"If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales." Albert Einstein

20 January 2016

YMAs and Committee Service

Whew. It's finally over. For the past year I've served on the Stonewall Book Award Committee (SBAC), and because of that, I was not permitted to publicize my opinions about children's books featuring LGBT+ characters or themes. It's been a long year, but the gag is off now, and I'm able to give you my reflections on serving on a committee.

Others have already written here and here about the results of the youth media awards. There were surprises, to be sure. There were more books with diverse characters, which is definitely a nice change of pace. I agree with those who posit that these awards are important, but they're not everything. It's okay to love a book that didn't win a Newbery or a Printz. It's okay to book talk that book to the moon and back and give copies to all of your friends. It's okay to think the committee got it wrong. That's probably why these awards are decided upon by committees and not individuals; can you imagine the responsibility of choosing the one best book for the year?

I can, because for 2015 I served on the SBAC, and I had to read well over 100 books throughout the year. Some of the books were amazing and wonderful and I was glad to read them. Some went in the "nope" pile fairly quickly. I had to keep in mind that out of those 100+ books, I was only going to choose a few of the top books, and in the end we'd be picking the one best book to represent the LGBT experience.

The award was given to George, a middle grade book featuring a transgender main character, a book that I liked but didn't love. I liked it because it fills a niche that is pretty empty right now, but it wasn't my favorite.

The Porcupine of Truth also won, and that one wasn't even in my final list. I didn't mind the story, but again, I didn't love it. The same goes for Wonders of the Invisible World. The only book that made the cut that I actually wanted to win was Sex is a Funny Word, because this book talks about sex and bodies and puberty without using gender pronouns.

I applied for the committee because I was excited to help choose a book that represents the LGBT+ experience, because I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself, because the fees that I pay each year to be a part of the GLBT Round Table should be worth something, right? And I do not dispute the committee's decision. But here's the thing: as committee members, we provided information to each other so we could get to know each other better. We shared a Google doc and filled out questionnaires and suchlike. While retaining everyone's anonymity, here's the breakdown of the 8-member Children's and Young Adult division of the SBAC:

Gender Expression:
Women 7, Men 1

Straight 6, Queer 2

Gender Identity:
Cisgender 7, Transgender 1

Does anyone else see a possible problem with this? For a committee that is supposed to choose a book that best reflects the LGBT+ experience, only two - TWO - people on the committee could rightly comment on this experience. For a committee that is reading books about trans* characters, only one - ONE - person could truly voice an opinion.

I've spent a long time trying to figure out what happened here, and this is my best guess, which is only - ONLY - a guess and only my opinion: The library world is largely inhabited by white, cisgender, straight women. These women make up the bulk of the library world, of ALA memberships, and probably, therefore, also the GLBT Round Table, of which membership is a requirement in order to serve on the SBAC. Those who chose the committee members probably didn't have many options as far as diversity is concerned.  In a perfect world, this 8-member committee would be split between genders and would include at least two L, two G, two B, and two T members, yes? Or one of each and then the other four positions are open to various other identities that don't always get included in the acronym. But the committee chair had to work with what they were given, and what they were given didn't match the diverse community they were trying to represent.

This is why my favorite book wasn't chosen. My favorite book was one of the most discussed, probably because I kept talking about it and voting for it, but it wasn't chosen because those on the committee decided it didn't actually, literally discuss the LGBT experience. Because it's a picture book about crayons.

The story is about a blue crayon who has a red label and struggles to color things red, until one day the crayon realizes it's blue and can draw blue things and is so happy to be blue. My spouse, who is himself trans*, cried when I read this book to him. He also used this book in a How to Be a Trans Ally presentation he did on Transgender Day of Remembrance. Of all the many books that passed through my hands throughout this committee process, this is the only book I kept. The only one. And it was passed over because the story "could be about anything" or "wasn't trans* enough."

But this opinion was being voiced by cisgender individuals who may or may not know any trans* people. These cisgender, straight individuals were tasked with choosing a book that best represents a community of which they are not a part, which likely explains why I, a lesbian who is married to a transman, disagreed with many of the final decisions. Because I was in the minority on a committee dedicated to serving a minority population.

The committee had a difficult task: choosing the book(s) that best represent the LGBT+ experience. This was made more difficult for many committee members since they themselves do not belong to the LGBT community. As with the other awards, just because I don't personally agree with the decision does not mean the committee didn't choose good books, and it does not mean that Red or other books that were considered but not honored are not good books. Rather than finding a needle in a haystack, committee work is more about finding a needle in a needle stack.

I am glad I served on the SBAC this year. I'm glad for the experience of being on an award committee, and I am glad that I got to be a part of this process, but it isn't an experience I will seek to duplicate, and I will definitely be looking at the awards - all of them - with new eyes, knowing that decisions by committees can be just as flawed as those by individuals, and that even though George gets a new shiny medal on its cover, I will still recommend Red first, because I think it was the best book this year.

But that's only my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

How about you? Have you served on an award committee? Were you surprised by the YMAs this year?


Jennifer said...

Thanks for sharing this perspective. I've never done an ALA award committee and usually take all the awards with a grain of salt, to be honest, since I'm thinking about what my small, specific library needs/wants and that's not really what the awards are about. Red has been super popular at our library - but I didn't even buy George, although I *might* now. Oddly, my small, conservative, quasi-rural community has never complained about any glbtq books....they just don't check them out, no matter how often I put them on display (now, we can have a whole different discussion about wicca...)

Have you ever thought about joining us on the "dark side" aka Cybils? Not that we're really comparable to the ALA awards - we're doing something very different - but I think your voice might be appreciated (-:) http://www.cybils.com/

Jenni Frencham said...

If you're going to buy a middle grade book about a trans* character, I'd recommend Gracefully Grayson before I'd recommend George. Both are okay, but Grayson is better. Interesting that your community objects so strongly to wicca. Kinda makes me want to stop by and sneak some Wicca books onto a display, just to watch the reaction.

I will check out the Cybils. The dark side has cookies, after all.

Jennifer said...

I see it's coming out in paperback! I"ll check it out.

Yeah, it's weird. I can have Tango, Heather has two mommies, and beyond magenta on display for months and nobody cares (except Magenta hasn't checked out once and the pictures books go out frequently). But put up some new books on magick and wicca in the teen area and I get a horrified response from parents. Mostly people just watch what their kids read though. Which is mildly annoying when they're in my book club but whatever.

Jennifer said...

Remind me to pm you my best wicca story. It's truly hilarious (in an awful way)