"Call me an old lady, but I'd like to think it's time to get past using black characters as plot devices for some white kid's coming of age."
The statement shouldn't have been revelatory, but it was. I'd been gushing about a historical novel I loved, and my friend Deborah Taylor stopped me cold. Turned my brain inside out, actually. I couldn't look at kids' books the same way again. So when Jonda McNair, the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee chair, announced on Monday, February 2, that the recipient of the 2015 Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement was Deborah Taylor, I jumped to my feet, along with everyone else in the room.
The award is given in even years to an author or illustrator—previous recipients include Walter Dean Myers, Ashley Bryan, and Patricia and Frederick McKissack—and in odd years to a practitioner. In over 40 years of service at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Deb has worked with dedicated persistence to connect the children and teens of her community to great books, recognizing that all readers need to see both themselves and others in their literature. Her "Books for the Beast" event, a biennial conference that brings authors and editors to Baltimore to talk directly to their teen readers, is a national exemplar. She's spoken at countless conferences around the country and served on an equally impressive number of committees. In fact, Deb was at the announcements that morning as the chair of the 2015 Sibert Committee, which had just chosen the most distinguished informational children's book of the year, The Right Word, written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet (and which was also a 2014 Kirkus Prize finalist). And for the past several years, I've been proud and grateful to take advantage of Deb's graceful, intelligent prose as a Kirkus reviewer.
That Monday was a great day all around for diversity in children's and teen literature. African-American Sharon Draper won the Margaret A. Edwards Award, given for lifetime achievement in writing for teens. Thai-American author-illustrator Dan Santat won the Caldecott Medal for The Adventures of Beekle; Japanese-Canadian graphic novelist Jillian Tamaki and Latina author-illustrators Lauren Castillo and Yuyi Morales all won Caldecott honors. African-American author Kwame Alexander won the Newbery Medal for The Crossover; African-American author Jacqueline Woodson and deaf graphic novelist Cece Bell (another 2014 Kirkus Prize finalist) each won Newbery honors. And African-American author-illustrator Donald Crews won the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, given to recognize "a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children." His Bigmama's provided a cultural window to my preschool daughter, while his Harbor gave her a mirror. And is there an American toddler who has not learned colors from his sublime Freight Train?
It was a great day, a day that, I hope, finally marks a seismic shift in what Nancy Larrick called "The All-White World of Children's Literature" in 1965. And if it does, that shift will be in no small part thanks to Deborah Taylor, who has been patiently, ferociously turning the brains of the mostly white literary establishment inside out for the past 40 years. You go, girlfriend.
Vicky Smith is the children’s and teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.