Sunday, January 17, 2016

Not Mutually Exclusive

The 2016 Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature went to Matt de la Peña for “Last Stop on Market Street,” illustrated by Christian Robinson and published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

CJ’s journey with his Nana is not just a simple bus ride; it is a multi-sensory experience through which he discovers that beautiful music, nature and people surround him.  CJ’s questions are familiar, and Nana answers him with gentle wisdom.  Right up until their arrival at the last stop on Market Street, Nana guides CJ to become “a better witness for what’s beautiful.”

“Read it aloud to someone. The use of language to elicit questions, to spark imagination and to make us laugh is at its best when spoken,” said Newbery Medal Committee Chair Ernie J. Cox.

New York Times bestselling author Matt de la Peña earned an MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University. He currently lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. with his family. (From ALA News)

Through sheer luck, I had my best-ever seat for the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards (ALAYMA) on Monday in Boston. I wasn’t on a committee for the 2016 awards and had expected to sit farther back in the room, but most of the crowd had filled the sections closest to the doors (stage right). This left much of the far side of the ballroom empty when the initial crowd surged in and I was able to grab a front-row seat right between the stage and one of the giant screens that broadcast the slides, videos, etc., throughout the awards. For the first time in my ALAYMA experience, I wasn’t sitting with a friend or a committee and had to make a concerted effort not to grab the hand of the stranger sitting next to me during particularly exciting moments (we still bonded verbally).

You can watch a video of the announcements here (but make sure you force the video player back to the beginning as they have it set to start after the announcement of the Alex Awards). With almost every award announcement, I became more hopeful that it really was going to be another watershed moment (find an overview of the diversity of authors and illustrators recognized here and here). I had been having conversations all weekend about this with people, as many of us were concerned that the inclusivity we had seen in the 2015 winner and honor books would be just a fluke, an aberration, a bright and shining beacon of possibility before things returned to the ALAYMA status quo of “occasional” diversity.

The main lights in the ballroom came back on and the stage cleared. I wiped the tears of joy from my face and took a moment to hug some of my friends (who had been right behind me the entire time), shout words of amazement to other friends farther away, and let the mass of humanity filter out of the room. Through all of this, I braced myself for the onslaught that seemed inevitable after the last year’s chatter in the world of youth literature.

It began immediately, before I had even left the room. I kept hearing words like “agenda” and walked by two older White women shaking their heads and lamenting in hushed tones the unfairness of Jerry Pinkney winning two awards for lifetime achievement. I dreaded the conversations that I expected were already happening across social media, but had little time that day to worry about it. I tweeted and retweeted a bunch of congratulatory things and went to meet a friend before a busy day of meetings.

Here we are almost a week later and the comments across Twitter and certain blogs seem to fall into two camps: criteria and agendas. Much of the initial outrage seemed to focus on how Last Stop on Market Street wasn’t even eligible for the Newbery Award. Thankfully, most of that has died down thanks to some excellent posts (which I’m not linking to because of the dreadful comments sections). The criteria for the award itself, along with the entire process, is laid out in the Newbery Award Handbook. If you want to see some of the conversations that took place this week, check out blogs from The Horn Book and SLJ.

Then, there’s the “agenda” camp, many of whom were initially part of the “criteria” camp (maybe in an effort to seem less racist?). Somehow, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks “army” (as a #DiversityJedi, I was unaware of the power others seem to think we have) has infiltrated all of the ALA Award and Selection committees in some vast machination to take over the ALA awards for the foreseeable future. This level of ignorance would be amusing if it wasn’t so pervasive. I feel for those people suggesting that “diversity” triumphed over “quality” (as if the two were mutually exclusive), but more importantly, I feel for the children that those people are serving.  

I’m in my fifth consecutive year on a book award committee (2013 Pura Belpré Award Committee, 2014 Américas Award committee, 2015 William C. Morris Committee, and in my second year of a three-year appointment to the William Allen White Children’s Book Award). These awards, particularly those administered by ALA and its divisions/RTs, have very specific criteria, policies, procedures, etc. The process is simply not such that any one person’s “agenda” could rule the day. Anyone who has served on one of these committees knows that it is all about the process and, ultimately, the criteria!

For anyone unaware of it, these committees all operate in isolation from each other. There was no grand conspiracy to give two lifetime achievement awards to Jerry Pinkney this year. Individually, two different committees chose to honor Pinkney with two different awards for his work: The Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award. If anything, I’d say these two separate awards are long overdue, as I was surprised that he hadn’t already won both of them! Similarly, when the same titles show up on different awards or lists, it is due to separate discussions from those committees, not some grand scheme to reshape the field. When Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe was selected by the Printz Award and Stonewall Award committees in 2013, those of us on the 2013 Belpré Award Committee (who had chosen the book for the author award that year) found out about it at the ALA Youth Media Awards in Seattle, just like the rest of the world!

I do think award committees as a whole are making an effort to be more inclusive, but not in the way that these detractors would argue. As chair of the 2015 Morris Committee, I took my charge very seriously (as did my entire committee). When I read “The award will honor the best book published by a first-time author for young adults (ages 12-18),” I took that to mean that we, as a committee, had an obligation to leave no stone unturned when seeking every single true YA debut in 2014. This meant going above and beyond what publishers submitted and finding the titles from the new publishers, the small and independent presses, etc. (you can read about the entire process here). We wanted to make sure that, when we announced our shortlist in December of 2014, we had actually touched every single YA debut eligible for the award. This means I bought books when I couldn’t get them from other sources. We were sharing Kindle copies, mailing ARCs around the country, and coming up with all sorts of creative ways to make sure every book was on our radar. I think that committees are being much more inclusive in making sure that they are giving consideration to all of the books eligible for their awards and we see the evidence of this in the last couple of years’ announcements.

Right now, I just want us to be able to celebrate the work of these authors and illustrators, thank the committees, and read some the titles we may have missed last year.


  1. We are never considered good enough, no matter what we do.

  2. Thanks, Robin, for this recap! It is important documentation of what you heard.

  3. Oh sucker punch...someone actually complained about Pinkney's double honor? Boy, am I naive. Robin, thank you for this!

  4. Thank you for this report. I'm working on a review of Last Stop on Market Street that I hope will reckon with the static and dated views on diversity as an abnormal phenomenon and advance a more culturally responsive/sustainable perspective on literary reviews. I'll be posting on Latin@s in Kid Lit in the next few days. Pat Enciso