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The elephant was in the room

elmersocksI can’t decide if the p.r. disaster that was the Children’s Choice Awards last night is exacerbated or ameliorated by the fact that the Children’s Book Council website is down this morning (and, according to Facebook) has been offline since the announcements last night.(Edit 11.45AM:It’s back up.) I do know that the CBCBook Twitter account went silent for what were supposed to be the big announcements of the night: Author of the Year (Rush Limbaugh) and Illustrator of the Year (Grace, uh, Lee).

Predictably, there’s a lot of social media outrage about Rush’s win–accusations of inaccuracy in his book, Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims; accusations of stacking the deck and/or ballot fraud–but really, it’s just people being mad that Rush Limbaugh won. Any inaccuracies are beside the point, because the winner of this award is determined by popular vote. It really is a popularity contest. And if Rush had his Dittoheads auto-voting through the wee hours–well, welcome to the Internet. In the case of the Illustrator prize (for Sofia the First: The Floating Island, a Disney TV-tie-in product), I’m guessing that little kids presented with the webpage of the nominees (all chosen by virtue of being bestsellers) pointed their little fingers at Sofia, screeching “Da one wid da pwincess, Daddy! DA ONE WID DA PWINCESS!!” (I  really am guessing here, as the marketing departments for Simon & Schuster (Rush Revere) and Disney chose not to send these books to us for review.)

The Author and Illustrator of the Year Awards were piled on top of the IRA-CBC Children’s Choice Awards some years back because those winners weren’t usually very sexy and did not attract sponsorship money or media attention. Now  they have a glam, pricey event and lots of attention. These awards worked exactly the way they were supposed to. But I bet they won’t work this way next year.


Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. If, indeed, inaccuracies are besides the point, we’re all headed for a cliff. Here’s my review of the ways that Limbaugh dealt with slavery (he didn’t) and depictions of Native characters (a tribeless girl named Freedom, and of course, Squanto):

    It is, as you note, a huge gala, but seems that it would be helpful to know how many votes were cast overall.

  2. KT Horning says:

    It’s not Rush’s politics for me, Roger. I’d feel the same way if Jon Stewart wrote a children’s book and won. What galls me is that they claim he is the “Children’s Choice.” Seriously? Over Rick Riordan and Jeff Kinney? How many kids have even read his book or know who he is?

    What this really does is demonstrate how rigged CBC’s whole Children’s Choice concept is. Always has been, long before Rush won. Adults narrow down the list to start with. Of these five, kiddies, which one do you like best? Which will probably come down to which of the five they have read or which cover they like the best. And if you are going to do this, why not narrow the list down to five books with at least a modicum of literary quality, rather than the five best sellers? Not to say the two are mutually exclusive, but still, how much more promotion does Jeff Kinney need? And let’s not kid ourselves — this is nothing more than a promotion gimmick.

    And if this is all it is, why do we even need a Children’s Book Council any more? Why don’t they just promote thei best seller list and be done with it?

  3. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Debbie, according to the CBC website (which is back up), more than a million votes were cast in all.

  4. This is what happens when you have a popularity contest. And, this is what you get when you have online voting. People can (and should) be horrified when a book with inaccuracies is honored. It should embarrass the sponsoring group. And, like Roger, I believe things will work differently in years to come.

    Online voting (as we learned on Calling Caldecott) is a two-edged sword. More votes=more readers=aren’t we popular? However, auto-voting and getting your buddies to stuff the ballot takes away the fun and messes up the results.

  5. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Except, K.T., the original IRA-CBC Children’s Choices were “books with at least a modicum of literary quality,” vetted by teachers. But nobody cared. By rewarding books that already are bestsellers, the fact the somebody cares is pre-determined. But it’s really stupid.

    The CBC came of age when schools and libraries were still the main conduits for trade children’s books. I think they are seeking relevance in a changed market, and I wish them luck, but these awards are just embarrassing for everyone.

  6. AMEN, K. T.

  7. …And the elephant was named bigotry. I’m a little startled that people don’t want to talk about the fact that a hatemonger, whose book is explicitly aimed at countering “multicultural stories” with racist propaganda, has just been given an award by an organization of children’s publishing professionals. Sure, it’s easier to talk about the flawed criteria– but what about how allegiance to those criteria means children just saw the CBC honor a bigot in their names?

  8. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I think people ARE talking about that, Sarah. But if you say you’re going to give an award based on a popular vote, and your candidates are selected on the basis of their sales (i.e., popularity), you can’t turn around and say “…but not THIS one.”

    There is the additional problem that you won’t ever get agreement on what constitutes “racist propaganda.”

  9. Yes, and I guess I see in those two arguments the messiness that can make the whole thing uncomfortable to talk about. To me, those arguments– taken to an extreme– start to sound a lot like their opposite (in the desire to remain fair and impartial and not censor, or to acknowledge that objectivity isn’t possible, I start to hear echoes of “telling me I have to serve gay people infringes on my religious liberty” or “Donald Sterling is a private business man with the right to say what he wants.”) I’m not saying the questions aren’t tricky, or that there isn’t the possibility of a slippery slope– but not engaging the questions in the name of fairness feels like a cop out to me, and a way of denying that arguments against intervention or judgment aren’t neutral, and they can lead to some slippery places, too.

  10. KT Horning says:

    Even in the olden days, Roger, the teachers were given a small number of preselected books from which to share with children so they could make their “choices.” I know teachers who were very frustrated with the process and with the books they had to work with to start with. And who, exactly, is it that CBC cares about caring? Is getting the media attention for calling Rush Limbaugh “children’s author of the year” more important to them than supporting real children’s authors?

    I have an idea– how about CBC’s “children’s author of the year” is automatically next year’s Children’s Lit Ambassador? Then a Rush can spend 2015 talking about the importance of reading on his radio show and at public appearances, and real authors like Kate DiCamillo can spend their time writing.

  11. I have to agree. Them’s the rules. You can’t change them this year, that would be a bait and switch. I’m pretty sure this has proven embarrassing for the VBC so there’ll be changes next year.
    Ironically the one good that has come out of this for me is a good feeling that at least my numbers reflect reality.

  12. Hear, hear, Roger!
    Inspired by your post and the terrific, lively conversation going on in response to Harold Underdown’s post, here are some thoughts about awards that I posted earlier today:

  13. Joseph Miller says:

    One thing I think is being forgotten in this debate is sometimes children like a book professionals don’t. Whenever I see this type of discrepancy, I am reminded of Pete the Cat. Both Kirkus and SLJ pretty much panned the first book and yet it’s hugely popular with kids. I’m sure the reviewers for both these fine professional resources believed what they were saying when they wrote:

    “Pete may seem like an appealing role model to adults, but any child who has experienced the smirching of a new pair of shoes probably won’t buy the cool he’s peddling.” (Kirkus)


    “The moral of the story—keep going no matter what happens to you in life—may sound like good advice, but it doesn’t instill any sense of power in children; it just tells them to accept their fate. The downloadable song might help spark interest, but there’s not much here to get excited about.” (SLJ)

    Sometimes kids have different tastes than professionals, but for me that is okay.

    Would we be having the same discussion if Rush was an apolitical figure? I don’t know. Maybe we would, but that still wouldn’t change the fact that sometimes kids like things we might not like or find offensive in some way, but we’re not here to be thought police. We’re here to promote the love of reading, even of books we don’t agree with or particularly like.

  14. A teacher wrote to tell me that he has multiple copies of the not-Rush books and they circulate well. When he told the kids who the nominees were for author of the year and asked them who they’d vote for, he was astounded to hear them start to chant “Rush Rush Rush”. He asked if they had read his book, because it wasn’t in the classroom. They said no, but they like how he gets mad on the radio… So, they voted by persona. I don’t think that is the case for the votes Limbaugh’s book got in the voting but do think it tells us something scary about being obnoxious.

  15. ABOUT the CBC…Remember what it was? Remember John Donovan? Paula Quint?

  16. Roberta says:

    Okay, so it’s a popularity contest of who won sold the most books? Then if Rush out sold everyone than his award should titled “The Most Books Sold in the Year.” Not the “Author of the Year.”

  17. Martine says:

    If all things were fair, Ursula LeGuin would be richer than the queen of England for writing her Earthsea Trilogy, and Rowling would be teaching to supplement her writing income. This is just one more thing after the last thing after the thing before that… Thanks for always taking a bite out of the hide of that elephant in the room, Roger. I love the way you think.

  18. Thanks, Roger. I am very grumpy about this. No one ever said popular taste correlated in any way with intelligence, insight, etc. Look at the adult bestseller list, for one of many examples. This time, though, it is the kids who lose out. They’re the victims. I hate that. And isn’t it the publishers who are at fault for publishing such crap?

    Vicky Smith has a good critique as well.

  19. Why do people claim to embrace diversity and then get utterly riled up when someone expresses a political viewpoint different from theirs? Such behavior conveys an unsettling implication that “diversity” is only skin deep. Very disappointing.

  20. I’m still intrigued by the number of people who’ve asserted that their concern is not with Limbaugh’s ideology, but with the commercial aspects of both his authorship and the selection process. It feels particularly noteworthy given the context of the ongoing We Need Diverse Books campaign and discussion, and other recent conversations like the one spurred by the Junot Diaz piece in the New Yorker, MFA vs. POC.

    The reluctance to engage with the question of Limbaugh’s racism (or at least with the question of whether it should have any bearing on his receiving the award) feels– to me– to be tied to a larger reluctance when it comes to including questions of race and representation in the evaluation of children’s books. I do often feel like an allegiance to the notion of subjectivity, and a belief in the value of remaining impartial in the face of those potentially subjective perspectives, can lead to a paralysis of relativism. If people might disagree on what constitutes stereotyping or problematic representations (or believe that prejudice equates to a form of diversity)– better just to leave those questions for readers to sort out. Even to engage with questions of race seems to bring the discomfort of potential censorship or “politicization,” so these questions are often simply avoided when it comes to awards or recommendations. I guess I’m just not convinced that this approach is either truly impartial, or one that serves the field well. The discomfort some feel with this avoidance is nothing new, either, I guess.

    It also seems worth noting here that in 2009, years before the NBA issued a lifetime ban to Donald Sterling, Limbaugh was forced to drop his own bid to become one of the joint owners of the St. Louis Rams. Players and officials objected to his history of racist comments, and declared that because of it he had no place in their league. DeMaurice Smith, at that time the executive director of the NFL players, wrote of his objection to Limbaugh: “…sport in America is at its best when it unifies, gives all of us a reason to cheer, and when it transcends. Our sport does exactly that when it overcomes division and rejects discrimination and hatred.” Children’s literature may have no romantic mandate for unity, but refusing to honor discrimination and hatred seems like something we might agree on.

  21. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I’m not sure what you’re saying, Sarah. Should the CBC have not included Limbaugh’s book on the ballot because he is racist? Or is the book racist (I haven’t read it)? Should the CBC change its criteria for finalists so as not to rely strictly on sales figures? If they ARE going to vet their finalists with some kind of ideological test, do you really think everyone will be happy?

    I don’t. We don’t even have to go into some kind of theoretical space of non-relativism to see that determinations of racism in children’s books are more incoherent than not. You seem to be thinking that “yes, but what about those authors/books that really ARE racist,” as if there’s going to be agreement in the room. There isn’t. It’s not a theoretical question steeped in relativism, it’s an actual question that gets asked all the time. See JAKE AND HONEYBUNCH GO TO HEAVEN, THE SNOWY DAY, THE SIGN OF THE BEAVER, THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, LITTLE BLACK SAMBO . . . . (Forgive the caps, I’m not shouting!) All of these books have been accused of racism; all have their defenders as well. What would you have us do?

  22. Well, one could also ask the question another way: are there really no lines to be crossed, or do people simply disagree about where the lines are? For instance, would the CBC have gone ahead with the process and awarded Donald Sterling this week? What about a book that advocated for a white supremacist group? What about a book that described children using racial slurs? A book promoting hate crimes? When we’re not discussing the freedom to write or to have books on public library shelves, but the question of honoring books, is the argument truly an absolutist: ideology doesn’t matter?

    Personally, I do think Limbaugh should have been disqualified. (And certainly at the very least the future name of the award should be changed from “children’s choice.”) I realize others see this as a form of censorship or an imposition of personal values on a process they think is impartial. But my larger question, beyond this particular case, is with the idea that it’s possible to disengage from ideology. I think the idea that one can separate out ideology and thereby be impartial is itself ideological and very partisan, and that it often conveniently preserves the status quo. I’m saying that the fact that these questions are difficult, messy, uncomfortable, full of meaningful disagreement, and in some ways unanswerable isn’t a reason not to ask them, or to completely avoid drawing lines and deny that partisan judgments are already being made. I’m not just speaking theoretically, either. For instance: if the make up of the Caldecott committee this year had been predominantly Native people, would those members have judged the artistic value of Locomotive differently? If the director of the CBC were Native, would the decision to proceed with honoring Limbaugh have been different? If leaving aside questions of ideology doesn’t reflect impartiality, but rather who has the power to make the judgments, is that something different?

  23. As an aside– I wish that someone would write a book on the movement that included the Council on Interracial Books, as I agree that a longer-view, historical perspective would add a lot to the conversation.

  24. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Sarah, have you read their HUMAN (AND ANTI-HUMAN) VALUES IN CHILDREN’S BOOKS? Spooky stuff. The feminist anti-porn movement was just heating up when i was finishing college, and I remember a friend going on about how any kind of “objectification of women” should be outlawed. I asked her how such objectification would be determined, and she said “we would have a Committee.” The CIBC was the answer to her dreams!

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