Mark I. West, PhD is a professor and scholar in Children's Literature and Chair of the Department of English at UNC-Charlotte. He believes children's literature is defined by its audience - and the Library keeps him in touch with young readers. Since his arrival in Charlotte in 1984, Mark has brought stories, insight, scholarship - and puppetry! - to Library programs and events, and he is a key member of the EpicFest literary festival planning committee. Last month Mark was awarded the University's Bonnie E. Cone Professorship in Civic Engagement Award. We're proud to be the recipients of much of that civic engagement.
Mark shared some of the award-winning children's books on his shelf this summer:
Every summer I teach a graduate seminar on “Children’s Literature Award Winners” in which I cover the most recent winners of some of the big awards in children’s and young adult literature, so much of my summer reading relates to this course.
The most important award in children’s literature is the Newbery Medal, and this year Meg Medina’s Merci Suárez Changes Gears won it. The central character is a sixth-grade girl from a Cuban-American family living in south Florida. One of my favorite aspects of this novel is the relationship between this girl and her grandfather. She turns to her grandfather for support and advice to help her deal with problems she faces at school, but as the story progresses she realizes her grandfather is facing his own problems. I plan to compare this novel to last year’s Newbery winner, Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly. Both deal with the interactions between children and their grandparents within the context of Latinx families, and both celebrate the power and value of multigenerational relationships.
The most important picture book award is the Caldecott Medal, and this year it went to Sophie Blackall for Hello Lighthouse. Blackhall both wrote and illustrated Hello Lighthouse, and she depicts the life of lighthouse keepers during the days before lighthouses were electrified. This is not the first time Blackhall has won the Caldecott. A few years ago, she won for her illustrations in Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear. I plan to cover both of these picture books and invite the students to discuss how Blackwell uses art to capture the nuances of life during the early decades of the 20th century.
Sometimes one book wins multiple awards, and that’s the case with The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. This year The Poet X won both the Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature and the Pura Belpré Award for excellence in portraying the Latino/a cultural experience. Written in verse, The Poet X tells the story of a Dominican-American teenage girl who lives in Harlem with her very religious mother. Like Acevedo, the central character is a poet, and the story is told through a series of poems written in the voice of this character. The Poet X is considered a verse novel, and it joins a growing list of award-winning verse novels for children and young adults. In 2015 Kwame Alexander won the Newbery Medal for The Crossover, a verse novel about two brothers who share their father’s passion for basketball. I plan to have the students compare the two books.
Another award I always cover in my summer seminar is the Coretta Scott King Award, which recognizes excellent children’s books by African Americans. This year’s winner is A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 by Clare Hartfield. This work of nonfiction introduces young people to the causes and events associated with the race riot in Chicago in July, 1919. I plan to teach this book in July of 2019, exactly 100 years after the events depicted in the book. In teaching this book, students will discuss the complexities involved in writing about traumatic historical events for an audience of young readers.
Not all of my summer reading is tied to my seminar. Also on my list is Brian Jay Jones’s Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination. I have a long-standing interest in Dr. Seuss - every March I organize an event I call my Seuss-a-Thon, a marathon reading of Dr. Seuss books for four straight hours. I'm looking forward to reading this new biography of one of my favorite children’s authors.
I expect to learn something from all the books on my summer reading list. As I see it, reading and learning go hand in hand, not only for children but also for adults. We're never too old to pick up a book or to learn something new.