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Lift Every Voice: From One Book to Many

When I was in sixth grade, my elementary school hired a new librarian. I don’t remember her name. I only know that she was young, white, and had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa. This new librarian taught us African songs and dances, and would then put on music so we could show off our own dance moves.

Over the months, the librarian noticed that I had been checking out this one book, Mary Ellis, Student Nurse, a story of a young Black woman, set during the era of segregation. I renewed it week after week. She probably concluded either that I loved the book or that I was a painfully slow reader. Actually, I hated this book. Hate is a strong word, I know, but my feelings were a deep-seated jumble. So, why did I check it out faithfully? Hope Newell’s book was the only work of fiction about a Black female character that I could find in our library. Believe me — I knew every title pertaining to African Americans. Anyway, I was afraid the book would be removed if no one checked it out.

Over time I realized it wasn’t the book that I hated, but the idea that I was relegated to one book of fiction in the library. I wasn’t this Mary Ellis girl — I couldn’t relate to her. I had more in common with the historical figures from the biography section. Figures like poet Phillis Wheatley and Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman (I dug her bravery). Historical accounts were good, but where were the stories to launch possibilities, as only fiction could?

One day my observant young librarian put a book in my hands and ended my long-term lease on Mary Ellis, Student Nurse. I found what I’d been longing for in Thirty-One Brothers and Sisters by Reba Paeff Mirsky. I read about the adventures of Nomusa, a dark-skinned, short-haired girl who wanted to go on a hunt with her father, the Zulu chief, while her brother preferred to stay home and write songs. How did the librarian know that I wanted to line up as a running back on my father’s boys-only football team? I read Thirty-One Brothers and Sisters several times before I returned it to the library. By then, the librarian had already ordered another book in Mirsky’s series, Nomusa and the New Magic, and once again put a treasured book in my hands.

It was 1969, and change was occurring every which way you turned across the country, if not the world. Why should changes in the shape, direction, and breadth of children’s literature be any different?

Like many Black children my age, I knew Coretta Scott King from an iconic photograph taken at her husband’s funeral. What I didn’t know back then was that Coretta Scott King was integral to an all-important change furthering inclusivity in children’s literature. I certainly didn’t know that the fruits of her work and vision would greatly affect me decades later. By the next year, seventh grade, I was reading adult novels and no longer perused the children’s book shelves. I never saw that shiny sticker on Lillie Patterson’s inaugural Coretta Scott King Book Award–winning title Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1969, I wasn’t aware of the just-launched Coretta Scott King Book Awards. I only wanted more stories that engaged me and sent me dreaming and writing. But I would like to believe that my elementary school librarian not only knew about the emerging Coretta Scott King Book Awards and what they would mean to readers, but also that she was an advocate for putting those books into our hands.

From the May/June 2019 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: CSK Book Awards at 50. Find more information about ordering copies of the special issue.

Rita Williams-Garcia About Rita Williams-Garcia

Rita Williams-Garcia is the winner of the 2016 Coretta Scott King Author Award for Gone Crazy in Alabama, published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books, and for her two previous books about the Gaither sisters: One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven.

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