On Monday, Feb. 12, the American Library Association announced the winners of its annual children’s and young adult book awards. It was another good year for diversity, with the Newbery Medal going to Hello, Universe, by Filipino-American Erin Entrada Kelly, and Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, by Derrick Barnes and illustrated by Gordon C. James, Long Way Down, by Jason Reynolds, and Piecing Me Together, by Renée Watson—all African-American—garnering Newbery honor medals as well as nods from other committees. But one award stands out for me, both because of its eminently deserving winner and because of what it says about how far we’ve come, and that’s the bestowal of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for lifetime contribution to literature for children on Jacqueline Woodson, multiaward-winning African-American writer and ferocious advocate for diversity and inclusion.
Woodson’s career spans almost 30 years, starting with Last Summer with Maizon (1990) and including such groundbreaking books as I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This (1994), in which black, middle-class Marie learns that her poor white friend Lena suffers sexual abuse at home; The House You Pass on the Way (1997), in which biracial (black/white) Staggerlee explores her attraction to other girls, and Visiting Day (2002; illustrated by James Ransome), in which its young black protagonist visits her loving, incarcerated father. In these and her other books for young readers (30 and counting), Woodson’s been consciously reaching out to children and teens who have too rarely seen themselves in books.
Just two days before this announcement, the board of the Association for Library Service to Children (on which I happen to sit) met to establish a task force to evaluate its award program, and specifically the Wilder Medal, in the context of our 21st-century values and mission. While not the oldest of ALA’s awards, it nevertheless has a decadeslong history. In 1954, the Division of Libraries for Children and Young People of ALA (the precursor to ALSC) recognized Laura Ingalls Wilder, white author of the beloved Little House series, for her lifetime contributions, a recognition that became formalized as a regular award and named for its first recipient in 1960. After all, hadn’t the Little House books helped usher countless children into a love of books and reading? I am certainly one of them.
When I was reading the stories of the westward migration of the Ingalls family, I was charmed by their mix of adventure and period detail and accepted unquestioningly the narrative of westward expansion it promoted. I doubt I even noticed such details as Ma’s oft-expressed revulsion of the Native peoples the family displaced. And I probably didn’t understand what was going on when Pa performed in blackface in a community show. Certainly Wilder did little to make me think deeply about them.
But I bet Native and black child readers did and do notice and think deeply. What does it do to a child to discover in a book promoted as a classic of their literature these casual dismissals of their personhood, to learn that this beloved author saw them as something different and lesser than the white heroes of her story?
ALSC’s task force hasn’t yet begun to meet, but it’s possible that this 2018 award for lifetime contributions to children’s literature will be the last awarded as the Wilder Medal. That Jacqueline Woodson, champion of inclusion, is this year’s honoree is certainly ironic but just as certainly totally apt.
Vicky Smith is the children’s editor.