Memorial Union at Emporia State University bustled with young students ready to celebrate literature.
The 67th annual William Allen White Children’s Book Award drew 36 schools and more than 500 students to campus Saturday for literary activities, author meet and greets and an award ceremony for the books chosen by those students.
“Today is going incredibly well,” award Executive Director Michelle Hammond said. “We really love watching the students engage — engage with one another, engage with the authors.”
Hammond said the students asked the authors intelligent and thoughtful questions Friday night during the Read-In and were most excited to visit with the authors during the Activity Fair.
Award recipient and author of “Ghost” Jason Reynolds said winning this award was “special, in a different kind of way.”
“I’ve won different awards over the years, but it’s nice to know that you’re a part of something so old, so legendary and from Kansas,” he said.
“Us coastal folk tend to be a bit dismissive of places like Kansas, without knowing there’s a lot of history here that shifted our country,” he said, revealing he was “forced to deal with [his] own biases and be reminded to give all things a shot.”
“I’m grateful, and even though I’ve had a fortunate career, I don’t take any of these moments for granted,” Reynolds said. “No one has to care about the work that I do, so I’m grateful to the adults who put this on, but more so to the young people who chose this book.”
Reynolds said he wants children to read “Ghost” and feel somebody has been paying attention to and caring for them, “someone who loves [them], and in a sincere and earnest way.”
When not writing, Reynolds works with schools and libraries, in juvenile detention centers, recreation centers and housing projects, being the spokesperson building the bridge of communication between children and adults. He believes his mission must be real and consistent for children to trust him and the voice he presents in his book.
Reynolds himself did not gain interest in literature until his 20s, because “books weren’t a thing for kids like me in my neighborhood,” he said, “because books like me and my neighborhood weren’t represented for children.” Reynolds found representation in 1980s and 90s rap.
“I didn’t read as a kid,” he said. “It wasn’t a part of my life, so I work so hard now to ensure that they get a better swing.”
Hammond shared information rooted in science and literature that shows if cohesive reading does not occur for a student before third grade, “the student has a very intense difficulty, potentially, to succeed,” she said. “It’s really not an option. It is a requirement for success.”
Fifth-grade students from Farley Elementary in Topeka shared strong positive feelings toward reading, writing and this particular event in celebration of reading and writing.
When asked about their impressions of the day, a jumble of voices shouted “really fun,” “amazing” and “exciting.”
They expressed how nervous and excited they were to meet Reynolds, because as fourth-graders they read “Ghost” in class and loved it. They said “Ghost” reminded them that they “can do anything,” “go for what [they] want,” “follow [their dreams]” and not “let anyone get [them] down.”
The students hope the authors who have won and will win this award will be inspired to write more books because of the positive response they have received from children. They were more inspired to read after reading “Ghost” and the other books to which they were exposed in class.
The one piece of advice these students give to everyone is, “Read a lot of books.”
Sara Pennypacker, author of “Pax” and other 2019 award winner, described the Children’s Book Awards as “what we’re working for.” Each state has a Children’s Book Award, the William Allen White award being the oldest. Librarians pre-select the books, and the children read and vote on their favorites.
“All kids get to be a part of it, and it’s so terrific,” she said. “It’s empowering, and it makes them part of ‘let’s reward the authors, and let’s really get to say how we feel and discuss what’s our favorite.’
“You’re honored already, because they’re librarians; they know what they’re doing. And then you really get to hear that the kids loved your book, which is great.”
Pennypacker said all she cares about is whether or not children love her book and feel their voices are being properly represented. She attributes the way she writes to the Carl Jung quotation, “The reason for evil in the world is that people are not able to tell their stories.”
“When I heard that, I realized I was going to change the way I wrote,” Pennypacker said. “I used to say I write for children, and what I meant was, ‘I do my craft and here you go; it’s a present to you.’”
After hearing the quotation, she shifted her perspective. “I have to write for children in the sense that they can’t do it, and I can,” she said. “I have all the tools to tell their stories, so that’s my job now — to speak for them until they can speak for themselves.”
Part of Pennypacker’s ability to represent children’s voices so well is the facet of her personality that never grew up.
“I feel that Clementine (a character from “Pax”) hand on her hip outrage,” Pennypacker said. “I feel that all the time, and I have heard that one of the characteristics of creative people … is they have a high sense of justice, and it doesn’t flag as we age.”
She reminds readers and writers, “there’s always something to say, and if you do it with kindness and humor, you can pretty much say anything.”