Diversity is a hot topic in children’s and YA literature at the moment, but for us working as school librarians in international schools, it’s always been an issue as we strive to provide access to texts that reflect our varied student populations, curriculum concerns, local context, and worldview.
NETWORK-BASED ANNUAL BOOK AWARDS
One of the most fertile channels for discovering new literature to bring into our schools is the annual book award shortlists generated by country-based international school librarian networks. Most of you in the audience have participated in one or more of these, whether getting your students to read and vote on the books or working with your network colleagues to help choose books to shortlist every year.
Of all the experiences of being in a locally-based international school teacher librarian network like ISLN in Singapore or BLISS in Bangkok, the most rewarding aspect for me has been being involved in the running of their annual book awards. Serving on such a committee means belonging to a group dedicated to finding books that would be great book group choices for students of different ages. I love the ongoing purposeful interaction with other teacher-librarians, as we struggle to satisfy our criteria and deadlines.
Asia seems to be where this international school library phenomenon started. (Slide 2)
When Barb Reid and I began the Red Dot book awards in Singapore, now in its 9th year, we were inspired by China with its Panda Awards and Japan with its Sakura Medal. Later, Hong Kong, Korea, and Thailand set up awards, as did Switzerland and Germany. More recently I discovered the Jarul Award in India, which is for picture books published in India.
All the awards listed above have varying criteria and structure: in their number of list categories (e.g., Singapore produces 4 lists, Bangkok 3), number of titles on a list (e.g., Singapore has 8 titles per list, Bangkok 6), criteria for inclusion (e.g., published how recently - Singapore is the past 4 years, Bangkok the past 5), timing of the shortlist announcement/voting cycle, and activities related to the annual results (e.g., Singapore has had a Readers Cup competition, Switzerland produces literal Swiss cow bells (custom-cast) to send to each author-winner).
The less concrete but more important selection criteria - e.g., "excellence" but also "diversity of author, theme, genre, setting and narrative style" (Bangkok Book Awards) - are an ongoing challenge (as I will discuss in detail further on).
Each network also has its own time, space, and financial constraints regarding the process of determining a longlist and shortlist.
Is it easy to meet in person to discuss books, or is the book group in effective a virtual one? Does that determine how many people can be on the committee? Who should provide input to the longlist -- and shortlist? (What about students?) How many people will have time to read or ability to access each longlist book in order to contribute to the shortlist decision? Given the budget/acquisition cycle in the school or country, when is the ideal time to publish the shortlists so books will be in the hands of students soon enough and long enough to be able to vote? (And how important is the voting element anyway?)
BOOK AWARD MODELS
Let's step back and consider four major models of book awards. (Slide 5)
Popular Survey -- one person, one vote -- epitomized by the BBC Big Read (first famously done in 2003) and the annual Goodreads Choice Awards. These awards are summative and democratic in nature. One such annual popular survey for children's literature is the K.O.A.L.A. (Kids Own Australian Literature Award), which has been going for 31 years now (more re this award below).
- Professionally Curated "Best of" Booklists -- the most obvious examples for children's literature are the annual national ones, often organized by library associations, such as the US Newbery/Caldecott, the UK Carnegie/Greenaway, the Australian CBCA "Book of the Year", the Canadian CCBC Book Awards, and the NZ Book Awards -- though there is also the international biennial IBBY Hans Christian Andersen ones for authors/illustrators. These are summative within a year, but formative over time of a canon.
- Book Tournaments via Brackets -- where pairs of books are pitted against each other in a series of rounds until a final winner is declared (by a judge or team of judges). In children's literature the most prominent example is School Library Journal's annual "Battle of the Kids' Books" -- though there are adult ones as well, e.g., The Morning News Tournament of Books. Note there is a free online app called BracketCloud that allows anyone to set up their own single or double elimination brackets, e.g., see this description of having students set their own personal reading challenges using Google Drive -- so they are the "judge."
- One Book, One Community - Not really an award, but a popular reading initiative where a particular book is chosen (by professionals) for a group (whether grade, school, city, or state) to read and discuss within a given time span. See this Wikipedia entry for many examples of such a shared book experience. A powerful way to extend this would be to choose a title that has different editions, i.e., picture book version, young readers edition, and adult edition (including print, digital, and audio formats), so a wider range of readers can participate.
Most of our network awards fall into the "professionally curated" bucket. And most of us then have the students vote for their own personal favorite such that winners can be announced. However, a point of criticism has been that students are only able to vote for something on a list that an adult has pre-selected -- which can be called a delusion of democracy.
But what's the important thing here? The lists? The books? The reading? Student agency in determining lists? The structured competition?
Perhaps we need to ask ourselves: Why? Why did our networks set up these awards? Why does each school participate each year? The answers vary.
For example, the instigation for the Red Dot Book Awards in Singapore grew out of Barb Reid and I being concerned about the multiple copies of the "same old books" sitting on the shelves in the primary school reading cupboards, reflecting "classics" from the dominant culture of teachers working in our respective international schools.
We wanted a reading initiative that would allow us to regularly refresh the book cupboards with recent literature reflecting the diversity of our community and supporting our school values of internationalism -- i.e., books worth buying multiple copies of and discussing. The professionally curated "award" list was a good vehicle because what we really wanted was to invest in some books for a "one book, one community" reading experience. Voting for the "best book" from the shortlist is just a diversionary tactic -- to encourage the reading.
I'm now thinking I want to complement that kind of award with an annual popular survey one -- to address the goal of kids sharing their favorite reading with the community, no matter where the books come from. For that kind of a "children's choice" popularity contest I am inspired by the K.O.A.L.A. awards in Australia, which I learned about while visiting Cranbrook Junior School in Sydney a few months ago. (Slide 6)
Megan Light, the primary teacher-librarian there and one of the award's administrators, explained how the annual awards are structured to be both formative and summative. The shortlists are the top 10 books that kids nominate (criteria: Australian and published within the past ten years) in four age categories. If titles are shortlisted five times without winning, then they go into the K.O.A.L.A. Hall of Fame (a wonderful summative list along with the cumulative winners list). Megan pointed out that the nomination process is a good excuse to discuss the award's criteria with students, e.g., what makes a book Australian, how to check the "publication age" of a book, and what age of reader is a book best suited for.
THE CURATION TASK
In choosing books for the curated-list kind of award, we adults also sometimes struggle to figure out the right age category for a particular title, but the bigger challenge is in determining what set of titles in a category will satisfy the not-so-concrete criteria of having a "broad range of books" across the shortlist, which we all agree (to varying degrees) is important. (Slide 7)
Stealing ideas from other networks' annual shortlists is the easiest path. Hence, there is a great amount of overlap between our choices, all the while coveting works from Asia as well as works in translation. And we are all looking for books that relate to international issues.
Refugees are an obvious topical star at the moment. Last year Singapore chose the Canadian title, "Stormy Seas" -- a large-format upper-primary/middle school picture book for older readers with parallel storylines of refugees from Nazi Germany, Vietnam, Cuba, Afghanistan, and the Ivory Coast -- which we in Bangkok have also selected. Interestingly, Alan Gratz (USA) came out with a similar (chapter) book called "Refugee," featuring three narratives based on Nazi Germany, Cuba, and Syria. Sometimes we're just spoiled for choice! (Slide 8)
I recently read a 2016 Routledge academic text devoted to analyzing children's books awards, with chapters written by different experts -- Prizing Children's Literature: The Cultural Politics of Children's Book Awards. See Slide 9 for the cover, and slide 10 for a screenshot of the table of contents as well as the purchase price. I suggest you peruse the free preview via Google Books before deciding whether to buy, though I highly recommend the contents on the whole.
The chapter by Claire Bradford on Australian books (now eligible for the the US (ALA) Printz award) is particularly interesting, where the conclusion is that only Australian books that are not "too" Australian succeed in the American arena. June Cummins's chapter on how the American Newbery is not really about excellence, but is instead an identity-based award, deserves attention -- as does her argument for the use of intersectionality theory. (Slide 11)
A BALANCED MEAL
When it comes to generating a diverse shortlist, my best metaphor is the balanced meal (Slide 12) -- and this begs the question of what attributes or facets we should all be considering in terms of diversity.
Luckily the people at Kirkus Review (in collaboration with Baker & Taylor, the booksellers) published some diversity collection lists last September, and I did a basic reverse-engineering of their taxonomy. (See Slides 13-17 inclusive.)
Pay attention! Because all of us need to be considering our own library catalogs (and subject headings) in light of the work they've done, though their facets are aimed at the American context.
Kirkus tagged books by four diverse elements: race/culture, religion, gender expression, and/or disability. (Slide 14)
And for each of those, they then categorized the book to what extent that feature is present. CENTRAL = central to the book; IDENTIFICATION = relevant to the plot; or INCLUSION = when the diverse element is part of the background or seems to be normal. (Slide 13)
Besides those attributes, they also looked at types of experience for the characters in the book in relation to the diversity (e.g., coming out, reckoning with, etc.) and whether they were lead characters, background characters, ensemble casts, or families. Of course, they also considered what I would call "standard variables" -- e,g, genre, time (past, future, or present), and the age of the assumed reader. (Slide 15)
As international school educators, we also consider how books can be linked to our schools' values, mission statements, and curriculum. For example, those of us working in IB (International Baccalaureate) schools are always on the lookout for books that reflect the Learner Profile as well as ones to support whatever PSE (personal, social, and emotional) curriculum is used (e.g., see this UWCSEA East Primary Libguide). (Slide 17)
If you're interested in a taxonomy for Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), look at the results of Myra Garces-Bacsal's ongoing project for the Office of Educational Research at the National Institute of Education (NIE) in Singapore (based on the CASEL project in the US), which she is publishing as a Social and Emotional Bookshelf on her blog. The more raw tags for each book can be seen on her LibraryThing catalog for Gathering Books.
EXPANDING OUR BORDERS
As international schools, probably one of the most important elements of diversity we want to consider is geographic connections, whether local, national, or regional. Like Kirkus's distinction between three degrees of representation of diversity in a book, we might consider three types of connection -- 1) geography as it relates to the characters or setting of the text; 2) the background or origin of the author; and 3) location of the publisher.
This raises the question of, who wrote it? And who did they write it for? Looking a book in terms of accuracy (e.g., did they get the details right?), authority (e.g., what culture is the author/publisher from?), and authenticity (e.g., is it realistic? from what perspective? is it convincing?). (Slide 18)
In considering a book with a particular geographic orientation, we also have to ask questions in relation to the potential reader (i.e., students in our schools). 1) Will it appeal to them? 2) Is it easily available, in the sense, will we be able to source it and get it into our libraries? 3) Is it accessible to the reader (e.g., does it require background knowledge or a glossary or translation of terms in order to be understandable? how close it it to the students' current experiences?). (Slide 19)
For example, I recently read "A Moment Comes" by Jennifer Bradbury as part of the shortlist process for the BLISS Book Awards. It's historical fiction set during the partition of India in 1947 and features three narrative perspectives (a Muslim boy, a Sikh girl, and a British girl). Indian terms are used throughout -- and like a good reader, I persevered and tried to get the meaning from the context. Only at the end did I discover a glossary, explaining all the terms, which would have been useful to me as I read along (sigh). As the name "Jennifer Bradley" isn't particularly Indian, I did a bit of online sleuthing to determine whether she was writing from a position of accuracy and authenticity -- and it turns out she spent a year living in the Punjab. (Slide 20)
Another book I read for the shortlist was "A Flame in the Mist" - fantasy historical fiction set in samurai Japan -- which also provides a glossary in the back that I also didn't realize was there until I finished the book (sigh sigh). My research on the author, Renee Ahdieh, revealed she is an American whose mother is from South Korea, so she has Asian roots. (Slide 21)
For authenticity and accuracy about a geographical region, translations are the best bet -- and for the Red Dot Book Awards we have always tried to include them, watching the winners of awards like the Batchelder Award in the US and the Marsh Award in the UK. Similarly the Hans Christian Andersen Award, probably the most important international children's book award, is an excellent source of books that provide geographical (and linguistic) diversity.
One past choice -- "Moribito" by Nahoko Uehashi (winner of the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen) -- is a translation of a popular Japanese series that features a female samurai -- so a natural read-on recommendation for "A Flame in the Mist" mentioned above. (Slide 22).
"Bronze and Sunflower" by Cao Wenxuan (the 2016 winner and first Chinese author) has been a shortlist choice for several of the international school library book awards. Set during the Cultural Revolution, the slow-moving but heartwarming novel is part of a very popular series in China. It's exactly the kind of book our students might not have discovered without our intervention. One of our key functions is to expose readers to books they otherwise might have missed or books with slightly different writing styles due to cultural differences. (Slide 23)