So, I’m getting ready to leave for the Texas Book Festival where I will hang with some of my favorite “reading rock star” authors – and with my friend Maya Smart, whose family transplanted there earlier this year to become part of the University of Texas family.
But before I head to Austin, I’ll be making an important pitstop in Tampa, FL to receive the 2015 Joan Kaywell Books Save Lives Award at the University of South Florida. This year, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass is the winner, along with honorable mention of Openly Straight by the fabulous Bill Konigsberg.
The timing of the award couldn’t be better for my spirits. It’s Hispanic Heritage month AND it was recently Banned Books Week. That means I’ve had my usual emotional whiplash of being received with open arms or with a full dose of ugly.
If you read this blog regularly, you might know that I spent last week on the road, first to New York City and then down to Arkansas. Coming off of a few days in New York is always a little strange. This is a city where the word “ass” isn’t really a problem. It’s a place with Kinky Boots on Broadway (fantastic,) a painted naked lady on Times Square (not so fantastic,) and books and lecture series absolutely everywhere. Since Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass is set in Queens, there is always a sense of the safe and familiar when I talk about the book there. That’s not to say that there aren’t people in New York who oppose the title of my book or its content. But the truth is, I’ve never met them there.
Anyway, after I wrapped up in the city, I headed down to Hot Springs as the guest of the Garland County Public Library. It’s a popular place, thanks to a welcoming staff and some good ideas. Kids can borrow a Halloween costume or fishing rods, along with checking out their favorite books, for example. As it happens, I was their first YA author to visit, and I got driven around in the official library transport vehicle, which the librarians and I nicknamed the Sexy Toaster.
All was going fine on my school visits. The elementary school children were adorable, as usual, all of them helping me say words in Spanish and English as we talked about Mango, Abuela, and Me. What can I say? I love little kids with missing teeth, big smiles, and stories they’re dying to tell me. It reminds me of when my own kids were little and we’d crowd around a book on the couch.
But here comes the whiplash. I don’t only write sweet picture books, of course. I write realistic YA fiction, too. Trouble, trouble, trouble.
My first high school experience was at a small school where they kids hadn’t read the novel. My presentation consisted of a reading of the first two pages of my novel, followed by a 40 minute talk about books and bullying and the events that shaped the book.
When I finished, a teacher and (I later found out) coach approached the stage.
“I appreciate what you’re trying to do,” he said, “but there are children in this room who have heard more filth and vulgar words in the last 30 minutes than they have in their whole lives, and my child was one of them. This was inappropriate.”
My stomach clenched. My brain went blank. I had no pithy Queens-flavored reply. I honestly felt like he’d spit on me, even though his tone was completely professional.
Luckily, there was a girl from the audience standing nearby, waiting to speak to me, so I kept my cool. I muttered something about how I was sorry he felt that way, that perhaps this would give him a chance to talk to his son about what he had heard and about what bullying looks like here in his school.
This would be a lousy story if not for what happened right after he walked away. The young girl who had been waiting approached me and said. “People make fun of me here. How I look. How I sound. How I keep to myself.” She showed me a journal where she draws pictures to vent what she’s thinking.
I thought about her all evening, reminding myself that my 45 minutes with her was worth the two minutes of pain at the hands of the disappointed teacher.
The next morning, I’m happy to say, I visited Hot Springs High School, Bill Clinton’s alma mater. I was really feeling gun shy, but almost immediately, I could see a huge difference in how this school operated. Nikki Aitken, their librarian, had organized for the ninth graders to read the novel as a whole. She confessed being concerned when she first considered using the novel, but after reading it to the end, she decided that it had something important to offer kids who are trying to dig for their sense of self and for compassion. Everything about this visit was different. The ninth grade principal was on hand and couldn’t have been more welcoming and encouraging. (Thank you, Mr. Hatley.) And most important of all were the girls who crowded around for pictures afterward, asking if they could contact me on my website. “I am going through some stuff,” one whispered to me. “I have to talk to you.”
So am I vulgar or honest? Is the book trashy or valuable? Should educators trust their kids to read and discuss uncomfortable books or should they stick to the classics and call it a day?
When Dr. Joan Kaywell first told me last year that I’d won this award, I was honored but also a little scared. It’s a big banner to put on a book and an author: This book can save a life? That’s a big responsibility, and I was shy about thinking of Yaqui in this way because I know that sometimes books alone won’t be enough. We need courageous adults and compassionate, informed teens to help save lives, too.
So as I head to Tampa and Austin, all of these experiences are still swirling inside me. Sure, I got a dose of momentary shame, but I also got confirmation about the urgent need to stand with the beautiful young people I meet all the time. They’re living complicated lives, and they need us to have faith in them.
When I walk across the stage on Tuesday, I’ll be thinking of the kids in Arkansas and the teachers and librarians who care about them. I’m going to carry with me the girl who has “stuff going on,” the one who draws in a notebook to cope, the kids who hide in the library to avoid the lunchroom at all costs. I’m going to carry all of that – with my held held high. Thank you, University of South Florida and the Florida Council of Teachers of English for what is going to be a beautiful day.