Blending in or standing out?

23 01 2013

Lots of questions and hardly any real answers about diversity in YA literature.

It’s a touchy subject. Check last year’s NPR Best Ever Teen Novels. These are the results of a poll, so definitely not reflecting the opinion of “experts” in the field, whoever they may be, and really… to be honest, a lot of these titles are more than a little suspect on a “Best Ever Teen” list. That’s beside the point, though. What the cat wants to get at is this: How many “people of color” – to use a truly awful phrase – do you see on that list? The cat is counting 3.

Since 1970, “the Coretta Scott King Book Awards are given annually to outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values.” And more recently, since 1996, the ALA has given out the Pura Belpré Award: “The Pura Belpré Award, established in 1996, is presented annually 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.”  So, though it’s not an absolute requirement for getting the reward, you kind of hope that the winners of both awards do stand out literary speaking. Isn’t that what they refer to with the adjective “outstanding”?

Here’s the list of winners of both lists (since 1996).

Coretta Scott King Award:

Year

Work

Recipient

Title

Citation

2012

author

Kadir Nelson

Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans

Winner

2011

author

Rita Williams-Garcia

One Crazy Summer

Winner

2010

author

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal

Winner

2009

author

Kadir Nelson

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball

Winner

2008

author

Christopher Paul Curtis

Elijah of Buxton

Winner

2007

author

Sharon Draper

Copper Sun

Winner

2006

author

Julius Lester

Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue

Winner

2005

author

Toni Morrison

Remember: The Journey to School Integration

Winner

2004

author

Angela Johnson

The First Part Last

Winner

2003

author

Nikki Grimes

Bronx Masquerade

Winner

2002

author

Mildred Taylor

The Land

Winner

2001

author

Jacqueline Woodson

Miracle’s Boys

Winner

2000

author

Christopher Paul Curtis

Bud, Not Buddy

Winner

1999

author

Angela Johnson

Heaven

Winner

1998

author

Sharon Draper

Forged By Fire

Winner

1997

author

Walter Dean Myers

Slam

Winner

1996

author

Virginia Hamilton

Her Stories: African American folktales, fairy tales, and true tales

Winner

Pura Bulpré Award:

Year

Work

Recipient

Title

Citation

2012

author

Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Under the Mesquite

Winner

2011

author

Pam Muñoz Ryan

The Dreamer

Winner

2010

author

Julia Alvarez

Return to Sender

Winner

2009

author

Margarita Engle

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom

Winner

2008

author

Margarita Engle

The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano

Winner

2006

author

Viola Canales

The Tequila Worm

Winner

2004

author

Julia Alvarez

Before We Were Free

Winner

2002

author

Pam Munoz Ryan

Esperanza Rising

Winner

2000

author

Alma Flor Ada

Under the Royal Palms: A Childhood in Cuba.

Winner

1998

author

Martinez, Victor

Parrot in the Oven: mi vida.

Winner

1996

author

Cofer, Judith Ortiz

An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio

Winner

Now check the list of previous Printz Winners and Honor Books, “an award for a book that exemplifies literary excellence in young adult literature”.

Year

Recipient

Title

Citation

 

2012

John Corey Whaley

Where things come back

Winner

1984

2011

Paolo Bacigalupi

Ship Breaker

Winner

1972

2010

Libba Bray

Going Bovine

Winner

1964

2009

Melina Marchetta

Jellicoe Road

Winner

1965

2008

Geraldine McCaughrean

The White Darkness

Winner

1951

2007

Gene Luen Yang

American Born Chinese

Winner

1973

2006

John Green

Looking for Alaska

Winner

1977

2005

Meg Rosoff

How I Live Now

Winner

1956

2004

Angela Johnson

The First Part Last

Winner

1961

2003

Aidan Chambers

Postcards from No-Man’s Land

Winner

1934

2002

An Na

A Step from Heaven

Winner

1972

2001

David Almond

Kit’s Wilderness

Winner

1951

2000

Walter Dean Myers

Monster

Winner

1937

4 out of 13 winners are “people of color” (not counting Libba Bray…): Gene Luen Yang, An Na, Angela Johnson and Walter Dean Myers. However, despite there definitely being a lot of diversity on the Printz Winners list (4/13 does make 30%), for some reason, there are hardly any overlaps between the Printz list on the one hand and the Coretta Scott King / Pura Belpré list on the other hand. Angela Johnson won the Coretta Scott King award 3 times, with The First Part Last also snatching away the Printz. Walter Dean Myers won the Coretta Scott King Award 5 times plus a lifetime achievement award. Monster, didn’t win the Coretta Scott King Award (Honor book) but landed the Printz in 2000[1].

When we get to the Pura Belpré award, we see a completely different picture. Not one of the winners appears on the Printz list: not as Winners and not as Honor books. Also, not one of the Belpré Honor books is on the Printz Winners or Honors List either.  A very baffling fact considering they all deal with publications for children and young adults in any given year… which is why I went and checked those stats against the Newbery.

If you check Newbery (I only went back until 1996, which is when Pura Belpré started), there’s about as much diversity in its Winners as in their Honor books. Cynthia Kadohata, Linda Sue Park and Christopher Paul Curtis, have each won a Newbery (3/17 since 1996), and on the Honors list, there’s also Thanhha Lai, Rita Williams-Garcia, Grace Lin, Margarita Engle, Jacqueline Woodson, Marilyn Nelson and Christopher Paul Curtis (9/55 or about 16%). The William C. Morris award, which has only existed since 2009, hasn’t had an African American, Hispanic, Asian-American… winner, but it’s good to see that Guadalupe Garcia McCall was at least an Honor book in the year that she won Pura Belpré (2012).

Although definitely not frequently enough, African American writers and Asian American writers do appear on the lists if we cross-reference them. But Margarita Engle as the only established Latina writer and Guadalupe Garcia McCall as the only debut-writer worthy of a mention? Why is that? Well, obviously the committees of those awards have different standards and requirements. Can’t see, say, John Green or Geraldine McCaughrean winning a Pura Belpré Award because the criteria of the award don’t allow for it. On the other hand, does it really take an African American writer to “demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values” ? I’d argue that in e.g. Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains there’s plenty of appreciation of the African American culture. The same might be true for the Latino cultural experience. But again, I’m digressing into a whole different debate, that of cultural ownership. And then we’re getting into questions like: “Do you have to be black to write a black character?”[2] or “Are only Jewish writers allowed to write about the Holocaust?”[3] or even “Can a woman write a male character?” . I think that’s bull and I completely agree with Michael Chabon when he says: “If a white member of the workshop wrote something from the point of view of an illegal Guatemalan immigrant—as I recall someone did—there were some people who said there were issues of cultural imperialism involved in doing that, that you shouldn’t do that. I understand it politically. I understand the historical context, completely. Artistically, I don’t understand it at all. Because if I can’t write from the point of view of a black woman nurse-midwife, then I can’t write from anybody’s point of view. That’s why I do this. I use my imagination to imagine myself living lives I don’t live and being people who I’m not.”

In a response to an Atlantic Wire article, Sarah Ockler argues that since the vast majority of YA literature is written by white authors – with only about 5 per cent of work put out by “people of color” – it falls to those white authors to diversify. It is clear that not including any form of diversity (racial, ethnical, religious, etc.) risks alienating kids and teens from those diverse backgrounds even more than is currently already the case. As a school librarian, I have a pretty good view of who reads books voluntarily and which books they read. I wish it were any different, but the teens checking out the books at my school – an urban school, with a greatly diversified student body – because they want to and not because they have to  … well, they’re 95% white. And this has as much to do with exposure as it does with recognizability.

Getting back to the issue at hand (I got into all this, simply because I wanted to review Caridad Ferrer’s When the Stars Go Blue). It’s really curious that there are so few Latino/Latina writers on those awards lists and that these books hardly ever (never) feature Latina/Latino characters. In a country where according to the 2010 US Census, Hispanics accounted for 16.7% of the national population, and thus are the largest minority race or ethnicity (the same census accounted for 12.6% Black or African Americans), I’d at least expect to see more than 1 Latino/Latina writer on those lists. The fact that the actual output of all the authors of color amounts to a mere 5% of all the work published in a given year, sort of sheds a different – though still worrying – light on the whole matter. Should we only focus on that 5% or should we also look at the 95%? Both, of course.

It’s true that people don’t like to step out of their own comfort zone. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the comfort zone of many a literary critic has been “books by white male authors”[4]. YA literature, on the other hand, has to deal with the ongoing idea that it is being “dominated” by female authors, even though the term “domination” clearly has to be taken with a big grain of salt, as demonstrated by e.g. Casey Wilson: “while female authors appear in larger numbers on the best seller lists, male authors are likely to rank higher and last longer when they appear on the lists. This pattern offers support to both sides of the debate, because while female authors certainly dominate in sheer numbers, male authors are in no way invisible.”

But I’d like to ask a similar question when it comes down to racial and ethnic diversity, in books by and about people of color. How many are featured is simply a mathematical issue and anything can be proven with numbers. Like, how male authors are in no way invisible when it comes down to bestseller lists (despite there being a bigger female output), but what about these authors/characters of color? Are they invisible or not? Token authors and token books? And that being asked, how does that fit in with a writer’s comfort zone? And that of a reader? And finally a critic’s comfort zone?

Let’s look at the writer first. I do agree with Sarah Ockler when she says that “sometimes a tamale is just a tamale”. Ignore the rules that say you need to write about what you know – which by the way does in no way mean you should write lies or incorporate stereotypes or be lazy about your writing and write in “a different from yourself” character just to fill a quota. No, it means that you should be true to the story and write what you know to be true for that story, even and especially when it means getting out of your comfort zone. Think with your humanist brain here, rather than with your critical brain. And realize that a tamale sometimes really is just a tamale. I’m glad that most contemporary YA writers recognize that a book can be a book without A Grand Message about an Important Issue.  If every book by/about people of color has “a message”, then diversifying misses the mark. Diversity is reality, it is not about wanting to teach a lesson, because that’s when we get to deal with those issues of cultural imperialism that Michael Chabon mentions. Not every (YA) book by/about white people has a message or wants you to learn something, so why should books by/about people of color? Rules like these are as A.S. King would say “bullshit rules” and instigate fear in the writer and writers should never be fearful. Writers need to be daring. And if a 20-something female white author wants to write about a gay black kid, why not? Or if 30-something male Latino author wants to write about an Asian-American teenage girl with a shoe-fetish,… please let me know where I can find that book!

Next up is the reader’s comfort zone. And comfort zone really has nothing to do with the background of the author for this particular reader. If the writing is convincing, if the experience is narrated believably or beautifully or heart-wrenchingly or honestly and manages to grab me as a reader, I don’t particularly care who wrote it, whether it was written by a fourteen-year-old green-haired white girl or a 65-year-old bald black man or a 30-something tattooed punk rock Latina chick. But I realize that my comfort zone as a reader is not the comfort zone of every reader and that especially when we’re dealing with teenage readers, often any form of recognition and acknowledgment of their own situation might be the spark that makes them come into the school library that second time but with just a tad more conviction than the previous time[5]. I like seeing that spark happen. It’s what makes my day on any given day. And that point of recognition is something these teens might look for in both the author and the characters in the book. In this regard, there’s a really interesting guest post over at Stacked where Ashley Hope Perez talks about why diversity matters. In it she describes some of the experiences of her students and the fact that for a lot of them “the gateway book—that critical read that would persuade them of all that words can do—was missing. “I want a book that shows how my life really is,” I heard over and over. “Not just somebody brown, but somebody real,” and she goes on to say that the way she tried to write a book just like that… by listening. She rightly says that “the best diverse reads grow out of a sense of urgency and a sense of particularity.” And that “tokenism, where a character’s background is either basically arbitrary or is the only reason they are included” is really not what diversity is all about.  So all in all, writers and readers? Not all that different when it comes down to diversity and comfort zones. And you know what, once a reader has been grabbed by that one book, you can bet your ass off they will be looking for another fix! Or they might even be ready to get out of their comfort zones… and wouldn’t that open a whole new world…?

Are the critics then the hardest nut to crack? I honestly hope not (and I don’t really think they are), because aren’t critics in essence also just readers looking for that spark (and at about 16%, the lists are well over the 5% output)? I have no objective information either way, but I keep getting back to how surprised I was seeing so few “people of color” when cross-referencing awards lists. As I said in the beginning, African American writers and Asian American writers do appear on the lists[6], but it’s a whwhen the stars go blueole different story with the Latino/Latina writers and characters, and that’s still what surprises me now, considering this is the biggest “minority group” in the US we are talking about. I started this whole article because I had just read When the Stars Go Blue, by Caridad Ferrer, which deals with a 17-year-old Cuban American girl, Soledad Reyes, whose passion is dance. Instead of spending her summer teaching dance, she is going to be part of a corps group, performing Carmen, which is a whole new experience for her. When the Stars Go Blue is a modern retelling of the Carmen story, including the love triangle. I picked out this book on purpose. Even though in my school/country there are very few Hispanics, I’d been on a mission to “diversify” the books I bought for the school library because I believe in exposure being key to opening up the world. When the Stars Go Blue seemed to have it all. Latina author? Check.  Latina main character? Check. Cover photo representative for the protagonist and the story? Check. And yet, the book let me down in a big way. Not because the protagonist wasn’t believable (she was) but because I felt the story dragged on and a lot of the writing was redundant.  So I started looking into other works featuring “the Latino cultural experience”, to quote Pura Belpré. That’s how I figured out there even was a Pura Belpré award… Hardly any of these writers and/or their books had showed up on my (YA) radar, and then I checked this list, and referenced it with that list, and then… yes, I had to ask the hard questions: are these works not considered to be “literary” or “outstanding” enough by award committees to be on the receiving end of that award (16% diversity, but hardly any Hispanics?)? What exactly are these committees looking for? And how is that different from what these ‘diverse’ teens themselves are looking for? Or, have they just been greatly overlooked by award committees until last year when Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s Under the Mesquite was recognized by the William C. Morris committee – I mean, seriously, people, the books are there? And if they are being overlooked, why is that? Are these books too far out of the critics’ comfort zone? I had and still have no real answers here.

But I am also drawn towards something else here, though, … that pesky thing of marketability, profitability and culture/creativity as a commodity, which is in essence a total oxymoron. Let’s get back to the fact that only 5% of the work that is published on the YA market is by/about people of color. Who buys books? If publishers think something is not going to sell and they can’t make money off it in the short rather than long term, then they won’t trouble themselves to “diversify” the market. Rightly or wrongly (self-fulfilling prophecies and all that), publishing houses – by means of their marketing departments – still seem to assume that “white” sells better than “color” and as long as making money is their comfort zone, taking a risk isn’t going to be on the table for them. So if we get back to the 5% of the published works put out by “people of color”, and if there’s any blame to be given out, it’s to those business people refusing to say “to hell with market research, I’m taking a chance on this author and this book and those characters”. If there were more output, if there were more guts and more humanist brain involved, and less money in making those decisions, then teens would have so much more to choose from (yes!) and jury members would have more than 18 books to choose from to make up their best of lists (self-published book hardly ever count as “real” entries) and we might get to see more “people of color” on those lists, including Latinos/Latinas, both as author and as character. Because choosing between 2500 books or 18 books… well, obviously you’ll get skewed lists[7]!

Blending in is the norm unfortunately. Standing out is to be avoided at all times. That’s what is killing diversity. And I am not just talking about diversity when it comes down to race and ethnicity. I realize that I have asked more questions than I’ve answered here. But it’s important to ask them and to keep on asking them. So please, writers and readers, keep mixing it up. Write the risky book you have in your head. Read the different book. As for publishing houses? I’m not that naïve to think that anything is about to change big time with the major companies, so my faith is with the writers, the readers and the small(ish) publishing houses. Stand out!

 

Edited on 29 Jan 2013: Wow, someone’s been listening…  hah! The 2013 YMA announced that Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe won Pura Belpré and was also a Printz Honor Book!


[1] In a side note, it might be interesting to see who was on those committees when those books by people of color were awarded.  It’s obvious that absolute objectivity does not exist when it comes to book rating, and nor should it! Books need to move you and what works for one reader will not work for another reader. Like, I personally don’t see why American Born Chinese won the Printz, and M.T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and even John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines were mere Honor Books in 2007. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and my taste is different. But even if I purely went for literary merit, from that list, I’d probably pick Octavian Nothing – interestingly enough also a book about “a person of color”. That being said, when lists are compiled and several people’s opinions have to be weighed in, often the book that pops up the most might win despite it not being everyone’s “favorite”.  Might be what happened when American Born Chinese won over the other Honor Books.

[2] This right here is an interesting article about that.

[3] Here’s an article that caught my eye about that.

[4] BTW, a very interesting breakdown of gender diversity (authors and protagonists) in award winners can be found here.

[5] BTW, that spark might easily just come from the book’s cover. Googling “race + YA covers” will also give you a wealth of info about how it’s important that covers are “diverse” too.

[6] Would I be naive to think that it’s coincidence that the two African American Printz winners just happen to be “established names”? Or is this me being cynical? Because the situation is different for the other 2 winners…

[7] BTW, in this list at Stacked which I found after writing this, Kelly Jensen identified no less than 22 out of 89 books  by/with people of color in several “Best Of” lists of 2012. That’s almost 25%, so definitely above the 5% mark previously stated. She also identified 6/89 books with LGBT themes (about 6%). It’ll be an interesting comparison with the “awards” lists when they come out!


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