Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Newberry Award: Part Deux

Just before Christmas, I blogged on a recent controversy surrounding Newbery Award-winning literature. It seems that some people believe that the award given by the American Library Association for the most distinguished American children's book published the previous year should be given to simpler, less challenging reads. Ugh.

Well, another controversy surfaced with the Newberry Award. Now some are upset that Newbery winners don't include enough stories about African Americans or other minorities. Melita Marie Garza, the author of the Detroit Free Press article, quoted Sherman Alexie, a 2007 National Book Award winner for Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, "We are going to have a black president -- literature should catch up."

Before irrational ideas that I'm a racist spring into your head, understand my perspective. The Newbery Award is given for the most distinguished novel. It's not an award based on ethnicity. This concern is analogous to the parent who's upset that Johhny didn't get a participation trophy. Jonny participated. He didn't deserve a trophy. In this everyone-deserves-a-trophy attitude, accomplishments that are true, noble and valuable are weakened. Hurry, somebody pin an I'm-Breathing ribbon to Franky's jersey. Look at what' he's accomplished! Ugh.

The criticism should not be aimed at the award: aim it at authors. Common sense would seem to dictate that an award for the most distinguishing children's book should be based on literary merit not ethnicity.

Pat Scales, president of the Association for Library Service to Children, which runs the Newbery award for the library association, offered some well-needed clarity on this recent ridiculous concern. "The Newbery is given for literary quality: Ethnicity, gender, nothing of that is necessarily taken into consideration... 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."

Good literature always transcends ethnicity. Hurston proved that. Willy Shak proved that. Faulkner proved that. Cather proved that. Wright proved that. Twain proved that. Ellison proved that.

I just wish these Newbery critics understood that.

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