E.B. White Read Aloud Award
The Association of Booksellers for Children Dinner
The National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.
Book Expo America, May 18, 2006
Thank you so much! I’m delighted to be here this evening, to see so many of you I already know – last year Harcourt sent me to independent booksellers throughout the south on a pre-pub and then a publication tour for LITTLE BIRD and I got to see first-hand, just how hard you work to put books into the hands of readers!
You introduced the writers a few minutes ago and we stood up while you said such complimentary things about us. I wish you all could stand – booksellers, librarians, teachers, publishers, editors – parents! – all of you who help put books into the hands of young readers. I’m proud to work with you.
I want to thank Harcourt for bringing me to BEA, and I want to thank the ABC.
I became a writer in 1976 when I was 22 years old, a single mother of two young children, the office assistant – and the only woman — in a beat-up trailer on Albemarle Street in Northwest Washington, where the construction company I worked for was building the red line of the D.C. subway system. I spent my lunch breaks holed up in the Tenley Circle branch of the D.C. Public Library, which is where I discovered, quite by accident:
The Essays of E.B. White, The Second Tree from the Corner, The Points of My Compass and more,
long before I discovered White’s fiction.
I knew I wanted to write essays in the way that White wrote, full of beautiful language, and love for all that is transitory in life… My sailboat-new young-adult life had washed overboard somewhere long about 18, and I didn’t recognize myself anymore, drenched and half-drowning in an adult life I wasn’t prepared to take on.
I had a story to tell. But I didn’t know how to tell it.
So I studied White, reading aloud that elegant, affectionate, humane voice full of truths which I so wanted to touch. When I found The Letters of E.B. White remaindered for $3.00 at Ollson’s Books a few years later, it became mine and I read it so often I broke the spine, pages fell out. I bought The Elements of Style, and I wrote essays of my own, using White’s as my model, and reminding myself to:
“Omit needless words!” (rule 17) “Use definite, specific, concrete language!” (rule 16) “Write with Nouns and Verbs!” “Avoid the use of qualifiers!” “Do not explain too much!”
I wrote essays as a freelancer until I discovered the beauty and wonder of children’s books. Reading Charlotte’s Web over and over after having come to White through his essays, I learned that writers can take the sea of their lives and turn it into a boat called story—–
And not just the outer trappings – in White’s case, the farm, the geese, the Blue Hill Fair, but the inner workings of the heart, as in White’s hymn to the barnyard and his lament over the death of his own pig, both of which he wrote about so eloquently in his essays.
I began to use fiction to tell my truth. The truths that threatened to drown me at 18 are, at rock-bottom, the same truths I write about today. But today I am a better sailor.
Each Little Bird That Sings is a story about ten-year-old Comfort Snowberger who lives above the funeral home in Snapfinger, Mississippi, who tries to keep everyone in line (Rule #1 – “You don’t have to wear black to a funeral, any old color is fine, just don’t wear a wedding dress or your torn shorts!”) — and who must come to terms with, and learn to love, the transitory nature of life, while at the same time feeling washed overboard in Jello-O salads, a friend’s betrayal, a sniveling cousin’s neediness, and her dog’s disappearance.
To have Little Bird honored by the ABC with the E.B. White Read Aloud Award feels like a testament to the power of stories – E.B. White’s stories, in this case — to move one reader – me – to paddle toward the shore of her transitory existence, cling to the side of someone else’s sturdy boat, climb aboard and learn how to stand, how to steer, eventually how to build a boat – a life – books — of her own.
My fondest hope is that my stories help build a boat for someone else. Your wonderful recognition helps Little Bird find the swimmers who need to reach this particular shore. I am so glad. I am lucky.
And I want to say thank you so much.