2020 in Pictures and Words

The last time we sat down to put virtual pen to communal paper for our annual “year in review” article (“A Year with Words and Pictures — but No ALA Annual,” July/August 2020 Horn Book), it was spring of 2020. We had been working from home for a few weeks, still trying to wrap our minds around the COVID-19 crisis while scrambling to set up and implement new systems and workflows. Our last big group event had been ALA Midwinter in Philadelphia, close enough for the entire Horn Book office — a whopping five editors — to attend; and one whose importance, in our collective memory, would take on new significance in retrospect, as the last in-person ALA for a while (still TBD) and the last Midwinter ever in that form.

As the year went on, we smoothed our systems, and books and their evaluation again took center stage. Yes, we were looking at most everything electronically — and kudos to the publishers for such a quick pivot to this model (and also for so rapidly pubbing such noteworthy COVID picture books in early 2021 as Pham’s Outside, Inside, rev. 3/21; Floca’s Keeping the City Going, rev. 3/21; and Trinder’s There Is a Rainbow, rev. 5/21). Yes, we bemoaned the lack of physical books, ARCs, and F&Gs. It can be difficult to get the “feel” of a picture book without actually feeling it, and there’s nothing like a page-dominating watermark to take a reader out of a story. Yes, we miss our in-person time in the office together. We imagine that’s also true of the award selection committees, but — as you can see from the acceptance speeches in this issue! — they managed. Closer to home, last October our own Boston Globe–Horn Book Award committee members; awardees and their publishers; and our web team turned our usual one-night-only ceremony into a month-long celebration. What a year it ended up being for books for young people, culminating in January 2021’s virtual ALA Youth Media Awards announcement and some truly groundbreaking — and long overdue — wins.

It seems as if every year brings more proof that the children’s book field is moving toward greater diversity and inclusivity, if ALA awards are any measure. Last year, we noted that the Newbery and Caldecott medals both went to Black men (Jerry Craft and Kadir Nelson, who also won the Coretta Scott King Author and Illustrator awards for their work on New Kid and The Undefeated, respectively). And this year, all the Newbery and Caldecott winners and honorees were women, with women of color well-represented among them.

Caldecott winner Michaela Goade, illustrator of We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom, truly made history as the first-ever Indigenous medalist (Velino Herrera, a Pueblo man, won a Caldecott Honor back in 1942 for In My Mother’s House). More generally, Goade is the first BIPOC woman illustrator to win the medal. Pause to let that sink in: the Caldecott was first awarded in 1938, and 2021 was the first time a nonwhite woman won the award. In recent years, many BIPOC women have received honors; in fact, you need to go back to 2014 to find a year when no people of color at all were recognized by Caldecott. But never in the eighty-three-year history of the award has a Native person — male or female — or a non-white woman won the gold.

Michaela Goade is of Tlingit descent and is tribally enrolled with the ­Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. We Are Water Protectors tells a specifically Native story about a girl and her grandmother, their community’s relationship to water, and the Standing Rock resistance. The flow of the illustrations beautifully echoes and enhances the lyrical text. From Calling Caldecott’s Autumn Allen: “Aside from the beauty, the technical skill with which Goade wields the paintbrush is almost unbelievable. From the edges between shapes, to the blend between colors, to the gleam in each eye, the precision is truly impressive.”

Last year, although we enthusiastically celebrated the Caldecott slate, we noted the lack of recognition of women artists. This year, stunningly, every Caldecott accolade went to a woman. In addition to medalist Goade, honorees were Cozbi A. Cabrera for Me & Mama, which also won a CSK Illustrator honor, as did Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of ­Gwendolyn Brooks, itself also a Sibert honoree; Noa Denmon for A Place Inside of Me: A Poem to Heal the Heart; Yuko Shimizu for The Cat Man of Aleppo; and Cindy Derby for Outside In. All but Derby are women of color — a first — and all the artists are receiving Caldecott recognition for the first time.

In recent years, we’ve seen an increase in “affirming” picture books — books that acknowledge, center, and celebrate marginalized identities. We saw some particularly strong ones in 2020 that affirmed an especially timely and ­front-of-mind message for many: Black Lives Matter. Along with Caldecott honorees Me & Mama and A Place Inside of Me, other noteworthy picture books that celebrated Black identities include I Am Every Good Thing (a 2021 Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Book); A Girl like Me; Black Is a ­Rainbow Color; and All Because You Matter. As ­Christopher Myers said in his 2013 article “Young Dreamers,” books are vital to help “augment and enrich the image libraries people carry in their hearts,” and this year’s titles provide an especially valuable selection.

The Newbery, too, awarded primarily women of color (medalist Tae Keller and honorees Erin Entrada Kelly, Christina Soontornvat, and Carole ­Boston Weatherford; Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is the lone white honoree); and first-timer winners (everyone but 2018 Newbery Medalist Kelly and 2016 honoree Bradley, also a 2021 BGHB honoree). Soontornvat’s A Wish in the Dark and All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team both won Newbery honors, with All Thirteen also being a Sibert honoree, BGHB honoree, and YALSA Nonfiction Award finalist. Notable again is that all of the 2021 Newbery books tell stories that are widely varied yet culturally or situationally specific. Keller’s When You Trap a Tiger was also winner of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in the Children’s Literature category, and a 2020 Boston Globe–Horn Book Fiction and Poetry honoree. As BGHB judge Leo Landry said, “Magical realism, Korean folklore, and contemporary fiction combine beautifully in this novel that explores the power of storytelling, family, grief, and resilience, through a ­heroine who finds her own voice through the stories of her past.”

Acclaimed nonfiction writer Candace Fleming had a wonderful YMA — a literal Queen Bee! Unlike the Newbery and Caldecott, the Sibert doesn’t seem to have baked-in gender bias (roughly half the past winners are women), but how empowering that this year’s Sibert winner was not only written by a woman but also starred a remarkable female — a female bee, that is: Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera, illustrated by Eric ­Rohmann. Fleming also took home YALSA’s Excellence in Nonfiction Award, for a very different biography, The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh, marking the first time the same author has won both of these nonfiction awards in the same year for two different books. There was more overlap in the two awards as well, with John Rocco’s remarkable How We Got to the Moon: The People, Technology, and Daring Feats of Science Behind ­Humanity’s Greatest Adventure and Soontornvat’s indeed “incredible” All T­hirteen showing up on both rosters. Nonfiction award lists have been consistently strong for some time now (and wide-ranging: what other category could encompass both those tomes as well as picture books like Honeybee and Exquisite), reflecting the strength and variety of current nonfiction. And after our pandemic year, when according to the New York Times, “Nonfiction titles for kids grew more than 23 percent as parents turned to books to educate their homebound children,” we can surely expect that to continue. Here’s to a growing category that offers something for everyone.

Two of the Sibert honorees — Soontornvat and Cabrera — are women of color. Everyone recognized by the Printz is a person of color: winner Daniel Nayeri and honorees Traci Chee, Gene Luen Yang, Candice Iloh, and Eric Gansworth (who, per Native scholar Debbie Reese, is the first Native person to be so recognized). Three of the Geisel honorees — Kelly Starling Lyons, Nina Mata, and Maya Tatsukawa — are women of color. Mildred D. Taylor won the Children’s Literature Legacy Award and a CSK Author honor, while Kekla Magoon won the Margaret A. Edwards Award “for significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature”; both are African American women authors. And of course, the Coretta Scott King Book Awards, AILA, APALA, and Pura Belpré Awards (more on that later) were won by people of color. (See this issue for more from and about CSK winners Frank Morrison and Jacqueline Woodson, as well as Taylor, Magoon, and CSK Practitioner recipient Dorothy L. Guthrie.) We would need a children’s literature scholar/statistician to give us the definitive answer, but it’s possible that this was the first ­non-white-majority slate of major ALA children’s book awards. If so, it would be only fitting, since we are well on our way to becoming a majority-minority country.

And diverse representation wasn’t limited to race, or only to race. Books recognized by the Schneider Family Book Award, for example, told stories not just of people with disabilities (the award’s focus), but of Jewish characters, queer characters, and characters of color, including refugees. Stonewall Honor books included diverse queer and ethnic identities, as well as variety in the types of stories told. Felix Ever After and Darius the Great Deserves Better, by Kacen Callender and Adib Khorram, respectively, are YA realistic fiction (and neither author is a stranger to ALA awards; Callender is a previous Stonewall winner and a 2021 CSK Author honoree, Khorram is a previous William C. Morris Award and APALA winner). Debut author Leah Johnson received an honor for the YA realistic romantic comedy You Should See Me in a Crown, and debut middle-grade graphic novelist Aliza Layne garnered one for Beetle & the Hollowbones, a lively fantasy. This year’s Stonewall medal went to an original board book, We Are Little Feminists: Families, by Archaa Shrivastav, designed by Lindsey Blakely. Part of a series, it showcases happy photos of many configurations of families, with queer families matter-of-factly represented among them. Simple? Maybe. But the youngest readers deserve to see joyful representation of all kinds of families.

Last but certainly not least, the Pura Belpré Award has been especially on our radar this year; see our May/June 2021 special issue celebrating the award’s twenty-fifth anniversary. 2021 saw the exciting addition of a new Young Adult Narrative category, with the inaugural award going to Furia by Yamile Saied Méndez, a story of a female fútbol player in Argentina. The illustrator award went to Raúl the Third for his second, delicious ¡Vamos! book (Let’s Go Eat) and the author award went to Ernesto Cisneros for Efrén Divided. It was a relatively small group of winners, with one illustrator honoree, two children’s author honorees, and two YA honorees; and of those awarded, five appear in our special issue. Do check it out — the May/June issue is chock-full of articles by and about the award, its history, and Latinx literature for young people. Join the Celebración, hosted by REFORMA and presented virtually this year during ALA. And look for the tags #25AñosDelBelpré #25YearsOfBelpré on social media, as the celebration continues all year long.

The centennial of the Newbery is approaching in 2022 [see Dust Off the Gold Medal, reviewed in this issue]. The volume’s editors note the changing role of librarians from that of gatekeepers (keeping elite norms in place) to that of facilitators “helping to connect library patrons to resources that meet their needs.” ALA committees’ choices this year seem to back up this observation — and hopefully there’s no going back. Diverse books are changing both the landscape and the rules of the children’s book industry.

From the July/August 2021 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2021.

Single copies of this special issue are available for $15.00 including postage and may be ordered from:

Kristy South
Administrative Coordinator, The Horn Book
Phone 888-282-5852 | Fax 614-733-7269

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