Buddy," author Christopher Paul Curtis tells the story of a Depression-era black boy in Flint. The book won the Newbery Medal, the top prize in children's literature, eight years ago.Bud, Not Buddy is a really good book. I read it at least twice, once to a class. It deserves all of the praise that it gets. But it won on merit, not because the main character and author are black.
It was the last time a black character had the lead role in a Newbery book. If you want a Hispanic protagonist, you have to go back 43 years.
Characters depicted in Newbery winners are more likely to be white and male and to come from two-parent households than the average U.S. child, according to a Brigham Young University study. The trend has accelerated even as the United States has diversified, with fewer black and Hispanic main characters in the past 27 years than in the civil rights era of 1951-79.
We are going to have a black president -- literature should catch up," National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie said. Alexie won the award for his 2007 "Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," a semiautobiographical novel about a teen growing up on the Spokane Indian reservation.What is it that literature should catch up to? Demagoguery? Shallowness? Empty promises?
To be sure, only about 10% of new children's books published last year focused on minorities, according to the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a library that serves the university's School of Education.This looks like a job for - OBAMA MAN! Only he can insure that more stories are written about minority children! And are awarded for it!
The number of books about minorities has remained around 10% since 1992, said Kathleen Horning, the center's director.
But more troubles abound.
The last book with a Hispanic protagonist to win a Newbery Medal was "Shadow of a Bull," by Maia Wojciechowska, in 1965. The book dealt with a young Spanish boy's struggle to follow in the footsteps of his slain bullfighter father.It's time to categorize the Newberys, or perhaps institute a quota system. Whose turn is it this year? Blacks? Hipanics? Kids from single parent families? Left-handed Oriental dyslexic transgendered girls? Or would they be transgendered boys? I'm never sure.
Newbery Medal winners also depict disproportionately fewer characters living in single-parent households than the norm, the study found. About a quarter of all U.S. children now live with one parent, compared with 7% of the Newbery protagonists in the past 27 years.
"Maybe the ALA should just describe the Newbery award as awarded to the writer of the best book about white, two-parent households," said Julia Alvarez, a Dominican American and a writer-in-residence at Middlebury College in Vermont, who said she is thrilled about the award but is also frustrated because there is still a long way to go. She won the American Library Association's Pura Belpre Award, as well as the Americas Award for "Before We Were Free," which tells the story of a 12-year-old girl whose family is involved in resistance work in the Dominican Republic against the Trujillo dictatorship in 1960.That's nice, but was Alvarez' book Newbery quality? Sounds like award envy to me.
Only one book wins the Newbery Medal each year, but the association names Newbery Honor winners, an accolade a number of minority writers have received. In 2008, Jacqueline Woodson's "Feathers" and Christopher Paul Curtis's "Elijah of Buxton" were named Honor Books. Both authors are black.That's right, everyone is a winner. There are no losers here!
"The honor books are winners too," Scales said. "We have to look at the whole spectrum. We now give the Pura Belpre Award, which is strictly for Latino writers and illustrators."
Likewise, since 1982, the library association has given the Coretta Scott King Award to black authors and illustrators depicting a sense of the African-American experience in their work.So maybe part of the problem, and the reason "we are still having this conversation", is that some authors are writing "ethnic" books instead of literature. Perhaps they are so consumed with one ethnic, racial, or other sliver of society that they have limited their audience. The balkanization of literature in academia has hurt both literature and education.
"Pura Belpre started in 1996 and was originally given every other year because there weren't enough books by Latino authors and illustrators," Scales said. "That's changing, and starting in 2009, the association will give the award annually."
"We are not just writing Latino books, we are writing stories for all of us," Alvarez said. "Sometimes there are these lags. The same thing happens in academia; minority writers, Afro Americans, women are taught in specialized courses, such as the Survey of Women's Literature. ... That is slowly changing, and the canon itself is more diverse. Boy, I can't believe it's 2008 and we're still having this kind of conversation."
One final word: In 1991, Oren Bell, by Barbara Hood Burgess was published to excellent reviews. There was grumbling from some though because Burgess is white and she dared write about black kids in Detroit. So, are authors allowed to write about groups they don't belong to? If a white author wins a Newbery for a book about a minority child, have we "caught up?"