Mitali Perkins was born in Kolkata, India and emigrated to the United States with her family when she was seven years old. She writes fiction for younger teens and chats about books between cultures on the Fire Escape. She is the author of several books, including Monsoon Summer, Rickshaw Girl and the Secret Keeper. Her new book, Bamboo People, is due out in 2010, by Charlesbridge.
Ethnic book awards are designed to encourage writers from underrepresented communities and to bring overlooked literary gems into the light. But do they accomplish their goal?
In the children's literature 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 Asian/Pacific American Literature 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 personally 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, and here are my reasons why:
- 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 Printz. ("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.)
- 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 adult like some sort
of necessary vitamin pill for the soul. Yum!
- 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. 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 recognize books that promote 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? Why not identity-based awards designed to showcase voices from underrepresented creeds or socioeconomic classes?
Educator, writer, and activist Esme Raj Codell caught fire recently by speaking out on the injustice of a race-based award: “I have a very hard time with an award that claims to ‘commemorate the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to honor Mrs. Coretta Scott King for her courage and determination to continue the work for peace and world brotherhood,’ and yet uses the author’s race as a criteria. I find this contradictory.” Editorial Anonymous agrees, claiming that the “CSK is in effect diminishing its objectives” and that the real problem is that there aren’t enough people of color in the publishing industry.
Andrea Davis Pinkney, in Awards that Stand on Solid Ground, her rebuttal to Marc Aronson published in the May/June 2001 issue of The Horn Book, argues that we still need race-based awards because kids of color still need to see our society celebrate the accomplishments of people of color. “Thank goodness there are awards such as the CSK and Pura Belpré, awards that shine a deserving spotlight on not only some of the best books of the year but the authors and illustrators of color who create them. For some of these young people just coming into the field, this will be as far as they seek to find the works of ethnic authors and illustrators. Fortunately, these awards give them a place to begin. Solid ground on which to stand. Speaking as a black parent, I, of course, look for books that feature the works of black authors and illustrators. I want to expose my children to the achievements of women and men like themselves.”
Where do I personally stand on the issue? I hope 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. Despite changes in our society that include the election of a biracial President, the reality is that racial classification still exists in the minds of kids and teens. And North American kids who consider themselves African-American still deal with white majority default most of the time.
I remember the hordes of kids who browsed books at the Kennedy Center during the Multicultural Book Festival. For once, ALL the covers featured faces resembling theirs. They glanced up from the books to check out the authors, who also ALL mostly looked like them. For once, they were in the majority when it came to children's books, and they liked what they saw.
That's why the CSK award is still a good vehicle for kids to (1) discover great stories featuring heroes they think of as being like them, and (2) meet awe-inspiring famous authors who they see as grownup versions of themselves. That being said about winning the CSK award, I'll fight to the end for NO APARTHEID in writing.
Anyone who reads this should feel totally free to write a story about a Bengali-American girl sneaking out to a fire escape with her diary. Because I, too, plan to create characters, plots, and places without barriers or boundaries. In fact, look out for my novel starring a small-town Texas cowboy who dreams of winning Top Chef. Just kidding ... but wait ... that sounds kind of interesting... For more to think about, tune into the blog chat at Editorial Anonymous and Esme Raj Codell, listen to a 44-minute panel discussion called Literature of Color: Myth or Reality, read Cynthia Leitich Smith's reflections on segregation and shelf space, or consider Linda Sue Park's article, here on PaperTigers, Life With A Hyphen: Reading and Writing as a Korean-American.
Posted June 2009