in our hearts a truth their teachers are no longer allowed
to impose upon them: that only readers have futures -- that
if you cannot use language, it will be used against you
-- that if you cannot read appreciatively, write coherently,
speak persuasively, and listen skeptically, you will find
a way to fail at whatever you want.
gather in the name of Ezra Jack Keats who bestrode the mid-20th
century, an artist who gave us new ways of looking at picture
books even as he was giving children, in The Snowy Day,
new ways of looking at the world. We gather in gratitude
to Ezra Jack Keats and to his steadfast friends, Lillie
and Martin Pope, whose foundation and faithfulness fortify
that important bastion of children's literature and its
history, the de Grummond Collection.
speaker who occupies this podium sixteen years from now
will mark the centenary of Ezra Jack Keats's birth -- his
hundredth birthday -- because time marches on, a reminder
of how brief are our moments with the young on their ways
to the world. We stand today, dazzled in the dawn of a new
century, wracking our brains for books that will ready young
readers for the challenges to come. In our classrooms and
our libraries we see the future more clearly than we care
to in a time when childhood has become adolescence and adolescence
has become less a preparation for adulthood than a consolidation
of gains already achieved, power already accumulated.
see in the unfettered peergrouping of our students a fearful
21st century of ghettos and gated communities already formed.
We see it in schools divided between the "Gifted" program
and the "Special Ed" remedial with an unfallen Berlin wall
between. We see it in communities once united by a public
school system, now divided between schools public and private.
And we hope in our hearts that books can make a difference
somehow, to those who can read them.
know a thing or two about the future because we are living
in ours. We know what books have meant to us, how they were
there for us at moments when no one else was. We know how
many times we've had to use words -- language -- to negotiate
personal survival. We are aware of how people are known,
and judged, by the language they use. Best of all, we've
learned a truth we love to share: that in a book -- and
only there -- you can go anywhere and be anybody.
can even go back to the last time the century turned, the
year after Horatio Alger died, the year when E. B. White
was one year old. A hundred years ago, a bestseller in the
shops was a book by a Chicago man already being called the
first successful attempt to create fantasy out of purely
American materials. It's a story about a scarecrow who wants
a brain, a tinman who wants a heart, a lion who wants courage,
and a plucky girl from Kansas, following the yellow brick
road to the Emerald City. The book became a series, of course.
years later, readers of twenty-seven-plus languages devour
four books about a plucky British boy who goes off to Hogwarts
School. It's a distinctly British school, very traditional,
that mandates a school uniform as all American schools ought
to. Though not necessarily the same uniform:
sets of plain work robes (black), one pointed hat (black)
for day wear....
note that all pupils' clothes should carry name tags.
. . .
City of a sort.
this slender evidence, a century has hardly seemed to intervene,
yet a century has, and we mine every minute of it in search
of meaning and direction. We can't know where we are going
until we remember who we've been. There's a history for
everything, and we need to know ours. After all, the young
readers and nonreaders before us now remember no decade
before the 1990's, even if they are in high school. They
are people with no more history than that, and while they
may well be sexually active, they remember no president
before Clinton. These people need roots.
of the young now grow up suburban, in places without sidewalks,
let alone old secrets -- let alone a social contract, because
families move to the suburbs not to confront life's problems,
but to avoid them. In these unfurling subdivisions they
create communities that practice age segregation, though
language and narrative are the gifts of the elders. Moreover,
our young now are a generation who no longer have to write
thank-you notes for gifts from grandparents, and so they
rob themselves of their own histories and are once again
at the mercy of each other. Indeed, you and I may well be
the oldest people they know, a sobering thought if you're
still writing your thesis. Of course we want to be their
elders, particularly if they don't have anybody else, or
if they can be out on a school night and are thus no longer
members of their own families. We want to represent the
elders whose stories we heard when we were young long ago
in an earlier century. We want to be links in that chain.
is, of course, a down side to being thought historical,
to being old in the country of the young. As I know to my
sorrow, when you write a book in which the Titanic sinks,
in the fullness of time you will be asked if you were on
it. As I learned not long ago, if you cite Mark Twain as
your favorite writer, you will be asked if you knew him
the very fact that in school and college the young no longer
learn sequential history -- and how it repeats --only spurs
us on. The act of writing is the quest for roots, and we
write by the light of all the books we ever read, or were
read to us when we were very small. Though it doesn't seem
to be emphasized in the "creative writing workshop," nobody
but a reader ever became a writer. Only very new and unpublished
writers believe they can re-invent the wheel unaided. You
have to read a thousand books before you can write one.
we mine the America of a century ago, we see already dealt
a hand we're still playing out. A hundred years ago today
there was a book already long on the backlist that's still
being called the first real American novel, and still being
condemned by people who never read it. It's about a boy
who is no longer quite a child if he ever was one. He's
an attention-deficit-disordered, at -risk, sociologically
challenged, differently abled, special needs, Ritalin-ready
boy, whose single parent is a homeless substance-abuser.
A boy who today would be playing a guidance counselor like
a violin, a boy named Huckleberry Finn.
significant to some of us that the first real American novel
would now be marketed as a "Young Adult" title, scrambling
for a paperback sale and book club rights and dodging the
politically correct and trying to get along without a review
from The New York Times. A bestseller in the shops
a hundred years ago was Kipling's Stalky and Co.,
a book that deconstructed the school story and laid forever
the ghost of Tom Brown's schooldays.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Stalky and
Co. cut through the cloying sentimentality that still
tempts us. They made a useful point, these two books, long
before our time: you can sentimentalize the young and pity
them their problems and excuse them everything, or you can
create them live on the page -- but you cannot do both.
1900 Rudyard Kipling's fellow country-woman, E. Nesbit,
had just published The Story of the Treasure Seekers,
still pleasingly astringent today. And she was heading for
the magic realism of The Phoenix and the Carpet and Five
Children and It. Meanwhile, standing in the wings of the
brand new century, and behind a barn in Indianapolis, was
Penrod, waiting for Booth Tarkington to give him life. Publishing
trends are never quite as new as they seem, or as they are
advertised, very much because nobody but a reader ever became
a writer. The novel revises itself for every new generation.
Books provide the continuity that real life withholds, and
new books are old books in disguise.
then the terrible 1960's befell us. Powerful, very commercial
forces sought to break our bonds with our traditions and
to divide the generations. Sometime around the second semester
of the 1968/69 school year the authority of the American
family collapsed among all classes of people, and took the
school system with it. And a whole new literature seemed
to come whistling out of nowhere -- and not by coincidence.
sighting was in New Jersey where a housewife was writing
Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, arguably the
first successful attempt in human history to give honest
aid and comfort to girls embarking upon the physical and
emotional ordeal of puberty. A generation later Judy Blume
still takes heat from book-burning mothers, her crime being
that she is making contact with their daughters just as
they are losing it.
nearly the same season a fifteen-year-old girl in Tulsa
was writing The Outsiders. S. E. Hinton was a watchful
girl who noticed that her high school was divided for eternity
into two groups, the over-praised and the overlooked. Today
we would call them the gifted and the remedial. She called
them the "Socs" and the "Greasers." Cannily, S. E. Hinton
chose to write from the viewpoint of the Greasers, the black-leather
underclass boys slumping to school only to make contact
with one another, as their grandsons still do. Wiser than
all her tribe, S. E. Hinton understood that young readers
will identify most compassionately with the kind of people
they wouldn't sit next to in class. Clearly, she'd read
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
E. Hinton wrote an outrageously melodramatic group portrait
of the gang as surrogate family. All our stories are family
stories, or the search for family. Since her book depicted
a gang as a family freed of parents, the world of young
readers beat a path to her door.
Outsiders became one of the most widely-read novels
in the history of print. It lit up the sky. In the afterglow
a chemistry teacher in Staten Island, New York, named Paul
Zindel wrote The Pigman, a quiet story about a girl
and a boy and an old man that asked some necessary questions
about personal responsibility, questions parents ought to
new was in the wind, a revolutionary sub-literature for
a revolutionary era. As the young turned tribal, books began
to examine and question their tribal rites, never more effectively
than Will Hobbs would one day do in a book called Downriver.
As the young marched away from parents and teachers in search
of more punitive leaders, we writers quietly followed where
no parent dared tread.
trend was heralded as unexampled. Yet all of us behind these
books had, arguably, all read the same five novels that
appeared in the middle of the century: Betty Smith's A
Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Carson McCullers's The Member
of the Wedding, John Knowles's A Separate Peace,
William Golding's The Lord of the Flies, and the
big one, J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. Those
were the novels the writers of my generation read when we
were young and impressionable, and they left their mark.
They were originally written for adult readers, and so they
were easier to write. But they did a revolutionary thing;
they took their young protagonists as seriously as if they
were adult protagonists. They gave us ideas. We began to
young adult novel came to pass. It was an innovation economically
dependent upon the paperback book. It's a heaven-sent compensation
that the technology of the paperback coincided exactly with
the technology of television. Of course we weren't writing
for "YAs" at all. Young adults are people making their own
livings, and beds, We were writing for people on another
planet. We were writing for the "PLs," the pubescent literate,
a suddenly menaced minority within their own generation
as the illiterate began to swarm into seventh grade, thinking
that they'd whipped the system.
fiction is about private life. Suddenly at the start of
the 1970's young people of sixteen and thirteen and ten
had more private life than their own parents, and freedoms
that bewildered them, and choices to make their elders had
never had to confront. And the most daunting choice became:
Do I want to learn to read or don't I?
a teacher at that time when schools lost forever their only
two legitimate functions: the teaching of non-elective literacy,
and delayed gratification. In a panic, we devised the mini-course
to accommodate the unstretched attention span, and grade
inflation to flatter those we couldn't control, and social
promotion to move along those we feared. Our school halls
filled up with guidance counselors, and then we learned
those people had serious personal problems of their own.
adult books were born at that moment, in the hope that they
might win the pubescent to reading at just the age at which
we'd traditionally lost most people to reading, in far better
days than those, or these. We wrote to provide companionship
at the point in their young lives when even previously responsible
parents have stopped attending PTA meetings.
soon learned that books for young readers are held to a
higher standard than books for adults, or television for
anybody. The idea that a book could be admired for its craft
or appreciated for its validity was lost from the first
in the crossfire of school politics and multiculturalism,
and a scorching censorship from political left and right
that was to become a firestorm by the end of the century.
in fact a novel was just what the young needed. It provided
a traditional structure while they were deconstructing their
homes and schools. For some who wrote back to us, our books
were the last safe place on earth. The wisest among them
recognized our books as better friends than they had, or
were. Each of our novels is the story of a step -- how one
young character takes a single step nearer maturity, and
always independently because nobody ever grows up in a group.
How useful these books about achieving characters in a time
of social promotion.
stories were useful metaphors young readers were invited
to try on for size, apart from their timely topics -- and
not everybody wanted to go ask Alice -- our books were useful
because like all novels they dramatized life's chief lesson,
that in the long run you will be held responsible for the
consequences of your actions. A novel by its nature doesn't
celebrate someone who can merely walk away, or expects to
be taken care of. A novel isn't an elective course you can
drop if it threatens to challenge you.
when their tones may be gentle or comic or fantastic, novels
are the biographies of survivors. How useful these books
because puberty and adolescence are not problem-solving
times of life. They are blame-shifting times of life. In
adolescence, it's always somebody else's fault: the teacher
with an unreasoned grudge against me, the bad company I
fell into, and like a mantra -- mother.
our books suggested otherwise. We wrote a literature of
role-models, action figures who by implication questioned
the readers about their own lives. We provided alternatives
your peer group leader never told you you had. We even provided
linguistic role models in young narrators who could speak
the length of a book without saying either "like" or "you
our master work lay yet ahead. In 1975 Robert Cormier's
The Chocolate War went through three paperback printings,
raising all our boats. The Chocolate War will be
read a hundred years from now because it chronicles the
pivotal moment in all American history, that time when the
balance tipped and power passed from adults to children,
that time after which, teachers had to defer to their students
in order to keep their jobs. The Chocolate War is
a stirring portrait of the peergroup leader the young set
up over themselves when adult authority at home and school
adult books reached down to embrace elementary school, influencing
the style and content of chapter books, resulting in Louis
Sachar's There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom, Katherine
Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia, Marc Talbert's Dead
Birds Singing -- required readings for anyone pursuing
an elementary teaching credential.
we never quite made it to the high school. With rare and
precious exceptions, high-school teachers thought books
they'd never read were beneath their consideration. High-school
librarians continue to grow severe in reminding us they
are there for research, not light reading.
is a lost opportunity because some of our strongest novels
are on the coming of age theme, of taking that necessary
step out of adolescence and into adulthood, even now, when
maturing itself has become an elective. Books like Robin
Brancato's Winning, Chris Crutcher's Running Loose,
Terry Davis's Vision Quest, Rob Thomas's Rats
Saw God need older readers, and older readers need them.
the sad truth is that the only reading really being done
in the upper high-school years now is in the "Advanced Placement"
and college-prep classes, discussing a full menu of "classics"
that look good to parents because they are thought to look
good to colleges.
of loss and gain -- and battered by technology. It has been
the century of the projected image and the glowing screen.
The last time the century turned, it was the nickelodeon,
running one-reelers to immigrant audiences who could follow
a wordless story. At the other end of the century, two soul-dead
teenagers videotape their planning session as they prepare
to murder their schoolmates in a suburban Colorado school.
We know they validated themselves on camera before they
acted, or could act; we saw it on television.
we wouldn't be Americans if we didn't harbor the hope that
technology could somehow save our bacon. As the century
ebbed, we were being assured by many a slick salesman that
the electronic library, the computerized classroom, the
mighty microchip would transform education as we know it,
would even convert the child who doesn't want to learn,
could even trick a child into learning -- and even rewriting.
a generation of librarians and teachers trooped off to many
a weary computer clinic, trying to become Charlottes in
somebody's worldwide web.
if children could learn more from screens and machines than
they can from living elders with books in their hands, it
would all have happened forty years ago with something called
"audio-visual aids." And time marches on. The nickelodeon
becomes the picture show, and the picture show becomes a
TV set with rabbit ears. The ears become a satellite dish
that goes digital and becomes the computer, producing the
video game -- the pornography of the pre-pubescent, a violent
virtual reality that eliminates the parent who paid for
known Mark Twain, I remember it all.
children's book publishing enters a new century, enjoying
a golden age. American illustrators and authors now present
the most varied and vivid range of books the world has ever
known, books that recognize young readers at every age,
from every background and tradition. They are books that
challenge and reassure and invite. American juveniles publishing
would now be the wonder of the world, if the world were
interested in what its children read. And those who claimed
that minority children didn't read because there were no
books to reflect them should be standing in silent awe now,
and reading the 2000 John Newbery medal winner, Christopher
Paul Curtis's Bud, Not Buddy.
our schools enter the 21st century on their knees, helpless
to remedy what they already know, that despite dedication,
innovation, good books, and monies spent, schools have gone
about as far as they can go without calling parents to account.
the great living laboratory of the last fifty years, American
families have been on the move, from city to suburb, from
suburb to exurb, from public school to private school to
Christian academy, turning this country upside down in search
of a school environment that will take complete responsibility
for their children. But it turns out that the kind of people
who think it takes a village to raise a child have higher
standards for the village than they have for themselves.
great story of the last third of the American century is
the tribalizing of the young as they turned to each other
for the reassuring framework of rigid rules they couldn't
find in the permissive home, the single-parent home, the
welfare home. It is this chocolate war world that called
forth a serious literature for the young, books on the great
American theme, coming of age, books with the timeless message
that in the long run, you will be held responsible for the
consequences of your actions.
recently from a school visit where a teacher was telling
me about a seventh-grade student. "I have worked hard to
gain his trust and his respect," the teacher said. In schools
that prepare for the future, surely after seven years it
is the student who should be working hard to win and earn
the trust and respect of the teacher. But that is not our
way, and there is no movement in that direction. That compassionate
teacher, though, and that confused, calculating child may
be the two allegorical faces we turn toward an uncharted
century stretching, unknowable, ahead, giving us new stories
to tell, raising questions that only novels can ask.
one there was whose career and life ended with the century
itself. His was a creation of the technology, the distribution,
the angst of the 20th century. After fifty years, we come
to the end of the career of Charles Schulz, and so attention
must be paid. Somehow a beagle sitting atop a dog house,
thinking he is the Red Baron was the most successful of
all in bringing us together. In 1985 Umberto Eco wrote of
Charlie and Franklin, Linus and Lucy, Pigpen and Peppermint
poetry of these children arises from the fact that
we find in them all the problems, all the sufferings,
could ask for more?
stories that endure lower the barrier between generations.
Stories are not there to lock children in place, or to preserve
an innocence they don't even have, or to tell them lies.
Stories throw wide the gates because childhood is not a
garden, it's a jungle. The stories that work blaze a path
through that jungle and shine a light at the end. But they
don't deny it is a jungle. And a jungle is where the wild
gather as an obscure splinter group of people who know that
being young today is harder than anything that happened
to us. We gather in the knowledge that we may just be the
only people in their communities to tell them the truth,
that in real life, there is no "Gifted" program, that in
real life, the "Remedial" program is called "Welfare."
gather as people who want to put the right book in the right
hand as another new generation moves so quickly past us
on their ways to the world. We gather as people who believe
story is a doorway
That opens on a wider place;
A story is a mirror
To reflect the reader's face.
story is a question
You hadn't thought to ponder;
A story is a pathway
Inviting you to wander.
A story is a window,
A story is a key,
A story is a lighthouse
Beaming out to sea.
A story's a beginning,
A story is an end,
And in the story's middle
You might just find a friend.