I wondered why the award was restricted to the race of the author rather than of the characters, and asked Stacy Whitman, editorial director of TU BOOKS, about her take on this sticky issue. Here's the email exchange between the two of us (shared with Stacy's permission):
Mitali: Hi Stacy. Just wondering why you decided to focus the award on "writers of color" rather than "main characters of color"?
Stacy: This is like the Lee and Low New Voices Award, which is aimed at discovering new voices of color, given that so many writers are white. Everyone is still welcome to submit to our regular submissions. Hope that clears it up.
Mitali: Yes and no. I've always wondered how Lee and Low defined "of color."
Stacy: It's a good question. Here's the answer Louise usually gives writers who ask about it for New Voices, which I'll be adapting as people start to ask me:
While our company does acknowledge and actively work with Caucasian authors and illustrators, our New Voices contest specifically promotes the work of new writers who are not Caucasian. We use the term “color” in the commonly accepted way to refer to those writers and readers who might otherwise be referred to as members of minority populations (African Americans, Asian Americans, Latin Americans, and Native Americans), but who are fast becoming larger and larger percentages of the United States population. We apologize if you find this terminology exclusionary, but it is meant merely to be descriptive. For want of a better term, we use what is in common usage throughout the country.It can be tricky—I personally prefer the author to define themselves, rather than for myself to define it. And for me it includes multiracial people (Tobias Buckell, an editor of Diverse Energies, for example, is half black and half white, even though many people just looking at him would assume he is "just" white, which is a complicated genetic thing that society oversimplifies). But what it comes down to is that we're trying to help discover new voices from underrepresented groups through this contest.
As a company founded with the mission of creating books in which children of color can see themselves in the stories they read, we feel it is critical to acknowledge these unheard voices. In the mainstream world of children’s publishing—statistically dominated by works by and about Caucasians—writers of color and their stories for children have and continue to slip through the cracks, making up a small percentage of the children’s books published each year. Aside from our small efforts to promote new writers from diverse communities, you will find there are national children’s book awards that have similar focuses, for example the Coretta Scott King Award which acknowledges African American authors and illustrators, and the Pura Belpré Award which acknowledges Latino authors and illustrators.
Me: Thanks, this is helpful. My opinion is that with all the mixing and melding going on, any authentic experience of a writer will ring through in the fiction if we focus on the culture/race of the character rather than of the author. If an upper middle class Bengali woman like me writes about a poor Bengali fisherman's son (as I'm doing right now), I'm crossing huge borders of class, gender, and caste, but not race ... may I write this story? I certainly hope so, because I am! Anyway, the goal is to widen the choices of fiction for readers so that we're not all rooting solely for educated upper class heroes with European roots ... the question is how to get there.
Stacy: Exactly, and this is pretty much a two-pronged approach for us--encouraging everyone to submit to the main submissions, but also doing the contest in a hunt for more diversity among writers as well as in the stories.
ABOUT THE AWARD
TU BOOKS, the fantasy, science fiction, and mystery imprint of LEE and LOW BOOKS, announces their first annual New Visions Award. The New Visions Award will be given for a middle grade or young adult fantasy, science fiction, or mystery novel by a writer of color. Authors who have not previously had a middle grade or young adult novel published are eligible.
The Award winner will receive a cash grant of $1000 and our standard publication contract, including our basic advance and royalties for a first time author. An Honor Award winner will receive a cash grant of $500. Manuscripts will be accepted through October 30, 2012. See the full submissions guidelines here.
The New Visions Award was established to help more authors of color break into publishing and begin long, successful careers, while also bringing more diverse stories to speculative fiction. The award is modeled after Lee and Low's successful New Voices Award, which was established in 2000 and is given annually to a picture book written by an unpublished author of color.