Virtual Voices

Honoring an agenda

Books

Every year, usually the second Monday in January, the American Library Association announces the winners of its Youth Media Awards. The Newbery and Caldecott medals (for text and illustration respectively) are the oldest and most coveted, but over the last dozen years or so the ALA has added several more awards. Among them are the Printz, "for excellence in literature written for young adults"; the Coretta Scott King, honoring African-American authors and illustrators; the Schneider Family, "for books that embody an artistic expression of the disability experience"; the Pura Belpré, for Latino authors and illustrators. This year, yet another category was added to the roster: the Stonewall Children's and Young Adult Literature Award, given for "books of exceptional merit relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered experience."

The Stonewall Award has existed since 1971, or almost since the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village that energized the gay rights movement and gave the award its name. But 2010 was the first year that a category was created for children's and young adult books, and this year was the first time it was included in the glitzy Monday night announcement at the annual mid-winter meeting. Stonewall has "arrived," and not a minute too soon, according to ALA President Roberta Stevens: "Children's books regarding the GLBT experience are critical tools in teaching tolerance, acceptance, and the importance of diversity."

The ALA claims there is a growing demand for GLBT books, citing a Heath and Human Services report that an estimated 14 million children have a gay or lesbian parent. If African-American, Latino, and disabled children can have their experiences embodied in literature, then GLBT experiences are the next likely candidate for official recognition. This year's winner is Almost Perfect, whose teenage protagonist, a small-town Missouri boy, falls for a tall, unconventional girl named Sage who turns out to be more unconventional than he thought: Sage is actually a boy in the process of transgendering.

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Transgendered characters haven't received a lot of attention in juvenile literature, but characters who "happen to be" gay have, often without a great deal of controversy, unless they also "happen to be" penguins. I don't personally object to featuring homosexual characters in children's literature (depending on how it's done), because literature is supposed to reflect life. But granting a separate award to books presenting-and usually justifying-a sexual orientation is not a welcome development, even from a secular point of view. No human experience is more fraught than sex and no human growth stage is more confusing than adolescence. To treat sexual-orientation questions as only a matter of "tolerance" adds to the fraughtness and confusion. Does a teenager have enough life experience to know for a fact that he or she is "really" of the opposite sex? Or "really" homosexual, for that matter? I haven't read Almost Perfect, but would be willing to bet the question isn't asked, unless it's by an intolerant adult.

From a Christian point of view-an "experience" yet to be recognized by the ALA-the Stonewall Award is another advance in the civil rights battle of the 21st century. What makes this battle different from the struggles of other oppressed groups is that Christians are seen as the enemy. The honored books are not just books; they are also "critical tools." But we have our tools as well: prayer, the Word, the fruit of the Spirit. We must be prepared to use them.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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