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Editorial: The Difference That Made Them

Inadvertently or not, ALA heeded the call of the zeitgeist when it honored six books (out of ten in toto) by people of color in the 2015 Newbery and Caldecott medals and honors, announced last month at the Midwinter conference in Chicago. The winners were Kwame Alexander (African American) for Newbery and Dan Santat (Asian American) for Caldecott; the honor recipients included women of color Jacqueline Woodson for the Newbery and Yuyi Morales, Jillian Tamaki, and Lauren Castillo for the Caldecott. This is all wonderful news.

Yet another honoree represents diversity of a different kind: Cece Bell, who won a Newbery Honor for the graphic-novel memoir El Deafo, is deaf. At that same ALA conference, ALSC held a day-long institute about diversity in books for young people. While speakers were careful to note that diversity included identifiers beyond ethnic group, more than one opined that what we were “really” talking about on this day was the depiction of people of color in children’s and YA literature. While that topic is more than enough for a day’s work, is it, “really,” all we are talking about?

Cece Bell presents one valuable exception; the five men whose work is profiled by Barbara Bader beginning on page 24 present another. No one would claim that these men were invisible; among them, they have fifteen Caldecott or Newbery citations and three Laura Ingalls Wilder medals. (Sendak takes the lion’s share while Remy Charlip, always ahead of the curve, has none.) And coming of artistic age at a time when such things were secret — or at least private — they all were gay. Tomie dePaola, God bless him, alone among them is still alive and flourishing: witness his glorious cover portrait of himself among brothers, convened in a party by noted hostess and self-proclaimed genius Gertrude Stein. (Who wouldn’t pay to see Jim Marshall try to make Gertrude Stein laugh? I bet he could and she would.)

Jokes about Frog and Toad being more than friends aside, none of these men ever wrote explicitly about being gay — first, one assumes, because of the strictures of the times and, second, because they created books for very young children. What enabled them to do so with such heart and intelligence? Only Arnold Lobel had children, but they all could, as Bader writes, “think big on a small child’s level.” Does their being gay have anything to do with this? I think yes.

Much is made by diversity advocates of the need to have cultural insiders create books that convey a culture with empathy, authenticity, and respect. True enough. But don’t outsiders have something to offer as well? The five artists Bader profiles grew up in an era in which gays and lesbians could not even look to their own families, never mind the wider community, for affirmation. Gay kids grew up alone, attentive to all the ways in which they did not belong. It tends to make one an extremely good observer, the first step in becoming an artist. Never underestimate the payoff of a lonely childhood.

I am certainly glad times are different now. Out gay artists, along with all those represented in the alphabet soup that is queer identity today, create picture books and novels and nonfiction for young people that forthrightly address a spectrum of sexuality and gender identity, and fewer people blink every day. But may these same artists also remember their rich legacy and continue to create wild things and clowns of God, friendly frogs and hippos, arm in arm in arm in arm to touch the imaginations of our children all.

From the March/April 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

For more in The Horn Book’s Pride Month series, click on the tag LGBT Pride 2016.

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.

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Comments

  1. Therese Bigeloe says:

    amazing editorial. Thank you Riget

  2. ChristineTB says:

    Having to hide who you are, to not be able to unleash the full extent of your emotional and intellectual creativity – is the cruelest part of the industry. That your friends created such beauty under such restrictive conditions is a testament to their passion and their brilliance.

  3. Naomi Caldwell says:

    It is relief to know that the ALA librarians who serve on the Caldecott and Newbery award committees are finally honoring the work of diverse writers and artists with awards. I trust that one day every young person will be able to visit his or her library, and find ALA award winning books with characters that not only share the same human emotions, but look like, sound like and experience life from his or her perspective (for real). Now that will truly be a “balanced” collection that has the potential to meet the needs of all our readers. It will certain be a welcome relief to have a balanced collection, instead of the hypothetical “nirvana” collection we have been taught is has the gold standard. ALA Caldecott and Newbery award committees, keep of the good work. There is nothing quite like the real thing.

  4. Nina Lindsay says:

    Thanks Roger. I do think that it’s the ability to observe, listen, from wherever you are, that makes for great writing. I don’t believe that only those inside the culture can write of that culture. I just want to hear MORE inside voices, and sometimes some of the outside ones need to take a pause to make room for the inside ones. It’ll make us all better listeners, observers, writers, readers.

  5. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    We agree, Nina, but here I’m suggesting that outsiders can sometimes tell us things about ourselves that we can’t otherwise see. It’s an old Romantic (and white and Western) view of the artist, to be sure, and I think it bumps interestingly into our new concerns with authenticity.

  6. Thanks for this piece, and for the remembrances.

    On the question of inside/outside perspectives– I very much agree that experience with being an outsider can impart insight and empathy for others, and also lend a generally subversive perspective. I love the image of Sendak at the window (and out of all of his work, Really Rosie meant the most to me growing up. Still remember hearing him speak about the time he met her again as an adult. I definitely agree that from his vantage point, he was able to see her in a way that an “insider” maybe couldn’t. Maybe he even saw things she hadn’t recognized in herself.)

    Where I start to get wary, though, is in the erasing of differences that still exist within and between those outsider/insider experiences. Sometimes, too, I think that without acknowledging differences (and their power), efforts at empathy can fail. Or at least, be humanly flawed. Going very far out on my own cultural limb: to me, being Jewish in this country has historically offered an outsider’s perspective, and this is reflected in the work of many Jewish American artists (including Sendak). I was involved recently in a discussion about the Coen brothers, where someone described them, and their movies, as “aloof” and “alienated”. From my perspective, those words have a history, and I think the Coens are also aware of that history and play with it in their work. To me, their films often both evoke an outsider’s perspective, and subversively play with alienation and insider/outsider ideas. But at the same time, again for me, that vision can sometimes slip into a different kind of solipsism, despite that being a subject they’re playing with or in. For example, the film under discussion was Inside Llewyn Davis, which depicts a New York City where almost everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike, is white. This was a problem I (and many others) had with Seinfeld, too. In those two instances, an outsider perspective doesn’t necessarily extend to a recognition of other, differing experiences (both inside and outside of Jewish communities.) Not *at all* to say that this is always true, or is culturally specific! But just to give a personal example of how “outsider” does not immediately equate to insight across differences. I feel like I’m always coming up against the limits of seeing experiences as similar, even as the similarities seen from the outside can afford empathy– if that makes any sense.

    Relatedly, some of the artists listed at the top of the column are people of color, and are *also* gay– and the five exemplary artists profiled on the cover are not only gay, they’re also all white men. I think that means something, too. (As do other aspects of identity!) Outsider experiences can give insight and a needed, sometimes divergent perspective on others. But at the same time they don’t erase differences… or the power associated with them. Especially when it comes to the power afforded some to tell stories for, or about others.

  7. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Yes, Sarah. And I think we have to be careful to distinguish between outsiders (speaking broadly) using their perspective to reveal something that might not otherwise be seen, and outsiders assuming the perspective of insiders when in fact they are not. If, going into it, a writer is thinking “here is a story that needs to be told” rather than “here is a story that i want to tell,” watch out.

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