One-Minute Book Reviews

January 26, 2012

Is American Library Association Ghetto-izing Black Authors?

Filed under: African American,Caldecott Medals,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:23 am
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Kadir Nelson, a four-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Award, lost the more prestigious Caldecott medal — again — on Monday

By Janice Harayda

Kadir Nelson may have won more honors than any of the most recent candidates for Caldecott medal, given by the American Library Association each year to “the most distinguished American picture book for children.” His paintings have appeared in museums and galleries around the world and on U.S. postage stamps, including two that celebrate Negro League baseball.

But when the ALA named the winners of its 2012 awards on Monday, Nelson didn’t get the Caldecott for his Heart and Soul, as many had expected. He won his fourth Coretta Scott King Award, which only black authors or illustrators may receive. The King award is a high honor but one with less prestige and impact on sales than a Caldecott medal. And Nelson’s award has revived a debate about whether the ALA is ghetto-izing the black authors and illustrators who qualify for the identity-based prizes that it gives out along with honors open to all. Are writers and artists who look like shoo-ins for a King award being denied the Caldecott and Newbery medals that can have a much greater impact on their careers?

The answer should be no. Library-association judging committees deliberate independently. And authors can win awards in more than one ALA category, as when Nelson received a King award and a Sibert prize for “the most distinguished informational book for children” for We Are the Ship. But the reality is less clear-cut, as the blogger and novelist Mitali Perkins noted in explaining why she hoped the library group wouldn’t create an award for authors of Asian descent like her:

“The existence of such an award for Asian-Americans may inadvertently or sub-consciously knock books out of the running for prizes like the Newbery or the Printz. (‘Oh, that title’s sure to be nominated for a Super Asian Writer Award …,’ said the committee member to herself as she crossed Kira-Kira off her list of finalists.)”

Such possibilities may involve a cruel paradox for black superstars like Nelson: The better those authors and illustrators are, they more likely they are to look like shoo-ins for a King award. And the less likely they are to get what they deserve, if judges subconsciously or inadvertently relegate them to lesser prizes. Nelson’s many nonlibrary honors don’t mean that he automatically deserves a Caldecott medal. Designing a postage stamp isn’t the same as creating a picture book that involves the flow of words and pictures.

But author Marc Aronson is right that the ALA is tumbling down “a very slippery slope” with its profusion of identity-based prizes. Aronson notes that when the ALA launched the King award in 1969, “no black artist or author had won major recognition from ALA (Arna Bontemps’s Story of the Negro, a 1949 Newbery Honor Book, aside), and there were relatively few African Americans working in the field.” That situation has changed greatly, he adds: The U.S. now has a “steadily growing group of African-American artists that every important publisher, large and small, seeks to publish” and independent presses devoted to their work. If the Coretta Scott King Award helped to change that, it has also brought new risks for black authors and illustrators and for awards judges. As Aronson notes:

“The danger in every award that sets limits on the kinds of people, or types of book, that can win it is that it diminishes the pressure on the larger awards, the Newbery and the Caldecott, to live up to their charge to seek the most distinguished children’s books of the year.”

In a post that predicted the 2012 Caldecott winners, the influential librarian and  School Library Journal blogger Elizabeth Bird wrote that “We all know that Kadir deserves to win one of these days.” It’s fair to ask: Would “one of these days” have arrived by now if the ALA hadn’t been able to give Nelson the Coretta Scott King Award?

This is the first of two posts on the winners of the 2012 Caldecott medal and the three Honor Book citiations. The second post deals with the shutout for women in the awards.

Jan Harayda is an award-winning critic and former vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this site.


  1. A really great article, thanks for sharing. It doesn’t sound like it is ghetto-izing African American writers. Maybe on a subconsciousness level but I hope not.

    Comment by bibliopirate — January 26, 2012 @ 2:31 am | Reply

  2. Thanks, @bibliopirate. I hope not, too.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — January 26, 2012 @ 3:56 am | Reply

  3. However, the thing about this Kadir Nelson book is that it’s not obviously or self-evidently eligible for the Caldecott Medal, which is for a picture book, something very minutely defined in the committee’s charge. I’m not saying a person on the committee could not have argued for its eligibility, but that cuts both ways. We will never know.

    Comment by Roger Sutton (@RogerReads) — January 26, 2012 @ 6:00 pm | Reply

  4. @RogerReads Thanks, Roger. I was deferring on the eligibility issue to Betsy Bird and other librarians who know more about these matters than I do and who thought “Heart and Soul” had a shot at the Caldecott. And people raised eligibility questions about “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” which won in 2008 So I’m not convinced that something more wasn’t at work with “Heart and Soul.”

    By the way, I thought Mark Aronson’s Horn Book essay on identity-based prizes was terrific and recommend it to all

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — January 26, 2012 @ 8:17 pm | Reply

  5. […] Viewpoint: Is American Library Association Ghetto-izing Black Authors? by Janice Harayda – “Kadir Nelson, a four-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Award, lost the more prestigious Caldecott medal — again — on Monday” – One-Minute Book Reviews […]

    Pingback by Book Bits #130 – Michelle Obama’s ‘American Grown,’ Kim Thúy’s ‘Ru,’ and more writers’ links | Malcolm's Book Bits and Notions — January 27, 2012 @ 11:01 am | Reply

  6. Roger brings up an excellent point, though. In the Caldecott terms and criteria (at “a ‘picture book for children’ as distinguished from other books with illustrations, is one that essentially provides the child with a visual experience. A picture book has a collective unity of story-line, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised.” I think some would argue that the illustrations are essential to the story in “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” while in “Heart and Soul,” they are primarily illustrations and, although gorgeous, not absolutely essential to the story. That may have been more of a reason for ruling out “Heart and Soul” than the thought that it was a shoe-in for a Coretta Scott King award or honor.

    Thanks for a great post and links. BTW, it’s Sibert Medal, not Siebert. 🙂

    Comment by speedytexaslibrarian — January 28, 2012 @ 12:55 am | Reply

    • Helpful quote, @speedytexaslibrarian. Thanks! I’m doing a separate post on the Caldecott shutout for women on Monday, and the link may relate to that one, too.

      You may be right about the differences between “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” and “Heart and Soul.” The trouble is that the profusion of identity-based prizes muddies the waters for nonlibrarians like me, perhaps including many parents and teachers: It looks as though the ALA is shunting black authors into an awards ghetto even if, as you and Roger say, other factors may have counted for more with the Caldecott committee.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — January 28, 2012 @ 2:44 pm | Reply

  7. Thank you so much for this well written and thoughtful post! I couldn’t agree with you more about this year’s Caldecott choice and I have seen this with the Newbery as well. When I think about One Crazy Summer and After Tupac and D Foster, I get SO ticked! The only thing is…maybe with so many serious mis-steps taken by the Caldecott and the Newbery, well maybe they just aren’t as prestigious as they used to be. Maybe we just have to stop giving so much credence to these awards if they are going to continue to be so poorly chosen. Don’t get my wrong, some winners are awesome and fully deserving, but some years….oh man…
    Thank you again for this post. I completely agree!

    Comment by Ingrid Kalchthaler (@Reving) — February 2, 2012 @ 11:40 pm | Reply

    • Ingrid: That’s such an interesting question: Are the awards less prestigious than they used to be? If you’ve been on Twitter lately, you may have seen tweets about how the “Today” show used to have the Caldecott winners on the program every year. This year, the ALA couldn’t get the winners on one big morning show. So the producers of those programs seem to support your view that the awards just don’t carry as much weight with the public.

      A related question is: If the awards have less prestige now, why is that so? It may be that books are less important to our culture as a whole. But it could also be that the awards are flawed in a way that the ALA needs to address. Thanks for making me think about these questions!

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — February 3, 2012 @ 2:05 am | Reply

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