Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Place of Books in Our Lives

© 2007 by Julius Lester

I want to begin by looking at the word book. It comes from a Germanic root and means beech tree. This is a reference to one of two things, more likely both. One is the literal tree because it was on trees and tree bark that some of the first writing was done. It is also a reference to the beech staff on which ancient Germans carved runes.

The latter is a haunting image of origins, a beech staff standing in a forest clearing, runes inscribed on it. It does not matter what the runes represented. The significance lies in the fact that one person was attempting to reach out to others whom he or she may not have known.

I do not remember any books from my childhood. The fact that I don't remember specific books is important because it was not the content of books that was as important to me as the experience of feeling that someone I didn't know and who didn't know me was reaching out to me across the vastness. Given when and where I grew up this was crucial.

I grew up in the forties and fifties in Kansas City, Kansas and Nashville, Tennessee, and spent parts of summers at my maternal grandmother's in Arkansas. Those decades were not pleasant ones for black people, and I am uncomfortable around those who get nostalgic for the fifties. I am not nostalgic for segregation, for the "No Colored Allowed" signs that covered the landscape like litter on the smooth green grass of a park. I am not nostalgic for a time when my life was in danger if I raised my eyes and they accidentally met those of a white girl or woman. Black men and boys were lynched for this during my growing up years. It is a world I recall with the pain of inner screaming and I survived that world - partly because I discovered the beech staff standing in the forest clearing, covered with runes. Part of what those now forgotten books gave me was an emotional knowledge that the world in which I was forced to live bounded by the white heat of hatred was not the only reality. Somewhere my eyes could not then penetrate were dreams and possibilities.

The mystery and miracle of a book is found in the fact that it is a solitary voice penetrating time and space to go beyond time and space and alight for a moment in that place within each of us which is also beyond time and space. Let me explain.

I do not recall the books I read as a child but ah, the comic books! I remember them. I remember my father bringing home comic books in a cardboard box, a hundred at a time. I remember the comic book shop he would take me to where you could swap comics two-for-one. In comics my imaginative mind was nurtured. Every child yearns for the power of a super-hero or the wizardry of a sorcerer, and that yearning was especially poignant for at least one black child in the forties and fifties.

My other memory of childhood reading is rather macabre. I read countless issues of such magazines as “True Police Stories” and “Police Gazette.” They were pulp magazines that recounted in graphic detail the true stories of lurid murders. The stories were accompanied by crime scene photographs of the murder victims. Besides comics this is what I read at age eight years old and read with avidity. Why I did so will become clearer in a few moments.

In the early fifties my family moved from Kansas to Tennessee and there I discovered that blacks were permitted in only one library - the "colored" branch, as it was referred to then. It was on the other side of town from where I lived, an hour or more one way by public transportation. So my primary access to books was the bookmobile which came to my neighborhood every Friday evening. Its stock of books was not only limited in number but consisted primarily of westerns and mystery novels discarded from the white libraries. So, through much of my adolescence I read almost nothing but westerns and Perry Mason mysteries, and would read two to six every weekend.

I marvel at the wisdom of my parents. They never questioned or derided what I read. I am astounded that they bought the magazines and comic books for me since they were devoid of literary merit. But maybe my parents understood on some primal level what I was doing, though I did not.

I grew up in a violent world. Segregation was a psychological and spiritual violence, not only in its many restrictions on where we could live, eat, attend school and go at night. Segregation violated the very premise of my existence by decreeing that I was inferior to the white majority by the mere fact that I had been born black. There was also the continual threat of physical retribution and even death if you looked at a white man in what he considered the wrong way or if he didn't like your attitude. There was also the actual physical violence in my neighborhood. I will not recite the deaths from stabbings or shootings or speak of classmates imprisoned for rapes they did not commit. I will not recite the deaths of classmates from accidental fires or car accidents. Suffice it to say that I grew up in conditions where fear and death were neighbors and if you weren't careful, they could sneak through your back door and be sitting at the dinner table, knife and fork in their hands, and a paper napkin tucked in their shirt.

What does a child do who is exposed daily to such violence, who confronts the force of death even before he can spell the word? I was an adult before I understood that my reading of comic books and murder magazines, westerns and mysteries were attempts to neutralize and withstand the violence intrinsic to my dailiness. In reading about violence I found a way to isolate and objectify it, to see it as separate from me. Reading about it also reassured me that violence was not unique to my neighborhood and not only did it exist in other places, it existed at other times. And yes, it was also reassuring to read that white people were also subject to violence. Reading about violence was also like a vaccination by which I immunized myself against that which sought to harm me.

I am so thankful that my parents did not impose literary judgments on me but left me alone to read what I wanted to. They trusted me to educate my soul as I saw fit, though I did not know that was what I was doing.

This brings me to the second word whose origins I want to look at. That is the word - read. It comes from an Old Teutonic root and means, "to fit together, to consider, to deliberate, to take thought, to attend to, to take care or charge of a thing." To read is to fit together, to attend to. It is to take care of something, to take charge of something. So, what is being attended to? What is being fit together?

On the most basic level it is the reader. Who am I to judge what anybody reading a book, any book, is attending to and fitting together for themselves, what they are taking care of, what they are taking charge of?

Two of the most popular series of books for children in recent years are the Goosebumps series and the Harry Potter novels. The former is considered to be devoid of literary merit while the latter, some claim, encourages satanism. I have not read either series and honestly don't care about their merit or lack thereof. However, I do wonder if we don't need to respect our children as my parents respected me. (Quite frankly, I would not be as worried about a child reading Goosebumps or Harry Potter as I would about an eight-year-old reading “True Police Stories” and studying photographs of crime scenes. My parents had to have wondered if I was a serial killer in training.) But just as I read such magazines to mitigate the violence assaulting my child self, perhaps we need to ask ourselves: If children are so avidly reading books that scare them, as in the Goosebumps series, is there something they're afraid of? If they are drawn so powerfully to the sorcery of Harry Potter, do they feel powerless in their lives?

My oldest son is now 40. He around 12 when, while watching television one evening, he burst into tears. Twelve year old boys do not cry if they can help it so I decided I should pay attention. I asked him what was wrong? After some time he said, "I'm afraid that when I grow up there won't be enough oil left in the world." My heart broke for him. It broke both because no twelve-year-old should have to worry about the supply of oil in the world, and it broke because I was his father and I could not reassure him and tell him that everything was going to be all right. My heart broke because one of my responsibilities as a parent was to keep my children safe and let's face it: the degree to which any of us can do that anymore is decidedly limited.

Our children are growing up in a society in which the environment has been so abused it is turning against us. They are growing up in a society in which they will probably not be able to maintain for themselves the standard of living of their parents. They are growing up in a society in which racial, ethnic, religious and gender differences have been so exaggerated that they are afraid to say hello to someone. Our children live in a fear the nature and extent of which I don't know that most of us can imagine. Our children are growing up afraid of the world without and feeling impotent within to do anything about it.

The astounding power of reading is that the very act of reading can help us fit ourselves together even if what is being read is of no literary merit. The almost miraculous power of reading is that it can help us attend to our souls even if what is being read is mundane and ordinary.

All too often we moralize reading and create hierarchies. We forget that the act of reading has value, independent of content. The primary value is that through reading we encounter language. The child who reads Goosebumps has a far better chance of eventually reading the literary classics than the child who sits passively before the television set. Even Goosebumps brings a child into the presence of language and language is the primary means by which we humans attempt to communicate with each other. In his essay, "Words and Their Meanings," the English novelist and essayist, Aldous Huxley, wrote, "Words have power to mould men's thinking, to canalize their feeling, to direct their willing and acting. Conduct and character are largely determined by the nature of the words we currently use to discuss ourselves and the world around us." The child reading the Goosebumps series, or the adult reading Stephen King is experiencing the power of language to make him or her afraid. There are no gory images on a screen; there is no creepy music playing in the background; there is no audible sound of creaking doors. There are only words on a page and through words alone, the child experiences fear.

I remember reading Stephen King's novel Christine, which is about a car that goes out at night by itself and kills anyone who may have offended its owner. Say what you will about Stephen King, all I know is that there are still mornings when I look at my car suspiciously. There are other mornings when I silently wish it had been out the previous night and permanently resolved a problem for me. The power of language is that it can make you believe things you know aren't true.

When we read we discover and rediscover the power of words, the power to express thoughts and feelings, the power to touch another, the power to express love, the power to take care of.

The power of reading does not reside in the information conveyed. All too often we think of children as little beings who must constantly be taught and to the extent that we do, we remain Puritans. How many times have I been asked, "What do you want children to learn from your books?" My response is two-fold: nothing, and whatever they need to know.

I wonder if education in America is not misguided in placing a premium on teaching children to reason. Is learning to reason as important as our civilization has led us to believe? To what extent does reason enhance the quality of our living? To what extent does reason bring the quality of mercy to our living? I would suggest that reason's place of importance in our lives and in our educational system is vastly overrated.

For 32 years I taught history, literature and religion at the University of Massachusetts and published about each in 45 books for children, adolescents and adults. Though my teaching and writing did not eschew reason, I placed the emphasis on another faculty, one our educational systems seem to have little place for, and this is certainly true at the college and university level. I refer to the faculty of the imagination, a faculty as vital to our lives as reason, and I would suggest perhaps more so.

I am going to make a broad and sweeping generalization but I believe it to be true: The failure of modern living is the failure of the imagination.

The root meaning of the word, imagine, is "to picture to oneself." In other words, when we imagine we create an inner picture of something not visible to our physical eye.

One kind of picture we are all accustomed to is images of things we have done or witnessed. This is the visual aspect of memory. It is not imagination. Imagination requires something more of us. It requires that we see what we have not seen, what we may never see, what may not even exist.

Obviously, books are the royal road that enable us to enter the realm of the imaginative. Books enable us to experience what it is like to be someone else. Through books we experience other modes of being. Through books we recognize who we are and who we might become.

It is summer, 1956. I am 17 years old and that fall I will be entering college. I don't know what made me remember my senior English class and the unit on Romantic poetry, but I did. And I remembered reading about the English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and something about him had caught my imagination. So I went to the library and checked out a biography of Shelley. Even now I don't know what it was about him. Perhaps it was that he was an atheist and as the son of a fundamentalist Methodist minister, the thought that there had been someone in the world who had not believed in God, was revolutionary. In his atheism Shelley presented me with the possibility that there were other ways to be than the one in which I had been raised. I can still see the seventeen-year-old me sitting beneath the large tree in our front yard making my first attempts at writing poetry and by the end of that summer I had reached a startling decision: I wanted to be a writer. Because of Percy Bysshe Shelley I reimagined what was possible for my life and responded to something in my soul which had theretofore not been recognized. I knew I was not destined to be a minister like my grandfather and father; I knew I would not be the pianist my mother wanted me to be. I would be a writer even though reason derided and mocked me.

Books invite us into realms of the soul by asking us to imagine that we are someone other than who we are. Books require that we temporarily put our egos in a box by the door and take on the spirit of others. Books are the place where the possibility of blacks and whites and men and women experiencing each other is created. I am convinced that if I can bring you into my being through words, I create the possibility that you and I will see that we are more alike than we may have thought. When we can imagine the hurt and anger of another person, we have an understanding in the heart. When we understand in the heart, each of us is less alone.

In 1978 the now deceased novelist John Gardner published a small book called On Moral Fiction. It was daring of him to use the word 'moral,' because he risked guilt-by-association with those who seek to ban books, legislate personal behavior and have us all recreated in the image of a god who is a perfect reflection of them. But, morality is not a prescription list of do's and don'ts. Morality is about the spirit we bring to our living, and by implication, to literature. If, in the presence of a person or a book, we feel ourselves mysteriously but unmistakably confirmed as human beings, if we sense that life itself is being celebrated in this book or person, then we are in the presence of the moral.

John Gardner put it this way: "We recognize true art by its careful, thoughtful honest search for and analysis of values. It is not didactic because, instead of teaching by authority and force, it explores, open-mindedly, to learn what it should teach. It clarifies and confirms...[M]oral art tests values and rouses trustworthy feelings about the better and the worse in human action."

Perhaps the key phrases are "thoroughly honest search" and "explores open-mindedly." We are not accustomed to conceiving of the moral either as searching or exploring "open-mindedly," or imaginatively. We do not often encounter human beings who search with care and thoroughness for values, who explore with open minds to learn what they should teach (and even when walking, we are teaching something about how to be in the world).

The last word I want to look at is knowledge. It comes from a Middle English root and means to confess, to recognize. This is what a book, any book, offers us the opportunity to do - to confess to and recognize ourselves. To confess and recognize our fantasies, our joys and griefs, our aspirations and failures, our hopes and our fears. Deep within the solitary wonder where we sit alone with a book, we confess and recognize what we would be too ashamed to tell another, and sometimes we are as ashamed of joy and delight and success as we are of embarrassment and failure. As a writer and a reader I come to books for this experience of confession and recognition.

For me writing is not self-expression. Instead it is my way of reaching out to people I do not know and will never know and seeking to be known. Writing brings me into intimate relationship with others, a mysterious relationship since I do not see them and they do not see me. Writing is at once a solitary act and a social one in which rune-carver and reader come together and know themselves and each other.

You and I wander along the densely bordered trails of our lives, trails closed in by meals to be cooked, children whose hurts and joys need our tending when we feel scarcely able to tend our own hurts and joys, marriages that periodically seem to start unraveling before our very eyes and sometimes cannot be knit anew; and there is always the car that needs fixing and the letter from American Express telling us to please leave home without it. And lo, in the midst of the detritus and flotsam of our lives, the trail leads into a clearing, and there a beech staff stands, plunged into the earth like a sliver of moonbeam. We stop and read the runes so painfully and painstaking inscribed thereon, and if the beech staff has been inscribed lovingly, if we can see specks of the writer's blood in the cracks of a rune or two, we find our heads nodding slowly in amazed recognition that someone else knows and put it into words. We are confirmed and recognized and say a quiet but audible, "Yes, yes. That is how it is."

That is what reading is, whether you are an adult or a child. It is the shock of recognition. Reading is the means through which we are led to say Yes to ourselves and that densely bordered trail of our lives. Through reading we are given words and through words we gain the power to subdue chaos and tame storms. Reading gives us back to ourselves in a way nothing else and no one else can. Ultimately it enables us to say yes, yes - and then continue on with the mystery of this journey we call our lives.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Speech University of Massachusetts Perspectives in Children's Literature Conference

March 31, 2007

by Julius Lester
© 2007 by Julius Lester

In the schedule it says that I am going to speak about the place of stories in our lives, but I’ve changed my mind. I’m sure there are other writers like me who fantasize about what they would say if a book of theirs was to receive the Newbery Award. I’ve thought quite a bit about what I would say, but one day it hit me: What if I never win the Newbery? What would happen to that speech? And it’s a damn good speech! So, instead of talking about story, you’re going to hear my Newbery acceptance speech. Now, if a book of mine should receive the Newbery and any of you happen to be at the Newbery-Caldecott dinner that night, when I get up to speak you can tell the people at your table that you’ve already heard the speech, and I won’t be insulted if you take a nap.

I want to start by telling you of how I came to writing books for children. My first book was titled Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama, and it was the first one on the Sixties political movement called Black Power. My editor on that book was Joyce Johnson, who later went on to write a couple of critically acclaimed books about the Beat Generation and her relationship with Jack Kerouac. Joyce and I had finished going over the last edits on the manuscript when she asked me, “Have you ever thought about writing children’s books? You have a very simple writing style, and I mean that as a compliment.”

I told her no, I hadn’t thought about writing children’s books.”

“Would you like to meet our children’s book editor?”

I’ve often thought back to that moment and wondered what my life would have been like if I had said no. But I said yes. The reason I said yes was because of a piece of advice someone had given me once: “You’re young. When somebody says, ‘Let’s go!’, get in the car and ask ‘Where’re we going?’ when the car is on the highway.” I remembered those words when Joyce asked me if I wanted to meet the children’s book editor. I got in the car and I’m so glad I did.

She took me across the hall to the office of Phyllis Fogelman, the children’s book editor at Dial Books then. Phyllis and I had an immediate rapport, so when she Phyllis asked me if I had any ideas for a children’s book. I had an idea for a book, but I wasn’t sure if it would be acceptable as a book for children. I knew nothing about children’s books, and as a child, I had not read children’s books because they did not reflect the world of segregation and violence of my childhood. My childhood reading material had been comic books and crime magazines with photographs of bloodied murder victims.

The idea I had for a possible children’s book had begun in my childhood. I was around seven when we received in the mail one day a brochure offering to send us our family coat of arms. When I saw my father toss it in the wastebasket I asked him, “Don’t you want to know our family history?” I asked him. My father grunted.
“Our family history starts with a bill of sale. Lester was the name of the man who owned us when we were slaves.”

If I ever had a childhood, it ended at that moment. Something inside me wanted, perhaps needed is a better word, to get behind that bill of sale.

A couple of years before meeting Phyllis Fogelman I had learned that there were typescripts of interviews with former slaves at the Library of Congress done as part of the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s. I went to the Library of Congress to see if any of my slave great-grandparents had been interviewed. They had not, but in those interviews I found stories of what slavery had been like in the words of those who had endured that cruel institution. And, onto 5x7 cards I wrote down many of those stories.

I knew there was a book in those stories but I did not know what that book was until Phyllis asked, “Do you have any ideas for a children’s book?”

I answered, “I want to write a book about what it was like to be a slave.”

She asked me to write her a one page description. I did so that night, gave it to her the next day, and the book, To Be A Slave was born.

One January day in 1969 I got a call from my agent. She said, “Julius. Congratulations! To Be A Slave is a Newbery Honor Book.”

“How much money comes with it?” I asked.

“Well, there’s no money.”

And I said, “Then what good is it?” and hung up the phone.

You must understand that at the time I was living with my first wife in a public housing project in Manhattan with two children, ages four and two. The need for money was great!

But obviously I had no clue as to what had just happened to me. The Newbery goddess had not touched me with her magic wand, but she had certainly given my first children’s book a big, warm smile. I only began to understand what that meant two years later when Phyllis invited me to attend ALA.
I have a vivid memory of standing on the floor of the convention hall late one afternoon and watching all these people, primarily women, walking out carrying bags and bags of books. And on their faces were looks of pure lust. These people loved, and I mean loved books.

I remember signing books at the Dial booth, and people telling me how much they loved the book and what a wonderful writer I was. And I would watch these same people go over to the very next booth and say the exact same words to that writer. What was wonderful was that both times they were sincere. They loved books, and they loved writers, and they were not afraid to let that love show.

I realized that the world of children’s books was different. In the world of adult books authors competed fiercely against each other. In children’s books, I was to learn, authors read each other’s work, encouraged each other, admired each other. I felt that I was part of a community of authors, editors, publishers, teachers, and librarians who wanted to put the best books they could find into the hands, the minds, and hearts of children.

One of the oddest things in this odd country we live in is how children are regarded as if they are another species of humanity. Most adults speak of children as if they themselves were never children. When politicians want to justify something, they claim they are doing it for the “sake of our children.”

I don’t think this nation cares about children. If it did, those of us who have taken the education of children as our vocation would be highly honored. That may sound egotistical so let me explain.

I am not the only children’s book writer who has had some well-meaning person ask, “So, when are you going to write a real book?” The prevailing attitude is that anyone can write a children’s book. All you have to do is write in short sentences and have a nice moral at that end. Despite the many celebrity-authored children’s books, that is not true.

Only those of us passionately involved with children’s literature seem to understand one simple but profound fact: If we are going to have a nation of literate and articulate people, they have to become avid readers long before they become adults. The child who does not like to read becomes an adult who will not read. But we who are involved in the making and dissemination of children’s literature are regarded with disdain, and if we are so regarded, so are children.

Writing for children is an odd undertaking, because we authors write for people who, for the most part, do not buy books. We are dependent on adults -- publishers, editors, reviewers, librarians, teachers, and parents -- to share our view of childhood, children, and literature, and make our books available to children.

I go back to that day in 1967 when I sat in Phyllis Fogelman’s office at Dial Press and when I said I wanted to write a book about what it was like to be a slave, Phyllis Fogelman did not shake her head. She said, write me a page describing what you want to do. I did, and she said, do it.

Even though the country had been through the civil rights era, and 1967 was in the throes of the Black Power years, children’s literature at the time was not entirely reflective of the changes taken place in the country. For Phyllis Fogelman to say yes to a book for children that described the horrors of slavery was remarkable, but her view of children was one that believed children should read about historical experiences that might make them uncomfortable, that might hurt, that might even make them cry.

I find it somewhat ironic that forty years later, we may have regressed. Just last week I had a publisher turn down a novel I have just completed about a lynching told from the point of view of a fourteen year old white boy. One editor loved the novel, felt it was important, but she could not get support from one other editor, and the sales department wanted nothing to do with the novel, even though no one in sales had read it.

To publish a book involves more than producing bound copies. Publishers and editors have to make sure the book gets in the hands of librarians and teachers who will understand the importance of a particular book, will understand that this is a book that has the potential to enrich a child’s emotional vocabulary. This involves having a broad understanding of what it is to be a child, an understanding that knows it is not too much to ask a child to read about experiences which other children actually lived.
But we live in an age when people are afraid of many things, when people try to quell their fears by controlling not only what their children do and see and read, but they want to control what everyone’s children do, see, and read. The people on the front line of this particular war are librarians and teachers. I know that publishers, editors, and authors are also involved in this fight, well, some publishers, but we seldom come face to face with the angry parent, the outraged principal, the timid school board.

I was speaking with Masha [Masha Rudman, the conference creator] a while back about today’s speech, and she asked me if I would talk about where I find my courage. I’ve been involved in more than my share of controversies and have had my life threatened more than once because of something I wrote. But I don’t think of myself as being courageous.

I am reminded of the story about the synagogue in a Polish town. It was getting close to Rosh Hashanah, the new year. On each of the two days of Rosh Hashanah, the shofar - the ram’s horn – is blown one hundred times throughout the service. In this particular town, the man who had always blown the shofar died suddenly. What were they going to do? Finally, someone remembered there was a peasant who used to blow the shofar. The rabbi sent for him. The peasant came to the synagogue and after listening to the rabbi express the community’s need for a shofar blower, the peasant shook his head. “Rabbi, I’m sorry but I can’t blow the shofar.” “Why not?” the rabbi wanted to know. “I’m terrified!” the peasant admitted. The rabbi thought for a moment, then said, “So be terrified, and blow.”

Courage is not something I have. It is something I practice when I’m scared to death. I think that’s true for many of us. Courage is not necessarily the bold, decisive act. Often courage is the small, secret act, one that nobody knows of except ourselves.

I think many teachers and librarians perform these small acts of courage when they match the right book with the right child, knowing that the book might be controversial, when they refuse to be intimidated by those who demand that the world be remade in their image. The stories that make the newspapers are those that report when a book is removed from a library or classroom. The stories that remain untold are those when the librarian or teacher makes a difference in the life of a childe through a book.

I want to share with you a story about one librarian whose courage had an enormous impact on me. I was 14 In 1953 my family moved from segregated Kansas City, Kansas, to segregated Nashville, Tennessee. The main library in Nashville did not admit blacks. There was a colored library, as it was referred to in those days, and there was also a bookmobile that came to black neighborhoods like mine which were a great distance from the colored library. I went to the bookmobile every Friday evening when it came to my part of town, but its selection was limited. My father opened charge accounts for me at the two bookstores in downtown Nashville, but even there the selection was limited.

I was very involved in music and seriously considered a career as a concert pianist. In one of the books on music I had purchased I came across a reference to a three volume biography of Beethoven by Alexander Thayer. Well, I just had to have it. So, terrified, and without saying a word to my parents, off I went to the main library downtown.

Three white women stood behind the counter at the main desk. Two of them looked at me and turned away. I did not move. I was far too scared to.
I suppose I would have moved away eventually, but the youngest of the three women stepped forward and asked, “May I help you?”

By the quaver in her voice I knew she was as terrified as I was. I managed to tell her that I was looking for Alexander Thayer’s three volume biography of Beethoven. I had gotten the call numbers from the card catalog and written them down. She looked at them, then said, “Follow me.” She took me into the stacks and led me to the books. I took them, followed her back to the front desk where she checked them out for me, and I left.

To this day I wonder, why did she do that? Perhaps she did it for the same reason I did; we were both sick and tired of the status quo, sick and tired of accepting a system that abused one race by making it believe it was superior and abused the other by making it believe it was inferior. I went back to the main library every week of that summer, and I never saw her again. Was she fired? Was she transferred? I will never know, but she is an example of the fact that social change does not only happen because laws are changed in Washington, D.C. Social change happens in small acts between one person and another, acts in which the best in each is supported and affirmed.

We live at a time when our society takes the written word very seriously. Whoever said, “Sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never hurt you,” did not know what he was talking about. We live at a time when words have enormous power. Who would have thought that the word ‘scrotum’ used in a young adult novel to describe that part of a dog’s anatomy would cause such an uproar? Or what about the word vagina, as found in the title of a play, “The Vagina Monologues,” would terrorize so many people that I’m surprised the Department of Homeland Security has not put the nation on at least an orange alert. And look what happens when you put the word “gay” in front of the word “marriage.” Legislatures across the country are passing laws defining marriage as being only between men and women. This is happening in a country where the divorce rate for first marriages is 50%, for second marriages, 67%, and for third marriages 74%. Men and women are a bigger threat to marriage than gays could ever be. Making gay marriage legal might make the institution of marriage stronger.

But I am happy to be living in an era that takes words so seriously, an age that understands that words represent values. Because they do, children are one of the primary battlegrounds in a cultural war. We who are intimately involved with children’s literature are involved in this war, whether we want to be or not.

As an author I know how hard it is to continue to write when someone has threatened your life. I wrote a book called, What A Truly Cool World , a picture book with wonderful illustrations by Joe Cepeda. It’s a book in which I retold a black folktale. Part of the Afro-American tradition in folk tales is treating God with good-natured irreverence, and I certainly did so in this particular book. One afternoon shortly after the book came out, the phone rang. I answered it to be greeted the quiet but menacing voice of a woman who said she thought the book was blasphemous and that God was going to take care of me.

We live in a time when there are people who say God has told them to kill doctors who give abortions. The minute I hung up the phone I called the telephone company and got an unlisted number. Yet, at the same time, I was pleased that this woman had taken my words so seriously that she wanted me dead. That was high praise.

But no matter how much publishers, editors, and authors do, we are dependent on the librarians, teachers, and parents to not only purchase the books that may be controversial but we need them to act as defenders of those books. What you are defending is not merely a book. What you are defending and affirming is a concept of what it means to be human, and children are human beings, not a separate species.

From the child grows the adult. Who that adult is depends so much on what the child learned about what it means to be human. Many of my books are for young adults, which ALA defines as being the ages 12-18. This is a brief six period when these young adults undergo more significant changes than they will any other six year period of their lives.

Let me outline briefly what I mean:

* In these six years their height increases 25 percent to their full adult height or close to it. Their bodies become capable of conceiving and bearing children.

* In this six year span they learn how to drive and many will have their own cars.

* In this six year span, they become eligible to vote and to join the military.

* In this six year period they do a lot of thinking about who they are and where they fit in the world. They start to bring together the many faces of their identities - racial, religious, political, as well as the more personal ones of son or daughter, student, athlete, musician, dancer, etc. They begin the important work of creating coherent identities, i.e. a sense of who they are, where they have been, where they want to go, and how they will get there.

* During these six years, they enter the amazing and confusing world of love relationships. In becoming aware of another, they also come into a new awareness of themselves. There is no ecstasy quite as extraordinary as that which comes from being in love, and there is no misery quite as extraordinary as that which comes from being in love. But over these six years some of them will meet the person with whom they will want to spend the rest of your lives.

* Most important is that over these six years they begin to define their values. As children they quite naturally believed and espoused the values taught them by their parents, teachers and religious leaders. But the journey into adulthood requires us to test those values against our own experiences. It is not enough to believe something because it is what our parents believe. And so, over these six years they begin to figure out for themselves: What is most important to me?

This is what I mean when I talk about values. Values are the ideals we hold highest, the concepts that enable us to know what is right and what is wrong, what is ethical and unethical, and what is neither wholly one or the other but a little of both. Between the ages of twelve and sixteen, young people lay the foundation for how they will deal with personal problems and stress; they will establish patterns of how they will act in love relationships. In short, they do much toward creating the person they will be for the rest of your lives.

An essential companion during these years should be books, which reflect who they are, books that take them seriously and speak to the confusing, bewildering emotions of sexuality, of gender, race, ethnicity, books that do not preach or teach but books which do what the finest literature always does, and that is, give us the words by which we can know ourselves a little better. In books we also place ourselves in the presence of, in the company of some of the finest minds and spirits that ever lived. Each of us has our favorite authors, and they are our favorites because we like to spend time with them, because there is something about their writing that makes us want to be better than we are, even though the author may have been dead for hundreds of years.

We who comprise the world of children’s literature know the power of a book to show us the possibilities of what it means to be human. I think sometimes about the summer of my 17th year. My English teacher had talked in class about a poet named Percy Bysshe Shelly, and she said he did not believe in God. I was the son of a minister, and I was stunned to learn that someone had lived who had not believed in God. How was that possible? That summer I read every biography of Shelly I could find, because he had broadened my concept of what it was to live. He freed me from the world in which I had grown up, and I began the long and painful and exhilarating process of creating myself anew.

Those of us in this undertaking called children’s literature have concepts of who children are and what they might be capable of that may antagonize a parent, a principal, a school committee. And if that happens, we must blow the shofar, though our knees are shaking and our lips are trembling.
My sacred trust as a writer does not differ one whit from my sacred trust as a human being, does not differ one whit from your sacred trust, namely to live with reverence toward and responsibility for our souls.

All we have to offer each other is the quality of who we are as human beings. Literature is the place where what it is to be human is presented in stories told in language that goes from the heart of the writer to the heart of the reader.

If we are ever to be a nation where race and gender are mere words of description rather than statements of values, it will be because changes have taken place that will incline one person’s heart toward another’s. One of the places where such changes in the heart begin are the pages of books. It is up to us – writers, editors, publishers, librarians, teachers and parents – to love books, to celebrate them, and, when necessary, defend them.