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2017 CSK–Virginia Hamilton Award Acceptance by Rudine Sims Bishop

Good morning.

Thank you to the Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement Jury. This award is very special to me. I thank you for choosing me and thereby placing me alongside honorees such as star librarians Dr. Henrietta Smith and Deborah D. Taylor.

It is an extraordinary constellation to be a part of, and I am both humbled and grateful.

I am especially honored to have been selected for an award named in honor of Virginia Hamilton. I had the privilege of knowing Virginia as writer, colleague, and friend. (Some of my students might even add “fangirl.” I did declare myself president of the Virginia Hamilton Fan Club.) Virginia spent a term as Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ohio State, and I remember that she was always wise and generous and gentle in her responses to students’ writing. That generosity also was one of the ways she befriended me, occasionally finding something to compliment in my writing, and sending warm notes from her nest in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Virginia created one of the first books that offered a mirror to me. I must have been in graduate school when I first encountered Zeely. Even though I was well and truly grown, way older than the main character, I felt a strong connection to that book, and to its writer. Here at last was a story about ordinary, contemporary African American children living their lives in relative comfort, sheltered within a loving family, taking pride in their heritage, being comfortable with who they are. And by celebrating Zeely’s “deeply dark,” African elegance, it declared that “Black Is Beautiful” without raising a fist. It was a mirror for me, if not of the child I was, then of one I wished I could be.

Since my connection to ALA is not through librarianship, I’m guessing that some of you may not know much about my journey to this award, so let me tell you a little about myself. I was born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, about a hundred miles from Philadelphia. I attended what was then West Chester State Teachers College (now West Chester University of Pennsylvania), then taught elementary school for a few years before I moved to the college/university level and became a teacher educator, at the University of Massachusetts and later The Ohio State University. I specialized in children’s literature and, within that, African American children’s literature, which led to a focus on what was called for a time “multicultural” literature, now more often “diverse books.” I wrote two books on the development of African American children’s literature, as well as a number of articles on various related topics.

Journeys that lead to lifetime achievement awards are never accomplished as solo ventures. I want to express my gratitude to some of the people who accompanied me on mine. First I’ll go back to West Chester, where one of my four freshman roommates introduced me to Marguerite de Angeli’s Bright April. April is the youngest child in a middle-class Black family, living in a racially integrated Philadelphia neighborhood. She has her first brush with racial prejudice in the context of her Brownie Scout troop activities. The significance of Bright April for me is that it was the first children’s book I encountered with characters who even vaguely resembled people who looked and lived like me. Even though I had spent many hours reading in the Pottsville Free Public Library, Bright April was my first book as mirror, and I’m forever grateful to my late roommate Patricia Grasty Gaines, a fellow children’s book lover who became a lifelong friend.

It was not until years later, in graduate school at Wayne State University, that I encountered a substantial number of books featuring African Americans. A subset of an annual exhibit of children’s books, the Darker Brother collection included books by and about African Americans. My children’s literature professor, the late Don Bissett, proposed that he and I co-write a piece focused on the contents of the Darker Brother collection. I was caught up in my dissertation, so that article never happened. But he had planted the seed for my first book, Shadow and Substance, which was a survey of books by and about African Americans published between 1965 and 1979.

In the quarter century between 1982 (when Shadow and Substance was published) and 2007 (when my most recent professional book, Free Within Ourselves, was published), I continued my scholarly pursuit of the development of African American children’s literature. It was my education students, however, who, as teachers, were actively working with children, and I thank them for engaging, for passing on what we learned together and “paying it forward” in their work with children. As one exemplar, I thank Dr. Jonda McNair, one of my last two doctoral students, former chair of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee, who has taken her work at Ohio State and run with it. Jonda and others like her are having an impact and ensuring that the work will go on.

I must also say thank you to the current premier creators of African American children’s literature. As a member and then chair of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Jury — and well before that — I have been reading your work and admiring it greatly. You — Jackie, Rita, Jason, Kwame, Chris, Tonya, Carole, Javaka, Bryan, Gregory, Christian, Kekla, E. B., Nikki, Kadir; and yes, you, pioneers Ashley and Jerry; and yes, Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin — you award-winning poets, artists, prose writers. Thank you, and everyone whose name I didn’t call, for all you do to create and advocate for African American children’s books. You represent both continuity and change. You are expanding the scope and the quality of African American children’s literature, while maintaining some of the thematic traditions that help to define this body of literature. Your books will form the foundation for the work of the next generation of scholars and advocates. Please keep on keepin’ on.

Finally, I need to end on a personal note. I must thank the friends and family who have been my cheerleaders. The journey would have been lonely without you. Special thanks to my head cheerleader, my one-man support team, my husband Jim (my friends call him “the Gem,” and with strong justification). Thanks for being by my side for the past three decades.

Thank you all for being here to celebrate with me and all the other award winners. Let us rejoice and be glad in this day.

Rudine Sims Bishop is the winner of the 2017 Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement (practitioner category). Her acceptance speech was delivered at the annual conference of the American Library Association in Chicago on June 25, 2017. From the July/August 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ALA 2017.

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Rudine Sims Bishop About Rudine Sims Bishop

Rudine Sims Bishop, Professor Emerita of Education at Ohio State University, is the winner of the 2017 Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement (practitioner category).

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