Editorial: On Citizenship

Our lead article, “In the Breaking, Maybe Something Beautiful,” is by acclaimed author and poet Benjamin Alire Sáenz, adapted from his profound and powerful 2018 Charlotte Zolotow Lecture. In it (and be sure to read every word), he says, “I believe that my dissent is what makes me a loyal citizen of my country…It is my calling to remain true to my office as citizen, to remain committed to the communities that give me breath and words and life, and to write for young people.”

We (those of us in the children’s book field) don’t all write for young people, but we work on their behalf. We are all citizens of children’s book country. So, what does it mean to be a loyal citizen in these “broken” times?

It’s not a simple question, because things do get messy in this field. Missteps. Dissent. Attacks in the media and on Twitter. But it’s an important question to pose, because the nature of a community’s citizens determines the nature of the community. And in our current political climate, it’s particularly urgent for us as a community to claim and demonstrate our citizenship.

There is an impressive amount of true citizenship being demonstrated in the pages of this issue. Contributors Miriam Lang Budin and Robbin Friedman, in their article “Corrections and Connections,” describe their work bringing books and reading to incarcerated women and the women’s visiting children. These two librarians started their visits after a documentary inspired them to take action, to be of service to the community. Now, they inspire us.

Sayantani DasGupta (whose side-hustle is narrative medicine, NBD) explores the pitfalls she encountered on her path to becoming a children’s author. Her article is about shoes (those are her sparkly kicks on page 19), trusting one’s own stories, and so much more. The message she repeatedly received, internalized, and, thankfully, came to reject was: “We love your voice — why don’t you mold your characters, plot, and genre into more digestible stereotypes?” Digestible for whom? is a question, and it’s the question running implicitly throughout Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s forthcoming book The Dark Fantastic, a chapter of which — about race and The Hunger Games — is excerpted herein. Thomas’s concern is the “imagination gap,” and she shouts out Zetta Elliott’s touchstone 2010 Horn Book article “Decolonizing the Imagination” for inspiration. Who gets to be in imagined worlds; who’s left out; how are characters of color portrayed if they are there; and what does that all say — and do — to readers and viewers in our own real world?

One major responsibility of true citizens is to trust the lived experiences of our community members. And when the people within our community (often women, often women of color) do share their stories — through fiction or lived experience; in books or on social media — we all need to listen, lest our community be splintered into bits, leaving the status quo firmly in place to be enjoyed primarily by those entrenched in power. And as Coretta Scott King said, “The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.” We are not all evolving at the same speed, and some are taking more circuitous routes than others; the important thing is to keep moving toward the future we want.

* * *

And speaking of Coretta Scott King, we are very excited to announce that our May/June 2019 issue will be a special themed issue celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Coretta Scott King Book Award. Founded in 1969 to promote and support children’s literature by African American creators, the CSK awards are the epitome of commitment to community. Join us as we join in the commemoration of this special anniversary (and see our “Impromptu” column for more information).
Elissa Gershowitz and Martha V. Parravano
Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book Magazine.

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