Thursday, January 14, 2016

Housekeeping and the YMAs

by Sam Bloom

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Most of you are aware, but in case you missed it, the Youth Media Awards were announced this past Monday at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Boston. As a member of the Coretta Scott King book jury, it’s hard for me to comment too much due to confidentiality, but I will say I was THRILLED with pretty much every result. Kudos to ALL the committee members for their service.
One thing that is guaranteed every year is the Monday- (or, in this case, Tuesday-) morning quarterbacking that inevitably shows up after the announcements, especially where Newbery and Caldecott are concerned. It’s one thing to sigh wistfully, thinking of What Could Have Been. There is passion involved in this type of reflection, and sometimes thoughtfulness, and – normally – no committee-slamming.
But then you have the ugly side of the second-guessing. We’ve seen this in display over at Calling Caldecott (and to a lesser extent Heavy Medal). The argument some commenters are making is basically that the committees “decided to promote diversity over quality.” In perhaps the most odious of all of the comments, Telly wrote:
“In my opinion, judges are going a little too far [to] showcase diversity. How likely is it that, out of everything released in 2015, 3 of the 5 winners happen to have non-white protagonists? I just picture a bunch of smug white librarians patting themselves on the back for these picks. At least if you’re going for diversity, try not to be condescending and have all those books be about civil rights, racial struggles, poverty, etc. It’s just so transparent.”
You’d think I would have made myself immune to this type of thing, seeing as how we live in the Age of the Internet, and yet this kind of self-righteous bullshit still triggers my gag reflex. Never mind the fact that committee members work tirelessly, using the award criteria (which are forever burned on their brains), to come to their respective decisions. No, what is especially troubling about Telly’s comment here is something I’m seeing across the board: the way that Telly (and CJ, and Emily) seem genuinely troubled by the success of authors of color… because apparently diversity and quality are mutually exclusive, and anyone who disagrees with their flawed perspective is “superior” (and not in a good way). In our profession where we love our authors and illustrators to a fault (I have a lot more to say on that subject, believe you me), we get catty as all hell if – God forbid – more than half of the award-winning books are from authors and illustrators of color and First/Native Nations.

For now I have promised myself that I won’t engage with commenters like this, and instead focus on the good things coming from Monday’s announcements, because, as Nana so wisely observes in our new Newbery winner, “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.”

13 comments:

Stu said...

These are the same sorts of comments that come up when Affirmative Action is discussed. The assumption is that the award, scholarship, or what-have-you was not deserved but was only achieved due to "special treatment" for the person of color.

The hours spent studying the books before the hours spent trying to convince the others on the committee that one's choice is worthy of an award, has produced book lists of exceptional quality. Not everyone will agree with every choice, of course, but blaming it on bias towards diversity is just lazy. Disagree with the results if you like, but do it on literary grounds.

Pointing out white privilege (or wealth privilege, Christian privilege, etc.) is one way to combat the mindset intent on accusing others of bias in favor of diversity. Kudos to you for your mission with this blog.

Project Wit said...

Stu, I certainly hear you on that AA comment; and the jealousies engendered as a result of stereotyping native communities as somehow comprehensively beneficiary... it complicates all dialog and causes it to require more effort for people to reach understanding.

As a parent of an enrolled Cherokee citizen living in an urban area where there are no tribal services, and programming was not robust only a decade ago, I can say to you that my son did not receive much (if any, actually) special opportunity just for being native. I can say I personally lobbied on his behalf through all the years to get him accesses we could never buy; it was because he had a passionate, engaged mother who did less than she should have but did more than nothing. It was not because of color. It was because of human effort. And for each opportunity I won from the hands of the spendy mainstream enrichment programs, he showed up for it and proved them right to offer. He won awards for excellence, he won continuing interest from program people, he made friendships with the other children of all backgrounds and later learned that these chances must be worked for, they do not simply drop in ones' walletless lap. To diminish the looming, ever-present complications of poverty is a key aspect of privilege. To live in a world of diminished stereotyping is a dream. I yearn for the day that fiction of color (so to speak) does NOT find it necessary to discuss our history, our struggle, our reality. As a native family, we would love it if these facts of our existence were already taught in schools. Reading is never pure entertainment. Reading is a deep act. At all ages reading is a deep act. It is merely the tantrums of privilege that seem to say that's not so.

Traci Sorell said...

Well said! I was so happy on Monday and still am.

Monica Edinger said...

Having been in "The Room Where It Happens" (cue Lin-Manuel Miranda:) in 2008, I agree with Sam that it is at that point all about the books. However, I would say that leading up to it, I for one was certainly looking far and wide for potential nominees that offered as great variety and...yes... diversity as possible. And this year, thanks to this blog and conversations elsewhere, I'm doing that more than ever. They've truly got me thinking and looking and recalibrating how I teach my 4th graders and the books I use with them. And so if committee members were doing that too as they examined and read and considered and prepared for last weekend's deliberations, how great that is! Monday's announcements made me hopeful and more optimistic, something I've been even at my lowest moments in the past year. I felt as painful as the conversations were, they were necessary and the result would be a better world. The work of this year's YMA committees is a terrific start. Bravo to all of them and to the creators of the fabulous award winners.

Brian Fahey said...

It's just really hard to get to the root of the issue here. What I know is that there are always people who disagree with the choices that the committees make. I also know that when people disagree or are upset that they didn't get something that they wanted, they often look for someone or something to blame it on. I've spent 30 years teaching and coaching and the weakest excuses usually begin with, "The teacher doesn't like me" or "The coach hates me." The diversity over quality argument is on that level. Saying that a committee pursued a political agenda in its evaluation of the books says a lot about the person who made the comment. They obviously do not want to have a discussion about the merits or deficiencies of the book. I can't comment further than that because I don't know the people who made the comments. I served on this year's Caldecott Committee, so I have not commented on the Calling Caldecott blog, but did go on Heavy Medal to leave some comments. At first I wanted to fly above the criticism and leave it all to others to sort out, but it was my desire to elevate the dialog that spurred me to comment. I want to elevate the dialog in all of the domains, in the criticism of books, in discussing how to enrich the lives of children through literature and in discussing why its hard to respectfully engage others regarding issues that are important for us. Project Wit, thanks for saying this, "Reading is a deep act. At all ages reading is a deep act." I'd love to have the conversation about this year's winners in a deep way and also about the topic of diversity in children's literature in a deep way. It takes two sides to have the conversation, though, so we need the critics to flesh out their arguments by talking specifically about the issue, rather than flinging baseless accusations at the committee members.

claudiagains said...

I'm the commenter, CJ, you refer to. As a woman of color, I don't have any issues with the "success of authors of color". I also never said that diversity and quality were mutually exclusive. My issue is simply that I don't think LSOMS was the most deserving book based on the Newbery criteria. I'll grant that they didn't choose diversity over quality, though, because there were certainly plenty of other more excellent diverse books to choose from.

fibercontent said...

Hey, Sam, am I being screened? I tried to comment twice and neither one showed up. Trust me, I was eloquent, both on the whole "topic" (trying to watch my language these days) about diversity vs. excellence and the issue about How The Committees Work.

No one ever believes it, but the committee talks only about The Books. We never talked about the artists (once they are found eligible very early in the process), or the artist's ethnicity, place of residency, physical limitations or strengths, sexuality, whether they had been honored before, how this book is like her other books from other years. Nothing. Just the criteria and just the books on the table.
Anything that veers from the criteria is squashed like a bug by the chair.

fibercontent said...

By the way fibercontent (don't ask) is really Robin Smith

Emma Otheguy said...

I would always just respond with what are the odds that, in a totally neutral world, out of all of the books written year after year after year, the "best" ones are always written by White authors: zero.

Sam Bloom said...

Project Wit, I love this phrase from the last sentence of your comment: "the tantrums of privilege." So true that much of the privilege I see from adults DOES feel like a tantrum... and, I'm ashamed to say that looking back on the moments when I've bristled at a time when someone calls me on MY privilege, that yes, I basically threw a tantrum. Thank you for your comment!

Sam Bloom said...

Well said, Monica, and I agree: how great it is if and when book award committee members widen their searches ever farther in all aspects.

Sam Bloom said...

Thanks for your comment, claudiagains (or CJ?). Fair enough that you don't consider a book to be the strongest based on the criteria. Honestly, I've been in that place where I just didn't get why a committee chose a certain book. But... "Seems like the choices were more political rather than based on the actual merits of the books." Really?! You think 15 people who read several hundred books apiece are then going to get in a room for, like, 36 hours over a two-day period only to make their choices based on a "political" statement?

Deborah R. Hawkins said...

"...because apparently diversity and quality are mutually exclusive..." THIS. This is what annoys me the most and what these people don't seem to understand.