A Brigham Young University study has pointed up a large bias toward white, male characters from two-parent households in the juvenile titles receiving the prestigious Newbery award. It seems even our increasingly diverse — not to mention PC — society hasn’t touched the American Library Association, which has bestowed the Newbery honor on one book per year since 1922.
In thinking about this finding for just a minute, and reflecting on the Newbery titles that instantly spring to mind, I have to pretty quickly acknowledge this claim of bias does seem true. From titles as different as Bridge to Terabithia to the wildly imaginative Holes, yep, the main characters are indeed white, male, and residents of two-parent households. The seeming preference for these types of families may likely be unintentional — I don’t see how anyone could question the superiority of the writing and stories in titles such as those — but it’s there.
Two things. One, I can’t stand it when any institution, whether it be a contest, election or a book award panel, becomes so PC that it’s simple to project who the winner will be due to the mere presence of ethnic characters or daring themes. But I can still see the reason for the recent outcry.
The Contra Costa Times quotes Pat Scales, the president of the Association for Library Service to Children, which runs the Newbery program: “The Newbery is given for literary quality. Ethnicity, gender — nothing of that is necessarily taken into consideration.
“We certainly want children’s books to mirror society… 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.”
But while the stories may be good, the conventionality of the households from which the characters come definitely is old-fashioned, hardly global.
The second thing — the Newbery panel is famous for NOT really selecting the best title every year. Often, the superior title is the runner-up, such as Newbery Honor books like Hatchet. While it’s true the Newbery titles always stay in print and win the author much prestige, I remember even from my own childhood that often these titles are viewed as “untouchables” by students, perceived as too highbrow (read, boring) to be enjoyable.
We’ll see what happens with the good ol’ Newbery. We’ll hope they find a way to hunt down titles that give young readers broader cultural views while preserving the spirit of the quest for great story.