Awards that Stand on Solid Ground

It was with great interest that I read Marc Aronson’s article, “Slippery Slopes and Proliferating Prizes,” in the May/June 2001 issue of this publication. I appreciate the author’s insight into ALA awards, such as the Coretta Scott King Award (CSK) and the Pura Belpré, that celebrate the cultural and ethnic diversities of authors and illustrators. I welcome the author’s invitation to debate the validity of these awards. In his piece, Aronson says we have not openly discussed and debated the merits of these prizes. To all interested parties he says, “Let’s start now.”

So yes, let’s begin.

I believe that rather than creating a “slippery slope down which we are tumbling,” these awards provide a solid ground upon which authors and illustrators of color and the library and publishing communities can stand. These awards are a gateway to progress. They provide a door for authors and illustrators into the world of children’s literature, a world that, despite its increasing diversity, still too often maintains a quiet indifference that is racism in its most subtle form.

Let’s start by example. At the urging of my professional colleagues, I recently attended a lecture and slide presentation that was billed as a “comprehensive survey of the history of the picture book.” The lecture was given by a noted scholar and children’s book publisher, whose survey had a reputation for being the most complete.

I invited an illustrator friend, an African-American woman I had recently signed to illustrate a picture book, to attend the lecture with me. She was new to the field. She had illustrated only a few books, two of which I edited.

Of special interest to me was the number of young people in the audience, editorial assistants and junior editors who would someday be acquiring and editing books of their own. (None, by the way, was black.)

The lecture was chronological, moving from the earliest picture books to current ones. I eagerly awaited the section that would cover the 1960s, when African-American illustrators such as Tom Feelings, Jerry Pinkney, and John Steptoe came on to the scene.

But there was no mention of them. As the lecture and slide show continued through the seventies, eighties, and nineties, there was still no mention of an African American. The lecture did, of course, highlight the works of Caldecott and Caldecott Honor winners. I was sure John Steptoe’s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, which won a Caldecott Honor in 1988, would be cited. And certainly one of Jerry Pinkney’s four Caldecott Honor books would deserve a place on the timeline.

As the lecture concluded with not one single mention of a black illustrator, I felt the acute sense of isolation that comes from unintentional neglect. I felt most saddened for my friend, the new illustrator, and for the young people in the audience, many of whom were not even aware of what they’d missed.

Experiences such as this point to an important truth: a key aspect of awards that hold ethnicity as a criterion for winning is the exposure they afford to black and Latino talent.

Mr. Aronson maintains that these awards are “the wrong way to bring more kinds of books to more kinds of readers.” And he says that the receipt of the 2000 Newbery by Christopher Paul Curtis and the receipt of the first-ever Michael L. Printz Award for YA literature by Walter Dean Myers points to progress — all the more reason to do away with awards that celebrate ethnicity, Mr. Aronson’s article asserts.

Finally, says Mr. Aronson, in an ideal world editors and awards committees should take it upon themselves “to grow, to learn, [and] to expand [their] knowledge” about other cultures and those authors and illustrators of color who create books about them.

The truth is, we don’t live in an ideal world. To my way of thinking, three Newberys (and a handful of Newbery honors) in seventy-nine years does not mark significant progress. I vividly remember the moment it was announced that Christopher Paul Curtis had won the Newbery for Bud, Not Buddy. At the awards press conference at the ALA annual Midwinter meeting in San Antonio, I, like all of my professional colleagues, eagerly awaited hearing who the year’s Newbery recipient would be. When I learned it was Mr. Curtis, I sat on my folding chair and cried.

My tears were a mix of joy and sadness. I was overwhelmed with happiness to know that a black man had received the highest possible honor in children’s literature, but then, too, I was saddened by the fact that the last Newbery to be won by an African American was in 1977, when Mildred D. Taylor was recognized for Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.

In his article, Mr. Aronson makes the point that the Coretta Scott King Award was more necessary in the 1960s when “there were relatively few African Americans working in the field.” But there are still only a handful of African Americans in the children’s literature arena.

I have worked in publishing for sixteen years. I can count the number of black children’s book editors on fewer than my ten black fingers. While there is a growing interest in multiculturalism, many publishing professionals and librarians don’t push themselves to expand their knowledge. This is not because they make a conscious choice to ignore other cultures. In my opinion, it is simply a matter of out of sight, out of mind — another example of “unintentional neglect.”

Similarly, many young people coming into publishing and librarianship come from predominantly white colleges or communities. Many times they have very limited exposure to people and experiences other than their own. Yet these are the publishers and awards-committee members of tomorrow.

Thank goodness there are awards such as the CSK and Pura Belpré, awards that shine a deserving spotlight on not only some of the best books of the year but the authors and illustrators of color who create them. For some of these young people just coming into the field, this will be as far as they seek to find the works of ethnic authors and illustrators. Fortunately, these awards give them a place to begin. Solid ground on which to stand.

Speaking as a black parent, I, of course, look for books that feature the works of black authors and illustrators. I want to expose my children to the achievements of women and men like themselves. This is true of many other black parents as well.

While I am all for providing my kids with an ethnically diverse home library, I also make a special effort to hold up the important contributions of African Americans. The CSK Award seal lets me and other black parents know instantly that a book has been created by someone who is black. While Newbery- and Caldecott-winning books that have been created by African-American authors and illustrators hold a special place on the bookshelves of my children, their scarcity points to the stark ratio of black-to-white winners. When my kids ask why so few books by black people have Newbery and Caldecott Awards stickers on them, I can point them to the CSK Award-winning titles — books that allow children to take pride in black authors and illustrators.

Awards by their very nature are exclusionary. In any awards scenario, when someone wins, someone else “loses,” often by virtue of the fact that for reasons of specific awards criteria, they are not eligible to win.

If someone writes or illustrates a stellar work of literature for young people, and that person is not an American citizen or resident, he cannot win the Newbery or Caldecott, no matter how great the book is.

I cannot win the Smarties Book Prize, because I am not a UK citizen.

Even though I am American, I cannot become Miss America because I am not between the ages of seventeen and twenty-four. Because I am married. Because I am a mother. And because I am not willing to put on a bathing suit and wear it on television.

To attack ethnic-identity awards solely on the basis of their eligibility requirements only takes the awards at face value. If one digs a little deeper, the merits of these awards become clear. An important aspect of ethnic-identity prizes is that they bring new authors and illustrators into the fold. In 1995, the CSK was expanded to include the New Talent Award (now renamed in honor of John Steptoe). Speaking as a publisher who, almost daily, comes into contact with aspiring authors and illustrators of color who have no point of reference for breaking into the business, I can’t say enough about an award that invites and supports newcomers. Thus, ethnic awards offer a wide-open door of opportunity to these bright young talents.

I also speak here as the editor of Sharon Flake, recipient of the CSK/John Steptoe Award for New Talent for her groundbreaking novel The Skin I’m In, now in its seventh hardcover printing. I believe that Ms. Flake’s talent has been bolstered by her receipt of the Steptoe prize. I believe that Ms. Flake’s writing has reached more readers of all races because of the Steptoe award.

The fact of the matter is this: Little is being taken from white writers who cannot receive a CSK or Pura Belpré Award, but denigrating these awards because of their criteria takes something significant from the members of communities who can win these prizes. Attacking these awards insults the creative talents of those who have won these prizes and the committees who work so hard to select the winners for their works.

In his article, Mr. Aronson says, “the more awards are defined by identity, the less relevant to the world-at-large they seem.” And, says the article, it would be best to do away with the criteria that requires an author or illustrator to be from a specific ethnic group to win.

I disagree.

These awards are meant to lift up, to inspire. And let us not forget children, the true consumers of the books these awards celebrate. To deny young people a means to become exposed to the works of ethnic children’s book creators is robbery. Children of color are robbed of the pride they feel in knowing that one of their own has been acknowledged. And white children are robbed of the experience of applauding people other than themselves.

I believe that awards such as the Coretta Scott King and the Pura Belpré are essential to the ALA tapestry. To allow white authors to become eligible for these awards is to turn that tapestry into the monochromatic blanket it used to be.

Andrea Davis Pinkney is editorial director of Hyperion Books for Children and founder of the imprint Jump at the Sun, a line of books celebrating the richness and diversity of black life. She is also the author of Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters, winner of a 2001 Coretta Scott King Honor Award.

From the September/October 2001 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

See more responses to Marc Aronson's article: Letters to the Editor, September/October 2001 Horn Book Magazine.

Andrea Davis Pinkney
Andrea Davis Pinkney
Andrea Davis Pinkney is the winner of the 2013 Coretta Scott King Author Award for Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America, illustrated by Brian Pinkney, published by Disney-Jump at the Sun, an imprint of Disney Book Group. Her most recent book is Martin Rising: Requiem for a King (Scholastic), illustrated by Brian Pinkney.

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