It should be no surprise that “A Different Pond,” written by Minneapolis poet Bao Phi and illustrated by Thi Bui, was named one of four Caldecott Honor books last Monday. It’s a beautiful book that tells a simple but moving story about a man going fishing with his young son. It had already been honored with the prestigious Charlotte Zolotow Award, and has been named a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award.
But its Caldecott win was seminal.
The Caldecott, given by the American Library Association, is for illustrations. “A Different Pond” was the first book illustrated by a Vietnamese woman to be so honored, and one of the few books both written and illustrated by immigrants. (Ed Young, who was born in China, won the Caldecott in 1990 for “Lon Po Po,” which he translated and illustrated.)
Major awards for children’s books by people of color have been a long time coming.
When “A Different Pond” was announced, “I screamed so hard the people around me were giving me funny looks,” said Sarah Park Dahlen, who attended the ALA awards ceremony in Denver.
Dahlen is assistant professor of library and information science at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, and has long been at the forefront of the We Need Diverse Books movement.
“There was an awful lot of diversity this year,” she said. “It’s been increasing over the years,” but this year was noteworthy.
For instance, all four Newbery awards — the Newbery Medal, the highest honor in children’s literature, as well as the three Newbery Honors — went to writers of color.
The lifetime achievement award went to African-American writer Jacqueline Woodson.
Another notable award went to Debbie Reese, who is tribally enrolled at Nambe Owingeh Pueblo in New Mexico and who has long kept a sharp and intelligent eye out for the way Indians are portrayed in children’s books.
It’s good that judges are beginning to pay attention to these great books by writers and artists of color.
But the publishing industry! Oh, still so blindingly white.
In 15 years, not much has changed. The books are tracked by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In 2016, about 3,200 children’s books were published in the United States, and by far most were by white authors; 90 were by black authors, eight by Indian authors, 194 by Asian-American authors and 94 by Latino authors.
Dahlen said it wasn’t until she was in graduate school that she encountered a Korean character in a children’s book.
“It’s important because all readers deserve to see themselves in the media around them,” she said. “And for too long that right has been granted to white children and not as much to nonwhite children.”
Once characters of color began appearing in children’s books, they were often culturally inaccurate. Dahlen mentioned “Tikki Tikki Tembo,” a 1968 picture book that is ostensibly about a Chinese boy but blends Japanese and Chinese culture.
“So the newer books that are coming out now have to do the double work of unmaking those stereotypes” as well as telling their own stories, she said. “They carry a double burden.”
Which is why a simple, beautiful book written by two immigrants from Vietnam about a little Vietnamese boy and his father, going fishing in America, can not only delight children of any culture who read it, but also make a difference for children’s literature in general.
Congratulations to all of the winners.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune’s senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks. Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks.