2020 Blue Ribbon Awards: Blowing the lid off nice

The staff at The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books have announced the 2020 Blue Ribbons, their choices for the best of children's and young adult literature for the year.
Words by Abigail Bobrow and The Bulletin at The Center for Children's Books

Deborah Stevenson, the editor of The Bulletin, a publication of The Children’s Center for Books, started reviewing children’s books in 1989. She’s reviewed roughly 6,223 books and looked at 85,000 over her career. These reviews published in The Bulletin by Stevenson and her colleagues contribute to choosing the yearly Blue Ribbon awards, which recognizes outstanding children’s literature.

This year, however, the thousands of books that typically arrive at her office never came. Shipping and printing interruptions caused by the pandemic robbed the reviewers of physically handling the books. But that didn’t prevent Stevenson and her fellow reviewers from reading and discussing more than 700 digital copies.  Stevenson, along with assistant editor Kate Quealy-Gainer (ISCHOOL ’09) and six others, almost all of whom were librarians, ex-librarians, or scholars, met over Zoom to take part in what in the past had been a tactile experience. They awarded Blue Ribbons to forty youth nonfiction and fiction books.

They also made a key decision to approach the books “pandemic blind,” as Stevenson put it.

“It was important to us that books could be about the life in your head, not a consistent reminder of the pandemic. We still wanted to focus on books that brought pieces of the world to their readers,” she said, “whether that world was a created one or one that was real. We were looking for amazingly crafted experiences, whether you’re five or fifteen, that were true to their own purpose and meaning.”

Some noticeable trends emerged this year: more nonfiction about race and the increasing presence of LGBTQ+ characters and themes, especially trans and non-binary characters, often by trans and non-binary writers.

Of course, writers and illustrators of children’s books do not create in a vacuum, and what they brought us can be regarded as a snapshot of where we are.

“Children’s books sometimes have a kind of a niceness problem,” Stevenson remarked. “And 2020 was a year that kind of blew the lid off nice. We saw that reflected in the books, and I think that’s great. I hope that continues to be true.”

Below is a selection of this year’s winners

Derrick Barnes. “I Am Every Good Thing,” illustrated by Gordon C. James. Paulsen/Penguin. 5-7 yrs.
“This first-person self-affirmation celebrates the multiple wonders of young Black boys in rollicking, read-aloud-friendly text and rich painterly portraiture. Barnes is an incredibly skilled writer at being able to pack energy into something that is not a narrative plot with a trajectory. He’s basically affirming the worth of black boys.”

Deborah Underwood. Outside In; Illustrated by Cindy Derby. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 4-8yrs.
“The ever-versatile Underwood takes on a very different tone in this evocative, child-friendly contemplation of outside and inside, aided by Cindy Derby’s stunning, luminous watercolors.”

Irene Latham. The Cat Man of Aleppo; Written by Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basha; Illustrated by Yuko Shimizu. Putnam. 5-8 yrs.
“This picture book follows ambulance driver Alaa as he cares for both human and cats caught in the violence of the Syrian civil war.”

Trung Le Nguyen. The Magic Fish; Written and Illustrated by Trung Le Nguyen. Random House Graphic. Gr. 6-12
“Themes of identity, family, and love feature predominantly in this graphic novel that shifts among various threads, moving between fairy tales, an immigrant story, and a coming-out story to make an eminently appealing read.”

Frederick Joseph. The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person. Candlewick. Gr. 6-12
“More people than ever have had enough and are fighting back. I’m proud to be one of them.” So says media activist Joseph in the preface to this meaty yet accessible, challenging yet enjoyable book addressed to white people trying do better at understanding race and racism. Here he reinvents the trope of the Black friend from being the token, permissive ornament of an otherwise white group to being “the person who is willing to speak the truth to the white people in their lives, to call them out when they do or say something hurtful, ignorant, or offensive.”

Amy Novesky. Girl on a Motorcycle; illus. by Julie Morstad. Viking. Gr. 3-8 “Based on the experience of a French journalist in the 1970s, this story follows an intrepid young woman as she travels alone across the world on her motorcycle, experiencing a multitude of countries, people, and possibilities.”

Dave Eggers. The Lights and Types of Ships at Night; Illustrated by Annie Dills. Mc-Sweeney’s. 4-8 yrs.
“Luminous illustrations and engagingly direct text elevate the standard picture book introduction to boats and ships to an engrossing read that is sure to become a kid favorite.”

Meg Medina. Evelyn Del Rey Is Moving Away; Illustrated by Sonia Sánchez. Candlewick. 5-8 yrs.
“Young Daniela tells of the joy of friendship and the genuine, important grief at parting when her ‘mejor amiga, my numero uno best friend’ moves out of the neighborhood. It’s a Spanglish discussion narrative that every kid is going to understand.”