2024 Children's Literature Legacy Award Acceptance by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Thank you to ALA and ALSC. I was surprised and thrilled to receive the news of the Children’s Literature Legacy Award from Caroline Ward and the committee. Thank you for choosing me. It’s such a lovely salute to my work.

My children are here with their spouses and loved ones, along with some of my grandchildren. If I have ever brought anything of significance into this world, it is them. No accolades or laurels will ever compare with their magnificence or my love for them. Although, tonight comes close.

I cannot imagine my publishing journey without my editor, Tracy Mack. We’ve been together for twenty-eight years, and from the first manuscript she acquired, she saw potential in me when I did not. Over the years she has welcomed my brainstorms, and my missteps, of which there have been many. She is what most authors hope for in an editor, unfailing in her support and my most ardent cheerleader. Together, we are not yet done. We still have surprises on the horizon for you and can’t wait to share them.

Along with my editor and art directors, Marijka Kostiw and David Saylor, I’ve been paired with talented illustrators. My gratitude spills over for the complement of Brian Selznick, Peter Sís, Joe Cepeda, Rafael López, and coming soon, Andrés Vera Martínez, to name a few. I am also grateful for my longtime literary agent, Kendra Marcus. And to my fellow writer and illustrator friends, many of whom are like family. I carry you in my heart.

Scholastic is my publishing home with Ellie Berger, Judy Newman, Lori Benton, Lizette Serrano, Seale Ballenger, Charisse Meloto, Rachel Coun, and the marketing, publicity, and sales teams. I do not know what I would have done without your expertise, or the protective wing of the late Dick Robinson. You have been my advocates and, on occasion, my guardians.

I had published a number of picture books with several publishers before I found my way to Scholastic. They purchased what became my first novel, and a few years later, Esperanza Rising. Back then, there were only a handful of stories written by and about Latinos in the United States. I am so grateful for their leap of faith and commitment to me and to diverse books.

Esperanza Rising parallels my grandmother’s emigration in 1930 from Aguascalientes, Mexico, to a Mexican farm labor camp in Arvin, California. My mother was born in the camp depicted in the book. On her birth certificate, on the line reserved for the name of a hospital, are the words, “DiGiorgio Farms.” Next year, ­Esperanza Rising will celebrate ­twenty-five years in print.

I find it interesting that at auspicious times in our lives, we are often carried back to our beginnings, as if to measure how far we have come. In 2003, I was invited to Washington, DC, with over seventy authors for the National Book Festival. Back then, the first lady invited the authors to breakfast at the White House, and for that event I was able to bring a guest. I brought my mother. As we were going through the gate check at the side entrance of the White House, I turned to her and asked, “Mom, what are you thinking at this moment?” She shook her head in amazement and said, “I was thinking about DiGiorgio Farms.”

When I look back, I think about how unlikely it is that I’m standing before you. I didn’t grow up in a print-rich environment with books crowding my home. And I didn’t discover books, beyond classroom primers or textbooks, until fifth grade. What nurtured my love of story were my grandmothers, who were steeped in proverbs, cautionary tales, and gossip — storytelling in its finest form. What fueled my subsequent obsession with reading was a small branch library a few blocks from my house.

Initially, the library was nothing more than a destination to which I could say I was going and not be questioned by my parents. The library was an escape from pesky younger sisters and a slew of even-younger cousins. Best of all, in the 107-degree heat of the San Joaquin Valley, it was ­blessedly air-conditioned. I didn’t go there intending to check out books.

It was inevitable that, sooner or later, the books would leap from the confines of the stacks and hold me spellbound. Stories are powerful that way, and once I was captured, I carried books to kitchen tables, to the car, and secretly propped them inside textbooks at school. I tried on many lives far more interesting than my own.

As I made my way through junior high, books carried me away from the wrath of mean girls, tallness, big feet, and a big, noisy extended family. I coped through books. It is no surprise that I now often write for readers who are the same age that I was when books made the most profound difference in my life.

I was together with my sister and a group of my cousins recently, reminiscing about my grandmother, Esperanza, and how she used to embarrass us, sometimes to tears. If she had any one of us with her in the neighborhood, and she stopped to talk to someone she knew, or didn’t know, she’d pull us forward and say, “This is my granddaughter. Isn’t she beautiful?” Oh, how we wanted to crawl into a hole! But it did not matter one bit to her. She would tell the bus driver, a salesclerk, the mail carrier, or a passerby. And she was pleased with herself and expected an affirmation.

Once, when I was an awkward, sullen, acne-ridden adolescent, who had not yet grown into my nose or my feet, I was with my grandmother at Mr. Louey’s market, standing in front of the meat counter. Several ­customers waited impatiently behind us. My grandmother pulled me front and center and said, “Mr. Louey, this is my granddaughter. Isn’t she beautiful?” Mr. Louey said nothing, smirked, handed her a roast wrapped in white paper, and turned away. I had been dismissed by the butcher.

I was mortified. My grandmother grabbed my hand, pulled me away, and marched out. And in the bizarre way she sometimes translated ­Spanish to English, she said, “He only sees the outside of you. He does not see the bones of you.” I didn’t exactly feel better.

At that age, I remember thinking that my grandmother was ridiculous and infuriating. Of course he couldn’t see my bones through my flesh and skin and clothing. Now I know she meant that he could not see my core, the essence of me, the potential in me. And isn’t that something for which we all hope? That someone will see the beauty inside of us, no matter our countenance, challenges, color, gender, ethnicity. And isn’t that something for which we hope for young readers, too — that someone will recognize their worth and feelings and value them for their heart and spirit? Thank you to those in this room who write and illustrate and publish books for which readers can feel celebrated, validated, and loved from the inside out. An even greater thanks to the librarians who fight for the right to put those books into readers’ hands.

In my novel The Dreamer, I wrote about Neftalí Reyes, who was bullied, who had a domineering and sometimes cruel father, who was shy with an incapacitating stutter. And yet, he went on to become one of Chile’s most renowned native sons.

There was one event in the young Neftalí’s life that enticed me to write The Dreamer, and that was the incident of the hole in the fence.

Lonely and friendless, Neftalí was playing in his backyard when an unknown child in the empty lot next door passed him an old toy sheep through a small opening in the wood planks. The sheep, well-loved and ­long-carried, was matted and yellowed and missing its wheels.

Neftalí took the sheep from the small hand and was so heartened by the gift, he ran into the house, retrieved a ­treasured pinecone from his collection, and in turn, passed it to the child on the other side. He never saw or discovered who passed him the sheep, or to whom he passed the pinecone. In his teens, when he moved away from home, the toy sheep went with him, even after he changed his name and became the poet Pablo Neruda.

Neruda wrote about the incident in an essay called “Childhood and Poetry.” He said to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know is something great and beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being.

As artists and writers, we pass our work through a hole in the fence, never knowing who is on the other side. Never knowing if or when someone might pick up our book and have a reaction, a revelation, a good laugh, or the clutching-to-the-chest moment of a book well-loved and long-carried. We’re never sure if we will incite our reader, cause an indignant rampage, or inspire a cult following. We write and draw, shackled to the beautiful tyranny of now. We work with hearts full of hope for the future, and the promise of unknown communions.

Thank you for giving me this moment so that I might look back and see how far I’ve come. Thank you for allowing me to continue to pass my gifts through a hole in the fence, and to share the bones of my characters so that a reader’s eyes might open a little wider.

It’s an honor to share this stage with Dave Eggers and Vashti Harrison, and to do this important work with them.

I don’t know where this journey will continue to lead me. But I’m so very grateful that all of us in this room will make it together. I can’t wait to find out what comes next.

Pam Muñoz Ryan is the winner of the 2024 Children's Literature Legacy Award. Her acceptance speech was delivered at the annual conference of the American Library Association in San Diego on June 30, 2024. From the July/August 2024 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2024.

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Pam Muñoz Ryan

Pam Muñoz Ryan won the 2024 Children's Literature Legacy Award. She has received two Belpré Awards for narrative, most recently in 2011 for The Dreamer, and one honor.

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