As you guys may or may not know 2016 was my last year with the Georgia Peach Book Award for Teen Readers Committee. I had a three year term and this year was my last. I had a fantastic time there and I’m especially proud of our most recent list of books. As a group we strive to pick titles that teens will love, cut across a number of genres and are inclusive and diverse. That last part is the crux of why I joined the committee in the first place. There is a reading bowl here in Georgia that pits reading clubs against other reading clubs. The teams meet and answer trivia about the books and a winner is crowned. I’ve always had a reading club, but we’ve never competed in the bowl and a big reason we haven’t is because my kids , for the most part, aren’t interested in the books that are chosen. The books used for the bowl are the 20 on the Peach Book Award nomination list.
Activism is important. We all should be striving to push forward in this world to make it a better place for those who will come after us. One of my purposes in life is to make sure that the kids I serve, my children and kids who resemble myself when I was younger are represented in the books they read and have access to books that represent them. That requires that I place myself in spaces where I can make critical decisions about book promotion. My job as a librarian serves this purpose for my small school, but my job as a committee member allows me to serve this purpose for the entire state.
As I said this was year 3 and my initial goal of making sure that books with kids of color were included in the list has been met, but only on the smallest of scales. This year has only one book with a Black kid as a main character and he gets beaten up by the cops, All American Boys. Last year we had two, X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Dime by E.R. Frank. In X, our main character, Malcolm grows to become the iconic black activist, Malcolm X and the book largely serves as a means to humanize the man as a boy and color why he felt the urge to devote his life to his people. Dime is about sexual trafficking and is mostly a tale of woe, if not an important story. These stories all have a few things in common:
- Black Main Character
- Moral to the Story
- A Death or Suffering
As you may or may not know there’s been an uptick in books about African American kids, but if you look at the graph below you’ll see that the uptick isn’t as a result of authors of color being given more opportunities in publishing. I’d love to see a graph by subject matter as well. There is a dangerous narrative that’s being pushed by publishing recently where black death and suffering is being highlighted at the expense of black joy, as if the vast majority of people in America can tolerate black skin only if it’s being pitied or destroyed in some way. These were the books that we had to choose from when picking out titles for the award list. Was there fantasy with diverse representation? Labyrinth Lost was the sole exception in three years.
My committee members were awesome librarians from all corners of the state and they were actively looking for representation of all kids to add to the list and you know what, we had slim pickings. The choices just weren’t there and that is disappointing. It’s not enough that I continue on as a librarian and fill my shelves with the best and most diverse titles. I have to write the diverse titles. I have to put black joy and excellence and mundanity on display because if I don’t I’m not sure if we’ll ever see it.
I urge you if you have the opportunity to join a reading committee. Seek out those diverse voices and those diverse viewpoints. Consider the books that aren’t given the big marketing push. Take a stand on problematic representation for all marginalized communities. Your unique voice matters and your perspective makes the committee better. You’ll end up with a great list that will serve students from all kinds of backgrounds and that’s important.