23 January 2009

Newbery Numbers and Nonsense

As the children's-lit world gears up for the announcement of this year's Newbery Medals on Monday morning, there was news coverage earlier in the month about graduate student Anthony Nisse's study "Do You See What I See?: Portrayals of Diversity in Newbery-Medal-Winning Children’s Literature."

A piece from Bloomberg News produced a short squib in the New York Times, but all the attention seems to have stemmed from this opinion piece on the Latina Lista website.

The question of how well a culture's literature reflects its people and how they live is profound and important, with implications for that culture's values. However, if we raise that question on the basis of unreliable data or flawed analysis, then that not only doesn't promote the discussion, but it reflects poorly on efforts to do so.

Kathleen Odean, writing on Child_Lit, noted a lot of quirks and glitches in the reporting on Nisse's study, and dug further. Liz B at A Chair, a Fireplace & a Tea Cozy looked at the books in question and found that she can't make the numbers add up. They're both still working on their findings, and I look forward to their final reports. Meanwhile, Eric Carpenter appears to have not only been the first to track down the study, but also started a Google Worksheet for fuller analysis.

Nisse studied the protagonists and major supporting characters in Newbery Medal-winning books, with a particular emphasis on four qualities:

  • gender
  • ethnicity
  • family structure
  • socioeconomic class
The last variable garnered the least analysis from Nisse, and no attention at all from Bloomberg News.

My first thought is that it's always better to study as large a sample as possible, so I think the study would have benefited from including the Newbery Honor books as well. Eric Carpenter's spreadsheet is set up to do so. It would also be valuable to look at whether the establishment of the Coretta Scott King and Pura Belpré awards affected the pool of Newbery honorees.

Nisse structured some of his questions to reflect the complex contingencies of fiction, and life. For instance, he has a separate category for books in which a child has a single adult caregiver, but not a parent. That still leaves the question of change over the course of a story. How should one classify books in which one of two parents dies, such as Out of the Dust, or a single parent marries, such as Sarah Plain and Tall--are those single-parent books or two-parent books?

What about books with multiple protagonists, such as The Westing Game? Does the protagonist of The Secret of the Bull, set in Spain, count as Latino? Do readers respond the same way to Asian protagonists as to Asian-American?

And a challenge rarely seen in adult literature: a non-human protagonist. What ethnic group is Despereaux the mouse in The Tale of Despereaux? (And does it matter that in the recent movie he looks considerably whiter than in Tim Ering's artwork?)

On top of all that, both Odean and Liz B raised questions about how accurately the study had classified some titles. And they reported that the news coverage added errors. Nisse's data showed that male protagonists are less common in the last 28 years than the 29 before, but the news reports had that the other way around. Surely this discussion can benefit from a more solid beginning.


Anonymous said...

They weren't completely wrong on the gender issue; in the last ten years there have been more Newbery winners with male protagonists than with female (which is the opposite of what everyone seems to believe; there's a lot of complaint about the award being all girls lately). I don't think it's a problem, though it is interesting.

J. L. Bell said...

I don’t think a sample of ten is big enough to draw strong conclusions. This is why adding the Honor Books to the study would be worthwhile.