2017 in Review: The Year in Words

Literature, whether for adults or young readers, often reflects its time. Each year at awards time, along with such perennial debates as popularity versus literary quality, subjectivity, and age appropriateness, critics often focus on thematic treatments that are on the general public’s minds. Recent times have been challenging for many, with societal concerns such as human rights, gender issues, racism, gun violence, civil rights, and equity dominating our national conversation. Notable in 2017 was the passionate response by children’s book creators to these issues, intertwined with that of identity and representation. Whose story gets told, and who gets to tell it?

This year’s Newbery slate was striking in that, for the first time in the award’s existence, all four books featured nonwhite protagonists and were written by authors of color. Newbery winner Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly features a Filipino American boy (among four rotating protagonists) whose cultural inheritance serves as spiritual and emotional guide along his journey toward self-assertion and his quest for meaningful friendship. The picture book Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut was, for some, a surprise Newbery Honor, but it shouldn’t have been. Derrick Barnes’s energetic verse celebrating black barbershops engaged directly with young readers as it honored the craft, art, and happiness of the “fresh cut.”

Honor books Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds and Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson both capture contemporary black teens’ lived experiences, presented with completely different voices and styles. Reynolds’s (about Will, on his way to avenge his brother’s violent death and on the verge of making the most important decision in his young life) is in free verse, punchy, and raging; Watson’s (about Jade, a capable and talented student artist on a journey of realizing her true potential) is in measured, lyrical prose and quietly fierce. In addition to Newbery Honors, Piecing Me Together won the Coretta Scott King Author Award; and Long Way Down was a Printz, Coretta Scott King, and Odyssey Honor winner along with winning the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and being on the National Book Award longlist.

Angie Thomas’s searing police brutality–centered debut The Hate U Give, thematically tied with Long Way Down and Piecing Me Together — and with the #BlackLivesMatter movement — burst out early in the year, receiving multiple starred reviews and quickly hitting bestseller status. In addition to a Morris Award for “new voices in YA literature,” it received an Odyssey Award for the audiobook version, the 2017 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Fiction, a Coretta Scott King Author Honor, and a Printz Honor, as well as being named a National Book Award finalist.

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The plight of immigrants and refugees was another theme to be found in 2017’s award winners, reflecting the state of the world. Two refugee-centered books by #OwnVoices insiders were substantially celebrated. Bao Phi’s A Different Pond, illustrated by Thi Bui, a piercingly direct and deceptively simple story of a Vietnamese immigrant family, received numerous starred reviews and awards, among them an Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, the Charlotte Zolotow Award for picture book writing, a Caldecott Honor, and a 2018 Boston Globe–Horn Book Picture Book Honor. Cuban émigré Ruth Behar was a National Jewish Book Award finalist and received the Pura Belpré Author Award for Lucky Broken Girl, a novel based on her own experience coming to the United States in the 1960s. In addition, Alan Gratz’s Refugee, featuring the journeys of three fictional refugees (Jewish boy Josef fleeing 1939 Nazi Germany, young Isabel on a raft escaping 1994 Cuba, and Mahmoud fleeing war-torn 2015 Syria) received numerous starred reviews and Sydney Taylor Book Award and National Jewish Book Award medals.

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As happens every year, there were titles that readers responded to with marked divergence. One example from this you-either-love-it-or-can’t-stand-it category was Laurel Snyder’s Orphan Island. Longlisted for the National Book Award, this mystical story showed up on many Mock Newbery lists. Nine children live alone on an island that provides them with all they need; once a year a boat brings a new youngest child while taking the eldest away. Although some readers were intrigued by the unique premise and relished the novel’s ambiguous ending, others chafed at the nostalgic tone and were frustrated by the conclusion. Katherine Applegate’s Wishtree, told from the perspective of a tree in a changing neighborhood, and touching on immigration and Islamophobia, was another book that some loved (it was on the New York Times Notable Children’s Books and Publishers Weekly Best Books lists for 2017) and others didn’t — and ALA award committees gave it a pass.

It isn’t just individual books that provoke such different responses. Genres do, too, and sci-fi/fantasy fans, in particular, often complain that their favorites rarely get their due. This year, Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer won a Printz Honor, and Philip Pullman’s long-awaited first volume in his Book of Dust series (prequel to His Dark Materials), La Belle Sauvage, received an Odyssey Honor for its audiobook. Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard series entry The Ship of the Dead, on the other hand, which was both positively reviewed and massively popular, was shut out. However, Riordan’s memorable characters — such as the gender-fluid Alex and the empathetic, not-stereotypically-hypermasculine protagonist Magnus Chase — were embraced by millions of young readers, a hopeful sign of tolerance and acceptance.

Nonfiction is another genre that can be overlooked. Rarely do these titles win Newbery or Printz gold, and this year was no exception. Fortunately, there are nonfiction awards filling in this gap. The Sibert Medal went to Larry Dane Brimner for Twelve Days in May: Freedom Ride 1961, and Deborah Heiligman’s six-starred Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers received the 2017 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Nonfiction as well as Printz and YALSA Nonfiction Honors. Using a present-tense narration, Heiligman created an engrossing look at family relationships, mental illness, and artistic creation. Another highly lauded title, with a unique approach and structure, was Dashka Slater’s The 57 Bus. Winner of a Stonewall, a YALSA Nonfiction Finalist, and a 2018 Boston Globe–Horn Book Nonfiction Honor, this compelling true account examines both sides of a case in which an agender youth’s skirt is set on fire on a bus.

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Awards are often trend setters. That this year’s Newbery winner and honorees were by and about people of color is a welcome start to encourage more inclusivity and diversity — as is ALA’s recent decision to include honorees selected by the American Indian Library Association, Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association, and the Association of Jewish Libraries at future Youth Media Award announcements.

Yet even as the 2017 award landscape seems to indicate a groundswell of progress in children’s publishing, we must be aware of how the industry is still doing the most basic level of catch-up work. For example, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s report “Publishing Statistics on Children’s Books About People of Color and First/Native Nations and by People of Color and First/Native Nations,” books by and about Native Americans make up 1.9% of the total books published in the U.S. in 2017, and only 1% of those are by Native book creators. With Native Americans accounting for only 1% of the U.S. population, are we actually content that a Native American child could find her own reflection in one or two out of every hundred books? Should an Asian American child be grateful that he would now probably see a character who looks like him in every twelve books? Would the publishers pat themselves on the back once an African American or a Latinx child is able to find a book about people with their heritages in every six or seven books on the library shelf?

Indeed, when could we consider the work “done”? The answer needs to be thought of not merely in terms of numbers, but when any child from any marginalized group sees himself or herself amplified and represented in books and media. After all, one of the powers of literature is to bestow such gifts beyond what reality may offer.

From the July/August 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ALA 2018.

Monica Edinger and Roxanne Hsu Feldman
Roxanne Hsu Feldman is the librarian and Monica Edinger is a fourth grade teacher at The Dalton School in New York City. Both have served on several award committees, including the Newbery. Roxanne co-moderates School Library Journal’s Heavy Medal blog and authors the blog Fairrosa Cyber Library; Monica is the author of Africa Is My Home: A Child of the Amistad (Candlewick) and writes the blog Educating Alice.

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