>SLJ this month runs a short, vague article on possible changes to ALSC book awards criteria. Fuse8 has a pretty good discussion on it going; over here I’d like to consider the larger implied question about American children’s literature. SLJ attributes to K.T. Horning, 50, the idea that the Newbery and Caldecott have “accomplished their mission . . . to encourage U.S. publishers to seek out high-quality literature and picture books for children by American authors and illustrators.” Like this is something that gets finished? The Newbery and Caldecott are among the shiniest, sharpest prods we have to encourage U.S. publishers to keep seeking out “high-quality literature and picture books.”
The decision to limit the awards to Americans, of course, is of course worth discussion. Nationalism in literature is something we tend to value only when other nations do it, but I think the questions are worth asking: do we have and do we nurture children’s literature that speaks to “being an American”? There is Munro Leaf’s Being an American Can Be Fun, and Lynne Cheney’s various droppings, but I’m wondering more along the lines of contenders for The Great American Children’s Novel–books that speak to the theme of how being an American is different from not. In my recreational reading, I’m on something of a Turkey kick right now, reading novels and histories by and/or about Turks, and always lurking in my head is “oh, so this is what it’s like to be a Turk.” (You already have my take on Canadians.)
So what children’s book could you give to an outlander that conveys a sense of Us? I’ve argued for Sachar’s Holes as a G.A.N., steeped as it is in the American tall tale tradition, and placing the roots of its story in our mythic Wild West. It seems, too, that a lot of the recent immigrant literature, by presenting a protagonist “settling” in a new land while carrying along the old (usually in terms of parents and grandparents) does a sort of microcosmal version of the idea of America as a nation of pioneers, while Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House and Game of Silence provide a “we were here all along” corrective to Wilder’s Little House books, themselves indisputably G.A.N.s in my view. If somebody asked you for a children’s book that “tells what it’s like to be an American,” what would you give them?