School districts continue to challenge the best young-adult books
The morning that the American Library Association unveils its slate of awards is like Oscar night for young people’s literature. Authors, illustrators, editors, agents and librarians eagerly await the announcements of prestigious accolades that include the Newbery and Caldecott medals, the industry’s most newsworthy honors.
The awards, signaled on book covers with embossed medal stickers, often translate to increased sales and typically are a springboard into school libraries.
This year’s ceremony on Jan. 24 was full of the usual glee and excitement. But it was also a sad reminder of how some of the books honored as the year’s best have also been challenged or pulled off shelves across the country.
The awards committee named Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club a Printz honoree, which denotes general excellence. The novel also collected wins in the Asian/Pacific American Youth Literature and Stonewall Young Adult categories, following its anointing in November as a 2021 National Book Award winner.
But based on a parent’s complaint, a committee in Keller (Texas) ISD will meet Feb. 7 to discuss whether Lo’s novel, about a 17-year-old lesbian in 1950s San Francisco, should be available in the district’s libraries. The book is on a list of challenged titles, including Ashley Hope Pérez’s Out of Darkness (a 2016 Printz honoree, now available only by request in the district’s high schools) and Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer (“no longer in district/campus circulation”).
The ALA’s Stonewall honors list includes The Darkness Outside Us, Eliot Schrefer’s young-adult novel that follows two boys who fall in love on a rescue mission in space. The award recognizes books of “exceptional merit” that relate to the LGBTQ experience.
Yet in September, the novel mysteriously disappeared from a list of Schrefer’s books in the online store for the Plum Creek Literary Festival, which eventually canceled the event amid questions about its support for books with LGBTQ characters or storylines. Also missing from the fest’s list of books from presenting authors: A.S. King’s LGBTQ-themed Ask the Passengers, a title cited as part of King’s win this year as the recipient of the Margaret Edwards award for lifetime achievement.
Nikki Grimes won this year’s Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement. District officials in Leander (Texas) ISD challenged the prolific poet and author’s work, stripping her memoir Ordinary Hazards – a 2020 Printz honor title that also won Sibert nonfiction honors — from its book-club choice lists. Ordinary Hazards was also on a 16-page list of titles that a Texas Republican lawmaker sent to public school districts across the state, triggering widespread reviews.
The committees of professionals who sift through hundreds of books to choose a few standouts have an awards system that intentionally highlights inclusive titles. There are categories designed to recognize books by and about Native, Black, Asian, Latino, Jewish and LGBTQ people. Unfortunately, the books most often challenged in schools target these same communities.
This year, the Coretta Scott King award went to Unspeakable, an affecting, thought-provoking picture book about the Tulsa Race Massacre from author Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by the late Floyd Cooper. It also won honors in non-fiction and illustration categories. The book’s title reflects how this chapter in history has been ignored and obscured in an effort to hide the truth, Weatherford said in an interview with School Library Journal.
It’s exactly the kind of book school librarians should be buying, at a time when access to these stories is more at risk than ever.