In his Newbery Award acceptance speech delivered on June 26, 2016, in Orlando, Matt de la Peña told about a girl at one of his school visits who, after getting his autograph, asked, “Ain’t you gonna ask for my autograph, mister?”
And he did ask her for it, holding out his arm for her to sign. Telling the story, he said to all of us in that banquet room: “Because maybe hers is the kind of audacity it takes to be someone when you come from nothing. And maybe that’s the kind of audacity we need to assume in the book world in order to finally give young people hero choices that reflect our current population.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about that girl, and what we owe her. I mean “we” collectively, the creators, the curators, the collection developers, the editors and publishers, the librarians and teachers. And not just those of us lucky enough to be in that room on June 26. All of us. Because we do owe her. She is the reason we are able to do what we do. Isn’t she?
I’ve been thinking about the meaning of “audacity” too.
I looked it up. In two different sources. The two primary definitions come down to this:
1) Boldness that is admirable
2) Boldness that is viewed as arrogant or insolent
And I realized that while the call for more multicultural books is viewed through the lens of definition one, the critiques and challenges that demand the content within those books be authentic and culturally specific are too often viewed through the lens of definition two.
We applaud and add our voices to the chorus. Yes, diversity matters!
It doesn’t even feel audacious to say it anymore, although the work of getting it done surely is.
But when critics dare to question some of the results, they speak and they write as a manifestation of definition one, but are often perceived as embodying definition two.
There is something wrong with this. Not some small thing. Some huge thing that too often divides the very people children and teens rely on. Of course there is room for disagreement in critiques of children’s and young adult literature. But there isn’t room for closed minds. Getting it right—in a single book, in publishing, in libraries and education--is not a proscription but a process, one that isn’t carried out with good intentions alone. There is so much to be gained when those of us who can’t speak from experience listen to those who can, and who do with admirable audacity. (Redundancy intentional.)
As he called out people to thank in his speech, Matt de la Peña acknowledged his editor and publisher, Jen Besser, saying, “Thank you for taking a chance on publishing this book and for fighting behind the scenes to keep CJ’s dialogue authentic.” He goes on to say, “You understood from the beginning that CJ would switch codes if he was at school. But he wasn’t at school. He was with his Nana on the bus.”
Right there is an example of what I’m talking about. Besser understood and fought for authentic language. The fact that there was resistance that required a fight is discouraging. The fact that CJ is a child so real I’m sure I’ve met him, even if I can’t quite recall where, is one encouraging end result of the battle. But my adult response to CJ is not the point. At all. What is the point, and the joy, is that child readers and listeners recognize CJ as someone THEY might know; who recognize in his world the world they inhabit too in one way or another.
Many of us are on a high from the award acceptance speeches we heard at ALA or have read or watched online since the conference. They offered moments that were thought-provoking, and at times transcendent. But will our resulting energized feelings and (renewed) commitment make a difference?
Perhaps. But only if we understand that the voices of people of color and First/Native Nations as writers, as illustrators, as commentators and critics, are essential. And only if we listen openly, actively to what they say.We can’t just wear a button or promote a slogan. We have to take meaningful action every day.
Maybe that means finding your own allies in the sphere where you work and fighting to get those voices into libraries and classrooms, or into even into print. Maybe that means taking your limited budget and saying “I will” rather than “I can’t” when it comes to making some selection choices. Maybe it means finding the courage to say “this isn’t ok” when reviewing or evaluating books that reflect thinking that has always been racist even if you’re only coming to understand it now (even if it’s by an author you’ve always admired). Maybe it means saying “I’m scared” but trying anyway--to listen, to learn, to be an ally.
Jen Besser was an admirably audacious ally to an admirably audacious writer. But most of us are not editors or writers. We are reviewers and librarians and teachers. How can we be audacious? How can more publishers be audacious, too? Think about that. Think about what you can do. What you’re already doing. Is there room for more? Is there room for different? Because we need more. We need different. Not because there aren’t amazing books. But because we know--we all know--there aren’t enough of them.
That girl who held out her arm for Matt de la Peña to sign needs to be seen now. She needs books now. And she is far from being alone.