"When kids grow up not seeing themselves in books, they grow up feeling like they don't matter."
Thanks to author and literary agent, Eric Smith, these words of wisdom come as a reminder that one of the most powerful elements in youth literature is the characters. In this world, no two people are the same and nor should they be. Creating a cast of diverse and unique characters to reflect and acknowledge our differences as human beings is essential to ensuring readers of all ages feel included and, importantly, understand that they have a place in the world.
Presented by the American Library Association, the Schneider Family Book Award shines the spotlight on physical, emotional, and mental circumstance through the paramount protagonists of its winners. The award recognizes and celebrates authors and illustrators for their excellence in portraying the experience of disability in youth literature. It may not hold the prominence of the Man Booker Prize – at least not yet - but its objective to highlight and appreciate disability makes it one of the most inclusive celebrations of storytelling. Its three categories encompass varying age ranges across young readers, ensuring nobody is left out. Entries typically include illustrated books for children, fiction for middle-grade readers and of course, young adult literature.
Since its inception in 2004, the Schneider Family Book Award has illuminated a plethora of literary voices that explore colourful experiences with disability. Three winners are announced each year, corresponding to three sections of youth literature: young child, middle school and teen. With past winners’ tales navigating deafness, loss of limbs, and autism, to name only some, the winners of the 2020 award did not disappoint.
The remarkable award was founded by Dr. Katherine Schneider, who was interestingly the first blind student to graduate from the Kalamazoo Public School system located in Michigan, United States. Schneider has been blind since birth in 1949 and has had fibromyalgia for more than 10 years.
A librarian at the Michigan Library played a significant role in the success of Schneider at school as she provided books for her in Braille. Not allowing her disability to hold her back, Schneider was a valedictorian as well as a National Merit scholar. After earning a PhD in psychology, Schneider taught and worked as a clinical psychologist for 30 years. Now, 50 years later she is famously known for founding the incredible Schneider Family Book Award.
Winners of the 2020 Schneider Family Book Award
Young Children: Sonia Sotomayor – Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You
Middle School: Kelly Lynne – Song for a Whale
Teen: Karol Ruth Silverstein – Cursed
Silverstein’s distinct teen novel offers an earnest account of chronic illness through protagonist Erika. This bildungsroman illuminates the experience of juvenile arthritis and offers a unique lens through which it represents and engages with young sufferers of painful chronic illness.
Similarly, Lynne’s novel Song for a Whale also offers us a powerful work that follows a young girl’s relationship with her deafness, her family and the natural world around her. Desperate to help a whale, who too is unable to communicate traditionally with his fellow whales, Iris’ tale is one of hope, inclusivity and kindness.
Moreover, not only winning this year’s Schneider award, Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor’s children’s novel celebrating differences in children also won a prestigious spot as a #1 New York Times bestseller. Encouraging a culture of asking and learning with regards to children with disabilities, Sotomayer’s book paves the way for other children’s authors to swiftly follow.
As these winning instances prove, this award strives to represent the experience of disability in many forms. Their eligibility criteria specifies that book submissions “must portray some aspect of living with a disability, whether the disability is physical, mental, or emotional”, thus leaving the identification of being disabled down to the author themselves. Letting those with disabilities define their own struggles and feelings is a crucial part of the disability awareness and inclusion conversation in which the Schneider Award blazes a trail of glory.
Such niche awards as this also remind us of the significant need to represent disability within children’s and youth literature in particular. Children who suffer from disability are particularly vulnerable to discrimination and bullying from peers who cannot understand them, making it evermore crucial for these children to have someone to relate to in their entertainment and literature. Whether reading stories of similar struggles and feeling seen, or reading stories of success and feeling inspired, these experiences need to be felt, and through the Schneider Family Book Award the literature that allows for this is receiving the praise and recognition it deserves.