Editorial: "Last Stop, First Steps"

When I arrived at the Horn Book in the spring of 1996, it was in the midst of a dustup caused by that January’s editorial, “A Wider Vision for the Newbery,” written by then–senior editors Lauren Adams and Martha V. Parravano. They decried the Newbery-winning predominance of middle-grade fiction by white people about white people, asking for more genre and ethnic diversity.

Well, as Dorothy Parker wrote, here we are. The 2016 Newbery Medal goes to Matt de la Peña, the first Latino to win since Paula Fox in 1974, for Last Stop on Market Street, the first picture book to win since A Visit to William Blake’s Inn in 1982.

When Martha and Lauren were writing, novels had claimed seventeen out of the twenty previous medals; in the twenty years since, eighteen such have won the prize. Mildred Taylor in 1977 had been the last writer of color to win the Newbery until Christopher Paul Curtis in 2000; in all, five nonwhite authors have won the prize since 1996. (Yes, simple arithmetic will show you that just six Newbery winners in the past forty years have not been white, and a survey of the entire span supplies only three or four more, depending on where you put Elizabeth Borton de Treviño. We have a long way to go.)

The responses to the 1996 editorial in the Letters to the Editor column — back when we had a Letters column — were divided, but they all took up the same point: skin color. Some called for an increased awareness of racism, while others sneered about “political correctness,” and Sid Fleischman thundered about how we might have cost Karen Cushman the Newbery. (We didn’t.) But no one, until Milton Meltzer weighed in some months later, took up the issue of the Newbery’s (and the Horn Book’s!) persistent penchant for novels. As we see above, that hasn’t changed at all, even while umpteen “nonfiction renaissances” have come and gone since then.

I am happy for Last Stop on Market Street, for itself and its author(ship), but mostly happy for its reminder that the Newbery Medal can indeed go to Something Else. That there were more winners by nonwhite authors in the last twenty years than there were in all the seventy-some years before that is indeed some progress. (Enough? No, never. I’m reminded of what the Notorious R.B.G. said when asked how many female Supreme Court justices would be enough: “Nine.”)

So without suggesting that we have accomplished the ethnic and cultural diversity we need, I would like to take the happy occasion of a picture book winning the Newbery to voice the hope that it happens again soon. In fact, I would like to throw all restraint to the wind and suggest to ALSC and ALA that the criteria for the Medal be rewritten to allow illustrated books of all kinds to compete in their totalities — pictures as well as words — for the Newbery. The award is for the year’s “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children,” and under current Newbery criteria illustrations figure into the discussion only “when they make the book less effective.” That seems like a shame, especially given the increased fluidity graphic novel innovations have brought to children’s books generally, and given what the award is nominally doing: as Martha Parravano has pointed out (“Alive and Vigorous: Questioning the Newbery,” July/August 1999 Horn Book Magazine), surely the 1964 Caldecott winner Where the Wild Things Are is a more distinguished contribution to American literature for children than is It’s Like This, Cat, which won the Newbery Medal the same year. And yes, because of the pictures. And yes, I wish we lived in a world where the Newbery Medal could go to a wordless book. A boy can dream.

From the July/August 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ALA 2016.
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. 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 MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.