This week I attended the Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival at the Thad Cochran Center on the University of Southern Mississippi campus in Hattiesburg, MS April 6-8, 2016, where I accepted the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Honor Award as a part of this amazing festival. New Writer Medalist Don Tate, New Illustrator Medalist Phoebe Wahl, fellow New Writer Honor winner Julia Sarcone-Roach, and New Illustrator Honor winners Ryan T. Higgins and Rowboat Watkins were also recognized. I plan to write more about the festival soon, but for now I wanted to post my speech and to give thanks to Lois Lowry and Jacqueline Woodson, who also spoke out against a rising tide of discriminatory legislation and rhetoric targeting lgbtqia people. I didn’t get to hear Lois (I was still enroute to the conference then) but I heard about her talk from others, and I did hear Jackie speak right before I did. I was so moved and empowered by her words, but I found I couldn’t look at her while I spoke (I was nervous and emotional and needed to just get through it without crying or faltering). I am so thankful to all who offered support and solidarity afterward–and there were many of you. So, there’s more to say, and so many more thanks to give, but for now, my speech, which I’ve edited a bit since delivering it in order to provide more context for readers, and which I’ve also posted my website page for A Crow of His Own:
Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Honor Acceptance Speech for A Crow of His Own
by Megan Dowd Lambert
Delivered April 7, 2016
Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival at the Thad Cochran Center on the University of Southern Mississippi campus in Hattiesburg, MS
First, thank you. Thanks to the Ezra Jack Keats Award committee for selecting A Crow of His Own to be honored alongside these other wonderful picturebooks. Thanks to my family for their love and encouragement, and thanks to my inspirational workplace, Simmons College, where I was a student and am now a teacher. Thank you to Charlesbridge Publishing, and especially my editor Yolanda Scott. Finally, thanks to my dear friend and illustrator David Hyde Costello whose pictures are superior to anything I ever could have imagined when I wrote this text. I am one lucky author.
And now, although part of me wanted to deliver a funny speech brimming with puns in keeping with my picture book text, I instead feel a pull to shift from giving thanks to saying please: Please keep fighting the good fight, by which I mean the joyful, hard, and crucial work of supporting children on their respective paths to selfhood. Think of Peter crunch, crunch, crunching his way through a snowy day. Remember how he sees the big boys having a snowball fight and thinks it would be fun to join them? But, he knows he isn’t big enough, “not yet.” Those two words, “not yet” hold hope as they anticipate the future and render his path not just a physical journey on one snowy day in his life, but a metaphor for growing up.
Sometimes we adults look at children growing up and instead of seeing hope we frame their maturation as somehow tragic—think of the melancholic phrases, the loss of innocence, they grow up so fast. But isn’t growing up a birthright and not a tragedy? Shouldn’t we adult celebrate this growing up, and help clear that path? Or in the words of Walter Dean Meyers, “let us celebrate the children and bring them peace.”
What does all of this have to do with my punny farmyard story about a scrawny rooster with an inferiority complex? Well, when I sign my book I write, “Crow your own crow!” because my story attempts to say to readers “BE WHO YOU ARE.” I stole that last line from the back cover of Alex Gino’s 2015 middle grade novel, GEORGE, which tells the story of a transgender girl who calls herself Melissa. Today when I think of the Melissas in the world, I rail against the discriminatory laws recently passed in North Carolina, and here in Mississippi, and elsewhere, that seek to block paths, not open them. I’m heartened that so many in the children’s literature community have spoken out in solidarity with queer youth, and I add my voice to theirs.
I’m committed to the truth that We Need Diverse Books. In A Crow of His Own I heed this call, not this time with a story about people of color (my next book, Real Sisters Pretend, illustrated by Nicole Tadgell is about a multiracial, adoptive, two-mom family) but with one that includes a white gay couple, Farmer Jay and Farmer Kevin, whom David based on two friends. I came out as bisexual when I was 18, and I co-parent with my ex-wife, so I have a personal stake in writing queer characters; but this isn’t just about my identity, or about my hope that children’s literature will continue expanding to include diverse family constellations that reflect the realities of children like mine. It’s about making space for a range of diverse voices that have been silenced or shamed, marginalized or drowned out, in children’s literature and beyond. I’m proud that Crow is being recognized by an award that specifically highlights books “that portray the universal qualities of childhood, a strong and supportive family, and the multicultural nature of our world.” When I was growing up, Keats’s books provided me, a white girl in rural Vermont, with images of racially and ethnically diverse children and urban beauty. Now, as a mother of six children of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, I’m appreciative of the ways Keats’ work provides what Rudine Sims Bishop called mirrors to my children of color, and I’m aware of how he helped clear a path for other writers and artists, crucially including people of color and Native people, to make their marks in children’s literature, too. I hope that Clyde, with a crow of his own, and Farmer Kevin and Farmer Jay, too, can follow in Peter’s snowy footsteps to play a small part in claiming space for any and everyone who objects to an all-straight world of children’s books as surely as Ezra Jack Keats and his legions of readers objected to what Nancy Larrick called an “all-white world of children’s books.” These struggles are not the same, but to use scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s term, they intersect, and they can move in solidarity, together.
Hold that word, “together”, in your mind and think again of Peter, walking on his path and anticipating the end of “not yet” days, when he will be a big boy, too; and if you were lucky enough to attend Tim Tingle’s storytelling last night, think also of Little Mo walking on the path of stones across the surface of the water to freedom in Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Story of Friendship and Freedom. Both children end their stories, not alone on their paths, but together with others—Peter goes out into the deep, deep snow with the boy from across the hall, and Little Mo escapes with his family to receive sanctuary with his friend Martha Tom and her Choctaw nation. And in my silly, and I hope, tender, story, Clyde becomes part of the Sunrise Farm community when he finds his voice and crows his own crow, but he achieves this, not through individual perseverance, but through gentle guidance from motherly goose Roberta and patient, off-to-the side encouragement from Farmer Kevin and Farmer Jay. He needs them, just as we need each other.
So, please, let’s walk a path together toward a truly inclusive children’s literature that will embolden, delight, inspire, and free all children as they realize the birthright of growing up to be exactly who they are. The “not yet” days are over for us adults when it comes to this work. The time is now.