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Interview with Author Grace Lin, Emcee of the 2020 Walter Awards

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The following post originally appeared on the National Book Festival blog.

UPDATE: This event has been CANCELED.
We Need Diverse Books has canceled The Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature and Symposium on Friday, March 13, 2020. We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.

This Friday, March 13, at 9:30 a.m., the Library of Congress will host the We Need Diverse Books Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature and Symposium. The event, co-sponsored by We Need Diverse Books, will feature the honorees and winners of the 2020 Walter Award, and is free and open to the public. Tickets are not required, and book sales and signings will follow.

The Walter Dean Myers Award is named after the iconic, award-winning children’s and young adult author Walter Dean Myers (1937-2014), who served as the third National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Because Myers was a life-long advocate of diversity in children’s books, the Walter Awards seek “to honor and celebrate diverse books written by diverse authors” and to honor Myers’ legacy.

Grace Lin

Friday’s festivities will open with a symposium on diversity in children’s literature titled “There is work to be done! Recognize. Validate. Acknowledge. The Walter Dean Myers Awards Turn Five,” moderated by novelist and We Need Diverse Books Chief Operating Officer Dhonielle Clayton. The awards ceremony—emceed by award-winning children’s author Grace Lin—will follow, featuring special appearances by Christopher Myers (son of Walter Dean Myers) and legendary children’s author Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop.

In anticipation of Friday’s event, we asked author and emcee Grace Lin a few questions about the significance of the Walter Awards and her insights regarding diversity in children’s literature.

You are emceeing the Walter Awards on Friday, March 13, which features a stellar lineup of authors. What most excites you about Walter 2020?

Of course, I am excited about the incredible books, the amazing authors, meeting librarian heroes like Dr. Hayden and Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop… but, honestly, I’m just really excited that I will get to be there! I’ve never had the opportunity to attend the Walter Awards before, but have always wanted to. Being the emcee is a really good excuse to attend and I am very grateful to WNDB for giving it to me.

The mission of the Walter Awards is ”to honor and celebrate diverse books written by diverse authors.” Tell us why diversity in publishing, especially children’s and young adult books, is so important. 

Oh my, how long do you wish this interview to go? The reasons are endless. But, I’ll try to summarize the ones I feel most deeply.

When I was a child, I grew up as one of the very, very few minorities in my area. I was very uncomfortable with this difference and I often turned to books for comfort, seeing books as my friends. But even books seem to betray me—I read books about winged horses and mermaids and hundreds of impossible things, but I never read a book that had someone that looked like me in it. It made me feel like I could never be someone important. And that is a terrible thing for a child to feel.

And, what is worse, is that so many of my childhood acquaintances subconsciously believed this about me as well. As I share in my TEDx talk, one of my most poignant memories as a child is being told that I could never be chosen as Dorothy in the school play because “Dorothy’s not Chinese!” And, honestly, what else were my friends going to believe? They had never seen anyone who looked like me be a hero in any story, real or fiction.

So that is one of the many, many reasons why we need diverse books. When kids read diverse books, they see that they all have the potential for importance and that the “all” includes themselves as well as the friends that are not like them.

What compelling trends do you see in contemporary children’s literature today?

I’m loving how books with diverse characters are becoming more “kids having adventures” vs. “kids rising against racism/struggles.” Don’t get me wrong, I think we definitely need to show stories of kids overcoming the problems that society has unfairly foisted upon them—these stories illuminate and are so important for all of us. However, there is also value in just plain, fun entertaining reads and I feel that in the past the “just fun reads” rarely featured a diverse character. But books like “Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky” are changing that and I am so happy to welcome them into our canon.

Tell us about your background as an author; what is the best part of writing for children?

Kids are the best! They are so honest, unpretentious and so full of hope. In recent years, I’ve been pretty disheartened by the state of our world and disillusioned by people I see and read about. However, the one thing that keeps me going is knowing that the future is still being written and my readers will be the ones to do it. To realize that makes my job an honor, as well as a responsibility. It makes me feel that what I do is important—which is exactly what I didn’t think I could do as a child. So writing for children is a gift to me and I do my best to try to make my work a gift for them as well.