That time of year again: the unbearable whiteness of the Caldecott
When this photo popped up in my "On This Day" category on Facebook recently (I'm the blur on the left), I was brought back to the excitement of sitting in a packed room last January at the American Library Association Midwinter Conference, hearing the winners of the Youth Media Awards announced. The drama of having a picture book win the Newbery Medal (Last Stop on Market Street illustrated by Christian Robinson, written by Matt de la Peña) had the crowd squealing in a way only a roomful of giddy librarians can squeal. And the racially diverse list of Caldecott Honor books (Trombone Shorty illustrated by Bryan Collier, written by Troy Andrews; Waiting by Kevin Henkes; Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement illustrated by Ekua Holmes, written by Carole Boston Weatherford; Last Stop on Market Street illustrated by Christian Robinson, written by Matt de la Peña) had the crowd howling and cheering with delight. We were satisfied. The committees had been willing to think outside the box. People of color had been recognized for their beautiful illustration work in books that depicted people of color in a variety of historical and contemporary settings.
It didn't take long for murmurs of dissent to be heard. The Horn Book Blog invited readers to share their reactions to the books that were honored:
"In my opinion, judges are going a little too far 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." - Telly
"I agree that diversity trumped quality this year. I’m disappointed and frankly dismayed. I’m now less inclined to tell students that an award is given for quality. I plan to develop some lessons comparing and contrasting the winners vs the contenders. Newbery may have jumped the shark."
- ReNae Bowling
"The idea that if an honored book is not by/about white people, and one does not oneself see its merits, then the committee members who spent all year reading and discussing books must have chosen “diversity over quality” is offensive, yes.
What are the chances that 18 out of the last 20 Caldecott winners would be white?
Yes, the fact that rather than celebrating the winners, people are *complaining about their diversity* is a sign that there is still a lot of work to be done." - Sarah
"...there are always books of “serious quality” that don’t win an award. What is the point of opining that the committee did so deliberately in favor of “diversity”? The point can only be to discredit the books that did win based on the diversity reflected in them, and the illustrators themselves. That is what is offensive." - Nina Lindsay
"In this case, the comments about the committee choosing “diversity over quality” are what most concern me. I suspect this comment could never come from someone who has been on an ALA book award committee. The atmosphere in the judging is room is completely book-centric. It is ALL about the book, and if I remember correctly we didn’t even refer to the book creators by name that much. It’s detail, detail, detail; then pull back for a broader view or a read aloud; then more detail. Those of us in my year who were not up on Caldecott trivia were surprised afterwards to find out which honorees had never won before and which ones had. You develop a kind of tunnel vision that — in my opinion — serves the award well. But always ALWAYS you can count on comments afterwards that make assumptions.
Because of the secrecy about what goes on in the room, we will never know. I think that speculations about what the committee was thinking are counterproductive. Now is the time to consider their choices and take a closer look at any choices that surprised us. AND we should go on blowing the horn for all the other great books published this year." - Lolly Robinson
"I would also like to point out that the available pool of American picture books of quality published in 2015 (including the ones that rose to the top at Calling Caldecott) practically guaranteed that there would be significant diverse representation in the actual Caldecott choices.
Look at how many of the books we discussed and celebrated on Calling Caldecott were by authors and illustrators of color: Christian Robinson, Jessixa Bagley, Ekua Holmes, Christopher Myers, Jason Chin, Carole Boston Weatherford, Kadir Nelson, April Chu, Rafael Lopez, Duncan Tonatiuh, Matt de la Pena, Ed Young, Jerry PInkney — and I’ve probably missed some people.
Look at all the nonwhite faces: in MY BIKE; WAIT; WATER IS WATER; FLOAT; LEO; MY PEN; IN A VILLAGE BY THE SEA; LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET, FLOP TO THE TOP; etc. These books weren’t culturally specific. They were just matter-of-factly inclusive.
Look at the books we all admired with specific diverse content: DROWNED CITY, DRUM DREAM GIRL; VOICE OF FREEDOM; etc. (And despite our attempts to discuss as many books as possible, unfortunately we didn’t even get to TROMBONE SHORTY…)
So surely there were MANY more diverse picture books on the Caldecott table this year, making the “diversity over quality” argument difficult to defend." - Martha V. Parravano
"The notion that three of five Caldecott mentions going to non-white illustrators means that the diversity fix was in reminds me of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s response to the question of how many female Supreme Court Justices will be enough. “Nine,” she said. Congratulations to all the honorees." - Roger Sutton
"It’s always interesting and often troubling when diversity comes up in publishing discussions. I won’t dignify the “diversity trumps quality” remark with a response but I will say this: we need to make sure this windfall for diversity in awards (not just this set of awards but all kinds of awards) doesn’t make us complacent about the actual numbers of characters, books, authors, editors, agents and publishers in the biz who reflect the diversity of the population." - Gabrielle
"I am here to argue that books should only be judged on their merits and distinguishing characteristics, and not on who created them. We all know America is a huge melting pot, and that diversity is here to stay. That said, ALA should probably discontinue the YMAs specifically for blacks, Hispanics, gays and the disabled. The Newbery and Caldecott committees are most certainly covering those bases quite well. Martha P. of the Horn Book very smartly pointed out the inherent flaws in Last Stop on Market Street (her review of 9/15) and mentioned the Caldecott committee is made up of librarians who notice detail. Evidently the committee members on neither the Caldecott or Newbery did, or this substandard, copycat (Keats) book would not have won a thing. These awards have become irrelevant and reflect political correctness at its worst. But thanks again, Martha, for your critical analysis." - Sarah Chuen
"The truth is the ALA commitee for the Caldecott has often waded into the culturally hip or relevant waters of the moment. Note the 1970s field when native american and african cultures were in vogue, or Eve Bunting’s Smoky Night about the LA riots. Many iffy recipients in that bunch.
I just think it’s absolutely silly to say that these things aren’t considered.
I also don’t think diversity should be a ‘one of each’ type of approach. Ratios that fit the population should be diverse enough, or better yet, the population of picture book writers. Anything else is artificially achieving a desired outcome, like quotas.
My problem is actually not at all with non-white artists getting awards, but that the committees invariably gravitate toward the most condescending and culturally charged content. Where are the picture books set in the relatively normal lives of upper middle class blacks and hispanics? It’s always about oppression, poverty, family legacy, urban sprawl, or direct books about cultural historical figures.
I also think a lot of committee members from minority districts look at their time on the committee as an opportunity to showcase stories that their kids would identify more with. Last year’s Newbery winner ‘The Crossover’ was an egregious example.
Anyway, I am completely allowed my view that the best picture books and childrens literature have not been served by these awards.
And The Snowy Day is my favorite picture book." - Telly
"Sorry, I’m new here, but I have a couple of questions, aimed particularly at Telly and CJ:
1 – CJ – do you really think that you’re only expressing your opinion that the most distinguished book wasn’t recognized when you accused the committee of putting diversity ahead of quality?
2 – Have either of you sat on the Caldecott Committee (or ANY major book award committee)?
3 – Do you have any familiarity of the criteria and procedures employed in evaluating the books for this award?
4 – How is culturally based content condescending?
5 – How is demanding depictions of middle class white people not doing exactly what you are criticizing – wanting a book to win on another merit than quality?
6 – Can you please provide some evidence to your claims? I’m a librarian – we like evidence (90% of people that write picture books are white, hmmmm? Where’s that statistic from?)
7 – Why do you feel the need to hide behind sock puppets? When you make an accusation that casts aspersions on people’s professional conduct in such a public forum (not to mention calling them “smug,” which is just mean), you should have the courage to name yourself and stand by what you say." - Renee Chalut
"I do wonder if Last Stop on Market Street is showing the moral superiority of poverty. I just think that Nana’s positivity will only go so far as CJ begins to grow up." - Joan
These comments range from painful and elitist to comfortingly righteous. What I see reflected here is the desire that Caucasians have to be the gatekeepers; they feel that they must control the achievements of POC. They get to decide which books created by POC are worthy of praise and are quick to insult these works as having received accolades purely as some sort of affirmative action. Because publishing (both the creators of material and the editorial people), librarianship and the Caldecott Committee and overwhelmingly white, they are the gatekeepers, deciding which books get published, reviewed, purchased by libraries, and given awards. The process mirrors our American culture, with the Caucasian group wielding the power and control and POC being policed and criticized with a different standard. Because white people feel entitled to these awards, they feel slighted when brown people receive them. They concoct reasons why the books were given recognition, because they cannot possibly fathom that a book created by a POC could be selected by a committee for recognition on its own merit.
"I also think a lot of committee members from minority districts look at their time on the committee as an opportunity to showcase stories that their kids would identify more with. Last year’s Newbery winner ‘The Crossover’ was an egregious example.
Anyway, I am completely allowed my view that the best picture books and children's literature have not been served by these awards.
And The Snowy Day is my favorite picture book." - Telly
So, Telly's a hater. And haters gonna hate.
For next month's post and moving forward, please send me questions and topics that you would like to discuss that involve libraries, books, diversity, and the children's literature community. email@example.com
Fifi Abu spends her days surrounded by books that have already been created and the rest of her time writing and illustrating books yet to be born. She looks forward to a day when all children can see themselves reflected in the books they read. Ms. Abu holds a master's degree in children's literature and a master's degree in library science, is an active member of SCBWI and a Children's Book Academy graduate.
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