All posts by Meghann Williams

COVID-19: Research Methods for Unexpected Circumstances

Kelly Hammond

COVID has affected our research in a slew of ways. Group members have had to direct their attention to pressing needs—from securing supplies for our families to battling the illness itself. We originally planned to let the online data collection take us as far as it could and then to scour library shelves for the remaining unknowns. Those shelves are now beyond our reach.

The research we are doing demands resourcefulness in the best of circumstances. The authors of children’s books, even award-winners, have not always been the topic of great celebrity like they are today. Having long exhausted the most revealing sources, author bios and Wikipedia pages, we have combed obituaries, copyright records, images from used book stores, digital archives, and marriage records.

The shut down has kept us from accessing the more obscure texts in search of clues. It has also kept us from reaching experts with access to those texts or author photographs or personal papers. Prior to the pandemic, I might have emailed archivists to ask questions unanswerable without visiting a distant library (which I was able to do when investigating Charlotte Perkins Gilman last year). But these archivists are barred from their own collections as well. For example, the University of Minnesota houses the Barbara Cooney Papers, which include correspondence that may provide clues to her collaborator, Edna Mitchell Preston, about whom little we can find.

Emily Maanum

Taking on this digital humanities project, our team knew we would be dealing with a variety of technologies and tools throughout the semester, but no one imagined that remote technology would be the only way to complete it. Our team went from all living in the same city and physically meeting once a week to being spread across the country. We are in different time zones, communicating over Skype, zoom and email. We had to adjust to communicating through a computer screen; hashing out project details is easier when we were all together physically. 

Our project focuses on the winners and honorees of both the Newbery and Caldecott book awards. We planned on collecting information about the authors, illustrators, and protagonists of these books through a variety of methods, but with libraries and book stores closed, our search went online. I used mostly Wikipedia to find the information relating to the Newbery. This process went pretty smoothly, and I would make sure to cross-check the info with another site to confirm it. 

Collecting the Caldecott protagonist information was much more time-consuming. I mostly used the Wikipedia page of the book in question. If I couldn’t find the info there, I would look at YouTube videos of people doing read alongs. These helped me determine the gender, race, and ethnicity of many protagonists. The videos could be 4 mins or more, and some had poor video quality so it was hard to see the illustrations. Sometimes I changed the playback function to go 2x faster so I could get through the videos more quickly. This is exceedingly more time-consuming compared to the author/illustrator data collection, which maybe took up to two minutes per entry because Wikipedia had most of that info available.

Though this part of the data collection takes more time, it has been fun to read the Caldecott books; I haven’t read any children’s books for a while. It’s also been super nostalgic to read a few books that I remember enjoying as a child like Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type and Joseph Had a Little Overcoat.

Georgette Keane

Working on the Caldecott authors, illustrators, and protagonists has been tough due to our current situation. Internet searches and MARC records from the Library of Congress have been helpful, but it is not equal to holding a book in your hands and looking at the illustrations and book flaps. There were a lot of early authors, from the 1960’s and 1970’s especially, whose web presence was just their name. So I had to get creative to find out more about them.

I started looking for articles that analyzed the Caldecotts, and I came across a 2018 Journal of Children’s Literature article by Koss, Johnson, and Martinez ‘Mapping the diversity in Caldecott books from 1938-2017: The changing topography.’  The article was very helpful, but I needed to see all of the data for the two decades we were really stuck on. I decided to reach out to the three authors to ask if they would share their data. I explained our project and what we are facing here in New York City, and Dr. Martinez was kind enough to send an Excel spreadsheet with a full breakdown of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Analyzing the protagonists has been a little more difficult, but I found an interesting solution. Many Caldecotts are featured on read-alongs on YouTube. Parents, librarians, and the general public are reading these books to their audience, and they have become invaluable to us. Most are good quality, where you just see the pages and the reader is not on the screen. These videos, along with LibraryThing and other sites, are giving us enough information to make an educated guess about the protagonist. I am grateful to Drs. Koss, Johnson, and Martinez, as well as all of the readers on YouTube who have unknowingly helped us with our project. 

A Note on Categories, Census and Otherwise

One of the things that was attractive about studying the Newbery Awards was the fact that these awards have been given for almost 100 years. This gives us a grand view of changes over time. However, when studying trends, changes in categories affect results.

For example, an early question became, how do we label people from groups which have been assimilated into whiteness over the past 100 years? This was of particular concern when it came to groups such as Jews and Italians who faced discrimination for much of the 20th century. For this, we decided that we would eventually label these groups as white but give them a signifier beyond that in our data. That way, we could reflect the current ideas on these groups and represent the differences between them and a white, Anglo-Saxon protestant. These labels will likely appear in a future iteration of the project.

But when it came to broad categories, we wanted a system that would allow us to compare our results to the larger demographics of a given time period. For this we based categories on US Census categories. But to pretend that this created a “neutral” way of viewing results is extremely flawed, as we had simply adopted the same prejudices which formed the categories for the US Census. Not to mention the bias in the way the census is/was collected. Census takers could not even choose their own race until the 1960 census. Before that, census workers chose for participants.

These categories have changed over time but have been relatively stable since the 1970s. We are in a census recording period right now, and many people do not feel that the census can accurately record their identity. Government agencies have always been slow to reflect social change, and this causes issues trying to get people to participate in public initiatives. Other community members, especially those who are undocumented, are skeptical of the project of the census in general because of privacy concerns.  

In a further iteration of this project, we hope to add different ways of sorting the data to move away from these Census categories. We would keep the Census categories on Tableau public to show how the data changes when more adaptive, community-centered categories affect the way the data is displayed. 

The main thing we found was not a surprise—that is the overwhelming whiteness of these honorees and book award winners. It has been challenging to display this overwhelming trend in a way that does not erase smaller trends or issues that are not whiteness centered. This will be an ongoing process, and we hope for feedback from the communities affected by what we describe in our project. Improving and changing categories should be an iterative process rather than a static one, and we are here to learn the possibilities that are available to us. 

In the meantime, we hope this discussion of the issues with the census categories sparks interest in what’s going on with the census in a general way. It’s a very important way that the federal government allocates funds so it’s important people participate, but when they aren’t accurately represented by the categories, how can they have faith in the process? 

Our Data: In and Beyond the Gender Binary

A particularly challenging part of our project has been dealing with gender identity within our data. We have a limited amount of information about authors and protagonists, especially since our research has been affected by the spread of COVID-19, and have relied on the pronouns used in primary and secondary materials to assign gender to protagonists and authors. This has lead to issues with the labels we choose to describe our findings.

For example, our data does not show any trans or non-binary authors. This does not mean that our data does not include trans and/or non-binary authors because (1) an author’s gender identity might not be known to the public (2) an author might be misgendered by the media (3) some trans people use binary pronouns, even if they do not entirely identify with a binary gender (4) some people, gender fluid or otherwise, might use different pronouns at different times or in different situations. It’s hard to even list all the possibilities of the way this data might mislabel reality, but that is one of the realities of doing this type of work.

Gender identity has only recently become a part of public dialogue. The lack of non-binary gender identities among the authors of the older works is not surprising; however, this is not to say that no winner or honoree has had a non-binary and/or trans identity. In fact, we doubt this is the case. Further, some trans identities could be invisible in our data as a result of how we report it. If a trans woman won the Newbery next year, would labeling her as a trans woman be preferable to labeling her “just” a woman?

In more recent years, the lack of gender diversity is more worrying. When it comes to protagonists, whose genders are assigned by the author, we can more securely point to a lack of non-binary and/or trans representation rather than a lack of accurate gender information in the data itself. Although gender is not the main subject of our inquiry, we hope our exploration of this subject matter might influence others who can further examine our data for their own purposes. 

These uncertainties lead us to another important decision: what do we choose to report about an author or protagonists’ gender identity, and how do we choose to report this? Right now, we have protagonists and authors listed as either male or female. We have assigned these genders using the pronouns in the books or author biographies we have looked at.

We have struggled with how to use this label… the terms male/female are pretty explicitly connected to biological sex, but they present a much more elegant way to describe gender identity because they can function as adjectives as well as nouns. Outside of academia, these terms are probably more easily digestible and require less explanation. But the issue is… when it comes to authors, we are assigning genders based on incomplete data then using labels which don’t actually describe gender but biological sex.

I have suggested that we simply report which pronouns we have found in primary and secondary materials for both authors and protagonists, as this approach does not require us to make an assumption about gender. It remains to be seen what decision we make as a group, but we will definitely comment on it during our blogs so stay tuned!

The Inner Worlds of Children’s Literature

With more parents staying at home as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, shared reading time is more important than ever. Although children do really love consuming the same piece of media over and over (my speciality was a once-a-day viewing of 101 Dalmatians), parents might find their kids running through more repetitions and tiring things out quicker. Variety is the key to keeping everyone sane! 

It’s probably not surprising that within children’s literature, however, there isn’t much variety when it comes to the ethnic and racial background of authors and characters. In the early stages of our research, we have discovered that diversity and authorship interact in surprising ways. While nearly 70% of Newbery Medal and Honor authors have been female, only about a third of the protagonists of those books are. We’ve also learned that fewer than 10% of those authors were people of color, and, perhaps most surprising still, just over a quarter of protagonists are. Stayed tuned for more analysis of our findings! 

It’s important that, when isolated, we people our inner worlds with an array of backgrounds and voices. We want to see ourselves, but we want to see others too. So, consider an array of authors, from Jacqueline Woodson to Matt de la Peña, and a host of characters, from Wonder’s Auggie Pullman to Meg Medina’s Merci Suarez. Make sure your children see themselves in the books they read and that they see a range of others. 

Book awards, like the Newberys, can bring good literature to our attention, but we need to sample from them widely. Here’s a good list from the ALA that includes well-known awards like the low-diversity Newbery and slightly more diverse Caldecotts, but links to other types of awards such as the Pura Belpré Medal which “honors a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose works best portray, affirm, and celebrate the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth” or the Schneider Family Book Award that recognizes “books that embody an artistic expression of the disability experience.”

We are looking forward to discovering other surprising trends in our data and discussing its implications with our community of educators, librarians, parents, and others. Check back for updates and make sure to follow our social media accounts. Until then… happy reading!