To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Coretta Scott King (CSK) Book Awards, the Dewey Decibel podcast invited five past winners and honorees to discuss the award, its history, and importance at the 2019 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. Participants included authors Jason Reynolds (Ghost), Angie Thomas (The Hate U Give), and Jacqueline Woodson (Brown Girl Dreaming); author and illustrator Christopher Myers (Firebird); and illustrator Ekua Holmes (The Stuff of Stars). American Libraries Senior Editor and Dewey Decibel host Phil Morehart moderated. The talk can be heard in full on the July 2019 episode of the Dewey Decibel podcast.
What’s changed in the 50 years since librarians Glyndon Flynt and Mabel McKissick first thought of the CSK Book Awards at the 1969 ALA Annual Conference? How have the awards impacted children’s publishing in the years since?
Jacqueline Woodson: One thing, just now walking through the convention center, we saw all of these books written by people of color with characters of color. I think, about the CSK award, it was started to recognize books that were not being recognized by committees like the Newbery and the Caldecott. It wasn’t just saying, “We’re going to give these awards to black people.” It was saying, “These books matter and should be recognized by all the committees, but, because of racism, some committees are not seeing us.” I think that’s important and something to look at. I think the first one to get the Newbery was Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Someone out there knows. [Editor’s note: The winner was Virginia Hamilton for M. C. Higgins, the Great, in 1975.] The Coretta Scott King Awards completely changed the narrative and showed that there were people writing. And they were writing well, and they were writing books that needed to be in rooms where kids of color could see themselves. Eventually publishers caught on, and I think that the big change is very recent.
Ekua Holmes: Fifty years ago, I didn’t see any books featuring children of color. Actually, longer than that, because I’m 63 now. When I used to go to the library as a girl, I didn’t see any reflections of people like me, girls like me—maybe some personality traits, I loved Madeline, Pippi Longstocking, and all of that—but there was nothing. To come full circle to this time and to have a rich library that I can share with my granddaughter feels like we’ve really done something powerful. The two women who decided they weren’t going to stand around and complain, they were actually going to do something about it, is a message that is always good for us. There are things in all of our lives that need to be handled, and we can’t keep saying, “They, they, they.” We have to sometimes say, “We, we, we.” So, I’m proud that they did that. And to be here on the 50th anniversary is so important. I’m humbled and honored by that; to be a part of this and to sit on this stage. I’ve admired some of you guys before I got involved in this world. This really feels special to me. I would just say that there are many stories still yet to be told. I met a young girl at a workshop I did in Philadelphia. She has Tourette syndrome. She’s about 8 years old, and she wants to write a story about a girl like her. And I could encourage her because I could see what happens when you encourage people to follow their dream. That’s how we’re all sitting here today.
Christopher Myers: One of the things that seems to be a popular notion in the world is the idea that, you don’t see these other communities. And I think the CSK awards really said to people who, you’re obviously seeing each other. We’re obviously being around each other. You can’t be in DC and say, “I’ve just never been around black people.” That is a lie. You know? And awards like the CSK awards have proven that lie. [They] have said, “Our communities are already there. We are already in each other’s faces, in each other’s worlds. Let us acknowledge that. Let’s acknowledge both the ways in which we are already present and the ways in which we have excluded each other from the tables.” Or rather, “Y’all have excluded us from the tables—sorry.” I think that is one of the lessons of the CSK awards. I’m also interested in the idea that it has inspired a slew of other awards. That strategy is something with which we should commend the founders of the CSK awards, this idea that when you think of the Pura Belpré Award, when you think of all of the other kinds of awards that are saying, “Hey, we are already in community with each other. Let us acknowledge the fact that we are at the same table.” That’s part of the legacy I’ve heard people talk about so much, all of the other awards that have come from this idea.
Jason Reynolds: What I’m most fascinated by in terms of the CSK awards is that the award itself and, the inception of the award, is in direct tradition and in alignment of all the other experiences and things we have had to do as black people in America. At some point, we have to make a decision to stop groveling for your confirmation, for your affirmation, and start to level ourselves. What the CSK award did for me was, it said, “Look, you might not be recognized in this category or that category, but we have a responsibility to recognize you within the home.” And that’s okay, too, right? That’s valuable. When Jacqueline won the National Book Award [in 2014 for Brown Girl Dreaming], I was fortunate to be with Jacqueline the very next day, actually, not too far from here. We were talking about the news and how people were asking her certain questions about winning the award. People kept saying, “How does it feel, because this is the biggest award of your life?” And she said, “Jason, I kept looking at them like, Says who? According to you, this is the biggest award, but why is this award any more momentous than the CSK award?” That was what she was telling the press. And this is something that we all have to keep in mind: It’s not some throwaway or a favor. This isn’t like, “Hey little black boy, hey little black girl, just so you know, we love you.” It’s like, “No. You exist in this particular space in terms of craft and story, and we are going to honor you, not because they won’t, but because you deserve it. And because they won’t.”
Angie Thomas: One thing I can say about black people, we always celebrate ourselves when the world doesn’t. Growing up, I never expected the mainstream to celebrate the things that I enjoyed. They were always seen in a negative light. For instance, let’s look at hip-hop culture. Now people love it thanks to Hamilton, but you know, we were always othered. So, when you have things like the CSK award, the NAACP Image Award, even the BET Awards, hip-hop culture, The Source Awards—we’ve always found ways to celebrate ourselves. To have that in children’s literature, for me even growing up and seeing that, it was a reminder that there are books out there for me, catered to me, and it’s fine to celebrate that among ourselves even when the world doesn’t. That meant for me as a child and what that means for kids now, is that you’re telling them, “We will celebrate you, even when the world doesn’t.” So, it has an effect beyond just the books themselves—it’s telling the kids who read those books that there is a group of people who’s looking out for them and appreciates them as they are and is not expecting them to change or to conform because these books are meant for them. There is a world meant for them.
What were you reading as kids? What books had a big impact on you and were a lot of them by black authors?
Reynolds: I’ll get mine out of the way. None, everybody. The answer is none.
Myers: I read everything. My father, Walter Dean Myers, wrote 10 pages a day. And then later on, he did five pages a day. So I read that every day, because you had to give critique—that was your job as a child. Everybody worked in the house. I think being part of a community of writers is the other gift of the CSK awards; it’s the community of us on this stage. The fact that we’ll see each other over and over again. It’s rare when we don’t know each other. We know of each other, but when we finally do meet, it’s like, “Hey! You’re us.” Last night [at the CSK Book Awards 50th Anniversary Gala], there was a moment when anyone who had won anything stood up. There was so much pointing across a room, people saying, “Hey, there you are! What’s up man? How you doing? Oh, I thought you fell off, but you didn’t. You alright.” That’s really beautiful.
Woodson: I think it’s interesting about what we read…. I think part of it is, in spite of, you know, we’re here because of what we read and because of what we didn’t have to read. I think so many of us are writing to fill that hole [caused by] books that weren’t there when we were young. I was lucky enough to have, which I always talk about, John Steptoe’s Stevie, which was a transformative book for me. I was lucky to have Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and Zeely by Virginia Hamilton. And The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. I skipped right to the adult stuff where I could see “mirrors of myself” as Rudine Sims Bishop talks about, because it’s important to cite black women because black women do not get cited enough in the text. And then there was Sounder. Sounder could have taken me out. It was the book that white teachers were always giving to me, saying, “Here’s a mirror of yourself.” It was not written by a person of color, and it was supposedly about a Southern black family, and they never hugged each other. How could they be Southern and not hug each other? Something’s wrong here. And then the only character in the book with a name was the dog. The messages that a book like that can give to a young person who’s trying to find themselves in literature—well, I got to find an old white man to tell my story to so he can get it published for me, and I’ve got to get a dog.
Thinking about that and kids having mirrors and windows, it’s important to read those books and know the messages they’re giving to young people. Roll of Thunder’s Cassie was my hero. John Steptoe’s Stevie [from the book Stevie] was my hero. Sounder was not. I liked the dog, I was sorry he died, but that wasn’t a book that pointed me in this direction. It did point me in this direction, because I said, “I’m going to fix that.” It was the book that got the [Newbery] medal, so teachers felt like it was the book that everybody needed to read. I’m not saying it should be censored—my kids never read it—but, I am saying that I’m glad that I’m living in a time where we have options.
I want to give young people who hate reading something that shows them themselves and hooks them to reading. So that’s what I strive to do with every single thing I write, to give young Angie of the past the book that she would have loved.Angie Thomas
Thomas: It’s funny that you brought up Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, because that was the book for me as a kid. For one, it was about a black girl in Mississippi, and there I was—a black girl in Mississippi. I felt seen in a way, so that was the book for me. I read it over and over and over again. The thing is, my teachers—my gatekeepers—were not putting enough books in my hands that would show me myself. Not to say that there weren’t books out there because I didn’t read [Walter Dean Myers’s] books until I got to college. Because my teachers weren’t putting them in my hands, and I’m like, “Why is that?” By the time I became a teenager, I hated reading because, once again, nobody was introducing me to books that showed me myself. I felt like I wasn’t being heard. And because of that, I got the narratives I needed from hip-hop. Rappers were telling the stories when books didn’t. That’s what I want to do now for kids. What they were saying rings so true even for me, because that’s what I want to do. I want to give young people who hate reading something that shows them themselves and hooks them to reading. So that’s what I strive to do with every single thing I write, to give young Angie of the past the book that she would have loved, if she were still young. If nothing else, I hope that encourages gatekeepers to not let what happened to me happen to kids now, because, had I not had hip-hop music or had I not eventually found a love for books, I wouldn’t be a writer today. And not just that. I wouldn’t have had my imagination unlocked, and in so many ways, that is so beneficial.
Holmes: I think the first book I read about an African-American girl was one that I wrote myself, because I said, there weren’t books in the libraries. My aunt was a librarian, and she taught my cousin and me how to make the binder, the cover, and the inside pages. It was a story about my best friend. I remember after putting it together with the drawings and the text and probably terrible printed handwriting, I felt really proud that my story was now in a book. True, it wasn’t as polished as the books in the library, but it still had a binder, it had a cardboard cover, it had color, it had a beginning, a middle, and an end. My cousin also wrote a book that day, and I think a seed was planted in us—in fact we’re going to be doing a book together very shortly.
At Massachusetts College of Art and Design and sparc! The Artmobile, we do writing workshops for kids—poetry workshops—where, for some kids for the first time, they’re having someone tell them that their story is important. [They’re] getting appreciation for their poems and thinking about being writers and poets and illustrators. I think there are always things we can do to encourage more stories—and more and more Angies and Ekuas and Jasons—from the work we do as librarians and teachers. Get those kids understanding that their story is unique, their stories are important, and their stories deserve to be heard and appreciated.
I think the first book I read about an African-American girl was one that I wrote myself.Ekua Holmes
Reynolds: You know what we never talk about? So many of us, specifically in the black community, so many of us, if you’re like me or like Angie who didn’t grow up with books being at the forefront, so much of my storytelling, so much of my life as an author, comes from oral tradition in my family. That is such a linchpin, a cornerstone of our culture. So many of us grew up listening to our aunties and our uncles and our grandmas. We were in grown folks’ business and listening to them tell their stories, right? Every holiday, we get around, and everybody get a little loose, and they get to talking, and you’re sitting at the table, listening to your elders tell their stories or reminisce about what it was like for them to grow up. And even though it seemed so far away, you knew you were directly connected to it because the language was your language, and the food that you’re eating while you’re listening to them is your food. There’s an internetwork that is happening, and you happen to be a part of it. It almost feels like, intrinsically, that element tethers itself to you. And we don’t talk about it often enough, because we work in the written word, but there’s no way I can work in the written word while also divorcing our oral traditions. Everything about my life and everything about my work—and I’d be willing to go out on a limb and argue for all of us—so much of it is rooted in our oral traditions, which came far before any of our folks had an opportunity to sit on this stage. We have to continue to figure out ways to bring that to public spaces.
Woodson: So true. I know we’ve all heard, “Don’t go telling your little friends this,” which of course, made your ears perk up and made you think, “There’s so much in here. It’s taboo. It’s gossip. It’s something that I’m not supposed to repeat. What is it? So I can repeat it at some point.”
Myers: This idea of a value cue, right? “Don’t go telling your friends” is a cue of value. This is important. My grandfather didn’t read, but he would send me out of the room for various stories, whatever it was. He said, “You got to leave the room now.” And I was like, “I got to leave the room?” And I would lean my little ear over, and he told me that I was going to not die a natural death, I was going to nose on out the world. Also, the intergenerational-ness of this all. When Angie talks about how we’re all making books for the kids we were. That’s what we’re doing, and that audience, that sense of generational passing-on is one of the gifts that’s being part of a tradition that’s 50 years old.
I remember Effie Lee Morris was a librarian I loved. She was the first black head of children’s services in San Francisco; she was from New York. One day, I took her out to tea because she was 80-something and you can’t help but win if you take an old black librarian to tea. She said to me that she was the head of the New York Library for the Blind, then she got the offer to be the head of children’s services in San Francisco. I think it was Adam Clayton Powell Jr. who told her, “You should do that. For the race.” And that sensibility of doing something for the race, it made me want to, with any book I made, do right by us. That responsibility; that gift of carrying on those old traditions; making value from things that have not been valued—we gladly take that on.
There’s an excellent video online from a 2018 event at Strand Bookstore in New York City where Woodson interviews Reynolds in front of an audience of children who shared their thoughts on your books. Can all of you share some reactions to your books you’ve received from readers?
Reynolds: For me, it’s a little overwhelming. I have a great anecdote about that day. There was a young man in the audience who raised his hand—he couldn’t have been 11 years old—he said, “Why don’t you ever write white characters in your books?” Which, for me, felt like a poignant question coming from a child, because it’s coming from an honest place. He really wanted to know. It was interesting because you could feel the adults in the room thinking, “How is he going to answer that question?” I have a rule: I answer questions honestly, because young people are human beings and they can handle honesty. So my answer was, “Listen, the reason that I choose to very rarely if ever write white characters, specifically white children in my books, is because I think it’s okay for black children to have uninterrupted time.” Right? I think it’s okay for them to exist in an uninterrupted space. Because we never actually do, except we always do, in these interesting ways. And I said, “Does it bother you that there are no white children in the books?” And he said, “Of course not.” And that was the end of that. And I think about that all the time, that we don’t give kids enough credit. That’s been reinforced, at this point, hundreds and thousands of times when I’m talking to young people about these books.
Thomas: I got a letter from an 8-year-old boy who read The Hate U Give. He told me how the book made him love reading. He said it was great to see a family like his own [in the book]. He also said it helped him understand police brutality a bit more, and his parents had “the talk” with him as they read the book together. He then said, “I heard there are people who don’t like your book. Keep your head up, Angie, ignore the haters.” And so, that for me—that’s why I do what I do, to know there’s an 8-year-old black boy out there who read my book and he’s saying, “Ignore the haters.” I’m like, “I’ll do that for you, baby.” I recently met a 90-year-old black woman who loves the book, loves both of my books, who keeps copies of them in her bag. When she gets on the public bus, if she sees kids in Jordans, she’s like, “Young man, I have a book I think you’ll enjoy, because aren’t those those Nike Space Jam 11s?” She’s a sneakers expert, and she uses them to introduce the books to people. To know that I got to both of them means everything to me.
Woodson: The story that stays with me is: As a National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, my platform has included going into underserved schools and juvenile detention centers. I went into a juvenile detention center in Mississippi that was predominantly white. It was all boys. They had an amazing library, an amazing librarian, but it was hard to talk to them about my books because there are a lot of triggers. If I talk about sexual abuse, if I talk about queerness … you know. But we ended up having an amazing conversation. They’re writing and talking about their lives, and we’re bonding, and it’s fabulous. As I’m leaving, if every white boy in that place didn’t throw up the white power sign, my name’s not Jacqueline Woodson.
So I’m leaving, and they throw up the white power sign, and I said, “If that’s all you have, I love you too.” This is all the power they have. They’re incarcerated, they’re young, there’s so much they can’t talk about. It made me really sad, of course, but it also made me see them in this whole other way; of knowing that—for them—this is power. This is their idea of power, and it wasn’t something that was trying to be hurtful to me. It was, “Please see me. This is who we are.” It definitely was exhausting, and it definitely was imprinting. Going around the country as we do and talking to so many different people of so many economic classes, and so many different races, so many different religions—there are these moments. It’s hard out there in the world.
Myers: Part of what we all have experienced is the idea that books for young people are tools. They’re very different than books for adults. Books for young people are often taken in communally, you have a whole family reading the book together. They are given to kids as tools to find themselves, how to make sense of their lives, if it’s a young white kid in a jail in Mississippi, or a young black kid growing up in Harlem. The first book I did on my own was called Black Cat. No people were in it; it was just a cat running around Harlem and Brooklyn. Every kid who got it understood it as a tool for which to understand their locality—where they’re from. I’ve heard versions of Black Cat from [kids in] Khartoum in Sudan, fields in Nebraska, and Puerto Rico; from kids who thought I wasn’t specific enough about Brooklyn. They’re like, “This Black Cat is in Clinton Hill.” All of our books ideally function not only as things we can engage with one-on-one, but as tools with which young people can imagine themselves, can find new ways of thinking about who they are. Every one of the books that my friends, my family has made—this is what they do, and this is what the books that we care about make happen. They’re tools to make the next generation have a vocabulary in which to exist.
Holmes: I feel like my work as an illustrator is in partnership with the authors, and the books that I’ve worked on have given me an opportunity to delve deeply into some historical figures I thought I knew something about, but I really didn’t know their story. I knew their glory, but I didn’t know their story. Doing the books has given me a platform to talk to people about those stories in addition to doing those illustrations. You really become an ambassador for the history of some unsung heroes and heroines of our past. That’s one of the things I really enjoy about being a children’s book illustrator.
In terms of what I’ve received back from children, I have received so much love in the form of the questions they ask, the comments they make, the letters I receive—not just from children but from librarians and teachers. They’re able to take these books and build lesson plans around them, expand the worlds of the children they’re working with and even expand their own awareness of the history of African Americans in this country. Someone mentioned locality, geography—I’m a city girl, I’m from Boston, so exploring the life of someone like Fannie Lou Hamer who grew up on a plantation, gives me a real respect for how place affects who we are and who we become. To be able to share that with kids who have never seen a cotton field, have never seen a piece of cotton, or don’t understand what goes into the harshness of that lifestyle. I see these books as ambassadors for our past, for our history. And I’m proud to be a part of that, moving forward.