Exploring Diversity in the Newbery Medal and Honor Books

Literacy is essential to a child’s development. Through reading, children expand not just their vocabulary but their understanding of the world around them. But can children really learn from books if a majority of groups and topics are misrepresented or ignored? Recent studies have shown that there is a lack of diversity in children’s books. And while there have been initiatives created to address this issue, the fact that children do not have access to all of these books is something to consider. But what about the books they do have access to?
This project will explore diversity in the most popular children’s literature books, the Newbery Medal and Honor Books. Data collected from the four hundred and fifteen Newbery Books will seek to answer the following questions: Do the Newbery Medal and Honor Books provide an accurate representation of diverse backgrounds and subject matter? If so, has this been a recent development? And are there any trends of note in the honorees? The project team will attempt to answer these questions by collecting the biographical data and subject matter of all four-hundred and fifteen ‘Newbery Honorees’ (both Medal Winners and Honor books), and use Tableau Public to create a digital visualization of their findings and share with the project’s intended audience of librarians, educators and the DH community.

Enhancing the Humanities
In a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) of three thousand books published in 2018, fifty percent of books featured a white main character. Twenty-seven percent of books featured an animal, and African American, Asian Pacific American, Latinx and American Indians/First Nations were featured a total of twenty-three percent. Sarah Park Dahlen and David Huyck, who presented these findings in an infographic to School Library Journal, argue that children’s literature continues to misrepresent underrepresented communities. But their hope is that their findings push conversations about this issue and lead to a change in publishing. And while there have been initiatives created by the American Library Association and children’s book publishers to address this issue, the fact that children do not have access to all of these books is something to consider.
School and public libraries offer children (and their caregivers) access to a vast number of books that they would never be able to purchase for themselves. And more people are going to public libraries each year. According to the 2016 Public Libraries Survey Report by the Institute for Museum and Library Services, more than 171 million registered users visited public libraries over 1.35 billion times in 2016. Even with this increase in patrons, librarians often deal with limited budgets and shelf space, so books must be carefully chosen. Librarians will often rely on book lists and reviews for guidance on purchasing, and the books usually topping these lists are the Newbery Medal and Honor books.
First awarded in 1922 to encourage original creative work in the field of books for children, the Newbery Medal is awarded to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. The Newbery Medal is the most popular award presented to children’s books, and studies have shown that after the winners are announced, book sales can increase up to 1,000%. Honorees are highlighted on ALA websites and accompanying book lists, and librarians will often feature honorees in their display areas and programming. Children (and their caregivers) become exposed to these works that may or may not help them to understand and handle situations that deal with diversity in religion, race, gender, etc. And these books, for better or worse, usually stay on library shelves much longer than other books due to their status as honorees.
Since the Newbery Medal and Honor Books are so popular amongst the public and librarians, the questions this project hopes to answer are do these books provide an accurate representation of diverse backgrounds and subject matter? If so, has this been a recent development? And are there any trends of note in the honorees?

Environmental Scan/DH Context
Finding similar projects has been difficult, as projects tend to focus on analyzing diversity in the most recent children’s books published, or creating a book list that focuses on a particular group or theme. There are journals that investigate diversity, such as the Research on Diversity in Youth Literature (RYDL). RYDL is a peer-reviewed online journal hosted by St. Catherine University’s Master of Library and Information Science Program and University Library. The publishing community has also recognized the general lack of diversity and have started new initiatives to tackle the issue. Scholastic created the catalog, The Power of Story, that offers recommendations for books representing diversity of race, sexual orientation, gender identity and physical and mental abilities. In regards to digital projects focusing on diversity in children’s books, a good project is the Diverse Book Finder. This site collects information on picture books that feature black and indigenous people and people of color (BIPOC) from 2002 to the present. The themes given on the site are Genre; Categories; Settings; Tribal Affiliation/Homelands; Immigration; Gender; and Race/Culture. An issue with the site is that it only tracks fiction and narrative nonfiction picture books from 2002, and only books with suggested reading levels kindergarten through grade three. This visualization project will be unique in the fact that it analyzes all four hundred and fifteen Newbery Honorees, and that it will be an interactive visualization where users can search for specific information on authors, themes, and main characters.

Work Plan/Final Product
The project will consist of three stages: gathering the data, organizing the data into the pre-approved format, and then analyzing the data using the visualization software Tableau Public. The team will organize the data into the following eight categories: Year; Winner/Honor; Title; Author; Author’s Gender; Author’s Race; Main Character(s); and Themes. The first four categories are available on the ALA’s Newbery site. The team will have to find the author’s gender and race either on the authors’ websites, publishers’ sites, or an internet search (author interviews, etc.). The books’ main characters and themes will be found with the Library of Congress’ and New York Public Library’s bibliographic records.
Gathering the data will be the most time consuming part of the project, therefore the project team will use an existing software to display their results. Once the team has organized the data, they will use Tableau Public to create a data visualization of their findings. Tableau Public is a free service that allows users to create and publish data visualizations. Tableau Public users do not need programming experience, and there are many tutorials and a dedicated community available to assist the project team. Published visualizations are available to the public, and can easily be shared through email, social media and on websites. Once the visualization is completed the project team will analyze the findings and write a paper on their process and the results.

4 thoughts on “Exploring Diversity in the Newbery Medal and Honor Books

  1. Travis Bartley

    Since the project is tracking influences of this collection, I’m wondering how feasible it would be to introduce another category into the data regarding distribution (if only finding out the quantity of each winner sold to date). Alongside the other data, this may allow the project to track average rates of sale per year and compare how authorial background and representation play into the market influence of each title.

  2. Meghann Williams

    I am very interested by this project. I especially like the attention given to the practical question “What books do children have?” This addresses not just what types of books get published, but the award system that also determines how widely these books are available. Firmly establishing the connection between a book’s availability and its award status will be important. The most challenging part is probably going to be getting the author’s demographic information if the plan is to rely on google searches and interviews. Also the project might also want to address issues of representation, its strengths and limitations.

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