Golds and Dolls

I was five years old–finally old enough to receive the gift of my dreams: an American Girl doll. Back then, the Pleasant Company was an infant corporation, its merchandise limited to three dolls, Molly, Kirsten and Samantha. Granted, three dolls meant a dearth of options, but it also meant that each dress, each hat, each story collection was synonymous with quality. My parents may have spent an exorbitant amount on my birthday, but they got something for their money.

Fast- forward twenty years. In 2011, American Girl (now a division of Mattel) introduced yet another forgettable face, a girl who “loves to help others and share the aloha spirit of Hawaii.” No less expensive than the original dolls, every stitch of Kanani’s ensemble is hand-crafted in China. Her stories blast American Girl’s favorite mantra: girls can do great things if they believe in themselves.

Which brings me to the American Library Association and their annual Youth Media Awards. Back in 1922, the world’s first children’s book award–the Newbery medal–was established with this basic intent: “To encourage original creative work in the field of books for children…. To give those librarians, who make it their life work to serve children’s reading interests, an opportunity to encourage good writing in this field.”

Like the classic American Girl dolls, the Newbery’s early years saw a dedication to quality. Despite the award’s narrow focus, recipients strengthened the medal’s credibility and increased the prestige of meriting such a prize: The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle, Caddie Woodlawn, A Wrinkle in Time.

However, years passed, and, no doubt motivated by good intentions, the American Library Association began broadening their horizons. They created the Caldecott award for distinguished picture books, and the Printz for distinguished young adult literature. The Pura Belpré, celebrating the Latino cultural experience, the Coretta Scott King, to honor African-American authors and illustrators, the Schneider Family Book Award to honor the artistic expression of the disability experience, the William C. Morris YA Debut Award, and most recently, the Stonewall Award, for stories of exceptional merit relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered experience.

With this deluge of honor came an inevitable dilution of prestige. As committees broke down “the field of books for children” into a dozen niche markets, children’s books were segregated, by color and by content, instead of working side by side with one basic objective–distinguished literature. In their attempt to leave no “experience” behind, the ALA’s Youth Media Awards are rapidly becoming the literary equivalent of Mattel.

This does not mean that ALA award recipients never represent distinguished literature–last year’s Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg, or 2009’s Jellicoe Road are truly well-crafted stories. Nor does it mean that compartmentalizing is evil; personally, I’m glad to see GLBT-themed stories funneled into their own corner. But the inaugural children’s book award of 1922 focused on one attribute, an attribute capable of uniting the work of all authors, young, old, black, or white: good writing.

“This is the best novel (for a debut author).” “This is the best story (for a book about a disabled girl).” In a way, multiplying awards into classes and categories leads to praise with faint damnation. Would these books merit such high recognition in the broader field of “books for children”?

Great Britain also established an award for outstanding contributions to children’s literature. Since 1936, the Carnegie Medal has honored fiction from authors such as Arthur Ransome, Mary Norton, C.S. Lewis, and Lucy M. Boston. Their Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals recognizes excellence in illustration, as well, with the Kate Greenaway Medal. But that’s all. There are no other awards.

That’s too narrow! you say. Think of all the good books that are passed over! True. Good books are passed over—but that does not keep them from being read. Librarians still recommend them to patrons, friends still lend them to friends. Meanwhile, stiff competition strengthens the prestige and respect earned by a Carnegie medalist.

Just as quantity* bogged down the quality of American Girl products, quantity** is draining the ALA’s Youth Media Awards of their long-established value. There are so many talented writers and illustrators who “make it their life work to serve children’s reading.” They deserve recognition. But they also deserve to know that the sky above them is high, and the field before them is deep, teeming with fellow artists who continually press further up, and further in.

*(and other questionable sentiments)
**(and other questionable sentiments)