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Multi-Cultural Award Winners

2013 March 29
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belpre_medalMaybe everyone has had enough by now of hearing about book awards. Maybe it is time to move on. Maybe it is even time to start speculating about our favorites for next year. But before we have to definitively stop talking about awards and lists for the year, I wanted to bestow a little extra fanfare on two outstanding YA titles that received awards from other ALA divisions this year. These books were each selected for their excellence in representing a particular culture, but they both transcend that niche to tell stories that can touch any reader.

The Pura Belpré Award, cosponsored by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) and REFORMA, an ALA affiliate, is presented annually to the Latino/Latina author and illustrator “whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.”

The 2013 Pura Belpré Award went to — no big surprise here — Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. This book cleaned up at the awards, also taking home a Stonewall Award, a Printz Honor, and a spot on the Best Fiction for Young Adults Top Ten list. Honestly, I was not sure if I would like this book, but just a few pages in, the sweet, deceptively simple prose captured my heart. Over two summers in the late 1980s, a profound friendship grows between two lonely Mexican-American boys, who each must come to terms with the realization that they want to be more than friends. But that is only one layer of the story. It is a story about family. It is a story about secrets, about the pain of holding onto them and the healing in letting them go. Really it is Ari’s story, the story of how he learns to open up his heart to really get to know Dante, his parents, and finally himself.

The absence of stereotypes in this book was refreshing. For instance, both boys come from educated, middle class families. It was great to read a book with two male Latino protagonists who are not thugs. Also, the imperfect but loving, three-dimensional parents were a nice surprise in a genre where parents are notorious for being clueless and disengaged. Either set of parents would have made strong contenders in our recent “best parent” poll. The biggest problem with this book was the difficulty I had in getting my hands on it. When my local bookstore went to special-order it for me, the nearest copy their distributor had available was some 500 miles away in Indiana. For such a highly decorated book, that is just not cool, and it saddens me to think that teens who want to read this book might face the same problem.

csksealThe Coretta Scott King Book Awards, also presented annually to one author and one illustrator, honor “books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African-American culture and universal human values.” Since a children’s book won the author award this year, I instead chose to highlight the lone YA title among the honor books, No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Micheaux-Nelson with artwork by R. Gregory Christie. This extraordinary book tells the story of Nelson’s great-uncle Lewis Michaux and his Harlem bookstore, where for over thirty years he made it his mission to bring literacy and a sense of cultural identity to the black community. The product of fifteen years of meticulous research, this “documentary novel” is fiction, but just barely. The narrative unfolds in a series of vignettes told from multiple viewpoints and peppered with pen-and-ink illustrations and real-life primary source documents, infused with just enough creative embellishment to make each character’s voice feel personal. The unusual format was a perfect fit for this story that everyone who loves books should know. I keep kicking myself for not getting a signed copy when I had the chance. In fact, I wish I had a whole stack of them to give as gifts!

The two books have a lot in common. Both are about courage and self-discovery. Both are about the bonds of family — the kind we are born into and the kind we find for ourselves. Both show how the guidance of a caring, supportive adult can make all the difference. Both brought tears to my eyes. And both are brimming with deliciously quotable lines that make me want to write them on sticky notes and plaster them all over my desk. The most exciting similarity, however, is the way both these lovely books are breaking the mold of their so-called “specialty” awards to reach the wider audience they so richly deserve.

– Wendy Daughdrill, who just finished No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson with artwork by R. Gregory Christie

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