Stonewall Book Awards recognize books of exceptional merit relating to the GLBT experience

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By Steve Zalusky

Each year, the American Library Association (ALA) honors the best of the best in children’s and young literature. The Youth Media Awards, which are awarded during the association’s Midwinter Meeting, are eagerly anticipated by librarians, publishers and the authors and illustrators themselves.

Recognized worldwide for the high quality they represent, the awards serve as a guide for parents, educators, librarians and those interested in providing youth with the very best reading and viewing materials.

The most prominent are the Newbery and Caldecott medals. But collectively, the awards not only speak to the quality of the books, but also reflect the diversity of children’s and young adult literature.

Beginning in 2011, the Mike Morgan & Larry Romans Children's & Young Adult Literature Award joined the YMA pantheon.

From a very strong pool of finalists that included picture books, young adult literature and non-fiction, the Stonewall Book Awards Committee of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table selected "The Vast Fields of Ordinary" by Nick Burd, published by the Penguin Group, to receive the first children’s and young adult literature award.

"The Vast Fields of Ordinary" is the story of Dade, a gay Midwestern teenager, whose journey of self-acceptance takes place during the summer before his first year of college. Dade grapples with coming out, his parents impending divorce, and his nascent sexual relationships.

At the time, former ALA President Roberta Stevens said, "Ours is a very inclusive profession and we represent a wide variety of viewpoints. Millions of children in this country are being raised by gay or lesbian parents. There are young people who are gay and sometimes they feel very alone. This is a real opportunity for youths who may be feeling alone to read about other like themselves.”

The award is one of three Stonewall Book Awards given by the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table (GLBTRT) of the ALA and includes the Stonewall Book Award-Barbara Gittings Literature Award, the Stonewall Book Award-Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Award. All awards recognize “exceptional merit relating to the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender experience.”

The Stonewall Book Awards were launched in 1971. From 1971 to 1986, they were known as the Gay Book Award. The first book to receive the award was “Patience and Sarah,” by Isabel Miller. Originally, the award was for fiction.

Over the years, a non-fiction award was added and the name changed a few times until it became the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Book Award and then finally the Stonewall Book Award, commemorating a pivotal event in the fight for GLBT rights, the demonstrations by the gay community against a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in 1969.

The Mike Morgan and Larry Romans Children's and Young Adult Literature Award is named after two men who contributed a substantial amount to the endowment supporting the award.

Dallas Public Library’s Southeast District Manager Peter Coyl, the immediate past chair of the committee that chooses the Stonewall books, said there is a wealth of quality books in all categories, something that wasn’t necessarily the case during the first years, when much of the material was self published.

“There still is a lot of self-published material today,” he said. “But most major publishing houses and the medium publishing houses have material that is eligible for consideration.

“There is enough of a demand that it’s not seen as a topic matter that they don’t want to publish. I would say all of the Big Five have at least something every year that is eligible, if not in the literature, they usually have one or two in the non-fiction category that would be eligible to be under consideration.”

In the adult non-fiction category, he said, there is a wide range of material, including scholarly non-fiction about aspects of the GLBT experience, not just in terms of coming out, but such issues as marriage equality and divorce.

In terms of fiction, he said, “I think authors in the past were maybe afraid to have gay characters or gay scenes, and I think now there isn’t so much of a fear to do that. But I do think, interestingly enough, that there are more young adult books that have gay characters and gay scenes. And that may be a reflection on the level of acceptance that is happening. And I think that is happening at a younger age.

“I do think that is more GLBT material for teens and young adults than there has been in the past.”

When the YMAs added the Stonewall, he said, “it was kind of a big coup. People were just ecstatic that it was included. It gives a lot more audience to the award.”

Books like “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, he said, have a broad audience reach, as shown by the fact that it won the Mike Morgan & Larry Romans Children's & Young Adult Literature Award in 2013, but also won the The Pura Belpré Award, is presented to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth. It was also a finalist for the Michael L. Printz Award, which honors books that exemplify literary excellence in young adult literature.

“So I think the case can be made that GLBT literature doesn’t just appeal to those interested in GLBT issues or themes or characters,” Coyl said. “They are complicated, multifaceted books. People often forget that. They think that this is a quote unquote gay book. Well, there is no such thing. And I think ‘Aristotle and Dante’ shows that, because of its wide acceptance. And I think publishers recognize that.

If the Stonewalls have achieved recognition for GLBT literature within the publishing sector, they have also served as a resource for librarians and teachers looking for GLBT-themed material.

Coyl said, “I think the fact that a book wins an award from the American Library Association or is given an honor is helpful when librarians are making selections. They are able to pull from those lists,” he said. “It is also helpful when they are making collection development decisions.”

He pointed out that two years ago, the State of California included some of the Stonewall Book Award winners on its list of books for its curriculum.

Coyl’s view that a book honored by ALA carries weight with publishers and libraries was validated by James Klise, Honor Award winner for “Love Drugged,” in a 2011 article, in which he expressed his gratitude, “because the Stonewall Honor may help libraries in some communities have the ability to say: The ALA liked it, and that’s why we carry it. Bookstore chains don’t carry many titles with GLBT characters, so these teens rely on libraries as the one place where they can find a selection of books—titles that reflect their diverse experiences and offer role models that allow them to imagine the future. A selection of great books is more valuable than any individual book can be.”

He also mentioned his debt to libraries, saying, “I am grateful to libraries for carrying it. I am a writer today because of weekly childhood visits to the public library, just off Main Street, in Peoria, IL.”

Although the success of the Stonewall books indicate a wider acceptance of GLBT literature, books with GLBT themes still face an uphill battle in some communities.

According to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, a 2013 Honor Book for children’s and young adult literature, “Drama,” has been challenged four times, while the 2011 winner, “Almost Perfect,” a 2011 Honor Book, “The Boy in the Dress,” and a 2010 Honor Book, “Gay America: Struggle for Equality,” were each challenged once.

Kristin Pekoll, Office for Intellectual Freedom assistant director, said one school in Texas recently canceled a visit by e.E. (Eunice) Charlton-Trujillo, author of “Fat Angie,” one of the winners of the 2014 Mike Morgan & Larry Romans Children’s & Young Adult Literature Award.

The official reason was a scheduling conflict. However, when overtures were made by the author to pick a new date, the principal said the school was not interested in rescheduling.

“She was incredibly excited to speak with these students and it seemed that the librarian was very enthusiastic,” Pekoll said.

The author wanted to go public with it, saying that it was censorship and denying the chance for students to hear her message.

Charlton- Trujillo decided to create a video, without naming the school or the town.

“I think it really depends on the community,” Pekoll said. “A lot of schools and a lot of public libraries would be honored to have Stonewall award winners come visit.”

Pekoll herself was in the center of a controversy in 2009, when she was librarian at the West Bend Community Memorial Library in West Bend, Wis.

The controversy stemmed from a library website that contained teen recommendations for LGBT books. Parents demanded that the books be moved to the adult section.

Pekoll’s efforts to explain the selection policy, which involved assembling a spreadsheet of reviews and showing the intended age range of the books, as well as circulation statistics, were ignored in the frenzy.

Indeed, “My role as a selector was questions because I wasn’t a parent. I was three months pregnant at the time.”

As opposition was mobilized, so was support for the library’s position. In the end, the books remained on their intended shelves.

“Some of the books on the list were some of the tamest, sweetest love stories, didn’t have an ounce of sex in it, except that maybe two boys kiss,” she said.

Of one book, “Geography Club” by Brent Hartinger, she said, “It was just the sweetest book. I love the book. To say the book is sexually explicit just drives me nuts.”

Unfortunately, she said the opposition took political revenge, succeeding removing four out of nine members from the library board, including some who had been there for three decades.

Despite challenges and pockets of opposition like West Bend, the outlook for the future remains bright.

In fact, Coyl said that the committee faces a daunting task in reading all the books that are eligible.

“Two years ago, when I was chair of the committee, there were about 300 books that we read and considered for all three of the awards,” he said.

See a list of 2014 winners of the Mike Morgan & Larry Romans Children's & Young Adult Literature Award.

The 2015 Youth Media Award announcements, including the  Mike Morgan & Larry Romans Children's & Young Adult Literature Award, will take place during the ALA Midwinter Meeting & Exhibition on Monday, Feb. 2, 2015, from McCormick Place in Chicago. Be among the first to know the winners, watch the live webcast of the event or follow I Love Libraries on Twitter and Facebook.