My mother, Miss Essie, used to tell my sister, my brother, and me, “Eat every bit of food on your plate today, because you don’t know what tomorrow will bring.” Like many Americans, my siblings and I have an eye on the future, and we keep pushing although we’reuncertain about tomorrow. We might not know if there will be food on the table, if we can retire to the comfort of our homes, if we can afford to be sick—in my neighborhood, two hospitals that serve primarily poor families have closed within the past two years. We might not know if the doors to the neighborhood library will be open on Saturday. I’m sure you can relate to that. All this is to say Miss Essie was right: no one knows what tomorrow will bring, so do what you must, now. I added that.
I’m a dreamer, but, by necessity, a firmly rooted one. I had quit my job after twenty-five years, and I was having a hard time staying afloat working solely as a novelist. The dreamer in me was told to wait in the other room while my practical side took over. She advised me to seek additional education and to re-enter the job market. “After all, you don’t know what tomorrow will bring.” Even though I had banished the dreamer to her “time out” room, I still borrowed from her. In my search for an alternate career, I planned to seek a vocation to fill my soul and make me happy. My top choices were sonogram technician to expectant mothers and dance therapist to octogenarians.
Around that time, two years ago, my sixth novel, Jumped, was published, and I was determined to help raise the book’s profile. When I worked for Interactive Market Systems, there was no time to play an active role in the promotion of my books, so I planned to turn things around. I successfully bid for and won the services of a literary publicity group that created an online book trailer. I enlisted my sister, Rosalind, to drive me around to every library in Queens whose doors were open. This was during a climate in which neighborhood branches were closing and threatening to close throughout the Greater New York boroughs. Rosalind and I were fortunate to get to as many branches as we did. I’d go in and introduce myself to YA or children’s librarians or to the main branch librarian if there was no one specifically in charge of children’s books. I’d hand them my postcard and give a little spiel about the story. From their responses, I could see things were exactly as I had feared. My three-part name, Rita Williams-Garcia, as unwieldy as it is, had grown yet another part. I was now Rita Williams-Garcia-Who—the Who sometimes silent, but always expressed with appropriate vacancy. In spite of Jumped’s glowing reviews, I began to worry if this book would find its reader, and if I could sustain myself as a writer. I happened to be working with the manuscript of an MFA student whose secondary character’s mantra was “What’s the point?” Well, as we all know, words are powerful. They can stick to the soul. In my case, I had adopted this character’s mantra, and was once again looking seriously into an alternate career path. I was having lunch with my faithful editor of twenty-five years, Rosemary Brosnan. Normally, this is a happy occasion, as we both enjoy hearty food and making each other laugh. I wasn’t feeling like my optimistic self and couldn’t stop saying, “What’s the point?” To that refrain, Rosemary came back with three words. Three words that had always been a part of my life through tough times. Three words I had obviously lost sight of. “Keep the faith.”
Months later, Jumped was nominated for a National Book Award. And Rosemary had an optimistic feeling about another novel that was waiting in the wings.
2010 was a magical year. Not even the dreamer in me could imagine that One Crazy Summer would generate such excitement. Discussion. Speculation. And, yes, awards. By the end of the year the recognition for One Crazy Summer had far exceeded my hopes, so my focus turned to revising my next novel. If not for an e-mail from twelve-year-old blogger Laura Rogers in early January, I wouldn’t have known the Midwinter conference was going on. It was just as well. I had much to distract me: namely, packing for my ten-day residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and getting James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, to play his part in my lecture on sequels and Gustav Freytag’s five-part dramatic structure. I struggled with that lecture and got on my knees begging the funky Godfather, “Please, please, please.” As if that weren’t enough, I had to come to grips with the fact that I’d be flying in an airplane (one of my biggest phobias) in less than forty-eight hours. I couldn’t think about Midwinter. And weren’t the deliberations going on too early? Couldn’t they wait another week or two? Cinderella didn’t want to wake up Monday morning in the pumpkin patch.
Finally, I was on campus in Montpelier. Everyone did their best to talk about other topics and events, but we’re all children’s book people. What else are we going to talk about but the books we’ve been reading and loving?
I rose at 4:30 a.m. on Pumpkin Monday. I couldn’t fall asleep, and I owed my dear friend Marc Aronson and 2010 CSK honoree Charles R. Smith Jr. a short story for their anthology. These pre-dawn hours would provide my only opportunity to work on the story before the rigorous VCFA residency officially began. I had a rough draft with me and dug into the story about a walking dead boy who worked in his uncle’s funeral home and couldn’t be inspired to jumpstart his life. Morris Adler. His name even has the ring of sadness. If anything could bring my heart rate down, this downer of a story would.
By 7:00 a.m., I was almost done with the new draft. My phone hadn’t rung, but it was still early. I knew the conference was underway in San Diego, but I hadn’t taken time zones into consideration. I checked my phone, a model that elementary school students tell me is a “fourth grader’s cell phone.” My phone worked fine, and I had two bars of reception in my dorm room on our hilltop campus. By 7:30, I sent the draft to Charles, got ready for the day, and went to breakfast across campus.
At the residency I was surrounded by a loving, expectant family, although everyone was respectful enough not to ask, “Did you get the call?” When I returned to my room, I peered over at the phone. No red message light. No calls missed. I aimed the phone closer to the window to make sure it was receiving a signal. It was approaching 9:00 a.m. As I recalled from speeches at ALA the previous June, the calls came early, and now it was after nine o’clock. I took a deep cleansing breath. My practical side told me to find my place of acceptance and to be glad that folks had been discussing Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern from January 2010 through January 2011. I went out into the hallway and told my fellow faculty members Leda Schubert and Coe Booth, “Not this year.” When I returned to my room, my fourth grader’s cell phone began to ring. Much to my annoyance, it was yet another telemarketer with a timeshare promotion. I knew this from the blocked phone number that appeared on the screen. So I answered the phone as Miss Essie might answer a caller who’d stepped on her last nerve. “Who is this?” It was no telemarketer. In fact, despite the sharp manner in which I’d answered, it turned out to be quite an honor to receive that call from Newbery Chair Cynthia Richey.
I grabbed my knitting and joined my colleagues and the MFA students to watch the 2011 ALA Youth Media Awards webcast. I didn’t want to spoil the excitement. My plan was to keep my eyes on my stitches, but how much focus does a knit or purl stitch require? Thankfully, my plan to focus on the block of knitting fell apart as soon as the webcast began. Noble Hall became a chamber of gasps, cheers, applause, and side commentary as announcements were made and jacket covers flashed onto the wide screen. We cheered for our favorite books, friends, and colleagues. Gather a room full of YA and children’s book lovers together—you’d think we were at the Super Bowl.
The camera was now on Coretta Scott King Committee Chair Jonda C. McNair as she announced names and titles of the 2011 award-winners. My heart swelled, hearing the names of pioneers, authors I’ve known since early in my career, illustrators whose innovative artwork captures humanity, and the names of newer people who are causing more than a ripple in the children’s book scene. On screen after screen, each announcement proved the committee had distinguished itself with a rich and diverse group of honorees.
As I watched, my mind flashed back to the 2010 Coretta Scott King breakfast I had attended. I had cheered the award-winners, who had brought significant but under-celebrated figures and events in African American history and culture to light and life. In fact, one award winner, our own VFCA graduate Kekla Magoon, was present at the residency as a graduate assistant and sat across the lecture hall from me, watching the webcast.
During the webcast, I heard Chairwoman McNair say, “The 2011 Coretta Scott King Author Award…,” saw my book jacket on the screen, and shot out of my chair in complete shock.
The room exploded. The likes of Coe Booth, Tim Wynne-Jones, Uma Krishnaswami, M. T. Anderson, and other faculty members and students filled the lecture hall with noise. I remember a champagne bottle being placed in my hands by Leda Schubert; Coe filming me with her flip cam, prodding me to speak. I was either crying or praying, but I couldn’t utter a word. To refer to a title I love dearly, I was Out of My Mind.
It seems that I had left my fourth grader’s cell phone in my room, and managed to miss a most joyous message from Jonda C. McNair and committee.
Throughout my work, I’ve invited my mostly teen readers to ponder my offerings and form their own opinions. In my seventh novel I wanted to do something different. I wanted to share an era in which I had enjoyed my childhood—the late 1960s. Much to my delight and amusement, this is a historical period for eleven-year-olds today.
Let me backtrack for a minute and repeat: “I had enjoyed my childhood.” In spite of the necessary upheaval going on in the country and the world, in spite of having to pull up stakes and move because my father was in the army, in spite of being reminded that tomorrow was not promised, I enjoyed my childhood. My siblings and I indulged in now-vanishing pastimes. We played hard. Read books. Colored with crayons. Rode bikes. Spoke as children spoke. Dreamed our childish dreams. If our parents did anything for us at all, they gave us a place to be children and kept the adult world in its place—as best as they could. But curious eyes and ears always latch onto something.
While my father was in Vietnam, my mother did volunteer work with an anti-poverty program. Decades later she would say on video that she was a member of the Black Panther Party, although I knew Miss Essie was playing to the camera. But as quiet as history tends to keep certain details, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was founded by activists within an anti-poverty program, so I can’t entirely discount Miss Essie. We did, however, have relatives who were members of or involved with the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army. When I was around ten or eleven, my ears caught hold of whispering about a cousin I never knew I had: a college student who had hijacked a plane to Algeria. There was more talk about other family members that my siblings and I weren’t privy to.
After my father’s discharge from the army, our family returned to St. Albans, New York, and found a strong Black Panther presence in the neighborhood. It was a presence that contradicted the images in the news. I cannot tell you that those images were false; they just weren’t what I saw as a child. In my neighborhood I observed the expression of Black Panther ideology in poetry, in music, and on posters. There were free clinics and sickle cell anemia testing. Free breakfast programs. Clothing and shoe give-aways. There were children’s programs, although I never attended any. As an older teen, I followed the imprisonments of Angela Davis and Assata Shakur, known then as Joanne Chesimard. I learned that Assata Shakur, like Black Panther activist Afeni Shakur, had been pregnant while incarcerated. I wondered about the children of Black Panther Party members.
When I sat down to write One Crazy Summer, I chose children and childhood as my entrée into the Black Power Movement. Children were being born into the revolution. Children were ever-present and at the heart of the ideals of change and revolution. They were served by the Black Panther Party in community programs and attended Black Panther–run schools, such as the Oakland Community School. They learned to be intellectually curious and aware, and to serve within their communities. In many cases, children were sheltered in safe houses because they were children of the revolution.
I had only to look at the picture of the young sons of former Black Panther Party Chief of Staff David Hilliard to put things into childlike perspective. Even children of the revolution yearn for their mothers and fathers. The late rapper and poet Tupac Shakur, son of Afeni Shakur, expressed his own ambivalence toward his mother’s devotion to “the cause,” although this didn’t hinder his political awareness. I had to remember to take the story to a personal level and to not allow myself to get carried away with my own zeal. To remember that children of revolution, children of activism, know what it is to live with sacrifice and a child’s heartbreak. I only hoped that, like last year’s Coretta Scott King honorees, I’d give light and life to an overlooked, underappreciated, and often misrepresented period in our nation’s history. And to do that, I followed as Delphine, Vonetta, Fern, and Hirohito led me in all the right ways.
And now, please indulge me a few moments longer as I give thanks to those who’ve seen me through the journey.
First and foremost, I owe immeasurable gratitude to my imperfect and much-loved parents, James and Essie Williams, who always had high expectations for my siblings and me, and who provided a safe place for us to dream and achieve.
I thank my grandmother, Mrs. Edith Lloyd Williams, who listened to me go on about my stories with tireless interest after having worked a double shift at the hospital.
To my big sister, Rosalind, and her husband, Teddy. It is only because Rosalind is our grandmother’s primary caretaker that I am allowed to do my work. I also thank my brother, Russell, who reminds me that I am his little sister. Thank you for keeping me in my place.
I am grateful to my children and caretakers, Michelle, Adam, and Stephanie, who never cease to amaze me and make me proud. I am also thankful to and appreciative of their dad, Peter Garcia.
I must thank Jonda C. McNair and the 2011 Coretta Scott King committee for bringing us here to celebrate a legacy of literature, culture, and education this morning. I thank you for your arduous work, and for making that call.
I’ve always worked alone, but, because of my VCFA family, I know that I am not really alone. There are too many VCFA family members to name, but I must share this joy with Cynthia Leitich Smith, Kathi Appelt, Julie Larios, and Sharon Darrow, all of whom have kept me afloat in one way or another.
Where would I be without the warm welcome of Jackie Woodson and her wife, Juliet, to restore me to sanity?
I must also thank my longtime supporter Sharyn November, who, not too long ago, explained the purpose and activities of ALA Midwinter. Up until that point, and I won’t tell you when, I believed it to be a formal winter ball for librarians.
I am particularly grateful to my friends Carol Platton and Elizabeth Mark, who took me to Mexico and didn’t bat an eye when I couldn’t stop saying “Afua.”
One Crazy Summer was cheered on and supported by educator Monica Edinger. I also received support from librarians Sandra Payne (retired), Jack Martin, Mara Marin, Kacper Jarecki, Chris Shoemaker, Vikki Terrile, and so many others who have extended their resources to me while I researched and scribbled drafts.
I must thank the organizations Behind the Book, the National Book Foundation, and PEN, who build community bridges between authors and young readers.
I give thanks to my Penguin Putnam family who found me so many decades ago.
Tremendous appreciation to illustrator extraordinaire Sally Wern Comport, who gave Delphine a faraway look into what tomorrow could bring.
I’ve waited for the right opportunity to thank my HarperCollins family, and this is it! The success of One Crazy Summer would not have happened if not for your enthusiastic response to the manuscript long before the world knew. I have felt the touch of every hand involved: Brian Murray, Susan Katz, Kate Jackson, Barbara Lalicki, Elise Howard, Elyse Marshall, Patty Rosati, Laura Lutz, Robin Tordini, Andrea Martin, and the entire HarperCollins Children’s team. I thank you all.
I saved my expression of love and gratitude for my editor and sister on the home front for last in the event that I fall apart at the end. Rosemary Brosnan and I go back many years. Rosemary has nurtured my writing and has supported novels that were sure to frighten booksellers away. She has gently prodded, but has always been patient while I made a manuscript a little better. She has loved my characters as I’ve loved them. She has even protected them from me—a good editor will do that. But even more than that, she has seen me through trying times, through the illnesses and deaths of my parents, the long illness of my younger daughter, and the catering menu of my older daughter’s wedding. My only hope is that tomorrow will bring another twenty-five years together as editor and author, as sisters.
This acceptance speech was delivered at the annual American Library Association conference in New Orleans on June 28, 2011.