Sunday, January 04, 2009

All A-Twitter About Newbery Diversity

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.


Anonymous said...

My favorite quote from the article was the one that named Sherman Alexie's Printz winning The Absolute True Diary of a Part-time Indian as a Newbery winner.

Way to do your research!

Keri said...

I completely agree that we need more diversity in children's literature but that's not the fault of the Newbery. I do find it interesting that up until recently most of the middle grade/ya fiction with African-American characters were more literary (Walter Dean Myers, Jacqueline Woodson, Angela Johnson) and it's only now that we have the much needed Kimani Tru and things of that nature. If anything, what little fiction with diversity was published probably had a better than average shot at the literary awards.

Of course, I'd much rather have fifty books with diverse characters ranging from exceptional and literary to complete and utter trash than have one award winner, and I certainly know my teens at the library feel the same way. They avoid the award stickers like the plague.

Suzi Steffen said...

Liz, it would be great if you could get the woman who posted to Child_Lit about Nisse's spreadsheets to comment here. I feel a little bad for the guy — I sure wouldn't want my MA thesis from 1997 subjected to this kind of scrutiny — but it's good to see where he went wrong in the counting. And speaking as a journalist, a bit defensively, there's only so much time in the day to pump out stories ... however, i think that perhaps *I* (and others who are clued into the children's lit communities) should be writing about awards etc., not someone who will sensationalize everything without understanding the complexities. (Or, um, checking with Child_Lit first.)

Anonymous said...

I corresponded a bit with the author of the study, but he didn't seem interested in responding to criticism.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

I have to confess, too, that even though I agree more diversity in kidlit is a good thing, the single/ double parent thing is not really a reflection of real life here, or the authors writing. Having characters raised by aunts, wolves, or Wizards from Distinguished Schools is a pretty well-used construct in MG and YA, as it effectively shoves the main character into an independent, decision-making role that is not always possible with those pesky emotionally-rewarding parental relationships.

Monica Edinger said...


Kathy Odean (chair of the 2002 Newbery Committee) is the child_lit person Suzi is referring to. She got the complete study from Nisse and is doing some serious spreadsheet work with it. I'm going to post what she comes up with in the next day or two.

Carlie Webber said...

@ Keri: But Alexie didn't win the Printz that year, either (or any of the honors).

Anonymous said...

One thing on the easily-accessibleness of the titles: I'm a BYU grad, and the BYU Library has an amazing children's book section because the children's book writing department is so strong. So it's entirely plausible that the author of the study (note: a communications major, which isn't even in the humanities department and likely doesn't have contact with the children's literature people over in the English dept.) just went to the library, picked all the books he wanted off the shelf, and assumed they were readily available. He *might* have had to go as far as the Provo public library, which also has a pretty excellent collection.

So I wonder what his definition of "readily available" is.

Just overall, the whole thing seems an unfortunate amount of national media attention on a flawed master's thesis.

Sam said...

What if you group the protagonist not by white/black, but by culture?

For instance, you'd get Welsh for The HIgh King and Dutch for Wheel on the School and Brooklynite for It's Like This Cat, Peromyscus lucopus for Desperaux, etc...

Anonymous said...

I have read Nisse's thesis and looked at his spreadsheet data and with all the omissions and errors it’s not very useful.
I do believe that the idea of analyzing the Newbery winners is a good one. Ms. Odean has already done a great job looking into Nisse's spreadsheet and making corrections for the titles from 1950-2007 and by seeking collaboration has complied a much more accurate list.
I have taken this idea a step further and created a google-docs spreadsheet with the aim of categorizing every medal and honor winning title. Right now the document only contains the author, title, year of publication and its award (medal or honor). I created columns for: original publisher, book type (ie. novel, picture book, poetry collection, short story collection), Genre, time period, as well as columns for the main character similar to what Nisse did. The document is a google spreadsheet so anyone with permission can contribute to it and the viewable document should update automatically.

Currently you can view the spreadsheet here:

If you would like to contribute information, add new columns, correct mistakes, etc, please email me at erccarp[at]gmail[dot]com
and I will add you to the list of editors. (you might need a google/gmail account to edit I’m not sure) The more editors the document has the more accurate it can potentially be.

I figured with enough minds working together, this living document could become a powerful analysis tool.

Alicia said...

Um, they're counting "Shadow of a Bull" as having the last Hispanic protagonist, but the character in that book in Spanish. Spanish and Hispanic are not the same thing. Seems to me like this study is inherently flawed in so many ways.