Thursday, November 19, 2009

One question or two?

So, what does it mean--if anything--that Phillip Hoose's National Book Award winning Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice is ineligible for the Coretta Scott King Award (because Hoose is white) and Jerry Pinkney's Lion & the Mouse is in the same position because it isn't about black people? Does it not matter, or have the CSK awards painted themselves into a corner?

37 comments:

deborah said...

I'm not sure this is a meaningful question, Roger. Plenty of excellent books aren't eligible for plenty of awards. Did the Caldecott painted itself into a corner because Michael Rosen's Sad Book wasn't eligible for consideration? No, because the Caldecott exists to assess the books that meet a certain set of qualifications, and in this case, American-ness was one of those qualifications. The same goes for the Coretta Scott King. The award doesn't claim that it chooses the best book about black people, or the best book by black people. It chooses the best American children's book about the black experience and by an African-American. That's a specific award for a specific purpose, and if two wonderful books don't meet those qualifications, there's nothing wrong with that. They are two wonderful books, and they might win some other award.

Roger Sutton said...

It's certainly not a new question but it is occurring to me now because Claudette Colvin is the most significant juvenile book of African American history this year, and Lion & the Mouse is a major achievement by a distinguished African American illustrator. It feels to me like the CSK criteria force the awards to miss, in these cases, precisely those books they seek to honor.

Anonymous said...

I'm not as familar with the CSK criteria--I've read them online before but can't seem to readily find them now--but would it be possible to give a Coretta Scott King Award to *Claudette Colvin* (rather than Phillip Hoose) for her oral history interviews liberally excerpted throughout the text?

Jonathan

deborah said...

Roger, when you say that the books are therefore missing "precisely those books they seek to honor", I think you are using your perception of what books they seek to honor, rather than their own definition.

The award's self-stated purpose is "To encourage the artistic expression of the African American experience via literature and the graphic arts, including biographical, historical and social history treatments by African American authors and illustrators."

That is, the award is about the African American experience as portrayed by African-American authors and illustrators. It is NOT about the African-American experience as portrayed, however respectfully and beautifully, by people who are not African-American. It is also NOT about any old story that is by an African-American author or illustrator. There is a very specific set of books they seek to honor and neither of these two books happened to be in that set, any more than any other fabulous book that doesn't happen to be about the African-American experience by an African-American author or illustrator.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Roger, push-polling at your age?

I agree with deborah. The Awards were designed to reward a certain kind of author for a certain kind of book. You want them to do something else. But they can't do what they do, and what you want them to do, at the same time. You would have to argue that what you want them to do has more value over all.

I don't think this is very much different from the conversation about Where the Wild Things ARE over at Heavy Medal in which you said, I think, that the very strictures of the Newbery can *prevent* it from being awarded to the most distinguished contribution to Children's Literature.

Roger Sutton said...

I'm not arguing the books should win; obviously the rules don't allow that. But these two books show how the CSK's dual mandate risks marginalizing its mission. We've had this debate often; I just think it's interesting that these two books throw it into high relief.

deborah said...

But they don't marginalize its mission. The marginalize the mission you are claiming for it, which seems to be a general mission about representation of African Americans or books by African Americans. But that is not their mission.

deborah said...

Thinking about it, I'm wondering if the reason we are having this discussion is because you don't see the value in an award specifically about the representation of the black experience by African-Americans. Is that the case? Because to me, it goes without saying that that is itself an extremely valuable award to have, and an extremely valuable niche to showcase. But if you don't see that value, I can see why you would be misunderstanding the mission of the CSK.

rebecca said...

Roger, you're not simply asking "What does it mean?", you're expressing a pretty meaningful opinion -- your opinion about what the CSK criteria should be. Why should the CSK criteria be anything other than what it clearly states in its own guidelines? Why would you assume that they really seek to honor a different (broader) category of books than what they claim?

The CSK would be diluted, by definition, if it broadened its criteria the way you'd like. But there's nothing wrong with the criteria you'd like -- as long as it doesn't dilute this important award. So: why not propose that there be an additonal award to honor books portraying the African American experience but written by anyone, and yet another award for books by African American artists on any topic?

Anonymous said...

The scope of the award can seem somewhat restricting to date. Has anyone counted how many winning authors and illustrators have won numerous times?

J. L. Bell said...

Deborah quoted the purpose for the Coretta Scott King Awards.

As I read it, that purpose explicitly includes books by African-American authors and artists but doesn’t exclude books by others. Only the criteria that follow do that. So the books Roger mentioned do raise the question of whether the criteria serve the stated purpose—or whether the purpose needs restating. (If there were a comma after “treatments,” then the “including” phrase would be limited to the types of books.)

I can’t help but wonder if the effect of that mention won’t be so much “push-polling” about the criteria for the King Award as a reminder to Caldecott Medal judges that for Pinkney’s Lion & the Mouse they’re the only game in town?

Roger Sutton said...

What the hell was that push-polling comment about anyway? I'm bothered that people seem to be attributing some kind of devious motivation or agenda to what I've said. But it's my blog, so I'll simply repeat myself: I think it is really interesting that the year's best black history book, and best picture book by a black illustrator* can't win the award that was designed to bring about more books by black people and about black culture. I understand that the award is for black people writing about (or illustrating) black culture, I just think that the Venn diagram of who-you-gotta-be and what-you-gotta-write-about can exclude some books that exemplify why we wanted a CSK Award in the first place.

*best picture book of the year, period, so, I guess, yes, J.L. Bell!

rebecca said...

I just think that the Venn diagram of who-you-gotta-be and what-you-gotta-write-about can exclude some books that exemplify why we wanted a CSK Award in the first place.

Roger, to me, this is the crux of the issue. There's more than one "us" inside that "we." To people who find the criteria too narrow, your statement makes sense, and all the books you're talking about should be included; but to other people -- including the writers of the CSK criteria! -- the criteria is written correctly for the goal.

African American artists/authors, and books about African American content, get profoundly short shrift in our society. If you feel that the CSK criteria is too narrow, would you conside advocating for two more awards, one about African American content (written by anyone), the other by African American creators (about any content)? It's not as if any of the three categories are in any danger of getting too much cultural attention.

Anonymous said...

Roger,

That was me with the push-pulling. I didn't mean to accuse you of being devious. I always assume your provocations are flagrant and good clean fun. I was referring to the two options you offered. Either say that is doesn't matter that these books are excluded, or say that the committee has been "painted into a corner." It's not a neutral presentation. But then I don't come to your blog for neutral.

Roger Sutton said...

I thought about your suggestion for additional awards, Rebecca, but I think that would only marginalize or even obliterate the CSK, making those awards automatically second class (because everything eligible for the CSK would by necessity be eligible for either one or the other of the new and more competitive awards). One thing this latest discussion has made me realize is that the combination of identity and content insulates the CSK Awards from being second class stepchildren to the Newbery or Caldecott. But an award for "Best Book by a Black Person" could sting (given the presence of a Best Book by Anybody American, the Newbery), and in its turn call the status of Best Book by a Black Person About Black People (the CSK) into question.

Anonymous said...

That's the best argument I have heard yet for not changing the criteria.

Anonymous said...

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http://www.jeremyrobinsononline.com

Anonymous said...

Huh, Roger? Pasted below is something you wrote in January during an earlier round of CSK musing. It seems at odds with what you're posting now.

"There have always been book awards that combine criteria for the book and the recipient, like the U.K.'s Orange Prize, for best novel by a woman, or the Newbery Medal, for best children's book written by an author or--hi Neil--resident of the U.S.

My thinking on the CSK used to be lot like Marc and Esme's but now it is more aligned with Andrea Pinkney and Jackie's. If you want to give an award for best book about African American life, or, social justice, go for it. There are already book awards out there that address those themes, and there's always room for another. Why should the CSK have to change just so that white people can win more awards?

I have enough trust in the people who administer and judge the CSK to let them decide, for these circumstances, who is black. The problem with self-definition is that it lets in the wannabes (Debbie Reese can give you an earful on this) but I don't think blood-quantum is the actual problem here: it's white people who want to win a prize given to black people."

deborah said...

Roger,

Based on Anonymous' quoting of you, I think January-You is thinking through this more thoughtfully than November-You. "It's white people who want to win a prize given to black people" is exactly the issue, not "the award that was designed to bring about more books by black people and about black culture."

There is no shortage in the world of white people talking ABOUT black people. We really don't need to give awards for it. White people talking about black people (and writing about black people, and getting paid to talk about and write about black people, and teaching black people, and pontificating upon the solutions to all of black people's problem, and getting paid and rewarded for doing all of these things while black people can't get published because some publisher's list already has a black author) is really not something we need to be encouraging with an award that is intended to go to a black author writing about black culture.|

Anonymous said...

I'm interested that Pinckney's Lion and Mouse book is being automatically excluded from consideration as representing authentic black experience. (In casual conversation, anyway. I don't know about the committee). Who decides which black experience is "authentic?" I think it is originally from Aesop but I'm not 100% on that. Even if we assume the originator of the fable is not black, haven't black children and adults been experiencing this fable for generations? Who does the story belong to after all these years? I thought the award was supposed to recognize the breadth of black experience, not merely afro-centric culture.

It irks me that these conversations always go back to the kneejerk, "Oh you just want white people to be eligible to win this award" response. Roger said nothing of the sort. He is not advocating that Hoose be eligible for this one, merely pondering whether the award's criteria always further its cause. It's also odd when people speak of the award's "self-stated purpose." The award doesn't speak. The criteria were created by a committee, right? Thinking evolves. It is a cheap (and usually unwarranted) shot to accuse all critics of suffering from white privilege.

- Hope

Roger Sutton said...

Let me add, Hope, that I assumed Lion & Mouse's ineligibility all on my own. The committee could interpret the rules differently. I am also bothered that any discussion of possible failings of the CSK is viewed by some people as a betrayal of The Cause. ( People get this way about the Newbery and Caldecott, too.). But It's when nobody is complaining about your award that you know it's in trouble.

Anonymous said...

I got that, Roger. But others have said the same thing and I didn't give it a second thought til I came across this conversation. It reminded me of my friend who bemooans the lack of children's literature about upper middle class black families, since that is her children's (and was her own, and her parents') reality.

deborah said...

Hope,

1. I did not accuse Roger of "suffering from white privilege". Nor did I imply it in any way.

2. That being said, Roger benefits from white privelege. As do I. Those are not 'accusations', since there can be no blame attached to them. Those are merely facts. Neither of us "suffer" from white privilege, except inasmuch as a world with prevalent white privilege is a lesser place. I don't see this as being relevant to the discussion at hand, since it's a (cheap and unwarranted) straw man argument about something nobody here said, but denying Roger's white privilege would be nonsensical.

3. Roger's pondering as to whether the award's criteria always further its cause has not engaged the people who are disagreeing with him about what the purpose of the award IS. He continues to act as if the purpose of the award, don't we all agree, is "books by black people and about black culture".

Roger,

If you are interpreting anybody here as saying you are betraying The Cause (instead of misunderstanding the CSK), then you are reading words that nobody here has written.

Hope said...

Deborah, in your 6:44 post, you go on at length about [awards for] white people talking about black people. While you didn't use the words "white privilege," I inferred it from your examples and tone.

When I said "suffering" from white privilege, I didn't mean suffering as an antonym for benefitting, I meant someone afflicted by that particular blindspot. Duh.

In several of your comments you state that other poster's points are irrelevant -- Roger's initial question is not meaningful, my remark was not relevant to this discussion, and again, Roger has not engaged [the appropriate] people with his commentary. This is no way to have a conversation...a diatribe or good scolding, perhaps, but not a dialog that elucidates or illuminates anything.

It's not clear to me how your interpretation of the CSK objectives differ from Roger's.

You skipped over my remarks about defining what constitutes authenticity when discussing black experiences. These nuances are far more interesting to me than the stale old arguments about who has the right to challenge the status quo or parse award committee language. We all second-guess award committees, it's practically a sport.

Roger Sutton said...

The reason that talking about this award is difficult is because of the intersection at its heart. It's not for books about African Americans. It's not for books by African Americans. It's for books about African Americans by African Americans. I think everybody understands that, Deborah. The question is what J. L. Bell pointed out, whether or not the purpose of the award--"To encourage the artistic expression of the African American experience via literature and the graphic arts, including biographical, historical and social history treatments by African American authors and illustrators"--is addressed by the criteria of the award, which state that any contender "must be written/illustrated by a African American" and "must portray some aspect of the African American experience, past, present, or future." Hoose's book is an "artistic expression of the African American experience" by virtue of its subject. Pinkney's is the same, by virtue of its creator. No one is arguing that these two books fit the criteria, but that they suit the purpose. Admirably.

Gultiveg said...

Don't worry so much, Roger. At least Hoose and Pinkney still have a chance at the consolation prizes -- Newbery and Caldecott.

Roger Sutton said...

Touché, Gultiveg!

Anonymous said...

I am tempted to let the conversation drop there, but I am too curious. If Pinkney had illustrated B'rer Rabbit, would it have been eligible?

Roger Sutton said...

He has--beautifully--for at least one collection of Bre'r Rabbit stories by Julius Lester, which won a CSK Honor for the author.

Andy Laties said...

I have difficulty with understanding why the fable "The Lion and the Mouse" does not apply to the Black American experience. In fact it seems to me that its "Power of the Weak" lesson does apply, and very powerfully so.

According to Tom Feelings, in "Tommy Traveller in the World of Black History" (depressingly once again out of print), Aesop was a Black African. Thus at least according to an Afrocentric interpretation of literary history, Pinkney's co-author was Black.

Is "The Lion and the Mouse" a fable that is ABSENT from the Black folkloric experience in America?

Since none of the animal characters in the book can be identified with any specific race, I would say that it is the race of the reader of the book, individual by individual, that is projected onto the book. That is: if Black Americans read the fable, and interpret it through the lens of their lives, then it is about their experience.

So I would say that it is indeed eligible for the Coretta Scott King Award.

Anonymous said...

how about cutting the Gordian Knot and excluding ALL retellings and reillustration of traditional material (at least after the fifth instance) from prize competition? of course there would be no restriction on publication so publishers wouldn't be deprived of this "valuable" resource

Andy Laties said...

Would you revoke the Caldecott from Paul Zelinsky for "Rapunzel"?

Anonymous said...

no, of course not! Zelinsky muzst be excempt. I was talking about FUTURE books,

Andy Laties said...

Well, I was thinking about shopping around a toddlers' version of "The Book of Job"--so I definitely do not approve of your proposal.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about yall but I'm just waiting for an African American illustrator (minus Leo Dillon) to win the Caldecott! Maybe this will be Pinkney? -ksl

Christine said...

Don't get me started, Roger. It would take pages. But then again, you know my position on this.

And I love you for keeping it part of the public discourse because, frankly, the black on black thing is quietly influencing how some publishing decisions are being made.

Christine said...

Oh heck, I couldn't stop at one post. As an African American I've heard (directly) and through other authors that eligibility for a CSK is sometimes a litmus test for how books are acquired. We seem more interested in regurgitating many of the same civil rights stories. The Claudette Colvin story is stunning in it's willingness to peek behind the curtain. Many African Americans have quietly bemoaned the tendency for black leaders to "pick our heroes" for us (Rosa for instance). Leave it to the NAACP to decide a light skinned woman is a better test case (which is reminiscent of Bloomsbury's decision to replace the LIAR cover with a light skinned woman).

But a lot of us knew that if we wrote about Claudette, being an AA author would relegate the topic to a black interest book rather than a mainstream addition to the literary stream.

I've heard on more than one occasion when inquiring about a concept for a fantasy series that "Black books" don't sell.

So it is not surprising that when an author who is not of the culture writes about a topic, it is seen in a different light - as more of a mainstream book.

And there's the rub. CSK created an opportunity to put more AA authors and/or stories into the mix, and attempted to remedy a common complaint about "authentic voice" but now limits those authors to a narrow subject area. For instance, I can't write about an African subject, even if it's my heritage, and be eligible.

But to be fair, Hoose should be applauded for his work AND it should be acknowledged that he is eligible for mainstream awards. A quick look at the mock lists suggests AA authors in the CSK category aren't. Some on this blog will balk - but in comparing the books in each category - there's a stark disparity in quality, marketing, editorial support, etc.

And if anyone needs to talk about "privilege" one need only examine the American Book Awards where the "white guys" ruled the day in all categories.

So your question is valid. And I disagree with the person who said that you are writing from "white privilege." You've been writing from my perspective for years and I'm an uppity middle class AA woman with a prep school upbringing who married her children's father before they were conceived (not as rare as people think unless we're talking about literature - sigh).

Of course I'm also ranting because this year's holiday movie offerings about people of color feature an morbidly obese woman impregnated (twice) by her father and a morbidly obese football player adopted by a upper middle class white family. And the world sees nothing of the richness of the life I lead or present to my own children.


But - like I said, an author of my acquaintance wrote a book I loved and I cringed when one of the editors said "she's white so she isn't eligible for a CSK" then proceeded to market her future books featuring mostly white characters. Not much has changed since then. Which is why - may be the question should be - why aren't more people of color considered for mainstream - none color-based awards?

And why do we rejoice and reward books about the black experience mostly when they are written by someone who is not?