Considering the Criteria: Addressing Book Discussion Guidelines in the Twenty-First Century

In our awards-focused children’s book industry, the calendar is full of rituals. January is when we learn which books won ALA awards and which did not; June is when we celebrate those winners. With the turning of the season to fall, this is the moment in the award year when committee members begin to winnow their lists, and teachers, librarians, and other children’s literature lovers begin drawing up their own lists for various in-person and virtual mock committee exercises. Once the books are read, the discussions commence, and these too proceed according to routinized if not ritualized custom.

From prestigious national awards such as the Newbery, Caldecott, Coretta Scott King, and Printz to smaller, regional awards such as my own state's Maine Student Book Award to mock awards in school classrooms, the basic process is the same: all are based in discussion. Frequent foundations of these discussions are the guidelines drawn up, in 1989, by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (where they get together to talk kids' books once a month all year round, the lucky dogs). These guidelines include but are not limited to such important points as:

•  Look at each book for what it is, rather than what it is not;

•  Refrain from relating personal anecdotes. The discussion must focus on the book at hand;

•  Try to compare the book with others on the discussion list, rather than other books by the same author or other books in your experience.

Additionally, discussion at the level of the American Library Association's various awards is governed by the specific terms and criteria written into each award’s manual. Some explicitly mirror the CCBC’s guidelines, as in the injunction that committees refrain from discussing books that are ineligible, for instance, excluding anything from a prior year or that otherwise falls outside of the award’s scope.

As both the children’s publishing industry and the world of children’s librarianship look at our mostly white, mostly straight, mostly cisgender, mostly nondisabled memberships and at the soon-to-be-majority-nonwhite children who are our audience, we have begun to question some of our bedrock assumptions about both our literature and our readers. I believe it is time to include the way we talk about books among these assumptions. (I tick three of those four boxes, by the way, and my disability — repetitive stress injuries in both hands — is easily compensated for with technology, making me, as I have said before, "dominant culture AF.")

As reported by the CCBC, 2018 saw substantial upticks in books both by and about members of ethnic and racial minority populations in the United States (with the exception of Native American authors). Nicole A. Johnson, executive director of We Need Diverse Books, called this a “seismic shift”; in the same Guardian article, Kathleen T. Horning, director of the CCBC, was more skeptical, expressing reluctance to take one year’s worth of data as evidence of “real change.” Nevertheless, there are more books with content that is in some way not dominant culture AF coming across our desks to consider.

Similarly, the professional organizations that serve youth librarians are working hard to diversify their ranks; both ALSC and YALSA now emphasize increased diversity among their memberships in their strategic plans. Success on this front should naturally lead to increased diversity on the various award and best-of committees.

Differences in racial and cultural identities, differences in sexuality and gender identities, differences in the ways that we navigate our environments — all of these things affect all of us whether we are dominant culture AF or not. Stairs are no barrier to me, nor are binary-gender restrooms (so long as one of them is for women). My spouse and I can travel openly together without fear of hostility or legal jeopardy. When I am pulled over for speeding, the worst thing I can imagine happening to me is a hefty fine and points on my record. It is ludicrous to imagine that my colleagues who do not share such ease with the world around us do not bring different perspectives to their understanding of it, and that includes the books that we read together.

We take it as a given that our collections — and in no insignificant way, our collections are built from awards and best-of lists — should reflect the diversity of twenty-first-century America’s children, but how do our book award committee guidelines support that goal? We similarly take it as a given that our committee memberships should reflect as much as possible the diverse populations that we serve — but how do our guidelines take into account these inherent differences in perspective in ways that are legitimating and affirming? Let’s reexamine the CCBC/ALA guidelines through this lens.

•  Look at each book for what it is, rather than what it is not.

How, under such a guideline, does a discussion take erasure into account? Consider a notorious recent example, Patricia Wrede’s Thirteenth Child, set in an alternative post–Civil War America called Columbia with magic and mammoths but no Indigenous population. A conversation about the book would include the integrity of the magic system Wrede imagined, the characterizations of her protagonist and secondary cast, the pacing, the plotting, the twists she made to real-world history in envisioning her Columbian frontier. But such a discussion would not necessarily include the fact that Wrede elected to create a Columbian continent devoid of Indigenous peoples—an imagined history that some actual Indigenous readers found both insulting and depressingly consistent with both attitudes and policies of dominant-culture America toward them. Let us, therefore, consider an extension to this guideline:

Look at each book for what it is, rather than what it is not—but also look for the counternarratives it may be ignoring or eliding.

•   •   •

•  Refrain from relating personal anecdotes. The discussion must focus on the book at hand.

I have been part of enough discussions that have been derailed by irrelevant stories about group members’ families to get this one. But with this restriction in place, will a minority group member feel free to share information gained from lived experience? Alaya Dawn Johnson fills her 2014 thriller Love Is the Drug, whose protagonist, Bird, is African American, with details specific to middle- and upper-middle-class African American culture. Some details (Bird’s decision to stop straightening her hair, her mother’s ferocious insistence on excellence) should be accessible to even only fairly alert non-Black readers. But others — the multiple references to Jack and Jill clubs come to mind — are so deeply embedded in Black culture that (judging from discussions I have been part of) it takes a person who has lived them to articulate how important they are to the construction of the character and the world that she inhabits. If a discussion-group member does not feel free to share how the book resonates on such a basic level, both they and the rest of the group — and the book — suffer from the omission.

It is important to stress here that allowing personal experience of this nature into a discussion does not mean that all heads at the table should swivel to perhaps the one representative member of any given culture to speak on behalf of that culture. No one can do that, and the expectation that one can bespeaks a failure to see that person as a peer. There is a difference between making space for a minority group member to speak to the authenticity of a detail and expecting that one member of a culture represent the entire culture. In that spirit, here is another proposed revision:

Refrain from relating personal anecdotes. The discussion must focus on the book at hand — but if you have cultural insight that will help your fellow committee members understand a book better, please share it.

•   •   •

•  Try to compare the book with others on the discussion list, rather than other books by the same author or other books in your experience.

This instruction, which is part of the CCBC guidelines and is also enshrined in award-committee manuals, makes sense in many ways. When you are choosing the best book of the year, you should compare it to others of its kind, and saying that such-and-such a title is not as good as Charlotte’s Web is really not germane to the task at hand. But in so far as these lists and awards have been building a canon since 1922 (when the Newbery was established), it strikes me that explicit consideration of that canon is very much germane to how we consider the books on any one year’s table. 2019 may produce a tremendous white-child-coming-of-age book, and its execution may well be superlative. But are we advancing the creation of a vibrant, growing canon that is reflective of the children we serve if we promote an excellent book that replicates so many others that are already on our shelves over a different, also-excellent book that does something we haven’t seen? Those books that make it to a discussion table are a rarefied few, and the differences among them are frequently split hairs. Rather than focusing on technical excellence, why not also take into consideration how affixing a gold or silver sticker to a title affects our canon? Which takes me to my third proposed revision:

Try to compare the book with others on the discussion list, rather than other books by the same author or other books in your experience — but also consider how this book advances a canon of inclusivity.

We return to time-honored rituals because they work: the CCBC guidelines have stood those of us who engage in discussion of children’s books in good stead, as have the various award terms and criteria. I’m not proposing the wholesale jettisoning of practices we’ve come to rely on. But I don’t think there’s a single person in this industry who believes we shouldn’t align our literature and our personnel with the diverse demographics of the children we serve. Intentionally addressing our guidelines for the times we live in now will redound to the benefit of all — especially the children we serve.

Vicky Smith

Vicky Smith is the children’s editor at Kirkus Reviews. She has served on a bunch of award committees and on the ALSC Board but she speaks for none of them, nor does she speak for this magazine, though it’s nice enough to print her opinions.

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