By Ashley Bryan
To be honored in the name of Virginia Hamilton, a person and artist I loved, opens personal feelings and the meaning of her lifetime achievement award. Virginia remains an ongoing inspiration in my life. I have recollections of time spent with her when the warmth and light of her personality enriched those moments. By written word and presence, Virginia sought to close distances, to describe the other as a recognition of oneself.
This is what engages me now. What does a lifetime achievement award mean to me and to each one of you? What does an award that seems so final mean when one is alive and absorbed in the ongoing daily effort to discover and offer something meaningful and creative of oneself? There are many ways in which we create and touch the lives of others.
Lifetime achievement may be considered progressive as it develops throughout one’s life. For example, as a kindergartener in a New York City public school, way back in the 1930s, I was taught the alphabet. My teacher asked the class to draw a picture for each letter from A to Z. We then sewed the pages together. The teacher said, “You have just published an alphabet book. You are the author, illustrator, binder. Take it home. You are distributor as well.” Oh, the awards I received then, hugs, kisses, cheers from family and friends! I was so encouraged by this applause that I have never stopped making books. First as one-of-a-kind limited edition gifts, but now my books are printed in the thousands.
Here I have offered an example of what I consider an early lifetime achievement award. When I am with schoolchildren and am asked, “Have you ever won any big awards?” I tell them of my first big awards of hugs, kisses, cheers from family and friends. I tell them you need awards of encouragement all along the way. That helps you to become the creative person that you would like to be.
These early awards are preparation for the awards received later from one’s peers for outstanding contributions one has made. Throughout her career Virginia received steady awards for her originality and artistry, yet each recognition returned her to her work, hoping to more closely approach her sought-after ideal.
The black American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, writing in the late 1880s, was asked if the writing got easier as he progressed. He answered, “My work becomes harder, rather than easier as I go on, simply because I am more critical of it. I believe when an author ceases to climb, he ceases at the same time to lift his reader up with him.”
This lifting up of others was realized by Virginia Hamilton in her art. She created lives that touched ours. She helped us, through her play with language, to overcome distances and differences. I hold to that mystery of creation as a compelling ideal.
This is why the Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award means so much to me. I would like this lifting up of others, through the experience of my art, to be as it was for Virginia: at the heart of all I do.
Ashley Bryan is the winner of the 2012 Coretta Scott King — Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement. His acceptance speech was delivered at the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Breakfast at the annual conference of the American Library Association in Anaheim, California, on June 24, 2012.