Thursday, March 22, 2018

Snapshots from the 2018 Walter Awards

Electric energy permeated the room at the recent 2018 Walter Awards as the always-amazing Jason Reynolds accepted the 2018 Walter Teen Award for Long Way Down and author Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrator Eric Velasquez accepted the first-ever Walter Younger Readers Award for Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library.

2018 Walter winners and judges

It was an amazing event, filled with thought-provoking comments by the winners, plus an opening symposium. Focused on "The Power of Books," the symposium was moderated by Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park and featured the three authors who won Walter Honors: Margarita Engle (Walter Younger Reader Honor for Forest World); Mitali Perkins (Walter Teen Honor for You Bring the Distant Near); and Francisco X. Stork (Walter Teen Honor for Disappeared).

Jason Reynolds

Reynolds brought down the house when, in his acceptance speech, he made a brilliant, impassioned comparison between a tree falling in a forest with no one around to a child falling without adult intervention. "From a scientific standpoint, if the child falls and no one is there to hear it, does that disqualify the life of said child?," he asked. "Where are the people? The question is: WHY is no one around?... Do your work to save our babies." As my friend Alison Morris of First Book put it in a tweet: "There's not a dry eye in this room NOR SHOULD THERE BE. We have an obligation to do better."

Walter Dean Myers

Named for the late children's and teen author Water Dean Myers, the Walter Award was established by We Need Diverse Books (WNDB), a non-profit created less than five years ago as a Twitter hashtag by a handful of people that now is an influential children's literature organization with a global reach. The Walter Award was first given in 2016 and is aimed specifically at honoring outstanding books for teens (and now also younger readers) that celebrate diversity. As WNDB president and founder Ellen Oh puts it: "To change the landscape of children's literature, WNDB believes we must highlight and promote books that broaden our notions of diversity."

Each year, the winners and honor authors are feted at a ceremony co-sponsored by WNDB and the Library of Congress. It's always a gala occasion, and a chance for local teachers, librarians and students to meet some of the best authors and illustrators writing today. This year's event was hosted by Jacqueline Woodson, the current National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, and began with the symposium at which Park posed a series of questions -- including a fun lightning round --  to the three Walter Honor authors. After that, Reynolds, Weatherford and Velasquez got a chance to speak.

Here are a few snapshots from the event:

__ Responding to Park's question, "When was the first time you felt seen or heard in a book?," the three panelists had very different answers. Stork noted that he "grew up with the identity of being Mexican" (he didn't become an American citizen until he was 26) and so mostly read Latin American authors in his youth.

Perkins, who is of Bengali descent and was the only person of color and the only immigrant in her elementary school, noted that she "didn't like being seen. I read books as a way to see and hear other lives....I was learning to become fluent in imagining other lives, and that's served me well."

Mitali Perkins

Engle, meanwhile, said hers was the only Cuban family in a Mexican neighborhood and said it wasn't until she was in her 50's that she truly saw herself in a book.

__ Asked to name an author whose work was influential in their lives, Perkins cited Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Perkins said she re-reads it annually because, among other things, it showed her that she could make money and be independent as a writer. That was particularly important, Perkins quipped, because to her parents, there were only three acceptable occupations: "Engineer, doctor, and engineer!"

Stork named Flannery O'Connor, saying that "the ability to see things differently is the power she gave me."

Francisco X. Stork

Engle, meanwhile, said Carver: A Life in Poems, Marilyn Nelson's Newbery Honor-winning biography of George Washington Carver, showed her how poetry could help spotlight "someone who has been neglected by history. It's what I have strived to do -- to write about those who have been left out of history."

__ Park asked each panelist to talk about how they organize their writing day. Perkins said frankly that "I am motivated by shame" and needs a deadline. She likes to work in coffee shops "because I like that buzz;" she drew laughter from the crowd when she noted that she has just discovered an app that mimics the sound of a busy coffee shop.

Stork is more methodical. "I sit in front of the computer and see what happens in two hours. Sometimes I write a few sentences, and sometimes I write more."

As for Engle, she told the crowd to "take everything that Mitali (Perkins) has just said and reverse it. I need peace and quiet. I write in long-hand, and day-dreaming is the essence of my process."

Margarita Engle

__ As she asked about key moments they have experienced as authors with their readers, Park started things off with a laugh by talking about a letter she once got from a student who wrote: "I was absent the day we picked an author to write to and you were the only one left. So my question is: Do you know Gary Paulsen?"

Linda Sue Park

Engle responded that, for her, "the most powerful moments are when students stand up and read their own poems to me."

Perkins, meanwhile, talked about doing a school visit shortly after the death of her father. "I was trying hard to hide my grief," but she lost her composure when a student asked her why a particular character in You Bring the Distant Near had to die. "I started crying in front of all those 14-year-olds," Perkins said.

For Stork, he's particularly touched by the emails he gets from students about The Memory of Light, which addresses teen suicide.

__ Park then asked the panelists what their next book is/will be. Stork is working on a sequel to Disappeared, Engle's next book, Jazz Owls, comes out in May, Perkins is working on a picture book "about a wall," and Park is writing a picture book about "a little mixed-race dragon."

__ In accepting the Walter Young Readers Award for Schomburg, Weatherford noted that she feels like she's "come full circle." When she was an aspiring author, Weatherford said she was motivated by the work of the man for whom the award is named, especially his books Brown Angels and Harlem.

Carole Boston Weatherford and Eric Velasquez

__ Velasquez, who pushed Weatherford to write Schomburg, said he first learned about Arturo Schomburg from a poster of African-American heroes that his third grade teacher hung on the classroom wall. "Thirty seven years later, while at the Schomburg Center (of the New York Public Library) attending an event, a friend noted that no children's books had been written to honor Schomburg. Suddenly I realized that this was the same person I looked at every day in third grade."

ENDNOTES: Thanks to mentor, friend and Walter co-chair Maria Salvadore for the invitation to the Walter Award event. Plus a big shout-out to another mentor and friend, Deborah Taylor, who was one of the judges, plus Kathie Weinberg, who works as the co-director of the Walter Award and a Library of Congress consultant. Thanks to the We Need Diverse Books folks for some of the photos I used for this post. (My own photos were terrible!). Thanks to the Library of Congress for hosting the event in such a great space. And huge thanks to all of the honored authors for the incredible work they put in to create truly memorable -- and diverse -- books for kids and teens.

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