The 2015 ALA Youth Media Awards were remarkably diverse. We’ve got the obvious standouts, like The Crossover winning the Newbery medal, and the outpouring of love for graphic novels. In the wake of #WeNeedDiverseBooks and other recent efforts, it’s a welcome change. And that got me thinking about the larger trend of diversity in children’s book awards, which led to an insane exercise where I cataloged the winners of eight kidlit book awards over eleven years.
One thing that became immediately obvious is that this year’s ALA awards bucks the trend. Consider, for instance:
- 2015 is the first year since 2005 (Kira-Kira) that the Newbery Medal-winning book stars a character of color. Think about that. Two winners in 11 years.
- Now compare that with the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, where 6 of the past 11 winners have starred a protagonist of color (The Thing About Luck; Inside Out and Back Again; Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice; The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian; The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party; Brown Girl Dreaming)
- If you consider protagonists from other under-represented groups (disability, LGBT, etc), then the NBA gets one more (Mockingbird), and the Printz Medal has four winners (In Darkness, Ship Breaker, American Born Chinese, I’ll Give You the Sun), but the stats for the Newbery remain unchanged. These “diverse” books (for lack of a better catch-all term) are even rarer as Caldecott Medal winners. There’s just one: Chris Raschka’s The Hello, Goodbye Window from 2006.
I then decided to look at diversity in a different way, by comparing the overlap between the awards that are all-inclusive (like the Caldecott and the Printz, open to all books regardless of content), and the ones that recognize specific types of diversity (like the Schneider Family Book Award and the Coretta Scott King awards). More than 20 awards are handed out each year during ALA Midwinter, and it’s hard not to notice how rarely the two types of awards intersect–in some years, it’s almost as if the diverse award winners are drawn from an entirely different pool of books than the more general awards.
I wanted empirical data, so I decided to crunch the numbers. I chose 8 awards and listed all the winners and honors from 2005-2015 in this Excel spreadsheet (scroll over to column BC to see the 2015 winners). I split the awards into two categories.
In Category 1: Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, National Book Award. These are well-known and well-publicized awards not limited by content matter (except age restrictions and media. For example, the Caldecott awards art, not text).
In Category 2: Coretta Scott King, Pura Belpré, Schneider Family Book Award and Stonewall Book Awards. These awards are given to books about a particular type of experience (African-American, Hispanic, disability and LGBT). By definition, the books that qualify for these awards are a subset of the books that qualify for Category 1 awards.
Now, before I share the results, here are a few caveats:
1. All of the awards are important, and the winners should proudly brag about their achievements. But let’s not pretend that the Newbery and Caldecott aren’t the most recognizable, and of those, it’s the winners, not the honors, that get the most publicity. Those two authors are the only ones who get to go on the Today Show the following morning (unless Snooki intervenes). And even School Library Journal’s news story about the recent ALAYMA winners used this headline: “Alexander and Santat Win 2015 Newbery, Caldecott Medals.” In other words, while librarians, teachers and kidlit enthusiasts care about all the ALAYMAs, for most of the general public, the Newbery and Caldecott are still the most well-known, with brand-name recognition that’s hard to beat.
2. I’ve never served on an award committee, so this isn’t about cause and effect. I’m not trying to second-guess any decisions or speculate about why a certain book wasn’t chosen for a certain award. All I can do is present the data, and once you see the numbers, I hope it serves as a starting point for further discussion.
Note: the National Book Award operates on a different schedule. It’s presented at the end of each year for books written in that year, while the ALA recognizes books from the previous year. To keep the books consistent, I paired the 2014 NBAs with the 2015 ALAYMA winners, and the 2013 NBAs with the 2014 ALA awards, etc.
- Between 2005-2015, there were 203 Category 1 winners/honors, and 191 Category 2 winners/honors. Some books won two different awards, and three lucky books (Brown Girl Dreaming; Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe; One Crazy Summer) won three awards each.
- From 2005-2014, there were 11 books that won medals/honors in both Category 1 and Category 2 (e.g. Elijah of Buxton won the 2008 Newbery Honor and the 2008 Coretta Scott King Author Award). That’s an average of about one per year. But 2015 saw four books with that kind of overlap (The Crossover, Brown Girl Dreaming, I’ll Give You the Sun, Viva Frida)–a huge change from previous years.
- It’s much more common for a book to win multiple awards from the same category, than multiple awards from both categories. There were 26 books from 2005-2015 that fit that description (e.g. in 2009, Just in Case by Yuyi Morales won a Pura Belpré book honor and the Pura Belpré illustrator award. Another example from that same year is The Underneath by Kathi Appelt, which won a Newbery Honor and was a National Book Award finalist).
- I also tried to find all the Category 1 winners and honors that are primarily about diverse protagonist or experiences. Those books are highlighted in purple on the spreadsheet. I got 58 out of 203, or almost 30%. This was a higher percentage than I expected, and the real number could be even higher. I haven’t read every book on the list, so I did the best I could using plot summaries and book covers. If I’ve made a mistake or missed something, let me know in the comments and I’ll edit the spreadsheet.
- I was pleasantly surprised by how many Category 1 books starred a diverse character.
- There’s no denying that the National Book Awards, for some reason, is much more likely to recognize a diverse book as a winner, than the ALA Category 1 awards.
- Brown Girl Dreaming is the only book that’s won a top award (as opposed to an honor or being a finalist) in both categories (National Book Award Winner, Coretta Scott King Author Award). It also got a Newbery Honor.
- If 2015 is any indication, we’re likely to see much better diversity representation in future book awards. Let’s hope it’s the start of a trend, and not just a fluke.