Friday, January 7, 2011

My Issues with the Coretta Scott King Awards

No one seems to ever talk about the Coretta Scott King Awards. Well today I not only want to talk about them but I want to criticize (out of love), highlight and make predictions for 2011.

I admire the goal of the Coretta Scott King Awards. The CSK awards are given to African American authors and illustrators who make "outstanding inspirational and educational contributions." I do think the John Steptoe Award is run slightly better because no author can win more than once and the list of winners is far more diverse, but, there should be separate categories for this award. I have a problem with the way the books are chosen and how all children's books about African Americans are thrown together. I have a problem with the same group of authors winning the awards and receiving the honors (Walter Dean Myers, Jacqueline Woodson, Angela Johnson, Nikki Grimes). I have a problem with most of the books being historical fiction (I'm focused solely on the author awards because I'm not familiar enough with picture books to state my opinion on how they are judged).

Walter Dean Myers (for example) has won or been honored ten times. I'm not saying Walter Dean Myers doesn't deserve it, but that's just not fair. Yes I know life isn't fair but the way I see it is like this: there are so few books being written by African Americans for children and teens, that we need to spotlight as many of those authors as we can. Obviously they aren't all going to be good, but I refuse to believe that in 2010 the only good African American authors are Walter Dean Myers, Jacqueline Woodson, Angela Johnson, Mildred Taylor, Sharon Draper, Christopher Paul Curtis and Nikki Grimes. In fact, I know that's not true. I've reviewed enough books by African Americans to know that we have some absolutely brilliant authors who are not getting spotlighted. There's Zetta Elliott, Derrick Barnes, Dia Reeves, Olugbemisola Rhuday Perkovich, Rita Williams Garcia (I admit I was very surprised that only one of her books has won a CSK honor), Varian Johnson, Sherri Smith, Coe Booth, Ebony Joy Wilkins, Debbie Riguad, Charles R. Smith and many more. Each of those writers offers a different perspective on the Black experience, as in, the main character happens to be Black but it's not always about the racism. Those books also detail everyday life, first crush, first love, social justice, questions of faith, family issues, friendship, etc. These issues are not solely ones that Black people face but that doesn't make these authors any less talented, in my opinion, they are still contributing educational and inspirational stories simply by portraying us as teenagers first, Black people second. In the 21st century, I don't think I'm alone in saying that I want more of that. True most of the authors I mentioned above haven't published 20 something books like a Walter Dean Myers or even 5-7 like Sharon Draper, but like Christopher Paul Curtis some of them have published two or three books.

What I want to know is, can you only be treated as a serious contender if you write historical fiction? Does the CSK awards committee do more than glance at your book if it's not historical? Not since 2004 (The First Part Last which I LOVE) has a non-historical fiction book won. And if you don't write historical fiction, do you only stand a chance of winning after publishing 5 or more books? I'm thrilled Tanita Davis won a CSK 2010 honor (for Mare's War) and that Kekla Magoon won the John Steptoe New Talent Award (for The Rock & The River). They both deserved it and it's nice to have some new faces receiving recognition, both won for historical fiction titles.

I have a problem with a picture book for competing against a young adult book (note: If it's a picture book written for an older audience like Bad News for Outlaws, that's different and I don't mind). That's just not right. No other major award does that. Not the Newberry, Caledcott, Morris, or Schneider. Those awards are all dedicated to one group. The Pura Belpre throws all books written by Latino authors as well, which begs the question, why do the ethnic awards not distinguish between age groups? There should be a Coretta Scott King Picture Book Award, Middle Grade Award and Young Adult award. After all, how can you compare a picture book to a book written for teenagers? Or even a picture book to one written for junior high students? The writing and storylines are usually quite different. I hope I don't sound too harsh but maybe that's why no one pays as much attention to the CSK awards. They aren't run the way other awards are, something is missing, almost like a competitive quality.

I don't expect the CSK awards commitee to read this post. Regardless I think the CSK awards would be much better if they did the following;

1. Separated into three categories; picture book, middle grade and young adult. Same thing for the Steptoe Award.

2. Promote more books that go beyond historical fiction. Or historical fiction books that portray a lesser-known historical event (examples: Black soldiers/nurses in world wars, 1863 Draft Riots, 1919 race riots, Black Panthers, Black WESTERN pioneers). If another slavery or civil rights book wins, I might throw something.

Those are two basic suggestions that would be fairly easy to implement. I'd even settle just for the first one being done. Bottom line: YA, MG and picture books deserve their own categories. If there are 4-5 books in each category that gives widespread recognition to many more authors and isn't that the whole point of the awards? We want to promote our amazing African American authors. We can't do that with the current way the awards are run.

A post that was hands down the most valuable resource was Kyra's post about who wins the CSK awards. She has charts! I got most of my statistical data from her post or the ALA website.


2011 Coretta Scott King Award

Who Will Win: It's a tie for me between Out of My Mind or One Crazy Summer. I haven't read Out of My Mind but Sharon Draper seems to always win or recieve an honors and people rave about this book. But One Crazy Summer (which I have read and adored) is historical fiction. Actually Lockdown by Walter Dean Myers has a really good chance too.

Who I Want to Win: Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes

2011 Coretta Scott King Honor: Whichever of the book that should win but doesn't (i.e. if One Crazy Summer wins, Out of My Mind will get an honor or vice versa). Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T. R. Simon (haven't read it yet but it's historical fiction about Zora Neale Hurston, what more could they want?). What Momma Left Me by Renee Watson, Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Who I Want Honored: Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves. Because it's so DIFFERENT and that's what makes it stunning. I

2011 John Steptoe Award

Who Will Win: Good Fortune by Noni Carter because she's a young writer who goes to Harvard and she wrote historical fiction about slavery. eh

Who I Want to Win: 8th Grade Superzero by Olugbemisola Rhuday Perkovich (I want this SO, SO, badly)

*Since I don't read picture books I can't say if they would win. I focused on YA/MG.

Below is how the awards would look if they were in seperate categories, again I left out picture books.

(Imaginary) 2011 YA Coretta Scott King Award

Who Would Win: Lockdown by Walter Dean Myers

Who I Want to Win: A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott. I'm not actually sure if it's eligible since it was self-published first in 2009, but since Amazon re-published it in 2010, it could be? Plus it's lesser-known historical fiction. If not, I would root for Saving Maddie by Varian Johnson. Sadly based on how the awards and their history, I don't think this book would stand a chance unless it was in the YA category. Which is unfortunate

YA Honors

Saving Maddie by Varian Johnson

Finding My Place by Traci L. Jones (not my favorite but again, it's historical fiction)

Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves

You Don't Even Know Me by Sharon Flake (haven't read yet but I know she's won or been honored before)

A Girl Named Mister by Nikki Grimes (because she always wins or is honored)

2011 MG Coretta Scott King Awards

Who Would Win: One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams Garcia

Who I Want to Win: I would be happy with One Crazy Summer but I'm rooting for Ninth Ward.

MG Honors

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper

The Other Half of My Heart by Sundee Frazier (haven't read it yet but she's won the Steptoe so I could see her winning the CSK or at least being honored)

Cruisers by Walter Dean Myers (haven't read it yet but I'm convinced Walter Dean Myers is a CSK necessity)

What Momma Left Me by Renee Watson (very very good. I would be happy if this book won)

Zora and Me by Victoria Bond & T. R. Simon

2011 YA John Steptoe Award

Who Would Win: Good Fortune by Noni Carter

Who Should Win: Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves. No contest, this was my favorite YA debut of the year.

2011 MG John Steptoe Award

Who Would Win: Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Who Should Win: I LOVE Ninth Ward but I don't want it to win the Steptoe. This award belongs to Olugbemisola Rhuday Perkovich and 8th Grade Superzero, hands down.

So who do you think will win the 2011 CSK awards? Do you agree with my post? Disagree? And let me know what picture books would be strong contenders too.

To see a list of all YA/MG books that are technically eligible go here


  1. I am bookmarking this post and using it in my library!!! I work with primarily African American students and they are really just over the fact that so many "great books" that reflect their faces are about slavery. Like you, I LOVED The First Part Last. That was an incredible piece of literature and years after reading it, I still remember the story vividly.

    I NEED to read Out of My Mind (I do love Sharon Draper!), Bleeding Violet, Ninth Ward, 8th Grade Superzero, and One Crazy Summer. I've a whole lot of Newbery buzz around One Crazy Summer!

    Thanks for such a great post!!

  2. I think One Crazy Summer has a great chance (based on buzz that I've heard). It's high in my TBR. I so wish Bleeding Violet would be recognized. Totally deserving!

  3. Fascinating post! I'm printing it out and pointing some of my colleagues to it. Thank you.

    I have read Out of My Mind and while I connected emotionally with this story, it did not strike me as a contender. Then all the buzz began and I had to scratch my head. It doesn't need an award. Most of the fifth and sixth grade teachers are reading it aloud to their kids this year and I'm sure that class sets will be purchased once it's released in paperback.

    Lockdown was interesting, but I found myself not buying a couple of plot twists and overall, wanting more. And I adore Myers.

    Ninth Ward was luminous. Beautiful writing, issues seamlessly woven and a protagonist with a strong moral compass.

    One Crazy Summer also featured an amazing protagonist. I loved Delphine's voice. I loved her journey, her awakening. This one is my favorite for both the Newbery and the CSK.

    I wasn't aware of the bias toward historical fiction in the award. You're right about the need to recognize that there are books reflecting the Black experience more fully.

    As for the same revolving winners: I'm guessing that the committee, like the other committees, is charged with looking at this past year only and judge the merits of the literature before them. This year, though, I believe that there are stronger novels.


  4. Great post and such good points. Have you thought of sending this on the CSK folks? It can't hurt and you might make a difference. 3 categories seems like such a great idea. I loved Out of My Mind so would be happy if that won

  5. I really like the idea of three categories. I mean, that would accord the CSK the same respect as other awards. Seriously I don't read picture books and don't think you can put them in the same category as YA.

    Also, this reminds me that I need to still order A Wish After Midnight.

  6. Here here! Excellent post!

    I imagine that the CSK/Pura Belpre awards have lumped all of the categories (PB/MG/YA) together because when these awards were established there weren't always a variety of authors of color publishing at all levels? But I definitely think it's time to re-evaluate that.

    As for awards predictions, Out of My Mind was one of my favorite titles of the year, so I want that to get as many awards as possible! I liked One Crazy Summer, but certainly wasn't as bowled over as a lot of other people. Honestly, I wanted the same story to be told with Delphine a little older, in order to get even more into the politics and her mother's choices. Did you see it won the Scott O'Dell award for historical fiction?

  7. Love this post! I can't say who should win, but I hate any awards where the same people win over and over, as though there aren't any new and exciting voices, whether it's books, film, television or whatever.

  8. I agree with you that the same people tend to win over and over. People say it's because they're the main African-American authors who get published, but when the same people dominate the awards, it makes it harder for lesser-known writers to get published and stay published. I like your idea for splitting the writing award by age group, so that YA doesn't get shortchanged (which has become an even greater problem with the Pura Belpre).

    That said, my pick for this year's CSK is One Crazy Summer. I'd love to see Out of My Mind win the Schneider Family Award, but I thought both One Crazy Summer and Ninth Ward were stronger contenders for the CSK, and neither Rita Williams-Garcia nor Jewell Parker Rhodes are award "regulars." I'd also like to see honor award/honorable mentions for the Steptoe to help debut African-American authors stay in the game. Like you, I'd love to see Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich win the Steptoe for 8th Grade Superzero.

  9. This is a great post! I agree, I'd love to see BLEEDING VIOLET honored. It's not just with the Coretta Scott King awards...I think the attitude in general is that unless you write historical fiction, you're not a serious writer, and that just isn't true (as much as I love historical fiction).

    Thanks for making me think (as usual)!

  10. Ninth Ward won our Mock Newbery this morning so it's certainly a contender for CSK, though I think you're right that it will likely be One Crazy Summer.

  11. This is a great post. Having not read any of the books you mentioned (they're on my TBR list but I'm so behind), I can't comment on what I wish would win or what I think will win.

    I've looked at the award winners in past years (prior to discovering your blog) and it did seem like a lot of the same authors were winning. Back then, I thought that they were all winning because they were the only ones with talent who were writing. But now I see that there's a lot more authors who are writing solid work, and I hope the CSK awards committee finds a way to recognize their efforts.

  12. This is such a fantastic post! I've had a lot of the same ideas rattling around in my head for the past year, and you've said this so incredibly well. Yes, yes, yes, it does not make any sense to pit YA/middle-grade and picture books against each other in a competition. How on earth do you compare them? The award should be split into different age categories - you are absolutely right.

    And, this made me laugh out loud, "If another slavery or civil rights book wins, I might throw something." Me too! The kids at my library are begging for contemporary fiction featuring African-American characters.

  13. Hello! Thanks for posting about this topic. I am an MSLS student at UNC (2011!) and just completed a content analysis on the CSK award winners over the last twenty years. I was also quite surprised to see the heavy emphasis on historical fiction and the number of repeat author winners. I agree with you in that they are certainly all worthy books (Although I wasn't really partial to The Dark Thirty) but they are not all the kind of books that are relevant to the life experience of a lot of the students I am working with in my current field experience. Like you, I am not denying the importance of historical fiction, just wondering why they aren't more books winning which are set in modern times and focusing on issues relevant to today's adolescents. Thanks for sharing this post.

  14. First, thank you so much everyone for commenting! When applicable, I'll try to email or comment at your blog with my response as well if you miss it here. Secondly, I think nominations will be announced Jan.10 so let's keep our fingers crossed :)

    @Katie-I'm thrilled that you are going to bookmark this post and share it. The First Part Last is beyond amazing, completely deserving of its win. And I think many of the books that have won are quality books but we despertely need more contemporary books to be considered. I'm glad to know I'm not the only Black kid whose sick of the slavery stories (since my Black friends don't read it's nothing something we've ever discussed).

    Ok all the books you need to read are fantastic. However I'm going to say drop everything and read Bleeding Violet and 8th Grade Superzero FIRST. Then One Crazy Summer because you will lose yourslef in it and fly thorugh. then move on to Ninth Ward because it's beautiful and it needs to be savored :)

  15. As Angela Craft said, above, I suspect the CSK awards lump all children's/YA together because in the past there weren't enough African American authors to separate the awards by age group. Similarly, the Lambda Awards lump all children's/YA together for LGBT books (as does the newer ALA's Stonewall Award for children's/YA LGBT). Maybe it's time for a change? I do agree there are many more great African American writers publishing these days, and I'm a big fan of BLEEDING VIOLET, too!

  16. @Lenore-I know it's hard to tell book bloggers to drop everything and pick up a book, but if you don't have any ARCs to review try and pick it up asap :) It's lovely. And makes me want summer.

    @prose-It's interesting that you connected with it emotionally but don't see it as a contender. I hate that feeling. I actually think Out of
    My Mind might need the award but then again maybe not. The kids who love Sharon Draper will already know about it but it's not covered on many book blogs so I don't think it's gotten as much publicity as it could.

    I've only read a few books by Myers but I'm not a big fan (yet). I'm amazed at the number of books he's able to churn out though. Lockdown was good, not great.

    I agree, there are a lot of very good possible contenders and my fingers are crossed that the CSK committe will surprise me (in the best of ways).

    @Helen-I debated for a hot second sending this to the CSK committe. I decided I wouldn't ifi didn't get many responses but since so many people are chiming in, I think I will email it to them (or I could walk it over since they are headquarted in Chicago, haha) since they would be hearing directly from people.

    Yes 3 categories! It might even make judging easier. And as soon as I finish my must-review books I'm starting Out of My Mind, I need to read it so badly =)

  17. Reading these words that you said describe what kind of authors are honoured for Coretta Scott awards (those who make 'outstanding inspirational and educational contributions') I'd say that might explain why so many historical novels get awards. As much as I love, love, love Bleeding Violet I'm not sure I'd use those words to describe it - it's not educational at least (although I could argue about it being inspirational, but that's kind of a vague term that could encompass lots of types of inpiration so energy directed elsewhere;) ). It's a kickass story, written well with cool characters but is it educational in any traditional sense of the word? Historical novels are most likely to be obviously educational and in many cases obviously inspirational (the idea of an underdog triumphing over huge, sometimes legally backed obstacles is a big (often wodnerful) trope of historical fiction).

    Great post Ari. It's always interesting to see the quirks of events highlighted, otherwise we don't notice that they're producing the same kind of winners. Also so weird to see someone win or be honoured ten times no matter how good they are.

  18. I think the intent of the awards is not necessarily to spotlight various authors, but rather to spotlight the best books (regardless of who authored them), and since Walter Dean Myers and Jacqueline Woodson are some of the best authors writing for young people today, it stands to reason that they will have good representation over the years.

    Be sure to read the selection criteria here . . .

    . . . because it's really important that a book portray the black experience. ONE CRAZY SUMMER does that, but does OUT OF MY MIND? I don't think so, but I think the latter title is a great bet for the Schneider Family Book Award (for the best portrayal of the disability experience). We all knew THE LION AND THE MOUSE was the best illustrated book of last year, that it was a virtual lock for the Caldecott, but at the same time we knew it had no chance at the CSK because the book didn't portray the black experience.

  19. I have to agree with what the past few people have stated as it seems to agree with what I've come to realize about this award based upon several things. If the award is going to recognize an author for their contribution to African American literature, then that needs to be stated as the purpose.
    While I can, and often do, choose to ignore who wins here because I read a wide variety of books, many people, particularly teachers, don't! They rely up these lists to know what to recommend to their students and to know what to read with their classes. Many teachers are so unaware of current books! They cling to what they read in high school themselves, or the Myers, Drapers and Flakes that they continue to always here about. They rarely get a chance to to the great books they're missing and the CSK aren't helping in that regard.

  20. @April-That's all I want, for these awards to receive more respect and attention. Their goal is a good one. There's nothing wrong with picture books, and there are some written for teens those should be in the YA category. But a picture book written for kids should not be in the same category as a book written for teens.

    Order AWAM right now! (please)

    @Angela-Thank you :)

    You raise a good point that I (rather narrow-mindedly) hadn't thought of. That makes perfect sense in the '70s and '80s, there probably weren't a lot of books written by AA authors but now there are. and some award requirements should be changed over time.

    Ok I agree with you! I definitely wished Delphine was older because I did want to learn more about what her mother did for the Black Panthers and why she left. I didn't know it won the Scott O'Dell award, thanks for letting me know! (well to be honest, I'd never heard of it but that's still cool).

    @PatriciaW-I agree, once they've won more than twice, I think we can all say that the winner is very talented and other people should be considered more seriously.

  21. Thanks for a provocative post. You should be on the committee! I agree that the same authors get chosen over and over, and its other authors that could use the exposure that the award brings.

  22. Thanks for this thoughtful post!
    In terms of your frustration with only historical fiction being chosen, I think the CSK can sometimes box itself in (and box in African American authors and illustrators and the subjects that they're able to address in their books) with the stipulation that books must "portray some aspect of the black experience." It does say "past, present, or future," but many contemporary books featuring black characters aren't ABOUT the fact that the characters are black and that takes them out of the running. As more books by and about African Americans are published - and as a more diverse array of subjects is being tackled - the CSK committee may need to sit down and take a good look at their selection criteria to see if the award is still doing what it originally set out to do.

  23. Thanks for this post, which I recently discovered, along with your whole site. I am super impressed with your passion and commitment to books about POC!!! Thanks for all you're doing to advocate for positive changes -- in the publishing industry, the awards scene, schools and libraries. What you're doing is going to make this world better, not just for POC, but for white folks, too -- both those who know, and those who don't yet know but hopefully one day will, that POC have stories that can speak to them, too. Our stories are stories that we ALL need to hear.

    You mentioned in this post that you hadn't had a chance to read my book. If you're interested in reading it, I would be very happy to send you a copy as a way to support your work. Again, I appreciate what you're doing and look forward to hearing more from you! (You can contact me through my web site.)

    Take care,

  24. I've been doing some research on The CSK and the John Steptoe and I have the same problems that you do: They need separate categories and they need to move beyond historical fiction.

    I'm coming late to the game but I plan on being a major player. I joined the EMIERT, the group that administers those awards for the ALA. I'll be working on getting a Mock version of the awards together.

    One thing you mentioned, the lack of competitiveness, can be coupled with the lack of definitive criteria and, possibly, some sort of transparency. You can get those by following the Newbery, you know what they are looking for and can really narrow books down, after reading them. You've shown that you can just look at what books are about and guess they will win without reading them! We need quality, contemporary content too!

    I'm trying to find out if any of the librarians on the committee serve African American youth.


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