I knew someone years ago who told me that, during moments when something happened that was either unexpected or undesirable, her father would encourage her to “Do something different (DSD).” My sense is that those words were not always welcome, especially during particular moments of frustration, but what it did was to encourage her to stop, to gain some perspective, and to make a change.
Doing something different created #31DaysIBPOC and it also was a factor that influenced my participation as a judge for the Boston Globe Horn Book Awards.
Wait–How Many Books?!
I was honored when Roger Sutton selected me because, well, free books! Then, the books began arriving (from June ‘18-May ‘19), and I quickly understood why I needed to be careful what I asked for. Some days, I’d receive boxes of hundreds of books, combinations of picture books, nonfiction, young adult novels and everything in between. I explained to someone that we were essentially looking for a needle in a haystack. The criteria was simple: “excellence,” but as you might figure out, excellence can be a moving target, especially because we read books through the lenses of who we are. Roger knows about my work as a literacy organizer and he also knows I’m vocal about equity, so I’m certain he knew what kind of lenses I would bring as a judge.
I also adhere to the words of my dissertation advisor, Dr. Arlette Willis, who told me, “You never know if they’re going to invite you back.”
My lenses are particularly attuned to looking for books written by BIPOC authors and illustrators, and as I opened the boxes, I read through all of the books and kept tallies of the ones from writers and illustrators of color. At one point, there were at least 25-30 books featuring animals and fewer than 10 about BIPOC kids. That snapshot was fairly typical. I’d say out of the nearly 1300 books we read, a slim number of those were about BIPOC, and an even smaller number were #ownvoices. And while I always knew this was the case, to live through the process of unboxing book after book after book about white children who might have an incidental Black or Brown friend–if that, as often there was just whiteness– was demoralizing. It’s no wonder BIPOC authors and illustrators have such a hard time gaining any recognition: they’re simply outnumbered by volume. When so many books arrive in such a short time, with a tight deadline for reviewing and considering it for an award, unless a person is looking for who and what is missing, the absence can go unquestioned.
Selecting a Winner
The next challenge could come from whatever processes the committee uses to narrow the selections. I will say upfront that the chair of my committee, Monica Edinger, was a pro. She’s served on other awards committees, so she was able to offer guidance while moving us along and providing reminders that helped us to record our favorites, discuss our thoughts, and meet deadlines for winnowing the selections. I’ve said in several places that this experience was what it was for me because of the chair, and that’s another takeaway: the chair has incredible power to guide or derail a selection committee (and keep in mind I’ve been on one, and only one, of these committees) because if there’s no process that gives all the final choices an equitable discussion, (if any diverse books have made it to the final rounds in the first place), then all books don’t get the same consideration. I appreciated that all the books we’d put forward as individual favorites received equal time in deliberations.
There were also moments when that same white woman chair called me out on my love of a book that, when we got down to it for example, glorified poverty, another that had rhymes that didn’t quite work, and other points that I needed to have made to me because, as I said, I read through my own biased lenses, and I’m still learning, too! She also spoke up about whiteness and named issues that I’m not so confident other white folks would be able to name and own so readily. I was grateful that I had the opportunity to learn more and read more (my TBR list is going to last me the rest of the year). And, as compared to other situations I’ve been in where white women have been condescending and have felt they needed to wield white knowledge to “teach” me something, I always felt I was in high-caliber, thoughtful, respectful discussions that were grounded in a broad definition of excellence about a range of texts that were not derailed by white fragility, maybe for the first time in my life in the context of working with white colleagues.
Again, because we read through the lenses of who we are, if we are in spaces where folks tend to share the same ideas, and where everyone upholds white supremacy, well, then, nothing different happens. We need challenges, even if we feel strongly about a book, in this case. I will also say that I’m often surprised when white women, particularly, speak up about inclusivity and diversity, and actually do something that changes outcomes. It seems like this is a bit of a broken record, but if you’ve not seen the Horn Book Award winners for 2019 yet, here they are. I emailed one of my doctoral professors, Dr. Violet J. Harris, to ask if she’d seen the winners and she said something along the lines of being “shocked” about the number of authors and illustrators of color and then looked more closely at the judges (waves hand). A diverse selection of winners is still shocking and surprising, unfortunately, but it shouldn’t be. There are so many excellent, truly excellent books for children and young adults that are consistently written by BIPOC authors and illustrators.
Now that I’m on the other side of the judging, all I can say is that I get it. I get why it’s so difficult for a book by a BIPOC author or illustrator to get picked up (see the current comments on my timeline in response to Black scientists attempting to get their books published and getting no traction from publishers). If it does get published by some small miracle, then it is even harder that the book will catch the eye of enough people who will think it should be considered for an award. For most books written by BIPOCs, that’s really the end of the line. Many will go out of print before most know they even existed in the first place. Maybe some of those texts find niches or gather momentum through word of mouth or advocates, but it’s still unpredictable, especially if the people in positions to make the decisions are refusing to look.
Wrapping Up May
This month’s #31DaysIBPOC blog circle was a project that began with a desire to do something different and to stop wishing and waiting for white spaces to incorporate the robust, powerful, important voices of BIPOC folks, many of whom wrote for #31Days, but extend far beyond just one month. We honestly could have done #365DaysIBPOC.
Asking all the contributors who wrote posts this month was sheer delight–I was absolutely giddy when we reached out and people said yes so enthusiastically. Then, once the posts began, I was most proud of how well received they were by such a broad audience, particularly by so many who did not know about all this excellence that has always been here: in your classrooms, in your universities, in your communities, in your conferences. We did something different for May, and now, as we close it out, I’m curious to know what happens next. Do we say this was a great project and return to the way things were, or do we linger and reflect on all the ways we have been pushed and challenged to reflect on our identities and literacies and make ourselves do something different tomorrow and every day after?
If nothing else, judging the Horn Book Awards and working alongside the #31Days contributors has reaffirmed that BIPOC excellence has always been here, in all ways. All we need to do is look.
Thank you for supporting #31DaysIBPOC. Look for us again next May in what we hope will become an annual tradition. In the meantime, please continue to follow, make space for, and support the brilliant work of our contributors.
Have a restorative summer.
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by LaMar Timmons-Long (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog circle) and start at the beginning with Aeriale Johnson’s Day 1 blog.