Sunday, January 25, 2009


It's the big, prestigious awards week for the American Library Association, and the Youth Media Awards will be announced tomorrow (you can watch it happen on a live feed). I'll be back during the week with regular reviews, but for now, I want to share some concerns I have about one of the awards. It's hard to talk about critically, because its a prize that represents many friends and artists that I love and admire very much. But because I want the award to continue to have the gravity and excellence of its original cause and namesake and the great talent it represents, I hazard to bring it up, and to suggest a little tweaking.

From the Coretta Scott King Award criteria:

The award (or awards) is given to an African American author and an African American illustrator for an outstandingly inspirational and educational contribution. The books promote understanding and appreciation of the culture of all peoples and their contribution to the realization of the American dream. The Award is further designed to commemorate the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to honor Mrs. Coretta Scott King for her courage and determination to continue the work for peace and world brotherhood.

In response to Black Threads in Kids Lit and Fuse#8’s blog query of January 15th, “Why Is No One Discussing the Coretta Scott King Award?” I have a very hard time with an award that claims to “commemorate the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to honor Mrs. Coretta Scott King for her courage and determination to continue the work for peace and world brotherhood,” and yet uses the author’s race as a criteria. I find this contradictory. My own books notwithstanding, I have a hard time recognizing an award that would not have considered Ouida Sebesteyn for WORDS BY HEART, Pam Munoz Ryan or Brian Selznick for WHEN MARIAN SANG, Anne Rockwell for ONLY PASSING THROUGH, Doreen Rappaport for MARTIN'S BIG WORDS, Ezra Jack Keats for THE SNOWY DAY, and this year, Laurie Halse Anderson's CHAINS as books that make an outstandingly inspirational and educational contribution to an African-American audience and to everyone else as well. Many of these books have received accolades in other ways, and Ezra Jack Keats even has his own award, but surely, the goal of an award is not to have extraordinary works recognized elsewhere? The Coretta Scott King Award uses the scaffolding of civil rights to elevate it, and yet fails to fully judge a book by the content of its character, or, the contents and its characters, as the case may be. One might argue that the award goes to an author or an illustrator, not a single book, but as the award is not attached to all of the works of the winners but indeed a single work of the author, it seems particularly untoward in the context of the dream of racial equity to be so exclusionary. At this juncture it shouldn’t be news to anyone that ANY exclusionary measures based on race causes pain, alienation and division.

The legitimacy of race-based awards has been argued on both sides, very compellingly by Mitali Perkins and Andrea Davis Pinkney. As an author of several books that feature African American characters, what I say may be construed as sour grapes, but in reality, my grapes are more sad than sour. On a personal level, I have to confess that I am deeply pained by the fact that my work would never be considered by a Coretta Scott King Award Committee. Every single day, I reflect on messages of social justice in our nation and work as an advocate of read-aloud specifically as an extension of civil rights and educational equity. I like to believe that I live in a way that would do honor to the vision of Dr. King. If I saw a book award that was only given to authors who met my racial and ethnic criteria, I would speak up. In the case of the Coretta Scott King Award, while I can understand the initial determination of the criteria historically, it becomes more and more offensive in the context of an integrated and global society, and is also not in line with awards given by other library organizations. The Regina Medal (given by the Catholic Library Association) and Sydney Taylor Award (given by the Association of Jewish Libraries), both awards unrecognized by the ALA, manage to honor distinguished work that recognizes their heritages without requiring the authors be Jewish or Catholic. One of this year's Sidney Taylor winners happens to be Richard Michelson and Raul Colon's AS GOOD AS ANYBODY: MARTIN LUTHER KING AND ABRAHAM JOSHUA HESCHEL'S AMAZING MARCH TOWARD FREEDOM (Knopf), about the historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, which also was not eligible for consideration by the Coretta Scott King committee. Most painful to me, my African American characters have the misfortune of being authored by me. Paris, Sahara, Darrell, they were never be considered for the award through which they might have found their most empathetic audience, their truest friends, just because of the color of my skin.

The Coretta Scott King Award was borne of both pride and unfortunate necessity, an effort to end exclusionary practices based on skin color in the world of children's literature. Prior to its inception, the talent of African American book artists went largely unrecognized by the Newbery and Caldecott, the biggest children's literature awards in the land. In 1969, librarians Mabel McKissick and Glyndon Greer had an argument over the last Martin Luther King poster at a convention booth, which lead to a discussion between the women about how African American authors and illustrators deserved more attention and distinction. When a publisher at the booth overheard their exchange and suggested that they start their own award to those ends, they ran with the idea. The first award was given in 1970 at a dinner gala of the New Jersey Library Association, and the American Library Association (ALA) joined in true affiliation in the 1980's. Since its beginning, the African American authors and illustrators represented by the Coretta Scott King award have been outstanding and certainly award-caliber by any measure, and the bibliography has been a boon to classrooms. There can be no doubt that the award met and continues to meet the goals of its inventors as a celebration of African American contribution to the genre of children's literature. But to offer an idea of the time period of the award's inception, interracial marriages were just made legal, and the world has changed, however slowly and incompletely.

To say that there should not be a forum in which African American contributions should be celebrated would be wrong. African Americans and other minority groups (as well as anyone who cares about children and reading) need to continue to advocate for diverse representation in children's books in order that children should continue to enjoy the strides made in years past, which have allowed them to look inside a book and recognize themselves. These strides can't be taken for granted now or ever; 1969 is still the recent past. But our fears of going backward are not necessarily our children's fears. The question of whether the stringency of the racial criteria is in step with the times casts a shadow on the prize, and may ultimately impact what young readers come to recognize in it, and whether the award continues to represent something positive and in keeping with the dream.

If the Coretta Scott King Award strives to celebrate the bodies of work of authors and illustrators of a particular race as a way of encouraging young African Americans, that’s one thing, but if it’s going to claim to be a book award, then I say, judge the books and only the books, or at least create an award under its umbrella that is truly multicultural and open to all. African-Americans were a step ahead in 1970's, and the Coretta Scott King Award was emblematic of a movement, visionary of more than what all people were willing to embrace at the time. Perhaps in the name of our first African American president, who has garnered support across color lines to hopefully achieve the changes needed for democracy's survival in a new millennium, the award can find its way to continue to be a step ahead in its spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood. The nation proved last week that African American achievement is American achievement. Will the Coretta Scott King Award follow suit and say, vice versa?

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Anonymous said...

You did a magnificent job of addressing this issue from your perspective. I think it is fine for any racial/ethnic group to recognize the achievements of their peers, but imagine the outcry if an award was created to recognize only white authors. In another vein, would a book written by Barack Obama be a candidate for this award, or would he be disqualified because his mother was white?

Esme Raji Codell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tricia said...

If you read the standards for the Pura Belpré award, you'll find it is presented to "a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth." I think promoting the works of these authors/illustrators is important and the award brings more of them to our attention.

I would have no problem with the Coretta Scott King award if it were similarly focused. However, you are right in pointing out that the award actually focuses more on the import of the book, and that limiting those who are qualified by race flies in the face of the stated goal of the award.

I would love to see an award for African American authors and illustrators in the same spirit as the Belpré award and another that meets the goals of the King award without a criterion for race.

On another note, and one I find quite interesting, you'll find the Belpré award on the ALA page for ALSC Book and Media awards, where you'll also find the Caldecott, Newbery, Siebert, Geisel and more. The King award is not included in this category. To find it, you must make your way to the Ethnic & Multicultural Information Exchange RT pages of the ALA web site. Frankly, I think awards of this kind should all fall under the same umbrella, and I can't for the life of me understand why the King award falls outside the arena of these other awards.

Thanks for such a thought-provoking post.

Kate Coombs said...

What a thought-provoking post! It seems especially timely considering the recent inauguration. I just read a photo-article in the 1-26 Time magazine in which Andrew Young states, "[Obama] isn't just black; he's an Afro-Asian-Latin European. That means he's a global citizen and an all-American boy. He defies categorization. " So thank you for your insights.

Esme Raji Codell said...

Thank you, Anonymous (sorry, my original reply was accidentally deleted). In all fairness, the awards originally might as well have been created for white authors, since that's pretty much who received them. The Coretta Scott King Award was an outcry of sorts, just as you describe, bucking an established history of oppression in the U.S. and creating an equal opportunity, which I think was brave. I hope folks will be brave enough now to revisit the criteria of the award, not only in the context of the struggles of the past, but in creating a positive self-fulfilling prophecy for the future.

Heidi Rabinowitz said...

Esme, this is a great post. I am so proud that you held up the Sydney Taylor Book Awards as an example of an award that DOES judge books by their contents and characters rather than by the author's ethnicity. While many of our winning authors are indeed Jewish (because Jews are more likely to write about Jewish themes), we've had numerous winners who were not Jewish but who did a great job of creating an authentic Jewish experience within the pages of their books. I had not thought about the fact that this year's Sydney Taylor Book Award winner, AS GOOD AS ANYBODY, would be ineligible for the Coretta Scott King Award because Rich Michelson is white. Now that you've pointed that out, I find it rather shocking.

I think there's room for both goals, that of encouraging ethnic authors, and that of recognizing bridge-building literature no matter its provenance. Maybe CSK needs to choose just one goal to focus on, and leave the other for a separate award.

Rachel said...

I am a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. When Cornell West visited to speak to us, he addressed this same issue of exclusion from another direction, and his perspective informs my own.

After the talk, there was a line of students waiting to ask him questions. At one point, a group of three women from Asian- and African- American backgrounds cut in line so they would get to speak before the time was up. After their question was addressed, the white man next in line walked up to the microphone and said, "Mr. West, I've changed my original question. Now I want to ask, why do they think it's okay to cut in front of me to talk about feeling oppressed? Aren't they doing the same thing to me?" Mr. West replied, "In our long history, the voices of women and those of African and other minority backgrounds have been oppressed by white men in power. If you had not gotten a chance to speak tonight, it would not have been a tragedy. The real tragedy would have been if the voices of those women had been silenced one more time."

I believe that the presence of awards that commend the content of literature are valid. I also believe that the awards that specifically and intentionally create a space in the dominant culture for voices of African-American individuals (and other marginalized populations) are essential. And yes, they necessitate the exclusion of the voices that are already benefiting from the privilege of their social status, be it male, white, nondisabled or heterosexual. We have to work forward in our society not by becoming colorblind, but by demanding that the voices of historically ignored and oppressed populations are given the attention they deserve.

Thank you for writing about this critical issue. All of our voices need to be heard.

Esme Raji Codell said...

Rachel in Olympia, thank you for this well-articulated response. Great food for thought! Here’s what I’m munching on:

“Tragedy,” “oppression,” “power,” these are big, provocative, hard-earned words that represent real suffering and struggle. My initial response to your anecdote is that the women behaved rudely if they cut in front of him without asking, and that the man overstated his case by suggesting he was “oppressed” rather than “insulted.” Anyway, could the speaker tell whether or not the white man was Jewish, and if so, did his history of oppression by white men in power entitle him to cut in line? Or if I am in a line of men, do I get to cut without asking because I am a woman? (There was a story about the perils of just that in FREE TO BE YOU AND ME, entitled “Ladies First.”)

The only way I think someone could have been considered truly oppressed in that situation is if they hadn’t been allowed to get in line at all. Further, the “tragedy” described as heroically averted could have been equally thwarted by allotting another ten minutes for Q&A. I guess I don’t like when rhetoric gets in the way of pragmatism. It just doesn’t seem that hard to make everybody in that situation (and most situations) feel included and respected by heeding their needs as people first. I believe we can be aware and respectful of differences in background and still be inclusive. Teachers do it all the time. Teachers also know that sometimes the biggest, most magnanimous power comes from letting someone else cut in line once in awhile, or just being in line together, heading where you are supposed to go.

Again, I'm hopeful that the CSK committee will give thoughtful consideration to where they need to go to make sure gifted African American artists (like the people who won today:
corettascott.cfm) continue to receive an award that represents the spirit of the award's namesake in the context of the now. Thanks to all who participate in the debate. More discussion on this topic at Mitali Perkin’s “Fire Escape” blog, (she also alludes to Kiri Davis's film, , a work which suggests maybe it is optimistic to think it is the right time to integrate the award) and more great book discussion and rec's coming this week right here!

Gretchen Woelfle said...

Great discussion. Thanks Esmé.
Another inclusive award is the Once Upon A World Children's Book Award for picture books and YA, given by the Simon Wiesenthal Center/Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Though the SW Center's library focuses on Jewish and Holocaust literature, their award is given to books that foster "tolerance, diversity, human understanding and social justice." I was thrilled last year when they honored my biography, JEANNETTE RANKIN: POLITICAL PIONEER. Rankin was a highly controversial Congresswoman and peace activist.

James Preller said...

A deep, thoughtful, provocative post -- great blogging. It's so important to have this exchange of ideas. The distinction between the ideals of the award and the requirements for winning it was especially perceptive.

For me, the question is: Have we come far enough? There was a time when, as a culture, we needed to recognize "minority" writers, to help shine a light on talent and to help level the playing field. Are those days behind us? I almost feel, as a white male, that's it's not for me to say. But I am not at all offended by the criteria of this award. I'm not quite ready to say, "Obama is president, whew, those dark days are behind us."

I don't know the answers. But I do know that I will be thinking about it, and with a clearer mind, thanks to this post. Like I said before, Great Blogging.

James Preller

Anonymous said...

Very interesting discussion... I just wanted to jump in and respond to Tricia's observation that the Coretta Scott King Awards aren't listed with media awards such as the Newbery and Pura Belpre. My assumption is that this is simply because the CSK Awards are presented by ALA's Ethnic Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table, while most of the other awards are presented by the Association for Library Service to Children. It would be very nice if the ALSC included a link to the CSK Awards from their list of media awards for the sake of usability, but I think this is an problem of ALA's website's dubious information architecture, not any political comment on the CSK Awards' place among the other awards.

Unknown said...

The reason I don’t generally post is that I subscribe to the theory of “first thought, worst thought.” By the time I feel ready to offer an opinion, the blogging world is putting out the next fire. Still, that’s my book cover on your site, so….
I am Jewish. (I read that on my website, so it must be true). My book As Good As Anybody won the Sydney Taylor Award, given by the AJL, and many Jewish librarians have congratulated me. Some expressed surprise that it was “Jewish enough” to win, since the book is as much about the Christian African-American Minister King as the Jewish (White? Off-white?) Rabbi Heschel. I’d expected my editor to choose a black artist, but instead she chose a Hispanic (advice to authors: when you can get Raul Colon, praise the Lord and take Raul Colon), thus making the book about Martin Luther King ineligible for the Coretta Scott King Award.
We weren’t eligible for the Belpre either, as neither King nor Heschel was Hispanic, but the Taylor Award, by right and rules is as much Raul’s as mine.
It would have been nice to have this book, judged by its content, not by “the color of my skin,” but the last thing King, Heschel, or I would have wanted is for a book about black/Jewish friendship to drive a further wedge between races.
I have addressed the subject about Writing Across Racial Lines and why I do so for both Nextbook and JBooks. There is a link from my home page to No, And I Can’t Dance Either, and Jews and Blacks, so I won’t go into it here.
On a practical level, I cannot imagine the rules for these awards not changing in the direction that both Esme and Marc Aronson (in The Horn Book) advocate. It is simply too risky to let others decide “who you are.” To the Nazi’s my Methodist-born wife is Jewish. To the Chief Rabbi of Israel, she is not. African-Americans also lived under a disastrous One-Drop Rule.. We should all be allowed to identify ourselves with the group(s) we chose.
And yet, on the other hand (see, I told you I was Jewish), while the majority must open its gates to the minority, it is up to the minority to decide when they want to put out the welcome mat. Clearly we are not there yet.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Esme--I wanted to respond to your comment above, "In all fairness, the awards originally might as well have been created for white authors, since that's pretty much who received them."

I'm not denying your point that most authors of Newbery winners have been white, especially before 1960 or so (though I don't know the ethnic background of all the authors). But I did want to point out that the author of the 1928 winner, Gay Neck: The Story of a Pigeon--Dhan Gopal Mukerjhi--was Indian. That was just the seventh year of the Newbery. I think that's a good sign that the lack of Newberys won by people of color for the larger part of the Newbery's history is due more to who was being published than bias on the part of the committee. (I'm guessing you don't disagree with that point, but I think it's important to note Mukerjhi's book.)

Yuyi Morales said...

Dear Esme, I have been much moved by your posting, and after reading your thoughts about the awards as well as Mitali’s, I wanted to add my own to the discussions. Since it would not be possible to actually link to both here, I hope you don’t mind my posting this answer here as well as in Mitali’s blog. I might also post it in my own blog in case anybody wants to refer to it.

I could not evermore claim innocence after reading Mitali’s and your thoughts and reflections about Ethnic awards. Thank you too for being such a mind provocateurs!
Ethnic book awards: Discriminatory or Necessary?
I have received them, I have enjoyed them, I have them shine light to my work, and I have loved them.
I can only talk from my experience. I can’t claim to represent anybody else but me.
When I think about the questions that Mitali and you, as well as other people have expressed about this awards, I don’t find myself with any answers but only more questions of my own. I confess I am partial to both sides of the equation. While I vote for inclusiveness rather than discrimination—no matter from what side--there is something I have experience about the nature of this awards that eludes my reasoning and instead runs with my heart. Let me see if I can explain myself.
What I know from receiving these awards is that they are a celebration. People cheer, committees champion your work, put the word out, make you a party with music and all, invite everybody, give your book a medal to paste on the cover, and tell everybody to look, look, look! at your book.
And so, if the function of an ethnic award like the Pura Belpre is to celebrate a writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth, why not then make the celebration broader and invite everybody to love the Latino culture and be eligible to win the award? After all , anyone who dedicates his or her time, talent, and efforts to create a great book about the Latino cultural experience, could only do it out of admiration and love for that culture, whether she or he is Latino or not. Or, is there any other reason to spend one’s precious time cranking a book about Latinos?
I understand that awards like the Pura Belpre and the Coretta Scott King award were born out of the need to encourage the work and shine light upon the, otherwise, obscured books of people from minorities, at a time, where authors and illustrators of color were everything but missing from awards like the Caldecott and the Newberry. Is it perhaps that the time has come to change things around? Have we reached the equilibrium we dream of? If not, I hope we will soon. My friend Rose tells me it is just a matter of time before love and lust erase the race lines completely. For now I find it interesting that the Coretta as wells as the Pura Belpre are being announced as part of the ALA crop of awards, because it is from this announcement that they receive their moment in the spotlight as well as their prestige. Were those awards to be announced in a different day or without the support of ALA, we might not be discussing them right now. Their impact upon readers would be different. And perhaps the audience looking for the result of such announcements would be different, even smaller in number.
You know? To me the USA is a country of surprises. Anything unexpected can happen here. For instance, it was a surprise to me that here in the USA existed a book award that celebrated the efforts of people like me--multicolored skin, even Indian looking, heavy accent. I was surprised to know that all what I had believed to be against me in the past, was exactly what made me eligible. You must understand that I come from a country that from colonial times and all the way to my parent’s generations, and more, had lived under the social unwritten code that claims that beauty comes in white skin, light hair and blue eyes, that intelligence and reason does evade indigenous people, peasants, or anyone with dark skin. For generations we have been taught to give preference to others whiter than us. Breaking that mold has been the life work of many, many of my country people, and yet, there is still much more to accomplish.
And yet, in my new learning, do I want people to lower the bar for me because of my history? Certainly not. I might have had a self-dubious start, but I am not without the capacity to amaze myself and others with what I do. If the ethnic awards were to disappear, or integrate, would I miss the celebration? Yes I would. Would there be other challenges to obtain? Certainly yes, because what I am is not Latina but a force.

I have expressed in the past that I see the Pura Belpre Award as a regalo, a gift that is given to someone when you might least expected it. At first the regalo goes to a book creator; and artist or a writer, and we receive the gift joyfully and gratefully. But after that, the gift is given to everybody. Once the award brings out the voice that there is a book worth of looking at, it is the readers who receive the gift next. In a way, the decision of the Pura Belpre committee to give an award to a person (an "ethnic' person, for that matter)and not exactly to his or her book, has interesting consequences. You need to go to the schools to see it. You will understand it when you are propped in front of children—those of all possible colors, including brown, like me; who speak all kinds of languages, including Spanish like me; who perhaps struggle with their English, like I did; who feel like“tontos”, fools, unable to fit in the foreign culture, like once I did too. And then, in that moment when the teacher introduces you, and tells the audience that you have been the winner of this prestigious shiny golden medal stuck on the cover of your book, given here in the United States to a person like YOU in recognition for the quality of your work, you can see it with your own eyes and your heart, that very moment when a child begins to dream that if you did it, he can do it too.

Once again, Esme, thank you for stirring my thoughts

Anonymous said...

Great article. I'm betting most people never thought about the obvious contradiction. Thanks for making us think today!

April Halprin Wayland said...

Thank you for making us think about this critical issue, Esme.

That you are a teacher, a lover of children's literature and an advocate of the human family shines through loud and clear.

April Halprin Wayland said...

Jane Yolen said it beautifully at a session during the 2012 International Reading Assn:

Jane Yolen said that a child asked her,
“Did you write a Christmas book?”
“Yes,” said Jane.
“But I thought you were Jewish,” he said.
“I write murder mysteries, too,” Jane replied.


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