The Schneider Family Book Award: A Legacy of Inspiration

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Seeking books about children who were blind or had other disabilities, a 9-year-old girl began borrowing books in braille from the National Library Service for the Blind.

The girl, Katherine Schneider, went on to become the first blind student to graduate from the public school system in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

A valedictorian and a National Merit Scholar, Schneider went on to obtain her doctorate from Purdue University and become a clinical psychologist and a university professor, teaching psychology courses at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, as well as counseling, supervising and administering counseling services there.

Dr. Katherine Schneider’s work garnered her several awards. But the award for which Schneider is best known is the one which she endowed.

The Schneider Family Book Awards occupy a special niche during the annual Youth Media Awards presented by the American Library Association, which reward the best of the best in children’s and youth literature. The Schneider award, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2014, honors authors and illustrators whose books portray a disability as part of the human experience. Winning authors from the first 10 years of the award wrote tributes to Katherine Schneider as part of the anniversary celebration.

During the presentation of the first award at the ALA Annual Conference in 2004, Katherine Schneider said, “During my father’s last illness he joked that I would probably give away my inheritance. I agreed I would, so we needed to find a cause we could agree on – I came up with the Schneider Family Book Award for children’s books about the disability experience.”

Her family’s experience, as well as her own, shaped her decision.

“My mother taught the deaf before marriage and worked tirelessly to mainstream their blind child before it was mandated by law. My father worked in the pharmaceutical industry, so information about diseases, conditions, and treatments was dinner table conversational material at our house. Extended family members have lived with alcoholism, attention deficit disorder, diabetes, and fibromyalgia.”

Schneider said that when she was growing up, her hero was the librarian at the Michigan Library for the Blind.

“He sent me books in braille and on records from the Library of Congress collection.

“That special librarian and my mother who read me many books that were not available in braille or on records whetted my thirst for knowledge.”

At the time she was in grade school in the 1950s, she said, "Growing up as a blind kid, there was very little available. Not only was there very little available in Braille  or on records back then, but the images of people with disabilities  that were out there in literature, the little lame prince, Louis Braille,  Helen Keller and the seven blind men that went to see the  elephant, that was it.

"Now, Louis Braille, Helen Keller, Very cool. Dead people. And the seven blind men who  went to see the elephant….yes, I know, that was an analogy. But that's not what  kids get out of  it. Kids get out of it that blind people are stupid. They don't know what an elephant looks like. And I know that's what they get out of it, because that's what they said to me out on the  playground.”

Since 2004, the Schneider Family Book Awards have expanded the landscape of children’s and youth literature to enhance awareness of the disability experience.

The awards are decided by a committee, and eligible books include those that have been published in the last two years and portray “some aspect of living with a disability or that of a friend or family member, whether the disability is physical, mental, or emotional.” Every year, awards are given for three age levels: birth through grade school (ages 0–8), middle school (ages 9–13), and teen (ages 14–18).

The books are selected according to strictly defined criteria.

Dr. Katherine SchneiderSchneider (pictured at left), who has been president of a local library board and is a retired clinical psychologist, said that in developing criteria, "I copied off the Coretta Scott King Awards, and changed minority status to disability and just sort of paralleled it.

“Disability is a minority group that people don't think of as a minority group. We qualify."

She said, "I never had the chance to tell them that they were my inspiration (the CSK committee).”

The criteria state that the books “must portray some aspect of living with a disability, whether the disability is physical, mental, or emotional.”  This allows each committee to decide on the qualifications of particular titles.  Books with death as the main theme are generally disqualified.

In an article entitled “Demystifying the Schneider Family Book Award,” written by Schneider committee member Alyson Beecher, she wrote, “readers are confused about what defines a disability or what is the criteria used by the committee.”

She notes that according to the award manual, “the disability must be seen ‘as part of a full life and not something to be pitied’, and ‘realistic, avoiding exaggeration and stereotypes.’  Another important criteria recognizes that the individual with the disability, can be a main character or a secondary character, but the disability must be integral in some way to the story.  This potentially eliminates a book where a character on the playground that has essentially no role in the story is depicted in an illustration as being in the wheelchair.”

Beecher wrote, “The important thing to remember with an award like the Schneider Family Book Award is that the committee (as with all committees) reads much more widely in their area than the average reader. It is normal to assume that the one or two books that you read and loved that featured a character with a disability would be the one selected and it may be the book a committee selects. However, the committee likely read dozens of books in that same age category and after many hours of discussion may also determine that another book has a stronger alignment with the purpose of the award.”

Beecher, the literacy and curriculum specialist with the Pasadena Unified School District in California, wrote, “One of the messages that we need to communicate to publishers is that we need more stories across genres for both young children and older readers where an individual with a disability is portrayed positively.”

Former Schneider Family Book Award Chair Marilyn Irwin said the committee tries to stress the positive.

“We look for a positive representation of a person with a disability, but realistic, so that the disability has to be present and the limitations of the individual have to be present, but also we don’t want those limitations to be the entire story. We want the individual to be part of the community, to be a contributing member of the community and to show that disabilities don’t have to define the person,” said former Chair Marilyn Irwin.

Irwin said, “The number of books that have appeared and the objectivity of the coverage of disabilities has improved. There are ups and downs of course.”

Irwin said that in recent years, “It seems that autism is the disability du jour, so that we’re seeing lots of books that had a character with autism.”

One problem that the committee faces, she said, is the scarcity of books in the picture book category for very young children.

“One year when I was on the jury, we did not give the award in that category because, even though there were books that were submitted, there was nothing that we deemed worthy of receiving the award.”

Irwin said her favorites include one of the 2012 winners, “Wonder Struck,” by Brian Selznick, which is about two deaf children, Rose and Ben, who are living “50 years and worlds apart, yet both marvel and connect with the world around them.” Their stories are linked by the American Museum of Natural History.

Irwin said, “He told us that he learned sign language. When he was presented the award, he used sign language to say thank you. I was very moved when there was a group of people who had hearing impairments who were using sign language to tell him how much they appreciated his book.

Another favorite of hers is “Marcelo in the Real World,” by Francisco X. Stork, a 2010 winner about a 17-year-old who hears music in his head and is fascinated by religion. 

Barbara Mates, who was on the committee that chose “Marcelo in the Real World,” said it was a case of love at first sight.

She said, “Every now and then, there is one book that you know, as soon as you read it, that this is going to (win) the award. This is the book that I’m going to champion all the way through until I see that it gets the award.”

Once she saw the galley of the book, she said she took it to her hotel room, where, unable to sleep, she started reading it.

“I couldn’t stop reading it. I read it by the next morning.”

Mates said the Schneider awards are important, “We want our libraries to serve everyone and the collection to reflect the community that we live in.

“By advocating for books with this type of character or presentation makes more people aware that are people with differences.”

Dr. Schneider said she has her own favorites as well.

One of her favorites is 'Looking Out for Sarah.' 

She said, “It has been produced as a print Braille  book, which is lovely, because then blind parents can read to kids and vice versa.”

In addition, she said, "I also like 'My Thirteenth Winter,' because it was written by someone with a disability.”

As the Schneider Family Book Awards enter the second decade, Dr. Schneider herself noted that the Americans with Disabilities Act is approaching its 15th anniversary.

"When I think about the Americans with Disabilities Act, I think about a lot of different kinds of accessibilities, because a lot of times, people think, ah, you know, we've got curb cuts, we've got ramps. We're cool. That's great. But access to information is the main kind of accessibility that I advocate for on a daily basis. And I'm aware of that issue, because, being blind, it's always been an issue, and, yeah, it's better since the ADA, but it's only better because  people become interested in making their information accessible, and whether that's accessible websites or accessible apps or the vendors becoming aware that they can't sell a library catalogue if it's not accessible.”

Schneider said today she continues to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities.

She said, "The ADA is kind of our civil rights law. And that wasn't passed until 1990, so I take great inspiration from other civil rights movements.  I didn't have a secret ballot until after the Help America Vote Act in 2002. Ten years ago, I didn't have a secret ballot. People with disabilities, our civil rights, they're not  even on the radar  screen. That's why in retirement, I have written three  books and I go out and do a lot of speaking, because my community  isn't as well known as other civil  rights (communities)."

Schneider said she sees a trend toward more diverse books, including books portraying disabilities.

She said, "Some of (those who advocate for diverse books) are beginning to realize disability too is diversity. As that connection gets stronger, I think that will be a good thing."

Branching out from her success with the Schneider Family Book Awards, Schneider has started an award that honors journalism related to disability issues modeled on the ALA Schneider awards through the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

The National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University offers the Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability.

"In journalism there is a lot of schlock out there about people with disabilities.  Either we have found a cure for (something) or those people are  wonderful.  Special. Special. Schlock.

"So I'm trying to help that area get better."

See a list of winners of the Schneider Family Book Award.