Editorial: Try to Remember (July/August 2019)

Thank goodness the inclusion of the 2019 ALA awards speeches in this issue allows me to talk about the Coretta Scott King Book Awards again (see our just-previous May/June issue celebrating the CSK’s fiftieth anniversary). Congratulations to all the winners, as well as to those receiving Legacy, Newbery, and Caldecott recognition (and thank you, Sophie, for the magnificent cover painting). You’re a swell bunch.

When you look down the list of CSK winners and honor books, you’ll find classics: A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich; Everett Anderson’s Goodbye; Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; The Young Landlords; Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush; The People Could Fly; Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters; Mirandy and Brother Wind; Fallen Angels; Tar Beach; Toning the Sweep. And those are just my favorites from the first twenty-five years; there are a lot more. Today, as yesterday, these books are read in greater and lesser numbers but have established for themselves places in the canon of American children’s literature writ large. I’m guessing most of you teachers and librarians out there found a lot of these books on your children’s literature grad school syllabi.

At least I hope you did. One of the things we older people love to talk about amongst ourselves is the presentism of the current generation. They don’t respect history (that is, us). They think they invented sex. Etc. It’s a complaint that has always been voiced: thirty years ago I evinced a positive opinion of Beverly Sills’s Traviata to Maurice Sendak only to have him sniff, “Well, you never saw Callas.” Billie Jean King complains about young tennis players who don’t-know-don’t-care about the players who came before them. It is all variations of the Paul-McCartney-being-in-a-group-before-Wings syndrome.

My author friend and fellow golden-ager Linda Sue Park recently — and gently — took the youth to task for not knowing their literary history. In response to those young diverse writers who attribute their creative inspiration to an absence of books about people like themselves, she says: “There WERE people doing that work. There were creators battling conditions a thousand times less woke than today, overcoming the obstacles, publishing one book at a time into what must have seemed like a void. No marketing, no WNDB, no social media communities.” There were, Linda Sue is saying, books like those I listed above.

I sympathize with Linda Sue’s complaint, which addresses the same presentism we see in the form of some slip of a twenty-five-year-old YA novelist saying, “They didn’t have books for teenagers when I was one.” That’s the one I hear, and it drives me crazy. But the idea that contemporary creators of diverse books may not know the history and landmarks of the tradition in which they work is troubling in a more serious way. The call for diverse books, whether in the 1960s or today, has a moral dimension, and I believe that includes communion with those ancestors who cleared the way for you. Linda Sue is eager to add that she does not blame the writers for their ignorance, and neither do I: people come to writing books from lots of different directions. But she seems to lay the blame on racism and the consequent unequal opportunities for youth of color to engage in the world of books. This is true, but it fails to acknowledge a crucial and blessed fact: just as Virginia Hamilton, Walter Dean Myers, et al., were creating masterpieces in the last century, there were those leaders (almost all women) in publishing, education, and librarianship who did get those books published and put into the hands of children of color. Augusta Baker, Charlemae Hill Rollins, Barbara Rollock, Pura Belpré, Henrietta M. Smith…the list of scholars and professionals of color who made the promulgation of reading among diverse youth their lives’ work is a long one whose history can be traced for more than a century. And whose work, we devoutly hope, will be continued by those crazy kids of today.

Roger Sutton
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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Debbie Reese

The books were published, yes. Why do today's writers speak as if they weren't there?What failure led to that lack of knowing?We can lift the names of people who helped those books get published. I'm glad to see that, every time. But Linda's right to note racism as a factor in today's writers not knowing yesterday's writers. Roger--do you recall that discussion from child_lit (no idea what year it took place)? Some librarians said they didn't/don't buy books by Hamilton, Myers, ... because they didn't/don't have Black kids in their school/community. Some said they buy them but they don't circulate, so they withdraw them. Racism, as Linda noted, is a factor. A huge factor.

Posted : Jul 08, 2019 02:59

Therese Bigelow

And the editors who published the books should be also be acknowledged. Thanks for the list of your favorites. Some ate mine too. And I also want to thank today’s passionate voices calling for more diversity in publishing. It all leads to the best books for the kids.

Posted : Jul 01, 2019 07:50


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