Windows and Mirrors: Youth Media Awards and Diversity in Library Collections

I have a confession to make as a youth services librarian: I generally don’t put a lot of stock in ALA’s Youth Media Awards. The Youth Media Awards cover several areas and niches in children’s and young adult publishing, but the primary ones are the Michael C. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, The John Newbery Medal given to a distinguished work of American literature of children, and The Caldecott Medal given to a distinguished American picture book for children.

The nominees and winners of these awards are decided on by a committee of librarians. Librarians from the Association of Library Service to Children (ALSC) award the Newbery Medal and the Caldecott Medal while the Printz Award is decided on by a committee from the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA). Each of these awards has one winning title and a short list of honor books every year, and every nominated book must have been published in the preceding year. Winners of the Newbery Medal and Caldecott Medal also must be published by a U.S. publisher and must be authored by a writer considered a resident of the United States.

The primary reason I’m so ambivalent about the Youth Media Awards is because I don’t feel they paint a holistic picture of current literature for young people. It hearkens back to the early days of librarianship in the United States when public librarians felt it was their duty to steer children towards “good” literature. However, in the last two years I’ve found myself more impressed with both the honor books and the award winners.

A selection of Youth Media Award and Honor Books.
A selection of Youth Media Award and Honor Books.

The winners and honor books across all three awards for the last couple of years have been diverse and inclusive, sometimes even falling outside of books considered the norm for the award. Tamiko and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer was the first graphic novel to be a Caldecott Honor book in 2015. Matt de la Peña’s The Last Stop on Market Street is the first picture book to be selected for the Newbery Medal, as well as him being the first Latino author to win the Newbery.    

Diversity in the Youth Media Awards is paramount in furthering endeavors of campaigns such as We Need Diverse Books. The books that win the Youth Media Awards are purchased and put in the collections of almost every public and school library in the U.S. This inclusion in collections that may otherwise not house these books further the goal of We Need Diverse Books by helping to put diverse books into the hands of all children.

Personally, I work for an isolated, rural public library system that serves a fairly homogeneous patron base. My goal for the youth collection I currently maintain is to provide a mirror as well as a window for my young patrons. A mirror for them to see themselves, their struggles and their triumphs reflected in our materials, and a window for them to see the outside world. The last couple years of award winners have made it easier for me to give my patrons a wider window.