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.