That’s pretty much what everybody asked me this week. Maybe it’s because it’s hard to imagine a Cuban from Queens hanging out near Oklahoma where the wind does, in fact, come sweeping down the plain. But there I was: Ft. Smith, Arkansas.
Fort Smith is a quiet place with one of everything, as Ines, one of the district’s English Language Learners coordinators, told me. One Staples. One bridal shop. One mall. Church life is central to life here, which made me laugh when I toured their visitor center – a restored brothel called Miss Laura’s Social Club. You can walk along the beautiful Arkansas river here, eat something called a Frito Chili pie, or find excellent Vietnamese food. You can experience a tornado drill on a moment’s notice or tour gallows and other bone-chilling artifacts of the “wild west.”
Such a mix of unexpected things. Including people.
Like a lot of small towns in the US, Fort Smith is warm and close-knit – and it now finds its demographics shifting. Schools that were once 90 percent white, now have Latino populations of over sixty percent, compounded in some cases by significant financial need. The challenge, of course, is to embrace change as normal and to pull from it the rich experiences that a truly multicultural community can provide.
As I’ve had the chance to do elsewhere, I spoke to kids about my books, culture, and where those two meet inside a writer. I had to tread lightly on Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass and (maybe predictably) the school personnel asked that I talk more about my other books, especially Tia Isa Wants a Car, and The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind, a story which is, at its heart, about hope and migration. As usual the young people were funny and open. They asked me good, hard questions beyond how old I was and how much money I made. We shared so many laughs about being bicultural, and it was lovely to receive their many hugs and love letters, where they promised to reach inside themselves for what they truly want.
I move through the world as a person who believes in the power of our shared stories and experiences, especially in the lives of children. Books offer so many ways to help kids understand themselves and others. For newcomers, they can provide a way to become literate both in their parents’ home language and in English, a surefire plus in life. Books can help communities quilt together something beautiful from the many people who find themselves in the same place together, wondering how they will fit. My deepest wish is that Ft. Smith – like all the other towns I’ve visited this year – continues to take risks. The kids are counting on all of us to innovate.
I’ve traveled a lot this year as a result of last year’s Pura Belpré medal – including to places like Fort Smith. The medal made it possible for me see this country through the eyes of young people whose lives are so different from mine. What an honor to have met them, along with the adults who work so hard to serve them.
I’m typing this with just a few hours to go before the Superbowl. No, not the Seahawks and Patriots. I mean the one for book geeks like me: the ALA Midwinter meeting that is going on right now in Chicago. Picture it: 10,000 librarians and book lovers freezing their tails off for the love of kids and reading. Tomorrow morning, I’ll be drinking my coffee and listening to the webcast as a new slate of medal winners is announced. I can hardly wait to see who joins the Pura Belpré family this time, as well as which of the many amazing books I’ve read this year will be awarded medals.
With a grateful heart, I say this: It has been an unforgettable year of learning and making connections. I hope all of the new winners enjoy the same enthusiasm and hospitality that was offered so abundantly to me.