One-Minute Book Reviews

January 30, 2012

American Library Association to Little Kids: Women Are Second Best

Why are women winning fewer Caldecott medals than at any point in the 74-year history of the ALA’s top prize for picture books?

By Janice Harayda

Four out of five librarians are women, but when it comes to children’s book awards, nobody could accuse them of an excess of sisterhood. For decades the American Library Association has had a dismal record of honoring female artists with its Caldecott medal, given each year to “the most distinguished American picture book for children.” That record just got worse.

Last week the ALA named the winners of the 2012 Caldecott medal and three Honor books, all four of whom were men. Long before that shutout for women, the number of female winners had sunk to its lowest level in the 74-year history of the prize. Women won 10 percent the Caldecott medals from 2000-2009 compared with 30 percent in the 1950s and 40 percent in the 1960s. They are also doing worse than men by virtually every other measure of the award. Male artists have won roughly twice as many Caldecott medals and Honor awards overall as their female counterparts. They have won all the Honor awards four times as often. And the women whom librarians have passed over aren’t second-rate artists: They include some of the greatest illustrators, living and dead, who have worked in the field.

This neglect of women is startling given the wealth of female talent that has existed in picture books since Dorothy Lathrop won the first Caldecott medal in 1938 and Virginia Lee Burton soon earned one for The Little House. It is that much harder to understand because women are claiming more awards from others, including  75 percent of the 2011 National Book Awards and 83 percent of the most recent National Book Critics Circle prizes. And outside of library sites, the trend has received little notice, perhaps because it is to some extent masked by the profusion of ALA prizes added since the Caldecott, including the Coretta Scott King (for black authors and illustrators) and Pura Belpré (for Latinos and Latinas). Many of the newer awards have gone to female artists and allow the library association to say that it honors women while denying them its showpiece award for picture books, which has more prestige and impact on sales.

Caldecott judges snub women’s books on other year’s-best lists

Librarians have defended their Caldecott record with arguments that collapse under scrutiny. Some have suggested that women win fewer Caldecotts because they are staying home and having babies instead of working on the next Where the Wild Things Are. If only female artists were all gay and childless like Maurice Sendak! Never mind that in the 1950s – when far more women stayed home – women won twice as many Caldecotts as in the past 13 years. And never mind that in England, where women also have babies, they won 60 percent of the Kate Greenaway medals (“the British Caldecott”) between 2000–2009 compared with 10 percent of Caldecotts.

Other librarians blame publishers for the medal gap. They speculate that fewer picture books by women get published, although they cite no evidence of it. Roger Sutton, editor-in-chief of children’s literature magazine The Horn Book, punted when he heard in 2007 that men had won four times as many Caldecott medals as women in the past two decades. “I wouldn’t argue that sexism is at work here without a lot more information – what percentage of picture books are illustrated by women, for starters,” he said.

The publishing industry offers much to blame in how it treats women, but it isn’t causing the medal gap. Consider the best-picture-books-of-the-year lists in major newspapers and trade magazines. In late 2011 virtually all lists included multiple books by female artists. Every year their editors and reviewers find outstanding books by women: It’s the Caldecott judges who have trouble. Then perhaps librarians have higher standards than the critics for the New York Times or Publishers Weekly? Not likely: This year School Library Journal had several female artists on its best-picture-books list.

The idea that publishers are causing the medals gap loses more ground when you consider the books spurned by Caldecott judges. This year the also-rans included a book that made the New York Times’ Best Illustrated Books list: Brother Sun, Sister Moon, which has unique and beautiful paper cuts by Pam Dalton and a text by Katherine Paterson, who has won the National Book Award and Newbery medal twice each. Librarians also rejected a book named one of the year’s best by School Library Journal and other publications: Mouse & Lion, illustrated by 1973 Caldecott Honor artist Nancy Ekholm Burkert, whose work has appeared in the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art and who is one of the greatest living picture-book artists. The judges instead gave a second Caldecott medal to Chris Raschka for his A Ball for Daisy, which has a bright crowd-pleasing appeal but lacks the depth and originality of Brother Sun, Sister Moon and Mouse & Lion. Past Caldecott committees have withheld the top prize from Carin Berger, Meilo So, Natalie Babbitt, Rosemary Wells, M.B. (Brooke) Goffstein and others, often honoring less deserving books by men.

Favoring books because they’re by men … or because they’re about boys?

Some librarians counter the accusations of favoritism by saying that the Caldecott committees change annually. But rotating the judges doesn’t help if a long-term institutional bias affects decisions. And ALA judges have shown such a pattern: They lean toward artists who are popular with children or who they think should be, so their awards may reflect children’s well-documented prejudices about sex roles. Many librarians are also desperate to promote reading among boys and may honor books by men because they are more likely to depict male characters. This idea gains plausibility from the medal count for Newbery awards for books for older children, which skews in other direction: Consciously or not, the Caldecott judges may be favoring visual images of boys as much as male artists.

None of these reasons is acceptable. If the librarians want to reward books that they believe will interest boys without slighting women, they have a simple way do it: Give more medals. The Caldecott committee has often named four or five Honor Books but this year listed only three.

Whatever the reason for the medals gap, the ALA is sending a message to children that women are second best. Librarians can’t say “We want children to see that Caldecott medals on books have meaning” and, at the same time, “We don’t want that meaning to be: Women are also-rans.” Children will see in the medals what they see.

Caldecott judges don’t discuss their deliberations, so we may never know why they found all women unworthy this year and honored a male artist’s book about a dog that lost its favorite red ball. But judge Michele Farley offered a clue on Twitter soon after the ALA denied the medal to a woman for 11th time in 13 years. Farley tweeted: “I am so happy it was a dog book!”

A note about the sources for this article: The U.S. Census Bureau says that 4 in 5 librarians are women. The 2-to-1 ratio of male-to-female Caldecott medalists came to my attention through a comment by Peter, editor of the Printz Picks blog, on the Fuse #8 blog at School Library Journal, and my math confirmed it. All percentages and ratios come from my calculations and can be confirmed through the winners’ lists on the prize-givers’ sites or on Wikipedia. Some comments grow out of my conversations with librarians and publishing executives.

This is the second of two posts on the 2012 Caldecott awards. The first dealt with the scarcity of Caldecott medals for black artists.

Janice Harayda is a novelist award-winning critic who has been book editor the Plain Dealer and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. She has been reviewing books for children and adults for two decades. Jan tweets about books for all ages at @janiceharayda.

Comments on this site may not exceed 250 words, must relate to directly to the post, and must be civil. They must also include either a full name, a photo avatar or a link to the commenter’s website, unless their author is known to the moderator. Comments that do not meet these guidelines will be deleted or edited.

(c) 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 30, 2011

Why Do Children Like Animal Stories?

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Animal stories have appealed to young children for thousands of years. What accounts for their popularity? Peter D. Sieruta, a children’s literature critic and the author of Heartbeats: And Other Stories, writes in The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators, edited by Anita Silvey:

“Infants, like puppies, kittens, and other young animals, not only share a diminutive size and appealing ‘cuteness’ but are also alike in their innocence and dependency on larger creatures.”

March 26, 2011

Tomorrow – A Review of the 2011 Caldecott Medal Winner, Erin and Philip Stead’s ‘A Sick Day for Amos McGee’

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Erin Stead won the American Library Association’s highest honor for illustration, the Caldecott Medal, for A Sick Day for Amos McGee, a picture book about animals who repay the kindness of their zookeeper. Her art accompanied a bedtime story by her husband, Philip. How does her work compare to that of other Caldecott winners? A review will appear on One-Minute Book Reviews tomorrow.

May 30, 2010

A Review of Dana Reinhardt’s Young-Adult Novel, ‘The Things a Brother Knows,’ From the Editor of the 2010 Newbery Medalist — Coming Soon

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Rebecca Stead won the 2010 Newbery Medal for When You Reach Me, edited by Wendy Lamb, who has her own imprint at Random House. In September Lamb will publish Dana Reinhardt’s The Things a Brother Knows, a young-adult novel about a 17-year-old boy whose older brother acts oddly after returning from deployment with the Marines in a combat zone. Reinhardt says he wrote the book after hearing mothers talk about sons who “came home different” from war. That made him think about the son who didn’t go: “the one who maybe thought that what his brother had chosen to do was a big mistake.” A review of The Things A Brother Knows will appear soon on this site, which reviews children’s books on Saturdays. Jacqueline Woodson dealt with a similar topic in her novel for preteens, Peace, Locomotion, the story of a boy whose foster brother returns from war missing a leg.

May 21, 2010

A Grade-by-Grade List of Books Recommended for Summer Reading for Children and Teenagers

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At this time of year, many libraries hand out lists of books recommended for summer reading for children and teenagers in different school grades. If yours doesn’t or if you’d like more ideas, visit the terrific site for the Highland Park, Illinois, Public Library. This site has a list of books recommended for each school grade (such as “Hot Fifth Grade Titles” and “Riveting Sixth Grade Books”) divided into categories such as “Adventure,” “Biography,” “Historical Fiction,” “Sports” and “Mysteries.” And unlike the flyers at many libraries, this master list has a link to one or more reviews of each recommended book so you can quickly learn more about it.

April 29, 2010

Coming Saturday – A Review of Lois Lowry’s ‘Crow Call’

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Two-time Newbery Medal winner Lois Lowry is one of America’s most honored authors of middle-grade fiction. On Saturday One-Minute Book Reviews will have a review of her first picture book, Crow Call, with art by Bagram Ibatoulline, who illustrated Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.

March 12, 2010

Good Passover Books For Boys and Girls Ages 4 and Up

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Cover of Wonders and Miracles by Eric KimmelA picture book and an anthology explain the Seder and more

Miriam’s Cup: A Passover Story. By Fran Manushkin. Illustrated by Bob Dacey. Scholastic, 32 pp., $5.99, paperback. Ages 4 and up.

Wonders and Miracles: A Passover Companion. Written and Compiled by Eric A. Kimmel. Scholastic, 144 pp., $18.95. Publisher: 4–8. School Library Journal: 9–12. [See further discussion of ages below.]

By Janice Harayda

Many children’s books about Passover cover essentially the same material, including the story of Moses and his sister, Miriam, and why some  families place a Miriam’s Cup next to the Elijah’s Cup at the Seder, the Passover meal. Among those with staying power:

Miriam’s Cup is a picture book that refracts the Passover story through the eyes of a modern family preparing for the holiday. Before guests arrive for the Seder, Mama Pinsky tells her daughter, Miriam, about the “the prophet you are named for.” Mama’s account focuses on the biblical heroine’s role in events more often associated with her brother Moses — his discovery in the bulrushes, his flight from Egypt, the plagues of frogs and other afflictions, and the parting of the Red Sea.

The text of Miriam’s Cup is at times stilted. The Pinskys are modern enough to have a Miriam’s Cup at their Seder, but Miriam Pinsky calls her parents “Mama” and “Papa” as though living in the early 20th century. And although Fran Manushkin never says so directly, her book has a feminist slant. (Anybody who doesn’t recall seeing Miriam on the list of prophets in that Bible-as-literature class in college may want to read the entry about her on Wikipedia). But Bob Dacey’s bold watercolors draw you in quickly and help to offset the effect of the anachronisms, and the book includes a bonus: the words and music to Debbie Friedman’s “Miriam’s Song” based on Exodus 15:20–21.

Wonders and Miracles won a National Jewish Book Award  and is, in effect, a children’s coffee-table book – an exquisite collection of poems, stories, prayers, recipes, and more – that befits the high reputation of Eric A. Kimmel, who wrote the Caldecott Medal runner-up Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. His Passover anthology doen’t include a complete Haggadah, the collection of readings used at the Passover meal. Instead Kimmel walks children through each part of the Seder, explaining why it matters with the help of beautiful illustrations spanning three centuries – from an Egyptian tomb painting to contemporary photographs of three versions of a Miriam’s Cup (silver, glass, and clay).

If the publisher and School Library Journal disagree on the ages for this book, it’s because Wonders and Miracles has something for all. J. Patrick Lewis’s simple rhyming poem “Spirit of the Seder” would suit preschoolers. Gershon Levine’s story “And You Shall Teach Your Children” makes a good introduction for adolescents to the Soviet Jews known as “refusniks” who lost their jobs or were investigated by the secret police if they tried to practice Judaism or move to Israel. And adults might appreciate the recipes for almond macaroons (“a lovely change from the traditional coconut macaroons”) or both an Ashkenazic and Sephardic charoset.

For all its virtues, this book has such an unexpected dust jacket I might have missed it if a children’s librarian hadn’t put it in my hands when I asked for “the best Passover books.” The cover comes from the gifted Bagram Ibatoulline (creator of the crucified rabbit for Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane). Ibatoulline shows Moses and Aaron in red tunics that make them look like – there’s no getting around this – Santa Claus, with seraphim and cherubim above and below them. An editorial note traces the cover influences to the Amsterdam Haggadah “illustrated by a Jewish convert who copied his illustrations from a Christian source.” And while the winged angels might confuse some children about Jewish beliefs, in a sense the cover brilliantly reflects the spirit of this book. On his first page, Kimmel tells us that Passover is ancient and modern, solemn and joyous, and timeless and ever-changing. It is, in other words, “a holiday filled with contractions.”

Ages: The publisher recommends Wonders and Miracles for ages 4–8 while School Library Journal suggests 9–12. Both are right. But very young children might destroy this book while some 11- and 12-year-olds might be too old for some of it. I would probably give it to 6-to-9-year-olds or as a “family” gift.

Published: March 2006 and Feb. 1998 (paperback and hardcover editions of Miriam’s Cup) and Feb. 2004 (Wonders and Miracles, hardcover only available).

This is a repost of a review that appeared in slightly different form in 2007. You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter, where she often comments on children’s books.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 6, 2010

Hare-Brained Books About Bunnies — Beware of Rip-Offs of ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’ and Other Classics

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Bad bunny books and some recommended substitutions for the Easter basket

If you’re looking good books about bunnies, beware of the words “based on.” That phrase on a cover is usually a tip-off that you aren’t getting the original text, pictures or both. And some books omit even that red flag. Two examples are Peter Rabbit (Ideals, $3.95) and The Velveteen Rabbit (Ideals, $3.95), which have the words of Beatrix Potter and Margery Williams but pictures far inferior to those in the best-known editions of their books. Publishers can do this because The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Velveteen Rabbit are out of copyright in the U.S. (though not necessarily in all other countries). Some knock-offs of these classics cost as much as books with the original text and art.

So why not go for the real thing? Or consider any of the many other good books about rabbits. They include Pat the Bunny (Golden Books, $9.99, ages 1–3), by Dorothy Kunhardt; The Runaway Bunny (HarperCollins, $16.99, ages 2–5), by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd; and Bunny Cakes and Bunny Money (Picture Puffins, $5.99 each, ages 3–5), by Rosemary Wells or other titles in Wells’s hilarious “Max and Ruby” series about a brother and sister rabbit.

For ages 6 and up, consider the chapter-books about Bunnicula the “vampire rabbit” (well, it does drain juice from vegetables), by James Howe and Deborah Howe, illustrated Alan Daniel. The titles in this comic mystery series may tell you all you need to know: Bunnicula, Bunnicula Strikes Again!, Howliday Inn, Return to Howliday Inn and The Celery Stalks at Midnight (Aladdin, $4.99–$5.99 each).

This post first appeared in slightly different form in 2007. You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 27, 2010

‘Tsunami!’ — A Picture Book That Explains a Monster Wave to Children

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A farmer sacrifices his rice crop to save his neighbors from a monster wave in Kimiko Kajikawa’s recent picture book Tsunami! (Philomel, 32 pp., $16.99, ages 4 and up), illustrated  by Caldecott medalist Ed Young and adapted from a story by Lafcadio Hearn. “Young knows how to evoke devastation without needless gore, and throughout the book he does with it vibrant collage-like images that, unlike his more realistic cover picture, have an abstract-expressionist spirit,” an Oct. 3 review on this site said. “He suggests – instead of showing in bloody detail – the power of a monster wave.” Read the full review here.

February 26, 2010

A Second Look at Ezra Jack Keats’s ‘The Snowy Day’

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A Caldecott medalist often called “the book that broke the color barrier” in children’s publishing

Winter still has enough muscle here in New Jersey that the library was closed for snow yesterday, so I couldn’t put my hands on a trailblazing book about the kind of weather we’re having now, Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day (Puffin, 40 pp., $6.99, paperback, and other editions). But an excellent reference book on children’s literature puts its achievement in context.

“Keats illustrated nearly a dozen books before writing his first, The Snowy Day, which won the 1963 Caldecott Medal,” former children’s librarian Mary Mehlman Burns writes in The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators(Houghton Mifflin, 2002), edited by Anita Silvey.

“A celebration of color, texture, design, and childhood wonder, The Snowy Day is significant in that it was one of the first picture books in which a minority child is seen as Everychild. Years before, Keats had come across photos of a young boy, and he recalled that ‘his expressive face, his body attitudes, the way he wore his clothes, totally captivated me.’ The boy was to become Peter, who, in his red snowsuit, discovers the joys of dragging sticks and making tracks in the snow. After its publication, Keats found out that the photos had come from a 1940 Life magazine – he had retained the images for over 20 years.

“With solid and patterned paper as wedges of color, Keats used collage to create endearing characters and energetic cityscapes, not only in The Snowy Day (1962) but also in Whistle for Willie (1964) and Peter’s Chair (1964).”

A generation of readers – black and white – is grateful to The Snowy Day, sometimes called “the book that broke the color barrier” in picture books from mainstream publishers. The editions include DVD-and-book gift set from Viking that also has Whistle for Willie.

You may also want to read “American Library Association to Little Kids: Women Are Second Best,” a response to the medals gap between male and female Caldecott winners.

This review first appeared in 2008.

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter. She satirizes the American literary culture, such as it is, on her Fake Book News page (@fakebooknews) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews.

http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/caldecottmedal/caldecottwinners/caldecottmedal.cfm

 

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
http://www.janiceharayda.com

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