Blowing the Horn: Even by a Millimeter

As I thought about the birthday of this magazine, and what I hope for the future of children’s literature, I wondered about the past. The Horn Book was born in 1924. What else happened in 1924? I followed my usual writing strategy: when in doubt, research.

I discovered that the year had a few interesting events: athletes competed in the first Winter Olympics, held in the French Alps; astronomer Edwin Hubble announced that the Milky Way is only one of many galaxies in the universe; Adolf Hitler was sent to prison for a failed coup and before year’s end was, unfortunately, released; J. Edgar Hoover was named head of the FBI.

I didn’t find anything there I could hang an essay on. So I went about finishing the first draft of the very long book I’ve been working on for approximately three million years. The manuscript was due that day.

And then I threw the ball for the dog. Because on deadline day, right after I hit send, Zuzu told me in very clear dog language that it was time to pay attention to her. By now the sun had gone down. Since we live in an apartment in New York City, we went into the hallway and I threw and kicked her ball over and over, trying very hard not to break the overhead light fixtures or annoy the neighbors. It felt great to do something physical after so many days at my desk. My brain was off duty. But is a writer’s brain ever really off duty?

Suddenly, mid-throw, I had a thought: James Baldwin. When was he born? I don’t have a great memory for dates, but something told me it was 1924.

After a few more throws and kicks, I managed to get the ball-obsessed dog back into the apartment, and I went back to my desk. Yes, the great writer James Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, just two months before The Horn Book Magazine’s first issue.

The author's wall.
Photo: Deborah Heiligman.

It’s not so surprising that I thought of James Baldwin at that moment. He’d been keeping me going for the past few years. I have a quote from him taped to the wall next to my computer. I look at it every day. It’s been hard to be optimistic about the future these past eight years or so. Before that, I, like many other idealistic White baby boomers, was lulled into thinking the world, especially our country, was getting better: we had our first Black president; gay marriage was legal; women were calling out brutality, and the brutes were being made to pay; there seemed to be progress in so many places. For the first time in years, I had felt proud to be an American. And then…so much went downhill.

And on top of it all, now book banning. It’s hard to keep going as a writer when books are being kept away from children because of hate, and, I suppose, fear. And ignorance. Knowledge that children need is being withheld from them.

Emma Goldman, an outspoken political activist, and the subject of the book I just turned in, would have been fighting the book banning with all her considerable might. She said, “The most violent element in society is ignorance.”

Book banning and censorship propagate ignorance. Book banning is violent. So, this is my hope for the future: that people keep writing all kinds of books for children, and those books keep getting published, and given to children. We need to fill shelves with books that children love and need, that expand their worlds. It is the children’s literature community’s job to keep our society safe by fighting ignorance.

Five years before he was named director of the FBI, five years before this magazine was born, an ambitious J. Edgar Hoover kicked Emma Goldman out of America. She was deported because she had revolutionary ideas and she spoke her mind.

Writing about Emma and her idealism these past few years, I often felt like quitting. So much of what she argued against, and fought for, is still relevant. At times, I could not see the point.

That’s why I taped this James ­Baldwin quote to my wall. It has been my mantra, and is my offering to children’s book creators now and always:

The bottom line is this: You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. In some way, your aspirations and concern for a single man in fact do begin to change the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way a person looks or people look at reality, then you can change it.

From the May/June 2024 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Our Centennial. For more Horn Book centennial coverage, click here. Find more in the "Blowing the Horn" series here.

Single copies of this special issue are available for $15.00 including postage and may be ordered from:

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Deborah Heiligman

Deborah Heiligman is the winner of the 2017 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Nonfiction for Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers (Godwin/Holt). Her next book is Loudmouth: Emma Goldman vs. America (a Love Story) (Farrar, 2025).

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