What's with those Newbery books, anyhow?
Bloomberg news ran a story with the headline: Blacks, Hispanics Are Rare Heroes With Newbery Kids Books Medal. Based on a "Brigham Young University study" (no author or title of study was given), the article pointed out that 2000 was the last time there was a black main character of a Newbery Award winner; and it's been forty-plus years since there was a Hispanic main character. The article is full of rather interesting conclusions, such as the money quote of "Characters depicted in Newbery winners are more likely to be white, male and come from two-parent households than the average U.S. child." Various Very Important People in the Children's Lit community are quoted; yet I am not sure how many of them, if any, read the BYU Study or were simply told the conclusions by the reporter.
The New York Times had a brief mention of the article, spinning the above-money quote as follows: "protagonists are increasingly likely to be white, male and from two-parent households." (And traditional media wonders why people have stopped reading it?)
I got interested in this very quickly (see my Twitter) for a few reasons:
- Diversity is not a requirement, implicit or explicit, for the award of the Newbery.
We've seen again and again how stories bring in the Newbery to prove a point....that has nothing to do with the Newbery itself. Want attention brought to what you want to say? Involve the Newbery! "Kids are reading less, it's the Newbery's fault" is a prime example of a great point (how to get kids to read more) linked to the Newbery because, well, the Newbery is our Angelina Jolie. It's our celebrity. So, just as much written about celebrities really has nothing to do with the individual named, but is a reason for an author to write about marriage, children, working, fidelity, etc., so too has the Newbery become the thing we mention to write about something else.
- Diversity in children's literature is a good thing
And in other news, water is wet. And a look at children's publishing is a good thing: what is being published? Who is publishing it? Is it popular? Or is it literary? Is it both? Who are the authors? Etc. etc.
- The original source story was not cited.
I confess, my mad Google skillz could not find the source story. The closest I came is from this list of paper abstracts for the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. Eric found the actual paper and left the link in a comment at Read Roger. Without the source material, I tried to recreate the study because it didn't ring quite true for me; and I wanted to see how the books were coded. For example, Out Of The Dust starts with a two parent family yet becomes a single parent family; the flip happens with Sarah, Plain and Tall. At it's heart, this is a mathematical look at something, and, well, numbers can lie and be manipulated. So, I wanted the source. Take a look at my Twitter posts to see me trying to put together the numbers. It's a project I'm still working on, because with the finding of the source material, I have to reconfigure how I classify things.
-Finding the source study and what it says...and doesn't say
And drumroll, please for the actual study: Do You See What I See?: Portrayals of Diversity in Newbery-Medal-Winning Children’s Literature by Anthony Nisse, Brigham Young University, Department of Communications, M.A. Student, at the website Latina Lista. Latina Lista reported on this study in an Op Ed article, doing what both Bloomberg and NYT did not: naming and including the source material. Latina Lista also does not include the money-quotes of "OMG it's all white boys with married parents" that the other newspapers did.
Let me say what I have not done, yet: email Mr. Nisse directly and have a q&a with him, both about the study itself; the failure of mainstream media to credit or name him in their stories; and the spin given it by Bloomberg and NYT.
I've read through Mr. Nisse's paper. It's an interesting look at diversity in children's literature; but, ultimately, I wish his actual study was included because I cannot figure out what he has done to get his numbers. I also disagree with some of his conclusions, such as "having been able to easily locate copies of even the oldest winning titles, it is apparent that these award winning books have stood the test of time and are potentially still relevant to young readers of today." Really? My personal experience, especially with pre1945 titles, has been different.
The money quotes are, surprise surprise, not really Nisse's. What we have instead is "the number of female protagonists has steadily increased since the inception of the Newbery medal" and "number of dual-parent families in Newbery medal-winning books has remained constant." So while the "white" part of the Bloomberg and NYT quotes is supported by the study, the "increasingly" that the NYT uses is, well, NOT supported.
As an example of questions I have about the actual study: Mr. Nisse counts fifteen dual parent families in titles from 1980 to 2007. Nisse uses the following terminology for family structure: "dual parent, single parent (only father or mother present), guardian by a relative, guardian by a non-relative, orphan and no guardian (protagonist lives on their own with no knowledge from the story if parents/guardians are alive or existent)." I'm not sure what those fifteen titles are; because I don't reach that total. (I'm still working on a revised Excel spreadsheet using Nisse's coding; in the meanwhile, if you count 15, please comment or email me.) I reach between 9 and 12, with my 12 count including titles like Out of the Dust.
Mr. Nisse states that "The first Native American protagonist appeared in the 1932 winner Waterless Mountain but the next Native American protagonist does not appear until 1967 in Up a Road Slowly." To the best of my knowledge (and those of others on Twitter), Up a Road Slowly does not have a Native American protagonist. And love them or hate them, Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark (1953) and Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell (1961) do.
Regardless of what is and is not in Nisse's study, I think the important questions he asks are more about what is being published, rather than what is being awarded the Newbery. Because, as I said at the beginning, diversity (whether race, gender, ethnicity, marital status, etc.) is not the role of the Newbery.
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