Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Newbery, Caldecott and Perspectives on Excellence

Each year leading up to the announcement of the Newbery and Caldecott awards, there are discussions of eligible books and attempts to predict the outcomes, while those serving on the committees quietly go about their work. They are quiet by design: while the award criteria are public, the work itself takes place in confidentiality that, regardless of intent and purpose, is also exclusionary. 
I understand the desire for confidentiality during the process, although I don’t think that confidentiality needs to extend in perpetuity. I was a member of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) board that voted to ease some of those rules, making suggestions, nominations and justification statements accompanying nominations for post-2016 committees available after 50 years. I’d love to see future boards go farther; for example, allowing the changes to apply to 2016 and earlier, and expanding the transparency to balloting results. 
My rationale is about more than desire for greater transparency. I’m concerned that the aura of secrecy around the Newbery and Caldecott has led to a cult of mystique surrounding the awards, one that promotes the idea that they are somehow bigger than the work we do in the field of children’s and young adult literature. In fact, they are, simply, part of the work we do, and require the same vigilance as other forms of critique and evaluation when it comes to awareness of how Whiteness impacts the work we do.
The fields of publishing and librarianship and criticism, and those of us in them, are struggling and striving when it comes to understanding this. We still fail more than we thrive at it. 
The Myth of Special Insight
For me, one example of our failure is the idea that only those who have served on one of these committees, who have “been there,” can understand the rigor of the award process. The “I have served” argument, intended or not, is an insidious way to silence those who have never served on the committees, whether in the context of sitting around a table conversing socially or weighing in on critical issues in our field. The “I have served” argument automatically puts some of us on the inside and some of us on the outside. It’s essential to consider the implications of that exclusionary stance not only in general, but specifically as it relates to White privilege, given that Newbery and Caldecott committee membership across the years has been largely inclusive of White people, while Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) are greatly underrepresented. 
BIPOC individuals have served on the Newbery and Caldecott across the years, bringing their own critical perspectives and experiences, but too often they have been solitary members of a committee--something slowly, happily, essentially changing. Yet even as ALSC works toward greater diversity on its award committees, there are barriers that may preclude some from serving. Some can impact both BIPOC and White people, including the cost of attending conferences, and employer support for the necessary time away. There are also barriers that can impact BIPOC disproportionately, including the critical work they may be doing in other contexts to push the publishing profession forward when it comes to authentic representation, and in promoting diverse voices and books. (Today, service on an ALSC award committee requires giving such work up, or doing it anonymously, when it comes to eligible books during one’s year of service. Those who serve agree to this, but it’s a requirement that may make some decline the opportunity.)
I also find the “I have served” (with its implied “and therefore understand while you don’t”) argument problematic because, quite simply, I think it’s untrue. Those who have been on the Newbery and Caldecott committees don’t have membership in a special club with a secret password. Nor have we participated in a sacred ritual that gives us shared insight. My experience on Newbery was deeply satisfying. But the only deeper insight it gave me was into the dynamic for the year I served, along with a deeper understanding of how the discussion and critique, as intense as it is, is also, inevitably, subjective, shaped by who is part of it. 
Subjectivity By Any Other Name...
The rules of confidentiality mean the details of how the Newbery and Caldecott committees arrive at their decision are considered irrelevant in the big picture. And yet, known or not, those details matter. The individual perspectives of each committee member matter. Everyone contributes to the discussion and the dynamic. Everyone contributes to what is—or isn’t—nominated. Everyone contributes to what is—and isn’t—considered when it comes to individual books as committee members read and suggest and reread and nominate and discuss the eligible books in light of the Newbery and Caldecott award criteria. 
Committee members’ work is informed by their individual identities and opinions and insights and experiences as they participate in a process that is far from empirical, although it sometimes seems as if we’re expected to believe that it is. The award criteria they consider to arrive at a decision doesn’t make the definition of “most distinguished” a fixed, objective target. Nor does the fact that it’s an effort shared among 15 people working toward numerical consensus. It is a process deeply informed and shaped by who is participating. And when award committees have been majority White, there is added danger in not acknowledging this subjectivity when it comes to thinking about how we do what we do.
I don’t think individual committees operate with an agenda regarding what kind of book will or won’t win. But the awards don’t occupy some rarified space in which they aren’t influenced by the individual identities and group dynamics of those involved in their choosing. They are influenced by both. 
The truth is that each and every year, a group of different individuals would most likely have chosen a different winner. In fact, that’s what I often say when talking about the awards to librarians and teachers. I also note that these awards are two of many “perspectives on excellence,” to quote a phrase I learned from Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) Director Emeritus Ginny Moore Kruse, because there are many children’s and young adult literature awards, and many wonderful books worthy of acknowledgment each year.
Representation Matters
This doesn’t mean each and every committee hasn’t worked incredibly hard to reach its decision. This doesn’t mean winners aren’t chosen with integrity. But it does mean that representation matters, in books, and on the committees, and even, perhaps, in what is—or isn’t—stated in the award criteria and definitions.
ALSC added a statement about “Diversity and ALSC Media Award Evaluation” to all its award and notable committee manuals in 2015. Among other things, it states,
As individuals serving on committees evaluate materials according to the criteria outlined for their specific charge, they should strive to be aware of how their own perspectives and experiences shape their responses to materials. Every committee member brings unique strengths to the table, but every committee member also brings gaps in knowledge and understanding, and biases.  Committee members are strongly encouraged to be open to listening and learning as well as sharing as they consider materials representing diverse experiences both familiar and unfamiliar to them.
This statement touches on the ideas of cultural competence and cultural humility without naming them, but I wonder what it would look like to have tenets of cultural competence and cultural humility built into the definitions and/or criteria for individual awards as committee members are asked to consider what it means for a book to be “distinguished.”  (Or, as Hal Schrieve asked, how can the award decenter Whiteness?)

How, for example, might the Newbery criteria stating “Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization” be further clarified, especially around that thorny concept of “accuracy”? What might be explicitly asked of both the books and of committee members evaluating a work when it comes to an author writing about—and committee members reading about—experiences beyond those they’ve lived or have close knowledge of? In what way might committee members not just be asked but required to consider their own cultural identities in relation to the works they are evaluating and the comments of one another? How might the definitions and criteria for these awards reflect White privilege in ways I don’t even see?  (I am aware that ALSC may be limited by legal agreements under which the awards were established when it comes to the “terms,” which is why I’m referring here only to “definitions” and “criteria.”)

I have been skirting around these ideas, and hesitating on this post, for awhile. I don’t want to silence or ignore the history or experiences of BIPOC who have served on award committees. I don’t want to ignore or diminish the contributions of anyone who has served on the committees, which are an incredible commitment of time and effort. Nor do I want to diminish the honor of being chosen a winner or honor recipient. 

But my biggest concern is that I don’t know all the questions to ask, let alone have the answers.  What I do know is that critical perspectives on how the Newbery and Caldecott are chosen are not the sole purview of those who have served on the committees.

Megan Schliesman



Thanks Megan, these are all excellent points!
I personally dislike the fever pitch in the build up to the awards. Furthermore, it seems to me counterintuitive to raise a tiny proportion of a year of many great books to a few winners (and then sadly debate the ‘losers’), when the very nature of a library is to be open and for everyone. The many different children of the US make very different choices.
I’m still hurting for Yuyi Morales. I’ll be dead before we find out what happened there. A closed book is no fun for anyone. So, yes, definitely, the awards don’t need CIA style secrecy.
And here’s a wild idea: children. Why do they have no say?


Sorry, where I say
A closed book is no fun for anyone
I’m not referring to last year’s Caldecott in particular, I mean the process in general. I’m not saying finding out about the exclusion of Dreamers is in any way fun. Apologies!

Amy Bahena said...

All. Of. This!!! Yes, my heart hurt for Yuyi last year as well. Every one of my classes selected Dreamers as their pick to win. At what point do we forsake ritual for the improved reflection of what children want and need from their books?!? It's not about us, it shouldn't be done by us.

Laura Jimenez said...

Thank you for this post! I'm not a librarian so this is a world I am only peripherally associated with. I learn from you each time.

Anonymous said...

Last year all five first grade classes in my school in a New Jersey district dominated by Hispanics (90%) voted overwhelmingly for "Blue" by Laura Vaccaro Seeger, a book that did NOT end up in the Caldecott circle in any capacity. I loved DREAMERS and wrote an effusively favorable and gushing essay on it, pointing to its timeliness and story of hope and inspiration. The point I am making here is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I have been shot down repeatedly over the years when I even try and hint at "consensus" so I have learned to accept the "system." Last year's gold medal winner "Hello Lighthouse" by the lovely Sophie Blackall was by any barometer of measurement one of the most stunningly beautiful titles of that or any year. It wasn't my #1, but it was in my Top 5. Point is a 16 member committee is entrusted with decision making and whatever it turns out to be it won't always please everyone. Any one of a DOZEN titles could have won last year and I'd be very pleased. I was very partial to a book called JULIAN AND THE MERMAID and remember being quite disappointed when it came up empty handed. In any event, aside from the disappointments for those who championed favorites that weren't chosen I can compliment last year's committee for including one African-American, one Asian American and one Hispanic American among the five artists who won either the Caldecott Medal or a Caldecott Honor......-Sam Juliano

Barb said...

Thank you so much for this Megan.

It is so important that our children learn to read and learn to love to read. We can empower them by making reading fun and rewarding at a very personal level.

We can empower them by making our awards household names. (I spoke with a middle school vice principal on the phone today and mentioned the Newbery Medal....No kidding I don't think the individual knew what I was talking about.)

We can empower them by creating a culture where reading is seen as highly valuable.

We can empower them by doing everything we can to send them the message that successful people read.

We can empower them by giving them the change to discover that there really is a book for everyone.

It is time...it is way past time... to change the name of the Youth Media Awards to something people understand and remember.

It is time...to announce the "Youth Media Awards" at a time and in a venue that invites the world to the party.

I put a Facebook post up on abookandahug.com Facebook page a few days ago and said, "Fantasy or Future."


Let's get OUR awards in the limelight. Let's invite celebrities to join the Newbery Medal Committee members on the stage to announce the names of the winners.

Let's create shortlists ...shortlists...that every teacher, every librarian, every family can read together and root for.

Our library world needs to dust itself off and step into 2020.

The more voices who call for this change the better for our children. If we don't do this, who will.