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.