2024 Newbery Medal Acceptance by Dave Eggers

My journey to you today started in first grade, when my teacher Mrs. Wright, an impossibly kind woman with round-framed glasses and a short brown bob, told us one day that we were going to write our own books. I was seven years old. This made no sense at all, a seven-year-old writing a book, but then again it made all the sense in the world. I got started.

Because in those days all I thought about were monsters and sports, I wrote a book about how one day, a boy like myself was kidnapped by a group of monsters who used me as a soccer ball, a tennis ball, and a football. As I’m typing these words, I wonder what a child psychologist would have thought about that. It seems a bit fraught.

But Mrs. Wright validated this very strange story and made sure every word was spelled correctly. The book took about a month to complete and was entirely handmade. We had to write draft after draft, and when our text was ready, we wrote the words on yellow-lined paper and cut that paper into thirds, and these text sections were pasted onto the lower portion of each page. Above the text on each page, we had to illustrate the story, using ­markers and crayons. In those days, all I did when I was inside — I was usually ­outside — was draw, so I relished the chance to draw a bunch of monsters playing soccer with my head. (Again, what did this all mean?)

I still have this book today, created in 1977. It has a cardboard cover, and it’s bound in blue yarn. It’s a very humble creation, but it had a beginning, middle, and end, and Mrs. Wright held us to professional standards of grammar and logic. Under her guidance, we created something far better than we could have imagined we were capable of. There is a terrible canard that says, “Write what you know,” but there’s a better one about the creation of books, and that is, “The book should be bigger and better than you.” This book was far more elaborate and accomplished than anything I’d done before, and I’d done it myself — everything but the picture of me falling out of an ambulance, on a gurney, on the highway. My mom helped me with that one. The point is that Mrs. Wright — that really was her name — catapulted me forward, which is something great educators do. They expect more of us.

In fact, I benefited from an unbroken string of gifted teachers in my little Illinois town, a string of public school teachers who were treated with dignity and given the creative freedom to remain in the profession, and in the same schools where they began. Almost every teacher I ever had retired at the school where I was lucky enough to have known them. I don’t want to make this speech only about how we treat ­teachers — actually I do, but I won’t — though I will say that every year, with these transparency laws and book challenges and bans and a hundred other indignities, we make this most central, most indispensable profession more difficult, less appealing, and we don’t come close to properly compensating teachers for what they do, which is to daily change lives. To daily create citizens. To daily tell us what is right and what is wrong, and what is possible. And every day to catapult young minds forward.

A few years after Mrs. Wright, in fifth grade, there was Mrs. Dunn. Mrs. Dunn couldn’t have been more than thirty, a mere baby in the teaching profession, but her classroom was so rich with stimuli it felt like a museum designed by H. R. Pufnstuf. And in the middle of fifth grade, Mrs. Dunn said, “We’re going to create a book.” Again, this made little sense but was also perfectly logical, and I thought for a long time about what I might write. After plumbing the depths of my soul for what moved me most, I came up with monsters. Again, with the monsters. Slightly different monsters.

This story was called “Gleeble,” and it was about a boy who, like me, was terrified of the dark and what might be lurking in the closet. Side note: my own bedroom closet had sliding doors, which I’d venture was the case with a good portion of closets in the sixties and seventies, but you never see a sliding-door closet depicted in any books or movies, do you? Always the doors are creaky wooden doors held by hinges. This was such a trope that even in my book, I substituted my own sliding-door closet for the more familiar single-door, and to this day I feel like I sold out. It really bothers me.

Anyway, the story was about the boy opening the closet one day and finding a furry, horned creature named Gleeble, who is a monster, yes, but a nice monster, and who takes the boy through the closet and into the world of monsters, all of whom were friendly, and hurt to be so misunderstood. They were going about their business in Monsterland, having no interest in scaring, much less eating, children.

Making this book took a few months, and it was about sixteen pages, and bound in tape, with cardboard covers and pages ripped from the pages of a drawing pad I had. Every left page featured the handwritten, proofread, and grammatically correct text, while illustrations graced every right page. It was legit.

I handed in the book to Mrs. Dunn, and she was very encouraging and kind to me about it, because she was encouraging and kind to all of us. She had reddish hair and bright eyes, and like Mrs. Wright, she expected a great deal from us. So much so that she submitted our books to a contest for young authors from all over the great state of Illinois.

Each of our books was affixed with a label provided by the contest, where we had to fill in the title of our book, and below that, our name after the word author. This was the first time I’d ever written my name after that designation, and it felt like a great leap. I wrote my name on that line, and gave the book back to Mrs. Dunn, and heard nothing for months. Then one day, after class, she took me aside, which was something we all wanted to happen — to be taken aside, to be given a few minutes of her special attention. It felt like entering the Oval Office, like being given some special briefing by the president. Mrs. Dunn was the smartest and most captivating person any of us knew. So after class, I stood by her desk where she told me that my book had been chosen — she might have said “recognized,” given that she was always inserting new and gorgeous words into our vocabularies — by the State of Illinois’s Young Author Contest, and that I was being invited to a university downstate, to a convention of young writers. It was like she’d given me a ticket for a hot-air balloon, which was going to the moon, where there would be Popsicles and Christmas and friendly monsters. It was everything I ever wanted, all in one place.

But, in the end, my mom and I took our Ford Pinto. The drive was long — the longest drive I’d ever done alone with her, easily three hours, maybe more, on a humid Saturday in the late spring. But my mom was so proud, and so grateful to Mrs. Dunn, and she drove jauntily, tapping the steering wheel and singing along to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the only rock song she could stand. My mom was a homemaker then, but she was also a very good artist, and a gifted storyteller, and volunteered in the schools; she was the mom who put on the school plays, designed the sets, made the costumes, divvied out the parts. (To avoid any semblance of favoritism, I was never given a speaking line. I was always a tree or — true story — a silent clown.) Two years later she’d go back to school to become a teacher herself, but at that moment, in the Pinto driving downstate, she seemed very happy that I might have a place in the world. God, I miss her.

And when we arrived at the university, Bradley University in Peoria, I remember entering a vast hall, maybe a basketball stadium, full of kids, everyone holding their books. And there, on the stage in the distance, was Gwendolyn Brooks.

Does that make any sense at all? There were about five hundred of us student authors, and Gwendolyn Brooks, soon to be the poet laureate of the United States, was behind a podium, addressing us. How was she there? Like all children at all moments in history, I assumed every author we read in school was dead, long dead. We’d read Gwendolyn Brooks in school, and she was at that moment probably the best-known writer from Chicago, and there she was, not dead but very much alive, and she was standing at a podium in a gym, and she was welcoming us. I remember nothing specific about her speech, but I do remember the word “welcome.” And the words “fellow authors.” Can you imagine? I was never the same. Mrs. Dunn thought I might belong in the world of writers, and Gwendolyn Brooks echoed the sentiment. I had a path.

And because Mrs. Dunn put this idea in my head that I could create books, I ended up becoming a writer, and this would have pleased and astonished my mom to no end. We’d never had a writer in the family, going back a thousand years, and she would have been floored to see me gainfully employed doing this. Of course she didn’t get to see this, any of this, but God, she loved the ­Newbery. She loved books, loved libraries, took us weekly to the library in our town, where the basement children’s section had just been redecorated to look like a forest, a forest of stories. I spent much of my childhood there, with my mom, who tried to guide me toward the Newbery winners, but who accepted my book choices, which were usually, yes, about monsters.

She passed away at age fifty-one, and my dad at fifty-five, and I’m now fifty-four. This is a fact that astounds me every day. I have never told anyone this, but I vowed that if I made it past fifty, I would write whatever the hell I wanted to write. As you likely assumed, sometimes writers write what they think they should write, what they think is logical for a person of fifty-odd years.

But when I hit fifty, I wanted to do something not so logical for a person of five decades, and that was a story about a dog who ate garbage and who lived in the hollow of a dead tree in an urban park by the sea. A story about the ecstasy of moving fast and the unreliability of ducks. I wanted to write about friendship — such a hard thing to write about — and about sacrifice and honor and the vaulting joy of being depended upon. I wanted to write about art. And about a cruel and gorgeous gray ocean. And about the greatest city park the world has ever known, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. And about how necessary these wild lands, even wild lands surrounded by grids of tan and white homes, are. And about how, because we are alive and free, and so lucky to be alive and free, we must luxuriate, and exalt, in this life and its freedom.

My secret that I can now divulge is that The Eyes and the Impossible was my love letter to being alive past fifty, and how I sometimes cannot believe my luck. To see what I see, to love who I love, to be able to convey these things in a book that I honestly cannot believe made any sense to anyone. This is the most personal book I’ve ever written, and it’s also the weirdest, and the fact that librarians of this great nation have recognized it — that word again! — means to me, and should mean to any writer anywhere, that if we forget our dignified selves and write with a kind of untethered abandon, sometimes that’s exactly what a reader wants. Johannes, the protagonist of this book, gave me a way to write the way I always wanted to write — actually sing the way I always wanted to sing — and the fact that you all have accepted his voice, as unbridled as it is, means the world to me. I thank you.

There are so many people to thank. I’ll complete the list of English teachers who expected a lot from me and loved what they did, and whose mastery I benefited from. Mrs. Dristle, Mrs. Zeller, and Ms. Silber, who had us keep a dream diary, which was so weird that it forever freed me, for the rest of my life, from the need to try any drug. Ms. Pese, Mr. Hawkins, and Mr. Ferry. Mrs. Lowey, my literary magazine advisor, who taught me that even more fun than writing your own stories was editing and publishing the stories of others. And Mr. Criche, who one day my junior year in high school wrote, on the top of a paper about Macbeth that I’d written the night before: “Sure hope you become a writer.” Did he also wear tweed sport coats with leather patches on the elbows? You know that he did. Thank you, Mr. Criche.

Back in 2001, I got a letter in the mail from someone named Melanie Nolan, then an assistant editor in New York. She wanted to know if I’d ever considered writing for young readers. Of course! I wanted to say. It’s what I tried to do for years and years but gave up. Instead, I said, Maybe. Not now. Not sure. See you soon. Well, that “see you soon” took twenty years, but it was worth it. Melanie and I were reunited when she took on The Eyes and the Impossible at Knopf Books for Young Readers, and I could not have asked for a better partner. Every lunatic idea I had, from an all-color, all-ages book, to a special edition with a bamboo cover, she validated. She said yes. She never, in fact, said no. She is one in a million and I can never thank her adequately for getting this book into the world. ­Likewise, Barbara Marcus, head honcho at Random House Children’s Books, has fiercely advocated for this book, and her vast and exemplary team — Adrienne Waintraub, in particular — has moved heaven and earth to get the book into as many hands as possible. I am endlessly grateful to you all.

Caroline Sun and Raj Tawney got the word out about this very odd book, and its very oddness required their subtlety and creativity, their passion and elasticity. Thank you, my friends.

Shawn Harris has been my partner on about seven books now, some for kids, some for adults, and then this one, for everyone. Back in 2018, we met by the water on a sunny day in San Francisco, and I asked him if he’d help make a book out of bamboo. He said yes. And to paint a dog into eighteenth-century Flemish landscapes, I said. And nineteenth-century Finnish landscapes. That sounds like the only way to do it, he said. It took four years, but we got it done. Thank you, Shawn.

On the McSweeney’s side of things, Taylor Norman was my line editor on this book, the trusted and trusting reader who told me to keep going, that the book made sense, that I should not start over, that I should not throw the whole thing into the Pacific. Taylor has edited a bunch of my books for young readers, starting with Her Right Foot, and more than anyone else, she has been my guide and coach and truth-sayer in this world. She is an old-school editor, the platonic ideal of an editor, and, by the way, her uncle is the guitarist for Night Ranger. True story. Just thought I’d make sure you were still paying attention. Every time I would finish a chapter I would say, “Is this still anything?” and she would say, “It is something. Keep going.” Isn’t that what we all want from a fellow human? Someone to say keep going?

Amanda Uhle, publisher of ­McSweeney’s, was my Bertrand — unflappable, endlessly honorable, stalwart, and brave. So brave. Amanda, in fact, is one of the bravest people I’ve ever known, and she uses that bravery to publish books. She is a fearless publisher in the tradition of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Sylvia Beach, the kind of publisher who almost goes out of her way to find a new challenge, even a new fight. And weirdly, we have fun fighting together, for truthful things and beautiful things, and in bringing new voices into the world.

I have to thank Andrew Wylie and Steve Malk, literary agents, who also do that, bring new voices into the world, and who brought me to Knopf and who have helped me stay there. Early and important readers of this book were Amy Sumerton, master editor of southeast Michigan; and Sarah Stewart Taylor, writer-editor and gentlewoman farmer of Hartland, Vermont.

I need to thank Newbery ­winners — in Donna Barba Higuera’s word, Past-berys — who reached out in the days after the announcement, when I was in what Kwame Alexander aptly called “the Newbery trance.” Thank you to Donna, to Meg Medina, to Amina Luqman-Dawson, and to all the past winners who have inspired me, and a special shout-out to Jerry Craft. When my son, now fifteen, heard that my book had won the Newbery, he said, “Whoa. Like New Kid?” This was the most respect my writing has ever gotten from my son. To all the Past-berys, I promise to try to be worthy of your company.

To this year’s honorees — Nasuġraq, Tobin, Pedro, Erin, Daniel — it’s humbling to be recognized alongside you and to celebrate with you. Thank you, each of you, for contributing to this sacred world — the world of books read by young people.

Speaking of young people: way back when he was only twelve, my son was one of the early readers of The Eyes and the Impossible, and his enthusiasm and his judicious notes helped me feel this book might be a book. Likewise, my daughter read the next draft, and the one after, and assured me that even someone as old as her, then fifteen, would like this book too. Finally, my wife, Vendela, always my first and last reader, my bride, my ally, and my only love. Thank you.

Thank you, the Newbery committee. I can’t imagine how hard your work was, but I am grateful to you, and to all librarians everywhere, for accepting this very strange book, and for accepting all very strange books. Books are simply souls in paper form, so when we accept a strange book, we accept a strange soul. We say that soul, however unusual or unprecedented, how reckless or flawed, belongs among the other souls of the world. And once this soul has been welcomed to the library — which is nothing less than a repository of souls — it cannot be unwelcomed.

More than that, because of you, these souls will be protected. When the small-minded ban books, they are ­banning souls. They are ­removing ­certain voices from the chorus of humanity and the chorus of history. And it is librarians who are tasked with making sure these souls are not removed, that they always have a home and always have a voice. Librarians are the keepers and protectors of all ­history’s souls, its outcasts and oddballs, its screamers and whisperers, all of whom have a right to be heard. No pressure, but we count on you to save us all, to protect us all, to preserve us all. Thank you and godspeed.

Dave Eggers is the winner of the 2024 Newbery Medal for The Eyes and the Impossible, published by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, and by McSweeney's. His 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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Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers won the 2024 Newbery Medal for The Eyes and the Impossible (Knopf).

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