The Unbearable Whiteness of Newbery?

by Robert Pondiscio
January 8th, 2009

Pop quiz, ELA teachers:  When was the last time a Newbery Medal winner featured a black protagonist?  It was Christopher Paul Curtis’ depression-era historical novel Bud, Not Buddy in 2000.  The last Hispanic protagonist?  Maia Wojciechowska’s Shadow of a Bull in 1965.  The Newbery is presented each year by the Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC), and its ubiquitous gold seal on a winner’s cover triggers the sale of more books than any other literary honor, including the Pulitzer Prize. 

Anthony Nisse of Brigham Young University has analyzed every Newbery winner from 1922 and 2007 for gender, age, race, family structure, and economic status of their main and supporting characters. The School Library Journal reports he found precious few nonwhite protagonists—or even secondary characters.

ALSC President Pat Scales defends the award, saying, ‘the Newbery is given for literary quality’ and that the selection committee does not take ethnicity, gender, and other considerations into account. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, children’s books with minorities as the main character represent only 10 percent of the total of all children’s books published annually, a figure that has remained constant since 1992.

The Newbery finds an ironic defender in author and editor Anita Silvey, who labels the study unfair.  “In the past nine years, an African-American author, Korean-American author, and Japanese-American author have all won the award,” she tells SBJ. “Since 90 to 95 percent of all children’s books published are by white writers, the Newbery committee has done a much better job in terms of diversity than the children’s publishing industry in general.”

It was Silvey who penned the much-discussed article in SBJ last October, wondering if the Newberry has “lost its way.” The last four winners prize winners—Kira-Kira (2004), Criss Cross (2005), The Higher Power of Lucky (2006), and Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! (2007)—were particularly disappointing, she noted.  “Cash-strapped teachers, who spend part of their paychecks on paper, pencils, and other classroom essentials, say they can’t afford to buy any books,” wrote Silvey. ”But the only recent winners they enjoy teaching are Bud, Not Buddy, A Single Shard, and The Tale of Despereaux.”

Book aficionados frequently used the words “odd,” “unusual,” or “unconventional” to describe the latest Newbery winners. It’s possible in an age of sequels that committee members have unintentionally gravitated toward quirky offerings. But valuing uniqueness over universality has often led judges down the wrong road. Case in point? A member of the 1953 Newbery committee, which chose The Secret of the Andes (Viking, 1952) over E. B. White’s masterpiece, Charlotte’s Web (Harper, 1952), confessed that she preferred the former because she hadn’t seen any good books about South America.

This year’s winner will be announced on January 26.

2 Comments »

  1. They highlighted a trend, but it’s hard to tell if there’s really a problem based on that alone. I suppose the question to ask would be “Are there better books with non-white protagonists”?

    Personally, I’m a little surprised that all of the books would name the skin color of their characters. If race is a central discussion in the book, then it makes sense. If it’s not…wouldn’t it make more sense for the author just to not say? I think that’s a lot closer to how the kids themselves now see the world: their friends are just their friends, and color doesn’t really mean anything until they subconsciously learn that there must be some difference if everyone’s always pointing it out.

    Comment by Dave — January 9, 2009 @ 10:46 am

  2. Books should be chosen for excellence, not if skin color or race is the important factor.

    Comment by MaryAnn — January 9, 2009 @ 1:09 pm

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