After the Call: Nothing Short of Life-Changing

In 2021, "the call" was a Zoom call. Photo: Tae Keller.

As soon as the 2021 Youth Media Awards were announced, I started hearing from other writers, from friends, from family: The Newbery will change your life.

This felt fairly accurate, considering I hadn’t slept for thirty-six hours, I had just received more emails than I’d ever had in my life, and I’d already burst into tears three times that morning. I was light-years away from my everyday routine.

But how will it change, specifically? I asked some previous winners, hoping for some kind of road map.

They answered sagely — if somewhat cryptically. You’ll see.

And now, a year in, I think I’ve started to, though the answer changes by the day.

How has my life changed?

On some days, the answer seems as straightforward as logistics. The balance of my work life has shifted, and I’ve needed to adapt — learning to balance author life and writer life, to prioritize, to actually use Google Calendar, for real this time.

On other days, the answer is: pressure.

How does one possibly follow up a Newbery winner? As much as I’ve tried to keep outside expectations away from my writing desk, sometimes they follow me to a manuscript. I’m revising my next book and suddenly I wonder how people will respond, and I’m nervous.

Beyond that, how does one possibly be a Newbery winner? I’m far more public as an author than I’ve ever been, and I’ve always wanted to be a good role model to readers. Some days that pressure gets to me.

But those are only some days. On most days, the award means security. The Newbery has come with the kind of confidence and financial security that are painfully rare in this career. I can loosen my grip on anxiety and stop thinking so much about selling the next book. I can stop thinking of myself as a writer for now, and simply think of myself as a writer.

What an enormous gift. And I will always be grateful to the 2021 committee.

So, the Newbery has changed my life.

But the more I’ve reflected on it, the more I’ve realized that the Newbery had already changed my life — long before January 2021, long before I started writing When You Trap a Tiger, long before I published my first book.

Winning the Newbery means a great deal to me. But the Newbery itself means even more.

When I was a kid, that sticker led me to world-shaking, perspective-shifting books. It brought me to Holes, which taught me how the past shapes the present. And Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, which taught me the meaning of courage and justice. And A Single Shard, which showed me resilience through the lens of Korean culture.

Louis Sachar, Mildred D. Taylor, and Linda Sue Park showed me what writers could do. And Stanley Yelnats, Cassie Logan, and Tree-ear showed me what kids could do.

Years later, when I started writing my own stories, the Newbery changed my life again.

The Youth Media Awards were permission to take children’s literature seriously. It wasn’t so much the award itself, but the acknowledgment that kids’ books deserved to be discussed. That a committee could read and re-read them and parse them for merit and moments and marvels.

From the outside, a well-meaning family member or a nosy stranger on a train might tell me, Don’t sell yourself short. Sure, you write kids’ books now, but maybe one day you can write real books.

But those of us on the inside — writers, teachers, librarians, readers — we know. We know the magic of children’s literature. We know books can rewrite possibilities and expand a kid’s life. We know because we know those kids — because we were those kids.

The Newbery is a chance to celebrate not just one, two, three, or six books a year — but all of children’s literature. And the awards have always been about the community and the kids and the people who turn kids into readers.

That’s nothing short of life-changing.

From the May/June 2022 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: The Newbery Centennial.

Tae Keller

Tae Keller won the 2021 Newbery Medal and a 2020 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award Fiction and Poetry Honor for When You Trap a Tiger. Jennifer Chan Is Not Alone is her latest book (both Random).

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