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.