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2010 Coretta Scott King Author Award Acceptance

There’s an old Western expression — You can never step in the same river twice. Soon this moment will be behind me. I can never get it back. So please bear with me and resist the urge to cattle-prod me off the stage before I’m through.

Sixteen years ago, the pioneer spirit overtook my husband, Drew, and me. We packed our wagon (a U-Haul) and, with our cat riding shotgun, left Pittsburgh and set out for the Santa Fe Trail and Albuquerque, New Mexico. You know, the place where Bugs Bunny should have turned left? It’s been a grand adventure. We are still in awe of the big sky, the high desert landscape, and the fascinating history of the West. Writer that I am, it’s not surprising that I have found much wisdom and wit in the idiom of Western icons — that black-and-white, get-to-the-point, simple way of talking, from a time when folks helped each other and a handshake was enough.

As I give thanks for this award, I’d like to share some cowboy wisdom with you.

When you get to where you’re goin’, the first thing to do is take care of the horse you rode in on. I’m going to reverse the usual order of things and express my gratitude up front because I sure rode in on a whole herd of horses.

First, I thank my Lord for helping me through this past year and giving me hope for the future. I lost my brother to cancer and my mom to Alzheimer’s in 2009. Amid all the sadness, Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal was released and received terrific reviews. Bad News kept me from digging myself into a hole. A cowboy saying goes — You can just about always stand more’n you think you can. Still, when the year ended, I told my husband, “I just want 2010 to be a straight line.” Well, that didn’t happen! The 2010 Coretta Scott King Book Awards jury saw to that. I am now happily taking back my wish for a straight line.

It was Martin Luther King Day at ALA Midwinter in Boston when I got the news. I was entering a program honoring Dr. King and reaching to turn off my phone when it rang. The caller said, “This is Carole McCollough.” Being a youth services librarian, I knew Carole was chair of the CSK jury; that it was Youth Media Awards day; and that winners are phoned right before the press conference. The moment she said her name, all these details connected. My heart started pounding, and I got choked up even before I heard why she called. I would have been pretty embarrassed if she’d said, “Let’s do lunch.” I’d love to have lunch with Carole, but I’m glad that isn’t what she said.

Having served on ALA awards committees, I know how difficult it is to select one from so many worthy titles. I know the odds. To start the new year with this firm nod of approval from my library colleagues, this amazing gesture that says, “You’re doing great, Vaun!” is a blessing. Thank you, dear, marvelous members of my CSK jury — Carole McCollough, Eunice Anderson, Alan R. Bailey, Brenda Hunter, Jonda C. McNair, Martha Ruff, Robin Smith. Thank you for appreciating the work and for helping to bring Bass’s story to readers. You have filled my heart with so much happiness. I will love you all my life.

I’m much obliged to my husband, Drew — my best editor, best critic, best friend; my protector and biggest fan. Drew believes in me more than I do. Although Bad News is finished, I’m not done with the West, being married to a man who is a cowboy at heart. At the end of my story, there’s nothing I want more than to ride off into the sunset . . . with him.

I love and fear words — their potential to uplift or tear down. My father taught me to respect that potential. Dad, a man of few words, wrote poetry and sketched. My mother made me love stories. She’d sit at the top of the stairs every night and create magic with a book. It was reader’s theater. If Mommy couldn’t be there, she assigned the reading to whomever she’d deputized to watch us that night. But no one could do it like her. So much of the writer in me is my parents’ doing. I got really lucky with them.

My siblings, Renee, Regina (who taught me to read), Billie, and Eddie teased me, bossed me, taught me, fought me, protected and loved me. I thank them for all of it, and for providing me with a deep well from which to draw my stories. I thank them and my huge extended family for being the net beneath my tightrope.

Thanks to Tracey and Josh of Adams Literary for allowing me to focus on the writing while they take such good care of the business.

A heap of thanks to Art T. Burton for his invaluable assistance. The true Bass Reeves expert, he generously shared his knowledge and passion. His commitment to Bass’s story is unmatched.

Thanks to my editors, Shannon Barefield and Mary Rodgers, for their patient understanding of my maternal concern over every word. And to Adam Lerner and everyone at Carolrhoda and Lerner — Danielle, Zach, Lois, Lindsay, Kathleen, Brad, Elizabeth, Terri, Julie, David, and Andrew, for their kindness to me and their respect for Bass.

Thanks to the masterful R. Gregory Christie for bringing Bass’s story to life through his amazing paintings. I think Bass would be proud of how Greg portrayed him.

I’m grateful to my writing group — Stephanie Farrow, Lucy Hampson, Katherine Hauth, Uma Krishnaswami, Jean Whitehouse Peterson — for never complaining when, for the umpteenth time, I brought yet another revision of the manuscript for just one more read. This award is partly theirs.

Special thanks to my pard Lori Snyder for her friendship. And to everyone back home at Rio Rancho Public Library. Thanks to all my friends in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, especially Christyl and Justin Brown, for their encouragement and caring.

Thank you, friends and colleagues in the library, writing, and publishing communities, for cheering me on over the years. I can hardly believe I’m standing up here. I’m used to being out there with you, looking in this direction. Thanks to my posse from the 2002 Newbery committee, the committee that refuses to let go. Most were seated with me when the announcement came and, in wild fashion, swarmed me in a mass embrace. It was a moment I will never forget.

Thanks to G. P. Putnam’s Sons for taking a chance on a brand-new author back in 1986, and to Random House for helping to keep that writer moving forward.

And many thanks to Deb Taylor and the CSK committee for their labor of love promoting books for youth by African Americans, and for allowing me to be part of this good work.

My love affair with Bass Reeves began in 2003. Drew wasn’t jealous. He, in fact, introduced us. Drew had already won my heart and knew, like it or not, he’d be stuck with me to the end of the trail. Besides, Bass had been dead since 1910, so Drew had no fears of finding us together except through the written word.

My research for Bad News began in 2003, but the project didn’t become real until 2005. My then editor, Shannon Barefield, told me Lerner was hoping to publish more picture book biographies and wondered if there was anyone I might be interested in doing. I immediately thought of Bass, but just said, “Maybe.”

I wasn’t sure of my ability to tell Bass’s remarkable story for a picture book audience. Could I do it justice with such limited text? There was so much captivating and complex stuff to consider . . . the keeping of slaves by Indians, the emergence of black towns, the culture of Indian Territory, not to mention the violent times in which Bass lived and the guns and killing that I couldn’t avoid. Though he took no pleasure in using deadly force, this was part of Bass’s job as a peace officer. I recalled my own childhood and how we loved the Old West, the shootouts, the horses, the grubby life of cowboys. And I realized I was falling victim to adult worries about children and violence. I decided if I told Bass’s story well, kids could handle the violence, and they’d eat him up as we did our Western heroes. I do want adults to love my work (and I’m thrilled the CSK jury did), but I write for kids and, selfishly, myself.

Here’s another bit of cowboy wisdom:

You don’t need decorated words to make your meanin’ clear. Say it plain and save some breath for breathin’. Working with Western language was a delightful challenge. I liked the touch of humor and flavor of the times this language added to the telling. My challenge was using it gently, finding a balance. I didn’t want to diminish the serious nature of Bass’s accomplishments.

There is much to admire about Bass — his strength, fearlessness, and skill with weapons, his clever use of disguises, phenomenal memory, and sense of duty and honor. Some believe he was the inspiration for the Lone Ranger. When we pretended to be cowboys, my siblings and I argued over who got to play Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, Wyatt Earp, Roy Rogers, and other favorites, most of whom were fictional. I don’t recall spending a lot of time thinking about race during my childhood, but I wonder how I might have felt if among our heroes stood Bass Reeves — a black man who was not a minor character or a bad guy. A black man who was a hero — a real hero.

Old West lawmen like Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok were peace officers for less than a decade. They couldn’t hold a candle to Bass, who worked as a deputy U.S. marshal for thirty-two years in what was arguably the most dangerous area of the country. Imagine, a slave who rose to become the most feared and respected lawman of his time! Bass deserved so much better than he got. I am proud that Bad News is playing a small part in giving him his due.

Well, I can’t be jawin’ all morning. My moment is about over. I reckon it’s gettin’ time for me to mosey. So let me end with more cowboy wisdom, which comes from a fine book by Texas Bix Bender called Don’t Squat with Yer Spurs On!: A Cowboy’s Guide to Life, published by Gibbs M. Smith.

Here goes:

Makin’ it in life is kinda like
bustin’ broncos: you’re gonna get
thrown a lot.The simple secret
is to keep gettin’ back on.

Think the best of people, but it don’t
hurt to count your change.

Lettin’ the cat outta the bag is a
whole lot easier’n puttin’ it back.

Don’t worry about bitin’ off
more than you can chew.

Your mouth is probably a whole
lot bigger’n you think.

The quickest way to double your
money is to fold it over and put it
back in your pocket.

Don’t never interfere with something
that ain’t botherin’ you none.

Comin’ as close to the
truth as a man can come without
gettin’ there is comin’ pretty close,
but it still ain’t the truth.

Don’t let so much reality
into your life that there’s no
room left for dreamin’.

There’s one more, but before I share it, I again want to express my thanks to everyone who played a part in my being here today. I’m beholden to you all. And we all owe a debt of gratitude to Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves for his service to our country. He was, indeed, someone to ride the river with.

Okay, here’s the final piece of cowboy wisdom:

Never miss a good
chance to shut up.

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson About Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s latest book No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller (Carolrhoda Lab), illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, was the winner of the 2012 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for fiction.

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