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2015 in Review: The Year in Words

The year was 2015. A year in which so many people from so many backgrounds said so much about books with so few words.

It was a year in which people didn’t just discuss books. They cheered and argued, raged and kvetched, praised them and condemned them.

Social media wasn’t new in 2015, but never before had it engaged with books for youth quite like this. On any given day, you could participate in lengthy, intelligent electronic conversations, or just as easily be sucked into an endless vortex of echo chambers. Now that the dust is settling, the takeaway from the year is this: what we say, when we say it, and how we say it regarding books for youth is on view for all to see. Let’s look at the year that was, and consider what it means not just for the future of children’s book publishing but for the future of book discussions themselves.

de la pena_last stop on market streetThis year’s announcement of a picture book — Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson — winning the Newbery Medal for its text brought to many people’s minds comparisons to 1982 and A Visit to William Blake’s Inn [read Matt de la Peña’s Newbery acceptance speech here]. Like Market Street, that book garnered both the Newbery Medal (awarded to author Nancy Willard) and a Caldecott Honor (to illustrators Alice and Martin Provensen). But comparisons between Willard’s ode to Mr. Blake and de la Peña’s sweet tale of a grandmother-grandson duo riding public transportation may well end there. Some have argued that Willard’s book was a work of poetry, not a picture book at all, despite its format. The problem with this argument is that the Caldecott committee — whose task it is to honor “the most distinguished American picture book for children published by an American publisher in the United States” — did choose to recognize the book. A better way to look at the comparison is to consider the differing audiences. Market Street appeals to a younger readership than does A Visit to William Blake’s Inn. It feels more like a traditional picture book, making it, by extension, a surprising Newbery win. It’s not unprecedented for picture books to win Newbery Honors — e.g., The ABC Bunny by Wanda Gág, Doctor De Soto by William Steig, Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson — but this is the first time a picture book for young children has taken the award good and proper.

In fact, all of the 2016 Newbery books skewed on the young side. Per the ALA’s stipulations, the Newbery Medal and Honors may go to any book intended for children from birth through age fourteen, which is what makes it possible, as happened in 2006, for a young adult title (Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Hitler Youth) to win an Honor alongside a picture book (Show Way). This year’s honorees were The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, about WWII evacuee siblings; Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson, about a budding roller-derby queen; and Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan, about a special harmonica and the power of music to unite people — and all would likely find themselves welcome in almost any upper-elementary-school library. No YA novels were included, and even middle-grade books with older themes — the sexting in Rebecca Stead’s Goodbye Stranger, for example — were absent.

hiredgirl_210x300Another book for older readers that secured a fair amount of buzz but failed to receive any Newbery attention (though it did win the Scott O’Dell Award, a Sydney Taylor Book Award, a National Jewish Book Award, and more) was The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz. The book — set in 1911 and starring a white Catholic girl from the country who moves to big-city Baltimore and finds work with an observant Jewish family — proved to be a lightning rod for online debates about children’s books. Protagonist Joan has distinctly unenlightened early-twentieth-century views on other ethnicities and religions, and her candid journal-entry descriptions gave some readers pause.

Conversations online about what should or should not be included in a children’s book reached a fever pitch in October after critic Debbie Reese wrote a blog post listing her objections to a line in The Hired Girl about Native Americans. The debate continued on SLJ’s Heavy Medal blog [here and here], The Horn Book’s Read Roger blog, Book Riot, and others — and it continued to spread, 140 characters at a time, on Twitter. Schlitz’s novel, closely scrutinized by many who had read it thoroughly (as well as many who preferred arguing online to actually reading the book), became one of the most hotly debated Newbery-eligible novels of 2015. [For more about another controversial book from last year, A Fine Dessert, see Julie Danielson’s “The Year in Pictures” article in this issue.]

For all that social media has strengthened the impact and reach of literary debates, they are nothing new. Anyone who remembers the outcry on behalf of blighted communities, public perception, and cultural pride following the publication of Gary Soto’s American Girl Today series entry Marisol in 2005 knows that brouhahas once occurred without a significant social media role (to give a fairly recent example; there are countless others — see Kathleen T. Horning’s article about The Snowy Day in this issue). In Soto’s case, the outcry began with a newspaper article and then led to angry letters, phone calls, and public protests. Far newer are situations in which authors and illustrators are taken to task on social media for perceived personal failings (last year’s examples include Andrew Smith, Meg Rosoff, Sophie Blackall, and Scott Bergstrom). In his 2015 book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson reminded us of the modern aphorism: “Facebook is where you lie to your friends, Twitter is where you tell the truth to strangers.” And in 2015, this “truth-telling” reached untold heights and depths.

Reactions to the Newbery winner were definitely mixed. Online comments ranged from pure joy (said Alia Jones @readitrealgood: “Can I just take a moment to revel in the fact that a picture book with brown people who use colloquial language just won the Newbery?”) to bafflement to everything in between. Negative comments touched on the characters’ grammar, believing that it reinforced stereotypes. Objections were also leveled against the perceived passivity of the characters, the storytelling, and the writing itself.

Some were skeptical, even cynical. “Seems like the choices were more political rather than based on the actual merits of the books,” griped a Heavy Medal commenter. In an age of We Need Diverse Books, the first Newbery Medal awarded to a Latino man (it was Roger Sutton who straightened folks out when they initially called de la Peña the “first Latino” to win) and starring people of color, at that, is no small thing. And don’t fool yourself: every committee choice is a political act, regardless of the year. When a group of highly trained individuals works to present awards to literature that is deemed “distinguished,” each brings his or her own prejudices, beliefs, and hopes into that room. It’s not new. One can argue that the choice in 1953 to give the Newbery Award to The Secret of the Andes and not Charlotte’s Web had as much to do with broadening children’s worldviews as it did literary quality.

Many others were thrilled, seeing in de la Peña’s victory a sign that the ALA awards are making a marked effort to be more diverse. In one case the online magazine Mic considered the forty-year gap between Paula Fox’s Newbery win (as a Latina) and de la Peña’s, saying, “If we have to wait another 40 years for a third Latino Newbery winner, the broader diversity projects…will have failed.”

smith_hoodooBooks by and about African Americans and Latinos certainly saw some small progress this awards season. For example, there have been years when the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award has simply not been given, presumably due to a dearth of potential recipients. Happily, 2016 was not one of those years — the author award went to Ronald L. Smith for Hoodoo, and the illustrator award went to Ekua Holmes for Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement by Carole Boston Weatherford — and let us hope that one result of the We Need Diverse Books movement is that the lack of a New Talent winner becomes a thing of the past. Last year’s Steptoe Author Award winner Jason Reynolds received two CSK Honors this year: for All American Boys, co-written by Brendan Kiely, and for The Boy in the Black Suit. (A CSK Honor also went to X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon; the CSK Author Award winner was Rita Williams-Garcia’s Gone Crazy in Alabama — her third book about the Gaither sisters, all three of which have won this award.)

The Pura Belpré Awards are now presented annually (they were given as biennial awards from 1996 to 2008), an encouraging trend for books written by Latinos and intended to “portray, affirm, and celebrate the Latino cultural experience.” This year’s author award went to two-time previous winner (and multiple-times honoree) Margarita Engle for her memoir Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings. Honors went to David Bowles for The Smoking Mirror and to Meg Medina for Mango, Abuela, and Me — another picture book winning a writing award! — illustrated by Angela Dominguez (who also won a Belpré Honor for this book’s illustration; incidentally, the Belpré Illustrator winner was Rafael López for Drum Dream Girl, written by…Margarita Engle). Although the 2016 author and illustrator winners were not first-timers, many of the CSK and Belpré Honor winners were up-and-comers — a heartening case for diverse books.

For what it’s worth, the ALA Youth Media Awards are not the only place to look for trends in the larger conversation. Each award given to books for youth has something to say about the state of publishing. For example, in contrast to the Newbery winners of the year, which trended young, the National Book Award nominees were almost entirely young adult.

reynolds_all american boysThis year also saw the inaugural Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature, presented by We Need Diverse Books for books written by “diverse authors whose work featured a diverse main character or addressed diversity in a meaningful way.” The winner was All American Boys, and the two honor books were Enchanted Air and X. A fitting inaugural tribute for the man whose life and work helped set the stage for the many conversations about diversity we are having today.

We find ourselves at a pivotal moment in history as America grapples with deep-seated and hurtful assumptions about race, religion, disability, gender, and sexuality. All of that is reflected not just in the books we write for our children but in our interpretations of those books and the writers writing them. We want only the rarest kind of best for our kids (to paraphrase Walter de la Mare), but we’re having a devil of a time figuring out what “best” is supposed to mean. To what extent can we trust child readers to truly understand potentially problematic texts? What is right for them and what is wrong for them? What is censorship and what is judicious editing and selection? Children’s librarians have struggled with these issues, none of them new, for more than a century. You can see the work of these librarians in the ALA Youth Media Awards and the other committees on which they serve. You can sense their influence, their understanding, and their willingness to learn and grow with their choices.

In an era where saying the “wrong” thing, even casually in a Facebook post, can lead to massive social media censure, the inclination is to say nothing at all. Yet if 2015 teaches us anything, it’s that silence behooves no one. After all, once online debates quiet down, dissecting them can sometimes prove just as fascinating as the books themselves. The Newbery, CSK, and Belpré winners published in 2015 celebrate up-and-coming, diverse, and groundbreaking authors and books. Now is the time for all authors to be brave for their audience. Learn. Grow. And make the best damn books you can.

From the July/August 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ALA 2016. Read the companion article “2015: The Year in Pictures” by Julie Danielson.

Betsy Bird About Betsy Bird

Betsy Bird is collection development manager of the Evanston (IL) Public Library and former youth materials specialist of the New York Public Library. She reviews for Kirkus and blogs for SLJ at A Fuse #8 Production. She is the author of Giant Dance Party (Greenwillow) and co-authored (with Julie Danielson and Peter D. Sieruta), Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature.

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