Read Jerry Craft's 2020 Coretta Scott King Book Award Author Acceptance Speech at ALA's Virtual Book Award Celebration

I’d like to begin by thanking the 2020 Coretta Scott King Book Awards Jury, chaired by LaKeshia Darden, who gave me one of the two best near-dawn phone calls of my life! I would also like to thank the ALA for making this moment possible.

This is truly an amazing honor. I would say that it is a dream come true, but as a former reluctant reader, I never knew that this was something I was even allowed to dream about. Today, my words can barely express the joy that I feel about joining the brilliant Christopher Paul Curtis, author of Bud, Not Buddy, as an author who has won both the Coretta Scott King Author Award and the John Newbery Medal for the same book. I had hoped to celebrate with you all in person, but with social distancing being what it is, I know that’s not possible right now. However, I anxiously look forward to the arrival of that day.

Winning the Coretta Scott King Author Award for my graphic novel New Kid is such a great honor, not only because of the legendary African American for whom the award is named but also because of the community of librarians and teachers, authors and artists, whose goal it is to bring outstanding books both to African American children and to the world as a whole. Books that shape lives. And knowing how much our books can shape lives is the reason why I created New Kid.

When I was an adolescent, one of my favorite TV shows was about an African American family living in Chicago public housing. They never had any money. The dad seemed to lose his job every episode. The mom was a maid who used to clean the house of another sitcom character named Maude. The family never went on vacation. Never owned a car. Every day was a struggle. And just when it seemed as if their luck was finally about to turn around…calamity! And this show was called Good Times. Where were the good times?!

Even the theme song was about not getting hassled, not getting hustled, credit rip-offs, layoffs, and most of all, scratchin’ and surviving.

Those don’t seem like good times to me. Especially not the same level of happiness that characters on other shows took for granted. And that is what I have always felt I was up against. Not just as an author, but as a human being. As a kid, I was never a book reader because I was never exposed to stories about African American kids with the same hopes and dreams as everyone else. So that void was filled with TV. But even then, the choices weren’t necessarily inspirational. Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids happily played in a junkyard — probably the same one owned by Sanford and Son. It was like there was an unwritten rule that most of the characters who looked like me had to be poor. But at least these were funny.
So that was something.

Since the day I self-published my very first book, way back in 1997, my goal has always been to create a story that, like New Kid, is funny but also offers hope. Something that African American kids can look at — and embrace. Characters who expose them to a life they can aspire to, as opposed to always showing them ways to learn to live without the things, material and immaterial, that other kids are allowed to enjoy.

If I hadn’t already noticed the need for a positive story like that, it became crystal clear years ago when I was asked to be the artist-in-residence at an afterschool program for girls, most of whom were Black or Latina. I was told that, with the help of another author, these girls had written a story that I was now supposed to help them turn into a comic book. The story was about a girl who tried to help another girl who was being bullied. The bully was angry. She was flunking all her classes. She was about to get kicked off the basketball team. And she was the only Black character in the story.

The bully had nothing to offer the world except playing basketball, and now she was about to lose that. The girls in my class had no idea of the limitations they had given their protagonist until I pointed it out.

We decided to start from the beginning. When we were done, our revised story had a much different portrayal of the “bully.” She was frustrated because she was having a hard time understanding algebra, as opposed to failing all her classes. Our new version had the bully and her target agreeing to tutor each other! One would teach algebra, while the former bully would help her new friend to understand Shakespeare, something that she was really good at. She looked at the language of Shakespeare as nothing more than the slang of that time.

Everyone was much happier with the final story.

And that is what I’ve always tried to do with my work. We can’t change the way the world sees us if we don’t first change the way we see ourselves. We have to take control of our narrative.

Former New York Yankees superstar Joe DiMaggio once explained that the reason he always played so hard was that “there is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first time. I owe him my best.” As an author, I am very conscious of the fact that there will always be a kid who knows nothing about African American culture. Someone who may have never had a Black friend, or Black classmates, or Black neighbors. Or has never had a Black teacher, or been to a Black doctor. All they know are the rappers and athletes who they see on TV. Or the people they see on the news.

As a kid, I vividly remember reading The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. It was about an African American boy who spent the day playing in the snow. He could easily have been me. To see a mirror in a picture book was rare. And the enjoyment I got from reading that book was also rare.

A few years after I had self-published my first book, I was now the proud father of two sons. Determined to make them the readers that I never was, my wife and I made sure that we read them bedtime stories every night. It quickly became the highlight of my day. But it wasn’t enough just to read them Dr. Seuss. I desperately wanted them to see more mirrors than I ever had. Stories that were full of fun, and hope, and family. Although I returned to The Snowy Day, by then, as an author, I was also a lot more interested in the writers and the artists of the books that I saw. In my mind, The Snowy Day was a book that I imagined being drawn by a living legend, like Jerry Pinkney, who had captured a slice of his childhood to create arguably the most famous children’s picture book to ever feature a kid of color. I must admit that I had a slight twinge of disappointment when I realized that was not the case. So, slowly but surely, we began to build our kids’ library. Max Paints the House by Ken Wilson-Max, Grandma’s Records by Eric Velasquez, books by Kadir Nelson, titles published by Just Us Books, and books by anyone named Pinkney, to name a few.

As my sons got older, we moved on to chapter books. And even though I didn’t know exactly what those stickers on the cover of Bud, Not Buddy were, I knew it meant that we were in for a treat. But never in my wildest dreams did I think that a book of mine would one day earn them, too.

In fact, even though I was already publishing my own books, I don’t think I would have gotten here today without the help from a few more mirrors — not characters from books, but fellow writers whose own storied careers I didn’t always know when I first met them.

Like the time I had an amazing breakfast before the kickoff of the Hudson Children’s Book Festival with two of the nicest, most interesting people ever. I sat like a kid listening to their stories over pancakes. It was only later that I learned of the accomplishments of my new breakfast buddies, Walter Dean Myers and Jacqueline Woodson. I just thought they were nice. That was a really great breakfast!

Or the time I was invited to the Hue-Man Bookstore in New York City, where another author and I talked to kids in Ghana via Skype. Afterwards, the two of us discussed our desire to get published and how we were literally selling our self-published books out the trunks of our cars. A few years later, I watched Kwame Alexander win a Newbery Medal. Or the time I got a Facebook flashback showing me that five years prior I had been on a panel with Jason Reynolds. “That’s who that was?!” I remember asking myself, while also being amazed at how much he had achieved in the time since. I remember sharing stories with another author about our countless rejections, and how tough the road to getting published had been. We wondered if it was time to finally get a regular job. Years later ­Derrick Barnes went on to seemingly win every award ever created. I also remember having dinner with Renée Watson and learning that she had just won a Newbery Honor for her amazing book Piecing Me Together. Then on the drive home, I picked up my phone and asked the question: “Siri, what’s a Newbery?”

Through it all, I also had the ­comfort of knowing that I could call up my buddy Eric Velasquez at 2:00 a.m. because he would be up painting, and we’d keep each other company while we worked to meet our deadlines. And he’d call me out if I ever wanted to cut a corner to finish a book faster. I always enjoyed seeing Andrea Davis Pinkney literally everywhere I went, not knowing that one day she would be responsible for the first two trade-book publishing contracts that I would ever sign. These were my mirrors. This was my strength.

In December of 2017, thanks to my amazing agent Judy Hansen, New Kid finally found a home with HarperCollins, and I knew that my struggle to find a publisher to tell my story was finally over. My book launched on February 5, 2019. And the rest, as they say, is history.

In closing, I would like to thank my family, Aren, Jay, and Autier, for their love and support throughout this thirty-year roller coaster to become an overnight success.

My amazing team from HarperCollins, for believing in me enough to give me the opportunity to tell my story my way.

Thank you to my fans. The teachers. The librarians. The book groups. The award committees.

Thank you to my mirrors, who showed me what I could be if I just stuck with it a little longer.

And once again, to the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Jury and to the ALA.

Thank you!

Jerry Craft is the winner of the 2020 Coretta Scott King Author Award for New Kid, published by Quill Tree Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books. His acceptance speech was delivered at the virtual American Library Association Book Award Celebration, on June 28, 2020. From the July/August 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2020Look for the full electronic issue -- free -- beginning next week.

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