|The NAIBA Carla Cohen Free Speech Award|
George by Alex Gino (Scholastic)
I am honored and delighted to receive NAIBA’s Carla Cohen Free Speech Award. I apologize that the Midwestern fog has kept this coastal queer from reaching you today. I hope that you will accept these remarks in lieu of my presence. And hey, whoever was supposed to sit next to me – double dessert for you!
When I first started writing GEORGE, I didn’t think it would be published by a traditional, mainstream publisher. A book about a transgender fourth grade girl, privately known as Melissa, who wants to be in her school production of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web? I didn’t think it COULD be published by a mainstream publisher.
And in 2003, I was probably right. But in the last dozen years, a whole new genre of LGBTQI+ literature for children and young people has blossomed. Or, should I say, has begun to blossom, because it looks like there’s so much more to come. That’s the power of free speech, the power of ideas building on themselves and connecting us to them and to each other. It is beautiful, the best we humans have to offer.
It’s no surprise that four of the ten entries on the American Library Association’s “Most Frequently Challenged Books” list have queer content, and that, more specifically, two are nonfiction books about trans youth. Because the ideas that are challenged don’t come from the center. They come from the edges. And that’s what’s so beautiful and powerful about them. The people who don’t want us thinking these things? They are afraid. They fear change as loss. We see change as a gain. Us book lovers - idea lovers - we are exploring new ways of navigating this bizarre circumstance called life.
Not, of course, that being queer or transgender is anything new. But children being believed when they speak up, saving them and their family years of stress and misery? People my age (I’m 39) can’t begin to fathom having been listened to, having had the space to say anything, having had access to the language and ideas that might have helped us figure out who we are sooner.
When you, and I mean you, here, in the room with me, when you carry, display, and promote books like GEORGE and MY PRINCESS BOY and THIS ONE SUMMER, you make sure ideas are available to children. Independent booksellers are at the heart of the literary circulatory system, pumping new books and ideas out into the world. People come to you for your expertise in the selection you have curated and the individual recommendations you make.
And I want to be clear. The work you do getting literature out into the world saves lives. 40% of transgender people have attempted suicide. Far, far too many have succeeded. 21 transgender people have been murdered this year in the United States, mostly women of color. Access to information saves lives. Access to validating stories saves lives. Books save lives.
When a child chooses a book for themselves, they engage with the world asking, “What do I want to experience? Who am I? Who are you? What do we need? What do we want?” When that choice is taken away, so is the opportunity to question. To grow. To be ready to be part of the world.
And when children see themselves and the world in literature, well you know what that looks like. Heck, plenty of you have been in this business longer than I’ve been in the business of breathing. As librarian Rudine Sims Bishop says, books are mirrors and windows. Mirror books, where we see ourselves, help us know that we are not alone, that we are real. And window books, where we experience wildly different ways to be, show us that others are real too. Full. Real. Live People. With hopes and dreams and quirks and fears.
So thank you, thank you, thank you, for helping me to use my free speech to share Melissa’s story with the world, and for the graciousness of this award. Have a lovely evening.
Previous Winners of the NAIBA Carla Cohen Free Speech Award:
2015: A Case for Loving by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls
2013: Judy Blume for her body of work
2012: Americas by MK Reed and Jonathan Hill (Macmillan)
2011: Odetta by Stephen Alcorn (Scholastic)
2010: The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan and illustrated by Peter Sís (Scholastic)
The idea for this award came from a desire to not only honor an amazing bookseller and past president of NAIBA, but to honor Carla as would be most fitting.
The NCCFSA will be awarded to a children's book, as awareness of constitutional rights needs to begin at the beginning of true consciousness. Educating children about their rights by putting the books into their hands that will allow them to question, imagine, and dream is essential to the survival of independent bookstores and dare we say, humanity.
Independent bookstores are the places where freedom of speech and anti-censorship are integrated into everything we do. We are spaces where difference-of ideas, sexuality, spirit, politics, and philosophy-is embraced and not feared. Politics and Prose has been exactly this kind of place for the past 27 years. Independent bookstores are essential to their communities and hence to a truly democratic nation. The survival of our bookstores relies on children becoming informed and engaged in our midsts. Only through the nurturing of this future community will we ensure having a customer base on which to rely.
From NAIBA President Lucy Kogler's letter on Oct. 11, 2010:
Loss is certainly a part of life's cycle, but our region has taken another mighty hit. Carla Cohen, co-owner of Politics and Prose, a past president of NAIBA, this year's NAIBA legacy winner, and a woman of great wisdom and distinction, has passed.
When I think of Carla I think of a lioness. Not in the protective sense of shielding, but in the noble sense of dutifully doing the work of teaching her bookselling progeny, feeding them and the bookselling community with the ideas and examples of a leader passionately committed to her job and chosen role within her profession, within the pride.
Carla was a woman who never compromised her intelligence, wit, or forthright nature. When I first became a NAIBA board member, I sat in awe of her prodigious sense of self as woman and bookseller. I marveled at her absolute certainty that what she was telling us needed to be articulated. Not that what she said was law, but that what was said needed to be a component of a thoughtful decision. She wanted us to not be afraid to think and dream in an expansive and unpredictable way.
Her legacy to us is legion: mentor, role model, friend, and advisor. A woman with impeccable and varied tastes in literature, she kept independent bookselling in front of the nation in the capital of our nation.
It was an honor to know her, to serve on the NAIBA board with her, to witness her commitment to her booksellers, and it was a great pleasure to hear her voice and laugh. Hers is an absence that will resonate with all her grandeur.