I wear two hats—author and educator. On Friday March 18, I had the extreme pleasure to attend the first annual Walter Dean Myers award celebration with We Need Diverse Books, affectionately known as The Walter. With both hats firmly on my head, I was honored to have been part of such a momentous occasion.
As I walked into the Library of Congress, I had the distinct feeling that something special was about to happen. The room where the ceremony was held was so beautiful and must have sheltered so many important minds over the last century. And as the room began to fill, it was apparent that there were great minds there once again. I was surrounded by people who have the power to change the world. It gave me goosebumps.
The wonderful Ellen Oh took the stage to welcome us. Ellen was followed by remarks from Dhonielle Clayton, John Scieszka, and our emcee, Christopher Myers, son of Walter Dean Myers.
First honoree Margarita Engle, for ENCHANTED AIR, touched the audience as she spoke about how her childhood dreams of a President repairing the relationship with her native Cuba are coming true RIGHT NOW. Her poems documenting her upbringing proved how even the darkest moments can turn into light ones later on.
The amazing team of Kekla Magoon and Ilyasah Shabazz shared about their co-written book, X, which imagines Ms. Shabazz’s father as a teenager before he became the iconic Malcolm X. Ms. Shabazz made a point that moved me to tears. She said, and I paraphrase, that when kids are in pain, they make mistakes. I agree with this so very much. As someone who makes a living helping kids solve their problems, I see the missteps and the desperate choices they make. Ms. Shabazz also said that it’s the adults’ job to see that pain, to acknowledge it and find ways to take it away, rather than penalize those kids for it.
Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds were honored for their novel, ALL AMERICAN BOYS, which features two very different accounts of the same violent event. Mr. Kiely said there is a danger in the privilege of being able to walk away from telling a story. He reminded us that this fight is for everyone and it’s the responsibility of those with privilege, of all kinds, to be good partners and to listen.
Mr. Reynolds spoke eloquently about how he is made up of all his experiences and the people he has met. He cited examples of children he has spoken with across the world who all express fears and loneliness and pain universally, regardless of background. And he stated that we need to make sure our characters are diverse on the inside as well as the outside.
I took away some important messages from this wonderful experience. First, I recognize that my position as a writer allows me to use my platform and my personal privilege to showcase the work of those with marginalized voices. Second, I recognize that as an educator, all of us who work in schools, libraries, detention centers, after-school programs and community agencies and organizations have the unique opportunity to place these books in the hands of the kids who need them.
Books are magical in the way that they can make you understand, even when nothing else in your life does, that you aren’t alone. They can make you feel like someone else out there gets it. Someone, even a fictional someone, feels what you feel. The Walter ceremony reminded me that everyone has the power to give a child a book and change that child's perspective. We can take away pain by taking away loneliness. We can reduce anger and sadness and emptiness by lifting up writers and their stories that offer mirrors and windows into all kinds of lives and worlds. We can give those same stories to kids of different backgrounds so they can learn, and empathize, and help take away the pain of their friends. So they can become more understanding human beings. Books offer a chain reaction to giving all kids a better world, but only if we allow if to happen. I'm grateful to WNDB for their work in lighting the match.