Blacks, Hispanics Are Rare Heroes With Newbery Kids Books Medal
By Melita Marie Garza
Dec. 30 (Bloomberg) -- In “Bud, Not Buddy,” author Christopher Paul Curtis tells the story of a Depression-era black boy in Flint, Michigan. The book won the Newbery Medal, the top prize in children’s literature, eight years ago.
It was the last time a black character had the lead role in a Newbery book. If you want a Hispanic protagonist, you have to go back 43 years.
Characters depicted in Newbery winners are more likely to be white, male and come from two-parent households than the average U.S. child, according to a Brigham Young University study. The trend has accelerated even as the U.S. has diversified, with fewer black and Hispanic main characters in the past 27 years than in the Civil Rights era of 1951-79.
“We are going to have a black president -- literature should catch up,” National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie said in an interview. Alexie won the award for his 2007 “Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” a semi-autobiographical novel about a teen growing up on the Spokane Indian reservation.
The Chicago-based American Library Association has awarded the Newbery Medal to one book annually since 1922. All Newbery books remain in print, underscoring their enduring nature. Their popularity with teachers and parents means that for many younger children, Newbery medalists are a primary way they learn about the world and how to relate to others.
To be sure, only about 10 percent of new children’s books published last year focused on minorities, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, a library that serves the university’s School of Education.
The number of books about minorities has remained around 10 percent since 1992, said Kathleen Horning, the center’s director.
‘Largely White World’
“We still are a largely white world in children’s literature and it’s always an uphill struggle,” said Roger Sutton, editor- in-chief of Boston-based Horn Book magazine, an 85-year-old review of children’s books.
The Brigham Young study analyzed the race, gender and family background of human characters in 82 Newbery-winning books through 2007. The analysis compared three periods, starting with 1922 through 1950, followed by the era in which the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, 1951 through 1979, and concluding with the 1980 through 2007 period.
Black and Hispanic protagonists became scarcer during the past 27 years. American Indian and Asian main characters increased in number -- to two each.
Latino protagonists disappeared from 1980 through 2007 and black ones fell to two from a high of five between 1951 and 1979, the study found. White main characters rose to 19 from 18 in the same period.
The last book with a Hispanic protagonist to win a Newbery Medal was “Shadow of a Bull,” by Maia Wojciechowska, in 1965. The book dealt with a young Spanish boy’s struggle to follow in the footsteps of his slain bullfighter father.
Newbery Medal winners also depict disproportionately fewer characters living in single-parent households than the norm, the study found. About a quarter of all U.S. children now live with one parent, compared with seven percent of the Newbery protagonists in the past 27 years.
“Maybe the ALA should just describe the Newbery Award as ‘awarded to the writer of the best book about white, two-parent households,’” said Julia Alvarez, a Dominican-American and a writer-in-residence at Middlebury College in Vermont. She won the American Library Association’s Pura Belpre Award as well as the Americas Award for “Before We Were Free,” which tells the story of a 12-year-old girl whose family is involved in resistance work in the Dominican Republic against the Trujillo dictatorship in 1960.
“The Newbery is given for literary quality -- ethnicity, gender, nothing of that is necessarily taken into consideration,” said Pat Scales, president of the Association for Library Service to Children, which runs the Newbery award for the library association.
“We certainly want children’s books to mirror society,” Scales said. “It’s not as magic as whether there is a boy main character or a girl main character or an African-American or Latino or Asian character. We owe kids good stories that reflect their lives and give them a more global view.”
One out of three Americans is now a member of a minority group, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Hispanics, the largest minority, account for 15 percent of the U.S. population, followed by African-Americans at more than 13 percent. Asians represent 5 percent and American Indians more than 1 percent.
While only one book can win the Newbery Medal each year, the library association also names Newbery Honor winners, an accolade a number of minority writers have received. In 2008, Jacqueline Woodson’s “Feathers” and Christopher Paul Curtis’s “Elijah of Buxton,” were named Honor Books. Both authors are black.
“The honor books are winners too,” Scales said. “We have to look at the whole spectrum. We now give the Pura Belpre Award, which is strictly for Latino writers and illustrators.”
Likewise, since 1982, the library association has given the Coretta Scott King Award to black authors and illustrators depicting a sense of the African-American experience in their work.
“Pura Belpre started in 1996 and was originally given every other year because there weren’t enough books by Latino authors and illustrators,” Scales said. “That’s changing, and starting in 2009, the association will give the award annually.”
“We are not just writing Latino books, we are writing stories for all of us,” Alvarez said. “Sometimes there are these lags. The same thing happens in academia, minority writers, Afro- Americans, women, are taught in specialized courses, such as the Survey of Women’s Literature. ... That is slowly changing, and the canon itself is more diverse. Boy, I can’t believe it’s 2008 and we’re still having this kind of conversation.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Melita Marie Garza in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org