I Talk like a River: Jordan Scott's 2021 BGHB Picture Book Award Speech

The first time I saw a portrayal of a stutterer was in the film A Fish Called Wanda. I was ten years old, and up until that point had never seen or heard anyone else who stuttered. Michael Palin plays the character, “stuttering Ken,” a bumbling, nervous, unintelligent, and angry person who is always the victim of violence. I remember the shame and horror of watching “stuttering Ken” because I believed this was how people saw me. In that moment, I simultaneously saw myself and how others perceive those who stutter.

I often wonder who I would be if my story stopped with “stuttering Ken.”

I often wonder who I would be without the river.

When I was a boy, my dad would sometimes pick me up from school on “bad speech days” and take me down to the river. On those days my mouth would just stop working. Every word was painful; the laughter from classmates unbearable. I just wanted to be quiet.

One particular day, while watching the water move against the shore, my dad said: “You see how that water moves, son? That’s how you speak.”

At the river, I learned to think differently about fluency. I was no longer “stuttering Ken.” The river has a mouth, a confluence, a flow. The river is a natural and patient form, forever making its way toward something greater than itself.

Yet as the river moves, it stutters, and I do, too.

This past summer, I was invited to read and share my story with the wonderful people at the American Institute for Stuttering.

After reading I Talk like a River aloud, I listened as a young girl, clutching the book tightly to her chest, explained how it helped her accept and embrace her own stutter. She then beautifully told me how she talks like the wind.

My dad took me to the river to feel less alone. When he pointed to the river, he gave me images and language to talk about something so private and terrifying. In doing so, he connected my stuttering to the movements of the natural world, and I delighted in watching my mouth move outside of itself.

This is what my father gifted me. A gift he has now shared with the world.

I’ve never written a book that feels so paradoxically of me and completely beyond me.

[Read Horn Book reviews of the 2021 BGHB Picture Book winners.]

This book simply would not have been possible without the kindness and intelligence of others. Lara LeMoal first encouraged me to write for children and was instrumental in all aspects of this book. My agent, Hilary ­McMahon, very gently asked if I ever would consider writing about stuttering and changed my life as a result.

I also want to thank everyone at Holiday House and Neal Porter Books who works so hard on my behalf. One of the great pleasures of my life was working with Neal on this book. He takes such joy in the quiet twists and turns of language; his editing is a form of friendship and compassion. I am in awe of his brilliance.

Stuttering is often mocked because it is seen as unnatural. Sydney Smith has created a stuttering ecosystem. What a gift this is to those who stutter. For me, Sydney’s artistry extends beyond the mastery of his paintings. The artistry of this book is that Sydney was able to embody this character’s — and by extension my own — experience of stuttering. This level of empathy, understanding, and compassion says so much about the person holding the brush.

I am so incredibly grateful to everyone who is a part of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards: Roger Sutton and committee members Luann Toth, Shoshana Flax, and Nicholl Denice Montgomery. Thank you very much for this honor.

I want to especially thank all the readers, booksellers, and librarians who have taken the time to read and respond to this book. Please know that you keep me going.

From the January/February 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Read illustrator Sydney Smith's BGHB speech here. For more on the 2021 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB21. Read more from The Horn Book by and about Jordan Scott.

Jordon Scott

Jordan Scott is the author of the 2021 Boston Globe–Horn Book Picture Book winner I Talk like a River, illustrated by Sydney Smith.

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