Pat Triggs reports on award-giving at the American Library Association’s Annual Conference, 1988.
Prize-giving at ALA (as it is familiarly known) is invariably accompanied by eating. For the prestigious Newbury and Caldecott awards you (naturally) have dinner. The YASD/SLJ award to -S E Hinton (see Ed’s Page) was presented at a brunch. The Coretta Scott King Award committee invites you to breakfast. So at 7.00 on a Tuesday morning last July I made my way across New Orleans to La Salle Ballroom A of the Inter-Continental Hotel. By 7.30 1 was starting on the orange juice along with four hundred or so others, all of whom like me had paid to be present at this occasion. (Imagine that happening in the UK?) It was all over soon after 9.00-and had become for me the most remarkable event of the whole conference.
The Coretta Scott King Award was inaugurated in 1969, adopted by the Social Responsibility Round Table of ALA in 1979 and made an official part of the ALA Conference programme in 1982. It is presented annually to honour ‘a Black author and Black illustrator for outstanding contributions which promote understanding and appreciation of the culture and contribution of all peoples to the realization of the American Dream’. The books chosen as winners or for honourable mention ‘must portray people, places, things and events in a manner sensitive to the true worth and value of all beings. Works of fiction or non-fiction are eligible and both biography and autobiography figure strongly in the list of past winners.
This year the award went to Mildred Taylor for The Friendship and to artist John Steptoe for Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale. (‘This retelling of a Zambian story with stunning illustration – the artist used his own family as models – has already won the Horn Book Award.) Four books received ‘Honorable Mention’.
You do not have to be at this occasion long to sense that there is more at issue here than the celebration of good books. Librarians, who began and maintain it, writers, artists. publishers and sponsors are connected, in the act of making and celebrating this award, to a rich and complex strand of American life. For ‘people of colour the pain and the pride of their history, of their struggle for human and civil rights, is an ever-present and unfinished story. The writers and artists honoured at the presentation identified themselves strongly with that story; those who could not attend sent messages to be read by their publishers. messages which went far beyond the usual courtesies and expressions of gratitude which commonly accompany such acceptances.
Julius Lester, honoured for Tales of Uncle Remus: ‘The Adventures of Brer Rabbit spoke of the stories as ‘a psychic record of persistence and survival’ with universal as well as specific significance. (It was good to hear from Phyllis Fogelman. his editor at Dial, that there are three more volumes to come.) Ashley Bryan, the illustrator of What a Morning! The Christmas story in Black Spirituals, closed his address with a powerful performance of the poem ‘0 Black and Unknown Bards’. And another honoured writer, Alexis de Veaux, had us out of our seats and cheering with a rousing reminder of the ‘subtle yet permeating attacks on books which help young people to a positive self image. She called for ‘book activists’ to unite against the many and diverse forces which were interfering with free distribution and preventing books getting to children. Her vivid, jazzy free-form prose in An Enchanted Hair Tale (the Honour book) is equally engaging as she tells how Sudan whose hair is a ‘fan daggle of locks and lions and lagoons’ learns to cope with teasing and name calling, and about being different to be yourself (Cheryl Hanna’s black and white pictures explore and extend the Rastafarian themes of this lovely book which would surely be welcome here).
Mildred Taylor, a previous winner of the award for Let the Circle be Unbroken, spoke of herself as a ‘vehicle. a ‘conduit’ for telling the story of her family. Brought up in the North she learned the history of her family, going back to the days of slavery, from the stories told her, mainly by her father. The Friendship, set in 1933, draws in particular on a story her father was part of as a child and tells how Cassie Logan and her brothers witness what happens when Mr Tom Bee, an old black man, insists on calling the white storekeeper by his first name.
As told by her father, Mildred Taylor recalls, ‘it always moved me, made me angry, made me proud. Mr Tom Bee was important to her at a time when black heroes were not in evidence, particularly at school. ‘It was painful to me to listen to the history of my country, of civil war and of slavery, when the negro was always presented as docile, happy with his fate, making no effort to rise above his condition. I felt it was a condemnation of me as well as my ancestors.’ She knew too that ‘what the textbooks said was different from what my family told me’.
Mildred Taylor had many attempts at writing the story of Mr Tom Bee. Now we have it brilliantly compressed into fifty pages. How, she wonders, will the children of the eighties react? Will they be able to understand the importance of naming, the dignity, respect and equality that are wrapped up in it? And she recalls the sense of outrage felt in the fifties by the white community of Jackson, Mississippi (where she was born) when the newspaper referred to a black couple as Mr and Mrs.
The Friendship is dedicated ‘In memory of my father, the storyteller’. In the final paragraphs of the story Mr Tom Bee, shot in the leg for his insolence, persists in first-naming the white man whose life he saved in his youth and who swore then they would always be equals and friends. This section of the story is, says Mildred Taylor, exactly as her father told it. In New Orleans she read aloud his words, his witness to Mr Tom Bee’s heroic defiance of bigotry, oppression and injustice. At 9.00 in the morning, the debris of breakfast before us, the coffee going cold as we listened, it was an extraordinarily emotional moment and one I felt privileged to be sharing.
The Friendship (another Dial title) will be published here by Gollancz, in an edition which also includes two other stories, one of which, The Gold Cadillac, is based on Mildred Taylor’s own childhood memories of family trips back to Mississippi from Toledo, Ohio. Sadly though, this British compilation will be without the illustrations which accompanied The Friendship and The Gold Cadillac, both published separately in the USA. Max Ginsburg’s black and white drawings for The Friendship and Michael Hay’s sepia paintings in The Gold Cadillac extended and enhanced the text, evoking period, setting and emotions for readers removed in time (and place) from the events recorded in the stories. I hate to think that we would have been so shortsighted as to pass over these in their original editions.
I left the award breakfast full of admiration for the black librarians whose determination and dedication had brought about this confident celebration of the black experience. Who will do the same for the rapidly growing Hispanic population I wondered? I saw little reflection of that part of America’s ethnic mix in publishing for children. One of the Coretta Scott King Award Honour books this year was The Invisible Hunters, a dual-language (English and Spanish) version of a Nicaraguan Miskito Indian legend which tells of the impact of the first European traders on traditional village life. The story was collected by Harriet Rohmer and is published by Children’s Book Press, a company so small they could afford to take only a table (rather than a stand or a booth) in the publishers’ exhibition and had to be hunted down in the outer edges of the vast conference hall. The book is a significant piece of publishing, but one which was able to be recognised by the Award committee only because it is illustrated by black artist Joe Sam.
Ironically, as Rosemary Stones and Andrew Mann were winding up The Other Award here (see BfK 53). I found myself wondering whether some similar initiative might usefully be started by US librarians (easily the most well-organised and influential agency in American children’s books) to highlight and support those readers (and writers) not at present very visible in mainstream publishing. Those, in fact, in a very similar position to the black minority in 1969. That sent me back to the citation honouring the winners of the Coretta Scott King Award, and to pondering whether the idea of ‘the American Dream’ is as universally accepted and acceptable in the eighties as it was in the sixties. As Bush follows Reagan, and as Spanish moves to the position of a majority language in some parts of the USA, we shall see.
The Friendship and other stories by Mildred Taylor will be published by Gollancz (0 575 04495 0, £7.95) in April.
Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale by John Steptoe is published by Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 12228 7, £7.95.