Just a quick report on what, I think, is the best Jacqueline Woodson book I’ve read so far: feathers. Published in 2007, this middle grade novel won the Newbery Honor Award, and tells the story of a group of sixth-grade students who question whether a new student in their class might actually be Jesus. With white skin and long, curly hair, “the Jesus Boy” does seem to have an otherworldly quality about him. When another mixed-race boy in the class starts to torment him, the Jesus Boy initially responds with Christ-like forbearance, prompting speculation that he didn’t just come from across the highway (where the white folks live), but from heaven above. I have to give it to Ms. Woodson for coming up with the most original ideas for her books. This novel, like the others of hers I’ve read, is short, but this one feels like it has a beginning, middle, and end; yes, someone has died and is being fondly remembered, but there *is* dramatic action on multiple fronts: Frannie’s mother, who has had more than one miscarriage, is pregnant again; her deaf older brother wishes he could connect with girls in the hearing world; and the Jesus Boy seems to be irresistibly drawn to her, in and out of school (prompting the class bully to call her “Mrs. Jesus”). All the characters in the book meditate on the concept of hope, and at times the 11-year olds make profound remarks about religion that seem rather mature. But all in all the book is graceful, tender, and quiet, and shows that a loving African American family can thrive despite economic hardship and social segregation. If you had to recommend a book to someone who’d never read a book about black people before, this book (and this author in general) would be a great choice.
Archive for the ‘Newbery Award’ Category
If you’ve ever read Alice Walker’s short story, “Advancing Luna and Ida B. Wells,” you know that the narrator has an imaginary conversation with the 19th-century anti-lynching crusader in which Wells urges the contemporary black woman to resolve a moral dilemma by denying its very existence. The narrator can’t, of course, though it would make life much easier for her, and the story actually ends without a clear resolution. Why am I talking about this? I’ve spent a fair amount of time online lately, trying to catch up on topics being discussed on various kids lit blogs. My good friend Laura Atkins just told me about another, Fuse #8, and I spent some time this morning thoroughly enjoying the blogger’s detailed description of a panel that featured the creators, performers, and puppeteers from Sesame Street. I had mentioned to Laura that I might try to find some bloggers who’d be willing to review my YA novel, A Wish after Midnight. So I scrolled down and continued reading this interesting blog, only to come across a post on a recent Bloomberg article that addresses the Newbery Award. It’s titled, “Blacks, Hispanics are Rare Heroes with Newbery Kids Book Medal.” I wasn’t familiar with that article, so clicked on the link–but not before I read the comments other readers had already left on this particular post. Immediately, my heart started to pound more quickly…and those words from Alice Walker’s story sprang to my mind: deny, deny, deny. Is some 19th-century ghost haunting people in the world of kids lit, urging them to deny the obvious racism that’s plaguing the industry? One commenter even asserts it’s “much ado about not much.” The detailed critique of statistics quoted in the article is reasonable and fair, but how about addressing the underlying, undeniable implications around race? Only one anonymous commenter noted that awards can’t be given to books that don’t exist, and publishers are the ones with the money and power to greenlight more books that feature children of color. But I resent the frequent assertion that it’s not the Newbery Awards committee’s fault–what if they refused to give any awards until the playing field looked different? These prestigious awards certainly DO have an impact on publishers–after sales, it’s what they dream about at night. As soon as the Newbery Award goes to a book that has a transgender protagonist, the industry will respond by putting out more books with transgender protags. And that doesn’t necessarily lead to more great books for kids, but my point is that the awards committees do have power. They’re not neutral, by any stretch of the imagination. Honestly, spending two days readings these blogs makes me want to pack it in and not even bother.
Yesterday I did an interview for the non-profit, Embracing the Child; they’ve honored BIRD by making me the featured author for Feburary/March, and their site should be updated by next week. This interview was different, in that I was permitted to ask and answer my *own* questions–something I appreciated, since I’ve done a few interviews now, and am starting to feel like I don’t have a whole lot more to say about BIRD. I have a whole LOT to say, however, about the publishing industry. I was a bit cranky already, b/c the more I think about the imbalances in children’s lit, the more I see inequity at every turn, and the more frustrated I am by the relative silence within the field. I appreciate that authors and artists who make a living making books for children can’t necessarily afford to piss off the publishers who may someday give them a job. But that also aggravates me, b/c it means minority authors/artists are expected to be so grateful for their tiny slice of the pie that they won’t ever dare to bite the hand that feeds them. It’s also so tawdry, so very antebellum–where’s the progress? where’s the union? where’s the collective bargaining? Blogs like Black Threads in Kids Lit and The Brown Bookshelf are being public and explicit about the marginalization of black authors and their books, so that’s definitely a start. And black-owned presses are doing the best they can to serve as an independent alternative to mainstream publishing. But change won’t come unless white folks get on board. Abolition, the Civil Rights Movement–Obama’s election–we can’t do it by ourselves. But what will it take to get the majority group to DEMAND more diversity, instead of just paying lip service and/or congratulating themselves on finding flaws in the limited data that’s out there? If I hear ONE MORE PERSON say we’re living in a “postracial moment,” I’m gonna scream…end of rant.