This summer, I am taking a class on the history of youth literature with Melba Tomeo. It's been great, and it's definitely one of the best I've taken toward earning my MLIS. Last week's discussion prompt led to a lot of reflection and conversation, and I'm sharing my small part on this wider platform. I'd love to hear what you think in the comments.
After reading the various viewpoints on multicultural literature awards, where do you stand? Do you think it is appropriate to have literary awards based on the ethnicity or race or gender or sexual preference of the author? What effect do you think these awards have had on the history of youth literature? Where do you stand on the issue of authenticity as described in the lecture? Whose voice can or should speak about a specific community or cultural experience? I want to hear your opinion on the literature prizes and on cultural authenticity.
Reading the articles for this week did not change my opinion. I do think it is appropriate to have literary awards based on the ethnicity/race/gender/sexual preference of the author. As several classmates have pointed out, various minorities have been and continue to be shut out of "general" awards like the Newberry Awards.
But I'd actually like to step away from children's publishing to make my argument. If you are anything other than a white, Christian, cis male, I bet you have felt a frisson of excitement when someone you identify with wins, triumphs, or overcomes. Did you celebrate when Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, or Sonya Sotomayor joined the Supreme Court? What about when Barack Obama became President? Or Elizabeth Warren persisted? Did you rejoice while Laverne Cox's star rose? Or over in sports-land, did you applaud Michelle Kwan or Ibtihaj Muhammad or the 2016 women's track and field Olympic relay team and their #blackgirlmagic?
There are thousands of stories I'm not mentioning, and maybe I haven't listed yours. But I bet you have a memory of someone doing something that made you stand up a little straighter with a feeling of "We're alike, that person and I. And I am so proud of that." That feeling? That's my argument.
Awards like the Coretta Scott King Book Award both highlight the winners and inspire aspirations among those who think, "We're alike, that author/illustrator and I. And I am so proud of that. Maybe I can do it, too." So, in addition to celebrating achievement, the award really could help increase the number of diverse books in addition to highlighting the great books that are out there.
As far as authorship, the first amendment means we can read and write (pretty much) anything. Good authors can write well about people and subjects outside of their own life experiences (see: science fiction). Should white, female authors be extra thoughtful, conduct extra research, and perhaps tread more carefully when writing about a non-white boy? Absolutely. Should they whine when they are excluded from consideration of one award committee? Absolutely not.
I was listening to It's Been a Minute, an NPR podcast with Sam Sanders, on my walk today, and he said something that happens to really mesh well with this subject. In the July 21, 2017 episode, he and his guests were talking about the kerfuffle over HBO's announcement of a new TV series set in a fictional America where slavery still exists because the North did not win the Civil War. Sanders said, "I'm black. I'm never going to tell white people, white artists, white creators, to not try to understand a world that's not their own. I want you to get it right. I want you to get the right perspective. I want you to do it justice. But I'm not going to tell you you can't do art about that. That's not what art's about." To that, I can only say: Amen.