Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Gender and the Newbery

There's been some interesting conversation in the listserv world about children's literature awards and gender of late, and Heather mentioned an essay by Ursula Le Guin about awards and gender in a recent comment here on the blog. (Le Guin, by the way, in a correction to the essay Heather mentioned, refers to the Newbery as a "rare example of gender equity.") So I took some time to look in detail at the Newbery awards breakdown by gender and by decade, just to see what, if anything, the history of the award says -- whether it's equitable, as Le Guin says, skewed, as some listserv folks have suggested, or some combination.

THE 1920s

The first Newbery was awarded in 1922, to a male author, Henrik Willem van Loon. And, in fact, all eight of the winners from the '20s were male. Yep, a clean sweep for the first mostly-decade of the prize.

The Honor books (or "runners up," as they were styled then) are more evenly divided. There's not actually a requirement in the Newbery critera that any Honor books have to be named, and in 1923, 1924, and 1927, there weren't, in fact, any Honors. Of the 18 Honors that were named during the decade, eight went to men and ten to women. In 1922, the five inaugural Honors went to four men and one woman, but after that first year, there was a marked shift toward female authors for the Honors.

THE 1930s

As if to atone for the previous decade, all ten of the Newbery winners in the 1930s were female. I guess that's one way to achieve parity.

The '30s were also the decade with the most Honor books, as the modern consensus that each year should have 1-5 Honors hadn't yet been reached. (There were actually a record eight Honors in 1934.) The same female-centric skew appears in the Honors of this decade, with 43 going to women and 11 to men*.

*It should be noted that I'm counting each award separately, so Hildegarde Swift, who Honored twice, counts as two, not one. Also, I'm counting each author separately for co-authored books. It doesn't change the trend of the results much either way though.

THE 1940s

This was the first and only decade to date in which the winners were evenly split by gender, 5-5. The Honors, however, were even more skewed than the 1930s: 34 female, 7 male. In the six years from 1941 through 1946, 22 honor books were named, and every single one of them had a female author. That boggles my mind, even given that '41, '42, and '45 at least had male winners. It's one of the least statistically likely things I've seen recently.

THE 1950s

Seven female winners, three male winners. Most people who like pointing out bad awards choices will tell you that it should have been 6-4, given that 1953 is The Year That Secret of the Andes Somehow Won And Charlotte's Web Didn't, but I sadly haven't been given history-rewriting powers yet.

Women still dominated the Honors as well, though it's less dramatic than in the previous two decades. 23 went to women, 17 to men (including two separate Honors for Meindert DeJong in 1954). DeJong also got Honors in 1957 and 1959, and won the award outright in 1955 for The Wheel on the School, so it was a pretty awesome decade to be Meindert.

THE 1960s

Again, seven female winners versus three male. Joseph Krumgold and Elizabeth George Speare both picked up their second wins, and E.L. Konigsburg managed to out-DeJong DeJong in 1968 by winning the Newbery for From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and getting an Honor for Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth. The moral of that story, I think, is that you should give your children's novels the longest titles possible.

For the first time ever, the Honors swung in the men's direction, 14-12. It helped that Isaac Bashevis Singer got an Honor three years in a row, something that's only ever been done by one other person, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Curiously, neither Singer nor Wilder ever actually won the medal.

THE 1970s

Eight female winners, two male. The male winners were William H. Armstrong in 1970 and Robert C. O'Brien in 1972, meaning that we got them out of the way early too. In fact, after O'Brien's win for Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, a male author wouldn't win again until Sid Fleischman took the medal for The Whipping Boy in 1987. That's fourteen -- count 'em, 14 -- consecutive female winners, including Katherine Paterson twice.

The Honors aren't quite that one-sided, but they did shift back towards the women. 19 Honors went to female authors, against eight for males.

THE 1980s

Once Sid Fleischman won in '87, the next two awards went to men as well (one of whom was Sid's son, Paul Fleischman, in '89), so the winners for the decade were 7 women and three men. The Honors were almost exactly like the previous decade: 18 women, eight men.

THE 1990s

Another eight female winners, including seven in a row from 1992 through 1998. Actually, the exact same number of Newberys were awarded in the '90s to Lois Lowry as to all male authors combined.

The Honors were closer than that, 14-12 for the women. 1991, when Jerry Spinelli won for Maniac Magee, and the only Honor went to Avi, was actually the first year with no female representation since 1969.

THE 2000s

Six female winners, four males, though I know plenty of people who would no doubt argue that Neil Gaiman should count extra. That's actually the most male winners in a decade since...the 1940s. The Honors also were much more clearly for the women this time, 23 against 10.

THE 2010s

So far, two female winners and one male, which is inconclusive. The Honors, however, are running 7-3 for the women at the moment, largely based on 2011, in which the winner and all four Honor books were written by female authors.

So...what we have, given these numbers, is an award that, especially post-1929, is a remarkably female-dominated one. Of the 91 winners, 60 -- almost two-thirds -- have been women, as have over two-thirds of the Honor winners (208 of 304).

I don't know the reasons for that -- I've heard several more or less plausible theories, but nothing that's been backed up with hard evidence. I'd be curious to look into that further. But what I do know is that, historically at least, the Newbery is one of the few major literary awards in which women vastly outnumber men among the winners and other honorees -- and have for almost the entirety of the award's existence.

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