Ethnic Book Awards: Discriminatory or Necessary?

Maybe it's because of my involvement with the Cybils, or maybe it's just anticipating watching the Amazon sales rankings of the soon-to-be-announced Newbery books go nuts, but I've been thinking about the whole awards machine lately. That's why I was fascinated to read that in the UK, a watchdog group has threatened legal action against a book award that excludes white authors (source: Galleycat). Such ethnic book awards, like PEN USA's Beyond Margins awards, are designed to encourage writers from underrepresented communities and bring overlooked literary gems into the light. But do they accomplish their goal?

In the children's lit world, we have our fair share of ethnic book awards. We have the Pura Belpré medal and the Coretta Scott King award, for example, for which entries are limited by the racial heritage of the authors. We don't yet have an Asian-American children's book award that is awarded only to people of Asian descent. (The APALA award is given to books by or about Asian Americans just as the American Indian Youth Services Literature Award is given to books by or about American Indians.) I don't want a separate children's book award for books written just by those of us who come to the table with an Asian heritage because:
  1. 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 Prinz. ("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.)
  2. Winning the Super Asian Writer Children's Book Award could reinforce your vocation as an "ethnic" writer, which in turn might relegate you and your book to a (short) list of obligatory "multicultural" reads in a book-buyer's blackberry. Your stories will then be forced on kids by adults like some sort of necessary vitamin pill for the soul. Yum.
  3. In an intermingling society where more and more of us are far from Malfoy-esque when it comes to "purity of blood," which books will qualify for an Asian-American identity-based award? Take the Coretta Scott King award, for example, which goes to "authors and illustrators of African descent whose distinguished books promote an understanding and appreciation of the American Dream." Is it enough for the author to be 1/4 black to enter, or is having one African-American great-grandmother enough? If so, get ready for a future press promo packet featuring a blue-eyed, blonde Coretta Scott King award winner.
  4. Bottom line: Most Asian-Americans don't face the same kind of squeeze out of the American mainstream that blacks and Hispanics do when affirmative action programs are eliminated.
Points one to three highlight problems with all identity-based awards. An alternative (put forth by Marc Aronson some years ago in Slippery Slopes and Proliferating Prizes, published in the May/June 2000 issue of the Horn Book) is to shift restricted awards away from a focus on the ethnicity of the author. We could honor the best stories about war, friendship, homelessness, prejudice, humor, and romance, for example, completely ignoring the race of the author, like the Jane Addams awards, which feature books promoting peace and justice.

Seven years after Aronson's article, however, non-white voices are still underrepresented in the children's book world, and it's hard to deny that who tells a story is important. But while an author's race is definitely one factor that matters, why is it considered the most definitive? I recently heard Jennifer Armstrong give a speech about her book, The American Story (Random House), for example, during which she told us, "I am a vegetarian, atheist, pro-choice, anti-war, organic-gardening blue state liberal, and I am a patriot." (This quote is also on Jennifer's blog, so I'm not betraying any secrets.) A history of America culled and written by an atheist (to pick one of J.A.'s labels), no matter how fair and gracious (which Jennifer is nothing but), is going to differ from, say, a history of America recounted by a practicing anabaptist, no matter how open-minded and tolerant. My point being: who you are does affect how you tell the story, but why should race be the only attribute we take into account? Why not identity-based awards designed to showcase voices from underrepresented creeds or socioeconomic classes, then?

Ideally, we'll get to the point where great storytellers will be limited neither by race, creed, nor class in serving a wide audience. But we're not there yet -- particularly when it comes to those ethnic groups who have suffered greatly in history. Andrea Davis Pinkney, in Awards that Stand on Solid Ground, her rebuttal to Marc Aronson published in the May/June 2001 issue of Horn Book, argued that we need race-based awards because kids of color still need to see our society celebrate the accomplishments of people of color. This need was evidenced in my sons' middle school recently, when all the African-American students in the auditorium rose spontaneously to their feet to recite the Pledge of Allegiance during Governor Deval Patrick's inauguration. It was a beautiful moment -- but Patrick wasn't elected the Coretta Scott King Governor of Massachusetts, now, was he?

For more on this theme, listen to a 44-minute panel discussion called "Literature of Color: Myth or Reality," read Cynthia Leitich Smith's reflection on segregation and shelf space, or consider Linda Sue Park's article on the Paper Tigers site, Life With A Hyphen: Reading and Writing as a Korean-American.


Pooja said…
EXCELLENT post, Mitali. Much to think about here...
Lisa Yee said…
Wonderful post. I often ponder the questions you raised.

I was surprised when my book, Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time, won the Chinese American Librarians Association Best Book of the Year Award for Youth because I never thought the novel was very Chinese. Instead, it was about a boy who happened to be Chinese. His ethnicity was part of the fabric of the story, but not the focus.

Later, when I spoke with some of the members of the awards committee, they assured me that I wasn't awarded the honor by mistake, but that they appreciated seeing a Chinese American protagonist who was trying to deal with normal kid stuff. And I thought, they understood what I was going for!

I was on NPR not too long ago talking about Asian American characters in children's literature. The whole thing was strange me because it's as if I've suddenly become Chinese and am speaking for the masses, when really I'm still just the same old me I've always been. I mean, when I eat dim sum I point to little plates because I'm never sure of what things are called. However, that said, I am amazed by the letters from kids saying, "I'm Asian and I've never read a book about a girl/boy like me before. Thank you."

And I realize that we do need more MC's of different races and colors and religions out there.

Oh dear, I just realized that I am blathering. Better stop now! Thanks again for the great post!!!

Lisa Yee
Really great point, Mitali. I couldn't agree more that who we are has everything to do with not only how we tell history but how we investigate and understand it. Singling out race as the most important identifier seems really short-sighted to me.
Nina said…
Thanks for the great post. I have to take issue, though, with your point #1. It's the point a lot of people make: that the existence of a particular award (whether it be for ethnicity of author or subject...or for genre) marginalizes a book from getting noticed in the bigger awards. I just don't see it happening.

Sitting on an award committee, the whole point is to find the best. Who cares if another award committee is looking at the same book? I think that if someone uses the "oh, this is a CSK type of book" excuse, it's just cause they don't like the book to begin with.

Take the ALA awards as an example. There's LOTS of crossover between the CSK, Printz, Newbery, Caldecott, Sibert... Which tells me that if anything, these awards are doing their jobs, and bringing previously marginalized books INTO other spotlights, not shunting them out.
Mitali Perkins said…
Lisa, you're a California Pacific Rim girl, like me, and growing up Asian American is a different experience there. I've become much more conscious of my ethnicity here in Massachusetts.

Nancy, you make a good point, especially about awards that are simultaneously awarded. However, having just served on an awards nominating panel for the first time, I was amazed at the wacko, completely irrelevant thoughts that entered my brain while reading, comparing, and having to choose between dozens of books. Maybe you get better at it with experience. (Sorry, Cybil entrants for Middle Grade fiction, if that makes you uneasy -- thankfully, the four other committee members remained steadfast and sane throughout the process.)

And Jennifer, I'm glad to hear that you agree with the point I made when I took your name in vain, but I still wonder how this post (made by a brown writer) and your comment (made by a white writer) sounds to a black writer. Or to a Hispanic or Wampanoag writer.
J. L. Bell said…
Interesting discussion, which may be irresoluble as long as such a discussion remains possible.

Here's a fix for the first link in the second paragraph after the numbered list, on authors' ethnic backgrounds.
Susan said…
Mitali, very interesting posts. Read Rogers is talking about some of the same issues today and points to an article in England. I'll have to go back and read the older Horn Book articles that you link. Thanks.
Susan said…
Um, that should be "Read Roger" (not Rogers) above. Oops.
MotherReader said…
I guess I would rather see the award for the kind of book than the ethnicity of the author. But then you do introduce questions of what makes it an Asian/African/Native - American book. Very interesting post.

Regardless, I think you should call dibs on the award name "Super Asian Writer Award."
Heidi Estrin said…
I've been involved with the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee of the Association of Jewish Libraries for the past few years. The goal is to find books that authentically portray the Jewish experience, whether that experience is being described by a Jewish or gentile writer. As I tell my students in the library, the most important raison d'etre of a Jewish book award - or any ethnic book award - is to introduce the world to real and/or fictional people of that ethnicity in such a way that the reader cares about them, gets to know them, and can't imagine acting prejudicial towards them. By drawing readers to books with minority characters, these awards can really help build bridges between readers of different ethnic backgrounds.

I also wanted to mention that we have often given awards to books that, like Lisa Yee's, weren't written as a portrait of an ethnicity. We even found an official term for these books - they are "culturally neutral," meaning that the background of the characters is not essential to the story, but adds flavor and personality. Our committee has been SO HAPPY that more of these books are being published - it's great to see Jewish characters just living normal lives, not constantly celebrating holidays or fighting prejudice, just as it's great to see Chinese-American characters who are worrying about things like basketball instead of about, say, adjustment to immigrating.

I say, long live the ethnic book award!

Heidi Estrin
The Book of Life podcast