Diversity Within Diversity: 2015 ALA Youth Media Awards “Change the Landscape” of Recognition in Children’s Literature
Winter storm Linus may have dominated Chicago headlines as February rolled in, but the flurry of each announcement at the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards on Feb. 2 quickly snowballed into perhaps the most diverse awards list in the history of children’s literature. Librarians, authors, and children’s book creators are still reveling in excitement akin to that of a student waking up on a snow day.
Diverse books refer to non-majority narratives in terms of ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and disabilities. This year’s winning titles feature protagonists ranging from a deaf bunny to a Mexican painter to fraternal twins, one gay and the other recovering from a terrible sexual experience.
But the 2015 award winners and honor titles aren’t just diverse in their casts of characters. Diverse formats and styles were recognized widely at the ceremony. A welcome surprise came with the announcements of not one, not two, but three graphic novels as recipients. Cece Bell’s El Deafo received a Newbery Honor and This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki received a Caldecott Honor, a Batchelder Award, and was on the honor list for the Printz Award. Loic Dauviller, Greg Salsedo, and Marc Lizano’s graphic work Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust was also on the honor list for the Batchelder award, which recognizes books translated into English.
Beyond comics, another emerging format that repeatedly garnered awards was the novel-in-verse. The Newbery Medal winner The Crossover by Kwame Alexander and honor recipient Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson are both in verse. Combined with graphic novel El Deafo, one hundred percent of this year’s Newbery winners are non-traditional in format. Another winner that breaks the mold is the 104-page verse picture book Josephine, whose illustrator Christian Robinson received a Coretta Scott King (Illustrator) Honor.
“Looking over the list, I can’t help noticing the diversity—in so many respects,” wrote Carol Hinz, editorial director at Millbrook Press, an imprint of Lerner Publishing Group. “Look at the diversity of format: Poetry! Nonfiction (not just for the nonfiction awards)! Graphic novels!”
Books narrated by more than one character or voice, such as I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson and How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon also garnered attention. Nelson’s book won the Michael L. Printz Award and Magoon’s book received a Coretta Scott King (Author) Honor.
Nonfiction received unprecedented recognition on the Caldecott list with three titles, representing half of the six honor recipients. The Stonewall Book Award also included Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin, which features photographs of and interviews with six transgender or gender-neutral young adults.
“I came away from the ceremony thinking that we all are winners this year,” said Hinz, who noted that the diversity spread even further this year to include a “good number of small and independent houses,” not just large publishers. Lerner, an independent publisher, was one of those smaller presses, touting The Story of Owen by E.K. Johnston as a Morris Award finalist. Other award-winning small or independent publishers included Cinco Puntos Press, Candlewick Press, Lee and Low Books, Chronicle Books, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, and Elephant Rock Books.
Beyond the scope of diverse characters, formats, and publishers, perhaps one of the most noticeable—and encouraging—aspects was the number of diverse authors who received awards. The Caldecott Medal went to Thai-American Dan Santat, and the Theodore Seuss Geisel Award went to Anna Kang, who also directed the documentary “not black or white,” an irreverent look at media stereotypes of Asian women. The Newbery list includes two African Americans and a deaf author, and Latina author Isabel Quintero won the William C. Morris Award for her debut YA novel, Gabi, Girl in Pieces.
In addition to the more than sixty authors and illustrators recognized for their award-winning titles, many of whom identify with non-majority experiences, the lifetime achievement awards and lectures were all awarded to diverse individuals. Mexican-American author Pat Mora was awarded the May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Award, and the ALSC Distinguished Service Award went to openly gay K.T. Horning. Three African Americans’ lifetime achievements were honored—author/illustrator Donald Crews received the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, author Sharon M. Draper received the Margaret A. Edwards Award, and Deborah D. Taylor was graced with the Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement.
“This is a victory for us and a victory for all of our children,” said We Need Diverse Books President Ellen Oh. Oh’s passion lies not only in amplifying books with diverse characters and authors, but in ensuring that the publishing industry itself becomes more diverse, a mission shared by WNDB. This summer, WNDB will launch its first diverse internship program, geared to assist diverse college grads with entering positions at publishing houses.
The snow in Chicago may come and go, but the online blizzard of reactions to the ALA awards continues to accumulate. When these positive comments are considered alongside other movements on the front lines of the diversity issue, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this storm finally has enough momentum to change the landscape of children’s literature.