I missed out on ALA Midwinter this year. At nine months pregnant, there was just no way I could hop on a plane (or hop anywhere, really) to be a part of the conference and its festivities. But shortly after the 2015 ALA Youth Media Awards were announced, a colleague emailed me, “How about all of those nonwhite award winners?!” Her tone was celebratory, and while parked on my couch basking in the glow of the live-streaming awards announcement, I felt the same way. After all, in the prior three years, not one Caldecott Honor or Medal was awarded to an artist of color — and that’s to say nothing of the dang-near-all-white world of Caldecott medalists and honorees that preceded 2012. A glance at the Newbery winners of awards-seasons-past shows a similar lack of diversity — 2012 was the most recent year that an author of color garnered an Honor, and we have to look back to 2009 to find a year when two people of color received recognition, as was the case this year. Although I found myself scratching my head over the sheer number of books recognized, seeing not just one, but four artists of color named on this year’s Caldecott list was heartening to me. As a mother in a multiracial family that includes kids with Puerto Rican, Jamaican, African American, Irish, and French Canadian heritage, and as a white person committed to learning about — and through — others’ perspectives, artistic and otherwise, #INeedDiverseBooks. “Lives unlike mine, you save me,” writes poet Naomi Shihab Nye in her prose poem “First Hawaiian Bank,” and I can’t say it much better than that.
To be clear, I don’t mean this (nor do I think Nye does) in a spirit of exotification. Lives unlike mine, encountered in literature or in daily experience, don’t save me by being so fascinatingly other — so different, so odd, so outside of me — that they allow me to indulge in escape from my privileged existence. Instead, they save me from laboring under the misperception that my reality is the reality — a dangerous and seductive position to occupy. David Foster Wallace explored this notion in a speech called “This Is Water,” arguing that contemporary culture supports a myopic vision that grants us
the freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.
I absolutely want my kids to have books that act as the “mirrors” so valued in multicultural critical discourse as pertains to their respective racial and ethnic backgrounds. But notions of intersectionality assert that their identities cannot be tidily boiled down to African American or Puerto Rican, biracial or not — and this is to say nothing of the diversity within each of these categories — and so I also seek out books that will help to free them from what Wallace terms “the rat race” as they encounter lives unlike theirs with regard to race and ethnicity, yes, but also national origin, disability, and other factors. Recent shared readings of Wonder by R. J. Palacio and the 2012 Newbery Honor Book Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhhà Lại provoked rich discussions with my three younger children, ages nine to eleven, none of whom have physical disabilities or are of Vietnamese heritage. Their worldviews expanded a bit as these books acted as windows into experiences they’ve not personally lived, and they also voiced moments of connection when they considered the common ground they share with the characters. In some instances, this meant finding alignment with secondary characters— aspiring to be kind, for example, and to speak up against bullying behavior that the different-from-them protagonists in each book endure.
In the course of our discussions about Auggie’s and Hà’s stories, but without using such language explicitly, my kids were considering what it means to be an ally. This came up again recently when
my eleven-year-old daughter Emilia read the 2015 Newbery Honor Book El Deafo. Emilia is dyslexic and has recently struggled with feeling different from the other kids in her class because of her learning disability. I thought that the strong visual narrative in Cece Bell’s autobiographical graphic novel would help her access the story, but I also hoped she’d find kinship and solace in the deaf protagonist’s similar feelings of alienation. Instead, Emilia told me that a kindergarten schoolmate uses hearing devices like those depicted in the book. “I hope he doesn’t have a hard time at our school,” she said.
Fostering this kind of allied thinking is important to me as a mother, particularly as I think about raising my newborn son, Jesse.
“Congratulations on your first Caucasian child,” then-seventeen-year-old Rory said when his stepfather and I told him about the pregnancy, and I laughed out loud.
“Well, it’s not really a point of achievement, but of heredity,” I told him (my husband is white, too), but I acknowledged that this realization had occurred to me. I also thought of the time I brought infant Rory to the pediatrician and saw another mother in the waiting room with a child who looked very…unhealthy. It took me a minute to realize that her baby was not sickly, just pale-skinned compared to my own child’s complexion. That was my everyday baby reality.
Now I experience a new everyday baby reality. Newborn Jesse will need diverse books, just like his siblings do, but for other reasons, too, and some of these mirror my own as a white person in a multiracial family. As is true for me, some of the people Jesse will love best in the world are people of color, and although that doesn’t erase one’s privilege, I believe that it can make one keenly aware of race in ways that lots of other white people without close ties with people of color are not, and that this can ideally prompt allied values and behavior to effect real and lasting change.
I know that my position as a mother of children of color and the worldview it affords me have had an impact on my service on past award committees (the 2009 Geisel Award, the 2011 Caldecott Award, and the 2012 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award). ALA award criteria outside of the Pura Belpré and CSK Awards do not mandate that committees consider artists and writers’ racial or ethnic backgrounds, but they don’t explicitly forbid such consideration, either. And here’s a point that is crucial to me as an ally to people of color in dismantling racism: resisting consideration of an author or illustrator’s background is just as political a decision as embracing it as a part of one’s reading of a text.
Although the hashtag wasn’t around when I served on those past award committees, I readily admit that I embraced the idea that any honest statement akin to #WeNeedDiverseBooks holds within it the understanding that #WeNeedDiverseAuthorsAndArtists. The notion that dutifully avoiding
consideration of who writes whose stories allows us to achieve some higher purpose in the service of literary purity, to me, smacks of privilege. We all choose which lenses we put on when we read, and how we consider (or resist considering) the ways a text constructs race, or how an author or illustrator’s
own position in society may inform his or her perspective. Such determinations are personal, but as the saying goes, the personal is political, and decisions about who tells whose stories, and how those stories are published, marketed, assigned, purchased, and yes, vetted for awards, are inextricably linked to broader societal realities and discourses about race and power.
I can’t help but speculate that all of the good trouble stirred up by the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign and related conversations, debates, self-reflection, actions, and efforts contributed to the unprecedented diversity of the 2015 slate of ALA Youth Media Award winners. Of course, my speculation remains just that — speculation — but I hope that even as future committee discussions remain closed in the sense of confidentiality, they will also be open to talking about what exactly we mean when we say #WeNeedDiverseBooks and how this informs our own, unique critical stances. I think that’s a crucial piece of the work needed to ensure that this year’s slate of award winners is not an anomaly but (to borrow Newbery Medalist Kwame Alexander’s titular word) a crossover to a more inclusive, diverse field.
Wallace’s aforementioned speech opens with these lines:
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
While some white people can swim through life ensconced in privilege that allows a “what the hell is water?” cluelessness to translate into “what the hell does race have to do with it?” — I can’t. And I’m grateful for that. I’m also grateful for whatever ways the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement might have provoked 2015 award committee members to take the plunge and embrace overt (if confidential) discussions about diversity in ways that could transform the future of our field. And that’s part of why my response to my colleague’s remark — “How about all of those nonwhite award winners?!” — was “Hell, yeah!”