By Liz Thackeray Nelson & Lauren Aimonette Liang
Right around this time last year, the blog featured two posts from CLA officer Dr. Wendy Stephens who deftly described the exciting annual YMA awards for children and adolescents. Wendy’s posts offer a rich introduction to understanding the focus of each of these prestigious awards, as well as a few other children’s book awards from other organizations, and some of the general selection criteria.
In our undergraduate children’s literature course we introduce these important awards to begin discussions around evaluation of children’s books. We consider how the criteria might point to ways of evaluating excellence in children’s and young adult literature, and consider the connection of this evaluation to selection of books for use in classrooms, libraries, and other settings.
We also use these award discussions as a way to heighten awareness of the business and marketing side to children’s literature, particularly considering how awards can influence sales, authors’ and illustrators’ careers, publishing trends, and ultimately access to books. Below we briefly describe a reading-reflection sequence and activity that we have found helpful in building undergraduate students’ understanding of the impact of an award.
Reading-Reflection Sequence 1: Read about older children’s book award debates.
We have found that our undergraduate students, in general, have had very little exposure to children’s book awards prior to this class. Many recognize either the Newbery or Caldecott as being a book award for children, but few are aware there are other awards beyond this.
Thus our first step is to introduce students to the idea that there exists many more awards beyond those two. To begin priming students’ thinking about the full range of awards, and their impact, we start by having them read Marc Aronson’s (2001) article, “Slippery Slopes and Proliferating Prizes,” published in The Horn Book Magazine. In addition to reading Aronson’s article, students read the letters to the editor published in the next Horn Book issue that respond to Aronson’s piece as well as Andrea Davis Pinkney’s response article, “Awards that Stand on Solid Ground.”
After students read, we pose Aronson’s position to students: There are too many awards. Students then compose a brief response as to whether or not they agree with the statement and their reasoning. At this point in the discussion, students are often about 50/50 in where they fall on the issue.
Reading-Reflection Sequence 2: Read about the lack of diversity in awards.
To extend Andrea Davis Pinkney’s response article, we then ask students to read two additional articles that begin to address the lack of diversity in books that win the Newbery and Caldecott Medals: Roger Sutton’s (2016) “Last Stop, First Steps” and Megan Dowd Lambert’s (2015) “#WeGotDiverseAwardBooks: Reflections on Awards and Allies.”
We deliberately use these short editorial pieces, both written near the beginning of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks (2014) movement, as they continue students’ understanding of not only these awards, but also focus on the historical lack of diversity in United States’ children’s literature and more recent focus on this problem. Dowd Lambert’s piece mentions the hashtag specifically, which encourages students to visit the WNDB page, where they can learn more. Sutton’s editorial reinforces this with reference to a 1996 discussion, and presentation of numbers of nonwhite authors. It also brings up issues related to book genre and format
After reading these two short pieces, students are again asked to consider the statement: There are too many awards, and then compose a brief response as to whether or not they agree with the statement at this point, and their new reasoning for why they continue in their same opinion, or have now changed their answer. At this point in the activity, with students now having learned a little about the lack of diversity in award winners, we often find that those students who initially thought there were too many awards begin to shift their opinions. And those who disagreed with Aronson from the beginning often feel more justified in their stance that there are not too many awards.
Reading-Reflection Sequence 3: Read about the impact of awards on authors.
Next, we continue to further students’ understanding by having them learn about the author’s experiences in receiving an award. We seek out the newest reactions; for example, this year, we shared short articles from Publisher’s Weekly about Donna Barba Higuar, Jason Chin, and Andrea Bouley’s experiences when they found out they had won their respective awards. In connection with these readings, we typically ask students to read the short piece “Recognizing Rising Stars” (Aimonette Liang, Reading Today, 2015) that discusses the history and impact of the ILA Children’s and Young Adult Book awards that are designed to honor new authors with extraordinary promise. Quotes from multiple winners highlight the way an award can change the trajectory of an author’s career.
After students consider these additional perspectives, we again ask them to consider the statement: There are too many awards. Once again, they present their opinion and reasoning. We then ask students to explain how their ideas around awards have changed over the course of the set of readings.
Final Activity: Tracking Amazon rankings of award books.
For our final activity to develop students’ understanding of the impact of children’s and young adult book awards, we have students track Amazon book rankings of winning books in the days after the YMA awards have been announced (see our class-compiled results for 2022 below). Students are assigned to an award and asked to find the winning book and honor books on Amazon as soon after the award announcements as possible. They record the sales rank. Students then check 24 hours later on the books’ sales ranks on Amazon. Students are typically shocked at how within hours of the award announcements books are sold out and have substantially higher rankings than they did before; for example, “When I looked earlier today [it] was #2277 and when I looked just now [it] is now #1 in children’s graphic novels. I can’t believe it was that low on the list earlier today and is now sitting at #1!”
This experience helps students understand the impact of awards on the sales of books, and they begin to recognize further how this can affect the sales of future books by the author, and even the publisher in general. (We often add an additional quick check on changes in the sales of the author’s and illustrator’s previous books, or on the sales of that particular genre or format, etc.) Combined with the earlier reflections on readings, the students often begin to bring up concerns about how the award book might affect future children’s book sales, and thus access to both that particular book and others like it.
In their final reflections on awards written after this last activity, nearly all, if not 100%, of the students in the class believe that there is value in having a wide array of awards that can honor diverse authors, illustrators, and books. Some students even go as far to state that there aren’t enough awards!
Aronson, M. (2001). Slippery slopes and proliferating prizes. The Horn Book Magazine, 77(3), 271-278.
Garza de Cortes, O., Bern, A., Watson, J.S., Bishop, R.S., Edwards, C., Blubaugh, P., Caldwell, N., Holton, L., Hamilton, V., Taylor, D., Smith, H., Danielson-Francios, S., Rudd, D., Pinsent, P., Bush, M., & Hurwitz, J., (2001). Letters to the editor. The Horn Book Magazine, 77(5), 500-508.
Lambert, M.D. (2015). #WeGotDiverseeAwardBooks: Reflections on awards and allies. The Horn Book Magazine, 91(4), 101-104.
Liang, L.A. (2015). Recognizing rising stars. Reading Today, 32(6), 34-35.
Lodge, S. (2022, Jan. 25). Donna Barba Higuera’s Newbery win: A dual celebration. Publishers Weekly.
Maughan, S. (2022, Jan. 25). Angeline Boulley’s Printz win: Tears, champagne, and…lawyers? Publishers Weekly.
op de Beck, N. (2022, Jan. 25). Jason Chin’s Caldecott win: ‘Kind of a surreal experience.’ Publishers Weekly.
Pinkney, A.D. (2001). Awards that stand on solid ground. The Horn Book Magazine, 77(5), 535-539.
Sutton, R. (2016). Last stop, first steps. The Horn Book Magazine, 92(4), 11-12.
Liz Thackeray Nelson is a doctoral candidate in Reading and Literacy at the University of Utah. She is chair of the CLA Membership Committee and co-editor of the CLA Blog.
Lauren Aimonette Liang is Associate Professor at the Department of Educational Psychology of the University of Utah. She is Past President of CLA and co-editor of the CLA Blog.