On creating a literature of diversity

For any readers who don’t know, I’m in my last semester of graduate school to be a librarian. One of the classes I am taking is Children’s Literature. One of our recent topics for discussion was multi-cultural literature or, as was mentioned in my class, a literature of diversity.

Anyway, for this class I had to read two articles about what would be called identity based awards. These would be book awards where the author’s ethnicity is a factor in eligibility. (To back up, in case I lost you at “book award,” there are a lot of book awards used to celebrate the most distinguished _______ book each year. The big ones in literature for young people are the Newbery for children’s literature, the Caldecott for picture books, and the Printz for young adult literature. The “Big Three” of the book awards, they’re kind of like the Oscars of kid lit, but there are lots of others for early readers, non-fiction and probably ten things I don’t even know about yet.)

Two of the most widely know identity based awards are the Coretta Scott King award (for African American authors/illustrators) and the Pura Belpre award (this one is for either latino or hispanic authors/illustrators, the criteria isn’t clear and honestly I’m not clear enough on the differentiations between these two terms to say which either–if you have some insight, please leave it in the comments!).

Now, if you want to play along with my commentary, you need to read “Slippery Slopes and Proliferating Prizes” by Marc Aronson which can be viewed here: http://bit.ly/ct1ZE6 (Aronson wonders why the identity of the author is a bigger factor than the quality of their work and calls for a stop to the fragmentation of awards based on identity. But he says it more eloquently.)

Then, read Andrea Davis Pinkney’s response to Aronson in “Awards That Stand on Solid Ground” here: http://bit.ly/dspvQ0 (Pinkney responds that while ideally Aronson is right, this is not an ideal world and identity based awards provide valuable exposure for authors of color in a field that is still mostly white. But she states her case in a more masterful way.)

I’ve stewed on this for a while and I have to say I’m inclined to agree with Aronson. I see Pinkney’s point, and I understand it–especially after following the various posts about whitewashing covers (one of the latest being a kind of sad, but very interesting, post from Alaya Johnson over at Justine “authority on whitewashing after the Liar cover debacle” Larbalestier’s blog). But it still doesn’t seem right.

If we are going to go by Pinkney’s standard, which is a fair and valid standard to use, where are the awards for women authors? Where are the awards to bring women out of the chick lit ghetto and get them more mainstream coverage? What about for feminist children’s books? Pinkney says herself that in every award scenario someone loses, but does that mean there isn’t a scenario where everyone can win?

Historically, the non-identity awards have favored white authors. And that’s a shame. Perhaps a solution is more Newbery/Caldecott categories instead of more awards?

You might be asking yourself, what’s the difference? Well, in my view, it’s huge. Instead of fragmenting the awards and separating everything into little boxes that don’t always make a difference in terms of what makes good literature, sub-categories could bring together awards based on literary merit and literature of diversity.

As a white woman writer (aspiring at the moment), I also worry about identity-based awards because while they do wonderful things to raise awareness of authors of color and writing about characters from a variety of cultures, they also seem to say “back off.” This might be an unfair bias but when I hear “Pura Belpre” or “Coretta Scott King” winner, it feels like a pronouncement that a white author can’t write convincingly or with respect about a different culture.

Aside from being unfair, that is completely untrue. All the same, it’s a discouragement. With so much emphasis on writing about diverse cultures from members of that culture it seems like I (and perhaps other writers though I can only speak for myself) are being encouraged to stay in our own cultural boxes and not write about a diverse group of characters.

Following that train of though, I keep wondering where Ezra Jack Keats fits into this equation. A child of Polish immigrants, Keats has written some of the most beautiful and most diverse picture books ever. He wrote not about white children but children of all colors to reflect his neighborhood. Yet, a Coretta Scott King award would never have recognized his contribution to reflect the African American experience. Maybe this is me, but that doesn’t feel right either.

That might have just been talking in circles so I’ll try to leave you with something more concrete:

Last summer in my YA Lit class I read The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd who came to speak to my class. Burd is African American but he made a conscious choice to write his novel about a white boy in Iowa because, as he told our class, writing about a black kid in Iowa would require a lot of stuff that would be extraneous to the novel. Another problem. Why does it need to be explained? My friend “Ray Gunn” posted a really brilliant post about this which you should all read here even though I might embarrass her by sending you all over. I agree with her wholeheartedly.

While reading about these identity-based awards I kept thinking about Nick Burd and Ray Gunn’s post. I think, really, that creating a literature of diversity isn’t just about separating out different cultures on their own pedestal; part of it is about mashing them all together.