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Slayton: Updating The Award

It’s hard to imagine that Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Vermont author and ultra-respectable taste-setter in the Nineteen-Thirties and Forties, could become a figure of controversy, but that’s what’s happened.

Ms. Fisher was a board member of the Book-of-the-Month Club and wrote many books herself, one of which, “Understood Betsy,” describes a young girl’s life on a turn-of-the-century Vermont farm. And it’s still in print.

A small but determined group has been campaigning to remove Fisher’s name from the Vermont Librarian’s award for best children’s book, and they recently achieved at least partial success when the State Libraries Board recommended that the name of the award be changed — but not for the reasons put forward by the activists.

Those pressing for the name change believe that Fisher was a racist and backer of the shameful Vermont eugenics movement of the Nineteen Thirties. But the evidence they cite for those charges is drawn almost entirely from her writing, in passages taken out of a larger context and interpreted from a point of view that itself might be seen as subject to bias.

We should look back and shine a light on the unsavory aspects of Vermont’s past. It’s important to state that the eugenics movement was a dark blot on our state’s history that ruined people’s lives. But I think there are better targets for outrage over that episode than Dorothy Canfield Fisher.

There’s no absolute proof that she was either a racist or a committed eugenicist, and there’s plenty of evidence that she opposed prejudice and injustice. According to historian Hal Goldman, she “devoted much of her professional life to combatting ignorance, bigotry, and authoritarianism.”

When the State Libraries Board recommended changing the name of the DCF Award, as it’s known, they took pains to say they weren’t endorsing the charges against the writer. They rather neatly sidestepped the controversy by saying that very few people today read Ms. Fisher’s work, and most children don’t know who she was - so they recommended updating the name of the award. State Librarian Scott Murphy has been notably silent on the matter, so I’d like to offer a solution of my own.

I propose that we re-name the award for a contemporary children’s author - from Barre - who is widely known and much loved. I think “The Katherine Paterson Award” has a real ring to it.

Tom Slayton is a longtime journalist, editor and author who lives in Montpelier.
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