Good morning, family. I am honored to stand before you all: Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee Chair Kim Patton and the committee; most distinguished fellow honorees; and all of us joined through our love of books, tolerance, and peace.
A certain type of ignorance is truly bliss. I’d been writing for young people over the years without any true awareness of Midwinter and those glorious announcements — or what I now call Pumpkin Monday. Sidebar: Pumpkin Monday is my term for the morning we learn whether Cinderella will be at the ball or sitting in the pumpkin patch. Recently I’ve gained more of a clue about the Midwinter gathering — when it convenes, and what it could mean. But this year I was in a blissful state of unawareness because I went to bed without thinking to leave my phone nearby. I had a wonderful, dream-filled sleep — and then, about six hours later, my eyes popped open: IT’S PUMPKIN MONDAY! I shut my eyes to pray as I do every morning. I hadn’t uttered three words of praise when the phone rang. I heard the thing ringing, but where was it? I ran into the living room and found the phone just as the call was about to go to voicemail. I only remember seeing PHILADELPHIA on the display and hearing a cheerfully assertive voice proclaim, “This is Kim Patton calling from Philadelphia” — blur, blur, blur — “the Coretta Scott King Award for text.” Committee members, I apologize to you all for those high-pitched screams that followed. Repeatedly. Forgive me. Recognition for a sequel is traditionally a long shot. I humbly thank you for recognizing P.S. Be Eleven and its place in the narrative stream of African American family amid changing times in the community and in the world.
Just because a silent prayer is answered, it doesn’t mean stop praying. I had much to be thankful for. As soon as I hung up from receiving that glorious call, I returned to morning prayer. However, afterwards, I was too excited to write. If you know me at all, you know that when I’m this excited I can’t keep still. I have to jump. Or dance.
I picked up the phone and called Joan. Who is Joan? Joan is someone who shares a phone number with my editor, Rosemary Brosnan — except for one digit. How does one bungle speed dial? I resorted to e-mail and sent Rosemary one word and a few exclamation marks: “CORETTA!!!” Finally I managed to pull it together and dial Rosemary’s number the old-fashioned way. Digit by digit.
I thought no one else could know and love Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern — and even Cecile, Pa, and Big Ma — like I do, but not so. Rosemary has loved these characters and advocated for them, and has known when to mother them and when to let them be. I could not have a better editor, sister, and believer in me than Rosemary Brosnan.
I chose themes of change in P.S. Be Eleven because life as we knew it back then screamed for change like an angry baby in a funky diaper. Change me. Now! The world was in a continual state of unrest. There was war and a strong anti-war movement, and strife between the generations; the Civil Rights era was giving way to the Black Power Movement; women’s fight for equality challenged the status quo; a gay rights movement brewed on both coasts; riots and drugs turned poor neighborhoods into urban wastelands; and the ecological well-being of the planet was under attack. Let me hear you say ball of confusion!
For Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern, it was all happening right now: change in the home, at school, in the neighborhood, and in the world. And they had a personal ball of confusion — change was happening from within — in spite of Delphine’s mother telling her to “be eleven” when she was on the verge of twelve.
I liked the idea of change and the conundrum it poses for children. On the one hand, children need to feel secure. They need a stable environment to thrive and to be able to look forward to the future. On the other hand, the change needed to secure that stability, that future, that chance to thrive — it can’t happen without volatile struggle. We enjoy a good deal of what we have today because someone struggled. Quite a few of you sitting here at this breakfast were on the uneasy but right side of change.
This past March, I participated in an essay-writing workshop at Queens Central Public Library in Jamaica, New York, with the writer Mariah Fredericks, where I met a sixth grader who lived in a shelter. She and her family would soon move to a house in Connecticut and have stability for a change. She was happy for her mother but sad to leave her friends in the shelter. Many children like her along the way have reminded me to write from the heart of a child. Delphine, Vonetta, Fern, and I are indebted to the children I continue to learn from — especially my daughters, Michelle and Stephanie. My vision of childhood has been formed by the children I’ve been privileged to observe over the years.
One day that young girl who left the shelter will love her new home and won’t be able to imagine living anywhere else. When positive change happens, it’s hard to consider that the page we’re on now isn’t the page we were on back then. Even Delphine doesn’t quite know what to make of the women’s movement, although she and her sisters will ultimately benefit from this struggle.
Peter Garcia; his late mother, Elaine; and I have raised feminist daughters. We have a saying in the Garcia house: “Our daughters are our daughters; our daughters are our sons.” I wish I could tell you I was always on the right side of change while the women’s movement was happening. But I remember men in my family having limited opportunities for employment and education. I also remember how my classmates’ mothers bragged that their husbands wouldn’t allow them to work. In the meantime, my mother put on her white uniform and walked a mile to the bus stop to get to work six days a week. One day my mother caught one of the stay-at-home wives at the bus stop, her work uniform hidden in a bag.
At eleven, I wasn’t completely on board with the feminist struggle of the sixties. I wanted my father to have a job and my mother to stay at home. I didn’t make a connection between my own aspirations, my constant competitiveness with my brother, my desire to explore what was out there, with those young women marching and burning bras. Heck, at twelve I needed a bra. Big time.
My father, like Delphine’s father, was a chauvinist. He had rules and expectations for his daughters and a different set of rules and expectations for his son. But this didn’t stop him from giving my sister, brother, and me boxing gloves and lessons. Like most people, my father believed in change but was also a person of his generation and its values. For Dad, genuine change from within came over time.
As tempting as it was, I couldn’t let Delphine be entirely on the right side of change — she, a child who pined for a traditional mother in the home. She would come to understand her mother over a time that extends beyond the last chapter of the book. I have to believe that what now sounded far-fetched to Delphine — a woman president, a black woman in political office — might not be so far-fetched to Delphine as she witnesses and becomes a part of change.
I find that as things change, and change becomes status quo, the memory of struggle fades with each generation. “Weren’t things always this way?” The one constant about change seems to me that we can bring it about, but we can’t control it. Each generation reshapes the memory of change and then seeks to bring about change for what they envision. Let us pray that those who seek change aim high and that the change sought positively includes the least of us.
I cannot leave you without thanking a host of people who affect my life greatly in the most positive ways.
I must begin with someone on the frontlines of change: professor emeritus Rudine Sims Bishop. Back to the Pumpkin Monday call: a familiar voice had come on the line to say, “Rita, this is Rudine.” I’m sure I screamed “Rudine!” You see, Rudine and I go back to the early nineties, when she said I “may well be among the most prominent African-American literary artists of the next generation.” Over the years I felt I had let her down. Rudine, it means the world to share this embodiment of your faith in me so many years later.
I feel the weight and cheer of my HarperCollins family with every novel sent out to young readers. I wrote P.S. Be Eleven, but it was everyone behind it, believing in it, that made it go. Rosemary Brosnan, Susan Katz, Kate Jackson, Patty Rosati, Molly Motch, Robin Tordini, Stephanie Macy, Kim VandeWater, Olivia deLeon, Andrea Martin, Barb Fitzsimmons, Cara Petrus, Brenna Franzitta, and Annie Berger, I sincerely and joyfully thank you all.
I am indebted to artist extraordinaire Frank Morrison, who knows my girls, the stoop, and the times, and is simply brilliant.
My Vermont College of Fine Arts colleagues are my writing community and cheered me on through my early sharing of this novel.
When they were young, my daughters, Michelle and Stephanie, recognized the signs of silent writing. The stare. My daughters make me the opposite of Cecile. My son-in-law, Adam, taught me to crochet and gives me comedy tips.
To my lifelong partner, Ferdinand Leyro, who has changed the quality of my life and in doing so changed my mind and heart.
Lastly, I thank Cornelius Swarthout of Troy, New York, who filed for his patent on his improved waffle iron in 1869. There is no celebration on Pumpkin Monday without waffles.
Rita Williams-Garcia’s 2014 Coretta Scott King Author Award acceptance speech for P.S. Be Eleven was delivered at the annual American Library Association conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, on June 29, 2014. Read a profile of the author written by Kathleen T. Horning. From the July/August 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.