Printz Honor Acceptance Speech
June 28, 2004, ALA, Orlando
I am honored to be in this room with all of you this evening. I am especially honored that the Printz committee includes people who knew Michael Printz. He must have been a remarkable person—I wish I had known him. I have been reading the Printz books for five years now, and my respect for your other choices, this year and in previous years, deepens my gratitude for your selection of Keesha’s House. I am at the same time enlarged and humbled by my inclusion in this company.
Conversation about Keesha’s House can lead in many directions—teen homelessness, novels-in-verse, the relationship between real people and invented characters, the use of traditional forms to hold contemporary voices. All of these topics interest me, but tonight I’d like to speak about two elements of the book that can seem elusive, but are important—race and poetry.
When I was writing Keesha’s House, I knew that it was risky to write in voices that differ from my own by virtue of age, gender, and cultural background. But if no one allowed themselves to do that, we would not be able to write about friendships that cross those boundaries. And in the settings of my book—the juvenile justice system, in particular—teens do form such friendships. I once heard two girls who met in a post-detention nonviolence group discover that they had been in adjoining cells a few months earlier. They had heard the guards call out one another’s names, but had never seen each other before that day, and may not have realized that they were of different racial backgrounds.
Or, if it mattered to them, they may have guessed, using all the clues my readers use when they want to know the race of my characters—most often, as far as I can tell, clues based on names and language. While working on the poems, I hired youth consultants to help me get the voices right. I told these teen readers that I had been listening carefully to young people for a long time, but it was still hard for me to get the different voices down on paper. They understood—one girl said, “That’s how school is for me all the time.” They were specific and helpful in their suggestions. Their perceptions about the race of the characters generally matched my own.
One reader said, “If you didn’t have Keesha, Dontay and Carmen, I would’ve thought ‘all these kids are white’ and shut the book.” I asked him how he perceived Joe—I hadn’t yet made up my own mind about Joe’s racial background—and he said, “Oh, him? I just figure he’s some foreign guy that doesn’t know you’re not supposed to let kids live in your house.”
I could say more about race, which, for all we think and talk about it, is not real. The more closely you try to look at it, the more it dissolves in definition. But I want to go on to speak about poetry, of which the opposite can be said: the more closely you look into poetry, the more vividly its reality comes into focus.
In 1968, in his office in the Hall of Languages at Syracuse University, Philip Booth put Elizabeth Bishop’s book, Questions of Travel, into my hands, and called my attention to the poem titled simply “Sestina.” Later that day in a bookstore on Marshall Street, I bought the book—it was probably the first time I bought a book with those three triangular fish swimming in opposite directions on its spine, along with the title and the author’s name and the initials of the publisher, FSG. And so our dreams are born.
Bishop’s sestina went into my ear, into my heart, and her book traveled with me from one bookshelf to another in my own travels—to Vermont, to Scotland, to Alaska, to Oregon and Indiana. I read that poem many times; by the time I began writing the sestinas that would become Keesha’s House, I no longer needed to turn to it as an example of the form. By then I knew the form “by heart,” as we say of things we love enough to commit to memory. So it was that any connection between Bishop’s “Sestina” and Keesha’s House remained subconscious as I created the poems and structured the book.
On the evening I learned about the Printz Honor, that deep connection between the poem and the book came to the surface. Pamela Spencer Holley called to give me the amazing news, and an hour or so later, Frances Foster called to share it with me. In the quiet glow of those two conversations, I lit a candle in my living room and held the book in my hands. I looked at the beautiful cover design, that soft rain falling over the blue door, and I heard a line of poetry: “September rain falls on the house.” It was the first line of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina.” The poem is about a child living in a house with her grandmother in Great Village, Nova Scotia, when her parents cannot care for her.
How did that happen? How did that rain fall through Bishop’s poem, through the editors and designers at FSG, and find it’s way, some 30 years later, into my poems in such a way that R. Gregory Christie, the illustrator Frances selected, created that image for the jacket?
If I were writing a sestina about this, the end words might be: house, rain, room, language, light, and something else completely unrelated that would, in the last stanza, somehow allow us to see into the mystery of how all these things fit together.
But this is prose. Let me try to craft a sentence that will bring together the rain falling on the house in Great Village, the office full of books in the Hall of Languages, and my living room in that moment of quiet light. Let me try, at the same time, to say something of what this Printz honor means to me: We are all born into Great Village; with a little luck and the generosity of librarians, we pass through the Hall of Languages to a quiet place in our living room where a candle is burning and, somehow, we see it.