As I sit down to write this, I watch the sun fall below the horizon and my spirits rise.
There is the sound of LIFE all around me: birds chirping, the roar of vehicles, the faint exchanges of words between neighbors, and children’s laughter in the air. I am encouraged and thankful on this Sunday, having shared my day at a small church called True Light established by Pastor Alice directly across from my Dream Studio in Kansas City, Missouri. We thanked GOD on this day for an extraordinary community as we gathered, ALL shapes, sizes, and situations, to make a JOYFUL noise.
Give us this day … our DAILY bread … a prayer that I say every day, recognizing the importance of the “US” in the asking, that we all have what we need.
Here I am today! Again, thankful and asking that we all have the bread that we need to sustain us for this day. There are many to thank: my family, wife, daughter, mother, father, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and community. I have been inspired through their constant encouragement, prayer, and support. I want to thank all of those who helped to make Underground the book that you have chosen to honor: the publisher, Roaring Brook Press; my editor, Neal Porter, a man who trusts his vision as well as the vision of the artists he works with; Rebecca Sherman of Writers House, for sharing her passion for this work and finding this story a home; ALA and the Coretta Scott King committee, for going on this journey honoring the “voice on a page” with this amazing award; and to ALL of you for honoring authors and illustrators through the reading and sharing of our books.
I know that many artists and illustrators work tirelessly to “get the story right” … the facts of the matter. There are details in the history (our story) that can often be traced by other voices of the past through reference and research. For this book I wanted to reach back to that “original place” in my imagination that I would grab from when I was a child. A wonderful place where I mostly like to engage in the “happier” things in life, although always knowing that imagination is not bound only to that place. I have had to imagine, as an illustrator, things not so pleasant, feelings and situations that I would like to avoid at all costs…And here I am today, because I wanted to start with “The Darkness.”
I imagine that in my lifetime I have had thousands of sheets of paper pass through my hands with a crayon or a pencil making a “joyful mark,” telling a story of a sun in the corner and green grass below. I have also drawn heroes who could fly through the sky with capes blowing in the wind. I suppose there is a time and a place for everything.
There was a day some seven years ago or so when I found myself on a train in Japan, of all places. There was something about this moment that made me say to myself, “PICK UP THAT PENCIL and DRAW…” A command to begin the journey. There are times as an artist when I have to trust the process; sort of let go and let the light shine from within, even when the subject matter is dark. As I put the pencil to the pad, I remember that feeling that I had as a child, loving the resistance, the sound, and the outcome of line, and this was happening right before my very eyes. All of the sudden on this pad of paper there was a MAN and a WOMAN and they were READY. It did not matter who they were. It mattered more that they were ready FOR FREEDOM! As the pages turned I really began to cheer these people on, and then I knew the reality that I would have to have them face. The hardships, the moments of despair, the ups and the downs of a LONG road that was not defined by a date in time, beginning or end. I knew that these people were real and that they are real. I have seen many people today LONGING for freedom. I have made a conscious effort to not make comparisons, so it is safe to say that there are many definitions for the word FREEDOM as every journey is distinctly different. In some way we have ALL sought freedom. Ask yourself, “What is freedom?” Many of us cannot imagine, and do not want to imagine, a place and time in which people would need to STEAL AWAY to freedom. I have to say that we do not have to look very far to see that this remains with us. The spirit of this “Underground” never died; it transformed with the times.
We can see, based on our own experience, when we are READY for freedom, and we will seek with our hearts first, and this will open the path. It is when the words are first spoken, “I am seeking freedom,” that you will find someone listening who is seeking the same and who might reply, “Well, I have heard of a way…” The next thing you know, you are MOVING your feet on the path to freedom. You have sought the escape and the quiet, engaged the fear, you have run, crawled, rested, made new friends along the way, lost something in the process, felt the overwhelming tiredness, and yet YOU rose like the sun, recognizing how FAR you have come to be RIGHT HERE. This is ALL of our stories. This is the American story, one that is NOT necessarily about riding off into a brilliant sunset knowing that you will be okay. Perhaps in this story just seeing that sunset on your OWN terms means more than anything else at that particular moment. So it is in many ways ironic that I set the stage for this LOVING family at the conclusion of this book facing the RISING sun, yet knowing that if I were to continue drawing the next pages there might be darkness in the ongoing struggle to true freedom. We, as illustrators and authors, often need to depict characters who experience the darkness as well as the light.
And here we are TODAY… together—celebrating both “The Darkness” and “The Light” inside stories. This is the reason why we are here. To celebrate the characters who are on this stage called life. All of us here today stand for our yesterdays. It is today that we can pick which page of the story we want to be on and what role we want to play in this plot. Are we seeking freedom? Are we looking to help someone to freedom? Are we looking to take someone’s freedom away? And are we seeking the light?
Many thousands traveled along a path we call the Underground Railroad. We may never know how each of them would describe his or her journey to freedom. Their voices were not chronicled in a book that illuminated their steps. I am certain today that I am feeling the stories of yesterday in my heart through my brothers and sisters today, both the stories of darkness and of light. The mothers who encouraged the steps, the fathers who shined a light on the path, the brothers who held their sisters’ hands, the aunties and uncles who shared a voice of guidance, the family and friends who held you up to the STARS that guided the way. We are HERE TODAY because they were READY FOR FREEDOM. I AM READY FOR FREEDOM. Thank you.
Shane W. Evans is the winner of the 2012 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for Underground, published by Neal Porter Books, an imprint of Roaring Brook Press. His acceptance speech was delivered at the annual conference of the American Library Association in Anaheim, California, on June 24, 2012. From the July/August 2012 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.