Friday, February 7, 2014

Post script to yesterday's entry

Roger Sutton pointed out that several African-American men have won Caldecott honors. I unintentionally neglected to include these in my round-up of non-white authors and illustrators who have been awarded Caldecott or Newbery honors. 

Sure enough, a look through the list shows that in addition to the medals awarded to Jerry Pinkney and Leo Dillon who, with his wife Diane, was awarded the medal twice, Caldecott honors have gone to African-American artists nineteen times (I think that's about right). These nineteen honors were awarded to nine artists (five to Jerry Pinkney). All men. 

So here's another question. Where are all the female African-American artists?

On a different note, someone linked to my "Why Are they Always White Children" post on her(?) tumblr page. She mentioned that she is just a few years out of library school, pretty new to children's librarianship and only recently learned about the Belpré and CSK awards. Add library schools to the list of groups that need to step up. Given that the likelihood the profession will become significantly diverse in the future is a slim one, white library school students need to learn about multicultural literature and need to learn how to talk about race. 

I remember being in a multicultural children's literature class and it was the one class where discussions rarely lasted long or went anywhere. I think it's because a lot of (most?) white people are uncomfortable talking about race and ethnicity. I'm using the word "race" but mean anyone who is not white of European descent. Better to remain silent than to say the wrong thing? Or maybe there just isn't enough knowledge, experience or interest to create an environment where real conversations about this topic occur? Perhaps some folks do believe we are a "post-racial" society, and that we don't really need to talk about racial and cultural differences. It is uncomfortable to talk about race, but the alternative is to continue ignoring its importance and doing a disservice to the populations we work with.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train

I don't know if that's the best title for this entry, but I like it. Howard Zinn said you can't be neutral on a moving train. I'm thinking about neutrality and award committees. I'll take credit for the Caldecott pun that exists in there somewhere (you know, train, Locomotive). Anyway, this past week the Horn Book Magazine posted a short online article about the Caldecott results, speculating as to why a particular book was not honored at all and inviting others to post their theories in the comments section. The people went off! The people are up in arms about Mr. Tiger's Caldecott snub. Well, I want to vent my outrage too.

The Caldecott and the Newbery each honored four books. One medalist and three honors per award. Not one of those eight books is by or about a person of color. If I'm wrong (and I've been known to be wrong), please call me out. I'm going to drag the Printz Award in here too. I'm doing this for several reasons: (1) Two of this year's Pura Belpré Award honors went to books that fall in that fuzzy age overlap area shared by ALSC and YALSA. (2) The Printz, like the Newbery and Caldecott, also gave four honors. Not one to an author of color or to a book about a protagonist of color. (3) The people (librarians) love them some Printz (just like they love them some Newbery and Caldecott).

Twelve books. None by or about people of color (sidenote: what other term can I use for us besides "poc"? Anyone?) I’m not saying there’s a deliberate conspiracy going on. I mean, obviously there isn't. Books by and about Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, American Indians and anyone else who is not white (or a zombie / dragon / paranormal hybrid of some sort) are so far off the radar of most librarians and publishers and booksellers and educators they don't even warrant conspiring against. 

What goes on in these award committee meetings is top secret. None of us will ever know what went on in the decision-making process so it's easy to speculate. Why aren't artists and writers of color recognized by the Newbery, the Caldecott or the Printz? It's the age-old question. Every year we knock our heads against the wall and bemoan this injustice only to be poo-pooed or to be pretty much ignored. Only two African-Americans (Leo Dillon and Jerry Pinkney) and one Latino (David Diaz) have ever won a Caldecott honor (all three won the medal) in its seventy-six year history. Of these three, only the work of Leo (and his wife, Diane) Dillon had a specific cultural focus. Only one Latina (Margarita Engle) has ever been honored with a Newbery (an honor for The Surrender Tree) in ninety-two years! African-American authors have been recognized about thirteen times, but this number includes both honors and medalists (three) and about half of that number went to works by two authors (Virginia Hamilton and Christopher Paul Curtis). The Printz doesn't have as long a history but is moving in a similar direction.

What does this say? This says to everyone that in the history of these awards that honor the most distinguished in books for children and young adults, only a handful of us have been worthy. When I think about all the amazing Latino illustrators and authors whose books I've read, this just makes me sad. And angry! For neither Niño Wrestles the World nor Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass to have gotten some mention by one of these three awards just seems wrong. I wonder if the Coretta Scott King folks feel as put upon.

It's a lot of pressure on the committee members who take on the responsibility of determining which books are most distinguished. But let's not kid ourselves about a neutrality that exists in this decision-making process. The members of these committees are all humans formed of biases, interests, dislikes, areas of expertise, life experiences. We drag these things around with us in everything we do. To think that we can put on glasses that make us view things in a totally neutral manner is unrealistic. The continued lack of diversity in the selections made by these committees isn't something we can or should ignore. It matters that we talk about it. It matters that white librarians, publishers, booksellers and educators know that we expect more from them.

The Caldecott, Newbery and Printz probably get the most media play of any of the youth media awards. They, along with the Margaret A. Edwards Award, were the only three mentioned in the New York Time's coverage. If you are sitting in the convention center the morning of the youth media award announcements you can hear it. The power and popularity of these three awards among the librarians that fill the room is palpable. These awards mean something to a lot of people. Yes, they're just awards, and no, they aren't just awards. 

The question often comes up in these discussions about diversity and awards about the function of awards like the Belpré and the CSK. Some would even suggest that their existence is what keeps books by and about these groups maginalized. The existence of these awards should certainly not make books that fit their criteria left out of consideration for the Newbery or the Caldecott, of course. They serve a different function--to continue to recognize and celebrate our cultures. The fact that they do it when no one else will is a bonus. Or maybe it's the other way around? It would be great if we could do an experiment where these awards aren't given for X number of years, and then see if during that period we see a difference in the number of books by or about people of color that are recognized. I have a sneaking suspicion we wouldn't.

I wonder if one of the issues is that librarians, booksellers and publishers (okay, white librarians, booksellers and publishers) can't get past the cultural element in books about Latinos (or any other non-white group) in order to find the universal message. Is it that they view the only audience for these books as being Latinos? Do they have a difficult time conceiving of a readership for these books that wouldn't see them as just books about Latinos? Does this readership not exist because these books are marketed (by bookstores and in libraries) as books about Latinos, only to be featured during Hispanic Heritage Month? Which came first? The chicken or the egg?

Head over to the Cooperative Children's Book Center listserv where there's a great conversation about multicultural literature going on this month. Also, check out Meg Medina's blog where the Pura Belpré Award winner wrote about this topic as well.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Pura Belpré Award Winners!

The announcements we've all been waiting for! 'Bout to fall out of my chair with excitement!

Niño! Niño! Niño!

Angela Dominguez's honor winning book Maria Had A Little Llama!

2014 Pura Belpré Committee Chair, Ruth Tobar, places the medal sticker on Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass while Sharon Hancock of Candlewick Press looks on.

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass shares the spotlight with another award winner. ;)


Double honor winner, Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote by Duncan Tonatiuh!

Margarita Engle's beautiful honor winner, The Lightning Dreamer!

¡Ay caramba! I neglected to photograph Matt de la Peña's honor winning book The Living while in the exhibit hall. In its place I give you the announcement screen. Lots of hootin' and hollering' for this one!

"Why are they always white children?"

Many of you will recognize the title as the question asked by a five-year-old Black child at the beginning of Nancy Larrick's 1965 article, “The All-White World of Children’s Books.” While Larrick addressed other populations, she wrote her article primarily about the state of publishing for Black children. The term “Hispanic” hadn’t come on the scene yet, much less the word “Latino.”1 In 1965, we were all still thought of as “Spanish.” Perhaps at times we were lumped into the categories of Puerto Rican or Mexican, depending on where in the country you lived and which cultural group non-Latinos were exposed to. The U.S. Census didn’t even recognize us, making no real concerted effort at keeping statistics on Hispanics until 1980.

According the 2012 Census Population Estimates, there are 53 million Hispanics in the United States. This is 17% of the nation’s total population. Hispanics made up almost half of the entire population growth in the U.S. between July 2011 and July 2012. As of 2009, there were 16 million Hispanic children in the United States. That’s 22%, almost a quarter, of all children in the U.S.2 Last June, in light of these numbers, NPR aired a story titled “As Demographics Shift, Kids' Books Stay Stubbornly White."

I can do easy math. That’s forty-eight years between these two stories. We have to imagine that the demographics have changed significantly in the time period between these two stories, right? Yet, in forty-eight years not a whole lot has changed. It’s like deja vu all over again. Same story, different title. Do Latinos even make up 17% of the characters in children’s books? In any books published in the United States, period? How can we be millions and growing and be practically invisible in all forms of media, including books?

This past year I had the opportunity to serve on the 2014 Pura Belpré Award Committee. To say that it was the greatest honor of my professional career and up there with the most rewarding experiences of my life is an understatement. I can’t express how much the entire experience meant to me. To honor writers and illustrators who are putting our faces, our kids, into books is special. Books matter. Rudine Sims Bishop3 said it best when she compared the experience of reading to looking through a window, stepping through a sliding glass door or looking into a mirror. We look to books to take us to new places, to meet new people, to have new experiences. Yes. But we also look to books to find ourselves. To see yourself, your life experience, a face or name like yours in a book means something. I’m an adult who didn’t experience this as a child, and I still get goosebumps when I see a character that resembles me in a book. It legitimizes your place wherever you are. If you don’t understand this, if you can’t empathize with someone’s need for this sense of recognition, it’s because you have the privilege to not understand or care. 

This issue isn’t just about us and our children, it’s about you and your children too. As Professor Bishop wrote, “Children from dominant social groups have always found their mirrors in books, but they, too, have suffered from the lack of availability of books about others. They need the books as windows into reality, not just on imaginary worlds. They need books that will help them understand the multicultural nature of the world we live in, and their place as a member of just one group, as well as their connections to all other humans.”4 Despite the diversity of the United States there are many pockets of this country in which populations continue to be segregated with little exposure to anyone not of their own racial or cultural background. Children living in one of the most diverse countries in the world need to be exposed to people who are not like them. Otherwise they grow up to be the kind of person that freaks out when Coca Cola airs a commercial during the Super Bowl in which “America the Beautiful” is sung in languages other than English.5 ¡Qué horror!

Lest you think I’m exaggerating about the lack of children’s books by and about Latinos (after all, Dora the Explorer is still all over the place, right) consider this. Last year, Lee and Low, publishers of multicultural books for children and young adults, created an infographic using publishing information gathered by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center of the University of Wisconsin’s School of Education.6 In the image we see eighteen years of children’s books by and / or about people of color.7 Sometimes it takes a picture to really break it down for you. That’s what this image does. They might as well have created it using a cardiac monitor. It looks like the publishing of children’s books by and about Latinos has flat-lined. Dead. Ten percent of children’s books published since 1994 contain “multicultural content.” This doesn’t even tell us what percentage of that (1) contained content about Latinos, (2) contained accurate content about Latinos, or (3) if the Latino content was a significant part of a book.

So, the questions remain, how do we change this? What can we do? Obviously, it’s a problem that is multifaceted and larger than any one person or group. There are two big issues we face: (1) How do we increase the number of children’s books by and about Latinos in publication and circulation? (2) How do we give more exposure to the many wonderful books that exist? I’m going to attempt to address as many players as possible here. Come on, people! It takes a village to help Latino children’s books come to life and thrive!

Publishers: If you have a book by a Latino in your catalog and you are attending the biggest librarian conference in all the land, bring copies and come ready to sell it. Sell it like you would the next great dystopian YA novel. You know, the one you brought boxes of? Also, if you have one Latino author or illustrator (because that’s about all most publishers have) chances are good that the title will be considered for the Pura Belpré Award. If that’s the case, then come to Midwinter prepared. Have your Belpré medal stickers...just in case! Have copies of the book to display and to sell. Be ready and willing to celebrate that book if it happens to win a Belpré just as you would if you had a Newbery or Caldecott winner. The Belpré Award is just as significant an honor. Don’t let it fall off your radar! Send books that meet the criteria to the committee for consideration! Keep our award-winners in print!

On a different note, when Latino writers and illustrators submit manuscripts for publication consideration and they don’t stand up to your requirements, needs, tastes, please take the time to tell them why not. I know this is a lot to ask of a company that has a handful of editors and receives hundreds (thousands?) of manuscripts a year, but if you recognize the need for more accurate multicultural books and you care about being an ally, an occasional response would be helpful. When you do publish books that feature Latinos, please publish books that are accurate and well-written, that don't stereotype and that show the great diversity of our cultures.

Education administrators and policy makers: Please don’t kill our school libraries! Our children, all of our children, need them. For some children, the school library is their only exposure to libraries. We are not all fortunate enough to grow up in a household in which reading and books are celebrated and encouraged. We need our school librarians. Also, if we’re going to live and die by the Common Core, make it inclusive of literature by and about many different cultures and racial groups.

Librarians: Librarianship is still predominantly a white female profession. We don’t expect you to necessarily understand our experiences. However, as proponents of the freedom to read and of diverse views, we do expect you to open your mind. Push beyond your comfort zone and your scope of knowledge and experience. Seek out and promote books that recognize all of us. Analyze books for accuracy and, when needed, seek out the help of individuals who are knowledgeable of ethnic and racial groups so that you are promoting the best the publishing world has to offer. Promote books about children of all racial and ethnic groups year-round, not just on the designated celebratory “month.”8

Teachers of art and writing: Promote writing and illustrating for children’s books as a career possibility to your Latino students. It might not ever dawn on them that this is an option. Put it out there so that we can begin to cultivate a new generation of writers and illustrators.

Latino writers and illustrators: Write what you know, but also stay connected to the interests and needs of children today. We need more books about all kinds of topics, about Latino kids living all kinds of experiences.

The New York Times and other media: Follow up. While we appreciate the occasional story on the lack of diverse children's books, we need more than that. If you write a story about the dearth of children’s books by and about Latinos9 don’t then completely neglect to mention the Belpré Award winners in an article about the Newbery Award, an article in which you only mention three other ALA Youth Media Awards, none of them being those that celebrate diversity.10 This year the Pura Belpré Award committee honored seven books written by and about Latinos. That's seven books to review and promote! Seven authors and illustrators to interview and feature in your pages!

Look at any newspaper or online news Website these days and it seems that the more diverse our society becomes, the more we pedal backwards in our acceptance of differences. We cling to our uninformed beliefs about people. We view anyone we don’t have contact with or knowledge of beyond distorted media representations as not being real. Just look at the controversy over racist mascots. Is this the kind of future we want our children to grow up into? 

If the emotional appeal doesn’t work, then how about more statistics? People like statistics. Statistics offer concrete proof and support for arguments. They tell us where to put our money, how to invest, who to woo. How’s this for a statistic: The Census projects that by 2060 there will be 128.8 million Hispanics in the United States. This group will make up 31% of the total population. That’s about a third of the population. We’ll be in your schools and in your neighborhoods even more than we are now. We’ll be in parts of this country no one ever imagined Latinos would be found. And, for those who worship the almighty dollar, we’ll be a third of your consumer power.

1. ["Hispanic" was the term used in the 1980 and 1990 Census. "Latino" was introduced with the 2000 Census.] 2. [Statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau's Profile America Facts for Features: Hispanic Heritage Month 2013] 3. [I was sitting two rows behind her at the ALA Youth Media Awards announcements, and when she stood up when the Coretta Scott King Awards Committee was recognized I almost freaked out like a big nerd.] 4. [Bishop, Rudine Sims. "Multicultural Literacy: Mirrors, Window, and Sliding Glass Doors." First published in 1990.] 5. ["Coca-Cola 'America the Beautiful' Super Bowl Ad Celebrate Diversity, Twitter Racists Explode."] 6. ["The Diversity Gap in Children's Books, 18 years."] 7. [I know, I know. Some of us don't like to be referred to as "people of color."] 8. [September 15 - October 15? What is this? We don't even warrant an actual month?] 9. [Rich, Motoko. "For Young Latino Readers, an Image Is Missing." The New York Times, 4 Dec. 2012.] 10. [Bosman, Julie. "Take of Magical Squirrel Takes Newbery Medal." The New York Times, 27 Jan. 2014.]

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Valuing Reading

In 1986, Walter Dean Myers wrote a piece for The New York Times titled "I Actually Thought We Would Revolutionize the Industry." In the article, Myers wrote about his experiences as a child reader seeing only negative images of Blacks in children's books and being fully aware of the power those images had on readers of all races in influencing how they viewed African Americans. He also addressed the hopefulness of the 1960s and 70s as the interest in books by and about African Americans grew, in part due to the social unrest of the time. As the title quote indicates, Myers thought this interest and demand would be the beginning of something that would be ongoing. Of course, as we know today, and as Myers knew almost thirty years ago when he wrote this piece, that wasn't the case.

Myers ends his piece by stating that while he still felt the publishing industry was responsible for not allowing the publishing of books with racial stereotypes and negative images of African Americans, he no longer felt the industry had an obligation to him or to African American. He acknowledged that publishing is a bottom-line business and that if we place our needs in the hands of an industry for whom profit is all that matters, we are going to be disappointed. And then he went on to ask the question we're still asking today. If we can't count on the publishing industry to produce more books by and about people of color then what can we do? Myers wrote: "We must first acknowledge that in much of the black community reading as both a skill and as a recreation is seriously undervalued."

There. In that one sentence written almost thirty years ago, Walter Dean Myers addressed an issue we still don't ever really talk about when discussing the topic of the crisis in the publishing of books by and about people of color. There tends to be a lot of finger point, but the finger is rarely even pointed at oneself. Obviously there are larger issues at play, but there is truth to Myers' assertion that many of our communities just don't give a rat about reading. I come from a family of non-readers who are raising non-readers who will probably raise non-readers and so on. Most of the kids I went to school with growing up were not "readers." And by "readers" I mean that they didn't read for fun. These were kids who read for school, if that. I don't know where or how my love of reading developed having not grown up surrounded by books or seeing the behavior modeled so, obviously, it isn't to say that only environment influences behavior. But it's pretty damn hard to imagine many African American and Latino kids growing up readers when it isn't a modeled or encouraged activity and when there are so many other distractions like video games, social media, television. The fact that there aren't many characters who look like them in books doesn't help either. Wait. Did we just go full circle? Which came first? Do communities of color not value recreational reading because it seems irrelevant, especially when no characters resemble the readers, or does the publishing industry not publish books by and for people of color because they don't see people of color as readers? It's probably some of both.

I don't know if Walter Dean Myers' viewpoint has changed since he wrote this piece (will have to do some research), but I am curious what those of you reading this think. Is it too harsh an assessment? Is it generalizing? What are the real issues / problems with the lack of books for children that are by and for people of color? How much responsibility do we actually have in this?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Bless Me, Ultima

I had so much to write about Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima. Really! Just take a look at my copy that is not only long overdue (eep!) but is covered in those little sticky tabs and dog-eared where I didn't have sticky tabs handy. Unfortunately, it's taken me some time to get around to writing this entry so a lot of what I wanted to say has slipped my mind. That happens to me sometimes. I'd never read this classic of Chicano literature but the fact that we are both celebrating the same birthday this year (does that make me a classic too?) and its place on the lengthy list of books that were part of the now defunct Mexican American Studies curriculum in Arizona prompted me to pick up finally pick up a copy. It did not disappoint. And again, I was left wondering why none of my honor and AP English teachers ever introduced me to this book.

Bless Me, Ultima is the coming-of-age story of Antonio Marez, a young New Mexican boy. The story is set at the end of World War II and spans about three years of the child's life beginning with the arrival of Ultima, the well-known curandera and family friend who movies in with Antonio's family. While the story is primarily Antonio's, the boy's coming-of-age is also symbolic of, in a sense, the transitions his own family and surroundings are going through. Ultima's arrival poses the potential for upheaval in the family structure, but in reality, she serves as the anchor and the last link to a past--a culture and a way of life--that is quickly changing.

The story is told from Antonio's point of view, a child between the ages of about seven to about ten, and yet the it feels like it could be a teenager or even an adult. His struggles and fears have the potential to resonate with all because they are so typically human, those enduring issues that make up life no matter what your age--faith, good versus evil, change. Antonio reminds me of what it was like to be a child so full of questions and wonder and fear. We witness the experience of being a Mexican American child, not able to speak English, in a classroom of White children.

"At noon we opened our lunches to eat. Miss Maestas left the room and a high school girl came and sat at the desk while we ate. My mother had packed a small jar of hot beans and some good, green chile wrapped in tortillas. When the other children saw my lunch they laughed and pointed again. Even the high school girl laughed. They showed me their sandwiches which were made of bread. Again I did not feel well."

And at the end of his first school day:

"The pain and sadness seemed to spread to my soul, and I felt for the first time what the grown-ups call, la tristesa de la vida. I wanted to run away, to hid, to run and never come back, never see anyone again."

But along with this sadness we also see the comfort of family and community:

"We always enjoyed our stay at El Puerto. It was a world where people were happy, working, helping each other. The ripeness of the harvest piled around the mud houses and lent life and color to the songs of the women. Green chile was roasted and dried, and red chile was tied into colorful ristras. Apples piled high, some lent their aroma to the air from where they dried in th sun on the lean-to roofs and others as they bubbled into jellies and jams. At night we sat around the fireplace and ate baked apples spiced with sugar and cinnamon and listened to the cuentos, the old stories of the people."

Bless Me, Ultima was National Endowment for the Arts Big Read selection, an honor that recognizes its deserved place in American literature. Despite being focusing on a very specific community, it tells the story of the kinds of changes people throughout the country were experiencing--the effects of war on family, the loss of old ways to new ways. Here we see these changes from the eyes of a child who is also dealing with growing up. I think about this book in the context of its subject matter and the time in which it was published, and I feel grateful that it has endured.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Speaking of Awards, or Christmas in July

Over the past two years, I have been working toward a Certificate of Advanced Study (CAS) at the University of Illinois' Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS). As my time in the program comes to an end I thought it a good time to post one of the most fulfilling projects I had the opportunity to work on. As a student in LIS514: History of Children's Literature course I was required to create a Website in which I provided a study of a historical text. I selected Marie Hall Ets' Nine Days to Christmas, the 1960 Caldecott Medal winner. I had the honor of traveling to the University of Minnesota and spending a day going through the Marie Hall Ets papers in the Kerlan Collection. Among the items in their possession was Ets' Caldecott medal, an item that is breathtakingly beautiful. But not to get so easily lulled by that lovely medal in its soft, midnight blue velvet box, the most interesting insights about the project were not so much about the book itself, but about the Caldecott award in the context of Latino children's literature:

* Only two Caldecott medal winning books prominently feature children of Latin American heritage: Leo Politi's Song of the Swallows (1950) and Marie Hall Ets' Nine Days to Christmas (1960).

* Only one Latino illustrator has ever won the Caldecott Medal: David Diaz for Smoky Night (1995).

* Only two Caldecott honor books have prominently featured children of Latin American heritage: Leo Politi's Juanita (1949) and Pedro, the Angel of Olvera Street (1947).

I may have overlooked titles, but I don't think I did. Four medal or honor winners featuring children of Latin American descent, all published before 1960, in the past seventy-four years. And we're not even going to get into how accurately or inaccurately those books represent the specific group and culture depicted. One Latino illustrator awarded either a medal or an honor in the seventy-four year history of the award.

If you look at seventy-four years worth of Caldecott winners you're looking at a pretty homogenous world. Of course, I realize that the Caldecott isn't awarded for how well a book represents our multicultural society. It's awarded to the "most distinguished American picture book for children." There have been so many amazing Latino children's book illustrators to come around since 1995 that it's hard not to wonder why not a single one has been honored. This brings to mind the controversial topic that makes the occasional appearance in the pages of the Horn Book Magazine regarding the need for awards like the Pura Belpré and the Coretta Scott King.* Do we still need them? Would these books find a place in the world of Caldecott? Or would they simply disappear? Yeah, I'm calling you out Caldecott, on this, your seventy-fifth year.

*See Marc Aronson's "Slippery Slopes and Proliferating Prizes" in the May/June 2001 issue of the Horn Book Magazine and Nikki Grimes' "Speaking Out" in the July/August 2009 issue.