Josette Frank Howard Award
Bank Street College of Education
Good Morning to you all! I bring greetings from Atlanta, Georgia, where the honeysuckle blooms with abandon and the redbuds are about to pop! I write fiction that takes place in the American South, where I grew up a child of kudzu, moon pies, cemeteries, and revival hymns. (WAS I washed in the blood? I didn’t know!)
I write about what I knew first, because, as Patricia MacLachlan tells us, “What you know first stays with you.”
It’s such a pleasure to be with you this morning. Thank you for inviting me, and thank you so much to the children’s book award committee for recognizing EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS. I am delighted, honored, and humbled by this validation… and I’m particularly grateful I could be here today because I have been longing to share with you a story.
You are honoring my fiction today. I want to honor you for teaching me how to honor my children and myself. I became a mother in 1971, when I was 18-years-old. By the time I was 21, I had two children and very little else. I was on my own for a variety of reasons, removed from home and family, and I had no idea how to be a mother. But I had grown up reading and I knew how to find the public library, even if I had to walk to it.
I moved a lot in those days, and I got a library card in every place we lived. Books became models as I learned basic skills I needed to know in order to become an adult: how to clean an oven, plant a garden and can the tomatoes, sew a shirt, bake macaroni and cheese, wash laundry by hand and hang it properly on a homemade clothesline.
But there were precious few books in the library at that time that could teach me how to care for my children.
I had received Dr. Spock’s BABY AND CHILD CARE in the hospital almost at the same moment that a nurse, frustrated that I could not diaper my newborn daughter, said, “Didn’t you take ANY course on how to care for a baby?” No, I didn’t know there were such things, just as I didn’t know there were childbirth classes (THAT was a long day!).
So I read Dr. Spock, and I read a book a door-to-door salesman gave me when he saw I couldn’t afford it, a book called THE MOTHER’S ENCYCLOPEDIA, which described all the horrific diseases my children could become infected with…
I was overwhelmed. But slowly I figured it out.
And I so wanted — while I was figuring it out and working as a timekeeper in a construction trailer in Washington, D.C., picking up my children each evening after their ten-hour stint in day care — I so longed for us to find some levity in life.
I did my best, and yet I was certain I was ruining these children.
And then I found a book in the library that changed my life: THE PLEASURE OF THEIR COMPANY: HOW TO HAVE MORE FUN WITH YOUR CHILDREN… by The Bank Street College. This was my introduction to Bank Street.
In the pages of this book I found treasure after treasure:
listening, reflecting back, and labeling with children —
sky watching, growing things together, teaching a respect for all life —
understanding emotional adjustments,
the value of the ridiculous,
how to have fun with music, language, and…
What a discovery. So many of the things I was already doing with my children, this book validated. So many things I didn’t do or understand, this book mapped – modeled — for me. The book became a Bible and I wore it out when I was eventually able to purchase my own copy.
Eventually life became sweeter, hard again, sweeter, very hard, wonderful, and it will be hard again.
Isn’t that just the way it is?
This is what Uncle Edisto tries to tell Comfort in LITTLE BIRD; Comfort doesn’t want to hear it. Neither did I. Like Comfort, I didn’t want life to strut into my heart with all its messy glory — but it did, and it continues to.
I have always needed models – a voice calling to me from outside my wilderness – to see me through, to show me how, to teach me. More than anything, books have been actual, physical models for me. And they have helped me learn to tell my story.
In 1986 I was writing essays about home and family and had begun to see them published. I had checked out every volume on writing that was on my local library shelves, and I had purchased two shelves full of used college textbooks about writing. I read every one of them from cover to cover.
When my son Zachary was born ten years after my eldest child and I began reading to him, I was amazed to see how picture books had changed. When I read the first page of Cynthia Rylant’s newly published WHEN I WAS YOUNG IN THE MOUNTAINS, I knew I had found another model. All those essays I had written – THIS was what I had been trying to touch.
And so I began again, carting home baskets of picture books from the library, typing their texts, studying them just as carefully as I’d studied the directions for how to bake a turkey or listen to my child. This is how I learned.
This is when the rejections started! And they continued until 1996 when Liz Van Doren at Harcourt Brace called me about a manuscript I’d sent in over the transom, called WE ALL BE JOVIE AND THAT’S THE TRUTH: “I wake up feeling like the bubbles in an RC Cola! All fizzed up and ready to pop!”
JOVIE eventually turned into LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER, and LITTLE BIRD, too. I began to use my Mississippi childhood as a framework to talk about the feelings that mattered to me…
… for what I learned as I gained years and perspective was that we universally want the same things: To love and be loved. To be safe. To achieve something, to DO something with our lives, to matter. To be seen – to belong.
All my fiction is about these themes. How do we love one another? What matters? What matters most? What constitutes a family? And how do the choices we make determine who we become? EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS grew directly out of a time of choices. LITTLE BIRD is about loss, death, grief, resilience, faith, and moral choices. (It is also about gossip, funeral home handkerchiefs, a good dog, a tall rock, and chicken and potato chip casserole.)
I began writing LITTLE BIRD in 2003 because I couldn’t write anything else. I was wrestling with real deaths – the death of my 23-year marriage, the death of my mother, the death of my father, the death of day-to-day motherhood as the youngest of my four children grew up, and the death of my homeplace, as I knew I would be moving from the home I’d lived in for 25 years. Even my dog died.
So much loss.
By this time I had been teaching writing in the classroom for many years, using children’s literature as models to teach all the conventions of good writing. As you know, children want to tell their stories, whether they dance them, sing them, paint them, draw them or write them. They want to tell us about love and loss, friendships and family, betrayal and redemption. It’s so important to them to try to figure out this life, to discover their place in it, to belong, to be seen — to matter.
As I worked with children and their stories during this hard time, I learned from them that I was not alone, that bad things happen to good people, that friendships die, that sometimes pets don’t come home, and that we can count on love from the most odd and unexpected places… from a cousin we think we cannot stand, or a brother who suddenly wants so much to help, even from a friend who has previously betrayed us. When I wrote LITTLE BIRD, these childrens’ stories were in my heart as well, and I wanted to honor them. Here onto the page came Peach, Tidings, Declaration… and wonderful, noble Dismay, Funeral Dog Extraordinaire.
I’m so happy to be able to honor in a public forum the good folks at Harcourt Brace with whom I have worked for ten years now. They have championed my quirky stories with the eccentric names and earnest plots and silly sidebars and have helped put my stories into the hands of readers. My editor, Liz Van Doren, deserves lots of credit for bringing LITTLE BIRD – and me – to life during a time when my life was so tempestuous.
I had been trying for two years to finish a novel under contract to Harcourt and had just admitted to Liz, in 2003, that I was not going to be able to do it, that survival was taking up all my time. Liz said to me, “you are forgetting you are a writer. A writer writes. I want you to put this book aside, sit at your desk, and answer this question: what can I write?” I promised her I would.
And, as I sat there thinking about all that loss, I typed “I come from a family with a lot of dead people,” for that was certainly true. Who was this voice? I immediately gave her a name, Comfort, for I needed a lot of comfort. And when I looked up several hours later, I had three chapters of a story that began pouring out of me, detailing death, grief, abandonment – and chicken and potato chip casserole. I sent those chapters to Liz on email that very day. “This is what I can write,” I said. Within hours she sent me a two word message: “Keep going.”
Thank you, Liz. You have been a model of patience, persistence, and faithfulness.
When I found out LITTLE BIRD had won the Josette Frank award, I went immediately to the Bank Street website to read the particulars: This award for fiction honors a book or books of outstanding literary merit in which children or young people deal in a positive and realistic way with difficulties in their world and grow emotionally and morally.
I have had to grow emotionally and morally. I hope I am still growing. Long ago you invested in me and my stories, and you didn’t even know it… Or did you?
I thank you for this meaningful award – it takes my breath away to receive it – and I want to honor YOU for the good work you continue to do, and for publishing a book that helped me to help my children and myself.
Thank you so much.