Conference Corner: Walter Dean Myers Awards

Today I livestreamed the Walter Dean Myers Awards and Symposium from We Need Diverse Books.

First, I highly recommend watching it yourself. Super inspirational.

I was a little sorry I hadn’t taken the trouble to go into DC and attend in person. But when I found out they were livestreaming it, it was way too tempting to watch from home.

I do take notes to help me pay attention. And then transcribing the notes helps me absorb what I heard. But instead of transcribing everything I wrote down, let me just give some highlights.

First, check out the winners on the We Need Diverse Books site. The program was emceed by Jacqueline Woodson, and first up was a round table discussion with three Honor Book authors, moderated by Ellen Oh, one of the founders of We Need Diverse Books. Some gems from that talk:

Ibi Zoboi became a writer after she read a book by Edwidge Danticat where her mother’s hometown in rural Haiti is mentioned right at the start. She felt validated and that she could be a writer, too.

Sonora Reyes was in a mental hospital when they read a book that was a rom-com centering a trans boy. It was full of joy and funny and happy and it saved their life.

When asked about book bans, Sabaa Tahir responded that you can look at the history of marginalized people. They don’t give up! We’re all going to keep writing! More books! Louder books! We absolutely refuse to be silenced. We’ll keep yelling until you’re ready to join that shout.

Ibi Zoboi thinks about dystopias. Even if somehow all books were destroyed, there would still be stories. Kids are telling stories already. That is impossible to stop.

Even though Sabaa Tahir switched from fantasy novels to realistic, they all focus on Hope through difficult times. The question she’s asking in all her books is, “Why do we treat each other this way?”

Ellen Oh asked them all if they had advice for young writers.

Sonora Reyes: Keep in mind that a lot of advice out there won’t work for you, and that’s okay. Test out writing advice and keep only what works.

Ibi Zoboi: Octavia Butler wrote about empaths. Many artists and writers are feeling people. Lean into that. Question your feelings. “We need more heart people in the world.”

Sabaa Tahir went with the practical: You need to get words on the page, so bribe yourself. She uses chocolate. Even if it’s garbage, put words on the page.

Next, recent Newbery winner Amina Luqman-Dawson spoke. She was a recipient of a writer’s mentorship from We Need Diverse Books. In 2018, the last time Jacqueline Woodson emceed the awards, she was sitting in the auditorium, clutching her manuscript that later won the Newbery Medal.

She talked about fighting book banners who claim that young people need to be protected from feeling bad. If that were true, we’d be talking about gun control.

The war on books isn’t about how young people feel. It’s a war to control your minds. It’s about the power of your ideas. The ideas in your minds can and likely will change the world. They worry if you learn, you might stand up for change.

Remember you have power to change the world!

Then it was time to give the trophies, and the winners gave speeches. First up was Angela Joy, who write the words for Choosing Brave.

She was at a writer’s conference feeling like a chocolate chip in a sea of marshmallows and heard about We Need Diverse Books as a call to action.

Lots of people were skeptical of a picture book about Emmett Till’s mother. Lots of Americans don’t want to hear his story at all. But that story is still being played out, and our youth see this. We need to help them process the trauma. Books are tools for conversations.

She wanted their book to be age-appropriate but honest, factual but inspiring. Once they landed on the theme of bravery, they had the handle for that balance.

Mamie’s life inspires her, and she’s trying to spread that with Choosing Brave.

Future leaders of tomorrow’s hate groups are being indoctrinated as babes in arms. We should be just as intentional about teaching our kids.

Then she sang a wonderful and beautiful song, “You’ve got to be carefully taught to hate.”

Let us also teach with intention.

Then illustrator Janelle Washington spoke. She talked about all the books she loved as a kid. Books are her forever friends and wise teachers.

Our connections with each other give us the strength to be brave in the face of everyday diversity.

Then it was time for the Teen category winners. Andrea Rogers, author of winner Man Made Monsters spoke and introduced herself in Cherokee.

She got serious about writing when her kids were faced with the same lack of stories about Indians as she had seen. Many times, other kids told her kids that they couldn’t be Indian, because all the Indians are dead.

For her, reading is a way of escape, but writing is a way to say, “We are here!” “I write, therefore I am.”

Her tribe’s story doesn’t end with the Trail of Tears.

How do you thank people for finally seeing you?

Everything in life is made up. Help children make up a better future.

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