Profile of 2022 CSK Author Award winner Carole Boston Weatherford

From time to time, I do consider writing nonfiction for young readers. I think about the people, places, and events that highlight the Black experience in the United States. And I think of the skill, wisdom, and knowledge it takes to find the right stories, the necessary stories to construct in just the right way. Then I think of people like Carole Boston Weatherford, who manage to craft such beautiful stories. To be honest I don’t think I’ve ever met Carole, yet there’s something about her mannerisms that I’ve observed from afar. The integrity she brings to her writing that invites me in makes me feel as though I could be accepted. I want to be able to write like that, to write stories that seem to come with so much ease! Oh, I’m old enough to know that when someone makes something look so simple it’s usually quite the opposite. So, I study Carole’s craft.

We both have very early writing memories. For Carole, it was that first poem she recited to her mother on the way home from school when she was in the first grade. Her mom was so impressed that she pulled the car over, stopped, and wrote the poem down as her daughter repeated it. For me, it was a second-grade teacher who was so impressed with the poem that I had written for my mother for Mother’s Day that she asked if she could keep it. My teacher wanted my poem! Of course, this shy little second grader let her keep it. And my mom never got to see her poem.

Carole Boston Weatherford grew up ensconced in history. As a child, she was often told about the century farm and Reconstruction-era villages that were co-founded by her great-grandfathers. These stories and other vestiges of family history were handed down to her by her parents and ­grandmothers. With her mother’s mother living with the family and her father’s mother living two blocks away, Carole intuitively learned that history needs to be personal to be relevant.

She used this lesson when she began working on Becoming Billie Holiday. Holiday was a well-known jazz singer throughout the nineteen-thirties, forties, and fifties, and her voice was a staple in Carole’s music collection. It seems jazz is a favorite of hers, a preference she acquired from her father. Carole claims Holiday as her muse. While writing what she would shape into a young adult novel in verse about this great American diva, Carole wrapped herself in Holiday’s music during her long drives to and from work. She channeled the melodies into a series of poems, each named after one of Holiday’s songs.

Enthusiasm for jazz fostered her first published poem, “I’m Made of Jazz,” as well as her books Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane; Jazz Baby; The Legendary Miss Lena Horne; and The Sound That Jazz Makes. And Freedom in Congo Square, a story of the creative resistance of enslaved people, is set in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz.

This great American music style probably augments Carole’s enjoyment of poetry, something she refers to as her “first language as a writer.” She often explains that through poetry’s economy of language, and balanced, rhythmic spacing on the page, writers quickly realize that words have a responsibility. With well-chosen phrasing one derives from claiming this responsibility, one delivers a one-two punch to the reader’s heart and to the head; one to the emotions and another to the intellect.

Oh, that Carole gives such strong lessons to this woman who has a rather casual attachment to the finer arts! Yet, to write not only from what you know but also from what provokes and excites you seems to be the clear message.

That passion has to be what sustains Carole through her research projects that have lasted for as many as twenty years. That indescribable sense of purpose guides a somewhat random, certainly unintentional, and naturally progressing research process that leads her to where her story needs to go.

Indescribable — a synonym for Unspeakable. This became the title for the gorgeous, oversized monograph that dares to speak of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. I think this book is an essential primer on Carole Boston ­Weatherford. The musicality of her language provided ample space for the late Floyd Cooper to draw into the story, and as a result, Cooper was awarded both a Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for his work. The book has garnered more than thirty awards and distinctions. Here, as with each of her books, Carole merges a pride that has evolved from her lived experiences as a Black woman into history and poetry to build an emotional connection to her art. Carole respects her young readers by delivering historic events with the truth they deserve to know. She believes her readers are “not too tender for tough topics.”

“Once upon a time,” she states over and over on the pages describing Greenwood, an idyllic, affluent, and influential Black community in Oklahoma. But after a page-turn she writes, “But in 1921, not everyone in Tulsa was pleased,” and reality creeps in as a palpable hatred of Blacks takes shape and forms into mob violence. The story concludes with another large gathering of people in Tulsa with the expressed vision of hope. Carole’s story provides evidence that forgiveness isn’t enough; that if we study the history and know what we’re forgiving, if we reconcile truth through love, then we can move forward. Then we can “realize the responsibility we all have / to reject hatred and violence and to instead choose hope.” This is the last line of the story.

Carole believes that “unless the kids know what can happen when we buy into that hatred, we are at risk of repeating those things.” I think this practice of relating to readers, of building trust with them, and leaving them with hope is certainly a skill worth having. This is where the one piece of advice I’ve heard from Carole comes in handy: “Read a lot. You cannot be a writer if you don’t read.”

I cannot help but notice that in her books Carole continually delivers a message of love. No doubt that begins with her love of language itself, her tool for articulating a love for her rich Black heritage, for her American homeland, for music, for children, and for so much more. She puts Harriet’s faith to work in Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom. She writes of a Fannie Lou Hamer whose voice of freedom couldn’t have been free unless grounded in something greater than what Hamer was witnessing on earth. Actually, Carole has written several books that specifically touch upon individual and collective faith. Throughout all her stories, faith is love made real. Perhaps it’s these expressions of love that draw me into her work and that I hope to find my own meaningful ways to convey. Because, when all is said and done over time and throughout space, all that remains is the love.

Congratulations, Carole. I’m wishing you much love!

From the July/August 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. Photo courtesy of Carole Boston Weatherford. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2022.

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

Kristy South
Administrative Coordinator, The Horn Book
Phone 888-282-5852 | Fax 614-733-7269

Edith Campbell

Edith Campbell

Edith Campbell is an education librarian at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Indiana. She blogs at CrazyQuiltEdi.

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