With fellow CABA honorees Nnedi Okorafor, Elizabeth Zunon, Miranda Paul and (partly visible) Sean Qualls
It’s been a wonderful month for Black Dove, White Raven. It’s nearly a year and a half since its publication in May 2015. It was shortlisted for the Scottish Children’s Book Award but has otherwise been a quiet book for me, so it’s sheer delight to have experienced the sudden burst of love for it that was the Children’s Africana Book Award festival.
Sponsored by Africa Access and a number of university African Studies centers, the festival was based in Washington, DC, and for me consisted of three days of school visits and book talks, including speaking at the Library of Congress Young Readers’ Center and the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art on the National Mall. The schools I spoke to included the Richard Wright Public Charter School for Journalism and Media Arts, the Washington School for Girls, and Northwood High School. Every student at these events was given a copy of Black Dove, White Raven by An Open Book Foundation, an amazing charity whose remit is to “promote literacy among disadvantaged children and teens in the Washington, DC area” as they work to bring authors and their books together with students and readers.
With students and staff at Richard Wright, as well as representatives of An Open Book Foundation
I think that for many listeners the highlight of my Richard Wright performance was when I responded to one of the teachers in Jamaican patois! (I was as surprised and delighted as anyone.) For me, the highlight was the poise and technical skill of the young people who filmed an interview with me for their video channel, a testament to the success of the Richard Wright School’s focus on journalism and media.
The Washington School audience was warm and sensitive – one of the girls asked me if my parents were proud of me, and I had to confess that they’d both been dead for 30 years. But, I said, I felt sure that my mother in particular would have been proud of Black Dove, White Raven, more so than of anything else I’d ever written. And all the kids burst into spontaneous applause.
Northwood's cool photo collage!
At Northwood, for the first time ever I actually had a sprinkling of native-born Ethiopian students in the audience. It made my slide images of Ethiopia so much more engaging to have kids there who recognized the sites and ceremonies I was showing them. There was a student whose mother had worked with one of my travelling companions in Ethiopia and recognized his name when I mentioned it. It was pretty wonderful to feel such a strong connection with an audience.
Black Dove, White Raven was one of the two Children’s Africana Awards Best Books named in the Older Readers category – the other being the charming Who Is King? by Beverly Naidoo. The winners and honorees in all categories were feted at a gala dinner at Busboys & Poets in the center of DC. As well as me, there were five other authors and illustrators able to attend: Nnedi Okorafor and Mehrdokht Amini, one of the winning author/illustrator teams in the Best Books for Young Children category for Chicken in the Kitchen; Kathy Knowles, who wrote Nana and Me, one of the Young Children Honor Book winners; Sean Qualls, the illustrator of the Young Children Notable Book Emmanuel’s Dream by Laurie Ann Thompson; and Miranda Paul and Elizabeth Zunon, the author/illustrator team behind the Young Children Notable Book One Plastic Bag. In addition, the elegant and eloquent subject of One Plastic Bag, Isatou Ceesay, had travelled from The Gambia to attend the ceremony. (Most unfortunately, Edmund Opare, the Ghanan illustrator of Nana and Me, was refused a visa at the last minute.) Part of the joyful ceremony included us each being honored with hand-woven kente cloth sashes made by Chapuchi Ahiagble. I was shyly thrilled to have Isatou Ceesay place mine around my neck.
(I overheard a pretty funny conversation among a bunch of award-winning authors recently, comparing their literary trophies, and I felt quite proud to be the possessor of a CABA kente cloth sash.)
I loved the intimacy of the awards dinner – the familiarity of the CABA representatives with each other and with many of the attendees, the informal yet elegant atmosphere, the multicultural mix in attendance – and it was wonderful to know and recognize people there, too. I sat at a table with librarians who worked with an old bell-ringing friend of mine – I’d taken one of them punting in Cambridge, England, at a conference in 1998!
With Brenda Randolph and Harriet McGuire...
When Brenda Randolph, founder and Director of Africa Access and Chairperson of CABA, and Harriet McGuire, Vice President of Africa Access, introduced me to the gathering, I spoke of how proud my idealistic and charismatic young mother – who died at 35 - would have been of this book and this award. Her younger sisters Susan and Kate, who in many ways have filled her place for me, were both present as my guests. My last two books were dedicated to them, Rose Under Fire to Kate and Black Dove, White Raven to Susan. Susan served in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia for two years, and it was she and her husband Roger who sparked my own interest in this intriguing and beautiful country* and who took me there in 2004. After the ceremony several people wanted pictures of me and my aunts. I was so happy to be able to share this celebration with family!
...And with my aunts Kate and Susan.
The following day was the Children’s Africana Book Awards Festival at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art – there were a number of projects and book-themed activities going on, as well as incredible performances by young drummers and dancers. The day’s events finished with a panel of authors and illustrators discussing their work and an exchange of ideas with a diverse and invested audience.
Balsa airplane projects at the CABA Festival
I really can’t say how proud and happy and humbled I am to have been part of this celebration.
Five days later I was in Providence, Rhode Island, speaking at the Lincoln School and at Seekonk High School in Massachusetts in conjunction with the Rhode Island Festival of Books and Authors at the Lincoln School. I wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for Martha Douglas Osmundson, whom I’d met at NCTE in November 2015, and who asked me if I’d ever consider coming to Rhode Island (of course I said yes! In a heartbeat. Has no one figured out that I am always willing to play?)
Elizabeth Wein selfie with Lincoln School student Elizabeth Wein!
I gave two presentations at the Lincoln School. One was a talk to attentive middle-school students who asked excellent questions, and one was a workshop on structure to 9th graders who had all read my short story “The Battle of Elphinloan” in Taking Aim, edited by Michael Cart. That was fun because I was able to show them some of the scenes that had inspired me – the village of Pittenweem in Fife, with its concrete tidal swimming pool, castle and dovecote.
With Morgan Hellmold and Suzanne Larson at the Seekonk School
The event at Seekonk High School was sheer pleasure. The students there had read Code Name Verity as a “Whole-School Read,” so we had all the high school English classes gathered there and the event was set up as a conversation between me, library media specialist Suzanne Larson, and English teacher Morgan Hellmold, with students able to ask questions as well. There was lots of time given to pick apart plot-points and character and moral issues that I’m not usually able to address without giving away spoilers.
The Seekonk students had done a project to come up with appropriate code names for themselves!
Afterwards, the Rhode Island Festival of Children’s Books and Authors geared up with a signing session on Friday night. Author and illustrator talks and more signings took place all day on Saturday, and young readers came from all over. There was a wide range of books available – I noticed that a LOT of people ended up going home with copies of A Tyranny of Petticoats.
I had quite possibly the most wonderful book-signing experience of my life that day.
The reader was a sixth-grader named Lionel Wolfe. It was the day before his 11th birthday, and he’d discovered the link to the RI Festival on my website and asked to be taken there for his birthday. The whole family came all the way from New York, including mother, father, and big sister, 18-year-old aspiring novelist (and Code Name Verity fan) Lauranne. Lionel, who told me that Black Dove, White Raven was his favorite book, had made (for a school project) the most amazing model bi-plane whose wings folded like a book – the wings were decorated with an origami white raven and a black dove, and a booklet containing an in-depth analysis of Black Dove, White Raven.
It was a joyful exchange and held up the signing queue a bit, as we all exclaimed and took photos and professed our mutual inadequately expressed admiration for each other for quite some time. But everyone else in line was just as excited and enchanted by Lionel’s enthusiasm and ingenuity as I was! The woman next in line was actually in tears by the time the Wolfe family departed, much to her teen daughter’s embarrassment. When they finally got their turn she said, “I’m not crying! These are old tears.”
...and with the rest of the Wolfe family.
It was… Just. So. Wonderful.
And you know, it is moments like this that remind me why I do what I do. I know that I, like many of my fellow authors, find myself frustrated at the lack of media attention, the indifferent sales, the disparities in the industry and the ignorance about the value of writing for young people. The real lure of events like these is the opportunity to meet readers and writers – both young and old, both published and unpublished, both aspiring and successful, in many different aspects.
The evening finished with an elegant farewell dinner at the Rhode Island School of Design, hosted by Chris and Lisa Van Allsburg. I owe so much gratitude to them, and to organizers Meagan Lenihan and Colleen Zeitz for inviting me to the festival!
And my month of literary excitement isn’t over yet. Still to come in October: the West Scotland Heat of the Kids Lit Quiz, and school visits in the Western Isles in connection with Faclan, the Hebridean book festival. Because I am always willing to play.
*A sombre note: As I write this, Ethiopia is imploding. In the past two weeks it has entered a state of emergency. It has been heartbreaking to watch this happening from a distance while celebrating its history, people and culture.