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2015 CSK Illustrator Award Acceptance

FirebirdI’ve just about given up on the world.

A friend of mine, a book-wise, hanger-thin Jamaican, whose spider fingers dance across endless stories, whose easy smile softens the formality of his dress, sent me an essay he wrote, about how much safer he felt as a child in the gangster-riddled streets of 1980s Kingston than on contemporary American stop-and-frisk sidewalks. His fears echo the almost daily tragedies of young men and boys whose dying has only recently become newsworthy.

A car bomb stopped the river Nile in its ancient tracks, on a bridge I crossed most every day when I was staying in the tree-lined Zamalek district of Cairo back in September. Every morning, there was a boy who carried an impossibility of bread from a bakery to local restaurants, balanced precariously on his head, on an old bicycle while weaving through the endless Egyptian traffic jams. That boy, his bicycle, the pyramid of bread, spectacular as a daily circus — I hope the bomb did not make him lose his balance.

A filmmaker friend, who has a talent for talking on camera as if she is drinking tea with you, shows me an interview with a bright-eyed Bangladeshi girl. Ten years old, she spends her long days sewing tags into the waistbands of uniform clothes for western kids. The little girl shows off that she can write her name in the dirt near her feet in careful English block letters. She reads the words on the tags as if she were at the front of a classroom: tumble dry, low heat, iron. My friend asks her what she would do, if she didn’t have to support her family this way; asks if she can imagine her life away from the machine-gun chattering of industrial sewing machines. The little girl says, If her life was different, in her dreams, she imagines going to school.

I’ve just about given up on the world. These children, their lives underlined by the luck of meeting storytellers, remind me that the world is a hard place, where all talent and dreaming and bright eyes and hard work can be negated by accidents of geography or birth.

I wish that I could ignore it all. I wish that perhaps I didn’t have news or friends to tell me these things. That I could embrace all the palliative fictions I see on television or in so many books. In those worlds, those speculative fantasies, pouty clever kids hate school because, perhaps, they are so certain of their opportunities in life that they can take the gift of education for granted. Where children can play war and soldier and plastic guns, because they have never had to hide from real bullets, real fear, never had to watch their worlds fall apart in that way that all wars tear apart the world.

I gave a talk in Bologna this year, at the largest global marketplace for children’s narratives. There amongst all the publishers from all over the world (including a dishearteningly very few from Africa) I saw how the United States exports far more stories than any other nation. I wondered how our sitcoms and picture books must look to little children I’ve met in Sudan, in Vietnam, in Germany, in Kenya, in Brazil, if those kids wonder what the laugh tracks are laughing at. If the difference between the worlds inside televisions, or in books that some well-meaning NGO has donated, and the ones outside their doors is too much for them to fathom. If they must turn up the volume to cover the sounds of their own lives as they enjoy lives that they will never experience.

How many American kids experience the same disjuncture? Most, I would assume. That vast imagination gap, where even in the most fanciful industry in the world the lives of the majority of children find no images of themselves, their landscapes, their hearts. As Junot Díaz notes, we make them into vampires, people without a reflection.

This industry can make monsters, and there are certainly times that feel like we all work in a monster factory. It starts with the Frankenstein children that scamper across the pages of our books, the little robots, the portmanteau babies. This is the strange dual effect of making stories about children that only exist in the minds of adults, who are desperate to invent an innocence and naiveté that contrasts with their own cynicism. On one hand our media is littered with kids that have never existed, will not exist; monochromatic Dick-and-Janes run through artificial sunshine and across AstroTurf. They laugh, they see Spot run. And on the other hand there are scores of children that do exist, that our media will never see, that end up perhaps fallen into the gutters or lost in a pool of red ink from some editor’s pen.

I can barely hear, over the silence of all those children, those lives that we have cut out of our literature. I am frightened by the possibilities that all of their voices, so long censored, can only now be heard on news broadcasts in burning cities, on endless loops of helicopter film footage. Our good intentions, the latest welcome spate of people of color that have slipped in the door, those few books and stories that provide a reflection to those unreflected faces — I don’t know if they are enough to contain all the stories, all the voices, all the rage, all the love. I wonder what could hold it all.

You see, I love stories and storytellers; artists from every walk of life inspire me, enthrall me. My father, that guidepost of a man, taught me that stories were like cars, and that our job as artists was to be mechanics — not everyone knows how stories work, but through study and practice we artists could get under the hood of narratives and drive them to new places. (Mind you, my father, in fact, couldn’t drive a car; it was mostly the metaphor he loved, and the stories he left me, and us all, will certainly continue to take us places.) So when I look for a story, a way to carry all the un-said lives that matter, so little and so much, I am looking at all the kinds of storytelling: folk songs and hip-hop anthems, experimental theater and hieroglyphics, comic books and classical music.

It was in one of those moments, those life-as-a-narrative-mechanic days, that I found myself at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, a jewel box of gold leaf, crystal chandeliers, red-velvet curtains, dedicated to telling stories in ways that are both ancient and contemporary. And there I met another storyteller.

Misty Copeland is a dancer, a celebrated ballerina, breaking barriers, changing the face of a classical art form. But more importantly to me, she is a fellow storyteller, and that day at the Metropolitan Opera House she taught me something about how much weight a story can carry. Her body, the muscles, the bones, the discipline — in her body one can read the whole history of ballet, of dance, of Europe, of America, of struggle and joy. She turns her head just so, and you can see not only the lithe little girl from Los Angeles discovering dance in a Boys & Girls Club but the mythical Firebird and Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes. She lifts her leg, graceful as a wing, and there, held high by that arabesque, are years of self-doubt conquered by ages of practice; there is what it means to be the only Black girl in countless dance classes and working hard to be the best for yourself and others; there is every hopeful seven-year-old ballerina; and there is every ballet legend — Tallchief, Fonteyn, Raven Wilkinson. From the stage, Misty taught me how much could be carried by a storyteller, and that in her unique combination of stories, the classical and the personal, there was to be found a new world, the possibility of new stories.

Pop always told me that “the magic” happened in rewriting. When I was a boy, I thought he wanted to impress on me the importance of discipline, of honing a narrative, of correcting the proportions of a figure I had drawn, of finding the right color or shade in words or images. But now I think there is more to it than that.

When my father wrote, when Misty dances, they are rewriting the world around them. That is what all of us artists do. Perhaps the discipline it takes to rewrite a manuscript is similar to the discipline it will take to rewrite the literary landscape or to rewrite the fear and news reports, to rewrite the riots, to rewrite the boys running from bullets, to rewrite the children whose fondest wish is to go to school, or to go to school unharassed, or feel what it means to have a full belly.

I’d just about given up on the world.

Then I remembered that I am a storyteller, and in the hands of a storyteller, we can make new worlds. Our narratives can carry the full weight of the past and build infinite futures. With pens and word processors, with paint and ink and collage, we can, like Misty, like my father, create possibilities where there weren’t any before. Rewrite reality. And there will be days I want to give up on the world as it is, but I will never give up on the worlds that I have yet to make, the worlds that my friends are making, the worlds that all of us here share and do so much to bring into reality.

Yes, there is so much trouble in the world as it is. We all see it.

Yes, it weighs on us as storytellers and especially as people who care about children.

So, yes, let’s give up on that world.

And instead embrace the worlds that are yet to come.

Christopher Myers is the 2015 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award winner for Firebird: Ballerina Misty Copeland Shows a Young Girl How to Dance like the Firebird, written by Misty Copeland (Putnam). His acceptance speech was delivered at the annual American Library Association Conference in San Francisco on June 28, 2015. From the July/August 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Don’t miss “Young Dreamers,” Myers’s essay on race in children’s books. Read 2015 CSK/Steptoe winner Jason Reynolds’s profile in verse of Christopher Myers. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ala 2015.

Click the tag HBBlackHistoryMonth16 for more articles in this series.

Christopher Myers About Christopher Myers

Christopher Myers is an artist, essayist and writer who lives in Brooklyn. His latest book is My Pen published by Disney Press, and the forthcoming Know What You Know: A dialogue between Father and Son, a conversation with an unfinished text by his father Walter Dean Myers.

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Comments

  1. Thank you Chris for this! And congratulations too! Your thoughtful words inspire and give us hope.

  2. Beth Murray says:

    Thank you, Christopher Myers, for the storied spaces your work fills . . . and the space you seek to make for silenced stories so needed to be heard, seen, spoken and sensed. With deep appreciation for your focused generosity in the name of justice.

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