Tuesday, February 3, 2015

ALA Youth Media Awards 2015: My Heart is So Full

Last night I returned home from the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting. The past few years I have watched the live webcast of the Youth Media Awards, but when I found out that this year's Midwinter would be in Chicago, a mere 4 hour drive from my house, I knew that I had to attend. Even watching the webcast the past two years, I could feel the energy and excitement in the room when the awards were announced, and wanted to feel that for myself.

This year I felt it in spades. Screams, shrieks, tears, and standing ovations were the order of the day. The outcry for more diversity in children's publishing earlier this year with #WeNeedDiverseBooks felt like a call to action, and I'm happy to see that the award committees this year responded.

I was elated that I had read so many of this year's award-winners and so I wanted to share a few of my reactions and thoughts, starting with the Coretta Scott King Award.

Jason Reynolds' debut novel, When I Was the Greatest, won the John Steptoe Award for New Talent and it most certainly felt like a coronation. With the passing of Walter Dean Myers last summer, one gets the sense that Reynolds just became Myers' heir apparent. I have talked, written, and fangirled over this book many times in the past few weeks. I am happy to see that publishers are finally recognizing the need to publish books like this one that show positive, counter-narrative portrayals of contemporary African American teens. I would have loved to see When I Was the Greatest also win a Schneider Family Book Award due to the fact that one of the major characters, Needles, has Tourette Syndrome and is not treated any differently (other than by his brother) because of it, but I'm elated that it was recognized by the CSK committee.

Christopher Myers won the CSK illustrator award for Firebird, written my Misty Copeland. I agree whole-heartedly with this selection. Books often make me emotional, but very rarely do I begin to tear up on page one of a picture book. That is, until I read Firebird. It wasn't just the words that moved me, but seeing them paired with Christopher Myers' emotional, sweeping illustrations that made it a perfect storm of "ways to make Beth cry." 

How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon won a CSK author honor and it is one of the most timely books to hit store shelves in 2014. When a black teen gets shot by a white man, accounts of "how it went down" are so disparate and divisive that it's no wonder the "real" truth is never revealed by the end of the novel. This is a book that will elicit much-needed dialogue and will challenge our own prejudices. 

Some thoughts on the Printz Award/Honors
I didn't actually read the winner of the Printz Award, I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, but with all the buzz I've been hearing about it leading up to it being announced as the winner, I'm definitely looking forward to reading it now. 

I was elated that Andrew Smith's Grasshopper Jungle won a Printz Honor. This is one of the most innovative, groundbreaking, totally WTF book I have ever read. So much so that I didn't even bother to review it because I didn't think I could fully summarize the book's premise and my feelings about it. So I've spent a great deal of time since I read it in March quoting what other people have said about it. So to quote what Paula Willey wrote yesterday from her blog, Unadulterated 

I am glad that this Printz Committee understood that you can be Serious Enough and also Funny As Balls. On Facebook, Andrew Smith posted the news about receiving a Printz Honor for Grasshopper Jungle by saying, "finally I get a sticker that isn't a warning." 

As far as This One Summer goes, I didn't actually care for it as a story, but I loved the artwork in this graphic novel. Even though I didn't love the book, I can see why the Printz committee gave it an honor. It's a book that leaves readers scratching their heads as to what it's really about and has kind of been on people's radars, but not so much that everyone has been buzzing about it. I think the Printz committee likes picking those kinds of books.

Which leads me to the Caldecott...

OK, so the Caldecott committee picked SIX honor books this year, which is almost unheard of -- and I am proud to say I read each and every one of the books that were honored and awarded. But notice the first book listed here is also a PRINTZ honor. Again I say, I did not love this story, but what I DO love is that it won a flipping Printz and Caldecott honor. What does that say about what we are considering distinguished illustration for CHILDREN? I have a feeling we're going to start seeing this book on some school and library banned book lists because parents are going to assume that since it's a Caldecott honor that it's OK for young children to read. This coming-of-age story is definitely intended for more mature readers. 

Viva Frida was on my list of hopes and wishes for the Caldecott. It won a Pura Belpre illustrator award, which I was fairly certain it would, but I was REALLY hoping the Caldecott committee would add some diversity to their roster and let Yuyi Morales walk away with the medal. An honor, however, ain't too shabby. 

When The Adventures of Beekle was announced as the winner of the Caldecott medal, I shrieked joyously and then began to cry. Dan Santat's beautiful story of an imaginary friend waiting to find his person captures the vivid imagination and innocence of childhood. Beekle, along with Viva Frida were two picks from my recent hopes and wishes post for the ALA Youth Media Awards. Oh, and if The Adventures of Beekle winning a Caldecott weren't already emotional enough, I dare you not to cry when you see this video of Dan Santat's son and the first time he heard him say Beekle. 

And finally the Newbery...

It had already been an emotionally stirring, diversity-filled morning of award announcements. The Newbery committee now had a lot of pressure to get it right. Would they heed the call of more diversity in children's literature, or would it be business as usual? 

Then it was announced that there were only TWO Newbery honors this year. A murmur of disappointment pervaded the vast ballroom. And then the first honor book that was announced was El Deafo. A graphic novel just won a Newbery honor.

A graphic novel just won a Newbery honor. 

Let that sink in for a minute. 

A graphic novel just won a Newbery honor. 

I can't stop thinking about what a BIG DEAL this is. All those parents and teachers who have told their children and students that comics are bad and they aren't real reading, they can't say that anymore. This is a historic moment for the Newbery Award and for children's literature. You knew it by the fact that this book got the loudest, most raucous reaction from the crowd. People were shocked and overjoyed.

The next book to be announced as a Newbery honor was Brown Girl Dreaming. This was the book that was expected to win. And it didn't. And now the Newbery committee was probably going to pick some boring historical fiction with zero kid-appeal written by a white person. It was going to be business as usual. 

And then...

those glorious words...

"And now the winner of the John Newbery medal for this year's most distinguished contribution to American literature for children is..."

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

More screams
More tears
More hugs
Diversity wins

Even though there were only two honor books this year, the Newbery committee absolutely go it right. In recent years many had feared that the Newbery had lost its way. But the shirts the committee wore into the ceremony yesterday said "trust the process." It had been difficult for readers to do that for quite a few years. But now readers can begin to gain their confidence back. 

Kudos to you ALA award committees. You absolutely got it right. My heart is so full. 

You might have noticed that the book I had been hoping and praying would win the Newbery in fact did not win so much as an honor (it did, however, win an Odyssey honor). While my heart is a bit sad by this because I think had A Snicker of Magic been published in any other year prior to 2014, it would have likely won, it was time to answer the call for more diversity -- and not just for diversity's sake, but also because these three books as well as the diverse books selected by the other award committees ARE worthy of being called distinguished. They are loved and will be loved by children for decades to come. And now we can start to make sure that children of many different backgrounds begin to see themselves reflected in these awards. So award committees of 2016, you are on notice. Let's make sure that diversity CONTINUES to be represented in these awards every year and not just because #WeNeedDiverseBooks brought it to fever pitch in 2014. Let's make sure the 2015 award season doesn't go down in history of the one and only year of diversity in children's literature awards.


  1. Thank you for this post, Beth!! You made me feel like I was there!! I am so excited about all of the Newbery winners! We are reading aloud The Crossover now and my sixth graders can't get enough!!!! :)

  2. (Trying again and hoping this won't show up twice!)
    Thanks for these remarks, Beth. I love hearing what smart readers are saying. And that includes Michelle's 6th graders. I kind of thought Rain Reign might get a NB Honor nod. Haven't read the winner- all copies were out at my local library branches today!