Note: This post is a continuation of a January 20th post titled ALA Youth Media Awards – Part 1.

It is 5:45 a.m. on Monday, January 24th, as I begin this post. You may be curious why I’d do such a thing. I am getting ready to watch the American Library Association’s (ALA) Youth Media Awards (YMAs). The YMAs are the “Oscars” of children’s literature. You may recognize two of the awards announced at this event, the Newbery Medal and the Caldecott Medal. Librarians and others interested in children’s literature across the country are up watching along with me. We all want to be the first to know which books will win, to see if our favorites are included, to check if our library carries them, and to find out what we want to read next.

Like other events in the past two years, the award ceremony is being held online. Prior to COVID, the ceremony was both an in-person and streamed event. My laptop is booted up and my iPad logged into Twitter, the best way to see what people are saying about the winners. I was fortunate to attend the YMA ceremony in person in 2018. Don’t laugh… it was on my bucket list! There was no red carpet, paparazzi, or fancy gowns. Mostly, it was a lot of tired, but excited librarians, wearing comfortable shoes. It was fun watching librarians jumping up and cheering loudly when their favorite book was announced. You’d be surprised how loud librarians can be… really!

It’s 6:00 a.m. now, and the live broadcast is starting. You may wonder why so early. It is a time zone issue. I’m glad I’m not in Hawaii! ALA President, Patricia Wong, is welcoming everyone “to the premiere event for the recognition of books and media for children and young adults.”

The first presenter is Aaron LaFromboise, President of the American Indian Library Association. She’s announcing the American Indian Youth Literature Awards, presented in even years, for the “very best writing and illustrations by and about American Indians and Alaska natives.” There are three categories: Picture Books, Middle Grade Books, and Young Adult Books. Something I appreciate about this award announcement is that the authors’ and illustrators’ tribes are shared as the winning titles are presented. The Picture Book category winner came as a surprise to many people. Herizon, by Daniel W. Vandever (Diné), illustrated by Corey Begay (Diné), is not sold through the regular places libraries use for purchasing, so most libraries were not aware of it. This illustrates a benefit of the YMA Awards having a diverse array of awards; quality books we may have missed are brought to our attention. Healer of the Water Monster by Brian Young (Diné), cover art by Shonto Begay (Diné) and Apple: Skin to the Core by Eric Gansworth (Onondaga) were the Middle School and Young Adult winners.

The next award is the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, given “to honor and recognize individual work about Asian/Pacific Americans and their heritage, based on literary and artistic merit.” This award also has multiple categories, including ones for Adult Fiction and Adult Nonfiction titles, but only the youth awards are announced at the YMAs. Amina’s Song, by Hena Khan, was the winning title in the Children’s Literature category. It is the second book in the “Amina’s Voice” series, about a young Pakistani American girl who demonstrates strength and courage in pushing back against prejudice in her community.

The Caldecott and Newbery Medals are the last awards presented. You can almost feel the tension in the room. OK, just kidding. It’s a virtual ceremony, so you can’t really feel anything, I’m just remembering back to my experience of attending in person. Watercress is this year’s winner of the Caldecott Medal. The book, by Andrea Wang, is a moving autobiographical story about her experience as a child of immigrants from China as she tries to navigate a new culture while still connecting with her heritage. The Caldecott Medal primarily recognizes the illustrator, which in this case is Jason Chin. Chin is an author and illustrator, and is no stranger to awards. His illustrations were inspired by Chinese painting techniques, an art style new to him. Watercress was an expected frontrunner. I say “expected,” because the titles under consideration for both the Caldecott and the Newberys are a closely guarded secret. Committee members have to sign a document vowing lifetime secrecy to participate. They cannot reveal any books discussed or how close the vote was… EVER! Several other YMA awards have the same requirement. Librarians love a good mystery.

Finally, it’s time for the announcement of the Newbery Medal. It is a big year for the Newbery, as this year marks its 100th Anniversary. Drumroll please… the winner is The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera. The Last Cuentista won the Pura Belpré Award this year too. The story’s premise is a bit to wrap your head around. It combines science fiction, a post-apocalyptic scenario, and Mexican folklore. While I have not yet read it, I’ve only heard rave reviews. I plan to put it on hold once I’m done here, and recommend you do, too. Youth literature is not just for kids.

Like the Oscars, certain titles win in multiple categories. The Last Cuentista and Watercress are two examples. The most awarded book this year, with four awards, is Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Floyd Cooper. Other awards it won were a Caldecott Honor, two Coretta Scott King awards, and a Sibert Honor. Boston Weatherford and Cooper are both previous award winners and have collaborated on other books. Sadly, Cooper died in July, before learning of his awards. Boston Weatherford tweeted that she had hoped to work with him again. While it is a picture book, it’s not one you’d likely read to your preschooler. It is recommended for grades 3-6. The Tulsa Race Massacre was the worst racial attack in American history. Occurring in 1921, thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed and as many as 300 people were killed over the course of 16 hours. However, it is a relatively unknown event in American history. A Young Adult book about the Tulsa Race Massacre won an award this year too, titled Black Birds in the Sky: The Story and Legacy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

The fact that Unspeakable won the Caldecott Medal brings up an issue about award-winning books. Just because a book has won an award, it does not mean it’s right for your child. Parents will ask me for the latest Caldecott winner to read to their little one, knowing the Caldecott honors the best of the best picture books. But books with pictures are created for all ages. I’d encourage older children to read picture books, too. These books can help children, and even you, learn about topics they may not be aware of. Children may go on to seek out other books on the topic if their interest is sparked. I feel like a future blog post on picture books for older children may be warranted.

A funny moment of the award ceremony was when a Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Honor winner was announced. The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem by Colleen Paeff, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter, is a book about a pollution problem in London in the 1850s One person tweeted it may have been the first time that “poop” was said at the YMAs, but that it was “spoken with all the solemnity a Sibert honoree deserves.” Most children would love to have you read it to them just so they can hear you say “poop.”

My biggest takeaway from this year’s awards is that it seemed like a celebration for diverse books and their creators. Some years, there have been questions about why one book or another did, or did not win. This did not appear to be the case this year. The choice of winners highlighted the fact that there are more diverse books being published and recognized than in the past. Diverse characters and stories are good for everyone, but especially for children, who now have more opportunities to find books with people that look like, or have similar experiences to them.

I’ve mentioned just a few of the many winners here. If you’d like to see a complete list of books honored at the YMAs, including the many Young Adult awards not covered in this post, you can find one on the ALA website. You can also find winning titles available at JCLS on our 2022 Youth Media Awards list