Monday, January 30, 2017

RWW Interviews: Debbie Reese

Debbie Reese
Debbie Reese, PhD. is an accomplished scholar and literary critic. In addition to numerous peer reviewed publications exploring diversity in children’s literature Debbie frequently offers her expertise at conferences. 

She is one of the founders of the American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois where she received the Provost’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 2003. 

Debbie currently serves on the  Literature Advisory Board for Reading is Fundamental and The Journal of Children’s Literature.   I appreciate Debbie making time to talk with us about her career and life.

Can you share your origin story? How did you get started in this work, and what has changed over time?

That is an interesting question! It creates an opportunity for me to address the tremendous visibility and invisibility of Native peoples. We are not “First Americans.” Our origins predate what came to be called the United States of America. Time and again, though, writers and their editors seem hell bent on doing a force-fit in their depictions of us. In a cynical moment, I’d say that was a political move, intended to undermine who we are. In the next moment, I’d say that it is indicative of ignorance or a feel-good embrace of an American society that—intentionally or not—wants to look away from the stories it tells about history.  

My origin story, then, as a woman of a Native Nation is this: I’m tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo in northern New Mexico. In the 1600s, my ancestors fought like hell against the Spanish explorers and missionaries who sought to take our lands and eradicate our ways of being. That fight is why I’m still here and why my people are on the land we’ve been on, for hundreds of years. In fact, our kiva—which is similar to a church—has been there since the 1300s. We still use it. When we pray, we don’t pray for our personal needs. Our elders remind us that what we do is for our community and for the world. Those words are powerful and stand in stark contrast to “the American dream” which tends to be about one’s own accomplishments and acquisitions.

I know that answer is a bit long, but it is part of my origin story. What I do as a scholar in children’s literature—especially what I do at my site—is an embodiment of those teachings. Stories. Words. They matter. They shape individuals, communities, and the world, too. I started American Indians in Children’s Literature in 2006 as a way to make my work freely accessible to parents, teachers, librarians, professors… anyone who was interested in learning about the ways that Native peoples are represented—or I should say misrepresented because that happens more often—in children’s and young adult literature.

Change over time? The year 2016 marks a significant moment. Several books were withdrawn or revised, due to conversations on social media. Content area bloggers are making a difference in how writers write, how editors edit, and how reviewers review books. I’m more optimistic than I’ve ever been! I’m a realist, though, and acknowledge the power of capitalism. Money talks. What we buy matters.

And, I’ll add, that I see the current presidential administration as a threat to Native nationhood. The presidential memorandum about the Dakota Access Pipeline is deeply unsettling. Native people who went to Standing Rock went there with sovereignty foremost in their minds. They, like me, carry a different origin story than most Americans do. So much of the news media about the resistance to the pipeline focused on things like drums, tipis, and feathers but said little if anything about our status as sovereign nations. I can’t help but wonder: if the word “nation” were present in more children’s books, might that help reporters, and allies, too, understand and speak of our nationhood in ways they do not, now? 

Have you seen any important trends or themes in publishing by and about First/Native Nations over the last ten years?

I’m thrilled to see a growing awareness of our sovereignty! I love, for example, that Reading While White is using it. Collectively, you hold a lot of influential power, so I’m really happy to see it here. I’m also seeing a growing awareness of what it means to be a tribal member or citizen. History being what it is, so many people claim to be “part Native” – I’m seeing more conversations about what that claim means. I know it makes people uneasy to wonder if someone is Native or, not-quite Native, or not-really Native at all. If we can shift from thinking that is a racist question, to thinking of it as a political one similar to nationhood or citizenship in, say, France, I think we’d all be in a better place. I love that Tim Tingle’s How I Became A Ghost has “Choctaw Nation” on the very first page, and I love that Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Jingle Dancer has information about the Muscogee Nation in the author’s note. This matters!

I’ve started to see Native characters that are LGBTQ. Unfortunately, most of them are stereotypical. That is frustrating. Native kids who are LGBTQ need mirrors, too, but the ones they’re getting are just like the ones Native kids have gotten for decades. Those aren’t mirrors. Those are White Man’s Indians. Literally, those images are created (for the most part) by White writers. The need is there, however, and I’m hopeful we’ll see better representations, soon.

I’ve also started to see Black Indians. Or—I should say—I’ve noticed two in particular that I didn’t notice before. This new awareness of two favorite books is important. In Jingle Dancer and in Rain Is Not My Indian Name, Cynthia Leitich Smith has two characters that are Black Indians. Now, whenever I read, I keep an eye out for that. And whenever I give a lecture, I talk about her characters. African Americans in the audience are thrilled. It speaks to the need for more of that, too. They have to be well done, though, and Smith’s are terrific. Researching these characters is on my to-do list. I’ve got to read and analyze Virginia Hamilton’s Arilla Sun Down and Michael Dorris’s The Window.

What is one question you wish more White People would ask about First/Native Nations?

“Do I know what I’m talking about? How do I know it?” If people would just hit the pause button on what they think they know, a wide range of questions open up. This is critical thinking that asks us—me, too!—to question what we’re taught, who taught it to us, why it is taught that way… In light-hearted moments, I want to say “WHO SAID” in the way kids challenge each other on the playground.  

In all the work that you do, what are you most proud of?

A few years ago, Simon Ortiz asked me to give a talk in the lecture series named after him, at Arizona State University. He is from Acoma Pueblo and is amongst the most respected Native writers in the U.S. I gave my lecture in October of 2016. Now, I am in the company of women I deeply admire, like Buffy Sainte-Marie, Ofelia Zepeda, and Leslie Marmon Silko, and Wilma Mankiller.

Oddly, I’m proud of the fact that people whisper “Debbie Reese hates white people” to each other. It means they are aware of my work. Whether they believe that I hate white people or not—they’re paying attention.

How do you stay motivated or promote self-care when facing frustration or pushback?

Around me, I have photographs of my daughter as a little girl, her cousins, my siblings grandchildren. In lectures I’ve been sharing this photo. That’s my little sister’s granddaughter. Her joy is infectious. I want to see that joy on her face every time she picks up a book with Native content.  


Who are your heroes, both within and without the children’s literature world?

Last week on Twitter, I posted a series of photos of Native women I’m inspired by. This was part of the women’s march to Washington DC. I’ll share their names here.

Suzan Harjo, for her activism and bringing the National Museum of the American Indian from an idea to a stunning reality, there on the National Mall in DC.
Joy Harjo, for her poetry, her music, her stories.  
Lotsee Patterson, for working to get Native people into library science. 
Cynthia Leitich Smith, for her mentorship of writers, and her own books, too. 
Elizabeth Reese (my daughter) and other young Native women like her who have a fierce commitment to standing up for our Nations.

What advice do you have for others looking to do equity work in the world of libraries and youth literature? 

Network! Find others who are doing similar work. Being able to reach out to them is crucial. This is hard work. They will sustain you. I could name some of the people I turn to, but I’ll use RWW’s social media platform to direct your readers to another one! Go onto Twitter and search using #DiversityJedi. We started using that hashtag--created by Cynthia Leitich Smith--on November 2, 2015. Two of the DiversityJedi were in this RWW series of interviews! Laura Jimenez and Edi Campbell are people I learn from, and turn to, as well.   

-Ernie Cox

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Rudine Sims Bishop: In Appreciation

Have you ever used the phrase “Mirrors and Windows” when discussing the need for more diverse children’s books? If so – or even if you’ve only heard someone else speak these words in this context – give a tip of your cap to Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop.

On Monday at the Youth Media Awards in Atlanta, Dr. Bishop received a standing ovation after winning the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement. How many of us were thinking, “It’s about damn time!” Dr. Bishop, Professor Emerita at Ohio State University, has done enough to push children’s literature forward for two or three lifetimes. Check the Reading Rockets site for several video interviews and a handful of links (one of which connects to her seminal essay, Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors).

The idea behind Dr. Bishop’s work is simple: all young readers need more books with characters of all ethnicities and backgrounds, having a diverse range of experiences. This doesn’t mean that African American children only need to see more books with characters like themselves (although obviously they do), or that Ojibwe children only need to see more books with characters like themselves (might I add, in the present tense), and so on; but that African American children need to also see those Ojibwe characters, and vice versa. And also, children from non-marginalized groups (read: White kids) need to see these aforementioned books too. When White kids see White characters all the time, they get a distorted view of reality. White kids are overwhelmingly seeing “mirrors” but not “windows,” and that’s a huge problem.
Rudine Sims Bishop acknowledges the crowd at the Youth Media
Awards after winning the Coretta Scott King - Virginia Hamilton
Award for Lifetime Achievement.

(By the way, earlier I mentioned the need to tip one’s hat to Dr. Bishop when talking about windows and mirrors. Let me take that a step further: we must give credit where credit is due by citing Rudine when we use this phrase, no matter the situation. This is really a good guideline to follow in general, but especially since many White people tend to take credit for ideas and things created by people of color or First/Native Nations, I implore readers to attribute this phrase to Dr. Bishop.)

This may all be old news to some, but one of the reasons Dr. Bishop is so impactful is her years of service, of pushing and prodding the children’s literature world to think more broadly about what diverse books can do. And she has done so for all these years with characteristic grace and understated authority, leading by example.

I had the great fortune of serving on the Coretta Scott King Book Award Jury these last two years with Dr. Bishop as my chair. When you’re on a book award committee, you get to know the other people in the room extremely well, and it isn’t always rainbows and ponies, as they say; things can get heated at times. Discussions hit brick walls, and committee members get feelings hurt – we have such personal attachments to the books we have read and loved! There were a few times I wanted Dr. Bishop to tell us what to do in these hard situations: “Come on,” I’d think. “You’re RUDINE SIMS BISHOP!! You have more knowledge than the rest of us combined! DRAW US A MAP!!!” But that isn’t the way Dr. Bishop works. She is not someone who is going to tell you what to do, or what to think; Rudine Sims Bishop does not direct. When Rudine speaks, the whole room leans forward, and not just because she has such a quiet voice. Dr. Bishop exudes authority, but not the kind that demands one snap to attention. Her authority lies in her knowledge, yes, but above all in the graceful and dignified way she carries herself.

All of this is to say: thank you, Dr. Bishop. Thank you for your tireless and continued work. Thank you for being a shining example of true leadership.

-Sam Bloom

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Advocating at Midwinter

If you’re going to the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting in Atlanta over the coming days, you’ll have a chance to hear some great speakers, and maybe even do some committee work and attend the 2017 Youth Media Awards announcements.  Although the Midwinter Meeting is not as program-oriented as the annual conference in summer, it will, like any library conference, have a large contingent of publishers in the exhibit hall. This makes it a perfect time for you to speak up for diversity directly to publishers.

Back in 2014, the incredible Cindy Pon, a long-time advocate for diverse books and super talented author, approached me and some other librarians about heading into the exhibits hall with the determination to ask about and talk about diverse books with publishers. Hannah Gómez wrote a post about it for YALSA’s Hub blog and that’s the basic template I, and many other librarians, have followed for canvassing the exhibits and posting our results.  Since Cindy’s original idea, the goal has been to raise the online profile of diverse titles (build that buzz, get people wanting them as hot books) and also to let publishers know that we, the buying public - especially librarians and educators - want diverse titles and appreciate the ones they put out. You can check out the #diversityatala hashtag on Twitter and see the Twitter account.

I am urging all of you to join me in this effort.  What we’re looking for, more than anything, is numbers.  We want there to be wave upon wave of people asking publishers about diverse books, particularly by #OwnVoices authors.  We want publishers to know these ARE the books we want to buy, promote, and share.

Here are a few tips I think are especially effective when taking the diversity conversation to publishers in any exhibits hall:

  • Be positive. You know how much it sucks when a patron starts yelling at you about how their $1.75 fine pays your taxes so you’d better do what they say?  Because, among other things, they just don’t understand the hierarchy of how your library is structured?  That’s what it’s like when you go up to a random publisher booth representative who does publicity and marketing for the school market and start a conversation about how much you hate one of their books.

Now look. Most of you probably know that I’m the last person on the planet to urge you to “play nice” and “be kind.” I am a huge fan of directly and unceasingly calling out bullshit! But most of the people working the floor are not editors or execs.  The thing they want to hear the most and the thing they get the most use out of is knowing what you do want and what is popular in your community, classroom, and library.  That’s what makes them want to sell and promote MORE, not just to you but to everyone.

Look at nametags.  That’s just good manners, for one, so you know who you are talking to and it also lets you see what this person’s actual job is - maybe you will end up talking to an editor or someone higher up at a company. That can absolutely impact what kind of conversation you have.

So here’s what I mean when I say “be positive” - talk about a diverse book from that publisher that you love, your patrons love, you love using in class, or you never have on the shelf because they’re always in circulation. Tell them WHY it is amazing.  Find a picture or a copy of it in their booth if they have it and make a huge fuss over how wonderful and popular it is. Mention that the diversity is part of why you love it and would love to see more books like it from them. You don’t have to lie and you don’t have to fake enthusiasm - but you can build on the truth.  

  • Be specific. “I’d love to see more books from Native authors.  Have you read In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshall III?  It’s from Abrams and it’s amazing.”

“Are you familiar with the concept of #OwnVoices books? They’re some of our favorites at my library. My teens have loved Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed and If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo.”

“I’m so happy you published Niño Wrestles the World and Rudas: Niño’s Horrendous Hermanitas. We have such fun with them at storytime! I’d love more books like that for storytime.”

Know what you are talking about. Have specific examples.  If you’re afraid of blanking, prepare some notes beforehand to take with you to the booths, or take a minute or two to look around the booth and see what books they have out that you’re familiar with and can talk about, or that you want to know more about.

  • Make them sell you. Ask the booth reps what diverse books they are excited for. Put them on the spot. Selling books, and selling you on the books, is their job and they should be able to do that for diverse titles and POC/FNN authors.  And one way we can make sure they’re ready to promote these books to everyone, not just those of us doing the specific asking, is to consistently ask about them. And if they can’t booktalk a diverse book?  Tell them that’s what you’re looking for, and let them know we want the sales pitch from them in the future.

  • Stop by small publishers too. This is sometimes harder at Midwinter, since they often don’t have as much of a presence, but it is still worth keeping on your radar. You should always take time to seek out smaller publishers - especially because they are often doing THE MOST work in publishing #OwnVoices authors.  I think every person who visits exhibit halls during conferences should read René Saldaña, Jr’s post  Forgive Me My Bluntness: I’m a Writer of Color and I’m Right Here In Front of You: I’m the One Sitting Alone at the Table, and not just consider what it says but consider how it will impact your time in exhibits. I always have at least a few small publishers I want to visit to talk about specific books with or just hear about what they have coming next. Our support and enthusiasm for their work - as well as letting them know that we can and will financially support them in our buying - is important and this is a good chance to let them (and their authors) know.

  • Spread the word. Use the hashtag.  Share pictures of the books on social media. Be excited about them to the booth reps. And tell them why. Tell your colleagues to go ask the same things.  Show that there is demand every chance you can get. Buzz for books is made by PEOPLE. We can amplify buzz, we can make diverse books and #OwnVoices authors hot. We can do this all the time, of course, but exhibit halls are this opportunity on steroids and a chance for us to do this directly with the publishers in real time. We’ve got to make the most of this.

So if you’re going to be at ALAMW, please consider joining us! One of the biggest problems diverse books face, especially #OwnVoices titles, is the FALSE assumption that they’re like medicine. “Well, I don’t really wanna read this but, SIGH, diversity, I guess.” Our enthusiasm, our excitement, our focus can show that’s not the case. Let’s use our voices to make a difference.


Ava, who blogs at Bookiness and Tea, put together a list of 60 Diverse Books to Look Forward to in 2017
Rich in Color’s Release Calendar is always a great place to check.

And if you see me anywhere at ALAMW, please come up and say hi! I love chatting (surprise) and meeting new people and even going around the exhibits on missions!

-Angie Manfredi

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

RWW Interviews: Laura M. Jiménez

Laura M. Jiménez
Our RWW Interviews series continues today with a conversation between Allie Jane Bruce and Laura M. Jiménez. Jiménez earned her Ph. D. in Educational Psychology and Educational Technology from Michigan State University in 2013. She is currently a lecturer in Boston University School of Education’s Language and Literacy program. Her research primarily focuses on reading comprehension and issues of representation in young adult literature with a special interest in graphic novels. Her work has appeared in The Journal of Education, Journal of Language & Literacy Education, Journal of Lesbian Studies and, most recently, The Journal of Literacy Research. She is currently working on a large-scale project looking at the ways women and girls are represented in graphic novels.

In addition, she writes a blog ( in which she reviews graphic novels and brings her understanding of graphic novels, YA literature and representation to a wider audience.


Can you share your origin story? How did you get started in this work, and what has changed over time?

Originally, in grad school I studied literacy, reading, and reading motivation.  I wasn’t interested in literature then.  I read a lot, though, I always have.  Reading saved my life when I was a kid.  But in academia, literature and literacy are separate, and I was looking at literacy.  

Then I started teaching children’s literature, and I found out that the way that it’s taught is very marginalizing along race, class, and sexuality lines.  That bothered me.  It’s also not grounded in literacy research.  So, I changed the way I taught.  Instead of putting all the “others” in the “ethnic aisle,” which, in academia, means the final week of class or in its own course, I taught it as a normal part of children’s literature.  And it was really difficult for my students, way more difficult than I thought it should be.  I was teaching the people who would go on to be American teachers--White women for the most part--and they were having a really really hard time connecting with these stories outside of their lived experiences.  And the more stereotypical and trope-ful the book was, the easier they could connect with it.  So I had to ask, how do I get people from White America to learn how to read and experience books in ways that are so different from them?  The answer came largely from W.E.B. DuBois’ theory of dual consciousness.  So when I write my blog, I’m trying to help White, straight, able people develop that dual consciousness.  It’s my way of saying, “I see the world this way.  This is how I can translate it for you so you can also see the issues that I am seeing.”

At first I was writing about books that I liked, good fit for classrooms.  About a year ago I decided, after talking to Debbie Reese, that I was going to take the idea of criticism head on--real, literary criticism.  Using race, queer, feminist theory to do that work on an open blog space.  Now, I research and write almost exclusively about graphic novels.  What finally did it for me was when I had read and posted about Delilah Dirk by Tony Cliff.    It was being touted as this great adventure story for girls, and it was incredibly sexist and misogynistic.  Her physicality is completely stereotypical, her cleavage is always perfect and out there, her arms are like little twigs, her upper arm is the same thickness as her lower arm even though she’s this sword-wielding badass.  The importance of image can’t be understated.  And the response I kept getting: “It’s so fun! He tried.”  And I finally said, “I can’t give a medal for trying.  Kids, girls, boys, everybody, deserves a better representation than this.”  It completely rankled me, and I took the gloves off.

Now, I don’t go looking for bad books.  Unfortunately, it’s not that hard.  I blog about the fabulous, I blog about the crap.  Unfortunately, there’s a lot of crap, pumped out under the guise of diversity in literature.  That’s what really bothers me.

Tell us about your research in graphic novels.  What questions are you asking?  What have you learned so far?

I look very closely at comprehension and motivation.  Typically, when academics look at graphic novels, everyone is saying “Look how motivating we are!” and nobody has asked “what are kids learning from this?”  Recently, that’s changed. What we’ve seen is that reading graphic novels is different from reading print novels.  It takes different processes, attention, time.  I’m not sure that reading graphic novels will directly transfer to reading print.  I’m not saying it won’t, there’s just no research base to say that it will.  I suspect there is a subset that will like the metacognitive work you do in both--the questioning, the predicting, inferencing, finding evidence.  I think the higher order thinking you do when you’re reading graphic novels will transfer over to print.  But I’m not sure yet.

Here’s what we do know: kids that read graphic novels learn content, solid information, from them, that they are then able to produce on standardized tests.  In one study I’m involved in, kids read Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: One Dead Spy, and then we asked them standard history questions about the American Revolution.  We didn’t teach the book like a history text; they read it like a novel.  But they learned the content and the vocabulary.

The other thing is, all the kids wanted to read the books.  That’s the motivation piece.  We know that if they don’t want to read, kids will actually put more work into avoiding reading than the reading would actually take.  I borrow a lot of my thinking and teaching on this subject from library science--that “shut up and get a book in their hands” mentality.  If they don’t like it, get another one.  That is very very different from literacy-- “they should read this book for this reason.”  That’s the traditional thought.  What I tell people is, the question is, “are they going to read or are they not going to?”  And the arbiter of that is the child.  The older the child, the more sophisticated they are in subverting the systems they need to read.  So the single best thing we can do is motivate them.

And graphic novels are additive, because they contain visual cues as well as verbal.    We have enormous visual cortexes; we really are built to see the world.  We think that that visual component attunes the memory, and makes it easier to retrieve.  It is possible that reading multimodal books  embeds the information in a sort of multi-dimensionally or multiple places in your brain.
In all the work that you do, what are you most proud of?

I recently got the only piece about graphic novels in Journal of Literacy Research.  It took two years, and I brought in a second author to help me with the writing.  I’m hoping it’ll change the way the literacy field looks at graphic novels.  They’re not just popcorn, not just useful to keep the kid busy in the back of the classroom.  They’re complex, multi-dimensional literature.
How do you stay motivated or promote self-care when facing frustration or pushback?

I am very bad at self-care.  I think I am much better at handing out advice about taking care of yourself.  I am great at giving that advice, telling people to take a night off, but I’m the worst at actually doing it.  Luckily, I have a group of friends that give that advice right back at me.  So when I’m feeling completely drained, I just get angry, and then I’m not good.  And then I need to step back, take time off, spend time with my kids, cook a meal, read for pleasure.  I have people to tell me that, and I am smart enough to listen.
Who are your heroes, both within and without the children’s literature world?

Debbie Reese.  She is an inspiration, a touchstone.  I venture beyond my own identity: lesbian, Latina, nontraditional learner.  But I’m looking at representation of marginalized communities, which means I’m looking at communities I’m not a part of.  In some ways, that holds its own problematic issues.  But I can always go to her and say, “Am I totally off base here?”  She knows what’s going to get kickback, she knows when you’re sticking your neck out.  And she’s so generous.

One hero I’ve never met - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who talks about the balance between knowledge and skill, finding flow.  He’s looked at aesthetics, and how people read and react to what they’ve read--very needed.

What advice do you have for others looking to do equity work in the world of libraries and youth literature?

What I’ve discovered is that treating White, straight, able people as the problem or the enemy does not work.  I take that stance seriously.  Whiteness as an identity can’t be the problem--I start with that in mind.  I have to give them opportunities so they have the chance to be aware of their own identity.  It sounds strange to people, but I truly believe that White people do not realize that they are White.  It’s like trying to ask a fish to identify the water.  So I try to give them opportunities to see the water.  I have them identify their identities out loud.  I get them used to literally saying the words out loud: race, racism, White, Latinx.

In my teaching experiences, which are mostly with middle class White women, I think they have decided the best way to not get in trouble is to not talk about race, sexism, really all identity.  Just avoid it.  Avoid it at the cost of anything.  I have to break through that training.  We can’t deal with it if we don’t talk about it.  So I have them read WONDER and OUT OF MY MIND, as a paired texts.  By that time, at the end of the semester, I’m really looking for them to name the kind of flat character that Palacio gives us in Auggie--the object he acts as versus the kind of character Draper gives us in Melody.  I also look to see if they can figure out that she’s Black.  She doesn’t name it because she doesn’t need to.  By and large, there’s usually one or two people who don’t see it.  But the rest of the class does, because we have a community that can talk about it.  That last class, I am hoping I don’t have to say one word.  If I get them there, it’s been a successful semester.

The one thing that frustrates me the most--and I’m glad that Reading While White is doing what it does--is that if I say something about a book, if Debbie or Edi says something, we’re all told that we’re not giving the author a chance.  That they tried.  We are not believed.  If you look at the traffic RWW get vs the traffic I get or Edi gets, even though we’ve been doing this for longer, you get more, and the only difference is that you’re White.  To be honest, part of me resents that.  And, I am glad that there are people willing to amplify our voices.  If I write something, and you pick it up, that means so many more people will be willing to hear it.  And that is paramount to my work.  You get a lot of crap, the same criticism, but at the end of the day, you are heard and you are believed.  Without White voices, our message can’t be heard.  We are not believed.  It’s good that your team realizes it.

-Allie Jane Bruce

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Award Attention

In January, many youth librarians look forward to the announcements of ALA’s Youth Media Awards, which happens on the Monday morning of the Midwinter conference; this year, on Monday January 23rd at 8am Eastern.  (Details including a link for the live webcast can be found here.)

Over the years, this press conference has grown to include all of the youth media awards selected by ALA Divisions or Round Tables, including the Schneider Family Book Awards, the Stonewall Awards, the Coretta Scott King Book Awards, and the Pura Belpré Awards.  

This last award is co-sponsored by The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC, a division of ALA) and The National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking (REFORMA) together, which ensures its announcement (via ALSC) at the YMA press conference.  REFORMA is an affiliate of ALA.  There are other youth book awards selected by ALA affiliates which are not included in the YMA press conference, as they are not co-sponsored by an ALA body. They include:

Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature to honor and recognize individual work about Asian/Pacific Americans and their heritage, based on literary and artistic merit. Sponsored by the Asian Pacific American Library Association (APALA).

American Indian Youth Literature Award to identify and honor the very best writing and illustrations by and about American Indians. Books selected to receive the award will present American Indians in the fullness of their humanity in the present and past contexts.  Sponsored by the American Indian Library Association (AILA). This award is presented every two years and will be announced next in 2018.

Sydney Taylor Book Award  presented annually to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience. Sponsored by the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL).

Of all of these awards, the Coretta Scott King, Pura Belpré, Asian/Pacific American and American Indian Youth Literature Awards are notably all for books created by people of those communities, about their own experience.  Over the years, I've heard the following questions repeatedly, largely from White people: “Shouldn’t any book about [a marginalized race] be eligible if it is the best portrayal of that experience?” or “Shouldn’t any book by an author of [a marginalized race] be eligible because it promotes an author of color?”  In fact, I have asked these questions myself during my career, and, gratefully, been reminded by White colleagues that either question misses the point. Organizations of librarians from marginalized communities take the lead on these awards, and the last thing they need is to explain how sorely these awards are still needed to well-intentioned White people. Yet they do.  Marc Aronson’s Slippery Slopes and Proliferating Prizes back in 2001 and Andrea Davis Pinkney’s response echoes today’s post-election railing against identity politics.

While I applaud all the youth media award winning authors and illustrators, you will always hear me clap the strongest for #OwnVoices book awards.   Please buy these books, and share the news, especially for those without a presence at the ALA Youth Media Awards press conference. These are meaningful awards deserving of everyone’s attention, and White people can do a better job of holding them up.

--Nina Lindsay