BGHB at 50: Amber and Essie and Vera and Me

In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, established in 1967, we will be publishing a series of appreciations of BGHB winners and honorees from the past. This is the sixth in the series to be published in The Horn Book Magazine (see Gregory Maguire’s article on Jill Paton Walsh’s Unleaving; Tim Wynne-Jones's personal recollection of Chris Van Allsburg's The Garden of Abdul Gasazi; K. T. Horning's "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Hamilton?": M. C. Higgins, the Great; Carole Boston Weatherford on Brian Pinkney's The Adventures of Sparrowboy; and Rudine Sims Bishop's reminiscence of Virginia Hamilton's Anthony Burns).

Essie was tall and Amber was small
Essie was smart and Amber was brave
Essie and Amber
Amber and Essie
—From Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart

I write this reflection on the afternoon of October 6th, 2017, only a few hours before the start of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards ceremony, one of my favorite events of the year.

As chair of this year’s committee, I should focus on what I need to do, but instead my mind drifts back to the first BGHB Awards ceremony I attended, fifteen years ago. In October 2002, I was new to children’s librarianship. I had no invitation to the event, but someone I knew had one, and that person passed the coveted ticket on to me.

I nervously approached the Boston Athenaeum, then the location of the ceremony. Not only had I never been inside this historic building but I technically was not invited on this occasion, either. I did not know anyone, and I did not know what to expect.

Inside, the Athenaeum, stately and charming, was full of important-looking books, intense oil paintings in chunky gold frames, statues, impressive archways, and atmospheric lighting. The very walls seemed to know significant pieces of fact and fiction, including any number of secrets. I tried to stay invisible. Convinced I would be kicked out at any moment, I mentally rehearsed what to say if that happened. Mercifully, everyone sat down and the program started without my presence drawing attention.

The ceremony lauded a number of fantastic books that evening, and the acceptance speeches were moving and heartfelt. The highlight for me occurred when a favorite title received its 2002 Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Award in the category of fiction and poetry. Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart (Greenwillow, 2001), a slim volume of verse and colored-pencil illustrations, tells the story of two sisters who take care of each other while missing their incarcerated father and overworked mother. I, an only child, had loved this intimate look at sisterhood since its publication the previous fall.

When Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart was introduced, a magical woman stepped onto the stage: its author and illustrator, Vera B. Williams. She was feisty and spirited, unusual and familiar all at once. She had the presence of a master storyteller, and she confided to us that she had two other presences with her as well: Amber and Essie. She told us that the book was not hers as much as it was theirs, and they had a few things they wanted to say…

I looked around to gauge audience reaction to this piece of news, but everyone appeared to be going with it, so I faced forward again.

Amber and Essie were there. Vera obviously saw them. Disturbingly, I think I saw them too. I cannot say what everyone else saw; I lost track of everyone else. Vera’s conversation with her characters, whom she had conjured right into the room, entranced me. The energy of this trio was visceral.

I found myself in a place somewhere between reality and fantasy, there in that bookish setting among a room full of people who dedicated so much of themselves to doing what I wanted to do and be a part of — creating and celebrating books for children, and connecting the two to each other in a myriad of ways. Those two fictional characters came to life for me that night just as easily as they had when I’d read the book for the first time. Vera made life seem like play, like art, like magic, but she also made it all feel critically important; vital. I went on to seek out all of Vera Williams’s past work, from Scooter to Three Days on a River in a Red Canoe to her illustrations in Long Walks and Intimate Talks written by Grace Paley.

Under every seat that night in 2002 was a folder containing a program, an issue of The Horn Book Magazine, a promotional bookmark or poster from winning publishers, and a signed, numbered, illustrated print of a verse — “Best Sandwich” — from Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart.

After the ceremony, lots of chatter surrounded trays piled high with cheese, but I skirted along the edges of the walls and eased out the heavy wooden door, too shy to join in and not wanting to ruin the moment with awkward conversation. I carefully guarded my print.

Later I had the print (number 421 of 500) framed, and it hangs on my wall still. Vera’s signature has faded almost completely beneath the glass, but the image is steeped with personal meaning. The characters that we create, that we draw, that we meet in books — they stay with us. They become part of us if we let them in and believe in them. They talk us through the hard bits. They give us courage, or comfort, when we need it. They help us see another point of view or clarify our own. They help us make connections.

My memory of the rest of that evening fifteen years ago is fuzzy, but Amber, Essie, and Vera still stand out clearly. I see them all the time. I will look for them tonight at this year’s awards ceremony. I will look for them on the stage. I will look for them in the audience. I will look for them in the children who visit the library. I believe I will see them. I hope you will, too.

From the January/February 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Julie Roach
Julie Roach

Julie Roach, chair of the 2020 Caldecott Committee, manages youth services at the Cambridge Public Library in Massachusetts. She also teaches children’s literature at Simmons University’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science and at Lesley University.

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